Thanksgiving is upon us in the United States, a holiday of deeply controversial origins but good in theory: Announced as a national holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln(1), the intention of the holiday is to reflect on our gratitude and share our good fortunes. I don’t think I have to tell anyone reading this blog how different expressed intention and actual impact are (especially in the context of politics) however, but this isn’t what this entry is about today. It’s knowing what to celebrate when you are alone on a day that is supposed to be set aside for celebrating how alone you are not.
Gratitude is often a sensitive subject for those who have not begun healing from the traumas and pain they have endured in life. Telling someone to be glad they have a roof over their heads when they’re afraid to go home is seldom ever effective in encouraging recovery. Instead, it often perpetuates feelings of shame or indignation. I am grateful to have a roof over my head even when I’m still sometimes scared to go home, but I’m in a position where I am actively working to change that. I know, for the most part, how to keep myself safe from what used to be my self-damaging responses to trauma and pain, and I am not in immediate physical danger here. I am grateful to be so far in the journey of emotional healing, especially in only my 20s. For all that I’ve endured, it’s impressive; but I got to this point because I’ve been afforded resources, services, and people who have substantially helped me along the way. One story is not all stories.
It’s Okay to be “Salty”
I was telling a fellow sufferer of endometriosis not to be too hard on herself for being salty or for taking some time to feel bad for herself. While ruminating on how bad things are can trap a person in an unhelpful cycle, proactive assessment can only come from comprehensive acknowledgment. In other words, if you don’t see what’s wrong, you’re unlikely to apply the right tools to manage it. I know from dealing with intrusive thinking and rumination during PTSD flares that putting a timeblock on sadness and anger and other painful feelings isn’t natural or easy. It takes practice to change lanes, but it’s necessary to move forward. Acknowledging what’s wrong in your life is actually an act of self-compassion when you supplement it with helpful thoughts and the implementation of coping skills. In the worst of times, the invasive thoughts feel impossible to change or get rid of, and psychologists advise not to tell yourself to stop thinking them or they will only get worse. For me, a balance of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy with a heavy focus on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques are most effective. The balance can change given what state or circumstances I’m in: DBT, which focuses on mindfulness, freeing thoughts and feelings from self-imposed judgments, and sensory techniques is more helpful for me for short-term crisis stabilization. I often seek DBT implementation when I am feeling dramatically overwhelmed, and I am already suffering noticeably apparent physical symptoms of a C-PTSD flare. Upon calming, CBT techniques can help me get back to a healthy, mindful baseline.
Being alone but not lonely
For many people, this isn’t a problem. As an introvert myself, I need solitude to recharge and feel my best. But how “alone” and “lonely” are different things, so are solitude and isolation. When we are healthy (confident, happy, physically okay), a certain amount of alone time isn’t lonely, even for extroverts. Again, it’s an individualized balance both personally and situationally. But alone time, even for introverts, can easily adopt a bitter (or salty) flavor on family-centric holidays, like Thanksgiving or winter holidays like Christmas. Humans are social animals and even the most independent of us have at least some desire for acceptance or validation from others. It is how communities form and are maintained. I know statements like “don’t care what others think about you” are well-intentioned but you hear “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me” most often in contradictory situations: When someone who is slighted by perceived or real rejection is trying to rationalize their way out of it. But human behavior isn’t rational en masse. We all operate on our own logic; humans don’t do things for the absolute superficial hell-of-it, regardless of how those actions may not be explainable by others or even consciously explainable by the person who commited them. We do care what other people think, though. It’s in our nature. You might be someone who doesn’t care what the neighbors think but you may care what your friends think. The alternative can be true and all other variations. There is always at least one person in our life whose opinion of us matters to us. It’s a reason we explain our motives, apologize, make reparations. Wanting to not make a person we care about feel bad is never wholly selfless — we want them to see us as values that are important to us: trustworthy, reliable, intelligent, respectful, rational, loving, whatever it is. Our self-image is shaped, in large part, by those whose perception of us is important. This is why having a dysfunctional or completely absent family during the holidays is disproportionately saddening or even triggering for many people. Even if our family is abusive, neglectful, violent, and/or selfish, most people still want validation and acceptance from ours well into our adulthoods. Even serial killers wih marked disregard for other people tend to have or have had toxic relationships with one or more parents, and like Ted Bundy, it’s often even reflected in their victimology.
I don’t think most of us ever stop wanting love from families or parent(s) who do not love us — it’s just a matter of knowing how to cope with that want and to limit or abandon our unrealistic expectations.
Expectations as attachment
A Buddhist principle often talks about attachment as the source of suffering(3). Attachment isn’t solely or clearly defined by expectations, but in this case, the desire to be loved in the way we want to be loved by those who cannot provide that is a perfect example of the kind of expectation associated with toxic attachment.
I’ve talked about how the application of personality traits can make all the difference between the trait being a strength or a weakness. I see pain in a similar way. When we consider trauma disorders, especially something like C-PTSD, it has to be understood that recovery is neither linear nor a destination. Those of us with trauma cannot physiologically get to a place in our life where it’s like it never happened. An actual cure for something like PTSD would be restarting our life before that trauma or those traumas occurred. It is not possible. Our traumas contribute to who we are. The more they affected us, the more they shaped us, regardless of what other people’s expectations are. Before healing, this is a disparaging thought. It is unfair; wrong. Why should our identities depend so much on the deeply hurtful actions of other people? but that isn’t the right question. It will take you down the rabbithole and ruminating on how the injustices commited against you in your past altered your future will not help you. Make no mistake — being angry (or salty) about what has happened to you is part of recovery because it helps you acknowledge that was was done was wrong and shouldn’t have happened. But again, don’t stay there. I said to the woman be the Atlantic, not the Dead Sea. An ocean like the Atlantic can scale mountains, create new shorelines, and transform the world with its dynamic power. This is because it’s ever-changing, fluid, flexible, strong. The Dead Sea, however, is just dead: The salt content is too high for almost all life and while its salt reputedly has its benefits, the collective quantity is dangerous and oppressive to life.
As I’ve explained before, belonging to a community has long been of great importance to me, and the more I have tried to, the more I have been pushed out. As an outlier to groups I am expected to be a “natural” facet of, I have really had to commit to embracing my role as a human being from a global, inclusive perspective, even if others have not approached this the same way in the context of “me.” This helps me apply a broader perspective to others and their situations and while fine-tuning the application is tremendously difficult, it is immensely helpful to me internally, allowing me to check my privilege, be grateful for what I have, but also understand the things I’m grateful for might not be what others are grateful for and vice versa.
A path to healing
You don’t ever have to be grateful for your suffering. In reality, who could be? A person can be grateful for what they’ve learned, gained, changed through suffering, but no one becomes nlightened from the experience alone of breaking their leg or undergoing an organ transplant. The broken leg may have helped identify and manage other medical issues that would otherwise have gone undetected, and the transplant may have saved their life. But having to undergo either/or is descriptive of physical trauma, where your body is changed permanently, even if in a positive or minimal way. Childbirth is a trauma even though it is a very happy event for many.
Emotional trauma is the same way: It is transformative. It cannot be erased. But it can be understood and channeled into a personal, individual pathway that helps you. The conscientiousness I have that in its healthy application breeds initiative and commitment for self-improvement is not just a facet of my personality but a product of or intensfiied by several of my traumas. My focus on accountability and consistency comes from being raised in environments where there were none and I both felt and identified how damaging that was.
Today’s challenge/Challenge for the upcoming holidays
Whether you use any of these or not, I would like to hear how you practiced self-care today or how you practice it on the holidays — for any variety of reasons. Shared experiences are perhaps the most effective platform for learning about the human condition, including that which applies to our own individual contexts.