Today’s letter is a little different from the usual ones. Instead of discussing psychological theories, I hope to share some part of my personal history. My goal is not to make this about me (although it is!), but I want you to know that despite the ‘therapist’s facade’, I am not perfect, and a million miles away from being 'all sorted’. If my journey resonates with you, I hope it offers some inspirations.
Amongst many other things, I am focusing on the battle I have had with relationships and exposure. I will share how my past have stunted my ability to withstand chaos and uncertainty, and for a period, to live and love wholeheartedly.
I have referenced some psychology theories, but really, my goal is to talk to you not as a psychologist, but as a fellow sensitive journeyman of life.
The Origins Of My Fear
An array of childhood memories and experiences have contributed to the shame and fear that I have carried for most my life.
As a child, I was extremely sensitive and emotionally intense. Being highly aware of and easily affected by my surroundings, others saw me as being “too fragile,” “too dramatic,” or “too much.” Both within the family and amongst peers, my reactions to things were deemed excessive, and my excitabilities were called immaturity.
My parents and I were not blessed with a natural temperamental fit, but on top of that, both of them battled with mental illnesses. Due to their own trauma and constraints, I was ‘parentified’ on an emotional level— feeling like I had to grow up too young, too soon. In retrospect, I can see that they did not know how to connect with a child so different to them. It was not that they did not love me, but my intensity was foreign and perhaps intimidating to them.
Growing up in a hugely homogenous culture in Asia, where collective harmony was prioritised over individuality, being different and standing out was never going to be easy. At first, I was not aware of my idiosyncrasies, and that my intensity can seem strange and threatening to others. Whenever I showed my passion and excitement, they were met with rejections. Eventually, I developed a distaste for any exposure, vulnerability or dependency. Because relationships meant risk, judgement and rejection, I believed it would be better off to bury my desire for them. I learned to bury my longing for connection with the denial of my needs and an expectation of aloneness.
In school, I was clumsy at understanding social nuances and was a constant target of bullying. In extreme times, I remember hiding out in the toilet at lunch to avoid the shame of being seen to be on my own. Unfortunately, the message that I internalised from my peers’ rejection was not that I ‘did’ something wrong, but that there was something wrong with me. My experience had taught me that I must remain invisible to stay safe.
Carrying the belief and the feeling that I was somehow 'defective', I learned to hide. I buried my true self. I buried my bisexuality, my love for art and drama, my intense infatuations with people, and my desire to be seen. My shame also became a fear of exposure and scrutiny, and a perennial struggle between openness and concealment. Up until this day, whenever I meet someone new or enter a new group, I would anxiously ask myself: Will my love and passion be rejected? Will my honest opinion be misinterpreted? Will admitting my vulnerabilities be seen as pathology?
With my parents’ psychological absence, I relied on trips to libraries to search for answers to many of life’s questions. Books became my best friend, my teacher, and my guidance counsellor. To my younger self, they were dependable and utterly steadfast. I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence engaging in faceless dialogue with authors and artists from around the world. Though my love for art and knowledge has served me intellectually, it also set me up for further isolation. The more I sought refuge in the fantasy world of novels and graphics, the more I became inept in forming real human relationships.
Like books, food was always available and pleasurable. I resorted to using sugar and carbohydrates as a refuge during difficult times and developed an eating disorder that bled into my later life for more than a decade. I became overweight, which further eroded my self-esteem and feeling like an alien in the world.
Uncertainty, Mess and Play
Relationships that are current, active and alive are also multi-layered, complex and unpredictable. Inevitably, conflicts and struggles will happen—often at a time and in a form that I cannot control.
However, my life experience has not afforded me with much opportunities to engage in safe and playful encounters with others. Like many people who carry chronic shame, I have become fearful of any ambiguity and grey areas in life. On top of my parents’ neurotic control, my school environment also served to stifle my freedom. I went to a strict, Catholic girl’s school, where tangible academic achievements and compliance were valued over creative exploration and expansive play. Both at home and in school, I was not allowed to ‘make a mess’.
Being fully present with another person in real-time inevitably requires some degree of improvisation, yet not being able to fully prepare for what I have to say brought up anxiety. Deep down, I did not feel that there was any margin to experiment with what I said or did. Even when I had some sense of knowing, or ‘hunches’, I was not able to follow my instinct for fear of being wrong. One of the ways I coped with my fear was by intellectualising and analysing. Whenever someone stirred up areas of my vulnerabilities, I found myself resorting to the safety of logic and theories. In the end, this tendency costs me the ability to be genuinely present with another.
Finding My Way Back
I entered into the darkest period of my life in my early twenties. I was painfully stunted during those years. Given my early life experience, I would rather endure a state devoid of warmth and comfort than risk feeling vulnerable with others. Looking back, although I was staying alive, I was hardly ‘alive’. Despite things being ‘fine’ on the surface, despite all the qualifications and achievements that I have collected, behind the exterior of a successful, ‘together’ person was someone deeply lonely and empty.
Eventually, it became increasingly intolerable to live that way. No matter how much I tried to deny or bury it, my deep yearnings were always calling for my attention— sometimes in the form of physical pain, sometimes as waves of envy, sometimes as deep despair and suicidal urges. My attempts to block out pain and the messiness of human relationships had also meant blocking out the joy and richness of life. Most days I felt half-human, like the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz— yearning desperately to find his own heart again. I missed my younger self. I knew deep inside was someone who wants to love and trust wholeheartedly, to immerse fully in love, to experience exuberant joy and excitement and all that life has to offer.
However much I would like to believe I could be self-contained and fully self-sufficient, instinctively I knew that the healing of my relational wounds must also happen in the relational field, with other people. Therefore I had no choice but to find my way back into life through diving back into the chaos and messiness of human relationships.
My journey back into love did not happen overnight, but through a process of constantly cycling between fear and courage, trust and mistrust. Like an onion, I peeled back one shield after another, each time reaching a new depth and new layer of tenderness within myself. It certainly was not a smooth sailing process, if anything, I felt like I was always walking two steps forwards three steps back. Having to open up myself to another person, and allow myself to be a part of something were both electrifying and overwhelming. I oscillated between excitement and fear, yearning and terror. The younger, traumatised part of me anticipated humiliation and rejection, while the part of me that longed for wholeness was ready for a new kind of experience. It was through not only receiving but truly trusting and internalising others’ genuine love for me that I was able to let go of my old survival strategies. Being‘in the trench’ with others has provided me with the lessons that I most needed to learn, including how to bring my authentic self into the world, how to tolerate the unpredictable and intangible dimension of relationships, and how to trust my ability to work through conflicts.
Was it worth it? Hell yes, it was. Once I have reconnected to my vitality, I could no longer tolerate the pain of blocking it.
I also learned that finding my way back into life means embracing the full spectrum of human experience. Life does not come with guarantees; being alive involves vulnerability and sometimes suffering. However, when we lose our tolerance for the unpredictable, we also lose contact with joy. Much like life, relationships are multiple and various, encompassing pain as well as pleasure, labour as well as play. I now aspire to have mutually expressive relationships with others that involve visibility of our hearts on both sides. This means having the courage to be imperfect, breaking through intellectualisation and perfectionism, and leaning into my sense of intuitive knowing.
Holding the tension between solitude and community is an ongoing learning edge for me; however, I also know that I am not alone in this journey: the desire to preserve oneself while being with others, to be independent while belonging to something larger is an existential one, shared by all of us. As Eric Fromm (1956) proposed, a solution to this tension is “relatedness”: the synthesis of closeness and uniqueness.
Being a therapist
Given my anxiety over the complexity and “messiness” inherent in human relationships, it might seem self- contradictory that I have chosen to be atherapist. Of course, I had doubts: Can I withstand the unpredictable and dynamic relationships? Given my old shame and fear of exposure, would I be able to bring my full and authentic self, including my vulnerabilities, into the work? While I enter into my clients’ world, am I willing to allow them to come into mine? In the end, however, I believe it was by having walked my talk that has made me an effective ‘wounded healer’ (Carl Jung's idea) for others.
My journey of walking out of shame and fear has brought forth a way of being that is much more free and congruent: I no longer have to be seen as anything more than what I am. I can openly tell you about myself when it is appropriate. I do not my clients at an arm’s length. I cannot position myself as an expert looking in from the outside. Even the newest findings in neurobiology say that changes happen not by the successful manoeuvre of techniques, or by the provision of anything per se, but in how the therapist brings their full, embodied emotional self into the relationship (Stern, 2004). Despite what the old school psychoanalytic theories prescribed, as long as my actions remain ethical and are coming from a place of love I am happy to follow my own rules. As I become able to allow the intangible, unexpected and chaotic into my life, I also bring playfulness, humour, vitality and fun into my work.
Before, I had the assumption that dependency is the opposite of independence. I now see that they are not the contrary of each other, but both mature qualities that are a part of a healthy way of being in the world. My old way— wishing or pretending to grow out of the human condition of interdependency, denying my vulnerabilities and needs for connections— was not sustainable. As I make peace with our interdependence as human beings, I also recognise how much I have to offer the world. I become able to make what is called ‘twinship connection’ (from psychologist Kohut’s work) with others— finding refuge in them and allowing them to find a sense of belongingness in me. The most rewarding part of this journey is realising that rather than being preoccupied with a fear of exposing my vulnerabilities, I am now able to ground my work in love and devotion.
And my words to you
If you have been wounded and stunted, I hope that you, too, find your way back into love.
However, just me saying that all you need is courage would be too elusive and uncaring of me, especially if your memories of betrayal, rejections, and abandonment are still vividly alive.
You have good reasons to hesitate. The freezing reaction you had was a natural response to trauma. Opening to others might have been a real threat when you were much younger. However, things have changed. Although it used to crumble your soul so much that you felt you couldn’t get back up, although it had shattered your world so badly that you worried if you could live another day, you are much stronger now. Many of your early survival strategies such as emotional disengagement, social isolation and over intellectualising have protected you during your early years, but they no longer serve you.
You may need to actively comfort and re-assure the part of you that remains fearful. You can tell him/ her that you are there, no matter what happens in the outside world. Today, you have a choice. You can choose to be unconditionally on your own side, and you can decide to believe that Life has your back. The worst part- the very first original pain- was over. You know how to deal with heartbreaks and disappointment now. The mature, resilient and life-loving part of you remain untethered, despite the frustrations and chaos in the outside world.
The only way to start thawing your armour, to heal from heart breaks, misunderstandings and unrequited love, and to again be infatuated with the beauty of the world, is to realise that it is not only SAFE, but life-enriching to do so. Our goal is not to jump into the world with optimistic ignorance, unaware of social dynamics and danger, but to reach a point where we are not held back by old fears and hyper-vigilance. Eventually, we learn to balance open-heartedness with a sense of safety and groundedness of being in the world.
You have to trust that the process of loving. While it may come with potential disappointments, these bruises are now something that you can live through. People coming together and pulling away, the relationship conflicts and closeness, the emotional ups and the downs, are all just part of a roller coaster ride called life.
Having experienced both the pain of isolation and the joy of deep connection, I can speak from experience that however frightening, the process of thawing your heart and letting others in is a worthwhile endeavour.
The richness and beauty of life are just on the other side of the swinging door.
Finally, I have become that girl who says 'I love you' first, and I am fxxking proud of that :)