The man who lives across the road is angry with me. He hasn’t said so but his actions speak louder than the absence of his words. Some people seem to be precious about being able to park their cars on the road outside their own houses and will go to great lengths to ensure that they can. I am often less than fastidious in maximising the use of the space in the parking bays, and it seems to send him into a rage. So much so that earlier this week he parked his car so close to mine that the bumpers were touching. He was making a point, passive aggressively, and in so doing lessening his chances of gaining my support and increasing his own of an untimely heart attack.
When someone says “How are you?” most of us take that as nothing more than an expected pleasantry, assuming that the person who asked is no more interested in knowing than we are in telling, but its not very helpful to either of us. My heartfelt desire to know how you feel is as important to my emotional wellbeing as is your honest response to your own.
We are masters at finding ways to minimise and compartmentalise our own feelings but denying emotion never leads to the safe place we hope it will.
When we tell ourselves everything is fine when it isn’t, that we are “overreacting” when we aren’t, and that it’s our own stupid fault when someone else is really responsible, or that we deserve the terrible treatment we’re receiving, we worsen the emotional damage rather than diminishing its power. The reason that denying our own true feeling is so damaging is because it underlines the statement “I don’t matter”.
This tangled web of emotion is at its most confusing when we start to think about our experiences of childhood. Caught between the inevitable truth that some things didn’t play out as we would have liked, and the uncomfortable disloyalty of saying “bad stuff” about our parents, we deny the truth with a catch all statement like, “I know my parents loved me”, or “I had a happy childhood”. Yes, I’m sure they did, and it was but this does not mean that it was without pain or inconceivable that you developed some damaging beliefs about yourself in the holes which opened up between the cuddles and being pushed on the swings in the park.
We are sensitive and vulnerable souls, and to pretend anything different is not a show of strength but a show of terrible fragility. We deny the bits of us that we don’t really want in the hope that they will go away and never bother us again, but they won’t, they are here to stay forever. Finding a way to integrate the strong, confident, capable and lovable aspects of ourselves with the darker, weaker, shameful and destructive parts is not simply desirable work, it is essential, but it can only be done by acknowledging the shadows which are marked out by the light.
When we are conflict averse, unable to articulate our own needs in a grown up and measured fashion and unwilling to see and speak what we really feel it is because we are struggling for self worth, nothing more. This passive aggression can never feel satisfying to the aggressor because the power is a frightened kind, and so one of no real power at all. It is a pseudo-strength made from helplessness.
We need to reevaluate our understanding of the word “strength” because it is not illustrated by an unwillingness to feel, a declaration that all is well, a refusal to acknowledge pain or an internal narrative which screams “pull yourself together”. Instead it is crafted from a careful balance between letting ourselves fall far enough but knowing when to reach out and catch, by self compassion and understanding, by sharing our hopes and fears without shame or embarrassment, and by speaking up for what we want regardless of whether anybody is interested in helping us find it. Strength is a willingness to embrace emotion in all of its myriad colours, good and bad, light and dark.
At dinner I am telling the story of “the man who parked too close” and suggested glibly that next time I would deliberately park in exactly the same place just to annoy him. Beth, without missing a beat said, “That’s a bit passive aggressive Dad”. She’s right of course, and I won’t do it and probably wouldn’t have anyway, but at least I was giving free reign to exactly how I was feeling.