DEAR KELLY: I’m someone who holds all my feelings into until I burst, then cry for like four hours. Usually I go to sleep and then start all over again. Sometimes it’s a week in between my crying fits and other times it feels like just a few days. I know I should tell people how I feel, but I worry that someone will get mad at me or that I’ll hurt their feelings or create drama, so I just hold it all in. When I was little, my mom’s husband (not my dad) was a alcoholic, so I always just stayed in my room and never said much because he might freak out or fly off the handle over nothing. They divorced and I don’t have to live with him anymore, but I still retreat to my room whenever there is any conflict and I break out in hives if my mom yells at me or over stupid things like our messy bathroom or not wiping up the kitchen counters. I can’t take it when someone is upset with me and even if I didn’t make the mess, I don’t know how to speak up and say I didn’t do it. I’ll go to my room, start crying, then go to sleep. Recently one of my friends got mad at me because of something political I retweeted. When I found out she was mad at me, I could barely go to school. I sat in the car and missed first period because I was so scared to see her and worried she would want to talk about it. When my other friends told her she texted me and said that she was over being mad at me and that it wasn’t a big deal, but I couldn’t handle the idea of dealing with it.
I don’t know what to do. Please help me. I’m scared that there is something wrong with me for how I act with my feelings and that I can’t talk about how I feel. I don’t want to have problems or something. Most of the time I get along with people and never have any problems, but when I can’t, I’m a … train wreck.
DEAR TRAIN: Avoidance is one way to deal with emotions. While it’s not the healthiest choice, it seems to be your go-to in stressful situations. Your past experiences with your alcoholic stepdad sound painful and stressful. Somewhere in that pain and stress, you developed the coping skill of avoidance to keep safe. At the time, retreating from an emotionally abusive person in your home was probably smart and helped you avoid potentially harmful or explosive situations. But it became unhealthy when you adopted that coping style for the rest of your life and stopped sharing your feelings with friends or family. What once protected you now hurts you and your relationships. Being aware of how debilitating and harmful the tendency to avoid any conflict is can be a big step toward changing your behavior and adopting new coping skills that allow you to express your thoughts, your needs and your feelings.
Let’s start with the obvious: problems are normal. So are conflict and disagreements. If you have a relationship with someone, there will come a time when you disagree. It’s natural and normal and nothing to panic over. The best relationships are the ones where we feel like we are able to be ourselves, speak our minds and appreciate people for being different. Disagreeing with someone or having them be upset with us is to be expected if you know someone long enough. But the important piece is knowing that even though someone is upset with us, they still love and care for us and we are still deserving of that love and care.
Developing open communication is vital to being an emotionally healthy person. This means that when an important issue arises, we are prepared to process it and deal with it. When we stuff it, it grows. When we avoid conflict it doesn’t reduce tension, it escalates it and eventually it becomes too big for us to handle. That’s when we have moments where we need to release the feelings in order to be able to process it all. Your way to release right now is to cry and sleep. This can lead to depression and other emotional issues. I’m concerned this could change and you could abuse alcohol or drugs, start cutting or turn to another unhealthy way to deal with your feelings. Not only is it important to learn to communicate negative feelings, it’s just an important to communicate positive ones as well.
If your family is able to afford counseling, a few sessions could be helpful as a starting place to share your feelings. Expressing emotions with a therapist can teach you how to talk about your feelings effectively and in a manner that you are heard and acknowledged. The counselor can offer tips on how to practice at home with family and friends and offer support and comfort for those uncomfortable feelings you need to push through to allow yourself to begin to open up.
If you can’t afford counseling, start with a journal where you share your feelings or an art journal where you draw your feelings. Perhaps you share or show parts of your journal with someone you trust like your mom, sister or close friend. Slowly you will begin to see that your feelings are valid and you are worth it when it comes to sharing what you feel. You can also practice by saying to a good friend or teacher, “I need your help.” Explain the situation that you need help working on sharing your feelings and can they help you when you get upset or bothered by something. Reaching out to others for help is an important part of being whole person.
It’s important to remember that embracing your strengths and well-being does not mean ignoring your pain or difficulties. Holding everything inside until we burst isn’t treating yourself with the love or acceptance you deserve. We are measured by our ability to handle and work through our emotions, hardships and insecurities, not avoid them. The more confidence you develop in your ability to handle disagreements, the quicker you will resolve and release them.