For the first couple of decades of my adult life, I kept myself busy all the time. I took on and created project after project — at home, at work — things I “had to” get done and insistent on doing “perfectly”. Perfectionism comes at a high cost and the results often look a lot more like going down in flames than actual achievement.
I was stressed and exhausted; yet, as soon as one project finished or something came off of my plate, I quickly replaced it with something else. I prided myself on being productive, and I was, but staying externally busy also helped me ignore what was going on internally.
I had a whole host of topics that felt like if I even dipped my toe into them, my emotions would eat me alive — like my own miserable Pandora’s box. I didn’t want to think about the past, because I had unresolved trauma lurking there. Thinking about the future was fraught with anxiety because my life felt hogtied to a conveyor belt headed somewhere I didn’t want to go.
Keeping my head full of the impossible number of tasks and perfection-seeking I’d created let me avoid thinking, and — even more importantly — feeling. My to-do list let me fill my emotional bandwidth with stress and frustration so I didn’t have to deal with grief, loss, anger, or pain. When that wasn’t enough, I relied on other methods of numbing my emotions — alcohol, food, shopping — anything to distract me from the storm building in my inner landscape.
What’s worse is that all of my coping mechanisms to avoid the bad emotions also blocked me from being able to feel anything good, like joy, love, inspiration or wonder. My refusal to process my experiences and emotions made me like a pressure cooker. Sometimes I found myself lashing out at people and things (um, road rage, anyone?). Other times, I felt a profound sense of anxiety that wouldn’t go away. My body rebelled against me and I developed physical symptoms as a product of my inner turmoil — migraines, back pain, reflux. Something had to change.
When I finally ended up in therapy for the first time, I jumped right into the analytical side of things. I was ready to connect the dots, assign meaning and check off all of the items on the to-do list to fix myself. The problem was that just working in the intellectual realm helped me understand why I responded the way I did to certain things, which helped some, but it didn’t change how shitty I was feeling.
Staying in my head and just analyzing how I felt and what was happening wasn’t working. As much as it sucked, I had to finally allow myself to feel all of the feelings I’d repressed for so long. The loss and rage and grief and resentment that had been building up for years were still there and I knew I couldn’t keep ignoring all of it if I wanted things to get better.
When it comes to taking a peek into your own Pandora’s box, you can start slow.
It’s hard work to get through the internal barriers we create to bury our emotions. But it’s also like releasing the valve on a pressure cooker, a little at a time. It lets you gradually start feeling better and seeing things more clearly. Indefinite avoidance will eventually lead to an explosion of some kind — health issues, addiction, careers or relationships blowing up — and it can be a lot more work to pick up the pieces after the fact.
Start journaling for fifteen minutes when you wake up in the morning. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write whatever pops into your head. Go for a walk and challenge yourself not to think about your to-do list. Spend five minutes just sitting with yourself and focusing on your breath. Try one thing to start with. Just see what comes up and then let yourself think — and, more importantly — feel about it.
What have you got to lose?
Also published on Medium.com.