Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Myth of Venting

This morning I turned off the email notifications for almost all the Facebook illness groups to which I belong. Why? Every day, all day, it is the same thing…people carrying on about every little detail of their chronic illness. They post pictures of rashes and bruises. They obsess endlessly about each symptom. Many of the posts begin or end with the words, “I just need to vent.” Where did we get this idea? Does venting really make anyone feel better? Is our experience of chronic illness validated by telling others how much we suffer?

I will be the first to say that the only way to deal with difficult emotions is to express them and then move on. The only way out is by going through. There are no shortcuts. In fact, buried feelings don’t die, they come back even stronger. We need to explore our feelings and express them. Usually, that expression has to do with words-speaking, journaling, meditating on them. This is far different from “venting.”

Sometimes the pop psychology notion that “venting” is good, is merely a cover for ruminating about our situation. People who vent usually have a litany of complaints that they repeat endlessly. It’s their rosary of suffering. “My partner doesn’t understand. My doctors are stupid. My meds make me nauseous. I wish people could be in my situation, and then they wouldn’t say stupid things. Why doesn't anyone care about what I am going through?” Nothing changes for the better when we do this. In fact, we feel worse because we are consumed with the unfairness of it all. Is it unfair to have a chronic illness? You bet it is! Does complaining help? Not at all!

Instead of “venting” we need to find constructive ways to express what we are feeling. How do we do that? The first thing is to quiet both the body and the mind. As long as was are agitated, as long as we are engaged in incessant mind chatter, we can’t do much else. Journaling is one of my very favorite tools for expressing difficult emotions (and good ones, too). All you need is a notebook and a pen. Go to a quiet place like a park, bookstore, or library. Go in your room and close the door. This time is for you and you alone. Check in with yourself. Start with the question, “How are you doing today?” Then write whatever comes to mind. Don’t censor or edit. Just write. Ideally, you will want to write for 15-20 minutes each time. It takes that long before things really get moving. If you do this several times a week, you will notice that you are “venting” less and living more.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Catching Monkeys

There is a wonderful story about an African tribe and their technique for catching monkeys. They put something monkeys love to eat in a jar with an opening just big enough for the monkey's hand to slip inside. The monkeys come, insert their hands, and grasp the treat but they are unable to pull their hands out while holding the treat. The monkeys become so engrossed in trying to get the treat that they do not see the hunters and are caught!

When we are diagnosed with chronic illness, we desperately want to have our old life back. We long for it. We hold on to how we used to be. We put our hand in the jar of the past and refuse to let go. We get stuck. We get caught in the past. And all that thinking, wishing, and grasping is stressful. Stress makes us sicker, no matter what condition we have.

Once we manage to let go of how we used to be, we have empty hands that can be filled with something new. Once we let go of who we used to be, we are free to become a new person, to recreate ourselves.

What would your life be like if you stopped trying to go back to the way you were before you got sick? What would your life be like if you took stock of who you are and what you can do right now and used that as building blocks for your new life?

"If you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong." Joan Borysenko