For those who celebrate it, Christmas is virtually here! Holiday parties have begun, willpower is put to the test, and family members have begun their annual invasion!
It is this last “invasion” that keeps mental health professionals very busy at this time of year. But how can this be? Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, an opportunity to be together with family, some of whom you haven’t seen all year…
… And that, is the “potential” problem.
One of the interesting phenomena about human relationships is that they appear to go into hibernation when there are long breaks between interactions. Have you ever had the experience, after having long moved out, that when you come home, it feels like nothing has changed? It seems like your parents are still treating you like a child, or maybe, as a parent, your kids still haven’t learned consideration? Or perhaps you go to high-school reunion and are propelled back to feeling like the unpopular kid or the “loser”.
If you’ve been alive for the past year… you’ve probably changed in the way you think, feel, and act. As a result, when you reconnect old relationships they may not feel harmonious with your current “self” because the relationship didn’t get to grow with you. This can cause a lot of tension and anxiety. We’ve talked talked about some healthy ways and some unhealthy ways that people “deal” with emotions in previous posts. Today we’ll give examples of a few more ways people cope. The goals are simple:
1) Notice if you are using these kinds of coping strategies (also known as defenses)
2) Ask yourself, is it a healthy choice (hint: these kinds of defenses usually aren’t) to continue using these defenses?
3) Decide: “Who do you want to be in the face of this challenge?”
1. Repression: This is a hard one to know for sure, and is probably a lot more common than people think. In a nutshell, when we get distressed, rather than deal with, or express, the anxiety producing emotions, the energy from that distress goes into your body and makes you sick!!! It is the physical manifestation of emotions.
Common symptoms are headaches, stomach aches or upset (including nausea, needing to use the bathroom), muscle tension (especially sore shoulders and neck), joint pain or that super tired feeling we sometimes get, like we are made out of lead and couldn’t possibly do anything but sit there or sleep. It is a very effective “defense” against feeling our emotions because it is really difficult to focus on a feeling when we suddenly need to run to the bathroom or have a splitting headache.
So how would you notice Repression? The clearest signal that what we are experiencing repression is that the uncomfortable body sensations come on “all of a sudden” and get a bit better when you engage in something that normally makes you feel strong and confident. So, if you’re in the middle of a conversation with your mother and all of a sudden, you feel a headache coming on… that’s a signal.
Try this experiment – when you feel “yucky” (that is the technical term!), stop what you are doing, do something that usually makes you feel pretty good for a while and notice if there is a change in your physical symptoms.
2. Rationalizing – Also known as making excuses: Do you have a family member that you “butt heads” with all the time? Do your “conversations” ever turn into ugly fights where, when you think about it after the fact, you think to yourself – “Wow, I was a real jerk to my partner! But… he was the one who started it, he should know better. I’m under a lot of stress at work right now too…” This is rationalizing at its best – making excuses for our behaviours or the behaviours of others. We do it so we don’t feel so crummy about how we acted in the moment, or how they acted… but that doesn’t make it a good idea or mean that we aren’t going to have feelings about it. In fact continuing to rationalize just gives you or them the excuse to do it again the next time!
Rationalizing also shows up when we are trying to do emotional math, like “sure they did this crappy thing, but look at all the other good stuff they have done…it’s no big deal. I can’t be mad at them for that!”. As humans we like certainty, which is a cruel trick of nature because change is one of the only constants in life. As a result, we struggle with mixed feelings, we want things to be black or white. This is why we engage in this kind of emotional math, deciding if we are allowed to be mad, upset, hurt etc by people we love and taking away our permission to do so when there are positive emotions there too. Some of the other common ones to look out for would include “but they are old, or sick, or had a bad childhood, or they aren’t that way anymore“- all of these are ways we take away our permission to be upset about things that have happened or are happening. This means that energy from the avoided emotion gets stuck in us, instead of passing and then our energy has to keep going towards not letting that sadness, hurt, anger etc come up, instead of being present. All of this happens automatically, just because we don’t want to be upset with someone we care about or don’t think we are supposed or allowed to be upset with.
3. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (or the Jedi Mind Trick, technically called Projective Identification): As humans, we NEED to make whatever we think about ourselves true, because if can’t trust our own opinion of ourselves, we can’t trust any of our experiences and as noted above, we want certainty. This means that we unconciously make our decisions and act in a way to elicit a response from others, that will confirm our beliefs about ourselves.
This can be a tricky one to wrap our heads around… Let’s start with the “Light Side”. A few years ago, my eldest son was starting school. On his very first day in Kindergarten he had a problem. He had to use the bathroom, but had no idea where it was. Long story short: Crisis averted. The interesting part is how he found it… When asked, my darling son replied:
“When I couldn’t find the washroom I went to the library. Then I took a deep sigh and made a sad face…. and that MADE the Librarian ask me what was wrong!”
Never before had I been so proud and so frightened by my son’s Jedi mind tricks! He believed he was deserving of help, and he intuitively knew how to act to elicit the response from another that confirmed his belief- making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is Projective Identification- acting in a way to confirm our beliefs about ourselves.
So what’s the down side?
Well, lets imagine that Christmas dinner with Mom and Dad… and as things start to turn sour, that voice in your head starts telling your that you’re a worthless son / daughter, and you’ve never been kind or thoughtful towards your parents. Now, objectively, if we were to look at the past 10 years, it turns out you’ve been generous and thoughtful many many times, remembering birthdays, finding thoughtful gifts, spending extra time with them… but that voice in your head is still saying “you’re a no good son / daughter”. What happens when you start listening to that voice and believing it. when we believe something about ourselves, we’ll act in a way that makes it true. Back to Christmas dinner, now you have some feelings stirred up and you’re upset, but rather than cope with the emotions in a constructive way and standing up for yourself, you listen to those thoughts and act in a way that will reinforce your belief. So, now, maybe you start acting out saying mean things to your parents and being inconsiderate. They are unlikely to respond well to this kind of behaviour and will probably get angry or be rejecting. Now, you’ve caused your parents to act in line with your belief! – Welcome to the dark side!
We also engage in self-fulfilling prophecies when we don’t feel good enough, and we choose people to be in our lives (friends, romantic partners, even employers) who don’t treat us well, OR we tolerate and accept being disrespected or mistreated when it starts. All of this then goes on to feed the belief that “See, this is what I deserve! I deserve to be crapped on and disrespected”. (Whereas someone who believes they are deserving of respect would likely not choose those same people to be in their lives, or if they did, they would set firm boundaries or leave when they were being treated disrespectfully).
So that’s a brief look at some of the potentially unhelpful ways many of us might cope with emotions. The question is… once you notice, what do you want to do about it?
As always, we would love to hear from you, either by email, post a comment or @DrAdrianaWilson or @kryanwilson through twitter! Have a great Holiday, and we’ll see you in the New Year!