…and cancer trumps PTSD


(((This post provides additional commentary regarding subject matter from the previous post.  Click here to start “at the beginning”))

Hopefully, since you read the previous post I can provide a bit of context and why I am choosing to drudge up ancient history.  Around late fall of last year as I was entering my final year of coursework, I was assaulted by a patient at work.  This re-traumatizing experience forced me to seek the help of my old therapist, whom I now visit with monthly.  In our initial session she was quite direct with me about her disappointment about my lack of self care.  This much-needed wake up call has resulted in a new exercise and nutrition regimen. Other steps taken included reaching out to others and taking time to de-stress.  I made a conscious effort to avoid isolating myself and reached out to others.  I got to get together with some coworkers a few times for lunch.  Finally, after the holidays, my sister and I decided to meet up at a local mall to shop.  This was our first “get together” after a much needed break.  The experience was truly serendipitous in a way I am unable to put into words.  It’s as if all old hurts had melted away and I was able to simply enjoy spending time with my sister.

While I would like to discuss this experience in greater length during a later post, my therapist shared some interesting perspective on healing trauma that is worth mentioning briefly.  In the aftermath of a splendid afternoon  with my sister that produced no “triggery” experiences,  I couldn’t help but wonder how the effects of past traumas could have melt away suddenly – even if for only one splendid day?   Keep in mind, I could write a novel on the intricacies of my own self-understanding (as you can see).  Despite my best efforts, it wasn’t the cognitive work or self-awareness that mattered.  Simple tasks like remaining present when a trigger hit, meditation, EMDR and daily exercise allowed my body to process old hurts, in the way my mind alone was unable to.  Reviewing insights from Bessel Van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps The Score”, in our session, my therapist provided interesting insights on healing trauma (2014).  His insight contradicts “conventional wisdom”, Bessel’s description of how healing happens, coincides my experience better than any other work I’ve ever written.  For those of you interested in “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book, what follows is an excerpt from a recent New York Times interview:

“Exposure therapy involves confronting patients over and over with what most haunts them, until they become desensitized to it…desensitization is not the same as healing…CBT seeks to alter behavior through a kind of Socratic dialogue…trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition….the way to treat psychological trauma [is] not through the mind but through the body….paying careful attention to physiological states…” (Interlandi, 2014, p4)

In the aftermath of having experienced a serendipitious “healing” event, I have a renewed appreciation my therapist’s wisdom, of the critical importance of self-care.  As a perpetual caregiver, student, mother, and PTSD sufferer, attending to my own well-being is a vital.  Coming to terms with this diagnosis has meant accepting that interventions exist as a form of management and are not a cure.  Accepting the fact that there is not cure means acknowledging how my past traumas have changed me in ways which are unalterable.  Letting go of “what I was” has been an essential component in moving forward.

…and then life throws a curve-ball

In the months since this experience, life for me has been fairly unremarkable.  My kids are thriving, school is progressing and I’m wrapping up the final coursework necessary for my program. I am looking forward to a few promising internship opportunities, and have even started a new weight loss regimen.   In the midst of these events, I receive a call from my sister “out of the blue”.  She informs me she has breast cancer.  With a hysterectomy, oophorectomy and possible bilateral mastectomy in her near future, we are waiting the results of a genetic test which determines my risk for developing it.  My mother (a clinical cytogeneticist) thinks the results are probably negative in light of no family history of breast cancer.  However, there is no guarantee of this until we receive the results of my sister’s test.  In light of these recent events, I have developed a renewed appreciation of life as a gift to behold.  As a woman in today’s world who is “north of 40” and struggling to lose weight, I have issues with the qualities defining my “meat suit”.  In the aftermath of this news I suddenly realize these appearance-related insecurities are irrelevant to me now. Instead, I appreciate my good health, and the fact that this body has given birth to life beyond itself. Having said all this, my struggles with PTSD and family relationships are ongoing. Recent events have been triggery, yet I’ve managed them quietly.  In the hopes that I might find an appropriate place to begin “processing”,  I’m turning to this blog as a place to “do my dumping”…

And the dumping begins…

My immediate reaction to this news has been strangely reminiscent to other experiences of this variety. At two months of age my son went into cardiogenic shock  while at home with me.  He was later diagnosed with pulmonary atresia, and has endured five open heart surgeries thus far.  I was in shock during the ensuing events that unfolded when he was first diagnosed.  Doctors and nurses hovered over him, and struggled to keep him alive.   The idea that he require a series of surgical repairs was met with an outer-body response and complete numbness which prevented any emotionality from “peaking through”.  As I have later come to understand, this dissociative response (common to PTSD sufferers) is a double-edged sword.  As I like to put it, PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation.   Effective coping tools necessary when in the midst of “extreme situations” have allowed me to survive them.  At the same time, when these coping tools became permanent life-altering modes of adaptions to daily life, the price has become painfully huge.

As I reflect now, I’m still troubled by the fact that my emotions aren’t peaking through.  In light of the very real fact that my sister’s life is now “held in a delicate balance”,  due to a nasty and insipid disease, why is it I can’t allow myself to feel anything?  Fortunately I have a therapy appointment next week in which I can begin “processing”.   In the meantime, I need a place where I can “be me”.  I desire to “own my story” and claim my “role in it” in order to move forward.  I need a place, where I can speak those “unspoken thoughts” and share “unpleasant feelings” openly.  Since my family is VERY technologically challenged, I feel the chances they run across this blog highly unlikely.  In fact, I’m at peace with the idea, that I’m creating these posts for “nobody”, since I really get no traffic.  This brings me to the subject matter of the previous posting.  Events have unfolded that have resulted in the re-emergence of old misunderstandings that leave me in the midst of a troubling ethical dilemma.

“How to insert foot in mouth…”

Last week, my sister sent a group email with a link to an article titled “How not to say the wrong thing”.  Written by a breast cancer survivor and psychologist by the name of Susan Silk.  This Los Angeles Times article delineates her “Ring Theory” of support for those facing a crisis.  Referring to the image at the beginning of this post, this “Ring Theory” describes concentric circles of relationships surrounding the person at the center of a crisis:

“Draw a circle.  This is the center ring.  In it put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma…Now draw a larger circle around the first one.  In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma…In each larger ring put the next closet people…” (Silk & Goldman, 2013).

While viewing this ring, it is important to remember that the person in the center requires comfort and support from loved ones to endure the oncoming crisis.   In order to provide the support a sufferer needs, everyone associated with this “crisis sufferer” needs to be aware of what they bring to the table in interactions with that individual.   Providing comfort and support, means listening to this sufferer while they dump on others.  This might mean listening to the sufferer discuss their current “life is unfair…why me” (Silk, & Goldman, 2013), moanings, while providing an empathic “I’m sorry this must be hard for you” (Silk & Goldman, 2013) response.  Supporters need to be aware of their needs to dump, and avoid doing so in the sufferers presence.  Bitching and moaning, rather than offering comfort, while with a sufferer means they need to utilize precious psychological resources to comfort you.  Susan silk describes this experience in the next quote:

“When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues.  She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so.  Her colleagues response?  ‘this isn’t just about you’…’It’s not?’ Susan wondered. ‘My breast cancer is not about me? Its about you?'” (Silk & Goldman, 2013).

As the above quote implies we make another person’s crisis ‘about us’ when we dump upon them and share our reactions to their trauma and expect them to comfort us.  For example, in the aftermath of my own trauma recovery process, I remember having to console my sister and parents much of the time. As I described in the previous post, while overlooking my own emotional needs I provided the comfort they needed as revelations pertaining to past traumas came to light.  This resulted in a disturbing turn of events in which the sufferer (me) felt it necessary to comfort others at a critical turning point in my own recovery & healing.  Instead of “Comfort IN and Dump OUT”, it was Dump IN and Comfort OUT. 

“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help.  Listening is more helpful than talking.  But if you open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort.  If it isn’t, don’t say it.” (Silk & Goldman, 2013).

a re-emergence of old misunderstandings…

As I stated earlier, the above article was included in a link to my sister who provided the above article link to me in an email a few days ago.  In it she included the following comment:  “…I wish I had read a long time ago in ministering to friends/family who are in the midst of a trial. It talks about having circles or rings around the person in the center of the trial and to be mindful of how we speak to those affected by the trial. Very insightful.”

With the benefit of clarity, I can see my sister’s sharing of this article comes from a place of self-reflection and desire to assert her own needs at this time.  I appreciate her ability to communicate her needs in this respect.  However, when first receiving this email, it caused an old familiar twinge of anxiety as I was reminded me of our history.   I couldn’t help but wonder in frustration why “The Man Upstairs” was doing this to me?  How could it be, that I’m expected to be there for my sister in a “Ring Theory” fashion, when she failed to do so with me during my PTSD recovery?  This whole expectation wreaked of a hypocrisy which infuriated me.  Since I received this email over the weekend, I was “jet lagged” when receiving it.  Working three 12-hour weekend night shifts back-to-back, I responded only briefly.  In retrospect, I should have responded when I wasn’t tired, I’m afraid I dumped when I should have consoled:

“Thx for article.  Throughout my own trauma recovery, the sentiments from this article succinctly describe my own needs.  I regret I was unable to effectively state this need at the time….it was hard at at first to witness M&D reflect empathetically on what you had to go through…that old regret popped up in which I would have wanted the same from them.”

Her response to this email was the following:  “I am sorry that the way M&D are responding to my cancer is difficult for you. I’m having major surgery in 4 days….It is the opposite of helpful for me to know any information as it relates to your emotions….I would appreciate you talking to someone else about things…Like the article said ‘comfort in, dump out’. I hope you get the help that you need.”  

While her response shows an amount of understanding, it still produced some negative emotions. I was impressed with how effective she was at asserting her needs.  As a result, I wonder about whether  I handled things correctly throughout the last five years of trauma recovery?  At a critical point during the process, I remember a visit with my family about 3-4 years ago.  After a weekend of the same ongoing triggery familial dynamics, I stated my frustrations honestly to them.  I made it clear that I couldn’t deal with this any more and “maybe we should cut off contact”.  At the time, this reaction was a logical assessment of matters in light of how my relationship with them provided the greatest difficulties.  Additionally, the emotions contained in this statement reflected the burdens of having to provide comfort to them, while I was trying to get better.   Their failure to provide a comforting presence as Silk describes in her Ring Theory created a huge burden, in which their presence was more hurtful than helpful.  Nonetheless, aware that this may be the PTSD talking, I told myself this was a harsh and irrational decision.  I was left to contend with their anger, and made to feel I should do whatever possible to maintain and heal these relationships.  In the process, I’ve had to settle for something less than the “Comfort in, Dump out” expectations my sister describes.  Throughout this journey, I’ve had to tend to my family’s processing of my traumas.  I’ve learned to let go of the expectation that they can be anything other than what they are now.  The process has been quite wearisome.  I’m left with lots of questions….

While I ‘did right’ by my family, has this been at the expense of my own personal well-being?   After all, I can’t extricate me from the triggery effects of our relationship.  Since they have asserted repeatedly that “they cannot validate me”, and will not respect my own needs in a “comfort IN and dump OUT” since, what do I do?   What does “being there” for my sister mean to me at this time, and am I indeed capable?  Should I jump in and attend to her needs throughout this healing process?  Or, am I wrong in allowing others to step in while I focus on myself.? After all, if the “Comfort IN and Dump OUT” rule is to be in effect, I feel all individuals should abide by it, not just me.  As much as it pains me to say this, maybe I need to reserve my mental powers of comfort for myself, since my family isn’t effective in this regard.  

I am still struggling with the above questions, but did receive a comforting email from my mother moments ago in which she stated the following: “She added you to the conversation…because she wanted you to also see the article that Dorene wished she had know of long ago (when you were in need).  Effectively it is an apology from Dorene (and me) for not realizing the depth of your grief…”  In a phone conversation later that day, I was reassured that Dorene has many people to help her and that I need to continue living my life.  As she noted focusing on my well-being is always a critical component of daily life for me.

Does Cancer Trump PTSD???

Before concluding, I hope to explain the meaning underlying the title of this blog.  It isn’t about a childish “my hurt is bigger than your hurt” conversation in which I compare my crises with my sisters. Instead I can’t help but note how mental illness elicits a very different reaction than physical ailments do.  For example, when I’ve had to discuss with somebody my sister’s diagnosis, I experience a  genuine and compassionate response.  In contrast, the PTSD diagnosis feels like a cross to bear, as a source of stigma.  For this reason, I try not to discuss it with others.  When the subject comes up, the responses are highly varied and reflective of an individual’s preconceived notions.  It is for this reason, as a useful counterpoint to the above insight from Susan Silk’s I’m including the following quote from Jamie Berube, who has written an article titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with a Mental Illness”.  If you click on the quote below, it will take you to the article.  I also found a useful video by Marriage and Family Therapist Katie Morton.

“One of my fears in talking about my mental health condition is knowing that somebody might treat me differently because of it.  The thought of someone interacting with me in a way that was shaped by their own personal prejudices…is depressing…the words we choose to use also perpetuate…toxic stigmas about mental health issues…For this reason its crucial to educate yourself about what things to say or not say…” (Berube, J., 2014).


Berube, J.  (2014, August, 12).  10 things you should never say to someone with a mental illness.  Retrieved from:  http://thoughtcatalog.com/jamie-berube/2014/08/10-things-you-should-never-say-to-someone-with-a-mental-illness/
interlandi, J. (2014, May, 22) A revolutionary approach to treating PTSD. New York Times Magazine.  Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/magazine/a-revolutionary-approach-to-treating-ptsd.html
Silk, S. & Goldman, B (2013, April, 7). How not to say the wrong thing. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

Suggestions for Further Reading….

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York City: Viking.


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Anatomy of a Misunderstanding

“I am extremely hurt by this labeling Kathleen.  I am COMPLETELY misunderstood.  And I don’t think there is anything that I can do about it”

The above quote is my sister’s response to an email I sent to my family when I first entered therapy back in 2010. I became interested in the insights from therapy models (like the DBT Skills Group I was enrolled in at the time). I applied these skills daily and found them very beneficial. I also was fascinated by the results of some MBTI assessments of myself and immediate family members. It presented an honest reflection of everyone’s temperaments, and was useful in understanding areas of miscommunication in our relationships. With this in mind, I reflected on these results in order to gain perspective on unresolved misunderstandings. At some point during all this I wrote an email describing my insights to my parents and sister. The following is a quote which produced the above response:


Missing Pieces & Triggers

65681With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s clear that our misunderstandings were never what they “appeared to be” about.  Instead, they reflected something much deeper. This email reflects an attempt to examine “missing pieces”, (i.e. holes) in my own self-understanding.  As I have since learned, missing pieces are shame-based minefields of insight regarding how we are in relation to others.  They reflect our unwanted identities.  For this reason, addressing “missing pieces” is a bit of a double-edged sword. While facing the full truth of our life story empowers us with a unique and transformative self-understanding – it also forces you to face the unresolved hurts that come with it.  I guess what I failed to realize is my sister wasn’t as prepared to handle these honest realities as I had been.  I am at fault for failing to get this fact.

For both of us, underlying this misunderstanding are temperament-based coping mechanisms. Her methods of coping in childhood produced missing pieces that were reflected of the personal narrative I created in childhood. In other words, I lived in a reality that reflected those things she overlooked and ignored.  They pertained to hurtful pieces of information regarding who she was in relation to others.  Additionally, in a mirror-like fashion, her childhood narrative was rich with trigger-producing elements I hated to face, but needed to understand for the sake of personal growth.  Her perspectives on our childhood experiences have forced me to acknowledge those missing pieces in my own understanding.   It is for this reason, that I often marvel at how divergent our perspectives are on various childhood events.  How is it we could have experienced the same thing and yet each interpreted things so differently?  I have since come to the conclusion that there is much we can learn from one another. Allow me to explain…

“Dorene is afraid to open up to me because I’m unable to take criticism….”

“It seems as though all I’ve managed to do is cause you more hurt. I believe that the loving thing to do is to step back and give you space. I don’t feel it is a good idea to continue our relationship in the same way.. The truth is, the only way I can see of interacting with you without hurting you is to simply sit and passively listen until you are done sharing. That’s not a relationship.” – Dorene

This quote was pulled from an email my sister sent me a few years after I sent the above email. In the interim between these two exchanges we struggled – and mostly faltered – in our interactions. In fact, I now realize there are times in which her assessment of matters is correct.

Relationships require us to accept people as they are and not expect them to change to suit your needs. I failed to understand this and was wrong to expect what she was unwilling to give. As a pragmatic individual she is very direct states things as she sees them. As she had also admitted in this email, “I cannot be the source of validation for you. I will fail.” While I will touch upon this in greater length at a later point, I feel it is worthy of mention here. Interacting with my sister means taking things as she intends them, brushing aside misunderstandings, and clarifying my perspective only when absolutely necessary.  There are many respects in which her words provide useful insight into my own traumas and their pervasive effect over my entire life, ((More on this later)).

For now, I wish to make it clear that my goal is to utilize a “wise-mind” as described by D.B.T.  Wise-mindedness is a “decision-making process that balances the reasoning of your thoughts with the needs of your emotions”. (McKay, et al. 2010, p. 75). It is for this reason, I’m using this post to sort out and clarify my role in our past misunderstandings. I’m trying to remain diplomatic and am wary of the usage of sentences that include “buts” – since this conjunction creates a comparison out of two connected statements. For this reason a “but statement” implies an inherent oppositional negation of everything which lies before it.  Instead, I feel comfortable saying that my sister states things as I see them, and I have difficulty coping when verifiable proof is present that I still have “missing pieces” to resolve.   In this respect, the resulting emotions are evidence of an unresolved trauma and not the immediate event.  It appears that “claiming ownership of my story” is a lifelong struggle and not “end goal”.  It is my hope that I can learn to let go of what isn’t offered, and instead focus on myself.

I’m afraid to open up to her because she represents what I try to avoid – the potential judgments of others.”

“I have been afraid to open up to her because Dorene has represented for me through our childhood, everything that I’ve rebelled against.  She was convention and I was nonconformity.” – Kathleen.

I believe it is this statement in my initial email that yielded my sisters response:  “I am extremely hurt by this labeling Kathleen. I am COMPLETELY misunderstood. And I don’t think there is anything that I can do about it”. Naturally, hindsight is 20/20. There are some things better left unsaid.  We were both guilty of making statements that appeared neutral at the time, but brought up old hurts in the other. Sometimes there are truths that slap us in the face and cause a full-on rush of emotions, once a specific comment is brought to the forefront in a conversation. At the time this email was written (over 5 years ago), there was much I didn’t know about PTSD, and it’s pervasive effects. Its surprising how much the symptomatology associated with this issue became “my normal”. I didn’t know anything else. It is for this reason I had difficulty explaining what I was experiencing and the needs that result from this. In her latest book, “Rising Strong”, Brene Brown describes chandeliering as exquisite and unbearable pain:

“[Chandeliering is] used to describe the kind of pain that somebody can’t hide even if they’re trying their best to be stoic…chandelier pain…hurts so much to the touch that people jump as high as a chandelier…one of the outcomes of attempting to ignore emotional pain is chandeliering. We think we’ve packed the hurt so far down that it can’t possibly resurface, yet all of a sudden, a seemingly innocuous comment sends us into a rage or crying fit. (Brown, 2015, p. 60).

Time and time again, my interactions with my family have yielded emotive chandeliering.  Throughout the course of our get-togethers with my family of origin, events and/or comments would trigger a huge unresolved well of emotions. The comment might be something seemingly innocuous, regarding my childhood, yet it would produce a well of anxiety and pain I could not dissociate or numb my way thru. At the core of these comments was a realization of the extent of my family’s emotional absence.  Unaware of my childhood experiences due to an emotional absence they can only conceive of these events according to their own memory of things.  What’s more, since the “majority rules” notion is in effect, I’m understood to be the one who has the misunderstanding – not them.

What I’m sure they still do not realize is, the problem wasn’t what was said, but their inability to acknowledge my feelings.   The response, “I didn’t mean it that way” always came up.  Family events, where I had to “fake normal” also became a struggle, since my unique history made this impossible.  In the end, during this difficult time, my therapist warned me things get worse before they get better. (If you’re wondering, things are much better now). However, this time was a crazy-making experience.  I endured much exquisite chandelier pain in my interactions with them.  Their responses to my feelings mirrored experiences of childhood bullying and an emotionally abusive relationship. In both cases, when I was hurting, their reaction was either ignore me or utilize those “but” statements to indicate I implicity caused my own pain.  This was too much to bear with family. While not intentional, it was still exquisitely painful.  What follows is an email I sent to my family which summarizes my feelings during this time period:


and the plot thickens….


With the above as the relational backdrop, I’d like to share how the misunderstanding referenced in these emails came to a conclusion. Things quickly got ugly for me when my mother sent me an email that included the above quote. I felt an immediate rush of anger at the fact that my mother required an apology from me when it seemed we were both saying things “that weren’t meant”. In my response to my mother’s request for an apology, I responded in email by describing events just prior to this whole exchange.  Interestingly enough, a similar “misunderstanding” came up between Dorene and I during Josiah’s B-Day just prior to this series of email exchanges. It was as a result of similar innocent comment – like the one in my email.  I was talking about the childhood bullying Josiah was going thru and how it reminded me of my own experiences. I shared my concerns since it triggered some old unresolved hurts and I was having difficulty coping.  Trying to get through my day meant attempting to keep chandelier emotions at bay. When I shared this, Dorene said what she felt was an innocent reflective observation – and mentioned how what happened was a byproduct of my own doing.  Stating, that I chose to be a victim, she believed I could have made more efforts to make friends.   In sum “I just needed to get over it.”  Mind you – like my email – it was intended as a casual observation regarding events in our childhood. This comment – while not intentionally hurtful, lacked compassion. What’s more, my emotions were glossed over, leaving me with the triggery blow of unacknowledge hurts to work thru as the evening dragged on.

As the day progressed I tried to shake it off. I tried to enjoy Josiah’s birthday – (and did for the most part). However, my emotions became overwhelming in the final hours of our get-together. My husband pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong.  As the pain kept building up, I reached a point where I could no longer ignore my feelings.  I quietly bawled like a baby with him for 30 minutes before returning to enjoy the ongoing festivities. Concerned, Kelly told me I should talk to my parents – because he thought it would be a good way for them to understand where I’m coming from. I then talked with them about it, simply to help them understand my hurt – and the nature of it.  They listened quietly and attentively, but chose to “stay out of it”.  No need for apology from my sister arose in the conversation.  With this in mind, what follows is an excerpt of my email response to my mother’s request for apology:

“You see I’ve buried it so deep, I’m not sure the family knows the extent of it. I’m also able to hide it from myself – so I’m assure I’m not aware of the extent of it either. Nonetheless, while hiding it from you guys, causes less drama – it hurts me. I need to get beyond it and heal it. This means speak my truth, owning it, and understanding how I created it that way.”

Now What???

Sometimes misunderstandings must be managed if they cannot be resolved. This series of events is reflective of an ongoing dynamic in my family of origin which I’ve learned to manage, (so it doesn’t drive me crazy). You see, these events aren’t just about a series of incidental occurrences.  Underlying these occurrences are repetitive patterns set at auto replay. By asking me to apologize for a comment made in an email, my mother is expressing acknowledgement of Dorene’s feelings. By responding to my own hurt feelings with a “just get over it” sentiment, I am left feeling like my emotions don’t matter.  This response of “get over it” implies a negative judgment of my feelings – as unworthy of compassion.  Jumping to my sisters aid when our misunderstandings cause her hurt feelings pains me to see.  Why is it I get the stoic and observational approach that expresses a desire to “stay out of it” – at those moments I needed them most???

By asking me to apologize to my sister in this email, I felt like I was asked to respect her perceptions of reality, when she was unwilling to do the same.   Keep in mind underlying these hurts are missing pieces we both need to resolve in order to achieve clarity.  In this respect, both perceived narratives of childhood events warrant examination. What’s so frustrating about repetitive experiences like these woven thru the familial dynamics, are the baggage they leave me with.  When my emotions are treated with a stoicism and implicit assertion that “no one can truly understand anyone else’s feelings” this really stings.  My other favorite is the family’s claim that “If valid means true, why should I acknowledge feelings based on misunderstanding (i.e. incorrect info)?”   Given the nature of the traumas woven throughout my childhood, listening with an intent to understand and provide a compassionate ear is essential.  I can only interpret refusal to do so as matters of unwillingness rather than incapability.  What follows is my final response to my mother’s request for apology:

“SHOULD I HAVE APOLOGIZED? if it means being made to feel I’m denying my reality – NO!!!. Sadly, I hate to say it but since you are all very ignorantly unaware of my reality that’s how the apology feels – to me.”


Brown, B. (2015).  Rising strong.  Random House:  New York.
McKay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007).  The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

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The Nature of Emotions: Part 2

As stated previously, the purpose of these posts is to sort through a somewhat disturbing grain of truth weaved throughout my inner emotional world.   At the core of my greatest struggles is the realization that my emotional world is ripe with a paradoxical irony I can’t quite wrap my mind around.   As someone who happens to be studying the field of psychology at the graduate level, I’m having trouble shaking these personal realizations.  Human nature is – after all – at the core of my field of study.  It would be ridiculous to study this stuff and not take time to apply it meaningfully to my own life wouldn’t it?  In this blog post, I hope to explore the “other side of the coin” – emotions from a sociocultural and psychological perspective.   I again am not sure where this blog post might end, I simply hope to record my ongoing train of thought and see where takes me…

Irony and Paradox

“A lot is at stake if we view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, they cannot…be easily sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment” (Nussbaum, 2003, p1).

While neurological perspective of feeling provides, a description of common features in brain’s production of emotion, a sociocultural perspective provides understanding of variances in the experiences of feeling, individually and culturally. These perspectives each propose contradictory interpretations on the implicit nature of feeling. For example, while Dr. Bennett (2015) proposes that we “f*ck feelings”, Nussbaum (2003) asserts in the above quote they contain an intelligence – all their own. Underlying the grain of truth in both perspectives is the disturbing fact that human experience, at its core, is ironic and self-contradictory.   I realize in stating this I am probably jumping ahead of myself.  Why don’t we step back a bit and consider emotions from a social sciences perspective…

A L@@K  at the Other Side of the Coin…

From a sociocultural perspective, emotions are much more than “intraindividual states of conscious awareness” (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994, p51). In fact, as Leu, (2001), notes: “Emotions cannot be separated from the sociocultural contexts in which we find ourselves” (p. 65).  While I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, it is important to note how they reflect our conceptualization of life events.   The process of appraising a situation for its emotional relevance is at first colored by an array of personal concerns.  From within the framework of a historical and cultural context the emotional significance of an event colors our perceived meaning of it.  By acting on this perceived meaning and felt significance, we then perpetuate the historical and cultural context we utilized to analyze the situation.  It is for this reason that emotions are often more reflective of a person’s cultural, historical and temperamental reference points than brain matter (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994; Leu, 2001).  Excellent examples of this can be the changing definitions if love through history, from the courtly variety to our own modern versions of it.  Irving Singer’s books provide a good comprehensive view of this notion (and really worth reading).

It is important to note that a sociocultural perspective of emotion does not end here.  Appraisal theories of emotion focus on how people understand and interpret their environment (Ellsworth, 1994).  This perspective is in stark contrast to universal theories which focus on how emotions exist as hardwired byproducts of primitive brain function (Ellsworth, 1994).  The appraisal process of emotions only begins as the perpetual process described above.  Goffmanesque insights can be found when considering how emotions exist as a form of social communication and exchange (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994).   For example, others’ ascertain how we appraise life events and significant others based on our emotional expressions.  In this sense, emotions are not just “inside our head” they are also “out there”, as a felt connection with others and the world in which we reside.  They communicate valuable implicit messages to others about how we evaluate ourselves in relation to others and provide a sense of connection.  I’d like to conclude this section by mentioning that, as building blocks of a relationships, emotions might be actually thought of as forms of social control (Kityama & Markus, 1994).  As a key component in social behavior, emotional expression adheres to normative rules and cultural beliefs.  Culture provides us with emotional schema regarding attitudes toward feeling.  It creates a belief system that acts as a framework with which to make sense of things including: “when does one feel, where does one feel and how does one feel” (Kityama & Markus, 1994, p99).

Interpreting Emotions – “A Clashing of Schemas”

Here’s where things get complicated.  Since culture influences the way we interpret emotions, a clashing of perspectives is inevitable.  A convenient example of this sort of “clashing” comes from within my very own family.   As your typical American, I was raised within a very individualistic culture that encourages values of pride, independent thinking , and speaking your mind.  In contrast, my mother is from the Philippines, a collectivist society in which the extended family plays a more central role in daily life. As a result, I have observed in my mother an adherence to values including humility, stoicism, respect for elders, and appreciation for the value of duty in relationships as an expression of love.  After much reflection and personal growth, I have come to understand much of our ongoing miscommunication was a result of these diverging culturally-based belief systems.  As a child, I failed to understand my mother’s expressions of love.  Preferring to hear and witness outwardly visible affective indicators of love, it was instead an unseen dedication to her duty as a mother.  As I am only able to contextualize now, it seems the underlying cultural gap between us has been a failure to acknowledge key differences between us.  At the core of these differences, are divergent perspectives on what it means to be a person int his world.  What follows is a quote from a dissertation on the acculturation process in Filipino-American families, that touches upon this insight.

“To the Filipino, actions always speak louder than words, so instead of conveying love and fondness ith words, parents will endure extended periods of separation and/or hold down two jobs so that they can send their children to the best schools, pay for lessons and activities and provide material support and other opportunities.  This is the way they express their affection and the children are expected to recognize and value it.  If they do not express or show appreciation, parents might perceive them as lacking utang na loob – serious infraction of social mores” (Fortune, 2012, p12).

As I have wrestled with this ongoing miscommunication, two interesting tidbits from my studies have helped me make sense of this cultural gap.  The first insight comes from Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.  Several years ago, while attending a DBT skills therapy group, I learned a bit about the concepts of primary and secondary emotions.  According to Linehan, we experience both primary and secondary emotions.  Primary emotions refer to our initial reaction to what is happening and secondary emotions are reactions to this response…”or feelings about your feelings” (McKay, et al, 2010, p131).  When applying these concepts to one’s own life it is possible to note an endless change of emotions resulting from an initial response to a singluar event.   As it pertains to my own relationship with my own mother, I notice we can tend to react to some emotional events in culturally divergent ways. For example, situations resulting in the overt expression of feelings are natural to me.  Instead with my mother this might produce feelings of discomfort.  Understanding subtle cultural differences such as this has been critical to bridging the cultural gap between us.

Related to these concepts, is affect valuation theory, which states that how people wish to feel (ideal affect) is different from how they actually feel (actual affect) (Tsai, et al, 2006, p288).   In other words, one’s ideal affect reflects a person’s goals, while their actual affect reflects an innate response (Tsai, et al, 2006). For example, those from individualist societies “aim to influence their environments to fit their own needs, collectivists aim to adjust (i.e., modify, alter, subvert) their own needs to fit those of their environments” (Tsai, et al, 2006, p. 290).  In accordance with these culturally relevant goals (i.e. ideal affect) “individualists” tend to express feelings of excitement or elation openly (Tsai, et al, 2006).  In contrast those from collectivist societies display a greater preference for a calm and peaceful demeanor (Tsai, et al, 2006).

Having taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, I will pick it up later in a future post.  I would like to share some of my past journal entries on the subject emotional regulation, and discuss a few useful DBT exercises applying many of the insights here… Until next time 🙂


Bennett, M. (2015). F*ck feelings our Manifesto [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://fxckfeelings.com/manifesto/
Ellsworth P.C. (1994). Sense, culture and sensibility. In S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 23-50). American Psychological Association.
Fortune, B.V. (2012). Acculturation, intergenerational conflict, distress, and stress in Filipino American families (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest database. (Regents University, Order No. 353526).
Frijda, N.H., & Mesquita, B. (1994). The social roles and functions of emotions. In. S.E. Kitayama, & H.R.E. Markus, (1994). Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (p.p. 51-87)). American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10152-002
Kitayama, S.E. & Markus, H.R. (1994) Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. American Psychological Association.
Leu C.M. (2001). Emotions as dynamic cultural phenomena. The Journal of Linguistic and Intercultural Education. 5. 62-75.
McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2010).  The dialectical therapy skills workbook.   Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2003) Upheavals of thought: The intelligence of emotions. Cambridge University Press.
Tsai, J.L. Knutson, B., Fung, H.H., (2006). Cultural variation in affect valuation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 90(2) 288-307.


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