“I BURIED MY INTENSITY AND IT BURIED ME”
my personal journey
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 professional, but as a fellow emotionally intense journeyman of life.
The Origins Of My Fears
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.
I was always overwhelmed by what I sensed, felt and saw. Without the ability to regulate my feelings, I swung between elation, depression, deep longing and burning envy of those who fit in. Simultaneously I was bombarded with information I subconsciously absorbed from the surroundings; I would see the tension, bitterness, competition, passive aggression and dysfunctions in my school and the family, yet being a child I was not able to express, make sense of, or share these impressions with anyone.
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 felt 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. They both loved me deeply, but my intensity was foreign and perhaps intimidating to them.
At first, I was not aware of my idiosyncrasies, and that my intensity could seem strange to others. 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. As the gulf between reality and my safe-haven widened, I woke up to the realisation that I was perhaps indeed a little ‘out of sync’. When I let my most spontaneous, unedited, over-excited self out, others would find me odd, over-bearing, and called me the ‘drama queen’.
Unlike the people in my life, food was always available and comforting. 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. Being heavily bullied had led to painful wrestles with an depression and suicidal urges that permeated my teen years.
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. Like a solo voyager, I zealously looked for answers in ideas and concepts. When I was 12, I found out that I was a 4 in the Enneagram and an INFJ. I savoured all that I could find about Highly Sensitive People, Empath, Indigo Children. From classical psychology to trauma theory to astrology, I soaked in whatever I could gather to ‘know thyself’. Even my search started from a painful place, this process of collecting and synthesising healing arts across history and the world has been an exhilarating ride, and I would not trade it for anything else.
GEOGRAPHICAL AND PROFESSIONAL FOOTPRINTS
As my mind roamed free in the world of knowledge, I felt physically trapped where I was. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. Despite it being an ‘international city’, the population is homogenous and the culture is collectivist. Sameness and harmony were prioritised over individuality, and I never felt I belonged. Leaving home at 16, I ‘escaped’ to attend an art school in Australia, yet my psychological maturity did not keep up with where my soul wanted to go, and I ended up in a hedonistic mess. Since then, I have lived and worked in various countries from Australia to Taiwan— When you had felt ‘foreign’ all your life, there is something about being an actual foreigner that was liberating. I did and still do, have a passion for observing and analysing cultural idiosyncrasies. People’s oddity and beauty, how we are all so glorious and terrible in much the same yet massively different ways are just incredibly exciting. Until today, I don’t feel I ‘belong’ anywhere. But I am okay with that, and technology has made being a global citizen possible for us all. I rejoice in the notion that home is a feeling, not a place; It happens not on the physical plane, but a psycho-spiritual one where time lapses and people authentically connect. Thanks to the internet, I can now relax and just let my vibe bring me to my tribe.
When I was little, I thought I must work either in a hospital or an airport, perhaps because I was drawn to ‘important moments’ of people’s coming together and being apart, and existential issues such as sickness and death. Assuming that working in Melbourne’s China Town on a minimum wage (was that even legal?) did not count, my first professional role was as a Suicide Counsellor. My interest and drive have driven me to later train as a mental health Social Worker, an Art Therapist, a Clinical Psychotherapist, a Mindfulness Teacher, and a Schema Therapist, etc. However irrational, a young part of me was driven to gather titles and credentials to gain my family’s approval, even to the detriment of my health. Now, as I begin to see that titles and endless pursuits actually clash with my authentic self and restrict my personhood, I try my very best to have my ego release the attachment to them. Saying that I would not diminish the value and richness of all my professional experiences. After all, nothing beat the memory of being spat on and swore at in a Special School in rural Australia ;).
HIDING and freezing
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 we cannot control.
However, my life experience has not afforded me with much opportunities to engage in safe and playful encounters with others. 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’.
Carrying the belief and the feeling that I was somehow ‘defective’, I learned to hide. I buried my true self. I buried my zest for art and drama, my love for people, and my desire to be seen. My shame became a fear of exposure and scrutiny, and a perennial struggle between openness and concealment. Up until this day, whenever I enter a new group, a small part of me would anxiously ask: Will my love and passion be rejected? Will my honest opinion be misinterpreted? Will admitting my vulnerabilities be seen as pathology?
Finding My Way Back
I entered into the darkest period of my life in my late teen and early adulthood. 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 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— in the form of chronic pain, painful longing, deep despair and dark nights of the soul. My attempts to block out pain and the messiness of human relationships had also blocked 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, who wanted to love and trust wholeheartedly, to immerse fully in love, to experience exuberant joy and excitement and all that life has to offer.
My journey back into love did not happen overnight. 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
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.
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 keep 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). 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.
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 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.
If you have read this far, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for holding time and space for this disclosure. Ultimately, I hope this work of healing, coming out and claiming place in the world is not about just me, but also you, and us as a collective. Like a wave that cannot be separated from the ocean, I hope my work could serve as a dent in something infinitely more vast and powerful.
in London, 2019