When You Have to Hold It Together

Most of us are pretty good at hiding how we truly feel. It may not occur to us that it’s both a blessing and a curse because:

  1. It’s nice that we can maintain our privacy from folks who we don’t want to let in or let on to.
  2. Unfortunately, we’re good at it because we’ve had lots of practice pretending to be something we’re not (Fine/O.K.). We can keep a smile even as our worlds fall down around us.
  3. It means that unless we consciously choose outlets and supportive others; we’re walking around under the pressure of repressed emotion, stress, and the weight of excess baggage.

We all know that it’s the little things that get to us. Ever watch someone at work fly off the handle over something absurdly small? Obviously, that’s someone whose been holding in too much for too long. Sooner or later, we either implode or explode. Worse, people like us regret exploding and redouble our efforts to hold it together.

We generally only do what we feel safe doing. This is why folks who don’t deserve our ire receive it and folks who we desperately need to tell where to go and how to get there get a pass.

I frequently use the adage:

“Holding on to resentments (past pain and anger) is like drinking poison and hoping the person you’re mad at dies.”

It’s amazing to me how many of us say things like, “As long as I don’t think about it, it doesn’t bother me” without realizing how self limiting and self defeating that is. Where do you think it goes when you’re not thinking about it?

It goes back into the baggage. It gets stuffed down with the help of food and/or alcohol. It gets “compartmentalized” – a clinical term meaning, “Pack those thoughts, memories and feelings into a metaphorical box and stuff it deep down within yourself. Now pretend the box isn’t sitting alongside a hundred other categorical boxes that you fear might one day spring open.”

Pandora’s box. We fear that digging around in that stuff will result in a meltdown, so we stay very busy and wonder why we’re anxious? (Anxiety is largely a product of hat we refuse to feel).

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, something happens in the here and now that connects us to things we stuffed in the past. We become frustrated with ourselves because rationally we know that what we’re feeling currently is disproportionate to what we’re experiencing.

The key of course is to deal with things as they happen. This is not always possible. If we’re feeling like we may implode or explode at work or in other situations where it’s not in our best interest to express our true feelings, we need to be able to contain. The best way I’ve found to do this is to metaphorically put it on a shelf and finish what’s before me to do.

Shelving is easy to understand and hard to do. I learned it from necessity. Folks who see me for therapy sometimes marvel that I’m always in a good mood. This seems implausible. Don’t I have bad days?

Of course I do, but I cannot allow that to interfere with my work (who wants to talk to a therapist in a bad mood?) So, the tool that was given to me many years ago was to visualize taking my troubles and the feelings I have about them and placing them on a shelf. I then have to make a promise to myself about exactly when I will go back and deal with them. This strategy only works if I follow through and address things at the earliest possible juncture. Otherwise I’m just avoiding and then nothing works.

It works well if you work it.

Let’s move away from all or nothing thinking (a mentality of deal with it or don’t) and toward taking better care of ourselves. The more manageable and healthy I make my life, the more I have to give myself and others AND the more I receive from myself and others.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.