By Ella McKelvey, National Director of Online Engagement
What feminism has taught me about the need for emotional literacy
January has always been a difficult month for me. Growing up, my family barely even acknowledged New Year’s Eve, and I still struggle to find the romance in the New Year. I have always seen it as less of an inauguration, and more an admonition - Christmas is over, and it is time to exchange the vivacity of celebration for the tedium of routine.
And yet, despite the anti-climax of the post-celebration lull, New Year is also a time that I associate with feeling anxious. In recent years I have found January an emotional struggle - swinging between ennui and jittery angst; with the contrast of the highs and lows only serving to amplify their intensity.
Sometimes, I would feel both restless and deflated at the same time. I found this incredibly unnerving – how could one body hold up against the clash of these emotions?
I should clarify that these mood swings are not a manifestation of mental illness. Instead, January has historically been a time when my mental health feels challenged.
I now realise that, like all humans, my mental wellbeing fluctuates. But coming to accept this wasn’t easy. I used to confuse being in control of my emotions with suppressing them. I thought the unpredictability of my mental wellbeing was childish, rendering me a little girl .
Subconsciously, I had adopted the patriarchal practice of not exploring my mental wellbeing, thinking it would be indulgent and a sign of weakness.
When I first learnt about sexism as a young teenager, I thought that the best way I could assert my right to having equality with men was by replicating not only their demands but also their conduct. I hadn’t yet understood the idea of the patriarchy, nor had I realised that forcing myself to conform to either gender stereotype was far weaker than working to challenge them.
Even though I came to these realisations many years ago, I have been practicing my stiff-upper lip for even longer. Ignoring my mental wellbeing is a deep-rooted habit. Whenever I am surprised or confused by my emotions, my default response has always been to dismiss them as irrational.
But this New Year, I decided to make a change.
As 2018 started to draw to a close, I noticed myself getting increasingly nervous about the prospect of the New Years blues. In previous years, I would have just put on my emotional blinkers and tried to ‘ignore’ my way through it. But I had begun to suspect this was only making things worse. I decided it was about time to woman-up and face my fears.
So, in the restorative stillness of a lazy post-Christmas afternoon, I decided to sit down and work out what exactly it was about the New Year that made my anxiety and weariness flare. At first, I played a simple word association game – I took a pen and piece of paper, and began writing words to describe some of the emotions I associated with the time of year.
To help me, I referred to an image of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion
In short, the wheel can be used to show the relationship between (sub)categories of human emotions. I used it to identify that my January emotion-swings typically included bouts of anger, shame, grief, despair, fear, apprehension, remorse, contempt and pessimism. Once I had identified and categorised the emotions, I found it easier to think about where their roots might lie. The wheel showed me that grief and remorse are closely related – I realised that these probably both stem from the way New Year can prompt me to lament the passing of the previous year, and with it “missed opportunities”. I noticed that shame and despair were negative forms of surprise… it made me think that these feelings might have something to do with noticing where I had failed to fulfil the expectations I had placed on myself over the past year. And then, comparing myself and my accomplishments to other people; that probably explained the contempt.
I had never explicitly felt under pressure to meet goals by the end of the year, nor make resolutions. Why would you diminish the scale of your growth by dividing it into years?
But in my haste to dismiss the ‘symbolism’ of the New Year with a heavy dose of rational cynicism, I failed to realise how much of the New Year’s dogma I was absorbing on an emotional level…
… all the braggy facebook posts, sentimental news items, the pressure to make New Year’s Eve special… I might have always known that I didn’t need to reflect, compare or mourn come the New Year. But what I hadn’t realised until now was my tendency to be subconsciously prompted to do these things. It seems that by ignoring my emotions in an attempt to be less sensitive, I actually ended up being more vulnerable to the sentimentality imposed upon me during the holiday.
During January, it turns out that, much of why I often feel anxious is down to my emotional disorientation, rather than the raw feelings themselves. As a result, labelling my emotions has helped to make them less powerful. Over these past few weeks, I have gained an even deeper appreciation for the importance of emotional literacy. I have finally accepted that rather than being an indulgence, introspection is a vital facet of emotional resilience.
If you are feeling like your mental wellbeing is severely affecting your quality of life, it is important that you seek professional assistance, for example from your GP. You can also try ringing the Beyond Blue Helpline on 1300 22 4636.