Life Lessons: Emotions, Acceptance and Experiential Learning
September 3, 2021
Ling-Yee Sze, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer
I have been, for the most part of my life, a person who is very meticulous about not making any mistakes, not allowing myself to be hurt or punished, or even just trying to ensure that I am spoken of in a respectful manner by other people. I feel a bit underqualified to write about learning from experience, because at this age and time I have found that the predominant strategy I used to learn from upsetting life events – becoming even more hypervigilant about potential triggers and even more avoidant of them – is not serving me these days as an adult who seeks to live more in alignment with my authentic self.
I have a strong need for acceptance and approval. It probably has something to do with my upbringing. I did not live with my mother until the age of five, and when I moved in, I needed to adjust from being a wild, carefree child in a small village to being a socialized child at schools in a new hustling city. It was only a couple of years ago that I found I have the high sensitivity traits defined by Dr. Elaine Aron. Without skillful parenting, highly sensitive children tend not to cope with changes and difficult childhoods well. Now that I think back on it, I processed many things as a child quite deeply and tried to learn every lesson I could to avoid experiencing upsetting emotions. My biggest wish during primary school was to be invisible, but I led a double life and when I returned home to my grandma, I would become the only object of her attention and receive tremendous amount of love and significance from her, who was living in the city without legal documents and barely stepped outside our home. She passed away when I was 14 and I have since tried to seek ways to fill that significance and attention bucket through sources and people other than myself. I have often caught myself ruminating, for instance, about what I had said that might make an auntie dislike me, and how could I correct this the next time. It was never enough. When people do approve of me, I undervalue their approval. The rate at which others filled my approval bucket was way slower than the rate at which the bucket was leaking.
It was only months ago on my self-help journey, when I came across the Personal Development School site, that I realized that trying to correct and avoid every mistake, especially in interpersonal relationships, was actually doing more harm than good for my personal growth and life fulfillment. I thought, as a hypervigilant and detail-oriented individual, that I should catch as many clues and micro-expressions as I could and walk on eggshells to avoid repeating the same mistakes. But when I step back, I observe that my patterns of self-sabotage, violating my own boundaries, and projecting my needs and opinions onto others (stemming from my need to satisfy the standards of my parents and society) have always been there and are repeating themselves, even though my circumstances vary – I was not learning the real lessons from my life events.
To be honest, I have little to offer in terms of how to break through old patterns and remove unhelpful emotional and behavioral imprints, but I have some suggestions of approaches that I have found very helpful.
The first thing is that if overwhelming emotions arise when we think about a past event, we should try not to judge them or beat ourselves up for not being able to get over them. Many therapists or mindfulness professionals stress that emotions are neutral, and it’s the way we react to our emotions that might be undesirable to others or ourselves. Emotions can even be seen as precious feedback, showing us where in our current life we have some unmet needs or limiting beliefs. Identifying these things is important because we might want to set intentions about working on them.
Secondly, accepting that negative past or present events are parts of our stories might be more encouraging than it seems. My counsellor sent me a quote from Brené Brown: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.” I pondered this and thought, yes, if I resist changing my reality my life will not improve. My past has dark spots that will exist regardless – I have to hold them closer to my eyes in order to have a chance of painting a different color onto them. There is a difference, in my perception, between pushing the problem out of sight, versus pulling it closer to improve my relationship with the mistake and work on it.
Thirdly, I think reducing the practice of blaming others and taking full responsibility for who we want to involve in reparenting our wounded inner child is helpful too. Yes, other people are involved in our wounds, but they are not the key to healing. In fact, it would be another layer of concern if they were, because that means we would not have much control over what values or parenting styles we want to bring in to heal our wounds or reparent our inner child.
I believe all of the above things are easier said than done, and I am definitely at a stage of getting better and progressing. One cognitive distortion I often find myself falling prey to is all-or-nothing thinking: because [my past life event], I will never […]. I often need to remind myself that this black-and-white thinking stems from my fears or other emotions, and they are like the clouds – there is always a clear sky in the background, and it coexists with the clouds all the time. I can take a variety of different actions even though I feel the same emotion, and my restrictive belief -> emotion -> action cycles can then be broken.
Hi, my name is Ling-Yee Sze and I am a personal development enthusiast who began a self-help journey four years ago. Along the way, I have met many inspiring people. I hope to share my personal stories and collected learnings with you!
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