It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To

or Why FEAR is Like Hot Sauce – Part III’

Recently my colleagues bought me cake and a signed card with lovely wishes for my birthday. A [false] social media alert had triggered their interest and they had pooled together to congratulate me.

I stammered something about it not being my birthday but they clarified they had then done research and found my date of birth on our staff database and that it was only a few weeks prior.

I managed to thank them and mutter something about being a birthday ‘grinch‘. However, when left alone, I was overcome with a wave of emotion, humiliation, condemnation, and hot tears.

Why did such a lovely guesture catalyse such a flood of emotion?

As I paused to examine my feelings, I unearthed a deep sense of failure, unloveliness, lack of dignity and embarrassment layered there. These sadnesses about my life are emphasisesd at each anniversary of my birth as though mile markers taunt me to show my lack of progress or as a measuring rod, to highlight my lack of stature.

When my colleagues tried to cheer me for my birthday, I felt like a door to a private room of grief was suddenly thrown open, a door I was hoping to keep closed. Memories of relationship failures, griefs about unmet expectations and unrealised dreams came tumbling out; fears of social indignity and disrespect met the light of what I fear most of all, the knowledge of these failures in the faces of my colleagues. I felt crushed.

I looked down and focused on my work and I cried silently in the office that afternoon.

Joseph Campbell writes,

It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.

You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.

I don’t talk about my birthday because it reminds me of the failures of my life. I have not achieved XYZ and am still struggling with questions of identity, purpose and direction. I’m not where I feel like I should be and I am I feel shame.

My response to being warmly congratulated by friends, alerted me that there was a cave I needed to enter, a cave of vulnerability and to sharing my life experiences with my colleagues, my life story, with others that could yield a treasure of friendship and connection that I have not yet experienced with them.

Instead of pretending to be ‘A-Okay’, and a little distant, my story with all its honesty and griefs, could indeed be a treasure to encourage other people who feel they are failures, unlovely, undignified or ashamed.

On Distancing Techniques

Or Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce – Part II’

I have come to be aware of something I do to avoid [what I perceive to be] rejection. I use ‘distancing techniques‘: words or actions to put a wall down or to establish distance between myself and others to make me feel less vulnerable.

These range from socially acceptable to rude and immature and include: talking about independence or career interests or romantic relationships in an academic tone; establishing that one is busy or subtly stating a dislike of a shared activity or a desire to leave; leaving early; pretending to not feel upset about a result or an outcome; retreating to become a silent observer in a group or conversely becoming functional and doing chores or overly polite; pretending to have forgotten key information; avoiding certain people or conversation in company; using one’s phone in company; not saying goodbye properly.

This list continues.

All of these are reflexive and defensive behaviours, to put distance between self and the object of either affection (and therefore vulnerability) or threat.

The Mirror Principle

What has alerted me to these behaviours is what is known as the ‘mirror principle.’ When I encounter ‘distancing techniques‘ in others it can cause me intense pain. However, the minute I begin to resent others for behaving defensively, it dawns on me that this is in fact how I have been behaving.

There is no greater teacher than first hand experience.

The Remedy For Heartache

These behaviours only serve to bury feelings deep within and unfortunately, seal a firm lid on them.

I’m learning that the only true remedy for pain is to stay close to it, to suffer pain and discomfort, to open the heart to sensation, love, loss, sorrow and heartache.

For me, to own my own vulnerability and softness is key. I must do away with any shame or sense of weakness attached to emotions, and allow myself to feel, even if it causes me suffering.

Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce

I have recently sought coaching and counselling for personal challenges and blockages.

In exploring my own issues I have identified far beneath, buried deep down in my sub-conscious, a far more complex and insidious root of life struggles.

FEAR.

Fear of conflict, fear of failure, fear of what others think, fear of condemnation, fear of disappointing those I love, fear of not being enough.

Procrastination? FEAR.

Low achievement? FEAR.

Conflict avoidance. FEAR.

Broken relationships? FEAR.

Friends chastise me for seeming calm and peaceful, and yet on occasion raising grievances of issues from years ago. I had been hurt at the time and instead of raising the issue then, sat with the pain for years before finally airing it.

I realise that FEAR is like a hot sauce. It eclipses all flavour and sense, disallowing nuance of other food in the dish. When I am stressed or face conflict, I cannot feel anything except confusion driven by fear.

I cannot tell how I feel, what I think, what I want or process how the other person has hurt me. The hot sauce eclipses all others and I feel paralysed. It is only much later that I am able to process my feeling and raise the concerns with my friends and loved ones. They understandably are confused as this issue has long passed and they had no idea.

Coaching has established the need to rebuild identity that can stand up against fear. This entails responsibility for actions which have caused the issue to perpetuate and grow.

Healing occurs through receiving love and rebuilding trust. Trust of self, trust of others, trust of the divine. A kindness given to myself is like water, which dilutes the hot sauce. As the hot sauce strength subsides, the flavour returns. The ability to feel a range of feelings returns.

I am able to be present with my emotions and know what I want. I am less inclined to flee, shut down, avoid or stonewall situations that require vulnerability and presence.

I’m more inclined to try hard at things that make me afraid or risk my feelings. And slowly, slowly I am able to hope that the future might be different.

Valhalla and YOLO

The epic TV series Vikings tells of the ancient Norsemen and their raids on Britain, from the 8th century. The Vikings raided for food, land and wealth at times when their own lands were growing overpopulated.

Fearless in battle, they were motivated to seek honour in death. Regularly, the chieftain roused his warriors by recounting that all who perish in battle, ride with the Valkyries to Valhalla, the hall of Odin.

To the Vikings, victory was sweet but death in battle was sweeter still. Eternal glory awaited.  Consequently, the Vikings were formidable warriors, raiding east into Russia, south-east to the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, west as far as Greenland and Newfoundland, and south as far as North Africa and the Mediterranean.

wpid-viking3.gif

Today the dominant narrative is that beyond death, nothing awaits. The epithet YOLO or  ‘you only live once’,  means to live without fear.  A modern iteration of “carpe diem” YOLO is the catch cry of youths living large – whether by risky behaviour, fun loving silliness or challenging norms.

The two narratives have vastly different emphases of what lies beyond space and time, yet come to similar conclusions of how to live now. Both advocate courage in the here-and-now, to live boldly in the face of death.

What narrative do we live by? How do we face the inevitability of death and make our life count?

The Cave you Fear to Enter

The cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.  – Joseph Campbell

With this one line, Joseph Cambell captures the power and significance of narrative to our lives. Campbell identified the archetype of  The Hero Journey and its presence in myths and legends of every culture.

In the first chapter of his work “The Hero with 1000 Faces,” he writes:

It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.

He continues:

The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called “the archetypal images.”

Thanks again the marvellous Brain Pickings and TED-Ed this video tells of Joseph Campell’s ‘mono-myth’ or hero journey and timeless significnace to our lives.

Enjoy!

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Fear and Exhillaration

It’s curious that our most heightened feelings as humans – exhilliaration – is so closely tied to our most dreaded emotions – fear. The facing of fear then is one of the most profound experiences of the human condition.

I for one do not fear spiders, snakes, deep water, darkness or death – but I do fear failure. The fear of failure has crippled me from completing or even attempting tasks. This writing alone is the product of me addressing the fear of failure – to produce a text that others read.

Love is the most undoing of all human emotions and activities – yet the most exhillarating too. How can someone undo us so completely, unravel our unity, break apart our identity and yet we enjoy it ? How can a child destroy our lives as we know it, and yet make us so happy? How can we be so willingly enslaved to another through love?

The exhillaration one feels at the top of the roller coaster tower, upon gazing down, incredulous that the carriage we are in will plummet us to the earth, is invigorating. Let me climb the tower and throw myself off. Let me seize my fears.