Yes, I think it’s okay now for me to say it.
I started going for counselling this year.
Yes, that’s right. I did. In fact, I probably should have done so a long time ago.
At the start of 2021, I finally decided there’s no shame in admitting I need help; only in pretending I don’t need it. And there’s nothing wrong with paying a professional to “process my inner conflicts” either. At least no one can say I’m not taking this seriously.
But I didn’t just meet up with a therapist every four to six weeks to work through stuff. I also chat now and then with two friends I know who are trained counselors. They’re like my huddle/support group. I’m blessed to have people both detached as well as close to the “situation” to help; the “situation” here being me!
One of my big takeaways from these sessions is that it is the small stuff that truly matters and worthy of sweating over. Which flies in the face of this better/stronger/faster/further global culture we live in.
Actually, that ought not to come as a surprise, me sweating the small stuff. I talked about it before when I talked about slowing down my life, and of how writing well begins with writing small. But the difference is that while I had written those insights more because they dealt with my now day-to-day challenges of living and writing, this latest revelation has more to do with my journey as a person these past fifty years!
And all these years comprise of many small moments; stuff that’s built me up to who I am today.
Meaning there’s lots of unpacking to do in my counselling sessions!
“But I thought we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff?”
Yes yes I hear ya. Why there’s even a book that says as much in its title. It’s called (surprise surprise) “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”!
(Although, even in such books, you’ll find that what they talk about by way of not sweating the small stuff is to — you guessed it — sweat the small stuff!)
And then there are the “I-told-you-so’s”. You know, those CEO show-off-types who tell you off when you get upset over how runny your egg was this morning during breakfast, or how you wanted to strangle that obnoxious client who wanted a free seat for your training workshop.
These show-offs will just say things like “Chill man! Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Or “Relax. Let it go.” Or “Quit complaining; treat it like water off a duck’s back.”
Sure. It might not be a big deal to them at that moment that you got upset, but it sure was a big deal to you! Which of course totally explains why you got upset. So for these show-offs to not acknowledge you are upset but instead, ask in effect that you “suck it up”?
Anyway, most of us (if we’re typical) aren’t out to be whiny customers or needy toddlers. We just want to be heard. To be recognised by others that hurt has been inflicted upon us, real or perceived. We’re not asking for tissues or hand-outs; simply hear what we have to say, okay?
Once the initial outburst is over and we’re calmer, things will be fine.
But nooo… uh uh (*finger shaking* motion)! This whole “be-a-winner-takes-all” world we live in, wants you to quit airing your displeasure or unhappiness. Suppress them or resolve them, but please don’t shout about them from the rooftops!
Talk about the ideal toxic environment for breeding mental and emotionally depressed individuals. Which, according to WHO, that’s one in every four of us in the world — in 2001! I shudder to think what the figure is now.
Burying the small stuff in my past
For the longest time, I’ve let a lot of things in my past stay buried. Memories of my lonely childhood and the constant struggle for worth and self-identity for most of my life.
These are heady topics for any day’s unpacking, let alone for someone like me who’s never quite realised how those impressionable years growing up bullied and abused, had done such a number on me, my self-esteem and my search for acceptance in the world.
Like how mishandling an autistic child’s tantrum or pursuing careers that never took off. Bungling relationships with estranged siblings and nosy relatives, and struggling not to lose it when life gets the better of me.
All the unsuccessful ways I’ve struggled with these things all these years actually come from many of the “small stuff” that took place long ago; stuff never resolved or even openly addressed. These most certainly include childhood experiences, and I recently learned that there was in fact an actual official name for it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (or CDC), there’s something called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These are “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood”, including “violence, abuse and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.”
Now that’s one nasty cocktail!
As a matter of fact, in a study published last June, the top five most commonly-faced ACEs in my country by adults during their childhood were identified as the following:
1. emotional neglect,
2. divorce or parental separation,
3. living with an abusive mother or female guardian,
4. emotional abuse, and
5. living with someone who’s mentally ill or suicidal.
I can definitely claim numbers 1 and 4!
Embracing my life story
So the time’s finally come now for me to redress these ACEs before they consume what’s left of the rest of my life!
Up until now, they have been working insidiously in the background to drive me to tendencies, behaviours and thought patterns that trip me up, causing me to doubt myself and make decisions I’ve regretted in my life as an adult.
As author and trauma therapist Aundi Kolber said in her book “Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode–and into a Life of Connection and Joy“, we “come by these tendencies honestly. We’ve learned to white-knuckle our way through life to armour up against pain and difficulty; we believe minimising our wounds is the only way we’ll be loved.”
Like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand at any sign of danger, I’ve often emotionally, even physically moved away from situations that threaten to “re-open old wounds”. Over the decades, I’ve gotten so adept at it that I don’t even know I’m doing it until the danger’s passed and I literally feel my body slowly relaxing.
Heck, who am I kidding? I didn’t even know my body had tensed up in the first place!
At one of my counseling sessions, my therapist asked me a simple but deeply private question.
He asked if I had ever really accepted myself for who I am.
I’ll never forget what happened the next moment. Before I had time to grasp the what-when-how, my body literally convulsed like it was about to go into a spasm while I burst into sudden and uncontrollable tears!
It seems that not sweating the small stuff meant all the unforgiveness, unresolved conflicts of my past may have been forgotten by my cranial muscles, but not apparently by my body muscles. The latter retained memories of the trauma and needed only THE right moment, THE associated trigger, for them to tighten or curl up in immediate recollection!
Right there and then, I balled my eyes out in front of my therapist for a good ten minutes. Needless to say, I was pretty spent at the end of that session, and worried if there’s more where that physical reaction came from!
His advice after I collected myself? “It’s okay. Embrace your life story — the good with the bad. They are all part of who you are now, and each of these memories informs who you have become. There’s no shame, no defense. Understand their place and work through them until you are at peace with their respective roles in building your life up to this point.” (I’m paraphrasing him of course; who can remember all the words after that cry fest!).
But first, I must keep sweating the small stuff.
And hopefully learn along the way to embrace my life story so that true healing might finally begin.
Wish me well okay?