It’s Good to Have a Reminder

I had an excellent day today.  The kind of day that breaks through the fog of numbness that characterises my days with depression.  The kind of day that reminds me of what my life was like before my struggles with mental illness.  The kind of day that makes me not only feel alive again, but makes me want to live.

I think it says something about me that today was spectacularly wonderful despite the fact that I didn’t spend time with my friends, it was Chinese New Year and I wasn’t spending time with relatives and I wasn’t going out doing something new and exciting.  In many ways, by most people’s standards, my day was exceedingly ordinary.

I had tea with a teacher from my school and one of her friends today.  On the way back, we talked about stuff.  My problems, mostly, and how she thought that I had really similar struggles to another teacher at the school.  And at some point in the discussion, she happened to mention her own struggles.  It meant the world to me.  From time to time, my friends mention that they feel guilty for burdening me with their problems, but it’s never felt like that.  I feel good when people share their problems with me.  I feel respected, valued, trusted.   For a teacher at my school to share something like that…I know a lot of people might feel it’s inappropriate, but to me it meant that the teacher saw me as a person, and not just as a student.  In a world where I often find myself wondering if anyone truly sees me, that’s something that’s really important.

In the end, it all comes down to that.  After months of trying to fill the emptiness in my life.  Of trying to break through the numbness that surrounds my emotions.  After years of struggling with depression, the one thing that makes it better for a day isn’t something exciting or special.  It is something that is extraordinary in its ordinariness.  Some days, it’s good to have a reminder that the little things in life actually matter the most.

Approval

A while back, someone described his horse to me.  He said his horse would bring him things, or bring things to little children, and speculated his horse probably wanted the approval.  A year later, I got a dog.  It was easy enough to realise that she’d do things for a reward of getting to play fetch, but eventually, I realised that even when she wasn’t being rewarded with her favourite toy, she’d still often do what I asked.  My approval was enough reward for her to comply with a request, even when she didn’t want to do whatever I’d told her to do.

Approval isn’t something we often talk about, and yet, it’s something that governs most of our lives.  My earliest memories involve seeking the approval of various adults I liked.  Even now, I find myself evaluating my self-worth, not on my own terms and values, but often on whether I am able to gain the approval of the people I like.

It’s perfectly normal to desire approval from others.  We’re very social beings, and our desire to please others is what makes us able to function as a society.  Sometimes, though, we find ourselves trying a little too hard and giving up too much to be accepted by others.

I hate disappointing people.  I really, really do.  I hate it to the point where I will agree to do things that are difficult/unpleasant for me if someone asks me to and I will make huge decisions in my life that aren’t necessarily the best for me just because I don’t want to disappoint someone.  I have known for quite a while that I’ve been spending my life living someone else’s dream, and yet I didn’t want to change, to live life on my own terms, simply because the fear of disappointing others and the desire to gain their approval was so strong.  In small things, this is okay, and it’s what helps people to have smooth social relationships, but when I make big decisions according to what others want, it can really hurt me, because I’m not making the best decision I can for me and that can have a huge impact on my future.

It’s hard to break free from the need to please others, to gain their approval.  The reasons why I do that are so tied up with my past, and my self-worth being predicated on others’ opinion of me and my anxiety regarding other people and everything… But I have to do this.  For me.

Fear

I was talking to someone about IB exams, and we both agreed that the absolute worst part of the exams is waiting for the exam results once the exams are over.  One of the things that came up is that we’re often afraid of failing, but if we do actually fail a test/exam, we’re normally less upset about it than when we are waiting and wondering if we’re going to fail.  Why is it so?  Why is the sense of finality (even if it’s about something negative) so comforting?
I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, because that’s pretty much what anxiety is, isn’t it?  Worrying about things happening and making yourself even more upset than you would be if it did actually happen.  And the worst part is, I can’t stop thinking about whatever it is I’m worried about, even when there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.  In fact, I think I worry the most when there’s nothing I can do about the situation, which on one hand makes absolutely no sense (after all, why worry if the worrying can’t change things), but on the other hand, it makes perfect sense (feeling out of control in a stressful situation strikes me as a reason for being worried).
I think the reason why worrying is so much more painful than our worst fears being realised is that the finality brings us some kind of closure.  Certainty is always comforting, if only because an unknown fills us with a need to change, to do something to alter the course of our future, while certainty gives us a starting point from which we can assess possible options.  It’s hard to assess options and prepare for the worst case scenario before it’s happened because we’ll tell ourselves that we’re being pessimistic and ridiculous, but also because it feels too much like we’re getting ahead of ourselves and tackling a problem that hasn’t even happened.  Waiting for something to happen just makes us feel really useless and not in control, because there is absolutely nothing we can do to resolve the uncertainty.
Humans like to control their destiny.  Or rather, we like to feel we do.  We get so much comfort from the illusion of being in control that we blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault.  It’s so much less painful to believe that we’ve done something to deserve the bad things that have happened to us than to believe that we actually can’t prevent them from happening and sometimes bad things just happen to people.  Feeling like we’re lost or floundering when we’re just sitting around worrying while we wait for something to happen is therefore far more awful than actually having something bad happen and feeling like we can take steps to minimise the effect it has on our lives.

When tiny things become big things

I had a fight with my father today.  I got invited to a cocktail-type event to meet other people who are applying to the same university as I am.  I was informed I could bring guests.  I asked my parents for permission to go, and immediately they took it upon themselves to write to my school and ask the principal if there were students from the lower years interested in the same faculty who wanted to go to learn more about the profession and the university.  I didn’t mind at all, I’m always happy to talk to other people and happy to share my experiences with them, and I was quite willing to bring some of them along to the event, because I think it will be a good experience for them.  It was how my parents decided to handle it that I wasn’t happy about.  I would have preferred to have been more involved in this process because the invitation had been extended to me, not to them, and also because of my anxiety, I like feeling like I’m in control of the situation, because it helps curb my worrying a bit (and I’m already worrying because I feel like I need to make a good impression on the other people who will be there).  I mentioned to my parents that although I was allowed to bring guests, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to invite so many to come with me, especially as I believe that ‘guests’ was meant to be interpreted as family and/or significant others.  My father took this as a personal attack, started getting angry, and things went downhill from there.  Honestly, I think I was at least partially at fault for this turning into an argument.  I could have remained silent, I could have presented my side of this more tactfully, I could have done any of a hundred things to make the situation better, but I didn’t.  So a situation that honestly wasn’t that big of a deal suddenly became a huge deal.

Now I sit here and wonder why that happened, and I start to realise that it’s the small things.  The nervousness I felt at being invited to this event, the fact that my parents invited guests for me without really consulting me about it, the fact that I felt nervous because I don’t know these guests that well, the fact that… and so on.  All the small things added up together meant that I was stressed and I wasn’t thinking clearly and I said things I shouldn’t have said.  Even now, it feels like a much bigger deal than logic tells me it is, because I’m afraid.  I am really, really afraid, and I’m not even sure of what anymore because all of the fears whirling around in my head are getting mixed up together and I can’t even process my thoughts clearly anymore.

Today was hard.  There simply isn’t any other way to put it.  And hard days happen sometimes.  Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Frozen

At my brother’s request, I recently watched the new Disney movie, Frozen, with him.  It was a good movie, but there were some really sad scenes in it that left me pondering the question: what if being yourself meant disappointing everyone you ever cared about?

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

This isn’t a new idea. It’s been explored in other movies.  But it’s something many of us struggle with.

I think most of us have at some point or another had our parents say “why can’t you be more like ____?”  I know I have.

I had a classmate who was very focused on what she wanted to do in her future and was very proactive about doing the things she needed to do to get where she wanted.  My parents saw her at a university fair approaching and talking to a university representative and later said to me “Why can’t you be more proactive like S?  She’s not a nice person, but she knows what she wants and she’s aggressive enough to go out there and get it.  If you want to get anywhere in life, you have to be aggressive and manipulative.”  (For the record, S is actually a very nice girl, this is just my parents’ impression of her from that one event).  Up to that point (and to some extent even now), I had been proud of the fact that I was what I considered to be a nice person.  I was proud of not being manipulative, of not being too pushy, of not only being focused on what I wanted to achieve without regard for other people.  After a lengthy discussion with my parents, I realised that they didn’t appreciate those qualities.  Because of their experiences in life, they both believe that in order for me to succeed, I need to stop trying to be a nice person and start to be more aggressive and more ruthless in going out and getting what I want.  While I can see where they’re coming from, I realise that that isn’t who I am.

That was just one example of my parents wanting me to change to be someone I’m not, and more importantly, someone I’ve made a conscious decision not to be.  And honestly, the pressure to be a certain way isn’t really just coming from my parents.  In many ways, my teachers, my peers and some of the people I look up to have wanted me to change in a way that ran counter to my values, beliefs and character.

Now, I often wonder whether I should give in and change or whether I should remain true to myself.  I wonder what if being myself means disappointing everyone I have ever cared about?