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“I think the key thing with anything is to always seek help. Not just professional help, but tell somebody. Coz they might easily tell you that’s normal, I get it all the time. And if it’s not, then you know you need to escalate…”
When my eldest sister sent this message to me and my sisters it shattered my perception of her as the absolutely pragmatic eldest sister who did not think that mental and emotional well-being was something to be prioritised. I’d grown up being told that the most important thing in life was to get an education, to get a well-paying job, to be able to live comfortably and securely. Education and money were the only ways out of the third-world and low-socio economic background that I and my family had grown up in.
Growing up, I always felt that talking about and thinking about feeling was an idle and indulgent activity for people with too much time on their hands, who were too lazy to do anything productive and useful. When Mum and Dad would ask me how school was I’d always tell them “good,” followed by one or two pieces of information to prove I was listening in class. In my last year of high school, when my mental health was at risk, I went to my mum needing to talk and burst into tears and indiscernible words. She saw then for the first time just how poor my mental health was; she saw how this was affecting me and, in turn, affecting my school work. My conversations with my parents were always limited to what high-paying job I’d work towards, how much money would be enough money, and how few Samoan doctors and scientists there were so I’d be an asset in those fields.
Maslow’s hierarchy places physiological needs such as food, water, sleep, and shelter at the base (most important), and self-esteem, self-awareness, love, and belonging further up. I understand that my parents are most concerned with my financial security because, in this world, health, safety, and sustenance are reliant on what we can afford. However, in my experience, my emotions, feelings of belonging, and mental stability impact my ability to be productive, creative, and even get out of bed in the morning. I once woke up with paralyzing fear about something I couldn’t put my finger on and I missed a class I was meant to give my presentation in. I emailed my lecturer to apologize and said that I’d take a fail grade over attending class. When I feel culturally or personally alienated in a classroom, or around a meeting table, I’ll most likely passively nod my head and smile at things I disagree with.
I’m learning that recognising and acknowledging my feelings for what they are helps me understand the best way for me to deal with them. Sometimes I need to message my parents and tell them I miss them because I need to hear that they love and miss me too. Sometimes I need to talk to a person going through the same situation. Sometimes I need to be physically alone to breathe fresh air and let my mind calm down. Sometimes I need to not be alone. Most of the time, I need some sleep and plenty of water.
Language is inadequate to convey how feelings feel. No one else can ever feel the way you do when you’re in love—they can’t feel your churning stomach and they can never know if it’s the exact same churning feeling they’ve felt. They can’t feel your own paralyzing fear and they can’t feel your absolute elation when you receive an email that says your application has been accepted. We use clichés and familiar phrases to try communicate our feelings to eager ears but, unless we can become like Spock and have touch-telepathy, only we ourselves will ever feel our feelings the way our own brain feels them.
The best we can do is find new and creative and meaningful ways to bridge the gap between my feelings and yours. When I come across a line like, “my thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations” (The Fault In Our Stars by John Green), or the song lyric “I’m jealous of the way / you’re happy without me” (“Jealous” by Labrinth), I think yes, this is how I feel too! For a moment, I can in a small way understand where someone could be coming from. In these moments, I am reminded that while no one will ever live my life and feel my feelings, I will share some fundamental similarities with other people and I’m not alone in this confusing life experiment that is our existence.
Feeling emotionally isolated is a debilitating experience and talking about it with other people (whether it’s confiding in a friend or publicly posting about it online) helps to provide reassurance that, often times, the very things that make you feel alone have the most potential to connect you to others. This sense of connection to other people or a community of people has helped me flourish in more visibly productive ways.
I’ve kept several (read: hundreds of) diaries and journals growing up and have been online blogging for six years. It wasn’t until this year that my friends encouraged me to write publicly for the first time, to write for Salient. I felt all sorts of insecurities and doubts at first. I didn’t think what I’d write would be interesting to people who weren’t my already supportive friends, especially because I mostly wrote about my personal thoughts and feelings. What I found, though, was that the more vulnerable and personal my writing was, the more that it resonated with people and encouraged them to reflect on themselves, their feelings, and their lives.
I’ve found that talking about feelings doesn’t just make me more productive, but it is in itself productive. I’m still trying to find the balance between deadlines, commitments, and assignments, while taking time to take care of my mental health and checking in with my feelings to ensure they’re not deteriorating in the pursuit of them. I used to think that success was measured by gaining higher academic qualifications and a well-paying income. I now think it’s a form of success, depending on your goals. It’s still a form of success for me. While all forms of success require sacrifice, I no longer want to readily sacrifice my emotional and mental well-being like I used to. I’m going to stop giving myself a hard time for feeling difficult feelings. I’m gonna think about it, talk about it, and find ways to work through them.