I had one of my most intense and effective sessions ever with Wakana last week. She supported me by alternating between A Major and A minor chords on the piano, adjusting her style & chords to complement the emotions I was expressing. I sang, nonverbal melodies at first and words as they came to me – statements and images and raw expressions of anger, grief, triumph… She sang too, reflecting and supporting and occasionally making suggestions. It was very intense; we peeled back most of my defenses as I became more and more relaxed.
It’s one thing to know, cognitively, that one’s self-judgment is the result of early, most likely pre-verbal, experiences of being judged and found lacking. Of not having one’s emotional needs meet sufficiently, and so on. It’s relatively easy (now, after studying psychology for over a decade) for me to connect my current emotional difficulties and insecurities to past experiences. (And yet I’m still surprised how often certain ones come up in therapy.) I’ve built this narrative about my life that organizes the chaos, giving it purpose and meaning; I can reflect on it and pat myself on the back for all the things I’ve overcome.
Yet, time and time again, Wakana tells me the same thing: “You’re too hard on yourself.” She asks what it is I dislike so much about myself. And other than this nonverbal sense of being Wrong, I can’t really answer her. Not in straightforward prose, anyway.
It’s another thing entirely to go through the process of seeking the cause of my self-judgment as it exists deep within my psyche, much as one might search a room for an item one has lost. Several years ago I moved into the other apartment in my mom’s 2-family house; she had been using its closet and cabinets for storage but was happy to have me move back in with her. As Banji helped me clean and re-organize, we identified items that were not mine. Then we moved the items to a space where Mom could sort through them without entering my apartment. We called the items “someone else’s problem,” which made it easier to remove them from my space.
I felt like I was doing that again as I searched for what could possibly be so “wrong” about me. What did I find? The Single Thing I most want to change about myself is this feeling like there’s something inherently wrong with me, which makes me depressed and anxious and keeps me from fully living my life. It keeps me from loving myself. I judge myself for judging myself for judging myself.
… Or so I thought during the session last week. The judgment is definitely what I want and need to change, but I’m still judging something about myself… Perhaps something that doesn’t need to change after all. As I wrote and re-read the above, I realized that I judge myself for having intense emotions – especially when they come up at inconvenient times. The sadness, grief, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. take over my body all too often, usually at times when my “rational side” considers them to be utterly inappropriate.
Today I tried to acknowledge and accept how I was feeling without judging or fighting it. I felt anxious while getting ready to leave the house and considered taking the medication my nurse practitioner prescribed, but decided instead to accept that I felt anxious and continue getting ready. I felt tears welling up in my eyes during conversations and let them flow, inwardly acknowledging why they were there while continuing to share my ideas and experiences.
The problem isn’t my emotions. The problem is that it is risky to allow one’s emotions to show in most social situations. It’s that I have been judged and punished from a young age whenever I expressed strong emotions – especially if my doing so inconvenienced the adults in my life. It’s that, until recently, I haven’t had the support and tools I need to express and manage my emotions in healthy ways, instead of suppressing them.
My emotions are inextricable parts of me that serve vital functions, even if they’re often not what I want or (think I) need at the time. The judgment isn’t mine. It belongs to cultural norms that should be obsolete and caregivers who internalized those norms. As humans we both create and adapt to our environment (society)… and we have an uncanny knack for creating unhealthy environments for ourselves and our children. Self-judgement and internalized stigma are two related ways in which we adapt to some of the most toxic elements in our environment.
(I feel the need to include that not everything in Western society is toxic; some aspects are actually quite awesome. Also, just as we create our environment, we can change it for the better.)
The thing is, it’s one thing to know that cognitively, to think it and talk about it with other people. It’s something else entirely to, as in the movie Inception, delve deep into one’s own mind and find something that was placed there by someone else. Wakana helped me do that last week; now I’m looking for the “someone else’s problem” box.