“I am a happy, rational and evidently completely normal woman in her mid-20s. In the past year I’ve started a great career which is fulfilling and fun, fallen in love with a wonderful man and started living the life I wanted when I was younger and directionless. But I have become more and more prone to stress, and my problem is that I’m not very good at handling it. Aggravating (but by no means catastrophic) situations leave me in a puddle of tears, from missing a flight to not being able to do my taxes properly; even one incident when my boyfriend suddenly couldn’t stay the night left me a snivelling wreck. I am living in a foreign country. I like it here and I am making friends, although I miss my family and home country.
I lost my mother at the age of 16 and the grief was never fully addressed, but pegging everything on my mother’s death will get me nowhere. Oddly, before getting together with my man, I would seldom cry, usually only when alone. Since I fell for him, I can’t hold it in. What can I do to stop crying and face a challenge without a tantrum?”
This first appeared in the Daily Mail.
Great first sentence. You’re ‘happy, rational’ and ‘completely normal.’ More than anyone else has every achieved. But you’re writing publicly to a newspaper advice columnist about behaviour you find inexplicable. ‘Happy,’ ‘great’, ‘fulfilling’, ‘fun’, ‘love’, ‘wonderful’ – all in the first couple of lines. There’s so much emphasis on how fabulous your life is that it does start to sound a bit defensive, as if you expect someone to shout ; ‘No! It’s crap!Admit it!’
You feel you have to set the scene of having a perfect life so that your tears and tantrums are exposed as utter madness, some bizarre phenomenon. Of course, you know yourself that your life is not the perfect bliss your propaganda would have us (and you) believe. You say so. You are far from home and are feeling a bit lost by the sounds of it. The very kind of situation, of course, when you might need to call your mum.
‘Pegging everything on my mother’s death will get me nowhere,’ is an interesting sentence. Where are you trying to get? Why so irritable with yourself? Why do you have to peg anything on anything? You say yourself that you never fully dealt with her death, meaning, I suppose, that you didn’t manage to grieve at the time, perhaps because it was simply too overwhelming. Your announcement and then immediate dismissal of your loss in this letter is revealing. You know that’s what you’re grieving and yet you wish you could just get over it, or ‘peg’ your sorrow to something a bit more manageable.
This is the problem with giving up on fantasy – reality it often very painful and difficult. But the problems with maintaining a fantasy are more thorny – confusion, detachment, and so on. [Giving up a belief that he is Jesus is very difficult for someone delusional because he’ll have to face being unwell, lonely, powerless. He will feel more authentic, less mad, but he will have lost all the grandiosity of his delusion].
If we are to believe that your partner is wonderful, then perhaps that is the very reason that you’re finding yourself able to mourn now. Perhaps now that you are in a safe relationship, a safe space (as you would be with a good therapist too), you can be a little girl again sometimes, burst into tears, feel vulnerable, be upset. I hope this is the case.
Alternatively, of course, you may be feeling so lost and so unsafe that being without your mum on top of other things you are unwilling to admit (that things are perhaps not quite as wonderful as you say) is unbearable at the moment and you feel you are disintegrating.
From your letter, however, I think it is the former – you are safe enough to be sad. The problem, by the sounds of it, is that you are very hard on yourself and demand that you shouldn’t be a ‘snivelling wreck’ or a ‘puddle’. These are both very contemptuous ways of describing genuine upset. You feel you should be able to do your taxes, cope with missing a plane, your partner being absent – but why? Whose ‘should’ is it? The fact that you don’t allow yourself vulnerability or a normal emotional life is what is causing you distress.
I wonder if you mum was actually very strict and didn’t like snivelling and puddles. Perhaps your holding all your grief in was some kind of obedience to her? I assume there’s guilt in there too, of course, though there isn’t much information. You ask the columnist to fix you – to give you some tips about living without tantrums. You want to get rid of the childish part of yourself and be a serene, highly efficient and largely emotionless adult of the kind you perhaps imagine your mum to have been (or that your dad needed after her death?).
The challenge you face is to accept that you are vulnerable, bereaved and emotional, that you are not the person you perhaps wish you were and that you are going to be relying on your partner to help you. Depending on another when you lost the person on whom you depended most is, of course, monumentally difficult.
Thoughtful advice for real change via Skype or email: firstname.lastname@example.org