Why is it that even when we know we don’t need it, we keep it around?
As we grow up, we accumulate things. We end up with stuff, and as we age, the stuff gets older too. We relocate and we see just what we have been hanging onto. Psychologically, the same holds true. We learn at an early age, through interactions with our caregivers and the big people in our lives, what’s important, who we are supposed to be, and what our worldviews and values should look like. We accumulate beliefs, ideas, ways of thinking, ways of feeling, coping mechanisms, and patterns of behavior. Our attitudes toward ourselves, others, and the things in our lives are shaped by what we collect and that which latches on to us. Often, we don't notice, nor are we cognizant of our collections. We observe, we take mental and emotional notes, and just by living within certain environments, we begin collecting. It’s not intentional. It’s survival.
“I’m so angry! I just want to hit something!” my client screamed. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and her shoulders scrunched upward as she attempted to prevent the flood gates from breaking wide open. The emotion was too strong to avoid, and the tears came gushing down her cheeks. She sobbed, “I don’t know what to do! I want to run away! When I was a child I would go into the quiet of the forest. I had a spot I would sit and just be by myself. As I got older I used drugs and smoked. Last night I smoked three cigarettes. I can’t believe I did that to myself. I haven’t smoked in more than 15 years!”
The choking sobs and her labored breathing continued. I slowly reached over and handed her the box of tissue. “Breathe,” I said to her softly. “You didn’t hurt yourself. You’re here, which tells me that you want to feel better, you want to change so that you don’t use what you have in the past to relieve your pain anymore.” What she had collected then, were ineffective now. Fifteen years ago they worked. They solved the problem and didn’t cause additional ones. At that time in her life she could use them without discomfort. Under the current circumstances, however, they felt harmful and misaligned with her values. It was all she needed, and all I needed, to know that it was time to get to the root of how she came to rely on them in the first place and develop more appropriate coping skills.
I pulled out my old running shoes recently. ‘I’m going to give them a try,’ I thought. I came back from my run with aching knees.
In our emotional lives, the use of our old collections may not be so deliberate. Those who have struggled with disordered eating may realize halfway into a binge, or even following the binge, that they relied on an old behavior to “remedy” a negative emotion or to forget a painful memory. The husband who doesn’t want to confront his wife about his disappointment about a situation in their marriage retreats to his office, refusing to discuss anything. Better just to leave it alone, he has learned. As a child, he watched his father be reprimanded by his mother when he’d approach her with his feelings. So he avoids. Then, it worked. He behaved how he had to in that system. He’d disappear and distract himself with his GI Joes. But now, in this adult relationship, his collections are ineffective and damaging, and his wife is left wondering and hurt by his avoidance.
When I grew up, I came to understand that to accomplish something, and in order to be respected, admired, and thought of highly, I needed to be perfect. I needed to be without flaws. Mistakes meant I’d be moving further and further away from achieving, and it was the achievements that served to validate my worth and sense of self. I watched struggle around me, and I realize now as an adult how much I wanted, as a child, to minimize disruption. Don’t add to the emotion. Be easy. If you disrupt, you will disappoint.
I went through high school achieving. I got straight A’s. I graduated as a Valedictorian. I navigated the muddy waters of relationships, grades, friendships, and when it came time to think about college, I knew that if I didn’t get scholarships I would not be able to attend. I received a full ride to UW. I did what I had to do. I controlled. But I also had a lot of fun, singing the National Anthem for the home games, performing in the acapella group and at the choir concerts. Being chosen for All State Women's Chorus and traveling! At the time, I was not aware of what I was doing.
College brought new challenges and novel experiences, which forced different thinking. In subtle ways I would change, but the worldview remainined. The academics were more difficult, and my routine had to be reconfigured. My body changed with the new schedule, later nights, and communal dining . At the time, those changes mattered not to me. I was focused on accomplishing.
Then, I met a boy. And then, change happened quickly. My old controlled environment, the ability to maintain structure and balance and that perfectionistic ideal was suddenly eroded by new, foreign feelings… and one unexpected comment. This boy said to me one evening as we were chatting in my dorm room, “so you’re majoring in exercise physiology….aren’t exercise physiologists supposed to be in better shape?” This was the beginning of my unhealthy quest for thinness, and my fears of failing and of disappointing others, ramping into a full-blown year of anorexia.
What I'd collected as a child needed to be traded in. If you're wondering what I traded the control in for, check out my previous blog. That's not to say I never pull out the old collections, however.
When there are moments in my life that feel reminiscent of situations when I was criticized by someone I looked up to, or when I see facial expressions on others that accompanied the disappointment of the big people in my life as a child, or even previous romantic partners, I may have a critical thought about myself and begin to exert control. But now, I can gently catch myself. I’ve done the work. I continue to do the work of remembering where I've been and reparenting the little girl inside of me who still deeply needs validation, approval, and love.
For my client, as a child, expression of emotion was forbidden. Having suffered significant trauma at the hands of the individuals she needed to trust for her care, she learned to survive by suppressing her feelings. Now, as she practices allowing them to surface, she will struggle with discomfort, feeling foreign in her body.
Her old collections included the voices that said, “you’re bad if you cry,” “you’re not worth anything,” and “I will hurt you if you tell.” They get louder as she works on trusting herself to contradict them, trusting herself to speak, and trusting that in the present time, she can do these things and be safe. Her old collections, over time, with effort, and deliberate practice, will no longer serve a purpose.
When we are feeling emotionally or physically exhausted, we may find that the collections show up as if to say, "you have options here!" Over time, however, we learn the very real consequences to our wellbeing of hanging onto them or indulging them. Most often, they don't disappear; we just become more skillful in looking through them and beyond them. They saved us once. They protected us. We can honor them as we move into new and more generative ways of caring for ourselves.
We cannot simply replace our old collections. We must make space to reveal them, examine them, and re-evaluate them. Then we can invite ourselves to change. If we decide to embark on that journey, there will be periods of assessing, decluttering, reorganizing, reimagining, re-feeling, and grieving, as we identify what is worth staying attached to, what we can let go of, what is truly ours, and what belongs to someone else! This is the work.
As Iyanla Vanzant shared, “Who I am is not who I used to be, but who I am is all of who I used to be.” We must use our old collections as a guides for creating the new.