by Wendy Keller, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, normal person
It’s easy to assume that people want you to look or act a certain way when you’re going through a bad time in your life. Humans pick up on subtle social cues because we have been living in groups since were were all hunter-gatherers. Being able to sense the slightest shift in how others perceive you is a survival skill. Don’t think so? Remember middle school…? You haven’t changed as much as you think you have.
When you are suffering from a significant loss, dealing with major issues, facing pain, a scary diagnosis, financial ruin, or other traumatic events, you can quickly perceive how your social group wants you to handle it. How long you are allowed to be sad or scared; who helps you and how much you’re supposed to help yourself; when talking about has gone overboard and people start avoiding you; and so forth.
I propose that just because your social group gives you clues, it has nothing to do with what’s true for you, what’s best for you personally. There are rituals in some cultures to handle bad things, and the rituals inform the members of that society how long it is socially acceptable to suffer, grieve, mourn, whatever. But most of us don’t live deeply in those cultures, and the mixed signals we get in our daily lives can leave us confused, depressed, irritated and worst of all…stuck.
What if a year isn’t long enough? What if it’s too long?
How can you sense what’s truly authentic for you, and take appropriate steps to nurture your heart and soul as you journey through difficulty?
The ability to figure out what’s real for you is critical. It’s how you avoid ending up with neuroses and post traumatic stress disorder years later. It’s how you decide what help and support you need, and what you don’t. In my observation it comes down to one word: Authenticity.
Your job as someone who is getting through a bad time is to pay attention to what is authentic for you. Authenticity leaves clues! When you feel worse after being around certain people or after engaging in certain behaviors (anything from anger outbursts to drinking, from endless sorrow to fake merriment), it’s a sign something’s amiss. When you catch yourself in your mental mirror as putting on act for someone, you are not being authentic. It’s OK to be on an emotional roller coaster for exactly as long as it takes you to ride it. It’s not fun. You will know when to get off. It will end. Meanwhile, you are entitled to your feelings. You are 100% correct in feeling whatever you are feeling. You are enough, just as you are, without society’s pressures on you to heal, act, perform a certain way. It’s OK to be you, fully, really you.
People often try to “be strong” for others, when what others need is your true reaction. Even children will benefit from seeing you weep over the loss of your parent, or express your fear and talk about how you’re taking steps to overcome it. Plus, it shows them how healthy adults deal with real problems.
When you notice yourself putting on an act, simply take a breath and ask if it’s really the best choice for you in that moment. True enough, you can’t show up at work crying every day because of your loss. Your co-workers and customers will quickly be alarmed. But it is equally risky to go to work pretending that the week after your father’s funeral everything is just great and you’re feeling terrific. And it is certainly true that after hours, with people who love you, it is appropriate to feel whatever it is you are really feeling.
Trauma, grief, loss, fear, anxiety, these things have their own cycle. By plastering them over with fake smiles and cheer, they will eventually seep through your outer shell in weird, ugly ways. But if you set aside time to deal with them, when appropriate, when you are in a safe (meaning: around people who love you enough to accept you as you really are) environment, it’s in your own best interests to be authentic. Allow others in. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. Be real.
The more real you can be about the jumble of emotions and thoughts, the faster you’ll heal and the healthier you’ll get.
P.S. – If you like this post, please share it with someone you care about. ; )