Dear 100 Hour Board,
I feel pretty deeply. About pretty much everything. But lately things have been so painful and so gut-wrenching in my family that I’ve just shut down. I’m sort of the glue in my family— the one who connects and takes care of everyone. So I guess my question is, how do you find a balance between feeling too much and feeling too little, especially when others are relying on you for support?
Dear The Glue,
Darling, me too. I feel everything at an 11, and I've almost always put myself in positions of keeping people together. It's such a hard position, and (there's more!) you don't even have to do it. I know it feels like everything will fall apart if you don't, but I promise you it won't. The process of finding balance can be so scary from this vantage point, where everything feels high stakes and you are either feeling high emotion or nothing at all. Therefore I say, Get thee to a therapist. I'm not saying that because you're crazy. I'm saying it because you are worth the help, and you could use it in this situation.
I want you to talk to your therapist about boundaries. Boundaries are the places where we end and the people around us begin. There have to be lines of demarcation, and you have to take care of yourself first.
Best of luck.
- The Black Sheep
There are some big family dynamics going on here that are outside of the scope of an anonymous question and answer service. It's not uncommon for one member of an enmeshed family system to be the "outlet" for the family's emotions, and if you're already highly sensitive*, that can be exhausting and damaging for you. So I say amen to Black Sheep's answer above and I'll leave it to her to cover issues of boundary-setting and seeking a therapist. It sounds like family therapy would be very beneficial, but if the family won't be joining in, please at least seek individual support.
So if Black Sheep has got those covered, let's talk coping skills.
1. Get it out. First, I often tell my therapy clients to think of their emotional experience as a digestive system. You get input. Little pieces of that input get broken down and ingested to make you who you are. And then there must be output. If you hold it all in, you get very sick. You must "get it out"—express yourself, reflect your inner experience—in some way, or you keep it inside your body and it pops up in other ways. It pops up as, say, insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, grumpiness with your loved ones, low energy or motivation, a suppressed immune system, a panic attack, "eating your feelings," long avoidant hours spent scrolling through the internet, impulsive behavior, and, in more extreme cases, self-injurious behavior. So I encourage you to find your way to "get it out." Common methods of getting it out intentionally include: talking with a friend, praying (which serves much the same function as talking with a friend), meditating, crying, journaling, running or going on a walk, punching something inanimate, baking, laughing, doodling, painting, writing poetry, venting on social media, making music, listening to music, taking a long shower, crochet, spending time among plants, laughing at youtube videos, etc. But you have to figure out what you're naturally motivated to do and what works for you. It shouldn't feel like a chore. Don't go to yoga if that's not you. Some of my favorite emotional outlets are not things that most people do. For example, I cry on purpose when I feel that tightness in my chest and throat. If I can't get myself to start crying, I turn to a couple of favorite YouTube videos that always get me going. I feel immediate relief after a good intentional sob, and there's some evidence that emotional tears—as opposed to reflex tears caused by, say, dry eyes or onions—are a physical outlet for stress hormones and stress-increasing proteins. You can pour your stress out of your eyes! Our bodies are amazing!
2. Self care 4vr. #1 above is about symptom reduction, #2 here is about prevention. Self care is a buzzy term these days, and I'm glad. And it doesn't mean pedicures or spa days or whatever. Self care is the respect, maintenance, and stewardship of our own bodies and minds. Are you getting adequate hydration and eating to nourish your physical body? Seeing a doctor when needed? Getting at least moderate physical activity? In other words, are you treating your own body at least as well as you would a beloved pet? Are you getting good quality and quantity of sleep? Are you taking downtime to let yourself rest physically and mentally? Are you maintaining social support that nurtures you? Do you have a productive but balanced work or school experience, or something else that gives you structure and purpose? Is there something you need to cut out or simplify to make room for these things? Do you say yes to too many obligations, or let guilt dictate your to do list? Do you carry around in your brain a miniature bully who's always pointing out your flaws and replaying past mistakes (see #3)? I work with a lot of perfectionistic, over-achieving, anxious, people-pleasing types. They're great at a lot of things but awful at self care. I frequently assign my clients "homework" to make a self-care appointment. They get to choose—it's often a nap—but I ask them to tell me the activity, date, time, and location of their appointment, and then I ask them to report back to me the next week. If they get specific and have accountability, they're more likely to actually do it and not keep putting it on the bottom of the priority list. Your basic needs are the top priority for yourself, and everyone else comes next—just like the old cliches about oxygen masks in the airplane or drawing water from an empty well.
3. Manage your mental soundtrack. I'm including this item based entirely on the speculation that you have a negative self-talk soundtrack. You didn't indicate this in your question, but with an enmeshed and emotionally dysregulated family and a sense of duty to keep them together, I'm making an educated guess here. Forgive me if I'm wrong. But if I'm not—I have become a huge believer in the power of self-talk for good or ill. I have seen its effects so clearly. I can't find a source at the moment, but I recently heard on a podcast that the primitive, emotional centers of the brain can't distinguish between external and internal voices. So when you have a little bully inside, it's like having an outside bully that you can never escape. We know what bullying does to people. If you were honest and wrote down the thoughts that you're thinking about yourself frequently, and I then asked you to tell me how acceptable these statements were, I'm guessing you would see how abusive they can be (I do this exercise with people often). How do you manage this bully? One of my favorite ways recently is to try scaffolded thought replacement. Let's make an example. First identify a target thought or belief to work on. It could be something about your work/school performance, your general value as a human, your value to your family, your personality features, your physical features, etc. Let's say it's something like "I hate my hair." Then identify a goal thought. The goal could be seen as the opposite of your target thought, or what you wish you believed in an ideal fantasy world. Let's say it's "My hair is genuinely beautiful." You're not going to believe the goal thought immediately. If you tried to tell yourself that, you'd roll your eyes and dismiss it. So let's aim a little lower and find a thought between the two, like "My hair is okay." Even that may be too lofty for you right now, so let's find the in-between of "My hair is okay" and "I hate my hair." Something neutral that you can believe 100%. Something like, "I have liked my hair on occasion in the past" or "That is human hair." Or even, "'I hate my hair,' is something I think sometimes." Once you find a thought that you know you can believe with 100% conviction, try applying it every time you think, "I hate my hair." Getting ready in the morning and feeling frustrated? "That is human hair." Catch a glimpse of yourself in a reflective window and displeased? "That is human hair." Eventually, when you're in the habit of using the more neutral thought, try replacing it with a baby step up. Try "my hair is okay" or whatever you can believe 100%, and eventually you work your way up to "My hair is genuinely beautiful." What if you could sincerely think that about yourself every day? It's not arrogance, because it doesn't put you on a plane above other people. It's appreciation, it's confidence. The hair is maybe a superficial example, but it's amazing the effect you can have on yourself when you stop telling yourself "I'm not confident," "I don't produce good work," "I can't do this," "I'm stuck in this pattern," "I have no willpower," "I'm just an anxious person," etc.
4. Feel your feelings. This is such a therapist thing to say, and I'm saying it anyway. One of my favorite professors would always tell us, "Feelings are not facts." Our feelings do not indicate reality, though they can be signals to us to pay attention. Our feelings cannot physically harm us. Even a panic attack, which feels a lot like a heart attack to some people, cannot actually hurt you. So much anxiety and fear that I see in my work is anxiety and fear about anxiety and fear. But acute unpleasant feelings, if we let ourselves feel them and don't fight them, typically come in waves that last no longer than 90 seconds. I like to use the metaphor of a hungry cat. What do hungry cats do if you ignore them? They meow at you, paw at you, and bother you until you feed them. Then, once you feed them, they run off and leave you alone. The hungry cat is an intense emotion—anxiety, shame, despair, anger. If you ignore it, it will continue to paw at you. How do you feed the cat? You feel it. You acknowledge it. You be fully present and lean in to it. You let yourself sob. You feel your heavy breathing and rapid heartbeat, your tense muscles, your flushed face. Then you try to feel it more.** You can last for 90 seconds. Try it.
There are a hundred other things to say but not another hundred hours to say it in. I'm glad you reached out, and I wish you all the best, friend.
Waldorf (& Sauron)
*For more information on being a "highly sensitive person," take a look at this short but helpful article. You only mentioned feeling emotions deeply, but sometimes that kind of sensitivity can have a sensory component as well. I'm with you on this, by the way. I feel all the things, and very deeply, and I've come to see it as such a gift. Usually.
**Another word for this is mindfulness. Another buzz term that I'm happy to defend. If you're interested, you can read more about mindfulness here. I recommend checking out Insight Timer, a free app that has both guided meditations and a delightfully customizable timer for self-guided mindfulness.