I’m going to break down some reactions you may be having depending on different aspects of your personality, and help you put that together with others you live with so you can all get what you need. First, though, I’m going to say this:
Don’t go to Thanksgiving if you can’t see the people you’re supposed to be with.
You are an adult and it is your job to protect yourself and your kids, if any. You aren’t required to participate in your own harm and then have to smile through it.
(Having said that, if you do decide to go, I’ll talk about some strategies tomorrow for dealing with it. Also, if this idea of not going just because you always have is new to you, check out the book I wrote about creating a Christmas season you can live with (whether you celebrate or not). I had no idea when I wrote it how serious it would eventually be.)
There are a couple of dimensions I’m going to talk about to help you figure out how to heal and stay healthy: tension releaser vs increaser, introvert vs extrovert (which I’m not sure I really believe anymore), intensive vs expansive, and love languages. Figure out which of all of these you are, and you know how to heal. Figure out which of these your loved ones (partners, kids, friends, siblings) are, and you know both how to help them heal themselves AND why their efforts to help you can grate and why your efforts to help them can grate on them.
Tension Releaser vs. Tension Increaser: This is my own theory, based on having heard from hundreds of parents with hundreds of babies and toddlers, and observing my own kids. The idea is that some people release energy by crying, and some increase energy by crying. You see this in babies: a tension releaser will cry for 3 or 10 minutes to shut down at the end of the day and tap off tension to relax, and will then fall asleep. Often they can’t fall asleep unless they’re allowed to cry–it’s like creating white noise for them. As they get older, they need to tantrum in some way to work through their feelings so the feelings can go away. You can’t interrupt them to stop a tantrum, but you can accelerate one and when it’s over, they’re happy again. As adults, they need to connect with and externalize emotion about something to be able to get past it by blowing up physically (yelling, hand gestures, punching pillows, crying, etc), but then once they get the emotion out, it’s over. If you need to “have a good cry” before you can get past something, you’re a tension releaser.
In contrast, people who increase tension get overloaded by expressing the emotion, so that just makes them more upset. Babies who are tension increasers will cry and cry for hours until they vomit or fall asleep from exhaustion, and crying makes them really unhappy and they need to be comforted. The way to stop them from crying is to comfort them as soon as you can so they never work up into a full cry. As adults, they can talk about their feelings verbally, but letting the emotion get too big and take over their bodies feels horrible and they just get more upset. (I’m a tension increaser and if I start crying, I will cry for two hours uncontrollably, and after the first five minutes I’ll be crying because I’m crying and can’t stop. It’s horrible.) If “having a good cry” sounds like misery to you, you’re a tension increaser. Often, the way to get lasting negative emotions out is to work out really hard or do something that presses you to the border of physical pain, and the emotions get released that way.
Since the election, tension increasers are probably keeping their feelings internal and instead talking about logistics and facts instead of letting the feelings take over, so they don’t drown in the feelings. (This is why your tension increaser partner isn’t raging.) Tension releasers are crying and raging to get those emotions out, so they can reset to feel ok. (This is why your tension releaser partner is crying and screaming and punching things.)
Now, this intersects with the introvert vs extrovert concept in some interesting ways. I don’t really think people are either/or, but I think most of us have some sense of what we do when we’re in pain. If you turn out to other people to help you process your pain, you’re extrovertish. If you curl up to be alone to heal your own pain, you’re introvertish.
So think about how these things interact: If you’re introvertish and also a tension releaser, you just want to go someplace alone off in the woods to scream and cry and punch things. If you’re introvertish and a tension increaser, you just want hugs and maybe to talk about making some plans, with one person, and maybe writing things out will be helpful to work out your feelings over a few weeks. If you’re extrovertish and a tension releaser, you want to be with a bunch of people all ranting and crying together. If you’re extrovertish and a tension increaser, you start a trauma blog. (Not actually kidding.) You talk to other people in depth about the details and logistics and work through it together, but without letting the feelings take you over physically.
The next division is intensive vs expansive. This theory, created by Leela Sinha, is that intensives feel things more intensely and burn higher about most things in their lives, while expansives feel things less intensely and are focused on maintaining a regular rhythm. (Sinha theorizes that Trump and Sanders are intensives while Clinton is expansive, so people developed passion about Trump and Sanders but not as much about Clinton.) She has a chart on the front page of her website http://yourenottoomuch.com/ that helps you figure out which one you are. (Her book is illuminating, too, especially for people who have to work with the opposite type.)
The intensive vs expansive idea explains why some people are absolutely on fire about this election but others are focused hard on keeping things normal and moving on. It doesn’t mean the expansives don’t care as much, it’s just that they don’t experience their concerns as intensely. This is why your intensive partner is burning (almost literally–I think some of us have been running slight fevers since the night of the election) and can’t seem to settle back to pre-election normal. This is why your expansive partner is seemingly shaking it off and going back to work with what looks to you as if nothing is happening.
I bet a lot of you already know about the Love Languages concept. Developed by Gary Chapman, it’s the theory that everyone feels and gives love in one or two of five different ways. And if you can learn someone else’s love language, you know how to give them love in the way that feels meaningful to them, and if you figure out your own love language you can fill your own cup more easily (and tell others how to show love in a way you connect with). The five languages are: acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, and quality time. People allegedly have a primary and a secondary, and there’s an idea that cis men have physical touch as one of theirs (although I wonder if that’s simply a result of how we socialize boys in our culture). There’s a quiz on the Love Language site to figure out which one(s) are yours, and you can use it to figure out your partner, kids, boss, etc. (Although I’m betting a lot of you can tell which one is yours just by reading the list.)
This explains why sometimes when you try to give love to someone they seem not to care, or even to get angry, because it’s not what they experience as love. And vice versa. Maybe you really need a hug, but someone tells you how great you are. Maybe you just want to hear that you did a wonderful job, but the other person gives you a present instead. Maybe the other person just needs a little present, and you plan an afternoon together. These mismatches cause problems all the time, and they’re easily remedied if you learn your own language and the one of the people you interact with most often.
SO. Let’s put this all together and figure out what you need to be doing for yourself, and how to create the right container for your loved ones to do for themselves.
1. Does it help you to get the bad feelings out physically by raging or crying before you can move on? Or do you need to prevent the emotions from taking you over physically and instead need to be calm to increase your calm?
2. Do you feel better processing with others or by yourself?
3. Do you get into things intensely or do you like to keep things on a steady, even keel?
4. What’s your love language?
Now that you know these, you know how to proceed. If you’re an extrovertish tension increaser intensive with the love languages acts of service and gifts like me, you’re going to do something for other people right away that involves connecting with other people, and crying won’t make you feel better so you don’t even bother, and you let yourself go deep into action plans or theory or whatever grabs your attention. Set timers to remember to eat and sleep. When someone makes you a cup of coffee or gives you something that reminded them of you, it makes you feel nourished. Anyone who wants to show love to you should do something for you or give you a present (even if it’s free) and make contact with you when you need to be around someone.
If you’re an introvertish tension releaser expansive with the love languages physical touch and acts of service, you’re going to go off alone to your cave (I hope you have a cave) and cry or rage and then get back to work as soon as possible to make yourself feel better, and as soon as you’re back from the raging and crying you need hugs and/or sex and then for things to just be normal daily work. Anyone who wants to show love to you should leave you alone and trust that you’re healing yourself, and then when you’re ready to be back with them they should do things for you and give you physical touch.
If you’re living with more than just you, I’d get serious about figuring this out, today, and actually write it down for yourself and everyone you live with, to give yourself a cheat sheet for the weeks and months (and, God help us, years) ahead. I’d divide it up into columns for tension releaser/increaser, introvertish/extrovertish, intensive/expansive, love languages, and then a “what to do” column and a “what not to do” column. Mine looks like this, for me and my kids:
Then start taking this seriously. Tell your people specifically what they can do to make you feel love. Do the things that make your people feel love. Protect each other’s uniqueness. Give your people space to be alone or to cry or talk or whatever they need. Ask them to give you the space you need to be able to do what you need.
Now, here’s an assignment for everyone for trauma recovery: Go outside into nature and walk for twenty minutes, if you can and it’s safe for you to do so. While you are walking, focus on making your breath even and pay attention to your exhales. Breathe in and then observe yourself breathing out. Find any pace that feels good. Just keep paying attention to that exhale. When you come back, get a glass of water and drink it slowly.
All my love,