I'm a Therapist and Parent an Undiagnosed Child. This Is How I Process My Feelings.
As a mental health therapist, I spend a lot of time directing people towards the reality of their experience — the focus typically centering on ways to tolerate “going there” versus falling into patterns of avoidance or denial. When we deny or avoid —particularly when we do so as a life pattern — our hurt, our experiences, all of the ick— it eventually swallows us up. It takes away our ability to function, and it can push us to some dark places.
One of my personal feelings about my job is that if I’m guiding/supporting/educating people to invest in the practice of new behaviors, I should also be open and willing to engage in the same — a sort of “practice what you preach” model, if you will. That being said… I am also flawed. I will always be flawed. No matter how hard I try not to be. So, feeling this way and having this as a principle doesn’t place me ahead of anyone in terms of the kind of human being I am; it’s just a large part of my moral compass — both professionally and personally, really.
It’s interesting because if I could map out the kind of therapist I was at the beginning of my career, I was absolutely the therapist who strongly attached to positivity-forward, look-on-the-bright-side sort of sentiments. Sentiments like: Everything happens for a reason. God only gives you what you can handle. It could always be worse. And I absolutely understand how these kinds of sentiments catch on. I understand their purpose, but over time I have relied on them less and less.
And the thing is… as my life has adapted, so have my beliefs and so has my approach as a therapist. And then all of that has influenced how I have handled my own stuff. Over the last couple of years, a shift has occurred where I’ve begun to move away from being a person who moves so quickly to find light in the darkness. Prior to that, and for the majority of my life, I’ve had this tendency to try to cope with any hardship by trying to spin it in a positive light — almost like… if I could just find the good in the bad, I could take away the bad. If I really evaluate it, I know I received all kinds of messages growing up that reinforced that pressure for me. Messages like: I should be grateful for all that I have; that, thank God, things weren’t worse; that God always has a reason; that I need to be positive; that everything will be OK.
And all of those things hold truth. I respect that, for so many people, they’re words of comfort and they reinforce principles of faith. But, for me, those words sometimes have more of a tendency to be invalidating. For me, they can send the message that there is no room for my pain. There is no space for my hurt or my fear or my anger. There is only room for one thing: finding a way to push through it and plaster a smile on my face. Maybe that’s a little bluntly put, but I constantly carry that pressure around, and it’s dangerous. And really, it’s something we all do. We all have moments where we try to be OK. And sometimes those moments are necessary because those moments help us to survive. More often, I think, “trying to be OK” is a way of life. It’s weaved into the very fabric of our being. We readily lean on sentiments that lead us directly away from the pain, and in doing so we engage in self-invalidation. Saying, “I can’t be sad because others have it worse,” is like we are saying, “I can’t be happy because others have it better.” We are not other people. We are us. And we have to heal our own emotional wounds in ways that are actually productive and fruitful.
Unfortunately, we can’t heal an emotional wound with logic. Yes, logically, the world is full of people whose battles are more challenging. There are parents whose kids have much more complex health issues, whose children are literally fighting for their life minute by minute. There are people whose life stories seem only possible in fiction. There are people who have survived unspeakable things. But leaning on that as fact does not do anything for the pain that we are in except to enable us to stuff it away and ultimately add it to the pile of other things we haven’t allowed ourselves to really feel — only to someday realize that, that pile only holds so much space.
Am I proposing that we settle into those places in our lives where fear, pain, anger, and disappointment live? No. Am I proposing we hold our pain as most important, even over those who are suffering from intense, debilitating trauma? Do we focus only on validating ourselves? No. Of course not. I just think there is a space between experiencing uncomfortable emotion and finding a way to get over it. I believe that to get to a place of healing, we have to make meaning of our experience — and to make meaning of our experience, we have to learn to tolerate sitting in the negative emotion. We have to validate that things suck. That life is scary sometimes. That people can be cruel. That things aren’t fair. That, even though our experiences might not be the worst-case scenarios, they’re still painful and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. It’s OK to express sadness without having to be labeled as whiny or negative. There is a balance, and honestly, I think there has to be. We have to find that middle ground where we don’t allow life to eat us alive but we also aren’t pressuring ourselves to take up vacancy on Cloud 9.
Personally, as a parent of a child who has extra medical needs— particularly a child who has symptoms that aren’t always visible to others — I feel intense pressure to be OK — to be grateful that in many ways he functions so well. I actually feel so much pressure to be the Brittany I was several years ago, so blindly positive and inspirational that there was no room for any of that other stuff. It’s something I struggle with constantly and something I have to consciously talk myself through because on an average day I honestly just feel as though I don’t have a right to my own pain. That’s been a lifelong struggle and one I will have to consciously talk myself out of for a long time, I think.
It is, therefore, my goal to try sincerely to just be open with where I’m at, whether that’s happy, sad, frustrated, scared… whatever. Because that is this journey. It’s all of it. This is what it looks like to have a child who is undiagnosed, who may look healthy and put together, but who, behind the scenes has a lot of unseen challenges. Most of the time, through processing my feelings and taking some time, I do get to the point where I believe things are mostly good and that overall we are very blessed. I am there most of the time, honestly. There are just times that I feel the weight and loneliness of this life, and it’s just not in my nature to keep all of that inside.
Getty image by VolodymyrKozin