2021, Identity Crises and all the Emotions.

This post came about as I was sitting by the river. It had been a tough morning — plenty of frustration, feeling unsettled and kinda anxious. So I took a walk, sat by the river and this is what came to mind. I’ve not edited it, purposely. I just wanted to capture the thoughts that were welling up and to share them as is, in case they might resonate with you. I wrote the words as if I was speaking so forgive all the grammatical inconsistencies.

So I just wanted to acknowledge this experience I’m having and am noticing happening for so many others around me. People are struggling while doing their best to hold it together through a strained smile, an Instagram filter, clenched jaw or from behind closed doors. It’s OK to not feel OK, which in and of itself — is imperfectly OK.

Welcome to 2021, the identity crises and this shitstorm of emotions. You’re here, deep in it, feeling it all… the question is, “How might we survive this, learn, grow and perhaps be better for it?” I don’t know, but I’ve been feeling some feelings and that’s a start…

I wanted to talk about some difficult emotions with the purpose being simply to acknowledge them and to have more conversations like this. Not to solve it or fix it. I don’t think how we feel it’s a problem to solve, it’s a symptom. It’s not simply binary — it’s not a ‘good or bad’, ‘problem vs solution’, ‘right or wrong’, ‘broken or fixed’ dichotomy. What I’m talking about is a very real, very present, universal feature of being human and having the emotions. All of them. Let’s talk more about that first before we go about solving the ‘problem’ of being human.

There’s a few reasons why we’re reluctant to acknowledge what’s happening and how we feel when it comes to uncomfortable emotions. Firstly, because they scare the shit out of us. To feel is unfamiliar and it’s counter to how so many of us are culturally conditioned. Many of us have a limited or underdeveloped emotional vocabulary and literacy. We’re not taught how to identify, accept and understand emotions. Emotions such as frustration, anger, sadness, depression, feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and helplessness — who was taught to acknowledge, let alone begin to understand or even accept these as normal when growing up?

My experience, at least from the cultural and environmental conditioning I received at home, at school, in society, at work, in relationships — is that uncomfortable emotions were denied, suppressed, objectified or shamed. As a result, we learned to do the same in turn — we learned that it’s not ok to feel this way. And so here we are, as adults, each having an experience of these emotions that we just don’t know what to do with. We’re gasping for air as we try to address them, to acknowledge them with a drastically inadequate understanding and lack of experience.

Many of us have the emotional literacy of a child, maybe and adolescent, and we’re trying to deal with the significant existential crises (plural) of adulting with its massive changes, upheaval and associated consequences. It’s like having a child learn the alphabet, then shoving Wittgenstein or Neichze under their nose, saying, “Read this, there’s a test tomorrow. If you don’t pass you’ll not only fail, but you’ll suffer the guilt and shame of being a failure. Good luck.” Learning how to thrive in the thick of a crisis with no real understanding of how to understand the spectrum of emotions we feel is a similarly impossible task.

It’s no fault of our own — we are in large part a product of our conditioning. Emotional awareness and its education was not something I was taught at school. As a teacher 20 years later, neither was it in the curriculum. Not to say I didn’t teach it incidentally, it just wasn’t mandated. Long division however, I reckon I can still do that, I can add and subtract fractions (find the lowest common denominator), but how to understand and process fundamental emotions such as frustration or resentment? That class did not exist. It should. Our collective self-destruction through repressed emotions is testament to this desperate need. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest this is a crisis. For those of us who didn’t learn at school, as kids and as adolescents, we must learn now. Before we do however, there’s a whole lotta unlearning to do.

So, how do we begin and what can we do? Firstly, we must acknowledge the deficit in our emotional literacy. Be gentle with yourself here — it’s not your fault, it’s no one person’s fault. With awareness now, as adults however, it is our responsibility to address it. We need to investigate what we know, what we don’t know, and whether what we know is actually true. This might look like reading, taking workshops, getting therapy, being supported and guided through a process. You simply cannot do it alone. For so long I resisted this, associating asking for help as some kind of failure, I couldn’t figure it out so to get help was to admit defeat.

The truth is, to ask for help is to take responsibility. We need to build a consequences culture, not just a cancel culture. Responsibility, accountability and consequences are empowering — to know yourself is to empower yourself, and others. After exhausting all the books I could read and courses I could take, I’ve recently done this and am getting help with somatic embodiment to help me understand the connections between my emotions and my body and how to process rather than suppress.

I’m also getting support to understand my ego and its shadow — exploring my shadow with curiosity and kindness rather than shame and judgement. It’s powerful, transformational and ultimately liberating work and it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done — unravelling 40 something years of conditioning does not happen without resistance. Liberating yes, but terrifying first because we’re just not used to doing this. And that’s the problem — we ignore vital, essential and completely normal aspects of our identity and our being because that’s what we’ve been taught our whole lives.

And it’s causing such suffering. Of course this is happening at a time when the entire world is experiencing a collective shake up — or wake up and like waking from a dream, it can feel brutal and abrupt. But wake up we must and as we do, as we begin to open our eyes and hearts, we will need to re-learn.

We must re-learn how to feel it all, to allow it all and to process it all if we are going to survive. As we do this work it is essential we do so with compassion for ourselves. We must do this work with curiosity, kindness and compassion. We must do this to offset the judgment and shame that keeps these fears and shadow hidden and thriving in the darkness. Gabor Maté talks about this as ‘compassionate enquiry’. We weren’t taught to have compassion for ourselves, as we are, and society has constantly reinforced that not only shouldn’t we have compassion for ourselves, but we shouldn’t even accept the way we are — that we should buy the thing, become the thing, do the things — be anything other than what and who we are.

This is happening at a personal and collective level simultaneously. I don’t see this personal and collective awakening as a coincidence. So much of what we took for granted as being safe, stable, reliable, familiar — those fundamental pillars upon which we build our identity — they’re crumbling and it’s inevitable that our individual identity starts to unravel too. Of course, all of these shadow emotions that we’ve swept under the rug, ignored, denied or deflected are being exposed. And despite how hard it feels to feel them, and how easy and tempting it is to default to whatever feel-good distraction is your go-to, and trust me, I’ve become a world champion at denying these emotions, the fact is they’re they’re coming up.

It’s time. They’re being exposed so that they can be acknowledged, embraced and our dysfunctional relationship to them healed. The opportunity here is to experience a greater integration of self and identity, to be more whole so that we no longer spend as much time avoiding them, living an illusion. So that as we wake up, we’re not bringing the fear of the darkness that blankets our nightmares into our waking life and project it onto others.

Instead, perhaps we may shine a light on those dark corners and gently remind those fears, remind ourselves and each other — that is OK to feel. That you are safe, that you, all of you is seen, and you no longer need to run or hide.

I think this is an important first step — awareness and understanding. We’re going through a collective identity crisis and as each of our personal identities are questioned. This will involve an uncoupling from who you have become. This doesn’t happen overnight, it’s an ongoing process and it’s going to be necessarily difficult and jarring. Unlearning and tuncoditioning is painful.

It’s also the most important work of our time.Our lives, our planet depends upon us doing this work. I know my life depends on me doing this work — and if not my life at least the quality of my life and my ability to contribute something of value to others.

And so to summarise, I guess, the point of this brain / feels dump is to just acknowledge and share some experiences I’m going through with the hope and intention that if you’re struggling, if you’re feeling the tension or uncertainty of this collective and very personal identity crisis experience — that you may be reminded you’re not alone. That no matter how you feel, it simply is. And if it doesn’t feel OK, if it’s not actually OK, that’s OK too. We’re not ‘imperfectly perfect’, we’re simply imperfect. Let’s acknowledge that perfection is the problem. That you are in fact human.

You’re alive. Today is not over yet. You’re doing a whole lot better than you’re likely to give yourself credit for. I hope that sharing this might be a reminder of that.

Please share this with someone you love, especially if they’re struggling or if they just need a reminder.

And thank you for reading, it means everything to me to be able to have these conversations even if only via text on a screen.

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