“What was the best piece of advice you ever received?”
I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a generational issue, but Polish people find enormous pleasure in giving others advice. Especially the older to the younger. The problem is that it’s usually unsolicited, not very thought-through, or just plain disrespectful, without taking into account that the other person may want different things from life, have different opinions, priorities, and long-term goals. So forgive me if I’m not a huge fan of “advice” – too many bad experiences with that. In fact, so many that I could write a whole separate article about them.
The moment you start talking to me in you-shoulds and you-musts, you can expect me to stop listening.
What I recognize as the best advice I ever got wasn’t technically advice. At least it wasn’t worded like that. It was in the winter. I had gone through the nightmare of looking for a therapist that my insurance would cover – a draining process consisting of tiresome Internet research, writing e-mails, finding psychologists without an e-mail address but a phone number and a 10-minute-window per day, in which it was okay to call them. I got yelled at by a doctor, who got mad at me for having a job and not being able to drop everything and run to her when another patient canceled.
And I got rejected over and over again because, obviously, everyone in Berlin needs a therapist and they are all overworked and overbooked.
But in the end, after three months of search, there I was, sitting on a chair in front of him, trying to ignore the suggestive box of tissues on his desk and struggling in clumsy, broken sentences to answer his question of why I thought I needed therapy.
It wasn’t a perfect situation. There was the problem of the language. I didn’t want to do therapy in German. I always say that I’m about 95% fluent and I feel like the missing 5% becomes relevant in situations like political discussions, dating and, well, therapy.
I said something along the lines that I wasn’t sure and that probably it was nothing, nothing at all, but I had experience A growing up and maybe it actually mattered, or maybe it was actually B, because I googled a lot (duuuh!) and after my internet research, I think it could qualify as B. To provide some support for that hypothesis, I recited a list of examples and situations, a list that I had been compiling in my head for a long time, trying to make sense of it all.
But he interrupted me and said: “Your feelings matter. This is not a trial. You don’t have to present evidence. If it made you feel that way, then it was real.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Because it was the last thing I expected to hear. Because the three people that make my nuclear family are lawyers, so the trial comparison almost made me chuckle at how accidentally relevant it was.
How many times in your life have you heard that you were exaggerating? Or overreacting? Blowing things out of proportion? That you were oversensitive? If you were assigned female at birth, you probably heard it a lot, routinely accompanied by a comment about your hormones or that time of the month. Maybe you were even labeled unstable or hysterical. If you were assigned male, it’s likely that no one wanted to hear you talk about your feelings. Ever. You were told you should man up and toughen up and the only emotion you were allowed to show was anger. It’s a whole different, probably equally problematic story (but I feel like not mine to tell).
The problem of the language comes back again. I think I only managed to make sense out of my experience when I started reading in English.
There is no word in Polish for abuse. There is no term for gaslighting.
If you try to talk about emotional abuse in Polish, you have to say emotional violence. Violence immediately sounds very serious but putting emotional before makes it easy to dismiss. We survived the war and 45 years of Soviet occupation and you want to talk about how you feel? These millennials…
It wasn’t easy to follow that therapist’s advice. After years of not being listened to, years of having everything I said undermined, I used to question myself a lot. But now I’m wary. I’m wary of that voice in my head that says: surely, you’re just being oversensitive again.
I’m suspicious of people who are fast to dismiss me and belittle my feelings.
Because, let’s face it: real friends (and I’m so lucky to have quite a few of those), the people who really have my best interests in mind, would never do that. I realized that it was in my perpetrator’s interest to manipulate me. When doubting myself, I wasn’t a threat to him, I remained docile. He didn’t have to alter his behavior, he didn’t even have to reflect on it, he could just go on with it, business as usual.
I would encourage you to do the same. Be watchful around those people. Don’t follow that mean inner voice blindly.
Trust yourself more and think about it. If you are feeling uneasy or just plain bad, it’s likely that there is something there, that it’s not nothing!
Because your feelings matter.
Or to quote Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”.