Becoming an emotional “Weeble”

Are you old enough to remember Weebles?

They were (apparently still are?) egg-shaped figurines with a weighted bottom, sold as toys to little kids who … like to play with egg-shaped figurines, I suppose. I never actually owned a Weeble, but their tagline has been indelibly etched in my brain: Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.

I think there is a lot of value in being an emotional Weeble, regularly wobbling as you experience the highs and lows at the extremes of the emotional continuum (and everything in between), all the while trusting you will not fall down.

When it comes to experiencing strong emotions, too often the people I meet in therapy fear they will fall down, or worse, feel they have previously repeatedly fallen down and now live in dread of the next time it will happen.

One of the hypothesis to explain the development of panic disorder is to view it as a “fear of fear”:  the noxiousness of a previous experience of panic leaves us hypervigilant and sensitized to any changes in our body that might indicate another one is around the corner. This level of vigilance itself leads to symptoms in the body (since it activates the fight or flight response), which we then notice and attribute catastrophic meaning to. Catastrophizing thoughts create more fear, which exacerbates our physical symptoms, and the cycle continues.

Similarly, some of my clients with a history of depression are understandably highly attuned to their emotional fluctuations and notice subtle changes in their mood state. Developing a level of self-awareness and attunement to the early warning signs of depression is actually an important part of relapse prevention, but it can also be counterproductive when the emphasis gets narrowed to the moment-by-moment ‘how am I feeling’ rather than the broader ‘how am I doing’.

Depression is a pervasive mood state that impacts all aspects of our experience (our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour), while sadness or grieving are feeling states. Feeling sad about a saddening event is not likely to lead to a relapse into depression, but interpreting that sadness as a sign of an impending return to depression – and acting listless, resigned and despairing in response, avoiding work and social interactions, letting nutrition, sleep and exercise lapse – certainly could.

Being an emotional Weeble means being both willing to experience our emotions, and able to see that they are passing feeling states. Just like the Weeble that one might imagine screaming as it teeters to its edge, having a solid and grounded centre helps us pull back upright. And just like the Weeble, we likely won’t stay upright for long before the next wobble sends us teetering.

Into (and out of) the Inferno

Dante’s Inferno is the inspiration for this post, specifically this description of his 5th Circle of Hell:

The river Styx runs through this level of Hell, and in it are punished the wrathful and the gloomy. The former are forever lashing out at each other in anger, furious and naked, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth. The latter are gurgling in the black mud, slothful and sullen, withdrawn from the world.

Reading it made me wonder whether Dante had teenagers.

Long before I became the mother of a teenager, I had the opportunity to work with teens and their parents in therapy. I thought those experiences would inoculate me from turning into one of Dante’s wrathful when confronted with the slothful and sullen teen who’d replaced my daughter. I was wrong.

As a therapist sitting with teen clients, it’s easy for me to empathize with the challenges they face as they try to navigate the complex and multi-layered transitions involved in adolescence. The only other time in life that brain development undergoes as much change as it does during adolescence is in the period from birth to age 2. Along with changing brains, teens are also dealing with changing bodies, complicated peer relationships, as well as internal and external pressure and expectations. Since today’s teens are doing all of this under the intensified scrutiny that the virtual fishbowl provides, occasionally withdrawing into the black mud doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

As a mother, parental wrath is also easy to understand. As one of my clients put it, “living with my son is like having the most demanding and least grateful house guest I’ve ever had, with no end in sight and no option to ask him to leave.” And what gem of a therapeutic intervention did I offer in response? I was all out of those so I instead tried asking her to insert a couple of words: at times. “At times living with my son is like having the most demanding and least grateful house guest I’ve ever had.”

Because the other thing the teenager’s brain has in common with the 2-year old’s is its inherent changeability. Week by week I watch my teen and young adult clients try different identities on for size, and experiment to find their own ‘right’ balance between individuation and connection. Like more life-seasoned clients, they work to discover who they are and decide who they choose to be, but teens’ turnaround time is much faster. They feel things more intensely, commit more convincingly, but are also able to release and move on more immediately.

While I’m not able to sidestep all the wrathful urges life with a teen throws my way, I try to keep in mind that – just like Dante – my visits to the 5th Circle of Hell will be a passage, not a life sentence. For Dante things arguably go from bad to worse (the 6th to 9th circles of Hell are no picnic either) but for most parents (and their teens) things dramatically improve.

To Tell the Truth

Lately I’ve been immersed in binge-watching The Affair, a Showtime TV series about (you won’t be shocked to learn) an affair. As is often the case, this affair is between two people who are inconveniently married to others when they meet and become enraptured by each other.

There are a lot of subplots and interweaving stories that I won’t spoil, but one of the most interesting elements of the show is that each episode is divided into two parts, one weaving the narrative from the man’s perspective and the other from the woman’s. The most fascinating part of that for me is when the narratives intersect, and the viewer is shown the same part of the story from each of their two points of view.

Sometimes the differences in the perspectives are subtle. For example, in the depiction of how they meet and begin the affair the man paints the woman as a sultry and predatory femme fatale while remembering himself as a more passive victim of circumstance; in turn, the woman remembers him as the pursuer, and depicts herself more sympathetically. At other times their narratives are completely divergent so that the same elements (a farmhouse, a gun, an altercation) are spun into two vastly different scenes.

Wherein lies the truth?

When I’m working with couples, whether an affair is part of the narrative or not, disagreements about the ‘truth’ of an event are almost always present. Memory is a construction. Among other ingredients, the recipe for a memory includes images of the salient moments in an experience, our thoughts and feelings at the time, our expectations and predictions about what was said/not said, done/not done, the outcomes that resulted from the experience, and the cohesive story we’ve told ourselves about what happened.

By the time we are relaying that story to someone else, we are naming and experiencing it as the ‘truth,’ long losing sight of the fact that the other people inhabiting our memory will have their own truth.

I’m often caught by surprise when a client starts a sentence with “It’s like you said last week,” and follows that with something I have no recollection of saying (and sometimes no desire to claim as something I ever would have said!) Fortunately, in the context of therapy this is something we can explore, comparing what each of us thought was salient in forming our experience of the ‘truth’ and coming out of that conversation with (hopefully) a stronger sense of connection and mutual understanding.

Outside the context of therapy, finding that someone else remembers the truth differently than we do usually leads to an argument. We fight about whose truth is truer, try to persuade the other to remember it our way, and each consequently become more entrenched in the rightness of our own point of view.

We now have the ability to memorialize events in a way we never would have 20 years ago. We have conversations over text rather than in person or by phone, and most of us carry devices that double as cameras, voice and video recorders on our person at all times.

Perhaps we will soon outpace the need for constructed memory, but I fear that focusing on the content – being able to definitively answer the question of what was said and done and by whom – will take away from the process: acknowledging that we all have our own perspectives and therefore our own claim to the ‘truth’.