Does anyone else have moments (or even days/weeks) when you feel like your brain is a radio tuner spinning around and around, back and forth, filled with conversations you’ve had, conversations you’ve imagined, images you wish could get out of your head that you’ve seen, thoughts that won’t stop ruminating, patterns that you can’t unsee, and on and on and on?
On the outside, it can look like you’re 100% indifferent. Numb. Anti-social. Unfriendly, or rude, even. On the inside, it’s quite the opposite- because you’re feeling so. much.
There’s an amazing book called If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski that really spoke to me about this, in addition to many other books on empathy, and even an archetype known as the “indigo child”. I know I’m not alone in feeling so much because of how many people there are out there who write about the exact same experience. The thing is, helping professionals within this degree of functioning have a significantly more intense experience due to the nature of our work.
If you have a field-based role, like child protective services or outreach workers, you directly experience a traumatic scene in a visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile way. You’re there on the scene, and you are in it. If you are a therapist or clinician, you are indirectly experiencing the trauma of someone else through them telling you about it (at least, for the most part), but still can experience it in a very visceral, intense way. Witnessing suffering of any kind naturally makes an impact and takes a toll.
Now, if you take that to the next level and add someone in the helping profession who not only has a strong sense of empathy, but also has deep perceptual abilities, you’ve just multiplied the intensity of the experience by a whole lot more. What about a helping professional who has mental health conditions like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Schizophrenia Disorder, etc.? Specifically, people who have the ability to frequently detach from their bodies, perceive sensory information in a four-dimensional way, or have an inner-world of conscious experience.
These are the people who experience the most noise. And, in my opinion, have some of the greatest capacity for vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue because of how much they experience. And also a deep capacity to do incredible things.
For those of you who have been with us since the beginning, you know that Natasha and I are very open about our mental heath diagnoses. I identify with many of the above “categories”, namely because of having synesthesia and OCD. That, plus the fact that I see patterns, sound-associations, and image overlays everywhere I go, because I’m an artist and a constant “thinker”. I could (and have) literally be still and just think for hours at a time.
It’s hard, if not nearly impossible, to turn my brain off.
This isn’t something that’s unique or rare- most of us nowadays have been conditioned to multi-task and seek a stimuli-overload in order to fill our time and avoid our growing collective anxiety within the state of the world.
Sometimes, everything just feels too much.
And that’s what made me want to write this post. How do we process it all? The micro, mezzo, and macro stuff that surrounds us constantly. How do we make sense of it? How do we continue living our lives knowing what we know, unable to unsee what we’ve seen, unable to forget the emotions we’ve felt, and the violence we’ve expeienced?
When should we stop processing and start accepting?
I can sometimes feel guilty if I’m not actively thinking about solutions to problem-solve the conditions surrounding my clients’ lives and their service provision. If it’s not visualizing Venn diagrams of psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioral/feminist/systems interventions, it’s listing and crossing out financial/legal/medical/community resources that will break the cycle of my clients’ oppression and trauma cycles. Even though I’m a processor/feeler, I will still tap into that solution-focused mindset that I have recently acquired after starting to work in field-based services.
I’ll give you an example. Lately, I’ve felt guilt and anxiety over not feeling competent in working with psychosis and the major impacts it can make in vulnerable people’s lives. It’s not that I don’t have experience- I do, thanks to my job. But the idealistic thought of “if there was a class I could take in fully understanding psychosis and all of the evidence-based interventions, then I would know everything there is about psychosis, and I would be competent” is so real. My blunt (though understanding) office-mate frequently reminds me that this is not how it works.
But the struggle is still real. Especially for anxious folks.
We’re not satisfied with answers that support gray area, take away the belief that we have control over everything, or that disprove fearful situations can be solved using strategies that are categorized into nice, neat little boxes, all tied with string.
Same goes for fighting for the world’s injustices and battles. If I just spread the word and educate people enough, then I will be moving the cause forward, and if I fight hard enough, I will force change to happen.
If I ruminate enough over this situation that I experienced, I will find a different way to approach it. I will find a different outcome.
If I punish myself enough by replaying that traumatic scene over and over again, I will understand more and strive to deserve the privilege of helping people through my suffering.
If I play music in my head all day long, it’ll keep the things I’m avoiding at bay and make me keep going and moving and going and moving and going and moving, like the energizer bunny.
And so it seems that feigning the possession of control and obsession with finding absolute answers are the things that create the most noise in my brain. And that’s only work-related, let alone my personal stuff.
Is there anyone else who experiences this?
So what do we, feeler-empaths-thinkers, do?
The thing that scares us most: let it go.
I’m not talking about letting the questions go- I’m talking about the beliefs go, the ones that inform the questions. Like, knowing how everything works prior to exploring the world will make me “live the right way” and “do the right thing”. Or the belief that says I need to suffer to deserve joy. That I have no right to be in this field if I haven’t experienced the exact same thing my clients experience. That I can’t feel happiness if my clients are still out on the streets and dying. That I, alone, can solve all of the world’s problems, “if I only work hard enough”.
But it’s just not true. None of it is.
Life isn’t a video game where you have to earn points to get to the next level. Every level is already overlaid around you, everywhere; you’ve just got to live it.
I’ll say it again: you’ve just got to live it.
And be kind to yourself. Doing the best you can includes making mistakes and then doing it a different way the next time. Operating from a justice-informed mindset includes remembering that losing the battle doesn’t mean you’ve lost the war. Remembering that there is no book or class that is going to prepare you for everything you will come across. Only holding space for the bad stuff, the trauma, isn’t going to solve it; and not holding space for it doesn’t mean you care any less about solving it.
Directing the energy of that noise-ridden whirlwind in your head into moments that bring you joy and peace has a ZERO-PREREQUISITE policy; there’s no such thing as “earning” it. YOU GET IT!
You get it.
There’s a reason why there isn’t just one social worker, one first responder, one therapist, one healer. There are many of us, all over the world. We are many. We are everywhere. Because no one of us is ever doing this work alone. And it helps me to remind myself of that.
We’re never alone.
So I check in with myself when that lonely, bitter, murky, heavy feeling sneaks in to blow drowsy, numbing smoke over my eyes; and I say/think, “Not today.” The same way I would tell someone trying to sell me something at my front door. No more or less energy, just the same. Here are some other ways that have helped me GET OUT of my head:
These are just some things that have helped me get out of my head, into my body and into the world. The noise will still follow me off in the distance, but sometimes it just gets tired of waiting and slinks off somewhere that’s not around me. Even if those moments are not as frequent as I’d like, I have to be kind to myself- the same as I’d tell a client. It takes practice and time. Something I’m learning to be quite patient with.
And that’s okay.
So, to anyone who also has a case of the ever-lingering “headnoise”, I get you. You’re not alone. Give yourself permission to practice letting go of what you think you can control and explore what lights you up. You will not save the world. But you will start a ripple in people’s lives that evolve into waves of hope and change. Smile knowing that you are doing that by starting with the basic care of your Self. You are 100% worth it.
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