Balancing all of the Above: Navigation and Avoidance

“I bet you’ll never do that again.”

You might hear a phrase like this when something you’ve been involved with goes wrong. But a lesson learned can mean a number of different things. There are some things that I would not like to try again. There are others I would not try in the same way again. I seek advice from trusted people around me, and choose what to learn from each situation. Life doesn’t just teach us lessons. We can decide what to learn from it.

Avoidance

Avoidance isn’t always bad. Take time to consider the situation carefully and identify possible reasons for the negative outcome. You may choose not to do something again and that is okay. For instance, some people realize that a certain type of job is stressful to the point that it negatively impacts their physical and mental health. Deciding not to enter into a job like this again may be a very healthy decision.

Navigation

You may return to the exact same situation you were in. Now, you will have to navigate it. Navigating a situation involves knowing what resources would be helpful and which resources are available. Who do you need to support you? How can the knowledge you have gained from past experiences help you make different, more effective choices? How much time do you need, and how much time is available before returning to the situation?

Neither is fundamentally right or wrong. The skill of navigation will grow in importance, and so will avoidance. It can be equally as tempting to completely avoid one situation that we really shouldn’t, while wanting to jump back into another situation, thinking we are ready to handle it. Even if I choose to avoid a situation, it’s still important to reflect on it and learn what I can. And returning to a negative situation doesn’t necessarily mean I haven’t learned my lesson. Sometimes it’s not safe to take your boat out on the water due to the current. Other times, with the right skills and support, you can navigate it.

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Gone like Magic 2 – Transformed Anxiety

(Anxiety Series)

In the first magic blog I described how a full work schedule resulted in the disappearance of my low moods, at a time when I felt depressed virtually all of the time. Because I experienced low energy and motivation, I was surprised how constant engagement with people or some task made me feel less depressed, not more tired. However, once the job was over, I felt depressed again. Since then I have learned more about how activity and engagement are helpful in combating depression or low moods.

Recently I discovered something else that changed like magic. Last semester I was volunteering with an organization. I felt a lot of anxiety at that time, which influenced every part of my life including my volunteer experience. However, this position was different from other work/volunteer positions because I found meaning in many of the tasks I was completing. On the eve of my volunteer shift, or as I traveled, thinking about the project that I was going to work on resulted in something that I have never experienced before. My anxious energy transformed into excited and happy energy. If I remember correctly from my high school physics classes, all energy is just energy. It is only different because it shifts. For instance, potential energy doesn’t disappear when a ball drops. It simply becomes kinetic energy. Until this time, my anxious energy had only felt pure and potent.

My recent experience made me think of model and actress Naomi Campbell, who said that she always felt some nervousness before going on the runway, and that modelling was still exciting for her. This was interesting to me because I had only associated nervousness with dread, not enjoyment. She has said many times that she still loves modelling and the day that she doesn’t, we will not see her modelling anymore. Perhaps the fact that she enjoys modelling so much allows her energy to shift from nervousness to excitement.

Excitement about the tasks I would perform that day did not make my anxiety disappear. I still felt nervous of course, but the rest of the energy became positive rather than negative anticipation. It took me a while to recognize what was meaningful and exciting about the work I was doing, and that was when I experienced the shift in my energy. Let me tell you, it felt like a magic at the time. I was amazed because it had never happened before. I had only focused on reducing or eliminating anxiety. I have experienced positive anticipatory energy towards many activities, but I don’t remember it being transformed from or mixed with anxiety.  I had not considered the possibility of shifting it. It makes me feel grateful to be gifted with another method of improving my experience with anxiety. Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, so I hope that I can continue to learn how to shift my energy and gain more control over my mental health.

Why I think Anxiety has been Good to Me: My Experience with Depression and Anxiety

(Anxiety Series)

My first year of university was when my anxiety levels first got out of hand. A lot of good things were happening, but many difficulties arose and I was facing pressure to remain in a program I very much wanted to leave. My anxiety levels became overwhelming because of school, and anticipation of this anxiety caused me to become very sad and eventually depressed. The doctor told me I could try medication and/or counselling and I chose counselling.

Sometime later, I was given a temporary diagnosis which included major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety. Normal activities were very difficult at that time. School seemed to require so much energy and I found little enjoyment in anything I did. I was used to low moods because I had always experienced them as a child, although not to that extreme. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point, but the levels that I was experiencing were very unfamiliar and uncomfortable for me. The physical manifestations of anxiety were probably the most surprising and worry inducing.

At the time, I think I dreaded the anxiety more than the depression, but I see now that my anxiety could be considered useful. When I was deeply depressed, I couldn’t feel joy or happiness. I had a hard time feeling in general. Therefore I had no motivation because there was nothing to look forward to. Everything began to lose meaning. Had I been depressed only, I likely would have given up on a lot of things, including school. Anxiety made me fear consequences while depression made consequences lose value. Anxiety made me study, go to class, church, because I couldn’t be comfortable lying in bed with chest pains and loud, racing heartbeats. Anxious thoughts made me escape into texts books, rather than staying miserable with my own thoughts. Anxiety made me plan for a future I didn’t even want. As terrible as it was, I can see that anxiety was what pushed me forward at that time in my life.

I hated being anxious, and I still do when the symptoms are more severe, but depression alone would have stopped everything. It’s funny because I think the depression came as a result of prolonged anxiety. My mind and body probably had had enough of being so on edge. But the anxiety continued to interrupt all the effects of depression, just enough to keep me from sinking into a pit that I couldn’t get out of. I like to think my brain was doing the best it could to bring balance to a completely unbalanced situation. The level of anxiety that I experienced was serious and could have led to other issues if not addressed, but I am able to see the value in it as well. The pain wasn’t pointless. Now that I am in healthier condition, that level of anxiety has no positive effect. I also rarely experience that level of anxiety now.  But I believe that at that time, in those conditions, despite all the pain it caused me, my anxiety was good to me.

Gone Like Magic

Like Magic – that’s how I used to describe any positive effect had an unexpected cause. So when my stomach is soothed by eating mango ice-cream after being stuffed with sushi, it’s like magic. A couple of years ago, and prior to taking a job as a live-in summer camp counselor, I was struggling to manage varying degrees of anxiety and depression. The duration of the camp was 3-4 weeks, and I thought it would be difficult for me since I would have little time to myself. However, after a week, while I continued to feel anxious, feelings of depression had virtually disappeared. This was particularly surprising because during that time in my life, I struggled more with depression than anxiety, so its absence was highly noticeable. I had little time alone, but quite a bit of leisure time. We definitely were not overworked.

So depression was gone like magic, but as far as I remember, it came back like clockwork once the camp was over. My time at the camp and a few other similar experiences have taught me a lot about how depression works for me and the most effective ways that I can manage it. Recently, I was telling my doctor that I had begun to realize how some of my normal thinking patterns and behaviours – which I previously thought were helpful – actually compound the symptoms of depression. As I discuss in another blog, once I begin to head into a deep depression, these thoughts and behaviours actually prolong that experience. Working at the camp made a difference because, from morning till night, my thoughts were oriented outward rather than inward.

To be clear, I’m not saying that depression is a symptom or product of self-centered thinking. I’m saying that for me, feeling depressed caused me to self-isolate, which meant most of my thoughts were focused on myself. When someone is injured, the pain is legitimate. Once the injury has been addressed, excessive focus on it will only compound the pain of the experience. In the same way, the pain of depression is legitimate. But focusing outward, at least for me, has been massively helpful in making my experience less painful and more manageable.

I still do feel depressed at times, but when I get stuck in a depressed state it lasts for a week at the most and not months. Everyone’s experience with depression is different and what works well for me now would have had a different effect when depression was constant and not recurring like it is now. I also didn’t know that my depression would become less severe. I actually thought it would stay that way or get worse, not realizing how much of an impact my environment was having on me. So while I didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome, I did have important tools which helped me to improve myself while the dynamics of my environment slowly began to change. I’m grateful to God for giving me the willingness to find ways to do better, even when I didn’t know how to feel better. I suppose the phrasing I use now makes my actions sound commendable, but at the time I experienced it as a desperate search for pain relief. However, I am intentionally recognizing how valuable it actually was. I’m also grateful for persistence, which allowed me to stop and avoid maladaptive coping behaviours that would have blocked the benefits of the improvements I eventually made.

I’m equally grateful for the changes in my environment, as long as they took to emerge. Once they began to match up with the changes I was making on the inside, I was able to reap benefits I hadn’t even expected. Until recently, I didn’t realize the extent to which environmental factors were diminishing the fruits of my efforts. The eventual effects have been great, but I had no idea they were coming. They just showed up – like magic.

Depression for Me: A Brief Description

When I was deeply depressed it felt like my world was shrinking, and the real world was receding. Now that I am not depressed, my own experience is difficult for me to identify with. The low moods I experience now don’t compare. Being deep in depression was like being in a parallel world. I will describe a little bit of the worst of my depression.

Nothing really feels real. I feel like I should take off my gloves, but I don’t have any on. I want to push harder or move closer, but there’s nothing more I can do. I feel as if there’s something between my fingertips and anything they touch. I rub my fingertips together, but nothing comes off.

I rub my eyes to make them focus, but they don’t. I feel like I’m viewing the whole world through a lens and not my own two eyes. I close my eyes and open them. I try again, this time closing them more tightly. Everything still looks strange.

Time proceeds in a strange manner and moves much too slowly. I move slowly too. I think in layers and I speak slowly.

I’m slow to start my day. Simple choices are burdensome and normal tasks become overwhelming. There’s nothing I want to accomplish, and I have no more ideas on how to get what I want – which is to feel normal like before. I’m very very tired in every way possible. The tiredness is sticky and no matter what I do – more or less – I can’t shake it.

It’s like being in a world where the sun is a bright, sterile white, not yellow. Everything light looks white and everything rich in colour ranges from grey to black. The sun’s light is not warm, it’s just bright. Too bright. A lifeless white.

This description focuses on some of the experiential aspects of depression. I don’t touch on many other aspects of depression, such as hopelessness, because it’s very unpleasant for me to remember and describe. At the time that I experienced major depression, I didn’t know that I would get better and I don’t think anyone told me I would. Counselling provided me with many tools to cope and improve, but I wasn’t sure if and when they would work. I’m glad I stuck around to find out because I’m in a much better place now. I still struggle but it’s nowhere near as painful. Most importantly, I can feel happiness and joy, which is what makes life feel worth living.

It Didn’t Work so I Stopped

A brief look at the interaction between my experience with depression and anxiety and a few of my coping behaviours

Childhood to Grade 8

I experienced low moods and excessive worry as a child, but it was nowhere near as frequent or impactful as it later became. Fear and shame were also familiar feelings. The outward effects of these experiences were normalized as part of my behaviour. My family acknowledged this to the extent that they understood me to characteristically exhibit problematic behaviours. It was not recognized that I was exhibiting characteristic behaviours that were problematic for me and symptomatic of broader, underlying issues. I was often in a “bad mood” and my mother would complain about how easily my moods shifted. Anger was another emotion that hallmarked my childhood. I was considered obstinate and badly behaved, but I had a strong sense of loyalty to myself when I was young. I would tell myself that I was right and they were wrong, but couldn’t quite avoid the shame that stemmed from issues deeper than my own behaviour. My parents had very strict rules for how my sibling and I were to behave in public, and I was very socially anxious by the age of twelve or so. Outside my home I was mostly quiet and well-behaved.

To cope with my emotions I listened to sad and, less frequently, aggressive music. I preferred gloomy weather and spent a lot of time alone. I separated myself from my family to avoid conflict and felt isolated from kids my age. My siblings and I were all home-schooled until high school and we lived in a rural community so I had relatively few opportunities to interact with kids my age. Sometimes we would be enrolled in activities, but seeing our friends once in a week was considered enough.

Last Years of High school, First Years of University

A lot of worry and pressure had built up during my last years of high school. By the time I was enrolled in University and being pressured to stay in a program I had originally chosen but wanted to leave, I was having difficulty managing feelings of depression and anxiety. I kept this from my friends and had difficulty communicating it to my family for a couple of reasons.

They didn’t believe that I was struggling with my mental health or were simply silent on the subject and had little knowledge about mental health in general. We didn’t have a good relationship at that time, and I also found it difficult to explain what I was experiencing or what they could do to support me. Against my family’s advice I sought help through the school’s services and was able to make better sense of what I was going through. Looking back, I don’t believe I would be able to accomplish anything I have now, had I not sought help then.

When I was younger, I was punished for expressing anger, as this was the privilege of the parents. I hated it, but apparently at some point I internalized that rule. In order to avoid expressing my anger to others, I turned it towards myself, thinking that this option lacked negative repercussions. Somehow I had lost my sense of self-loyalty and this led to thinking patterns that sometimes disturbing, even to me.

I was filled with many emotions but couldn’t seem to experience any of them coherently. I listened to emotional or sad music in an effort to feel more connected to myself. I didn’t realize that while it served my need to feel connected, it was actually prolonging cycles of depression and anxiety. Gloomy weather had a profound effect on my mood and for the first time, I didn’t like it.  I also felt disconnected from objects in the physical world and this made me feel disoriented and hopeless. It was like there was an invisible barrier between my hands and anything they touched, and I felt like I was viewing everything with a camera lens and not my own eyes. At that time I still felt that spending time away from others was helpful, because it was very difficult to make myself appear happy enough to interact.

Now (Summer 2018)

I still don’t like overcast days, but they don’t affect me as much anymore. I can certainly appreciate them when the weather is super-hot and I’m spending time outside. I stopped listening to sad music for the most part. I understand this better know. Before, I was using it to evoke distinct and concrete emotions in response to feeling distanced from my own emotions and the physical world. It also made me feel a sort of connection, or emotional intimacy, in response to the loneliness that had begun in childhood. I used to do this especially when I felt myself becoming deeply depressed. I wanted my internal experience to match some element in the external world, which helped bring some sense of order.

I used to listen to sad music every night because I struggled to fall asleep. But as my experience with depression has changed, it no longer brings me any comfort at all. I see now that it only brings the anticipation of comfort because I relied on it for so many years. Only recently I realized that it had not only begun to make me feel sadder but apparently more anxious, because I would feel increased chest pains. After testing it out a few times, I was able to see how my coping behaviours were prolonging and in some cases creating states of depression and anxiety. Although they had been effective before, I could now lessen or completely avoid depressed or anxious cycles by discarding old habits. Although I still never go to sleep in silence, I listen to some form of speaking – tv shows, sermons, long YouTube tutorials – on low volume, which distracts me from anxious thoughts while still allowing me to fall asleep. I also avoid isolating myself when I feel overwhelmed by sadness or fear.

From this vantage point, the way that I engaged with my fear and sadness was effective, but it was never a good idea. Those habits were very natural for me and dated back to my childhood, so it was hard to see how it was harming me. As with anything, it’s important to be willing to try new approaches, to see what works and what doesn’t. Not all the old stuff has to go and not all the new stuff has to be accepted. But it’s important to give even uncomfortable changes a chance. Unfamiliar as they may seem, they could be for the better.

The Right Distractions are the Best

(Anxiety Series) – Late Summer 2018

Right now, distractions are a major part of my approach to coping with anxious and negative thinking. Of course it’s not the only thing. Improving relationships, changing what I eat, my faith, and community involvement have all been unbelievably impactful on my mental health. I can work on any of these aspects of my life throughout the week or day, but I also have distractions built into my daily routine. I used to worry about distracting myself to often, fearing it would prevent me from getting to the underlying cause of what I was experiencing. I didn’t want things to get worse without even noticing.

With that in mind, I avoid becoming so distracted that I begin to feel disconnected from myself. I received a lot of counselling for my mental health and at this point, I’m generally aware of my mood, how I’m feeling and what I need to do – if anything – to address it. However, I make an effort not to think too much about it. I no longer constantly check-in with myself like I did when I was first learning about my mental health. If I find myself experiencing low mood and little motivation for two weeks, that’s okay. I stick to my routine and do things that help pick up my mood. I let the weeks pass without worrying too much about when and if the low mood will go away. My chest hurts often, but that is okay, the doctor already ruled out heart issues. I avoid positioning my upper body in ways that increase the pressure on my chest, especially while sleeping, and am mindful of people and situations that stress me out.

Distraction works for me now, as opposed to before when I would feel depressed for long periods of time and constantly struggled with suicidal thinking*. I was always focused on trying to feel better. All throughout a day I would focus on avoiding the symptoms of my mental health issues. Recently, as my mental health improved, I realised that I would need to drop that tactic if I wanted to continue to get better. While it was somewhat effective before, it no longer fits my mental health needs in the present. I realized that I was trying to find some kind of enjoyment of self-improvement in every activity I was doing throughout the day, from the food I was eating to the music I was playing to the chores I was doing. In moderation this could have been positive, but the thoughts were too constant. I felt trapped in a mindset that was critically assessing the value of all my actions. Perhaps such a mindset feels normal for some, but I realized I personally didn’t like it. The goal of every activity was to adjust my mood. While I no longer struggled with constant anxiety and depression symptoms, I hadn’t considered adjusting my old strategies. As a result I was overly focused on my emotions and feelings and was mentally taxed by it.

So back to distractions – without denying what my situation is, I don’t pay it too much mind. My thoughts are most anxious when I’m tired, so I never go to sleep in silence. I focus more on school or work when I begin to feel depressed or anxious. I often don’t know why I feel sadder or more anxious at certain times compared to others, but trying to figure it out hasn’t been helpful for me. I now try to manage my mental health in a general rather than direct way. So I don’t practice mental health when I feel poorly – I make mental health part of my routine.

Distractions don’t have to be enjoyable. They just have to occupy my thoughts and consume time. Balance has also been hugely important. I have to manage how much I get involved with to avoid tipping my mental health in the other direction. I know where I’m at but I don’t worry about it. I distract myself often and for me that is it okay. In fact, for me it works pretty great.

Emotional Abuse and All of Us

Valentine’s Series

What does Valentine’s Day mean to you? For me, any holiday that I celebrate is a good reminder of what is important to me. It’s a time to celebrate what I have been working hard to do all year. So I celebrate not only my efforts to love others but my efforts to love myself. I get very excited about the second accomplishment, because I had lost the ability to do this for a while. It’s still a struggle somethings, but like any other day, Valentine’s Day is nice chance to congratulate and encourage myself.

My negative experience showed me the importance of self-love, giving me a deeper understanding than I had before. I mentioned in the last blog that the whole experience was not characterized by emotional abuse. But a number of other negative factors, as well as personal issues, created a lot of stress in my life. It was more stressful than even I was aware. When it ended, I felt such a weight come off my shoulders, which surprised me. I had been successful in seeing the positives in everything, but to a fault. It contributed to my inability to see what was really going on and the effect it was having on me.

So What Did I Learn?

Boundaries

Be careful in setting these and make sure they are really meaningful to you. Once people see that they can get away with crossing your boundaries, it’s almost as bad (and in some cases worse) than not having them in the first place. It’s more fun to cross a boundary that has been set, so that makes people with shifting boundaries a target.

Boundary crossing is also serious, especially when enacted by someone in authority like a parent or employer. When someone in authority willingly disrespects a boundary, they are not only exerting their power, but robbing you of your own, putting you at a double disadvantage. I did not recognize boundary crossing for what it was, partially because I was continually asked but not forced to do things that made me uncomfortable. Going forward, I will pay greater respect to my own boundaries and be less concerned with how someone else feels about them. Others do not always know or need to know why certain boundaries are in place. When someone continually tries to convince you that you should be comfortable with something you are not, this is a warning sign.

Be realistic

Seeing the bright side is good, but it wasn’t useful when I tried to see everything that way. While I do believe that there is value in every experience, every challenge is not necessary. Just because I can grow from an experience, it doesn’t mean that I should stay in that situation. When trying to manage depression and anxiety in the past, it was helpful to attempt to appreciate the value in every negative that I was facing. I would also tell myself that things would be okay when I didn’t genuinely believe it. So I essentially lied to myself. Now that I am doing better, I can handle more truth. I also understand that it is important to hold truths in tension. I give myself permission to appreciate that yes, this situation is allowing me to grow in positive ways, and yes, this situation needs to end.

Test the Waters

Oprah always says her mentor told her to believe someone the first time they show you who they are, which is cool if they give you a chart detailing all of the relevant information. It’s not always clear though. Someone else said that you will find out who a person really is when you don’t give them what they want. That’s what I did, although it was very uncomfortable. I soon found out what I needed to know.

Reach Out

I did a pretty good job with this, but I see that it would have helped a lot if I reached out in other ways. Once I had a concrete issue to deal with, I felt it was acceptable to get an outside option. But while I was confused and trying to work through the foggy details of my own situation, I felt that my concerns should be kept private. I was under the mistaken impression that I would be introducing bias if I asked for outside opinions. I didn’t realize that neutrality wasn’t a realistic option. Once I stopped coming into contact with the person, I realized that my interactions and conversations with them biased my opinion in their favour. I see now how valuable it is to get outside opinions when you are conflicted about something.

Reaching out is not just useful when you experience emotional abuse. It’s also important when you feel you are causing emotional abuse. This goes with anything, so when you need help determining if someone is trustworthy or if you are taking advantage of someone’s trust, reach out for help. If you can find a safe person to discuss it with, it may be better than waiting for a distinct negative event to take place. Any one of us can abuse another, though it is difficult to admit. And it doesn’t have to be intentional to be harmful. Let’s all try to be healthy, not only by surrounding ourselves with emotionally safe people, but by being emotionally safe ourselves.

As difficult as it was, my experience was a gift. I would not have learned what I did by reading about it. Afterwards, hearing other people talk about stories of emotional abuse made more sense to me than some of the research. If you are experiencing something like this, hopefully the combination of my experience and the research can help you interpret what is going on. But remember that no matter who you take advice from, you still have the power to make your own decisions. Be honest with yourself and be caring to yourself. Make decisions that free you.

Trust and Emotional Abuse: the Details

Valentines’ Series

Happy Valentine’s Day

Before I continue with the series, I would like to talk about love for a moment. Two years ago, I experienced a pure love for the first time from an elderly lady who has become a mother figure in my life. Before knowing her, I very rarely said “I love you” to anyone but now – with a lot of practice – those words are much less difficult to speak. As we began to show care and affection for one another, I began to feel different. I told my sister that I felt like I had a gift to open wherever I went. A various times during the day I would remember that someone loved me and it was like opening a gift.

Of course, love is a gift and at this time in my life I have access to many safe people …people who treat me with consideration and respect and care. I pray that I will not take advantage of them (intentionally or unintentionally), but will grow with this blessing and learn how to be responsible in giving and receiving love in these new relationships.

What It is Like

Although it is a major theme of this blog series, my entire experience was not characterized by emotional abuse. One thing I am extremely grateful for is that I was enabled to leave the situation when I did, because I have no idea how far it would have progressed. Trust, on the other hand, was a focus throughout the entire situation and I experienced its close connection with emotional abuse. Because my experience was only short term, I will explain some of the research on emotional abuse and use my experience to illustrate some early warning signs.

Isolation and Dependency 

Isolation can be used as a tool to gain control over another person by limiting access to other individuals or creating actual physical seclusion. These actions are purposed to create dependency and deeply entwine an individual’s identity with that of the abuser (Karakurt & Silver, 2013). Although emotional abuse often starts slow, this aspect of my experience started right away. At the very beginning I was brought into a secluded environment which was a surprise to me. I had been led to believe that I would be surrounded by many individuals, not just one. With regards to identity, my future was discussed often, both immediate and distant. The person presented themselves as a valuable key to a better future for me. I didn’t fully buy into that, but I did believe one very important thing. I believed that they were genuine. I’ll come back to this in a moment. Something else that surprised me was their resistance to my efforts to be independent. Yes, I was in an unfamiliar situation and space, but I thought the best thing for me to do was become familiar and self-sufficient as soon as possible. I also don’t like to depend on others too much because it makes me feel troublesome. They continually suggested arrangements that would cause me to depend on them and pushed my boundaries in the process. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I processed this with a lot of confusion rather than recognizing it as the red flag that it was.

Isolation is part of a category of psychological inter-partner violence (emotional abuse). The category is called domination/isolation. It may look just as it sounds in a non-romantic relationship, but may seem more like jealousy and control of time in a romantic one. The other category is emotional /verbal and includes swearing, yelling, name calling, etc. (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017).

Trust and Emotions

Behaviours falling into the second category emerged in ways that were subtle and overt all at the same time. I was initially under the impression that this person was extremely calm, but now I think they were likely calculated. During the experience, I could sometimes tell when they were frustrated but I had difficulty interpreting their expression of anger because it was very internal and silent. Even when they openly expressed anger about another person or situation and engaged in swearing and name calling, their manner was subdued. I received a couple of dark glares which made me quite uncomfortable and caused me to look away, but I didn’t interpret it as anger. I didn’t know how to interpret it. I also received comments that were indirectly threatening and this caused more confusion.

The idea that they were genuine had a significant effect on my understanding of the entire situation. They often made statements that caused me to feel guilty about not taking the help they were offering. I felt that my choice to be independent was causing them to worry, which began to undermine my value for my own independence just a little bit. I recognize this as boundary pushing now. At the time, I was actively interpreting everything through a lens of trust, so I would either try to understand their actions from their perspective, consider how I should alter my behaviour to improve the situation, or simply remained confused. Trust is a very powerful thing.

Why let it Continue?

There are two things I want to address here. As I just mentioned, trust is an important factor. I had a number of reasons for believing that this person was trustworthy and that I was in a legitimately safe environment, but I later learned that these were false indicators. Once you have truly decided in your mind to trust someone, it gives them freedom. In a healthy relationship this is good, because mistakes are easier to address and forgive. If you trust someone, you will work to be understanding when interpreting everything they do. Unfortunately, if the person is not trustworthy, intentional offences simply become unintentional mistakes.

I’ll be honest in saying that I felt very dumb, embarrassed and foolish for letting this happen to myself. These feelings were especially strong because I had a long standing habit of not trusting others and keeping myself at an emotional distance. These feeling could lead me to think of a number of external causes or internalize responsibility. But rather than looking for somewhere to place blame, I worked really hard to appreciate the facts of the situation – everything that happened – and my contribution to the situation – how I reacted. My reactions were actually pretty okay and I did reach out for help and stand up for myself while the situation progressed. I want to emphasize that I had to push past the feelings of embarrassment and being dumb to do this. It wasn’t pleasant to recognize that someone I had trusted was not trustworthy and that I had made excuses and allowed certain behaviours. I felt more embarrassed in my own head than I did telling other people, because I have always told myself that I will take care of me. So I had to accept the reality and manage the embarrassment in order to learn what I could from my experience.

Failing to manage my feelings could have prevented me from seeking help, or they could have continued to weigh me down even after the situation came to an end. I don’t like to admit that someone else made me feel dumb and embarrassed, but I hope it is helpful to know that these feelings are normal and are not an indicator of what you deserve. In the same way that you have to work through the situation, you have to work through your feelings so that they don’t rob you of a positive outcome. Don’t choose the path of shame. Choose the path of wisdom.

 

There were many other warning signs which I won’t get into because I don’t want to describe the situation in too much detail, but I hope some of my experiences make the phenomenon more recognizable. In my final blog for this series, I will explain what I gained from this experience, and why I am now glad that it happened.

 

Começanha, R., Basto-Pereira, M., & Maia, Â. (2017). Clinically speaking, psychological abuse matters. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 73, 120-126. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.11.015

Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age. Violence and Victims, 28(5), 804-21. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.VV-D-12-00041

Emotional Abuse, Trust… and Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s series

In that past I was involved in a negative situation for a brief period of time. Various aspects of the situation were difficult for me to manage, but I had difficulty recognizing my own emotional struggle at the time. I definitely felt a strain on my emotional capacity, but I didn’t realize that what was taking place was wrong or even intentional. I later realized that there was an endgame to some of the behaviours directed at me, which was to influence my behaviour by manipulating my emotions. This is called emotional abuse.

Also called psychological abuse, emotional abuse is used to control a person’s behaviour in a non-physical way.  Aspects of emotional abuse include threatening or intimidating, isolation, treatment as inferior, humiliation, deception and causing guilt (Follingstad, Coyne & Gambone, 2005; Mathews, 2016).  These may seem like heavy and concrete terms, but I will explain in the next blog how you may begin to experience them in subtle ways. A key theme of emotional abuse is that it generally starts small. In my experience, ways of establishing control were less obvious and more creative than I would have guessed just by looking at research terms and definitions. Hopefully some examples from my personal experience will help put flesh on bones.

How Does it Start?

I didn’t notice what was happening at the beginning of my experience. To be honest, I didn’t recognize it at the end either. I definitely felt the strain, but I wasn’t able to make sense of what had taken place until a few weeks afterwards. As I mentioned before, emotional abuse is typically very subtle in the beginning and becomes more obvious over time (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017). This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will know exactly how to label your experience as time goes by. In fact, while negative behaviours that could be ignored or managed in the beginning become less and less manageable and it feel less and less appropriate so assert your own dominance, it can still be difficult to put a name to what you are experiencing. Fortunately my experience didn’t last very long. But before it ended, I was criticized for not submitting to control in a context where I not only didn’t need to, but also should not have. Numerous negative comments were made about my character and I was [again] reminded why someone like me should want to continue being connected with someone like them. The conversation then took a very gentle turn and I was reassured that everything I was experiencing was for the sake of my best interests. So the emotional trick was to suggest that my autonomy was being limited because of genuine care for me.

But to step back for a moment, have you ever noticed yourself trying to control another’s behaviour in this way? I think emotional abuse is not only difficult to recognize from another person, but it can be difficult to step back and see our own behaviour clearly enough to recognize these patterns within ourselves. One person may be the instigator, but emotional abuse often goes both ways and the perpetrator can also be a victim (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017).

Who?

Emotional abuse is often considered within the context of intimate relationships, which is the focus of the research cited below. Psychological abuse is “overwhelmingly” common and is experienced at similar rates by males and females. This type of abuse transcends social and demographic boundaries. Interestingly (since we are students), a sample of highly educated participants revealed a prevalence rate of 75 – 80% (Começanha, Basto-Pereira & Maia, 2017, p.124). Due to various forms of female empowerment, women may face a decreasing risk for psychological abuse. The opposite may be true for men, possibly due to social factors such as limited discussion of relational issues (Karakurt & Silver, 2013).

My experience helped clarify some things that I have witnessed in the past and I notice that psychological abuse can take place in many types of relationships, not just romantic ones. It can take place between family members, friends and professionals, and in any physical location such as a classroom, home or workplace.

Where?

It’s funny how behaviours that you’ve become accustomed to in one environment can be alarming in a new environment, but at the same time, familiarize that new environment. I’ll explain further. During the negative situation, certain behaviours reminded me of unpleasant experiences in my past, but I soon dismissed this connection due to a revelation (so I thought) that I was wrongly transferring old problems to new contexts. Unfortunately, the similarities were real and resulted in familiar experiences. Looking back, I think familiarity passed as comfortability. I felt more comfortable accepting behaviours that I actually didn’t like because I had become used to them in another context.

It’s not to say that you can’t wrongly transfer old problems to new contexts. That’s just not what was happening in this situation.

I write this blog with Valentine’s Day in mind because 1) romantic relationships come with a built in expectation that trust should be established and 2) romantic relationships are typically optional. Trust is so valuable because it is constructed of vulnerability. If there is no need to worry whether someone is presenting themselves authentically, then there is no need for trust. Once trust is established, vulnerability continues. At the risk of sounding like trust is a bad thing (and I don’t want to suggest that), I think it is easier to be mistreated once you have decided to trust someone, because the decision to trust means you will continually tell yourself you are in a safe situation with a trustworthy person, despite signs to the contrary.  The decision to trust, among other factors, may lead you to feel that you should stay in a relationship that is affecting you negatively. Opting out of a relationship may come at a cost, but staying in it will too.

In the next blog, I will explain more about my experience with the beginnings of emotional abuse and why I didn’t recognize it right away.

 

Começanha, R., Basto-Pereira, M., & Maia, Â. (2017). Clinically speaking, psychological abuse matters. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 73, 120-126. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.11.015

Follingstad, D. R., Coyne, S., & Gambone, L. (2005). A representative measure of psychological aggression and its severity. Violence and Victims, 20(1), 25-38.        doi:http://dx.doi.org.uproxy.library.dc-uoit.ca/10.1891/088667005780927674

Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age. Violence and Victims, 28(5), 804-21. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.VV-D-12-   00041

Mathews, A. (2016, Sept 26). When is it emotional abuse? Retrieved from  https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/traversing-the-inner-terrain/201609/when-is-    it-emotional-abuse