I personally avoid opening the doors to my insides. The notion of wading through all that emotional and memory junk, is akin to going into a basement or attic where all the old mementos are stored. A place where all the stuff you don’t know what to do with are piled up to the ceiling, cobwebbed, to be sorted out at some unknown future date. That time of course never comes and more and more stuff that you don’t have the bandwidth to resolve is squeezed tightly in there. Then it all explodes under pressure, forcing you to deal with it, and to decide whether you carry it further or finally let it go.
My sadly departed friend, Safiyya, and I used to laugh about the concept of “crying in bulk”. This is for when you don’t have the time or luxury to cry in the moment about an ungrateful child, an undesirable work outcome, a neglectful partner or about something that deeply angered or disappointed you. Because you have to just get on with life, you bank it for release on Saturday or Sunday morning, or on a day off work, when you are safely allowed to delay facing the world for an hour or two. Have you ever felt like that? One of my favourite artists, The Weeknd, has a hit song around that theme: save your tears for another day.
Then the permission to open the emotional vaults is either met with uncontrollable, ugly weeping. Or, because you waited and waited and waited, the banked tears have ossified to the point that all that remains is a stubborn pillar of salt at the core of you and the best outcome is a scrunched-up face but bone dry cheeks and dry heaving.
I have always regarded myself as a sanguine, sunny person. In fact, my mother describes me as “such a bubby girl, always positive”. I thought those were good things. Then I encountered the terms toxic positivity and ruinous empathy during a session in which I train leaders for success through a global corporate education institution. And as I slumped into my chair, the virtual session over and the webcam turned off, I had a breakthrough.
I had always thought that being extremely and ever positive was good. That waving away the dark clouds and willing the sun to shine were things to aspire to each day. And they are. But when you can only see life as a Tigger, Winnie the Pooh’s eternally buoyant and upbeat sidekick, you should think about what gets lost when you avoid the painful places and the valuable lessons it can teach. The toxic positivity of willing my friends out of pain and counselling them into joy or acceptance sometimes has missed the step of perhaps not authentically acknowledging their negative emotions, especially anger or sadness. We are sometimes so eager to stop the suffering that we don’t pause long enough to hear the lessons and wisdom that painful experiences often have to share.
In the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott, ruinous empathy is described as being when
you care about someone personally but fail to challenge them directly. This does not serve the person or yourself. Again, we may fall into the trap of wanting to be all things to people, and we may unintentionally be failing to kindly hold them to account for things they should be holding themselves accountable for. We are not helping either their growth or our own growth by delaying the reality that we must face life no matter how hard or complicated.
But back to the bigger point. We are so adept at bottling our emotions and storing them that we ignore the implications. A Harvard School of Health study showed how doing this can raise your chances of dying early by more than 30%, and a risk of a cancer diagnosis by 70%. Other studies illustrate the risk of both short-term mental and physical stress on our bodies, including our memory, self-esteem and blood pressure.
These last two years have been heavy for the world. Again, and I won’t quote them here, there are reams of research on the negative effects of lockdown, family losses, the adverse economy, which has affected society’s ability to make sense of life. Not to mention all the misery in so many places — war and its death and displacement, rampant poverty and unemployment There is so much sadness and loss in the air. This has placed an extraordinary strain on our ability to keep emotionally strong, or even positive to rise to the challenges of daily life and responsibilities.
As I’m learning, maybe it is precisely at the point of intense global and personal challenges that this may be the perfect opportunity to rewrite our own story. What are the descriptors and attributes that no longer truly represent us? Which ones should we evolve? What behaviours are keeping us from moving closer to the form that fits us now? Maybe I should not be a people pleaser anymore? Should I stop berating myself for not being perfect? Maybe I should reserve more of my time for myself? Should I tell the truth more about how I feel? Maybe I deserve a day off? Because what’s the alternative? Walking life as a hologram, or a hollow version of oneself cannot be the best option because we all deserve to live fully, wholly and honestly right?
Two years ago, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of learning how to ride a horse. Those magnificent, regal creatures, wise and willful, yield their bodies to the control of humans and a beautiful dance of movement and enjoyment plays out. Before and after the ride, as part of the preparation and appreciation, I would dry brush it, to take care of its coat and mane and prevent it from developing saddle sores. As I’d draw the bristles over its body, its flanks and back especially, I could sense the horse’s enjoyment of the sensation.
A few days ago, my partner booked me into a spa for a day of relaxing treatments for my birthday. A rare and cherished opportunity. To my surprise dry brushing was included in the package. I had never before had my body dry brushed. What a strange yet interesting experience. It made me think about the horses, and their experience with it, since the therapist used a similar brush. It was a small, round, stout wooden thing with austere bristles. As it made its way across my own back and flanks, the sensation was at first uncomfortable, then strangely enjoyable. The therapist explained that among a host of benefits, the aim was to exfoliate, unclog the pores, increase blood circulation and get the lymphatic system moving.
My skin tingled as she drove it across the back of my knees, the length of my legs, around my ankles, across my back. Wow. This was a first. Then came the lashings of warm essential oils massaged generously into my thirsty, primed pores. I imagined each drop of the aromatic cocktail of juniper, geranium, black pepper, grapefruit, rosemary, and others disappearing deep into my skin, nourishing and softening each section. I giggled at the thought that I would be perfect for a spit braai, all juicy and succulent.
Then came the plastic wrap, sealing me in to marinate, as she prepared to focus on my face. The steam was trained on my cheeks and forehead, while a firm plucking, and prodding ensued that would deliver me to the world with perfectly groomed eyebrows and glowing skin.
But something happened inside, while my surface was being nourished. You are really at your most vulnerable when you are in the throes of self-care, half naked, and at the mercy of the hands of a stranger. There is a strange alternate experience happening, which connects you to the banked emotions you have not confronted in a while. The existential dilemmas you have been wrestling with descend at this most inopportune of moments. I have often thought that a countryside retreat for a spa day should immediately be accompanied by a psychotherapy session, to deal with the other stuff that oozed out on the table with the toxins and dead skin.
I began to think about my life, my purpose and the emotional vault doors started to creak open. A few wayward tears dived off my cheeks and into the pillow. And I stopped them with a practised will. But it catalysed a series of questions making the argument for how I need to change my thinking and make the scary journey back to a healthier, more real me.