“You might put your love and trust on the line It’s risky, people love to tear that down Let ’em try Do it anyway Risk it anyway”
Ben Folds Five
When I was a kid, I was terrified of roller coasters. There was absolutely no way in hell anyone was getting me to strap myself into a rickety bucket seat and go hurtling along a bumpy, terrifyingly tall and twisty train ride.
Nuh-uh. No way.
The truth was that I desperately wanted to be brave enough to ride a coaster. I was embarrassed of being wimpy and emotional about it and I hated feeling left behind by my peers. It took me until I was 14 to get up the courage to try a roller coaster. In Ontario, where I live, the quintessential theme park is Canada’s Wonderland. Living nearby in Brampton, my sisters and friends and I spent many summer days hanging around this wondrous playground. Resolutely determined to NOT be left behind again, I had to come up with something that would make the big rides less scary.
So how did I do it?
I told myself that all I needed to do was get in line and nothing more.
If I could just get into the line-up (which often took 1-2 hours to work your way through), then I could consider myself committed and unable to back out. (I know that technically I *could* have backed out, but in my mind that was NOT an option.)
This idea—the idea of just “getting in line”—has become a quintessential tool for me whenever I face seemingly scary things in my life. When I’m feeling anxious in anticipation of something new or something uncomfortable, I can simply tell myself that if I just take the first step and “get in line”, I’ll be able to manage whatever comes next.
I mean, I haven’t lost a limb on a roller coaster yet, so clearly the technique works!
This week I’m doing my first ever professional speaking gig. Damnit I’m scared! And excited! (But mostly scared…)
This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I couldn’t get myself in line to do it. Finally, a few months ago, I felt ready to step into the queue and commit myself to whatever happened.
It’s been a slow climb to that inevitable drop at the top since then, and tomorrow, my stomach will lift into my chest and I’ll be free-falling into my first experience of talking publicly about my history as an abuse survivor and person with mental illness. Yikes!
The song I quoted at the beginning of this post, Ben Fold Five’s “Do It Anyway”, takes to heart the idea that I’m hinting at with my roller-coaster-line-up analogy. We all have moments in our lives that feel scary or uncomfortable, but we have to do it anyway. The cost of NOT doing it is far too high. And in a world of too many people ignoring or undermining what really needs to be done, those of us who are brave enough to speak up and face what makes us feel icky are desperately needed.
So tomorrow, I’m doing it anyway. I’m going for it; taking the leap. Jumping off the cliff. Putting it all out there… Choose your cliché; I’m doing them all!
And on the other side will be the thrill of the ride; the rush of trying something new and the pride of speaking my truth. All of head/strong is an exercise in speaking up and speaking out, so I feel armed and ready to take another big step (publishing my blog was one of the first ones, obviously) and reach out even farther into the fray.
Hard to earn, easy to break. Seemingly impossible to feel again once you’ve been taken advantage of.
I absolutely have trust issues.
My issues around trust are complicated…? Because outwardly I’m pretty sure it looks like I’m an overly-trusting person. And at the same time, I actually put my faith in people tentatively. My attempts at reaching out with a branch of trust come with a smattering of desperation, which is an ugly thing to admit. But a lot of my behaviour is driven by desperation, and a lot of my relationships are sabotaged by my desperate attempts to feel secure in them.
I crave security more than anything else. This is because my emotional needs went unmet for so long and this left me with a deep sense of insecurity that now pervades every part of my life. I’m actually really good at making other people feel safe and secure, but I’ve always, even as a child, felt lonely and on the outside of my relationships.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my insecure attachments; I’ve been thinking a lot about how I don’t even trust myself most of the time. I mean, really, the only thing I can trust in is my anxiety. I can trust it to always be there; to tell me that things are NOT okay, that I don’t know what I’m doing, that no one loves me, that I’m not good enough, blah blah blah…
It’s a fight to work against this. It’s a battle to convince myself that I can trust anyone, including me.
Trust takes so much time to earn. It takes conversation and consistency and showing the fuck up when you say you will. I think for me, and people like me, who have trust issues, the process of building security in relationships takes a long, long time. We can’t give our trust away quickly anymore; we’ve been burned too badly in the past. Instead, we have to tiptoe around it, poking at it, extending our hands, just a little bit, and hoping that our fingertips don’t meet a flame. Or sometimes we do what I’m apt to do: we go overboard and become desperate in seeking a sense of safety, throwing ourselves into the proverbial fire, which makes no sense because how can you feel secure when you also feel desperate?!
I often wish I could slow myself down. I wish I could be more patient and lackadaisical in my approach to life. But wishing things like that is kind of ridiculous, because I’m simply not like that! I’m a complicated, emotional, anxious person who needs a steadying hand to hold onto. It often feels like I’m searching for a unicorn or Nessie when I’m reaching out to build trust with someone new. In my mind, there’s the perfect scenario in which someone gives wholly of themselves and is ready and open to allow me to be entirely vulnerable and yet feel completely safe. HA! That probably my biggest fantasy! Not even close to reality!
Reality is me putting pressure on things that are fragile. Reality is me being a survivor of domestic abuse. Reality is many other people carrying their own trust issues and having these manifest in their own unique ways. Honestly, does anyone actually feel secure in their life? I have no idea what that feels like, do you?
Writing something like this points out to me that I need to keep working on not rushing, not pushing, and listening both to myself and to what other people say. It also helps me realize that there are parts of myself I shouldn’t have to apologize for, like being Highly Sensitive or having a mental illness, or just being dynamic and expressive. The right people will embrace these parts of me and then maybe we’ll both have a chance at trust.
My biggest pet peeve is the proliferation of false positivity.
False positivity litters Instagram, Facebook, magazine pages (wait, does anyone still read actual magazines??), blogs, web sites, self-help books, and almost all other media and advertising. We seem to be living in an era where we are told that simply having the “right” attitude is what will fix all of our problems:
Okay, first of all, no one should be taking advice from a fictional character, ESPECIALLY not Jack Sparrow (or Johnny Depp…ew!). Secondly, I’ll buy that the way we think about things affects our experiences of them, but I refuse to promise myself or anyone else that just “changing my attitude” will solve all my problems. In fact, I see this kind of bullshit approach to managing mental health and personal well-being as reductive and limiting. It tells me that if I’m feeling shitty, it’s because I just don’t have the right attitude! As a survivor of abuse and a person with diagnosed mental health disorders, I’m offended by the suggestion that my attitude about these traumas and struggles is what’s affecting my ability to heal or feel well.
And this is the problem, I feel, with what I’m calling “false positivity”. False positivity reduces our legitimate struggles into memes and clichés that essentially instruct us to ignore or disassociate from our problems. OR they create a sense of shame and blame that we can’t just “attitude” our way out of them!
Look at this bullshit! I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting, but it feels like anything BUT uplifting to me! If only I could simply use my supernaturally powerful thoughts to think away the abuse I endured, the chemistry of my brain, and the long-term trauma that’s resulted from my struggles with these things! Wow! Either I’ve been handed a magic key to happiness (nope!), or I’m being blamed for the trauma I experienced (yep!).
And this! This actually makes me angry. Like, I want to go punch something right now, because it’s so wrong to suggest that betrayal by someone you trust and love is actually a blessing or a gift! It’s the same with suggesting that my anxiety is a gift in disguise. Or that emotional abuse was a blessing because now it’s fueled this blog and my writing.
My anxiety is a daily and lifelong struggle. It was exacerbated to the extreme by my abusive partners. I did not asked to be abused. I have not fully recovered from that abuse and likely never will. And most of all, it’s NOT MY FAULT that people took advantage of me. Telling me that I should just “think differently” or see my experience of abuse (or the aftermath of it) as anything other than trauma is exceptionally upsetting to me.
I found these and many, many more after spending only about 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram. All of them create so much unease within me. I’m frustrated that people seem to think that comments like the ones in these screenshots are helpful, authentic, or reasonable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are more damaging than anything. They offer, at best, a temporary sense of relief from whatever mental anguish is ailing us, but the consequence of that is, I believe, a perpetuation or deepening of the shame/fear/struggle/anger/issues that we are trying to cope with.
You can’t solve real problems with fake positivity.
So what is an alternative? How can we offer better support and cultivate hope for people who are struggling for any reason? Why do we continue to rely on cute memes and catchy Instagram posts instead of addressing our problems in more authentic and lasting ways?
I believe that vulnerability and authenticity are the key to managing these problems better. For example, my writing with head/strong is based on relating my first-hand experience and offering insights into how I *actually* manage (or don’t) based on the knowledge I have right now. You don’t have to swear like a sailor to be authentic; you just have to be consistently honest and allow yourself to admit fault, to share struggles, and to relate the real experiences you have.
Therapy can be a great tool for cultivating self-awareness and authenticity. Good therapists don’t hand you answers (which is effectively what the images above are trying to do); they help you work through your struggles and co-develop the coping strategies that work best for you.
Unfortunately, therapy isn’t accessible to enough people. And it can be really hard, even IF you can afford and find therapy, to get a counsellor whom you work well with! Just because they’re qualified as a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health worker, doesn’t mean that they’re able to support you in the ways that you need. My experience is that I have the most success in finding therapy when I reach out to referrals from trusted people in my life and then set up what are essentially interviews with these prospective therapists. If we don’t mesh in that interview, then I try someone else.
My first therapy experience was with someone who didn’t care to know me as an individual. We made progress in some regards, but the lasting impression from that experience is more trauma that I carry with me. I’ve learned how to speak up for myself so much more now that I’m not willing to accept people like that in my care team or in my life in general. (‘Bout fucking, time, eh?) It’s been decades of learning to get to this point though and I know how lucky I am that I can access exceptionally high quality counselling as I need it.
After learning so much in therapy, mental health programs, and lots of hard work, I can’t look at bullshit like what I see on Instagram and buy into it. I guess I can imagine, though, that some people feel good when they read something like this:
At least, they likely feel good for a moment or two…
But really, how practical is it to “walk like you are made of magic”? Like, how the hell do you even do that? What does this have to do with improving your mental health (the screenshot came from a mental health support post) and how effectively does its message of “walking with magic” reduce the legitimacy of mental health (or any) struggles?
My god, I wish I could feel like magic all the time! I can’t. No one can! And I don’t want to feel a sense of shame for “failing” to walk like magic when clearly that’s exactly what I should be doing to fix my life.
What do you think about false positivity? Do images like the ones in this post lift you up in authentic ways, or are you like me and view them cynically (and likely cringe) whenever they show up in your news feed or wherever?
I plan to continue avoiding and remaining skeptical of messages like the ones I screenshot for this blog post. And my goal with head/strong (and in general) is to continue being authentic and offering real, tangible ideas for how to manage as an abuse survivor and a person with mental health problems—we can do so much better than telling ourselves that our attitude is the problem, instead of the problem being the problem.