In my last blog I touched on how damaging overthinking can be to our mental health. As I discovered in one of the opening counselling sessions with Lauren, saying you accept a form of trauma and actually accepting it are very different things. When we overthink trauma and apply logic to them we often neglect our emotional needs which in the long run leaves us confused, anxious and overwhelmed. Emotions and feelings need to be accepted and welcomed for us to understand them, rather than overanalysing and boxing them away, telling ourselves I’ll deal with that later. Spoiler: we don’t.
It was in a later session with Lauren that I came unstuck. Again. This was a theme that continued throughout my counselling. The format for my weekly “unstickings” usually went something like this:
- Lauren asks me a perfectly normal question e.g. “does that make you feel angry?”.
- Josh responds with a bold, assertive statement that he thinks sounds right e.g. “l’m not an angry person. I don’t get angry, it doesn’t help the situation”.
- Lauren looks at Josh, eyebrows stitched confusedly, and says “Josh, we all feel anger. You are just denying yourself the ability to feel it”.
- Josh becomes unstuck.
In fact, that is exactly how one of our sessions went. Lauren was trying to understand how I had emotionally responded to some of the major things that had happened throughout my life. It was an attempt to untangle the emotional cables that, with my Dad’s death, had become knotted and indistinguishable. This particular segment of the conversation was shaped by the frustration I feel when I think about my left leg. I claimed that I had come to terms with with the lymphoedema, a condition which has left me with a painful, swollen limb for almost all of my adult life.
I applied the same logic as I did with losing my Dad: there is nothing I can do, it isn’t my fault, so there is no use in being angry at something I can’t control. That is reasonable, right? Yes, it is, but it still doesn’t address one critical point and that is that despite me telling myself I am not angry, I still am. It was the same story as the “overthinking” I covered in the previous blog.
“You are denying yourself from feeling the things that your body wants to feel”, Lauren said. “You nearly died because of an infection in your leg which has a life-altering condition and you very casually said that as if it didn’t mean anything?”. She paused and looked at me with concern. I stared back at her blankly and shrugged. “I guess I’m just used to it”. Lauren wasn’t finished.
“I have a feeling you haven’t come to terms with your leg like you think you have”. In that moment I was slightly defensive though deep down I knew she was right. I needed her to be right. “You say you don’t feel frustrated and angry, but I think you may have just conditioned yourself not to feel anger as you think that it is the right response”.
We discussed my leg more and I told Lauren a story of when Charlotte and I were travelling in Thailand. We were heading to the beach and I was wearing shorts – something I was really uncomfortable with doing at the time as it meant my black compression stocking was exposed. We walked hand-in-hand along a sandy path until a local man cycled up to us. Skidding to a stop it was immediately obvious he was high as a kite (if you’ve been to Tonsai beach you’ll know the general vibe of the place). We looked at him to see what he wanted and he just raised his arm and pointed at my leg, laughing in an almost cartoonish way that enabled us to see his tonsils dangling at the entrance to his throat.
“I can hear in your voice a sense of frustration Josh. You sound hurt. What are you feeling telling me this story?”, Lauren asked.
“Well, it’s complicated because I know he is from a less developed part of the world so maybe he doesn’t have the same understanding around disabilities”. Lauren looked at me with her eyes wide open.
“You’ve just told me a stranger cycled up to you and pointed and laughed at your disabled leg and your response is to justify his actions!”. Then it hit me. I was doing it AGAIN. “Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter where he has come from, it clearly has hurt you. So let’s try again, how do you feel?”
I almost cried. “It hurts. It really hurts. And it fucking sucks”, I said defeatedly. In that moment I understood what Lauren was referring to. I was denying myself the raw feeling of anger that my body wanted me to feel.
I have always considered myself a pretty laid-back individual. There have been a lot of peaks in my life predominantly, but plenty of troughs too, and it was in those low points that I prided myself on my ability to keep smiling. It’s what society seems to be telling us to do. You’re almost a maturer, better person if you can “be the bigger person” and put things behind you. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should hold onto anger and let it manifest into something worse – not at all. But what I’ve learned from my sessions with Lauren is that you need to tune-in and give yourself the room to process anger and then decide what to do with it.
“They don’t call it the fire symbol for nothing”, Lauren said. “Anger as an emotion, when used in the right way, can be incredibly powerful and healing”, she explained, describing anger as the fuel which drives peoples’ passion for change in the world. “It’s when you use it irresponsibly and cause damage to yourself or other people that it becomes dangerous. You’ve been through so much with your leg and now with your Dad it’s okay, and perfectly understandable, for you to feel angry. Don’t bottle it up”.
How do you prevent a fire from spreading? One tactic is to use fire or explosives. Fire is literally used to fight fire. But if you’re not careful fire can also totally decimate an area. Lauren encouraged me to give myself permission to feel anger, but also to check-in: is what I’m feeling and thinking helpful in this moment?
In a future blog I will delve deeper into the conversation I had with Lauren around my leg. I discovered some fascinating things about how my lymphoedema may have distorted my relationship with the world around me so if you have lymphoedema like me, you may want to tune into that one. For my next blog however I will be looking at strength, confidence and self-belief.