In my last few posts I wrote about how I’ve become increasingly more aware of my dysregulated nervous system. Just like the analogy I have used that I don’t expect a person without limbs to run a regular marathon, I have begun to experiment with treating myself as a person who should avoid potential emotional triggers, because I want to give my nervous system a chance to heal.
Most humans are naturally wired to be social – the hypothesis is that being anti-social would result in an early death for us as cave people. Regardless of the cause I believe most people can relate to the pain of rejection. On top of that I have a fear of abandonment, so it has been a continual challenge for me to put myself in situations where I feel alienated or disapproved of.
Strangely despite my fear of abandonment since I was a teenager I have been putting myself in many situations where social alienation is the outcome. I think because of my strong lack of desire to live has caused a strong fear of feeling trapped, so that fear of feeling trapped wins the fear of social disapproval. But I think the hurt that comes from the social disapproval doesn’t go away simply because my desire to feel free is stronger. It just accumulated, making me chronically sad and exhausted.
So for a long time I am caught in a catch-22 situation: focus on myself but risk alienation, or enjoy the safety of being in a group and be sick. Why is focusing on oneself alienating? There are a multitude of complex reasons, but for the sake of this post I will list a few:
- focusing on oneself is perceived as selfish because we’re conditioned to put the group above oneself (thanks Confucius and other unnamed individuals!)
- usually whatever that is affecting our health right now is arising from the status quo, so that means having to change the status quo, but many people with emotional dysregulation are addicted to stimuli and the need for approval so it is asking of us to change or leave the very situation that has sustained us in many other ways
- much of modern societal behaviour is unhealthy, so to not practice such behaviour sometimes requires leaving society for a while, i.e. being a hermit
- the lack of education and awareness of neuro-psychological disorders creates stigma, people tend to think we are making a big fuss out of nothing, or that it is something we can change by just making a mental decision
- our sensitivity to suffering makes it difficult to ignore social issues and yet activism can be very triggering and exhausting
I just want to point out there’s many levels of social approval. For example, one could still reject the mainstream and be in a smaller but still highly celebrated peer group such as entrepreneurship. I rejected societal norms in Singapore by dropping out of school and being a freelancer (yeah in my time people frown upon freelancers haha), but I had felt accepted and approved of by the tech community. It was considered cool back then, not many people quit their full-time jobs, not many people wanted to risk their career by working in startups, very few people would choose design as a career here.
When designers became celebrated instead of being seen as pariahs I felt like years of my so-called terrible choices were validated. Nobody would believe me now, but I had to face a ton of obstacles just to be a designer. No one approved of my decision. There was a lot of social stigma. I had zero support except from an ex back then.
I earned very little from the early days of my design career, and being a freelancer only made that slightly better. For almost ten years I was very used to running out of money. Around the ten year mark I started making substantially more, and when I worked in the US I could afford to buy almost anything I wanted.
To throw all of that away, to go back to having to tighten purse strings and to leave the psychological safety and social validation of my career – I don’t have words to describe the shame, fear and insecurity I had felt making that decision. It is a decision I have to continually reaffirm. It was not a clean separation either, I tried to leave ‘halfway’ by trying to work for social causes instead. Then I poured my heart and energy into my interactive experiments. I probably subconsciously wanted to prove that I could still gain peer validation even if I quit my full-time job.
The past few years have been an exercise of letting go. I am still learning to let go. For a person who is so afraid to be abandoned, it has been difficult learning to live with the uncomfortable feelings and the social stigma of not having a career. Emotionally I’m a wreck, but intellectually I know I am doing the right thing for myself. I know if I don’t have the courage to quit the validation addiction, I will remain a slave to it for the rest of my life, I will never have the opportunity to discover what it means to live a life that is something I truly wanted, I will never know if I could ever be healthy.
Progress is difficult to measure when it comes to psychological progress. Like a changelog I had made for this site today, I have a private changelog of ongoing my life challenges. Only upon looking at it once in a while I get to see that despite feeling like I am still as wrecked as before, I am no longer as bothered by situations that used to bother me a lot.
But I go through cycles and seasons. I have spent months in depressed stupor. It takes a huge amount of psychological energy to make life changes and to transform our own psyche. I go through periods of good phases and then one day without reason or warning I slip into depression. The thing is, there is no measure for psychological energy. It can seem like I am doing nothing because I am not physically exerting myself but I am using up all the mental energy and will I have to make better decisions for myself. It is also tricky to expect psychological will from someone who doesn’t even really have the will to live for herself. So whatever reserves I had built up for myself would sooner or later be exhausted, and it would take me a long, unspecified time to recover.
I measure my recovery by how interested I am in things I am supposedly interested in. When I am in a phase of depression, I have interest in nothing. Not even this website. So when I am on the brink of recovery I would start working on the site again, and I would do things that I would do when I am actually interested in myself: journalling, eating better, exercising, tracking habits.
Recovery is not guaranteed or part of a natural outcome. I am not really sure of how and why it happens, but I hypothesise that it is a combination of:
- having a very tiny flicker of life-force emerging again
- being mindful of and isolating myself from triggers
- quality of the recovery phase, as in trying to really let myself recover instead of being hard on myself
- having another type of exhaustion occur: the exhaustion of feeling shitty everyday, so there is some desire to feel a little better but doing some intervention activity, like going for a run
A long while I go I drew this graph:
as opposed to this one:
I have yet to learn how to exist in a cycle like the earlier graph. Instead I am hoping the spikes become gentler, the despair phase shorter, and also the recovery time easier:
I guess on a meta level we could see how much difference the years have made to me by the visual quality of the graphs. I am a lot less vain now. Still vain, but less.
I am still figuring out what is enough. I tend to swing in extremes, so I always go from living a very unhealthy lifestyle to an extremely healthy one. I am currently experimenting with how much recovery time to give my body in between bouts of exercises, and how to eat moderately because being strict on my diets lead to unhealthy eating. I have struggled with boundaries and moderation my entire life, so I feel like a baby learning to crawl again.
To heal from emotional dysregulation requires time, patience, a ton of repetition and courage to leave potentially triggering but rewarding situations. The challenge is that a dysregulated nervous system makes it difficult to be patient, so the trick as I intellectually know is to treat it like how physical exercise works: stress it a little to build endurance, but not too much, rinse and repeat until the endurance slowly builds up. The key is to have a sense of agency in terms of how much and when is the exposure to stress. This is unfortunately almost impossible to do for most people which makes me really sad, because not allowing people the space to heal perpetuates cycles of pain and violence.
But for now I am in a position to carve this space for myself, and I hope to document my journey for other people in similar situations. Having space opening up doesn’t equate to automagic healing because we have internalised unhealthy behaviours so deeply that acting against these behaviours induce guilt and shame. I would have loved to read someone’s log of their journey when I first started out, it would probably cut short a lot of my confusion and grief, and even if it didn’t because for some reason I needed to experience these for myself, it would have still made it easier because I would have felt less alone.