Monday, December 26, 2016

thought control [The Happiness Trap]

When I was growing up, my heroes were the strong, silent cowboys in my dad's favorite movies. The John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods. I wanted to be them. Totally in control of myself. Calm and collected at all times... until righteously angry. That's when they got devastating. Their anger left people dead in the dusty western streets, but somehow they always seemed in control. Even enraged, they were men of few words.

Women in my life and in those movies were always reacting. Their decisions were reactions; their emotions were reactions; their reactions were dramatic and attention-grabbing; their reactions were either overblown or manipulative. They were never in control. People in control don't require manipulation - they can say what they want.

But the cowboys were self-sufficient. They didn't need anything or anyone, and they didn't want anything other than what they already had, other than the occasional vengeance. Their monolithic essence was the epitome of control.

I wanted to be in control of myself.

I spent a lot of my first two decades being told I wasn't in charge of myself.
Girls can't be mechanics. Or race car drivers. Or in control. Or allowed to say no. 

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I'd felt more allegiance to my assigned gender. I don't really know what it feels like to be any gender, but I've always been taught that being a girl sucked. Somewhere in there I learned to associate masculinity with self-control, and self-control with maintaining a flat affect.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
There's nothing to be afraid of.
Get over it. 
Snap out of it.
Don't be a crybaby.
Don't be such a girl.
Keep a stiff upper lip.
Don't be sad.

No wonder I rejected all things "girly."
No wonder I rejected showing my emotions.

No wonder I felt so much shame when I developed a depressive disorder and couldn't hide the pain.

My therapist loaned me a book, and it's making me rethink my entire approach to emotion and expression.

I've valued manners for more of my life than I can remember. They're important, because they're a means of kindness, and kindness is what makes society best. Manners meant not subjecting other people to your negative emotions. Manners meant being nice, always, because situations never improve with cruelty and I'm too practical to do otherwise. Manners are an ideal to aspire to.

I still believe manners are important, and a means of spreading kindness. I still believe that rudeness or unkindness never improve a situation and that we should always be kind. I still believe that having good manners is something we should constantly work toward. ...But: I no longer equate being 'nice' with completely subjugating my emotional reality, but this is not an either-or situation. The people in my life - including me - have benefitted from my ability to sublimate my emotional turmoil when a calmer mind was needed. Unchecked anger and retaliation never improve a situation, and I have no desire for petty vengeance.

So, what's different now? I am increasingly willing to express discomfort, unhappiness, and even anger. I'm not always able - a lifetime of suppression coupled with some serious social anxiety make that a hard habit to break - but I'm willing. And in safe spaces, I'm able. I still try to temper my unhappiness and anger with compassion for the other person's feelings, even if they're being an ass. I'm usually successful, and that's not something I want to change. It goes along with that whole manners thing.

[That book is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. What I get farther, I might do a review. So far it's inspired a lot of thought - in a good way - and I'm only in chapter 1.]

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