Your rainforest mind is often thinking or overthinking or maybe even obsessing about changing the world. Perhaps you were told that because you’re so smart, you have a responsibility to do something important. Or maybe you’ve just felt responsible on your own. Since you were 5, or thereabouts.
Maybe you’ve become politically active. Joined an organization. Run for office. Or perhaps you’re more introverted and quietly spreading compassion around in your family and community. Or you might be composing a concerto or inventing a more efficient battery.
If you’ve chosen an extraverted, activist approach, I have some ideas that might help:
Being a political activist can be discouraging, disturbing, and discombobulating. For so many reasons. The work is often thankless, exhausting, and endless.
You’ve likely heard of the need for self-care. That you should take time to rest your weary bones and nourish your aching soul. That if you’re depleted and despairing, you will not be the most effective or influential.
Perhaps you understand this and are able to take breaks and find ways to stay energized and hopeful. Good. But even self-care may not be enough.
If you find that you’re constantly angry, frustrated, and fearful, and if your fellow activists are often acting like your dysfunctional family, I have a suggestion for you.
You know what I’m about to say.
Now I know what you may be thinking: I don’t have the time or the money for years of analysis. Or: I know that my family was full of crazies. Why do I need to rehash old stories? What good will it do? Or: The past is over. Live in the now. Think positive thoughts. People in therapy are too self-absorbed.
I get it. And I know that I’m biased. I’m a psychotherapist, after all. But let me tell you what I’ve seen. In myself and my clients.
Our families shape our perceptions of ourselves. If our parents are fearful, shame-based, angry, or abusive, our vulnerable young selves can’t help but absorb variations of that same fear, shame, and anger. We can’t help but interpret the dysfunction to mean that there’s something wrong with us or that we’re at fault because we are being abused or neglected or misunderstood. The effects can be deep and lasting because our parents are all-powerful to us, we’re in these families for years, and our sense of identity is heavily influenced by the behaviors, beliefs, and emotions of our caretakers.
What often happens when we become adults, is that we relive and re-enact these patterns and beliefs, even when we swear we’ll never be like our parents and we move miles away from them. We may unconsciously pick abusive partners, passive-aggressive friends, or angry bosses. We may live in fear of disappointing our parents, have recurring panic attacks, abuse substances, hate our jobs, or live depressed and desperate lives always seeking but never finding the parental acceptance and love that we were denied.
What can you do? Not only for yourself but for the world that you’re out to change?
Unravel this misunderstanding of who you are. Undo the damage. Heal your broken heart.
This can be a scary proposition. Diving into your wreck. It can take time. Even if you’re a fast learner. The process is often slow and complicated. You may get impatient and think you’re doing it wrong. You may have times when you’re feeling overwhelming sadness. You may wonder why the hell you thought that hanging out in a wreck was such a good idea.
But, eventually, you’ll find that it’s worth the time, money, and tears. You’ll notice changes in your inner and outer worlds. Healthy relationships. Less anxiety. Good boundaries. Moments of gratitude and joy. Well-adjusted kids. Expanded creativity, intuition, and spirituality.
You’ll discover who you really are. Your authentic, smart, creative self. You will have stopped the legacy of dysfunction that was handed down to you from your parents and their parents before them. You will have interrupted deep-seated unhealthy patterns in your family line.
And trust me. This is a big accomplishment.
And that’s not all.
As a social change-maker, your energy and enthusiasm will return. You’ll be more effective. You will act out of this healthier place rather than from a place of need, rage, fear, or guilt. Your fellow activists will stop acting like your dysfunctional family.
And even if your cohorts still do look a little like your needy mother or your angry father, it’ll be OK. You’ll be OK. Because, while swimming around in your wreck, you will have found the jewels.
And they are magnificent.
To my bloggEEs: As you know, I’m not wanting us to get into a specific political discussion. But I do suspect that some of you are experiencing the frustrations of activism and the challenges interacting with other humans who also want to change the world. Let us know how you deal with your particular brand of social responsibility. And if you’d like more thoughts about psychotherapy that are not written by a psychotherapist, go to this Ask Polly column. Thank you, as always, for being here.