Yesterday, I got to see a TED Talk by Andrew Solomon, called “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He focused on identity and the struggles he has been through as a gay man, and explained that:
Identity politics always works on two fronts: to give pride to people who have a given condition or characteristic, and to cause the outside world to treat such people more gently and more kindly. Those are two totally separate enterprises, but progress in each sphere reverberates in the other.
And followed up by saying:
But properly understood and wisely practiced, identity politics should expand our idea of what it is to be human. Identity itself should be not a smug label or a gold medal but a revolution.
If you haven’t read or seen “Love no matter what” by Andrew Solomon, it’s really worth taking time to explore. That particular work was about parents’ acceptance and love for their children. But this new talk is about self acceptance, while still working to change the system.
I found the talk while I was exploring social media sites. I wasn’t doing anything yesterday, because it was the end of the holidays. I took time out to read and look around the internet, and I found a couple of very interesting articles along with the TED Talk. One of those articles focused on stigma and psychotherapy, and linked into Andrew Solomon’s perspective that we learn who we are from our worst moments, but only if we don’t try to hide them away from ourselves.
While I was reading, I realized how true that had been in my life. I’m a big fan of pyschotherapy, even though my work (as work I consciously chose to do) focuses on systemic change. I’d initially wanted to become a clinical psychologist until I started counseling. At that point I began to see very clearly the impacts of systemic injustice, and the idea of how we shape identity was what I wanted to explore most. But for me, therapy wasn’t something for ‘other’ people, and the motivation for wanting to become a psychologist connected to my own first hand experience of how beneficial therapy can be.
I didn’t feel stigmatized, as a client. I felt relieved. And this was because I was anxious. About everything. All of the time. And my anxiety would attach itself to absolutely anything at all. If the wind blew at nighttime, I would worry that the tiles would fall off the roof and fall on the baby. If I wrote an exam, I thought I had failed it. Everything was overwhelmingly worrisome, and if anybody said it wasn’t, I became irritated that they JUST COULDN’T SEE what was wrong.
University became a series of imagined failures:
“I failed this paper.”
“You said that last time.”
“Yes, but this time, I really, really did…”
People can tell you to contain your anxiety, or to stop worrying (and lots of people did), but it doesn’t help if imagination gone haywire is either completely sure that failure is around the corner, or, if it proves itself not to be, can dream up another horrible situation which is bound to happen.
It was annoying. My husband, Scott, felt as though he couldn’t celebrate anything I’d managed to do, because he was too busy saying “I TOLD you it would be okay…” None of the cognitive books or self help tricks helped at all. How could they? Self talk which aims to be calming doesn’t help when you grow anxious about being anxious.
“You’re making a catastrophe out of nothing. Stop worrying!”
“Am I? I am! Oh, my G_d, I must be delusional!”
Psychotherapy helped, and it helped big time, because all of those anxieties covered old and buried feelings which, when they finally came out, both startled me because I’d had no idea they were there, and made perfect sense at the same time. How else could it possibly have been? Very sudden loss of a family member never quite dealt with comes out as “something terrible could happen at any minute!”
As Andrew Solomon explains:
Some of our struggles are things we’re born to: our gender, our sexuality, our race, our disability. And some are things that happen to us: being a political prisoner, being a rape victim, being a Katrina survivor. Identity involves entering a community to draw strength from that community, and to give strength there too. It involves substituting “and” for “but” – not “I am here but I have cancer,” but rather, “I have cancer and I am here.”
My brother died and I am here. Therapy gives you the ‘and’ part. It also taught me that the ‘and’ part was okay. A trusting relationship where you can talk and share without worrying that you’re going to upset somebody else terribly, and where you know the other person can handle however you feel without spiraling into pain means a lot. There shouldn’t be stigma with psychotherapy, because it makes a lot of difference to people who struggle. It helps you to see into those dark spaces where you’d rather not look. And then it stops those spaces from controlling your life, or dominating your relationships.
Those worst times did make me who I am. I became aware that life is to be treasured, and I think this has given me a deeper relationship with my husband and child. In the end, it also meant that I would see the value of life all around me. And I would make the choice to do work which uses agency, because there’s always a way of using imagination in a helpful way to bring about change. I don’t feel comfortable with the ‘destiny’ theorists, because learned helplessness is not something I feel comfortable with. But I understand how destiny can impact.
A couple of weeks ago, I read a post which declared that it isn’t the struggles we face which kill us, it is the stigma which comes with them. And one of the ways of working against stigma is to share. The bigger and more open the group of people who refuse to hide away, the more likely that stigma will reduce.
The gay activist Harvey Milk was once asked by a younger gay man what he could do to help the movement, and Harvey Milk said, “Go out and tell someone.” There’s always somebody who wants to confiscate our humanity, and there are always stories that restore it. If we live out loud, we can trounce the hatred (Andrew Solomon).
I learned that questions and fears are okay. When we doubt the paths or insights we have, we learn to explore new answers. I learned that I have choices, and I have a past. It’s a part of who I am, and it shaped my life today.
Forge meaning. Build identity. Forge meaning. Build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy.
My journey into psychotherapy began with relief, but it brought joy. No matter how insightful critical theory is, and no matter how important it is to realize that people should never adapt to oppressive circumstances, I would never speak out against my own experience of psychotherapy. It shouldn’t be stigmatized. Actually, health care should award points for people who go to therapy in the same way they award points for people going to gym.
People told me that therapy could make me selfish. They said it was about navel gazing. But I found the opposite to be true. I’m still anxious at times, but I know what to do with it and how to ride the waves. I haven’t lost my sensitivity. By focusing less on what could go wrong (with my life) I’ve been able to take far more interest in the world around me. And so I share my joy.