Laying Our Foundation Before Helping Others
Ever think about those seemingly ‘solid’ individuals that seem to glide through life with poise, all while appearing as if they’ve got their sh*t together? Ugh, I know what you mean. I can’t understand how those people just don’t ‘react’ to things that should enrage everyone! Well, the old "me" simply could not stand these so-called ‘stable’ people. I didn’t understand what was behind their unwavering emotions. I assumed that I must have just had a ‘harder’ life and therefore had to be passionate and fight the good fight for the sake of those who couldn’t; or so I thought.
If I could give my younger self any advice, it would be to keep my mouth SHUT, my EARS open, and PAUSE all decisions until age thirty! Had I known what a terrible decade I was about to endure in my twenties, I never would have rushed to have grown up so fast! Looking back, of course it all makes sense now. Yet, I truly believed that nobody on earth could possibly understand why my perspectives were aimed at such obtuse angles. I had been ‘raised’ in a home without any sense of rationale. My childhood consisted of complete instability, unpredictable changes, constant threats and even worse outcomes, and lacked all opportunities for emotional safety of any kind. Of course I would grow up to become an outraged adolescent and young adult. How would society expect a young person to know how to navigate their impulses and emotions when they never had any healthy models growing up?
At seventeen years old, I couldn’t have been an angrier person. I had no idea that I was hurting and sad. I certainly didn’t realize that my upbringing was considered damaging; I had fully acclimated to the dysfunction. By age eighteen, I was living alone and had been accepted to a local small state university. I had no set of parents to launch me off to school. My first day of orientation, I was the only student there without a parent. I remember thinking, “oh this will go well; great start! How the fuck am I supposed to figure my way around this crap?” I felt this immense amount of resentment towards the world and had the biggest chip on my shoulder. I blamed everyone else for everything that seemed to go wrong and I was a huge victim. I did my best to develop friendships but often faced difficulty maintaining long-lasting connections. I seemed to have frequent disagreements with friends and easily wrote others off; after all, they were being assholes. Ugh! As I type this, I feel so utterly embarrassed of my patterns from when I was young. I was completely in my own way and I was about to face years of emotional anguish because I couldn’t get out of my own way!
By age nineteen, I had failed out of my courses and felt utterly lost, sad, angry, and lonely. The one person who I adored was my oldest brother. He was encouraging me to consider joining a local community group. I balked at the idea and told him there was no way I would ever do it. A week later, I was sitting down at the table with a few new individuals from this group and overheard them talking about an up-coming all-expense paid trip. One person leaned over and asked, “are you coming?” I snapped back, “no way; that’s not for me. I’m not really into that stuff.” You should see me right now. I have my hand over my face, shaking my head in disbelief at what a stubborn a**hole I was back then. I was about to turn down a FREE trip. The trip was outside of the United States and I had never even considered international travel. Why would I want to go far away from where I was, when I already felt utterly lost?
Three weeks later, I was looking out the window of a commercial airplane on a thirteen hour flight abroad. When we landed, it was as if a Black hole had swallowed me whole and I was free-falling into an abyss. I felt gutted and even more nauseated from my fear and sadness. Everyone around me was running to buy a calling card and call home to their parents. Who did I have to call? I watched as everyone around me gathered in groups and excitedly talked about their hopes and expectations for the trip. I quickly found the closest toilet and vomited. I found my bed in the hostel and rocked myself to sleep that first night. When I woke up, I walked outside and saw a large bus waiting for our group. We were scheduled to arrive at our first destination in two hours. Looking out the window, I thought about how I had nobody to call and how I yearned to belong somewhere; anywhere. Upon arriving, we unloaded off of the bus and quickly gazed over the mountain into this vast, endless view of nature. Our guide had informed us that we had five hours to go and freely explore the hiking grounds. This was the first time I had ever felt full agency and autonomy over my life. Something snapped inside of me! Look at all of that space to run around in! We were given a bottle of water, a bag of fruit, and a flashlight.
One hour into my walk, I came across a young woman who was crying. I definitely thought about turning around and pretending as if I hadn’t seen her. Before I could, she looked up and apologized and said that she would be leaving shortly. I quickly reassured her and explained I had nowhere to go and she was welcome to sit and cry. In that moment, I had no idea that I had subconsciously opened my own flood gates. Suddenly tears were falling at a rapid pace down my cheeks. WHAT THE F*CK! I hadn’t cried in years. What was happening? I felt so angry with myself. Why was I sitting here crying like a baby? The woman turned to me with silence. I’ll never forget this moment. Suddenly she started laughing and said, “really? I am welcome to sit and cry! I think YOU needed to sit and cry!” I burst out giggling and shook my head. We sat there for the remaining four hours exchanging stories. Turns out I had to get out of my own head to be humbled. She had lost her family very recently in a car accident and had just aborted her baby. When I told her my story, she wept and told me how strong I was. I was completely confused. What the heck? Why was I strong? I hadn’t accomplished anything and was lost, pouring my heart out to a random person on a random hiking trail in the Middle East. She ended up convincing me that the life I had lived was pretty f*ucked and I just hadn’t ever realized that I had already gotten through the hardest parts.
Ten days later, I returned to the States. I applied for a visa and emigrated outside of the U.S. I spent eight years living abroad. I went backpacking around the globe and ended up even more lost. When I returned to the states, I was twenty six years old. I knew I had to go back to school and get a job. I was accepted into a program and finished in four years. I ended up pursuing graduate school and then went on to become a Therapist in a locked psychiatric facility.
My favorite job was working in a psychiatric hospital. I remember my first day because I felt like I had found ‘my people’. Not the patients; the staff. I met co-workers who had described similar childhoods and things started to click. Oh! So all of us are screwed up and we get how to help other people because we don’t know how to ‘fit’ in with normal people! I finally understood why I always had trouble socializing with friends. They all came from healthy, intact families and looked at me like I was a cyclops. I never had been to a family dinner before and certainly never had seen parents who attended school dances as chaperones. I had found my people! I became really good friends with my co-workers and started learning about the similarities between us. I started seeing other people’s patterns and finally learned the art of introspection! THANKFULLY! Pfffftttt I was a hot mess! I was seeing all of my patterns that I didn’t like about myself, in others! I’ll never forget the day I received feedback from a supervisor who told me that I was ‘too much and over the top’. I went home and wanted to disappear. I quickly typed in the following words in Google: “how to change your personality”. Bingo! Found a homework exercise on values. I completed the assignment and took it with me to work. I repeated the same assignment each night for three months. After ninety days, my supervisor called me in his office and had praised me for significant growth. I’ll never forget how I responded. “I was so humiliated and didn’t realize that I was the problem all of this time. Thank you for giving me important feedback; it was a huge opportunity to change me.” My supervisor hugged me and from that day forward, I committed to learning as much about myself as I could. Cue the path to Psychology!
Ya know how I mentioned those really ‘solid and stable’ people who I assumed were pretentious a**holes with no real passions? Turns out must of these pretentious a**holes are well-respected Therapists! Just hear me out. It’s no secret that most of us in the field of Psychology came from tumultuous upbringings; however there are different types of Therapists. There’s the ones who never do their own work and heal their wounds and spend decades rescuing others. Then there’s the ones who appear to have their sh*t together and model emotional regulation. I always assumed I would work with young women who struggled with identity and anger. I didn’t realize that I was wanting to heal my own wounds. Turns out I had some pretty distorted perceptions of the world. I’ve done some intense work on myself and the most freeing autonomy I’ve given myself, is giving myself the option of peeling off the layers. Once I discovered the sadness underneath my anger, it was as if I had learned an entirely new language with five different dialects. I couldn’t get enough of learning about emotions and mushy feelings. I relished in the emotion wheel (feel free to google it) and began practicing expressing my feelings to anyone who would listen. BAD IDEA. HALT. I over-shared. I found myself now, on the other side of the spectrum and didn’t know how to regulate my emotions and impulses. I turned to any ear that had a canal and would share my story.
It wasn’t until one coworker finally sat me down in the most compassionate manner and said, “Bri, you really have to tone it down. It’s a lot of feelings and I’m exhausted.” Oh no! I thought I had done all of my work and had perfected my trade of feelings! Where did I go wrong!? I felt so ashamed and returned back that original homework assignment. I kept practicing with my Therapist and started connecting dots. Ah Ha! Now I had it. I went from angry to a completely sad individual and just wanted everyone to see me as sweet and sad, not angry! I quickly learned neither was a balance and I needed a new direction. So, I went back to the drawing board. I bet from the outside, all of this was pretty obvious. Isn’t it bizarre how we can wreak havoc on our lives without even knowing it? Turns out for the first twenty nine years of my life, I was running to every closed door and banging on the outside; trying to be let in. Remember how I had fallen into an abyss when I landed on my trip? That abyss was a free-fall into my beginning path towards figuring out that I didn’t need anyone to make me feel grounded. In fact, I learned it had to actually come ONLY from me. We often turn to others hoping for them to create stability and foundation. Let me be the one to tell you, you will be left heartbroken and disappointed. We cannot expect others to rescue us and bandage our wounds; we need to do the cleaning. Otherwise, we will leave dirt under the bandages.
Please don’t get the impression that now, life is just perfection full of smooth roads! Ha! Life still throws unexpected crap our way. Only difference from before, is now I can gauge my level of anxiety before it consumes me and leads to damaging roads to nowhere. For those of you that are reading this, currently enrolled in psychology undergraduate programs, feel free to use me as an example of what NOT to do before entering the field! Take your time and be vulnerable and willing to sit with discomfort and learn about you before trying to study others. May you explore all of your sharp rocks and find an opening to a smooth opening that leads to empowerment over your feelings.