Validation Isn’t Just For Parking Tickets

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A couple of weeks ago, I reacted to something inappropriately – I dismissed something that my husband was feeling and I realised as soon as the words left my mouth what I had done, but by then of course it was a little late to take it back.

I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately surrounding vulnerability and validation. I think vulnerability may come up more in its own post about the subject, but validation is so very important.

And I neglected that.

A bit of background information would be helpful here… My husband has an old Mk 2 Golf that is very much a project car. We have named her Christine after the Stephen King novel as she is, lets say, high maintenance? (Although she hasn’t tried to kill me yet, so I’m taking that as a bonus 😉)

Anyway, Christine has some relatively nice alloy wheels. On this particular Saturday we had to pop out to pick up some toilet seat hinges (such a glamourous life we lead!) and also a few grocery bits. However, before we got to Screwfix, my husband had to do a three-point turn which was tighter than anticipated and he scraped the front passenger side wheel on a curb. He got out to check and it had left ‘a huge gouge’ in the paint. He was pissed off – mostly at himself, but also because of all the time and effort he has put into that car, and now something else, so easily avoided had gone wrong. It had already been a hugely stressful week, he wasn’t looking forward to fixing the toilet seat, it was hot, we were tired and hungry etc etc…

We went around to the supermarket and as we got out of the car, he came around to take another look, I also looked and… I couldn’t see anything. I was expecting ‘a huge gouge’ out of the paint. I’m not into cars in the slightest, to me it just looked like a regular alloy wheel. He pointed it out to me – a scrape along the outside edge and… well, I did the worst thing I could possibly do, I laughed.

Not in a cruel way – I wasn’t laughing at him, but in more of a relived way. I told him that it wasn’t that bad and hardly noticeable. I did the one thing that I always try not to do, I minimised his feelings, I invalidated his concern.

Of course, this did nothing to improve his mood. I tried to explain to him that my initial reaction was just relief – for him – that it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. But it was too late – the fixing of the toilet seat when we got home was punctuated with swearing and the slamming down of screwdrivers, which was completely understandable. I hadn’t heard him, I hadn’t realised that actually, it wasn’t about the wheel at all.

It was a build up of things, of worry and anxiety that had filled our week off. It was the driving to and from Bristol which had stressed him out for a number of reasons. The additional driving down to Dorset to a specialist vets appointment which was anxiety inducing, hot and once again gave no real conclusion to an ongoing concern with our dog. It was the social obligations which had taken their toll, it was the thought of going back to work after not exactly having a relaxing time off. It was the lack of decent sleep on and off for a fortnight due to stress. It was the thought that Saturday and Sunday should have just been two days to finally chill out – and now because of an error of judgement, there was something else to ‘fix’.

But… it wasn’t my job to fix this situation, and it is never our jobs to fix other people’s problems. My job – which I neglected to notice – was just to hear his frustration. To recognise it, acknowledge it and act accordingly. Because when we feel heard we feel empowered, we may not realise it at the time, but we do realise when we aren’t heard and the space that it puts us in.

I should have said sorry and bought him chocolate 😊

My husband, upon reading it to this point

However, this ‘trying to make things better’ is something that I think we have all been guilty of at some point or another. Its horrible to see someone we love and/or care for upset, angry, or frustrated so we try and do what we can to bring them out of the situation. It can also sometimes be uncomfortable for us and so we want to move past those feelings quickly so that we can get on with our day and put whatever unfortunate happening that has just occurred behind us.

Is that selfish? No, I don’t think so. I think that we all experience uncomfortable feelings – definitely in adulthood but we would have done so as children as well. We all have our own feelings about feelings – I am uncomfortable with anger for example. If I am ever angry then I don’t know how to safely hold and sit with that emotion, and if someone is angry at me or around me then I don’t know how to react, so I go very quiet, very small and just take it. But we would have all had instances in childhood where we felt strong emotions – such as anger, resentment, sadness and also the extremes at the other end of the scale such as love, generosity and giddying waves of happiness. How those feelings were reciprocated by parents and caregivers when we were at the cognitive developmental stage where we didn’t know how to express ourselves, will undoubtedly shape how we learn to deal with them as adults. This also applies to when we see someone else expressing these emotions that we struggle with – we react in the ways that we were reacted to.

With the incident with the car, I just wanted to make it better for him – but he was also angry, and I didn’t know how to deal with that and so my innate reaction was to get us both out of that situation as quickly as possible.

It didn’t work – and why would it have done? Making light of the situation wouldn’t have made the scrape in the wheel go away. We could have held hands and laughed and skipped our way into Morrisons, but his feelings of frustration and anger would have still been there. The situation that caused the discomfort wouldn’t just disappear if we ignored it.

Our feelings – whatever they may be – need to be heard. Talking about feelings, with a partner, friend, parent, child etc is such an important step in honouring our true selves and opening up those bridges of communication. If I made my husband feel silly over the car or if I repeatedly tried to distract him or judged or minimised his feelings every time something went wrong – even if its not about a subject that I am particularly knowledgeable on – then he’s going to stop communicating when he is upset, and this won’t just apply to what is happening in the garage. However, it is also important to realise that his emotions aren’t mine – I don’t have to crouch down and hold my head in my hands and get angry and frustrated at instances like the scrape in the tyre, I just need to communicate that I can see that he is upset and angry and keep the dialogue going.

Instead of laughing, I could have said something like ‘Oh dear, that must make you feel frustrated’ – and then instead of storming off into the supermarket ahead of me, he perhaps would have said ‘Yes, I had just got the car how I want it/its going to take time to fix/but its not just that…’ etc. It would have opened up the space for him to communicate and to have his feelings heard.

It isn’t dangerous to have our feelings out in the open – even the ones that can feel really difficult to express.  No bolt of lightening is going to come and strike us down if we dare to actually feel these difficult emotions and communicate with each other about them, in fact, much the opposite will happen. Learning to recognise our feelings and our emotions for what they are allows us to be more in tune with ourselves and with those around us – it allows us to communicate honestly and openly and it teaches us that our emotions – whatever they may be – are valid. In turn, this plays an important role in being able to trust our own instincts, for example if we begin to recognise fear or unease for the emotion that it is – instead of squashing it down and ignoring it because ‘it doesn’t feel very nice’ – then we become better at protecting ourselves and those around us.

I’m not there yet with anger. I can now recognise it as something that I need to be mindful of and work on – and I am very fortunate that I have some wonderful friends and a wonderful husband that are more likely to encourage me to talk about my anger when I feel it and help me unpick it, rather than try and ‘fix’ it with platitudes, but these things do take time and a lot of patience. When I have been angry in the past and I have pushed it down and tried not to feel it because I have had that belief for 34 years that ‘anger is bad’ – where has it gone? It hasn’t come out of me, no, it has stayed and whispered in my ear that what I feel doesn’t matter, that what I feel is ‘wrong’, that what I feel makes me a bad person… and do you know what other name we have for that voice? Depression.

So, encourage people to talk – those that you love, those that you care about. Let them know that it is ok to feel what they are feeling and that no emotion – however hard it may be to experience is ‘wrong’. We cannot be shining beacons of light and grace at all times; life doesn’t work like that.

In order to appreciate the light, we must also experience the dark – and the dark can look different for each any every one of us.

Philippa Perry has written about this subject in her wonderful book ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did)’ and during my most recent round of therapy, I have found this book – and some of her talks on YouTube to be highly illuminating.

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Codependent

Image credit: Dominik Vanyi @ Unsplash

Codependency was a word that I never fully grasped; it was something I never fully understood and something that – even now – I struggle to spell!

And yet, I was it, I was it to the letter. If anyone wanted an example of what a co-dependant person looked like, they could just bring me forward, with my phone firmly planted within my hand and my attention off elsewhere, and show me off as a good and fine specimen of someone who has fallen into that trap…

I hadn’t become this way intentionally of course, I hadn’t even become this way consciously, but I had become it all the same. It had happened over years, namely with one person, but there are little glimpses and tell-tale signs with others too. However, with this one person it was powerful, it was overwhelming and it was becoming very, very damaging.

This was a person who I had never met and who I had no real intention of meeting. He was a man who I had met online years ago, our conversations had started out regarding a shared interest in mental health and we had formed a friendship of sorts. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the hard stuff with someone if you don’t have to look them in the eye… and so, we gradually opened up to each other. He told me things that he had (allegedly) not told anyone else and I listened and advised the best that I could. When I suffered dips in my mental health, I turned not only to my husband and closest friends, but also to him. He always replied, always acknowledged my feelings… and then always reciprocated with his own.  

This isn’t a writing about how a friendship turned sour though, far from it. We don’t talk now, after a very difficult conversation we decided to have some time apart and whilst I admire him in many ways and still sometimes feel like I have lost a huge pillar of strength within my life, I also know that he has to address his own problems before we could ever hope to build a healthy relationship.

I also know that I need to address mine.

Because co-dependency doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. I became co-dependent because I had a need for something, something that was lacking and something that even now I struggle to identify. My over whelming desire within this friendship, was to fix; I wanted to make everything better, I could see the damage that was being done by my friends behaviours, but I could also see the things that would help him and I could see such potential – if only he would listen!

But he was listening, wasn’t he? We would have these long conversations; we would talk our way round the same situations day, after day, after day. He would ask me ‘What do I do?’ and I would reply with logic and compassion. I harnessed everything that I had learnt in therapy, everything that I had read about mental health and addiction. I would read articles online to try and improve my knowledge of the specific things he was struggling with. I would talk to my best friend – a qualified mental health nurse – and relay information, I would find song lyrics that resonated with his struggles and send him the music so he didn’t feel so alone. I would speak to him first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I would engage in behaviour that was damaging to my own mental health, in order to prevent him from either a) getting what he needed in that moment from someone who was potentially dangerous for his mental health or b) hurting someone else. But this was friendship, right? This was helping him, surely?

No, and no.

I remember very clearly the moment that it all clicked. It was on a day off, so I had been at home by myself all day and, yes, talking to him via text for a good part of it. I was feeling pretty tired – this was at the end of last year, so very much still combating my own medication withdrawal and Fibromyalgia symptoms. I ran a bath, loaded up Insight Timer and I saw a talk on the homepage by Michelle Chalfant about codependency…

I led in the bath and listened to her describe the behaviour I had been exhibiting, for years. Not just ‘oh, that kind of applies’ but every, single, item on that list I could identify and relate back to something I had done. I realised that I was not ok, if he was not ok – and he, was never ok.

It was like my empathy with this man had gone into overdrive, I wanted so desperately to make everything better for him that I had completely neglected myself in the process. He hadn’t specifically asked me to, he hadn’t directly put this stipulation on our friendship that I must behave in this way or he would leave – but I kind of felt that way all the same. I am learning the reasons now why I did that, I am working through my own feelings and my own motives for that behaviour – but it’s not easy.

We carried on talking for a while after that, but something had shifted. Truthfully, I was scared, I was scared to let him go because if I didn’t have him to ‘help’, then what would my purpose be? I was also very scared that actually, he wouldn’t care. That he would just say ‘ok then’ and go and I would end up with the weight of rejection upon my shoulders. I was also scared that all of this, all of these conversations, all of this kindness, this empathy, this care that I had willingly and freely given over months and years would be for nothing.

I was scared that it made me selfish.

Co-dependency is complex. My motives for my behaviour came from a number of different places – from the need to be heard, to my need for validation and also my natural desire to help and to empathise. The times that he would say ‘yes, this makes sense’ were the glimmers of light and the behaviour he continued to exhibit that went against that very same piece of advice, extinguished those sparks. But he would learn from that for next time, right? So I kept on, persevered and tried to be a good friend. In the end it just exacerbated those ingrained feelings and beliefs of being unheard, but to me, that was familiar and so it was ‘safe’. It was known behaviour so it was comforting even though it stung like ripping off a sticking plaster each and every time. I found that I couldn’t trust him, and yet I confided in him still. I found that I got angry with him, but it felt more like being angry at a child. I found that I was sinking into his problems whilst my own screamed at me from the surface…

Letting him go would also mean I didn’t have a distraction from my own problems anymore.

Eventually, it was my decision to end contact with him. It wasn’t pre-meditated, it wasn’t a thought out ‘I am going to have this conversation and it will be resolved by X, Y and Z’. It was a row – it was an insensitive comment made by him about my husband on a day when I was feeling depressed and in pain and having to brave it out at work. It was the argument that ensued and this voice that bubbled up inside me and screamed ‘this is not ok!’.  I had been ignoring this voice, my own voice that said repeatedly, for months, ‘I am done…’ but I should have listened to her; my inner child may be small and gentle but I was doing her no favours by not hearing her – eventually she screamed, a scream of pain, a scream of frustration and a scream so powerful that my decision was made in that instant. I was done.

Afterwards, it felt worse than any romantic break up that I had ever endured. I spoke to friends about it; I spoke to my husband and my therapist about it. I meditated on it, I questioned what I had done, and I checked his social media profiles to see if he was ok… but I didn’t go back.

One thing I noticed in those first couple of weeks was how much time I had! I wasn’t tied to my phone anymore. I also noticed that my confidence improved – I wasn’t hiding behind someone else’s problems. Yeah, sure, this meant all of my problems came to the surface but I could own them now. I tried to turn some of that care and affection back onto myself – and some days I manage it, some days I don’t, but at least I am trying. It’s something that will take months, if not years because it isn’t straightforward and this type of behaviour has roots that are buried deep.

I still miss him. I still wonder how he is, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am learning the importance of boundaries and the importance of true friendship. I am learning to listen to the voice of my inner child because she knew what was up before I had even registered it. I am learning to forgive – both him and myself and I am learning that we cannot, ever fix someone else.

We can love them, we can support them, we can validate their feelings and we can send them all the articles and song lyrics in the world.

But we cannot fix them, for that is a path they must walk alone.

Turn Around

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You tried to outrun it, didn’t you?

You tried to speed ever onwards, not looking back. Through relationships, and jobs and sweet amber liquid that tasted like how you imagine silence might sound.

The bridges that you built in haste with shaking, trembling hands stood firm, they didn’t crumble, they didn’t fall. They held your heavy, fast footsteps as you cleared each one.

It was working.

It was messy and it was band aids and it was hard. But it was working, wasn’t it?

Until it wasn’t.

Until it gained speed behind you. Did it pick up it’s pace, or did you slacken yours?

I suppose it doesn’t really matter, it was going to catch up with you eventually.

Because you can’t outrun fear my love. You can’t outrun that little knot of fear and loneliness and emptiness that a small child once grasped with both hands and couldn’t let go of.

You need to take a deep breath, turn around and take it from him now. It’s heavy, so be careful.

Be brave.

And then you can walk the rest of the way, with a small hand in yours and the loneliness, at least, will subside.

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Treasure


Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

They all called her Treasure, the reliable and friendly ear at the end of the day as they sat and drowned their sorrows before going home to their wives.

She had been working the strip bar for most of her life, seen many come and go. There was a time when she worked the floor and the poles, but not now…

Now she was a mother. Not in the literal sense, she had never had an opportunity like that, but she was a mother to her girls. The wide eyed and lost, turning up out of the blue looking for some money in their back pockets and a place to hide out, so long as they didn’t mind exposing their secrets for all to see.

She loved them like a mother would, didn’t that count? In fact, she loved everyone like a mother would… always a friendly ear or a soft bosom to be comforted by. Some stayed, but many moved on. Back to the big city or off with the newly discovered love of their life, many stayed in touch. The mirror behind the bar was strewn with photos of places she’d never been.

No… she stayed, as summer gave way to autumn and the years ticked on by, she stayed. She told herself, she knew that this was where she was meant to be. She put her uniform on every day; the lipstick, the make up, the skirt, top and heels, she did it for them. She got herself in the bar and she listened… she listened as they drank and wept, listened as they celebrated the birth of their first born, second born, third and fourth born. Listened as they told her they were single but the tan lined band on the finger told a different story. Listened when they got the job, didn’t get the job, hated the job. Listened and comforted when their dog died, or their parents or their wives. She poured the drinks and leant in close and she knew these lives inside out and cared for these people like a mother, each and every one…

If she left, who would listen? So she didn’t leave. How could she leave? She knew her purpose was within these familiar walls. On her good days she knew she was doing the world a purpose, these people could go on to do great things, simply because they had been heard.

And so they all called her Treasure, because that’s exactly what she was.

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