It was a good friend of mine who coined the term “Emotional Stuffing” for this very effective technique I've been using for, well, my entire life. I thought she'd made the phrase up, and I certainly liked the image I got of a big teddy bear, full of trauma.
This one might be a bit too small…
Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that no traumatic experience was worth anything unless it was turned over and examined, preferably in public.
It kind of goes against everything you've ever been told, but I'd like to sing the praises of turning yourself into that big teddy, and stuffing down pesky emotions and past traumas. I'd like to champion the stuffers, who are successfully ignoring all the bad shit. It's not quite the power of positive thinking, more like the willful negation of ugly stuff that can drag you down. And for sure, it’s not for everyone. But for some of us…emotional stuffing is where it’s at when it comes to (not) dealing with the shitty hands life sometimes deals.
I still remember watching an episode of Oprah many years ago, probably in the late 1990s. The guest was a woman who had been….raped? Molested? Abused? The details are hardly important, something god awful had happened to her. She told Oprah that her solution was to ignore it. Her logic was that she didn’t want to be defined by “it,” she didn’t want to be a victim of “it,” a survivor of “it,” or to think of “it” in any context at all.
I can’t forget it because to me, it was revelatory.
"You mean I can just IGNORE this stuff??" It seemed too good to be true.
Over the course of my life, I have experienced various unpleasantries that might put many people on a therapists’ couch. Hell, they have put me on a therapist's couch on occasion. No more. I have decided that I reject the couch, and all it symbolizes, outright. I am not going to give this stuff more importance than I have to. I’m not giving anyone the opportunity to think of me in the context of stuff I find disturbing or upsetting.
On the rare occasion I have disclosed things to "helping professionals," I have found it totally unhelpful. Once you tell a therapist, social worker, doctor or counsellor, certain things, they will never UNknow those things. Every piece of information will be filtered through this knowledge of you. It will contextualize every struggle, every difficulty and conflict in your life. And I’m sorry, but that is not me.
I remember the last time I put my issues out in front of a "caring professional" -- her response was that I needed to deal with these things, or else I would "have a nervous breakdown." That was over 5 years ago. I never went back, and I never had a nervous breakdown. That judgement, hysteria and hyperbole, just strengthened my belief in the sacred Teddy of Emotional Stuffing.
Goldilocks, still seeking a bigger bear. God that sounds like a porn.
Friends too, can store and reflect things back to you in ways you won’t like. When I think back on a handful of friends who plain and simply said the wrong thing in response to whichever trauma or indignity I had disclosed, it was devastating. There is another way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating SECRETS. I’m advocating something far more radical -- PRIVACY.
Is it possible that ancient hurts need not be excavated and examined? You can leave them buried if they aren’t creating an untenable psychological situation for you in the HERE AND NOW?
I know for some, this is not an option. I’m really lucky -- lucky to have options, lucky to have people in my life who care about me, lucky to be resilient.
Of course I have shared confidences and traumas with selected supportive people over the years. And I have gotten A LOT better at figuring out who is safe to talk to (here’s a hint: It’s not “the internet.”) It has been incredibly valuable and validating to know that trusted friends understand, or sometimes have been through something similar. The beautiful thing is, this exchanged ugliness does not have to colour my perception of good friends. In the end, they are who they are, an amalgamation of a lifetime of good and bad experiences. Same as me. That’s where compassion comes from, for them and for myself.
There is no doubt I have repressed memories of things in my childhood and later years. I imagine many (most?) people have. And, god willing those memories will remain repressed until I die. I have no use for them. I have no intention of turning myself inside out in a therapist’s office, or of capsizing my personal or professional life on the rock of past trauma. If it ain’t broke, this big teddy is not trying to fix it.
I know we are all different in terms of resiliency, coping skills and resources. I know that what I can "stuff" might be very different from what someone else can. But if disclosure feels wrong, it just might be wrong. And if emotional stuffing, or choosing not to deal, feels right, it might be right for you, too.