I don’t mean to brag but I am the absolute BEST at denying what I’m feeling. The greatest. So good, in fact, that I’m often the very last person to realize I’m feeling a certain kind of way. For instance, my husband will sometimes say to me, “What’s wrong?” when he gets that vibe that some shit’s about to go down and he isn’t in on the backstory. And I’ll reply, “Nothing,” because that’s truly what I think I’m feeling. Nothing at all. So I don’t realize that my flat affect, my monotone voice, my evasive posture are all giving away that I’m sad or angry or hurt or frustrated or even just reflective. It’s all there, I just don’t know it, yet.
This has, of course, caused issues from time to time. Sometimes he reads my “nothing’s wrong” as “she’s pissed and being deliberately cold,” which has lead to hurt feelings and misunderstandings or full out arguments. Luckily, in our 27 years together, he’s learned to understand how out-of-touch I can be with my own feelings. And I am learning to get better at recognizing my own emotions, or at least at saying, “I don’t know,” instead of “nothing,” when he senses I’m going through some stuff before I do.
Not being able to recognize how I’m feeling has bigger consequences than a dustup with my husband, though. Like that time I ended up in physical therapy for four months after six months of tension headaches that had me at the doctor’s office or ER four or five times, right around the purchase of our first house and a very stressful move. Or the time the doctors thought I had terrible food poisoning or maybe Crohn’s disease when they couldn’t help my mystery stomach troubles for half a year … that coincidentally coincided with my husband’s lengthy and difficult recovery from a brain injury. Or when I ended up on a long and unnecessary course of vitamin D therapy in an attempt to solve my seemingly unsolvable issues of hair loss, hot flashes, and every-other-minute heart palpitations, which just so happened to crop up during my husband’s first military deployment.
Even when I don’t notice that I’ve been scared or tense or anxious or frustrated, my body knows. And the longer I wait to pay attention to it, the more extreme measures it has to go to for me to finally get the message: “Hold the fucking phone, Kim, you’re suffering here.” The call is coming from inside the house, but I’ve gotten very good at ignoring the ringing.
Part of this is, I’m sure, that I’m a queen of denial when it comes to admitting that I’m struggling with something. Since I was a kid, I have hated the idea of appearing ‘weak’. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that being able to ‘take care of myself’ and not show any vulnerabilities was a survival technique I adopted really early on in life. The other part of it, though, is that, in stuffing my feelings so as not to appear like I could use a little help, I’ve also gotten really good at simply not feeling them at all. So that, “nothing’s wrong” I often default to isn’t so much an escape from admitting what’s wrong, but an actual, “I truly don’t feel like anything is wrong.” It’s an effective enough self-protection tactic, but it leads to, among a whole host of other things, an inability to—or even a lack of a need to—try to fix what’s wrong emotionally, because, as far as my head is concerned, it ain’t broke.
So lately I’m working really hard on paying attention to what my body is telling me about what’s going on in my head. The idea is that getting familiar with the subtle signs of distress (the shakiness, the quickened breathing, the tension, the dis-ease)—and, yes, even getting comfortable feeling them—will help me avert their gross expressions, which tend to land me in the doctor’s office. Now, when my cheeks get hot, I’m trying to notice what’s on my mind. When my heart palpitates, I try to stop for a second and breathe and feel it. When my gut churns, I pause to consider whether there’s something stressing me or I’m just hungry. (I’m pretty sure they call it “mindfulness.” For now, I’m calling it: “I’d rather pay my own car payment than help my physical therapist pay his, thanks very much.”) Plus, my ever-so-helpful meditation/yoga instructor husband* is always at-the-ready to remind me to do a “body scan,” where you do a check of what each part of your body is feeling, so you can be in touch with those sensations and feelings and hopefully, eventually, maybe even not be afraid of them. I’m not quite to the point of doing this voluntarily, on a regular schedule, but I’m starting to be less resistant when he suggests it. Baby steps.
Is it kind of messed up that I’m 44 years old and just now starting to learn how to listen to my body and feel my feelings? I think it is, a little bit. But, at 44, I’m also learning that I’m a little bit beyond worrying about what’s messed up or not. If it’s taken me this long to get comfortable feeling my feelings, well, fuck it … that’s what it’s taken.
And, you know what else I’m learning? That “self care” doesn’t necessarily have to involve anything more than paying attention to your self. Who would have thought?
*Snark/not snark. I love you, but also don’t tell me what to do. But also, thanks for looking out for me. And also, don’t tell me what to do.