Mental Health Matters: Learning to be Intimate

When I first met my husband, I didn’t want to hug or kiss in public, or private either…not really. Touching outside of sex was uncomfortable. I didn’t even want to hold hands. I remember when Dwight shared this detail with my aunt and uncle; they both replied with raised eyebrows and strange looks.

“I like to hold hands…in bed,” I clarified.

“In bed?” they both questioned in unison.

Their responses cued me that my behavior was out of the ordinary. I’ve since learned it wasn’t strange. It was just an intimacy issue.

At the root of intimacy is an idea of creating closeness. And according to every psychologist ever, how human beings create closeness is directly related to how they bond with their mother in infancy. Later, intimacy is reinforced by what is learned in the family: either too little or too much bonding can lead to intimacy problems in adulthood. Intimacy problems in adulthood can lead to unhealthy ways of creating intimacy, or in other words, codependency.

Whew.

Poor boundaries, people pleasing, and swooping in to help folks, even though they’d never asked each represented my desire for connection. If I let everyone in, did what others wanted, and superwomaned my way into others’ lives, then we’d be close, right?

Wrong.

I had to learn how to be intimate in appropriate ways.

My level of intimacy increased as I began to re-learn who I was and re-shape my identity according to my own likes and desires. Once I was less shameful about my background and proclivities and learned to love my whole self, I became comfortable with being me. These behaviors led to being intimate with myself, which helped me to naturally develop closeness with others. Hugging, kissing, and cuddling, which are a part of physical intimacy, were easier to offer and receive. However, other types of intimacy had to be strengthened.


Emotional Intimacy: After years of learned suppression, I had to figure out how to feel my way through experiences instead of ignoring them. First, I expressed different emotions with my husband. I stopped covering specific feelings, and instead moved through sadness or anger, by actually saying, “I’m sad because…” and then not remaining stuck in sorrow. Next, I practiced honoring my children’s feelings. For example, when one of my daughters didn’t do well on an exam, I asked her how she felt? I prompted her to attach words to her feelings to provide a safe space for being an emotional being.


Spiritual Intimacy: I’ve written about my non-Christian status on this blog once. It took a lot for me to share this belief. Living in the South (or America, in general) hasn’t made professing a non-Christian identity easy. But once I did, I was able to accept a part of me that I’d kept hidden for so long for fear of judgment. (For me, all roads lead back to identity work, apparently). Expressing my frustration with how the majority marginalizes non-Christians (in a safe space) served as a way for me to honor my own beliefs, which I’d hoped would lead to more relaxed conversations with friends and family. This is what spiritual intimacy is, and it’s an important part of every relationship. How can I connect with someone if we can’t discuss our beliefs in an open, respectful, and non-judgmental way?


Mental Intimacy: Because I like to engage in conversation, mental intimacy is something with which I thrive. Before Dwight and I married, we knew pretty much everything about one another. Questions like what is your deepest fear were commonplace during our first year of dating. Mental intimacy isn’t limited to a romantic relationship, though. In an effort to know others deeply, I ask my friends and family real questions. If they shirk answers or keep me at sarcasm-level responses, then I know our relationship isn’t going far. There is no judgment in this because we can’t always be as close as we want to be with others, plus boundaries are a thing. I’m simply saying that a non-authentic answer to an authentic question blocks connection and can stunt this type of intimacy.


Sooo, where are you in terms of creating close connections? Are you only intimate in romantic relationships? Only with friends and not family? Better at one of these than another? Let me know in the comments.

There are 4 Types of Intimacy does a great job of categorizing intimacy.

The Dance of Intimacy is good for a general understanding of intimacy.


Mental Health Matters: Feeling My Feels

When I first received a packet of information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services outlining the events that led to my adoption, I called my then best friend to read her the contents. At first, her sniffles were low, but eventually they began to drown out my words.

“Why are you crying?” I asked.

“It’s just…so sad,” she began.

“Don’t cry,” I insisted. “Don’t cry for me.”

By this time, I was 32 years old and had mastered muffling and numbing my own sorrows. I wasn’t going to sob about my own life, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone else to mourn for me.

I suppressed the pain of discovering I was an abandoned five-month-old baby with the other emotional trauma I’d endured. The only thing about stuffing emotions into an abyss is that they’re never really gone. Pain. Sadness. Anger. Whatever emotion you’ve attempted to ignore stays with you. I learned this nine years later when I was 41.

moon_womanI’d decided to do a relationship meditation hosted by Oprah and Deepak. I thought the meditation would help me have a better relationship with my husband, father, cousins, and in-laws. What was surprising is the meditation really focused on the relationship I had with myself. This was achieved through chanting mantras and answering journal prompts. One of the questions asked this: What, if anything, are you afraid of finding out about yourself? Or something like that.

At first, I didn’t want to write the truth. But, after realizing I’d be the only one reading it, I decided to be as honest as possible. I scribbled these words: There must be something wrong with me for me not to have any parents.

And then, I cried.

I cried for the five-month-old version of myself, who must’ve been terrified being left in an apartment for days. I wept for a baby who was separated from her mother. In that moment, I realized I didn’t need permission to empathize for myself. So, I also cried for being adopted and not told to feel anything about the finding years ago. I grieved losing my adoptive mother. My final tears were for my adoptive father, who, no matter how much he uttered, “I love you,” had shown otherwise.

That day was pivotal. I’d waited my entire life for someone to green-light my emotions when really, I held the power all along.

moonAfterwards, I stopped stifling tears and emotions. I began using honest communication in most situations. I refused to follow family and society’s made-up rules of engagement. From that day forward, I knew it was better for me to share emotions than it was to harbor resentment and damage myself further. This ranged from answering simple questions, like “How do you like working here?” to harder ones, like, “Why haven’t you invited me to your parties?” with truth. With many people, I ceased hiding my emotions, and subsequently, protecting theirs. I don’t mean to say that I trample on others’ feelings; that would be insensitive, but rather, I don’t hold back for fear of what others will think. I don’t owe anyone a lie or a watered-down answer because they’re ill-equipped to deal with how I feel or because they’re not used to hearing a different opinion.

Since that day, I’ve also learned how to move through emotions and determine why I’m experiencing a specific response. I have a phrase: I feel (fill-in-the-blank emotion) because of (fill-in-the-blank reason). It might look like this: I feel resentful because my family doesn’t consider how I feel around holidays. Sometimes I share these sentiments; other times, I don’t. The important part is to know how I feel and move through it.

Sometimes tears arise because I’m triggered by past life events, like the time I was watching TV and a woman and her mother were shopping for wedding dresses. I remembered how I shopped for dresses by myself and it made me sad. Being able to acknowledge that emotion and then pause for a second has been more supportive for me than pretending feelings don’t exist.

Finally, because I’m now more inclined to feel my feels and process emotions, I’m less likely to use unhealthy coping strategies. I no longer rely on people, relationships, or sex as a means to improve my mood or self-esteem. As a result, my relationships have improved because I’m interacting from an authentic space, not from a place of suppressed hurt and anger.

For me, an ability to feel has been liberating.

Source

 

Mental Health Matters: Suppression

My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.

Friendship and the Expectation of Support (Part I)

tarra_kgOn June 13th, I hung out with my friend, Tarra. We ate fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, and lobster brie omelets. We discussed our deceased mothers and newly found biological families.

Tarra is a singer and actress. She’d just finished a show and needed rest. I was preparing for the Atlanta reading and needed to calm myself prior to attending. So, we also spent time at the beach, running through opened doors and moving with the ocean’s waves.

Somewhere during the day, she confided that she was thinking about who wasn’t at her shows, who didn’t support, who didn’t reach out. She knew she should focus on who was there, who did support, and who made time for her. She admitted this was something she should work on.

I agreed. But I also added, “It’s hard.”

Two days later, we had the Atlanta book reading. Even though it was an awesome event, not one close friend reached out to ask how it was, not even Tarra. Please do not misunderstand what I’m saying. Friends did contact me. They texted to tell me about the terrible and wonderful happenings in their life’s bubble. They just didn’t ask about this very important gathering I’d been talking about for months.

Like Tarra, I began to think about all the close friends I have and why they wouldn’t simply text and say, how was the reading?* I started to text each one and ask him or her personally, but quickly tossed that idea. I really don’t like to ask people to be who I want them to be. I’d much rather simply be aligned in thought, action, and behavior. Plus, I knew it was something I needed to work on, not them.

After processing my emotions for several days, I came to a few conclusions. The first is, like my friend, I needed to focus on who was supportive and who showed care that day.

The first is my husband, Dwight. He is always there in some way. Even when he can’t physically be present, he calls, jokes with me to lighten my mood, and wishes me well. He texts or calls after every event and asks me how it went and how I felt about the outcome. I appreciate that.

img_0801The second is the group of women who made the event possible. Bree spent her time, money, and energy planning a successful reading. The other three women traveled from other cities and states to share themselves with strangers. In my point of view, this is miraculous, and it’s definitely not something they had to do.

The third are people who attended. I didn’t do a head count, but at least 40 people came. Included in the audience was my stepmother, stepsister, a former Georgia College student and her mother, and a blogger I’d met for the first time (shout out to Yecheilyah).

Though my feelings were initially hurt, reminding myself that I did have support that day has shifted my energy about the situation.

That’s my first conclusion: focus on who shows up in ways you value.

I’ll share my second conclusion tomorrow.

*Since writing this but before publishing it, someone I consider a friend did text me and ask about the reading 🙂

Four Ways to Invalidate Someone’s Emotions

keep-calm-and-no-emotions-5
© http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-no-emotions-5/ I have no rights to this image.
I recently took the girls to see Inside Out. Dare I say, it seems to be a much better movie than Frozen, with a more relevant message: we need all of our emotions to be a whole person. But this is not a movie review. No. Over the past few months, I’ve noted how people interact with one another, and consequently, tend to attempt invalidating each other’s emotions.

#1 Manage the Person’s Feelings My Grannie does something I call managing my emotions. When I tell her about the coworker that upset me, she says, “Don’t be angry.” Someone hurt my feelings? “Don’t be sad.” She feels that I’m about to explode over some issue that’s trivial in her mind? “Don’t go off!” I resist each step of the way because emotions are a huge part of my personality. If I cannot express my emotions, then I might as well curl up in a ball and be invisible. Simultaneously, I see this as a way to not really see someone’s emotions. I know she means well. However, it is the number one way to invalidate someone’s emotions.

#2 Say, “It’s Not that Bad, Is It?” If someone has the cojones to tell you how they feel about a situation or to express how your actions have made them feel, the number two way to invalidate their emotions is to ask them if it’s that bad. If it wasn’t that bad, then he or she probably wouldn’t have expended the energy to pour out his or her heart to you. If it wasn’t that bad, then perhaps, he or she would have merely sucked it up, buried it deep and then held it against you for the rest of his or her life. But instead, he or she chose to tell you because he or she thought you cared enough to react. Let’s assume that it really was that bad.

#3 Ignore the Person’s Statement What if someone said, “I love you”? Would you ignore the sentiment? How about if someone said, “Hey, I think you’re a great person!” Would you think that deserved a response? The reality is that it’s way easier to respond to positive emotions. Oh my Gosh! You love me? I love you too! But if that same person announced, “You really hurt my feelings,” or “You’ve made me sad by being inconsiderate,” a lot of times, the recipient doesn’t understand how to relate to these negative emotions. And ignoring takes the place of responding. However, ignoring someone’s emotions is also a way to invalidate what the person just said.

#4 Deflect the Person’s Emotion Deflecting is interesting. It’s the opposite of reflecting. And everything that I’ve read so far suggests that if you notice someone else’s bad behavior then really it’s a RE-flection of something you probably need to work on. DE-flecting, conversely, is a way to not internalize the other person’s emotions, right? When I deflect, then I put it back on you. What’s wrong with you? Why do you feel that way? What are you saying? I’m not like that. I wouldn’t do something negative to someone. If you’re not reflecting, then you’re probably deflecting. And if you’re deflecting, then you’re probably invalidating someone else’s feelings.

Do you have other ways that you would add? How do you try not to invalidate others’ feelings? Would you re-order these?