Accepting the unruly self

Writing here, I only need persuade myself. Others get something from it: if a post has 27,000 views it appeals to people, but I can write a post if I like that might just get thirty, to clarify something for myself. And, I want to explain this to people, because I think it valuable. I tried, and met resistance, because it is counter-intuitive. So now I try again:

Moderately depressed, I can stay in bed until midday, and I have done so, periodically thinking, I ought to get up. I have to do X. X might be going to the supermarket, or doing some housework. I have to get up! I think to myself, panicking a bit, berating myself, then I go back to scrolling facebook. Then at midday I think, oh well, I am not going to do that today, I’ll spend the afternoon with the telly. And I do. This is not a way to endear myself to human society.

Mindful presence is part of it. Put down the laptop, it is just a distraction. I want dopamine, but facebook is a bad way of getting it. Put down the laptop, and I am alone with my thoughts and feelings, that shame, misery and desperation that I will not just GET UP! and do what I have to do. These are not pleasant feelings to face. Yet there are other feelings, not just about my inaction but about the desired action itself.

For a time in the Summer when I found this, I simply needed to acknowledge that I do not want to get up! And that, for me, was enough to get me up. There was some desire, some motivation, to get up and do the thing. Acknowledging the feelings stopping me, valuing and accepting that part of my inner conflict, was enough to make those feelings less insistent. “I do not want to get up!” I would say to myself, joyfully, and get up. The feelings affect me whether I am conscious of them or not, to the extent that I find consciousness overrated. I am not, primarily, a conscious being but an animal being. Somewhere else I have seen the simile consciousness is like a mahout on an elephant, and it’s not entirely clear whether the reins the mahout holds actually do anything.

Now I find I might make a better decision if I ask what, precisely, am I feeling about the X that I “ought” to do. That is, fully and completely acknowledging why I do not want to do it, or at any rate do not want to do it now. Unacknowledged, the feelings are too strong for me, demanding to be heard. Acknowledging them pacifies them. Therefore the counterintuitive suggestion, ask yourself all the reasons why you don’t want to go, what you feel and why you might feel like that, begins to make sense.

Now, I have no idea whether this is a common idea, which community psychiatric nurses routinely suggest to their patients, a more out there idea which has been the subject of an obscure TEDx talk, or completely original. That I have not heard of it is little evidence. Had I a name for it I might google it, but someone might have a different name. A name helps to get an idea accepted. It’s something like radical self-acceptance in the moment. I’ve just come up with the title for this post, thinking as I write, but there may be a better term for the technique. It’s a way of allowing feelings about the medium or long term take precedence. Feelings about Right Now are more insistent, and if I do not know what they are I have no tools for making decisions beyond the present moment. My post title says what I do, but a name expressing pithily what that achieves might be worthwhile.

I bring together the committee of the self, including the bits I don’t like, so they can decide together what to do.

I suggested this to someone, and she dismissed it out of hand, without even the need to explain why it was so wrong because that was obvious. Why would you think about why you don’t want to do something? That only makes you less likely to do it! Well, because those reasons or feelings are in fact stopping you from taking action, and examining them might help you address them. That the idea is hard to explain might show that it is less widespread.

Sixteen years ago a counsellor told me that “ought” is very poor motivation to do something. That is part of this idea.

Feelings about feelings

My feelings are my response to the world. If I reject my feelings, I reject my self. I have been taught to reject my feelings, and this paralyses me. My feelings still affect me even if I am not conscious of them. It seems to me that I need to be consciously aware of feelings in order to process them.

I went to the supermarket yesterday. I cycled along the unmetalled road, in the sunshine, enjoying the colours of the lakes. Impressionists using strange colours for water, not blue but colours I cannot name, make more sense to me, and help me see the water more truthfully. I needed to go as I had no fruit in the house, and wondered why I had still not wanted to get up. (At last I was aware of not wanting to get up, rather than being unconscious of it, or in denial.) Why would I not want to be here?

Well, there is the effort of cycling, which is harder on this track, though there is little wind. And, I am outside. There is more sensory stimulation outside, more light, more noise. Rather than the various electric hums of my household, there are birds. Inside, where I prefer to be, I am in control, safest in the immediate moment, and outside is different. And there are people about. People are weird, and possibly threatening.

Knowing that everything must be perfect as I perform this task, of going to the supermarket, finding and buying things, and bringing them home, and therefore everything must be predictable, I feel anxiety. This is completely wrong of me, proof of my weakness and inadequacy. I should not feel anxious.

“You are terribly harsh with yourself,” said Andy.

Because I judge myself for being anxious, I rarely permit myself to be conscious of anxiety, and noticing it can be surprising. And realising how liberating knowing my sadness could be, I am determined to excavate it. That judgment may in the past have made me more effectual- I suppressed my anxiety, and got on with the task in hand- but now it cripples me, stopping me doing anything. And, so distanced from my own feelings, the choice of that task would rarely be my own.

Unconscious anxiety just stops me acting. I do not want to feel anxious, so I do not want to go out. So I lie in bed, half the morning, wondering if I will ever have enough motivation to get up; and when I think, oh, I’ll have lunch then watch TV all afternoon, I finally do.

The emotional being then becomes a recalcitrant servant, always needing coaxed, never doing as much as my conscious sense of rightness or need wants it to do. It is rarely brought into consciousness and it rarely makes positive choices to do something that I want to do. When I am conscious of my feelings, they disturb or distress me; they feel as if they are merely wrong. So I continue suppressing them, and notice I am not doing what that sense of rightness feels is appropriate.

My income is low, and I have been dipping into savings. I was not really conscious of income and outgoings. I was more and more careful of what I spent, for example not buying clothes, but had no real idea of when I was exceeding income. I paid utility bills when I got threats of legal action. It seems to me I am unconsciously resentful of my situation without any idea what to do about it, and I would be less vulnerable if I could monitor my spending, fit it to my income, and pay bills as they come in. I did not like the idea of powerlessly resenting. It feels to me this is more conscious, more truthful, and I should be in credit at the end of the month, just. The feeling affects my actions, whether I am conscious of it or not, and may be noticeable to others, even if I do not see it myself.

In the past, the denial of my feelings has served my purposes. The feeling was too scary to be admitted. But this is a child’s perspective. Generally, the sooner I am conscious of feeling the better it will be.