Self-acceptance and fitting in

My therapist is adamant: in the core of all mental health progress is the concept of self-acceptance.

That’s a tricky one. Humans are fundamentally social beings. Without interaction within the species–speech develops simultaneously to complex thought–humans don’t develop to be, well, functioning humans. Today’s individualism culture tries to chip away that fundamental aspect of human existence, the inter-dependency of all people. It would have us be units, alone, while enjoying occasional interactions. But one look at societies shows this is pernicious wishful thinking: who of us can live alone in a cave without utilities, medical doctors, clothes, butchers, wheat growers? Even doomsday preppers hoard guns and cans of food–the know-how that goes into manufacturing guns and cans of food has taken millennia to establish, and the manufacturing chains, from raw materials to finished products, involve a staggering amount of experts and well-coordinated work. Wether we like it or not, we are all parts of a network, and we can’t exist outside it. And that doesn’t even get into the realities of mental health and emotional need, which make the existence in a community crucial for a person’s well-being.

Having a sense of self that’s attached to a group seems to be of fundamental importance. In many civilisations, individuals are defined by the clan, the tribe, the family. It’s a distinctly western thing to be so cut-off from the group. If you ask me, that’s good for some people. Some of us are just weirdos and don’t fit in anywhere. Our tribe stifles us, although we still benefit from its perks–high-speed internet surely being one of them. It’s just as well.

Maybe this is what my therapist means when she says, “accept yourself.” The problem with accepting myself came from my extant inability to belong in a tribe. It’s no coincidence that one of the first things she said to me was, “you’re allowed to be yourself.” I’d been trying to squeeze myself into a mould that didn’t fit me for so long that I became seriously mentally ill (okay, that wasn’t the only factor, but it surely was a factor).

I remember very well when I started feeling that I was somehow different. It was in kindergarten. As long as I was home with my parents and my brother and an aunt or nanny to take care of me, I was fine. At four years of age, though, I got to meet others of my species, and I immediately felt uncomfortable. It all went downhill from there.

So, how does someone like me survive in a highly interdependent, social, mutually-defining collection of individuals?

Therapist’s answer: “By accepting yourself. Self-acceptance should come from the inside.”

Now, I was skeptical of that at first. You can’t think you’re awesome if everyone else thinks you’re dumb. When does self-acceptance stop and delusion start? I’ve met enough delusional people in my life to know it can be a fine line. I certainly do not want to be delusional, feeling I’m a wonderful being, while others look at me and think, “ugh, that arrogant weirdo.” Because I still need to be accepted by certain people, too, for all that I don’t really belong in a tribe.

It’s a tough balance. My solution is: be picky. Instead of breaking yourself trying to fit the moulds created by different groups and communities, be yourself–like Therapist would have me be–and just accept those into your inner circle who can accept you for who you are. Also, be selfish: I don’t click with just anybody (actually, very rarely do I meet someone with whom I click), and that’s okay. I just can’t bother with parties, outings, groups of acquaintances, even with my extended family. I feel positively awkward when I’m in larger groups of people. Like the odd one out. When I try to make myself likeable to many, I mostly fail.

Now that I’m on my way to actually accepting myself, I find I need fewer people in my life. I don’t need to be validated by everyone, and this actually helps with my existing relationships. I’m also an introvert, albeit a very communicative one, and one thing’s clear: as soon as I finally started accepting myself, I started needing to be alone even more. My new motto is: if it feels better to do an activity alone, don’t be pressured by societal norms to, well, not. And these days–probably since I’ve never lived alone and the hardships of the past year have exhausted me–nearly everything feels more relaxing when I do it alone. Sitting at a restaurant: I’d rather be alone. Going to the movies: better alone.

This poses some problems. For example, I’m seriously worried I’ll alienate my few friends. But I think they’ll understand. I had a nervous breakdown complete with burnout one year ago, and I didn’t let myself heal. I took care of others instead–and yes, I know this was monumentally dumb. I’ve been running on fumes for a whole freakin year. Even small talk exhausts me now. I need to avoid a second breakdown, and if I have to retreat into myself to do it, well, this is what needs to happen.

So, friends, if you’re reading this: I love you. You’re special to me. I’ll get back to you when I have replenished some of my energy.

3. Raising an adult

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For the past couple of days, my husband has been exhibiting a remarkable degree of emotional intelligence. The change wasn’t instantaneous. I think he’s been developing an understanding of our kids and their feelings—or me and my feelings—at a higher rate during the lockdown, and even more since we got professional help with dealing with our pre-pubescent daughter. I now think—or at least hope—that our sixteen-year-long journey as a couple, otherwise known as “Becoming Proper Adults” has paid off: I finally live with an emotionally intelligent adult. His progress is astounding. I never thought that a grown person could improve so much.

I’m convinced Urban’s emotional development stopped at the age of about eight. He’s a very calm, organized, introverted person, but has difficulty dealing with any kind of stress or changes to his schedule. For most of our life together, unexpected tension resulted in tantrums, things thrown, walking away in anger, banging doors. He didn’t understand the feelings behind simple gestures. In the first months of our relationship, I gave him a mug with a picture of a pirate mouse sitting on top of a treasure chest and the words “You are my biggest treasure” painted on it, to which his response was, “I don’t like mugs with pictures on them.” There’s a host of things to unpack right there—suppressed intergenerational war trauma, Germany, you see—which we are now beginning to tackle with the help of a psychologist.

And what about me? I just struggled to survive in my adopted country, strove to understand Germans and their ways. Years passed while I single-handedly took care of household and children and saw to everybody’s small and larger needs—not the sausages from that supermarket, mama, I know they look the same, but they taste differently—at the same time trying to be an adequate researcher. Shouldering the mental load of running a family while burdened with this handed-down emotional wound and having to deal with Urban’s dysfunctional, overbearing, sometimes downright hostile family brought me to a state of extreme irritability. For months before my breakdown I couldn’t stand the barest hint of a raised voice. It immediately sent me into a spiral of hyperventilation and despair—sometimes accompanied by hysterical crying. The kids got scared, I felt bad—what kind of a mother am I, unable to keep my cool during a regular family quarrel? Sometimes Urban showed maturity: he soothed me by saying it’s okay, everyone is allowed to get upset. Still, noises had to be kept low, interactions had to be polite, the kids needed to be nice to me, Urban had to be patient with all of us. At the smallest hint he was upset—a mere twitch, the slight alteration of the pitch of his voice—I freaked out.

He’d been making progress on the emotional intelligence front all these years, but I think he became more emotionally mature after my first hysterical crises, which started a couple months before the breakdown. But he still shouted at the kids—unable to deal with the behavior of our daughter, who’s reaching stages of development he somehow skipped when he was that age—and I just couldn’t stand it. Our daughter would cry, she’d scream that daddy doesn’t understand her, and I’d have to stop whatever I was doing because, in case you have forgotten, I’m the problem solver in this family. I’d have to convince her that daddy loves her, and I’d have to coax him into actually giving her what she needs, which is always a good, long hug. Urban still doesn’t understand the significance of hugs: even as a kid, what he wanted when he was upset was to be left alone. For me, as a child, being left alone was proof that my parents didn’t love me, and I’m sure our daughter feels the exact same way (she tells me so).

I’d been telling him for weeks: I can’t keep living like this. The strain is too much. The lockdown was a factor, sure, the months of homeschooling took their toll. Trying to make those two do anything was a constant, often futile struggle, like pushing an elephant uphill. Kids are little emotional elephants, if they don’t want to accommodate your wishes—ten minutes homework, not a big deal, you’d think—there’s nothing you can do to make them. On top of everything else, this was just the drop that overflowed the glass of my sanity.

All those days with two kids at home, trying to get answers to simple questions while they talked and shouted, jumped around, ignored me, fought, and didn’t do their damned homework, drove the stress levels to new heights. Every day there came a point when I felt dizzy, and I had to go out. I took short walks, breathed in the cool air, and then I came back, thinking I’m all refreshed and calm. But ten minutes in, the dizziness would return, and I would beg them to speak one at a time, to ask for things one at a time, and to just answer my questions. It never really worked. And when Urban emerged from the basement after work, he just added to the mayhem.

Somehow, now it works. Everybody talks in low voices, differences are solved quickly and without fighting, and Urban is the model of the perfect, calm parent, who treats his children with endless love and respect, who never loses his patience, no matter what tantrum the kid has worked itself up to, no matter how bratty or disrespectful or stubborn they’re being.

I watch him go about it, and I don’t know who this person is. For the past seven years, since our son came into this world, Urban’s frayed nerves and shouting were things you could depend on. Even two weeks ago, I dreaded going to my room to work, because I knew that five minutes later I would hear him shouting at our daughter, and she’d start to cry hysterically, and then the little one would start crying too because he can’t stand the others screaming at each other, and doors would be slammed and harsh things would be said. And every time, my anxiety would go up a notch.

But now, he’s perfect. I watch with suspicion, wondering how long it will last. The kids are also wonderful, but I trust them more: they can get used to new behaviors, they can easily develop new habits, they’re still young, moldable.

Dimitra says he’s scared out of his mind after what happened. This might explain this new personality. I have to say, I like this man, the one who’s not irritated all the time for reasons he doesn’t understand, the one with the calm, soothing voice, who makes everything all right. If this continues, I might even remember how it was to love him.