I think that many people who suffered some form of oppression before will feel an extra sense of responsibility towards working for justice, because there is both a sensitivity and projection of what it feels like to be disempowered. I believe people with privilege has a responsibility towards underprivileged people. This was one of my favourite quotes:
“The Moneyball story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values. There are always market inefficiencies to exploit and so on. But to me, it has a broader and less practical message: Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck. And with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” – Michael Lewis
I considered myself to be very lucky. After all, I don’t have to work to take care of family, I was fed relatively well my entire life, I mostly didn’t have to worry about paying for school. I am gay and yet nobody bullied me for it, I was not chased out of my family home. I didn’t go to college yet I had built a relatively successful career, and I had even gotten a coveted H1-B visa to work in the US. I had felt it was my obligation to pay it forward.
So I tried to make a difference in my work, paid or not. I volunteered, I worked in places with social causes, I tried to work on meaningful civic projects with friends. But as many of you have already known this familiar storyline: I kept burning out, and I kept falling sick.
For a long time I was mystified. They keep saying if you find meaningful work you will not burn out. If you enjoy your work you will not burn out. But only upon many years of self-investigation I realised what I had was a lot of circumstantial privilege and luck, but what I lacked was something a lot more obscure, subtle, misunderstood: a healthy psyche and body.
Because I had felt my obligation to pay it forward so deeply, I overworked myself, emotional blackmailed myself, guilt-tripped myself, verbally abused myself. I was never good enough for myself, I was never doing enough. I was weak. I couldn’t be like my friends who held successful jobs or businesses and still had multiple side projects. Every time I read about someone who launched a wonderful side project despite having full-time work I felt bad about myself. I thought I was lazy, like people had said about me when I was young.
Obviously, whatever unhealthy psyche I had was made worse by how I treated myself. This mindset is also reinforced by peers, and for a long time hustling and having no sleep was considered not just virtues, but necessities (thank you science for proving otherwise). Then there is this whole Singaporean conditioning in place.
There is this belief that it is worthwhile to work ourselves to our deaths for the outcome, especially when it is concerning social justice. But again, what we do not know enough of, is the subtle and obscure effects our unhealthy psyche and habits have on the people around us, and worse, the people who look up to us and see us an examples of a good life to lead. We don’t see how our sleep-deprived, suffering minds impact the decisions of our projects, because these effects could be long-tail, or require dedicated work to excavate. We are only good at measuring short-term effects with the metrics we know. We may not know how much stress we are putting on our colleagues or family. We measure the number of lives impacted, obviously five people suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice if five thousand people can be helped, right? We don’t see how some of our unhealthy internalised beliefs may creep into the design of our projects. Let’s make marginalised people upgrade themselves and work harder!
But over the years I have witnessed how people with healthier psyches respond to challenges, and I came to a very painful point of acceptance that I may be more of a hindrance than help. At first I blamed it on my in-born character, that I was simply born fragile, then I learned about why I am the way I am. Even though I have been a mental health advocate for years and I had known since the beginning of my awareness that I was chronically depressed that mental illnesses were very much physical illnesses, I still got very upset when people insinuated that my illnesses were imagined into being. Both of my being and my work requires me to convince people to update their belief system, to open up their minds to new research and ideas. However, the act of explaining and swaying would exhaust and upset me to no end. Again, I blamed my character.
I learned about emotional dysregulation and c-ptsd over the past couple of years, and it dawned upon me finally that my adverse reaction to having to explain or defend myself or my ideas triggered a very deeply set pain. The author of “Complex PTSD” named them emotional flashbacks. Instead of a normal memory flashback when we would recall a vivid memory in our minds’ eye, emotional flashbacks are the body’s recall of the emotions felt in the past. So we have these very upsetting feelings happening again and again whenever there is a trigger, but we may not have conscious awareness that these feelings were tied to actual events in the past, since there may not be a visual memory attached to them.
“Emotional flashbacks are also accompanied by intense arousals of the fight/flight instinct, along with hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system, the half of the nervous system that controls arousal and activation. When fear is the dominant emotion in a flashback the person feels extremely anxious, panicky or even suicidal. When despair predominates, a sense of profound numbness, paralysis and desperation to hide may occur. A sense of feeling small, young, fragile, powerless and helpless is also commonly experienced in an emotional flashback, and all symptoms are typically overlaid with humiliating and crushing toxic shame.”– Pete Walker, Complex PTSD
I get very distressed when I encounter conflict because it reminds me of times during my childhood when I had to explain or defend myself desperately due to criticism, getting put down, or getting shut down. The sense of powerlessness I had felt. The feeling of not only being unloved, but of not being worthy to deserve love. The shame. The harshness and the cold. The loneliness. That I had nobody to turn to, no place where I can feel safe. That my existence is only a burden, if only I could be like other kids. The feelings of struggle because I was unable to cope, to meet expectations, and yet all I had gotten was labelling: lazy, a disappointment, a troublemaker, a rebel.
(My thoughts and feelings towards this are complex, especially after learning how little of our conscious minds and behaviour we can actually control especially without the help of therapy or healthy role models, and also the impact of intergenerational trauma on our DNA and physiology. I blame it on the system, on circumstances, on luck – the luck to be born in a family with less historical psychological baggage, or to have family who had the tools to transcend their programming, some people found loving mentors – a lot less so on the individuals.)
Each time I get into a conflict – it doesn’t matter what is the topic – just the act of having to explain or defend provokes my body into a chain of stress reaction. I can feel my face getting flushed, my heart rate spiking, the desire to cry, and this profound desire to not exist. This exacerbates and contributes to my chronic disorders because having stress hormones coursing perpetually through my body will not allow my body to heal.
I guess this is an extremely long-winded way (and probably not long-winded enough to include the actual research and explain the nuances) to say I have finally begun to accept that I simply cannot compare myself to a healthy individual or make myself perform my life the way a healthier person would. I wouldn’t ask of a person without legs to run a marathon, why would I ask of myself with a dysfunctional nervous system to respond the way other people can?
For most of my life I believed conflict avoidance is a bad behaviour, and I should overcome it. So I forced myself to grow a thicker skin. The skin never really grew. I think what happened was a gradual disconnect to my emotions which I think made things worse.
So for now, I try not to get into any interactions that would be potential for conflict. I don’t expect myself to participate in arguments anymore. I don’t wish to explain myself too much if a person cannot understand my position. I still think it is important work to do in this political climate, but that person cannot be me. It is extremely difficult to argue in a meaningful manner when I’m hyperventilating inside and all I feel is that my entire existence is under threat. It also triggers my depression and suicidal tendencies. Being at the brunt of the aggression and contempt that comes with the way some people argue is highly stressful for me as well. It doesn’t matter what my mind intellectually think, the body goes into an automatic response.
This is finally an explanation (for myself) why I have always preferred asynchronous communication, and also why I can broadcast (i.e. write here and tweet) when I am not in a good shape, but I cannot respond to 1:1 interactions. Broadcasting is mostly one-way and I can choose not to respond, but I can’t leave 1:1 conversations midway.
I think I should make space for myself to heal. If I keep expecting myself to behave like a healthy person and keep doing the “right” thing, my body will never know the experience of relaxation my entire life. I would never know if I can heal.
I am finally in a place where I don’t think I need to explain my life decisions or behaviour to anybody. Many people will never understand what it is like to feel chronically tense and unsafe, or to suffer chronic disorders for most of their lives. What it is like to be in so much emotional distress that death seems like an attractive option. To hate oneself so much, to always feel like a burden. I write here in hope that someone out there would know they are not alone in feeling alone, and these are the people I am writing and researching for.