Maybe we should stop trying so hard to be happy.

Originally posted on October 2, 2016

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We live in a society that demands we always be happy and smiling.    “Negative” emotions are generally unacceptable, and we are told over and over again via pop psychologists and the mass media that constant happiness is not only our birthright, but our responsibility!    People are encouraged to stuff their feelings and wear a smile, no matter how they are really feeling.

Some people are more naturally given to cheerfulness than others, regardless of their circumstances.  We are all different; and those of us who aren’t naturally inclined to be upbeat and perky all the time are made to feel like we are somehow defective and our darker emotions aren’t okay.

So we seek out therapists, read self-help books, recite affirmations, pin up positive-thinking posters, and beat ourselves up if we don’t or can’t conform to the pervasive “don’t worry, be happy” ethos.

But what if not always being happy is actually saner than always being cheerful?  After all, there are a lot of things in the world to get depressed, upset, or angry about.    Acknowledging that bad things happen isn’t being negative; it’s being realistic.   For example, being afraid can sometimes save your life!

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As long as you aren’t so depressed you feel like killing yourself or drowning yourself in alcohol or other substances, or can never see the bright side of anything, maybe embracing and accepting dark moods is a more authentic way to live.

Maybe if modern society acknowledged that dark emotions are a normal, non-pathological reaction to many things in life and accepted these emotions as easily as they  accept a perky smile and an “everything’s great!,” those of us who worry that we aren’t “happy enough” would actually begin to feel happier.    Maybe we need to stop trying to force ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit, and learn to embrace our painful feelings instead, and stop comparing ourselves to some ideal that we think we should be.

The world is not perfect and it never will be.  Why should we go through life, then, pretending everything’s perfect or beating ourselves up (and making ourselves more miserable) when we don’t measure up to some “happiness standard”?   It’s fake and it’s only going to make us feel like we’re defective.    Maybe we should just accept ALL our emotions as authentic and stop trying to always hide them away like something shameful.   If you’re happy, by all means, show it, but the emotional spectrum is like the color spectrum–there are many shades and hues, and a world with only one color is the most depressing kind of world I can think of, even if that one color is “happiness.”

Being truly happy isn’t a performance to impress everyone with how “positive” we are; it’s a feeling of genuine well-being brought about by accepting ourselves–ALL of ourselves–as we really are.     If you’re feeling sad or angry or upset, instead of berating yourself for it, accept your feelings as an authentic part of life.

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The Truth In The Lie Of Narcissistic Love

This brilliant post ponders on the question all of us who have ever been in a narcissistic relationship (or had narcissistic parents) have asked: can a narcissist feel love? This deeply personal post says yes, they can. But they have no idea how to express their love in appropriate ways because everything, especially loving someone, hurts too much. So they hurt the one they love instead so they don’t have to feel all that pain.

You can’t reason with them or plead with them to stop doing what they do, though. Attacking you isn’t something they can control — it’s an automatic reaction, almost like a reflex. Whether or not a narcissist is capable of FEELING love, they don’t know how to EXPRESS it in a loving way, so you’re better off not wasting your own love trying to make a relationship with one work. If you must love a narcissist, do it from a safe distance.

This barren wasteland.

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In my life, I’ve rarely experienced true happiness, of the kind I experienced during the week of August 21, when I was on the Florida Gulf coast visiting my son.  I wrote a lot on this blog about the experience I had while basking in the warm Gulf waters and exploring the beaches and gazing at the unbelievable sunsets, and just being able to relax, forget my worries, and spend time with an almost 25 year old man who I love with a fierceness I reserve for very, very few people.  I felt very close to the divine during that time.   Even the 700 mile road trip going there and back was a sort of spiritual experience for me.   Everything about that week was perfect. I never felt so much at peace with myself and the world.  I felt somehow changed.

It occurred to me today that this weekend will be a month (4 weeks) since I began my vacation.  It’s a cherished memory now (and one that changed me in some profound way), but is now receding ever deeper into the past, joining the other few happy memories I have, most which happened much longer ago than this.     The memory is probably far enough in the past now that it’s no longer part of my short term memory but has now entered my long term memory.

While I’m grateful beyond words that I got to have this amazing experience, and know it won’t be the last time (I’m tentatively planning to return at the end of March),  I feel a deep sadness that it’s over tinged with a kind of yearning to return there forever.  Not so much because I miss the location of where I was, or even that I miss being in close proximity to my son (though I miss those things too), but the feeling of pure joy I had unfettered by anything else.  Rarely have I felt that kind of joy and lightness, and when I have, it’s been fleeting, like the momentary reflection of the sun on a dragonfly’s wings.

It’s been said that you can’t feel sadness without having known what happiness felt like.   Sadness is about loss.  In my case the loss of that deep, pure joy is bringing me into contact with the abyss of emptiness that still lives deep inside me, heavy and dark and cold, like a barren wasteland in which a chill wind always howls and it’s always winter and where nothing ever grows.

I tried praying about it, for I know it was really feeling close to the divine that made me feel so full of joy, not the actual surroundings, but it was just so much easier when I was away.    It’s hard to get that feeling back.   I look around my surroundings here and am reminded of how much I hate this time of year when the days are growing shorter and the nights longer, and  nature’s beginning to look tired and spent before going to sleep again for another winter.   Being here, without the sun and the sea and the sand, so far inland, back in the daily grind of real life, just reminds me of all the heartbreaks and losses and disappointments and hurts that have contaminated my life and pockmarked my soul full of raw and gaping holes.

This feeling of sad emptiness is very hard to explain.  I do suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) so that might have something to do with it, but I go through that every year.   This is different.  I feel like I’ve suffered a terrible loss, like a death, and like there’s no way I’ll ever feel that kind of joy again.   I want to so badly and I know I will, but right now it feels like it’s forever gone.

I imagine normal people feel that kind of joy more often, even if they don’t all the time.    I know I need to find a way to feel that lightness of spirit no matter where I am, but at the moment, I’m overwhelmed with this terrible nostalgia and sadness because my memory of that perfect week is no longer that recent and is quickly receding into the distant past, where details are forgotten or corrupted by other memories.   For that one week, it seemed as if the emptiness inside me was filled for a change; now it’s just empty again.

I always knew the emptiness was there, but I was so emotionally numb and so used to it that I regarded it as normal. I didn’t really think about it; it was just always there. Now it’s nearly unbearable. It could mean that I’m close to diving into the void because it seems so much nearer than it ever did before. Maybe I’m closer to it because so many of my usual defenses have fallen away. Maybe tomorrow night’s session will be an interesting one; I’ve noticed that just before a breakthrough I become more depressed than usual.

I called my therapist crying today and left a long message about how overwhelmed I felt by this spiritual and emotional barrenness.   I’ll be seeing him tomorrow;  I guess we need to talk about it.   I got a small taste of what it’s like to be mentally and spiritually alive and healthy, without any disorders, but the downside of that is that once you’ve seen heaven, reality seems like hell.

Breaking through and the emotional power of music.

This is what’s going on with me now.

The Crying Game – Part One

I found this post both beautiful and heartbreaking. This blog’s author has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and really struggles to feel any kind of genuine emotion…

Knowing the Narcissist

Tears. One might consider them the ultimate embodiment of emotion. Tears appear when you have experienced some kind of extreme emotion. I know because I have watched on so many occasions as I have sought to understand the circumstances in which somebody cries and why it is that they do so. I understand that when tears appear, whether it is a welling-up in the eyes, the single full teardrop which slides down a cheek or the cascading waterfall which leaves the eyes red-rimmed and blurry, it is as a consequence of you experiencing emotion in a huge dosage. What I had to learn was which emotions were associated with the emission of water from the eyes. The first emotion that presented itself for my understanding as to how it caused tears was pain. I remembered as a child that my younger brother was somewhat accident prone. If there was tree…

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Hurts so good.

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Remember when you were a kid and had a loose tooth, how good it felt to wiggle it with your tongue, even though it bled and hurt like the dickens?  Yet you HAD to keep doing it, because it felt GOOD.

Or remember that scab you just had to pick even though you knew it would bleed and hurt?

Happy feelings can be like that for some of us.  Have you ever been so moved by something, or so touched, or so filled with joy it actually hurt and made you want to cry?

Having been so shut off from my emotions for so many years,  I wasn’t used to feeling anything other than dreary, numb despair, an unnamed dread that something terrible was about to befall me, occasionally relieved by a sudden, irrational rage.

Lately I’ve been experiencing brief moments of sublime, positive emotions.   Flickers of joy (not glee, but real joy), feeling moved or incredibly touched, especially when I’m in therapy.   My therapist helps bring out these feelings in me, and I’m enjoying exploring these unfamiliar but wonderful emotions.  But sometimes they are just so intense and that intensity hurts.   Sometimes even the beauty of them…hurts.

Why would something so human and life-affirming make me feel almost sad?  Is it because I don’t trust these feelings, or don’t trust being vulnerable to feeling them?  Or is it because I know how fleeting such feelings are, and will only be replaced with the unpleasant feelings I’ve grown used to?   Or do they hurt because my soul is unfolding, and in so doing, is breaking down the walls that bound it for so long?  Are these just growing pains?   Will I ever be able to experience these sublime emotions without sadness and pain?

Another brick in the wall…nuked!

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How do I even begin? What happened tonight in my therapy session was a little thing, objectively speaking, really a very little thing. But to me it was a huge, HUGE deal, maybe even a breakthrough of some sort.

I refuse to write a separate post about this, but when I got home from work, my mother called. She had gotten my phone number through my son and I took the call because it was coming from a New York phone and my mother lives in Illinois so I had no idea who it was. Normally I don’t take phone calls if I can’t tell who’s calling but for some reason I took it this time. When I heard her voice, it was like being transported back to being a five year old again. All my mindfulness skills and everything I know about narcissism and No Contact went flying out the window.  I won’t go into detail because nothing of any consequence was said. She told me she just wanted to hear my voice and proceeded to ask a bunch of personal questions. I felt like she was checking up on me for her own benefit, which is probably the case. I put on my fake-nice act and answered her questions as politely as I could, telling her nothing too personal, and finally made an excuse about having a sore throat (which is actually true because I’m still sick) and had to get off the phone.

I brought up the phone call in therapy. I asked my therapist (rhetorically) why I can’t just tell her to bug off. Rationally I know nothing would happen if I did that. I know she’s read my blog so surely she knows how I feel about her. Sure, she might get mad, but really why should I care? What could she do to me? Nothing! He suggested (correctly) that I was programmed from an early age to always respond to her in a certain manner, and that programming is hard to break, and that’s what’s making it so hard for me. I started laughing about the idea of myself being a computer that could be programmed. I looked at him and told him to debug me. He laughed at that, but really it wasn’t funny. I felt a little hysterical.

I’m always a little more emotionally labile when I’m ill, and so this illness he gave me last week acted as a kind of emotional lubricant–or maybe I was just ready and what I’m about to describe was going to happen anyway.

I said I was tired of talking about my mother and I wanted to talk about my transference feelings instead. It’s what I’d been planning to talk about but my mother, even in my therapy sessions, always has a way of drawing all the attention to herself and I wasn’t going to let that happen tonight.   Recently we have been meeting twice a week instead of once a week, but I won’t be able to afford to do that for too much longer, or at least for the next few weeks. I explained hard it is for me to only be able to meet him once a week because of my strong feelings of attachment. He wanted me to elaborate on this and describe how it felt. I had to think about that for awhile. The closest I could come was that it’s a little bit like limerence but without the sexual and obsessive aspects and has a more infantile quality. (There’s also a kind of mindfulness to it that’s impossible to explain but that keeps it from getting out of control.) It’s the way I imagine a baby feels about their primary caregiver. That I’m this little baby and he’s the only person who ever mirrored me or accepted me unconditionally for me. Because of that I feel extra vulnerable with him, too close to my raw core and fearing rejection while at the same time being able to let my guard down in a way I normally can’t. When I was asked to elaborate on the vulnerable feelings I had to think about it for a long time.

Finally I began to explain (in what I felt was a very childlike manner) and to my surprise I started to cry. I’ve come close to crying a couple of times recently, but this time my eyes actually filled up and a couple of tears spilled over (which I wiped away quickly). Sure, I didn’t sob and there weren’t many tears and it all ended quickly, but it happened. For just a minute, I shed real tears in front of another human being! Even more astounding to me than that, I felt no shame doing so. In fact, I was very proud of myself and even while I cried, I knew exactly what was happening and felt really, really good about it. So my tears turned to laughter and he laughed along with me. It was a real, bona fide emotional connection. How can that be? I don’t have those! I don’t connect with people! This was surreal.

“How did you do that?” I asked, sort of gobsmacked.
“I did nothing,” he said. “You did that yourself.” He was smiling.
“Then I guess you’re just the facilitator!”
“Well, I do have a degree!” he said jokingly.
We laughed again. Then the tears almost started again.
“You’re getting emotional,” he observed. “What’s going on?”
“I DON’T KNOW!” I wailed like a three year old. And I didn’t. I didn’t know why I was so emotional, but I felt happy that I was. “I just feel fragile, that’s all.” My lower lip was trembling like a toddler’s.
“I want you to know I think you’re very strong.” His eyes were shining.

So, another brick in that f*cking wall crumbled tonight.
I put my shoes back on (lately I’ve been taking them off and putting my feet on the couch–it seems to help somehow).
As I was leaving, he said our session moved him. I wanted to hug him so much right then but of course I didn’t.

Emotions and authenticity.

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Emotions are the first language we ever speak. Their expression is a pre-verbal language that is gradually replaced with words as we grow out of infancy. All emotions are really just energy moving through the body (though I think they originate in the soul). This movement is expressed through various physical reactions as the emotion moves out of us–laughter, crying, sighs, various non-verbal sounds, wiggling or jumping up and down with joy, trembling, and various expressions of anger (of course we need to be mindful of this one). This idea of emotions as a language isn’t my own; it’s been suggested by others, but I think I would have come to that conclusion on my own sooner or later.

Babies and animals (especially higher level mammals like dogs or monkeys) don’t have words, but they are very good at communicating their feelings and needs. In fact, they are better at this than adult humans, because there is no pretense and no words to mask or obliterate visceral emotion. With a baby or an animal, what you see is what you get.

We don’t begin to have problems with this until adolescence or sometimes later childhood, when spoken language has become fluent. You don’t see a toddler or a dog presenting a false self or hiding their real feelings. Unless abused early on, there is no shame in their emotional expression. An animal or an infant will not lie to you, manipulate you, or tell you they are happy when they’re anything but. That’s because they don’t have the language behind which it becomes possible to hide.

Babies cry to communicate. We may not like it when they do, but it’s the most important way they communicate. It’s really just a pre-verbal language that helps them get their needs met. Of course they could be crying because they’re uncomfortable or in pain, but they also cry when they need nurturing and just need to feel attached to Mom. Most of us are naturally drawn to comfort a crying baby, but really, they are just telling us about their physical and emotional needs that in a few years might be expressed by, “I’m hungry” or “I’m angry” or “I need a hug” or “I feel lonely.” It’s not always “bad” when a baby cries, although it seems so to us, and we want them to stop. Babies also use their whole bodies when they cry. As the emotion moves through them, their entire body responds. They kick their legs, punch the air, and howl. When an adult expresses strong emotion, such as crying (and sometimes laughing), they tend to hold themselves back to some extent, only letting part or none of their body respond to the emotion. Babies also wiggle when they’re happy. Do you know of any adult who wiggles or jumps up and down with joy? It’s something we outgrow as adult, but is that really necessary? What’s really wrong with wiggling or running around the room with happiness or sobbing with abandon?

When a dog sees its owner, it will bark excitedly and jump up and down with joy. If it has misbehaved, it will show its guilt (and I’m convinced that dogs DO feel guilt and shame). If it’s sad or afraid, it whimpers and its whole body trembles. It doesn’t need to say “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” or “I feel ashamed.” Its body and face says it better than any words ever could. That’s why I think people relate to dogs so well. Dogs represent our own emotional natures, that to a greater or lesser extent, almost all of us keep behind wraps most of the time.

I’ll never forget the time I was helping a friend pet-sit. The owners had a dog and a cat, and while we were there, the owners came home. When the dog heard the key in the lock, he began to bark excitedly and jump wildly at the door, intermittently spinning around in circles, wagging his tail crazily and practically tripping over his own oversized feet in his excitement. When the owners came in, he practically knocked them to the floor, licking both their faces happily. Even the cat went nuts with happiness, rolling around ecstatically on the floor in front of them. He also ran up to the owners, purring loudly and meowing. Do you know any people over the age of 6 or 7 who act like these animals did during a reunion?

Of course we don’t want to become babies or pet dogs and cats, but they have a lot to teach us about authenticity and the courage to be emotionally vulnerable.

I’m in no way trying to imply that language isn’t a good thing. We evolved it for a reason. Language makes it possible for us to use more of our minds and make new discoveries. It’s the reason we can write a symphony, a novel, or make new scientific discoveries. Good language skills are an indicator of high intellectual ability. Words can also be great tools for genuine emotional expression. But when we grow up and start to use language completely in place of bodily emotional reactions to communicate, we throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think schools are responsible for a lot of this. Schools–like work environments–discourage the honest expression of emotions. We begin to hide our true feelings.

Of course, bad parenting that fails to mirror a child’s true feelings does the same thing and is even more damaging because it happens when the child is still pre-verbal.  A child whose emotional needs have not been met and who isn’t mirrored when very young becomes ashamed of their emotions and tries to hide their vulnerability.  In some cases the damage is so great the person develops complex PTSD or a personality disorder.  We need to find ways to be emotionally honest without reverting to a preverbal, infantile state. I think we’d also be not only more emotionally healthy, but also more physically healthy if there weren’t so much shame attached to emotional expression.  Numerous studies have shown that chronic illness later in life is linked to repressed emotions.  I think what happens is when they’re not allowed to move through the body naturally, they get trapped in the body and can make you sick.

To help us get there, I recommend watching anything by Brene Brown, an author and public speaker who thinks that vulnerability and authenticity are things we modern humans need a lot more of. Her most popular video is “The Power of Vulnerability.” Many people have said it has completely turned their lives around.

The waif inside.

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Tonight’s therapy session definitely made up for the one I had on Monday, which I felt wasn’t very productive because I seemed to be deflecting and avoiding talking about my feelings.   I asked my therapist to stop me if I did that again, even if I get angry.   He agreed to this and tonight I dove right in.

We were talking about myself as a little girl, especially the way I was never allowed to express my emotions, especially anger.  He wanted to know what I did with all that anger.  I thought about it for a minute, and told him I turned it toward myself, and that’s why I started to become so depressed and why I started to hate myself .  He asked me to put my mind inside the mind of “little me” and describe how she felt and what she looked like.

We came up with a picture.  I described her as a waiflike child, like those paintings from the ’60s of those sad, big eyed little kids, dressed in rags, with a gray, unhealthy pallor.  She is always sad, almost always crying.  She’s afraid of everything.  She feels completely defenseless and in fact she doesn’t have any defenses.   She was never allowed to grow up.

I was asked how I felt about her.  I said I didn’t hate her, that in fact I felt protective of her and had to keep her safe from harm.    She also makes me feel angry when she comes out without my permission because she’s too vulnerable and defenseless and that makes me feel ashamed.   I have to protect her, but I also have to protect myself by keeping her hidden away so she doesn’t embarrass me.

It was harder to talk about her feelings about me, the way she views me.   All I could come up with was that she felt like I kept her safe but wishes I’d let her out more.  I realized then that it was easier to describe my feelings toward her than to describe her feelings toward me.   I’m not completely disconnected from my true self, but dissociation is present.

He asked me what good qualities she has that I want to protect.  I said she has a kind, gentle soul and a big heart.  He asked what she wants.  I thought about it and said, “all she wants is to love and be loved, and to belong.”  I got emotional at that point and started tearing up.  I wasn’t able to describe the emotions I was feeling at all, but I knew we’d made some progress.   He wants to start seeing me more often.   Somehow I’m going to find a way to afford it.   This type of inner child work is hard, but it’s amazing.

Distraught, depressed, and confused.

In spite of the hopeful, positive dream I had early this morning where I seemed to discover my own power over my inner demons, I actually have been feeling very bad.   For the past week or two, I’ve been much more stressed than usual, more depressed, more nervous, more negative, quicker to anger, less mindful, and generally just feeling a lot more triggered by small things.   I feel like I’m on the verge of tears a lot too, even though I can’t actually cry. People at work have noticed too, and I got asked a couple of times this week if I was “alright.”   I hate the fact that people can tell and I’m so bad at hiding the way I feel (it pisses me off–but am I pissed at them for noticing or am I pissed at myself for being unable to maintain a false front of good cheer?  I don’t know).   People have always thought I was a little “off.”  But they are right.   I am not “alright.”

The only explanation that makes sense is that because I’ve been looking more closely at my early life, and at my family’s behavior toward me, it’s triggering a lot of unpleasant feelings and making me feel dangerously vulnerable and also angry at the same time.   All this negative emotion could mean I already dived into the void and if so, then that’s a huge step toward healing (which the dream seemed to be about).    I don’t know.  I always email my therapist what I want to talk about and have him print a copy so I can remember (I like doing things that way), but I think I might have to talk about this instead.   Thank God I see him tonight.   I’m going to ask if I can see him twice a week while I’m going through whatever emotional crisis  I’m in right now.   I’m just feeling really…bad right now.  Is it normal to feel better at the beginning of therapy and then start feeling a lot worse later on?   I know we’re starting to dig up things I wanted to leave buried before.   Maybe its sort of like giving birth–and these are emotional “labor pains.”  I don’t know.