Today in Canada it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day. It’s a day where people share their stories about their own mental health struggles and learn about the struggles of others. It’s meant to help not only end the stigma associated with mental health, but to help those who are struggling. Bell also gives 5c from every applicable text/call/social media post to mental health initiatives in Canada. With that in mind, I thought I’d talk a bit about my own struggle with mental health. I’ve struggled with anxiety for much of my life. In my mid-twenties I ended up seeing a councillor, who I still see from time to time, to help me with this. I found it to be really helpful to not only get an outside perspective, but to enlist the help of someone professional who could provide me with some strategies for living a better life. Although there were certain incidents in my childhood that caused a lot of my anxiety and continue to trigger me today, it wasn’t really until my thirties, and fairly recently that I learned why things have always just bothered me so much.
I’d like to share with you where most of my anxiety tends to stem from so that maybe it can help you personally, or maybe help you deal with someone you know.
Grown Up Bullies
Most of my extended family doesn’t get along, and if we pretend to get along it’s really just that. Pretending. Many of us don’t see each other that often and everyone casually says it’s because we’re busy with our own lives and people grow apart and that sort of thing. That’s partially true, but I also think that it’s because at this point so much damage has been done that it’s just not worth the stress for some of us to see one another. There have been a lot of assumptions, things said, things done, and a whole complicated pile of still unresolved issues.
For me, my unresolved issues seem to involve bullies. Now we’re taught that bullying is wrong and we see the long term effects and problems that bullying can cause. We’re now taught to stand up to bullies and be a voice against injustice. This was not my childhood.
Some of my uncles aren’t very nice people. They like to throw jabs out there that they think are harmless jokes or just teasing that are definitely below the belt. Either that or they’re just straight up a-holes who say mean things because it gives them some weird sense of power or superiority. I don’t know why some people think it’s okay to bully children, but I was often bullied like this by these people growing up.
Whenever I’d get upset about this, because I was of course hurt and already feeling vulnerable and alone, I was told to just “suck it up” and “toughen up” and “grow a thicker skin”. Unfortunately what that told me was “Well, your uncles are bullies and none of us are going to stand up and do anything about it because it won’t solve anything. Your feelings don’t matter, life is hard, get over it, don’t let it bother you, they’re the ones who are jerks, everyone knows they’re jerks, that’s just the way it is.”
Don’t Talk Back
I learned at a very early age that adults could get away with whatever they wanted and if I said something back or tried to defend myself I was being “disrespectful” to my elders. I couldn’t understand why people in my family would let other family members treat me (or others) so badly. I was confused as to why if I said something mean or hurt someone that I would be punished, but these adults who should know better, were never told to back off. They were never confronted about their awful behaviour. Sometimes I was told because these uncles would take it out on their wives and “we wouldn’t want that”. “If I stand up for you think of how much worse it will be for everyone else” was the theme of the day.
Then enter the religious fanatics in my family with their “turn the other cheek” and “Jesus had to suffer” and all that business. All things that bring no comfort to a child. Besides, I thought Jesus’ whole deal was to help people? (I come from one of those nutty families who only believes the parts of the Bible that are currently convenient).
Also, don’t get me wrong here. I’m no snowflake. I’m pretty tough at the best of times but when you’re a child and you’re told that you can’t stand up for yourself when someone yells at you for taking a carrot off the table before dinner (and I mean straight up yells – like, people would hide their children at the mall if they heard this kind of yelling), it’s kind of hard to cope. I grew up in a time where people didn’t bother themselves with the sensitivities of children…and now those children get to deal with their childhood experiences in therapy (if we’re lucky).
If I was left to stay at my grandparents house as a child, I had no allies or anyone to make me feel safe or protected. And to make it worse, if I wasn’t alone and would run to my parents for comfort, I would be told that I needn’t make such a big deal of these little things, failing to recognize that this was part of a pattern of events that would constantly trigger me to feel unsafe and unable to protect myself. Traumas that would cause me problems well into adulthood.
I was taught that confronting a situation with honesty and/or saying “this is how what you just said made me feel” or anything like that would just escalate things further and cause “hassle for everyone”. Either that or that telling someone that they hurt you would only hurt them more.
How does this family deal with conflict? Well, there are a few ways. They either sweep it under the rug after it’s happened, completely ignore it while it’s happening (like in the aforementioned carrot incident) or find some way to pretend it straight up didn’t happen. No one stands up to bullies because heaven forbid you speak out against someone’s negative actions and make a situation blow up or have to actually face a confrontation. My extended family runs from confrontation. They avoid it at all costs, which sadly then inevitably just alienates people. Conflict and confrontation, no matter how minor are to be avoided at all costs. Take those feelings, swallow them, push them deep down inside and don’t talk about them ever again. That kind of thing.
The Double Standard of Feelings
Some of my relatives are allowed to “feel sad” or “hurt” but most of us are not. Those who feel hurt are dubbed as “sensitive” and as people we should be cautious around as to not upset them because they are “so easily hurt”. The rest of us are just supposed to take abuse and toughen up. For instance, I have an aunt that would cry easily at certain situations. She’d burst into tears over something seemingly small, my grandparents would run to comfort her and the rest of us would roll their eyes and say “Ugh, she’s crying again? What is it this time?” We’re taught not to be like that because “no one likes a crybaby” and that no one takes that behaviour seriously.
I still wonder as to why has no one ever bothered to ask her why she was so easily hurt? Why has no one asked why something simple seems like a big painful issue? Maybe something bigger is going on. People would say that she has no self-esteem or that her husband was always rude to her or come up with some excuse and we were all supposed to “feel sorry for her”. How must that have made her feel to know that people just felt sorry for her all the time rather than taking the time to actually get to the root of it all?
Life Isn’t Fair…But We All Know That
I know life isn’t fair. I think we all do. And it certainly isn’t fair in my family. When it comes to my grandparents, the squeaky wheel gets the grease so to speak. If you’re someone who cries to get attention, they will cater to you, but then the rest of the family rolls their eyes and mocks you behind your back for being such a baby. If you ask for what you want, then you’re seen as selfish and demanding. People are not treated equally because in an attempt to accommodate certain needs, others’ needs are stepped on and disregarded completely. There’s no pleasing everyone, but the needs of the few certainly outweigh the needs of the many here.
If you point out a double standard (because they are oh, so many) of how accommodations or considerations were made for one cousin or relative but not for you or others, then how dare you be so callous to point out injustice. It’s somehow your fault for feeling hurt or disappointed by it and then you’re also at fault for “upsetting your grandparents”. There is somehow a lot of victim shaming in my family, too. We don’t always get what we want in life, and there is much injustice in the world, but there’s no need to be a jerk about it.
Being held to a different standard for behaviour and life choices might be inherent to being the eldest grandchild, but again, brings little comfort to a child in a world that is already unfair.
Like I said, life isn’t fair, but it’s how we deal with it that makes the real difference here.
Sometimes all you want is for someone to recognize and acknowledge that “this wasn’t fair” and say “I’m sorry they treated you this way, it wasn’t right of them” or “I understand how you’re feeling and I’m sorry”. It’s not always about finding a way to make things right, but more about acknowledging the feelings and having some empathy and understanding. Sometimes that’s enough to diffuse the emotions of a person who is feeling anxious. Sometimes it’s more about being heard, rather than dismissed with some kind of life lesson logic.
Mistakes Were Made…And There’s No Going Forward
When I was 24, I’d decided that I’d finally had enough of this bullying in my family and decided not to invite a couple of relatives to my wedding. I didn’t want to deal with their commentary or behavior on what should be the happiest day of my life. I made my decision, but somehow not inviting them wasn’t enough for me, so I sent a letter explaining why. It was probably immature of me to do so, and as you can imagine it completely backfired. This was almost 9 years ago.
I’ve maybe seen the rest of my extended family a collective handful of times since then, and that’s being generous. They’ll get together for family holidays, visit one another, etc. and I don’t get invited because if certain relatives are there, I can’t be there. Either that or we’re just casually excluded enough that we know not to be there. My aunt who I decided not to invite to my wedding decided that she was “done” with me and my parents and didn’t want anything to do with us going forward (or so I was told…who really knows what the truth is). People say they didn’t take sides, but let’s be honest, it sure looks like they did. And if we’re going to mention things that aren’t fair, I don’t think any of the rest of us would be allowed to “quit” certain family members, which is disappointing.
Looking at the other side of it, if I were her, I might have quit, too. Maybe she felt there was a lot of injustice and stress and anxiety and a world of hurt feelings and she’d just had enough of it, too. Couple that with whatever assumptions get made about people, whatever version of reality someone gave her, how could she not want out? Maybe it was just what she had to do for herself and her well-being and why does everyone say “well, she just needs to get over it!”? It’s pretty hard to get over things when they’re unresolved, and I say this from experience. Maybe the rest of the family needed to help out here. Maybe they left her behind, too.
In all honesty, I wish I’d handled the wedding invite thing better. My biggest regret about my wedding was having as many people as we did. A group of 35 just felt a bit too big at the end of the day. Keeping it smaller, I could have gotten away with not inviting these relatives without it being an issue. I also wish I wouldn’t have told them why I didn’t invite them and just kind of kept my distance going forward. It wasn’t worth the honesty because it just came off as an attack. Like I said, my family doesn’t deal well with honesty or conflict or emotions.
The Real Root of My Anxiety
But I digress. Back to why this all causes me anxiety. My anxiety stems from not feeling safe. It isn’t necessarily logical but these things often aren’t. For instance, I feel anxious when I fly. I know all of the science around it, the statistics, I know how safe it is and all that, but I still feel really nervous. Now I’m able to fly with my little dog, Hattie, on my lap and she brings me so much comfort and a sense of calm when I feel like I just can’t relax and settle my heart rate.
My anxiety also comes from not feeling understood and having my feelings dismissed. When it comes to handling anxiety with family stress, that is a completely different story. I can’t take Hattie everywhere, but I can take my husband everywhere. I’ve been fortunate enough to find the one person on this entire planet that actually gets me. Someone that understands what makes me tick, why I do or say anything, why I react a certain way, what I’m thinking and why I’m thinking it. The one person that is my only true ally in times of struggle because he tells me that we’re in this together and makes every effort to understand me and let me feel heard.
I still struggle with family situations “triggering” me, even in my 30s and after hours of therapy. The biggest struggle for me is that I just don’t feel understood. Not feeling understood causes me deep anxiety in family situations. It doesn’t just make me feel like an outsider, but because of how I was ‘handled’ as a child, it makes me feel like I’ve always done something wrong and that my feelings are “bad” and that feeling anxious/uncomfortable/sad/hurt/upset are all my fault and like I’m a huge problem. This only increases feelings of loneliness and separation.
Yes, sometimes we do need to toughen up, but it’s also important not to dismiss someone’s emotions time and time again with a simple “well, life’s not fair”, “don’t make such a big deal of this”, “you need to toughen up/grow a thicker skin”, or “don’t make this into something”. All those replies say is “your feelings don’t matter”, “stop feeling this way” (because somehow emotions are something we can just turn off like a faucet), or “this is your problem, stop making it mine/everybody else’s”.
I’ll be honest that almost every time I spend time with family, even with no expectations, I somehow get my heart broken. Having someone like my husband with me who I know understands me and would protect my heart at all costs is enough to get me through. I know that not everyone is so lucky.
How To Help Someone With Anxiety
My goal in sharing this is that maybe you or someone you know have gone through or are going through something similar or have felt these emotions. I want people to know that they aren’t alone, my family situation is not unique by any stretch and that most of us go through things like this on a daily basis. If your family deals with things in a similar way, I invite you to try and make positive change in those relationships going forward.
For me, my anxiety is not often triggered by these family traumas, but that’s mostly because I now keep those who trigger me at arm’s length, maybe avoiding them more than I should. It isn’t always easy and it’s not always possible. Avoiding things doesn’t make them any better – it just leaves things unresolved.
It’s never too late for a little understanding. I think it’s really important to talk about what triggers us and maybe be a little more understanding of each other. These things aren’t always logical and telling someone to just “fake it until they make it” – it’s about having an open mind and being caring and empathetic, rather than just trying to shut people down because it isn’t convenient or it’s uncomfortable.
Talking about these things is the best place to start. Being a good listener is a good place to start, too.