Tag Archives: PTSD

What We Didn’t Learn in Kindergarten: Thoughts and Feelings

One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.

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What I understand now is that ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, satisfying professional life, and healthy relationship. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.

To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.

Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions that we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.

As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.

The problem is that if we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.

Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive or negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.

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I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.

I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.

Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.

I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.

I’m convinced that feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad, now I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.

Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out that our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.

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In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.

Managing our feelings requires we take responsibility for them.

As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.

Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.

So, what to do?

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First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?

Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.

Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process that my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.

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Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.

Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.

I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.

I feel satisfied. I think this post is complete. My daily crime.

Labels

This week I’m thinking about labels.

I’m not a fan of labels. They say too much and too little at the same time, and they’re too easy to use imprecisely. Words and definitions matter to me. On the other hand, labels can be useful in that they symbolize a cluster of defining characteristics that have been well enough recognized and described to get labeled in the first place.

At the end of the day, I have a love/hate relationship with labels. I resist taking them on and I resist defining anyone else with them; however, in the course of exploring and reading about our human experience, certain labels have been enormously healing and helpful in my understanding of myself and patterns of behavior I’ve been involved in. I’m proud to carry some labels, even though I rarely talk about them, such as being highly sensitive, as defined by Elaine Aron, PhD. I’m deeply humiliated by other labels, and only reluctantly admit to them, but I know they belong to me whether I admit it or not.

PTSD is a label like that. PTSD is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. As a young woman, I associated PTSD mostly with Vietnam vets who came home from the war with deep psychic and often physical injuries. Over my lifetime, PTSD has gradually been more commonly recognized and talked about, and the label has expanded to cover all kinds of experiences outside of war. I encounter it regularly, several times each work shift as a medical transcriptionist. Some people are severely affected in their daily lives, and others function very well unless they get triggered.

I grew up actively ignoring my own pain and deeply involved with everyone else’s. I had the idea that I was the cause of the pain in those around me and it was up to me to fix it. My own experience wasn’t significant. I also believed that it was against the rules for me to have pain in the first place; pain or distress were shameful and weak and had to be concealed and denied at all costs.

This set of beliefs has made me, for most of my adult life, numb to my own distress. I often didn’t recognize pain at all, and automatically employed various coping strategies to deal with it. Sometimes it wasn’t until days or even weeks later I realized dimly I was distressed after a particular conversation or event, and then I felt shame about my distress. This is part of the dynamic that kept me with an abuser for years. I couldn’t really feel emotionally what was happening, even when I tasted blood. There was a disconnect.

At some point it dawned on me that I have PTSD.

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I was academically injured and emotionally abused as a child in fourth grade math, which happened to be the year I was introduced to story problems. Before and after that time I successfully navigated beginning math, high school math, fractions, geometry, algebra and even a college semester of calculus and did just fine, all the while firmly convinced by the limiting belief that I couldn’t do math. I failed chemistry and physics in college, the first classes I’d ever failed in my life. Why? Story problems. I became suicidal and severely depressed and eventually dropped out of college, never to return.

I got a job, got married, and began an adult life. I dealt with a paycheck, a bank account, a checkbook, bills, budgeting, taxes, credit cards and all the rest with no problem. But I still believed I couldn’t do math, and for years I had recurring nightmares about getting on the wrong bus at school (they were identified by numbers) or forgetting my locker combination.

For me, living with PTSD is like living with hidden landmines. I go about my business feeling competent, efficient and organized, and then—WHAM!

I’ve been two years in Maine now, with a new address and phone. Six months ago, I was making an appointment to get my hair cut and was asked for my phone number (landline, not cell phone). There was a lady behind me, waiting. Another of my triggers. Terrible things happen when you make people wait. The stylist was in front of me, pencil poised, needing to get back to work and deal with other customers. What’s more basic than your phone number, for God’s sake? A 6-year-old can recite her phone number.  These days, most 6-year-olds probably have their own phone numbers!

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I was blank. Utterly and completely shut down. Stopped in my tracks. There was nothing in my head but static. I was freezing cold, nailed to the floor, and I don’t think I could have counted from one to ten in that moment. Somewhere deep inside I was screaming, hysterical, panic stricken, and sobbing with shame, but that was happening in another galaxy. My numbers thing had struck again.

Fortunately, I know myself, and unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time something like this happened. I went into my wallet and pulled out a piece of paper with my phone number, my address, my birth date, my children’s birth dates, my partner’s phone number and, in disguise, my SS number. I said something about having a new phone number, read it off and got out of there. I sat in the car, shaking, decided I didn’t have to throw up and went home.

Sitting right here, I know my phone number as well as you know yours, but I’m not under pressure. I also have all the above information pinned onto the bulletin board in my office in the next room, because this can happen when I’m on the phone, too. Someone asks me for my birthday, and that’s it. The lights go out. Total and complete nothingness. I know the month of my birthday, because that’s a word, and I love words, but no date, no year.

I’ll write a hundred checks with no problems. Then, one day in a busy store with a line behind me and a hassled cashier, I won’t know the date, not just the numbered date, but the day of the week, the month, the year. It’s just not there. I look at what I’m wearing for clues. I look at the carbon of the last check I wrote, trying to hide that I’m looking. I ask casually what the date is and get the numbered day of the month—but not the month. Somehow, I get through it, but then I’m likely to write the check for the wrong amount because I’m so upset. It doesn’t happen every time, or even most of the time, which is part of the problem. It’s only certain situations, and often I can’t tell what triggered it, so I can’t predict, either. All I can do is be ready and try to deal with my shame and humiliation when it does happen.

It’s on my mind this week because it happened again yesterday.

I work online as a medical transcriptionist and use various software programs for timesheets, recordkeeping and all the actual transcription. I’ve been doing this for ten years. As in any job, there are irritating policies and procedures to follow, but I’m familiar with them and I’m extremely meticulous and detail-oriented (no, I did NOT say perfectionistic!), so it’s all in a day’s work.

Except yesterday I realized I somehow made a mistake in my time sheet, and my supervisor was understandably peeved and needed me to fix it. The mistake involved my time sheet, my pay check and my balance of yearly leave hours, all of which, naturally, are represented by numbers. It all conspired in a perfect storm of personal triggers, and I came undone.

Shaking, clammy hands. Hammering heart. Gasping for breath. Trembling legs. Hysterical sobbing. I looked frantically from Leave Request to Timesheet to Records and back again. None of it made sense. I couldn’t even properly recognize a single number. They might as well have been Chinese characters. Punch in, punch out, punch in, punch out—it was like an apocalyptic story problem.

I knew what was happening. I knew I was out of control. I knew I was helpless in the grip of it, and I also knew it would pass.

I got up and left the computer. With my partner, I was able to calm down enough to find language, and talk about it, which helped. Then I ate a big meal. Then I took some music into a quiet part of the house where I wouldn’t be disturbed and danced.

When I went back for my second shift, I looked again, and this time I saw. I knew what my mistake was. It all made sense. I see where I punched in, ran out of work, punched out again. It’s rational, it’s real, it’s verifiable. I’m not crazy. It’s all okay. I know what to do to fix it, but it’s 10:30 in the morning of the next day now and I still haven’t done so. I will. I know I can. But first I wanted to write this and go swimming. I feel a little like I got run over by a truck yesterday, and I still need some recovery time.

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This is an experience of PTSD behind the label. What I’m trying to do with this week’s blog is remind myself and everyone else that labels are cold, dead things that convey intellectual ideas and information. They can be useful, but they’re limited. Behind every label we use, apply or accept, there’s human experience and feelings, and they’re real, visceral, passionate, complex and sometimes painful, even though they may be invisible to an outside eye.

I know PTSD is only a small part of who I am, a mere fraction, a little hairline crack. It’s there. I’ll own it, but I don’t have to allow it to limit me.

But I still believe I can’t do math.

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Jennifer Rose
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