I Should Be…

Exercising. Writing. Walking the dogs. Cleaning the kitchen. Preparing for dinner.

Even my parents could never make me feel as guilty as I do about needing to do things. Interesting, now that I do not have a full-time, pressure-packed career that I feel more “shoulds” than ever. Perhaps it’s the seemingly sudden realization that I have missed an entire summer and the start of fall from surgeries. Maybe the disappointment of my return to being physically active is frustrating my body and mind. (Nothing like feeling sore after a 20-minute stroll to make one feel really old.) Hitting the wall the first day of NaNoWriMo was a stunner.

How hard can it be to write 1,700 words in a day when I can throw out 1,200 words per hour with writing prompts? Turns out pretty damn hard when your characters are too close to home; the situation you place them is leaking personal psychological overtones; you want to write more about buildings and the weather than the characters and plot. Writing stops being fun.

As if I had not revealed enough about myself in my 100th blog post, I have decided to do something I swore never to do and blog about a highly personal emotional issue. The reason? This is directly related to my weight/fat/body issues. It’s OK to stop reading, but I promise no history of severe mental illness is involved. No dark family secrets are lurking.

<Thirty minutes have passed.> I have difficulty identifying my emotional states, especially negative ones, and even more problems understanding why I feel the way that I do. Unlike some folks with this issue, I can empathize with others and describe what they are feeling. In fact, it’s part of what made me a good primary care doc. I could tell how they felt and reflect back to them my understanding. Ask me to do that for myself –  fuhgedaboutit. How does this relate to eating? For me it probably has been the largest contributor to my binge eating disorder and disconnection from my body. Unable to articulate and express feelings, I dealt with unpleasant (and probably pleasant) emotional states and the tension generated by compulsive overeating and eating to numb the sensations. Oh yeah, I developed all sorts of unusual body sensations (starting in my teens) that I knew were not explained by disease. Very frustrating later on as a doctor, having physical symptoms you know are not caused by physical illness. Throughout high school and college I threw myself into sports. The rougher, more intense and competitive, the higher chance of injury – the better. Looking back, these activities were a great distraction for my mind and body, which also helped store much calcium in my bones. 😉 Unfortunately, I did not continue athletic endeavors once medical school started and never caught a pathological love of running to quiet my body. Fortunately I did not develop other impulsive behaviors to numb myself – drugs, alcohol (close call there in medical school), cutting, perverse sexual activities, etc.

I do know that my difficulty with certain types of self-expression constrain my writing. Hey, I’m great at the technical stuff even though I rebel at structure. My sentence structure when attempting non-fiction limits my ability to connect with readers. Heaven forbid I try to write more imaginatively or delve into the feelings of a character that might touch on a sensitive (to me) topic. From a not-at-all famous line in a poem written to a high-school crush, “I can’t tell you how I feel because I don’t.”

Expressive writing, as described by James Pennebaker, is shown to improve many health outcomes, especially if negative emotions are included. Repression in one’s attempt to write expressively – not so good. I try to make expressive writing part of my writing practice. I should make it part of my daily writing practice or at least 3 times a week. Just like I should be walking every day now in addition to using the recumbent bike. Just like I should NOT have sampled Halloween candy just for grins. (It wasn’t very appealing, by the way, and only left me feeling, um, bad – I think. LOL)

I have refocused my NaNoWriMo novel so that it will be more fun. I am keeping the psychological bull in my personal journal. But, I thought there might be someone out there who would benefit by me “coming out” about my difficulty dealing with negative emotions and the impact on my body. Perhaps one person can benefit from knowing the toll it takes from holding back emotionally. That the impact can vary from preventing you from connecting with your body to being unable to connect authentically with others. If this sounds familiar, it isn’t hopeless, and you aren’t alone. Don’t try to go it alone.

Back to my starting line: How many “shoulds” are there in your mind right now?


13 thoughts on “I Should Be…

    • Well, it was 825 words that I could have written for my novel… But you’re right, it felt good. Writing about crappy stuff always does.

  1. Hmm… lots of shoulds. We all have them. I try to remember Brene Brown in the PBS special about The Gifts of Imperfection telling the story of getting her family out the door to church… dressed but late. Instead of screaming at the kids to hurry up and all of that, she said she just took a moment and thought about this whole situation with compassion for all the people in it… she said, “We’re busy, we’re going, we’re doing the best we can.”

    I think of that often when I start to should myself. I have far more shoulds than I should…

    • Self-compassion is a good should shooer. (Maybe I could get a job writing fortune cookie inserts.)

      The scene you described brought back memories of my Mom trying to corral all 4 kids to church every Sunday for fear of being late. Poor form as the Pastor’s wife to be tardy. I still dread Sunday mornings.

  2. Hi Jan, lots of food for thought! Yes, I have problems articulating and expressing negative emotions to others, and yes, my frustrations with this comes out in bad behaviour like self-sabotage and finding solace in food. Good to know I do this too, because it means I can see it, and perhaps make adjustments to deal with it in a more constructive way.

    For example right now I’m sitting here reading blogs and listening to Louise Hay’s affirmations, when I “should” be getting down to doing work for a deadline. Yes, my mind is full of shoulds. But. Doing what I’m doing now is quite necessary, a kind of slow wake up to plunging into my workday when my head and mind belong to others’ wants. This is nurturing for myself and to put it in cheesy advertising words, “I’m worth it!” For me, feeding myself in this way enables me to deal with my worklife and its attendant frustrations. Much better than just plunging into it and ending up stuffing my face with chocolate or some other quick-fix stimulant.

    I do believe that what seems on the surface to be procrastinating or avoidant behaviour does have its roots in self-protection, and therefore not all bad! Also if like you have done, you recognize it for what it is and do something about it, that’s a brilliant step in understanding and nurturing oneself.

    On the expressive writing front, here’s my two cents. It takes practice to get to do anything well, doesn’t it! I’m not a writer, but as a reader I find that when stuff gets revealed slowly and by implication, it makes the story so much more interesting than being bluntly told that A feels this and B likes this.

    You could try getting to it in another way – perhaps using a conversation or scene between characters to imply the issues & emotions. You could use your own experience of inarticulation & suppression of emotions to colour your characters’ doings – that would make them quite quite human & believable don’t you think? Or just leave it all to stew in your head for a few days and then go at it again. Enjoy!

    • The ability to differentiate between self-nuturing behaviors and what might appear to others as avoidant is incredibly important.

      “Show, don’t tell” is one a mantra all writers learn but it certainly is easier said than done. My favorite fiction engulfs me into a worlds that I see, hear, smell, could even easily touch.

      I have already decided to kill off a main character! what fun, eh?

  3. Oh how I relate to this post. I think as a fellow FP I can understand completely what you mean. I am hypersensitive to others moods, emotional state, reactions. But, myself….much different. I have trouble expressing my feelings, esp anger and sadness, but even happiness. I have trouble communicating with those close to me, but I talk about intimate things with patients freely all day. It’s a strange dual life we as docs lead.

    As far as shoulds…….you gotta be kidding. I think the demands I place on myself are very high. My lifestyle and obligations create many shoulds, but the ones that do the most damage to my pysche are really the “optional” ones. The ones I seem to manufacture. I SHOULD make homemade costumes for my kids. I SHOULD be at all their school functions. I SHOULD be like other moms/wives/women/people………fill in the blank. These shoulds are the ones I’m trying to eliminate. It’s hard, but focusing on the really important things and what I really want from my life narrows the shoulds significantly. Now I SHOULD get back to work. Great post, Jan.

    • Hypersensitive is the perfect word, Ann. I started sleeping much better when I distanced myself from patients by becoming a public health doc. Even though the subjects I tackled were tough (physical domestic abuse, e.g.), not having to take on the burden of individual women’s emotions and pain as well as their medical issues … Well, let’s just say I had no idea the toll that medicine had taken on me. I longed to be like those surgeons who could cut into bodies and just walk away. Heavy sigh. Don’t think I haven’t considered writing non-fiction about some of this, but how to approach it ethically is tough. Plus, who wants to hear another doctor story?

  4. Hi Jan,

    Too many shoulds to name them all! Writing is certainly one of them (I’m not involved in NaNoWriMo, but nonetheless I should be writing!), as is spending more time with my daughter. Those are the most important.

    As a self-help writer, sometimes I feel as if I ‘should’ have all the answers, but instead I have just a good realization of all the answers I don’t have. Recently I’ve written about taking time-outs for your mental health (something we all ‘should’ do) and following your dreams (although that’s a toughie in some situations – a ‘should’ or a ‘should not’?).

    It just puts a little more pressure on me to make myself practice what I preach!

    I look forward to more posts,

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