Is physical illness in our communities the dark side of our ‘perfect’ appearance?

Firstly, what is psychosomatic illness? Psychosomatic refers to the relationship between our mind, emotions, and body. Where psychological (mind, emotion) factors influence physiological (somatic) states. When your emotional and psychological experiences are repressed this can lead to biological dis-ease. It’s your body communicating to you.

Some research has suggested that psychosomatic illness and symptoms are common amongst South Asian women (Hussain & Cochrane, 2004; Patel, et, al. 2008). A wider look at mental health literature amongst ethnic minority and south Asian populations paints a picture of great stigma around emotional and psychological distress, leading to isolation, shame and delays in seeking support (Patel, at, al. 2000; Moller et, al, 2016; Sadiq, 2019).

We could speculate that these aspects may be related to a cultural shadow.
What do I mean by ‘shadow’? The shadow is a concept from Jungian psychology. Like a human shadow, it is a darkened version of a person (institute/ group)  that lays opposite to the outward, visible entity. The shadow is always present but not really acknowledged. In our psyche, the shadow is largely unconscious and consists of all the parts of ourselves that are deemed unacceptable. They are parts that we, and others, would ordinarily feel ashamed of. But the more we ostracize these parts, the more fragmented we become because we are essentially denying a part (or parts) inherent to our self.

In the book ‘owning your own shadow’, Johnson (1991) talks about collective shadows and shadows of faith communities. As a Pakistani, Muslim woman, it got me thinking about the shadows of South Asian cultures and Muslim communities. A culture is made up of many individuals, each operating to some degree on the norms of that culture. Anything that falls outside of cultural norms is usually considered odd, strange, wrong or bad. Often resulting in shame.

In this view then, repression and suppression of emotions can be seen as a shadow of a culture that shuns emotional experiences. A culture that shuns emotional experiences, always gazing into a direction of positivity and gratitude, will create a shadow. And the more the shadow is ignored, the bigger it becomes. Suppressing emotions has an impact on the immune system, increasing vulnerability to ill health (Coughlin, 2007). The longer we continue to deny abuse, inequality, oppression and negative emotions that we experience, the more distance we create between our conscious and subconscious and increase our vulnerability to psychosomatic illness.

Let’s think about the ideologies of our communities. Although our belief systems and principles are there to provide a moral code, often stemming from a religious basis, the systems can be enforced in a very rigid way. Beliefs and ideas around being a ‘good Muslim’ or the ‘perfect Muslim’, ‘perfect child’, ‘perfect parent’, ‘perfect spouse’ etc. Beliefs and ideas around being strong, grateful and self- sufficient (except with God’s help). Within these narratives then, falling short of perfection, or not being seen as a strong person, a good Muslim etc. can create a sense of shame, disappointment, guilt, amongst other things. Rather than challenging these rigid ideals, it is more common for people to hide their shortcomings, to dismiss their struggles, to soldier on and pretend everything is good. All the while, underneath, the reality could be creating something sinister.

It is not the emotions themselves that put us at risk, but our defensive responses toward them (Coughlin, 2006). Our shadow will protect itself from being exposed, employing defences like projection, blame, judgement, abuse of power and adopting the victim role. All of these hide the root emotions as the shadow engages in self- preservation. It is a noble and courageous thing to begin facing yourself, peeling back the layers and really exposing the nasties that have been hidden away. But without engaging in this transformative process, the dark side continues to breed. We need to ask ourselves what are we keeping in the dark? What can we start facing and stop avoiding? What can we address in our lives that will break the cycle of suppression + shame <->  psychosomatic illness and lead to greater acceptance and healing.

References

Coughlin, D. S. P. (2006). Emotional processing in the treatment of psychosomatic disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 539- 550.

Hussain, F. & Cochrane, R. (2004). Depression in South Asian women living in the UK: a review of the literature with implications for service provision. Transcultural Psychiatry, 41, 253- 70.

Moller, N., Burgess, V., & Jogiyat, Z. (2016). Barriers to counselling experienced by British south Asian women: A thematic analysis exploration. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 16:3, 201-210.

Patel, S., Peacock, M. S., McKinley, K. R., Carter, C. D. & Watson, J. P. (2008). GP’s experiences of managing chronic pain in a South Asian community- a qualitative study of the consultation process. Family Practice, 25:2, 71- 77.

Patel, N., Bennett, E., Dennis, M., Dosanjh, N., Matitani, A., Miller, A., & Nadirshaw, Z. (2000). Clinical Psychology: ‘Race’ and ‘Culture’: A training manual. Leicester: The British Psychological Society

Did you know, our mind-body state of being can become addicted to emotions?! In this post, I’ll explain how, why and what you can do about it.

We are not always conscious of our internal state of being, including our decision-making processes that keep us in a negative place; because a lot of this happens automatically. It is a repetition of particular thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are literally playing on a loop. You can think of this loop as a blueprint under your skin that involves your thoughts, chemistry, hormones and emotions. It’s a blueprint that is followed by your subconscious. Ninety- five percent of our mind works subconsciously, and part of this includes following the emotional mind-body blueprints.

The same thoughts trigger neurotransmitters that trigger the same rush of chemicals and hormones to be released in your body that create the same emotions that you’re now used to feeling. These lead to the same behaviours in your outer world. It’s not an outward addiction as such, although you will be able to see the consequences of it in your life, career, relationships etc. This is how your subconscious becomes addicted to negativity. It may not be pleasant but it’s very familiar; and familiarity creates comfort, which means negativity becomes easy.

Many people are very comfortable being in this place, some even pride themselves on having the biggest problems and the most problems, as though there’s a prize for it. But the suffering is unnecessary.

So, how can you tell if you’re addicted to negativity, suffering and unhappiness?
If you can see yourself in the list below, that is some indication.

  • You find yourself feeling negative emotions a lot, sometimes even when nothing external has caused it
  • You find it easy to talk about negative things and your conversations are often problem- focused
  • You defend against change and make excuses
  • You often feel like a victim, in your circumstances, in relationships and to your emotions
  • You are likely to blame other people and not take responsibility for things
  • You struggle to find something to be happy about
  • When you feel something positive you are quick to revert into the negative
  • You focus on lack; lack of time, lack of money, lack of love

Being in your familiar state does have short- term benefits (I see these as more of an illusion rather than real helpful, benefits), they include feelings of; comfort, ease, predictability, control and safety. On the other hand, this prevents you from experiencing and learning new things, it stifles your growth and inhibits positive changes and experiences. And you can see how that also keeps you in the cycle.

Overcoming this addiction can be challenging, but like any other challenge we could also see it as something fun and exciting, rather than difficult and daunting. Depending on how much you want to move out of here!
However, there may be trauma, self- esteem or other mental health related issues that are playing a part within this. It’s important not to blame yourself for being in this place, no one consciously chooses to have mental health issues. Seek appropriate support where needed.

How do you get out of this addiction?

1. Awareness and acknowledgment

Take time to observe your emotions, observe your thoughts, observe your reactions. And do this in a non- judgemental way. You’re not telling yourself off, or making yourself feel bad, you’re just being honest and seeing this pattern for what it is.

2. Challenge your blueprint

When you can notice the different components that are part of this addiction you can then question them. Is this emotion an appropriate response to the situation? Is this thought accurate and logical? What is the wider picture? What can I say or do to stop this escalating? Some people may feel guilty or undeserving of positive things, don’t be afraid to challenge your own narratives. Not everything we think is true.

3. Practice

The negative emotions are strong and comfortable because they have been around for a long time. Allow yourself to practice sitting with the good stuff! This could be in the form of meditation, affirmations, gratitude lists and journaling, noticing what is going well in your life, noticing what is good about yourself, noticing what is good about a particular situation or person you’ve spent time with. This is a way to start reprogramming your mind and body towards positivity. You’re creating a new blueprint.

This is not about positive or wishful thinking, or about burying our head in the sand from difficulties. You may have missed tonnes of good stuff going through life with a negative blueprint, so we need to rebalance that. Difficult and frustrating things will happen, but we don’t want to be stuck there for prolonged periods of time. By making this change you will be able to keep yourself in a good place for longer durations, spend less time in the negative and develop greater resilience and an ability to bounce-back when something does pop up.

Are you willing to be truthful with yourself and experiment with positivity? It might be uncomfortable in the beginning sacrificing suffering for some joy will be worth it!

“You should only care what God thinks” is a reassurance people will give to people who care about what people think. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t have any issues. But the personality pattern of people-pleasing is a hardwired system of internalised beliefs. We can only untangle and disconnect from it through awareness and repeated practice of new patterns. The process can be difficult and messy but transformational.

People-pleasing is not just an individual issue. It is tied to our internal, external, real and imagined connections with ourselves and others. Collectivist cultures are built on an interwoven web of social norms and traditions that provide a safety to the group. Unspoken rules keep individuals in line with the wider norms to uphold the status quo of the group and maintain group harmony (Triandis, 2002). Naturally then, our relationships with others hold great importance in such cultures. So much so that it is more likely for us to identify ourselves in relation to social roles rather than our personal qualities and characteristics (Mosquera, 2015). Some group norms are more obvious than others, i.e. gender roles and coping mechanisms respectively. When these unspoken operating systems become harmful, rather than helpful, we experience problems.

So how does people- pleasing occur? American psychologist, Jay Earely, suggests that our cultures can create this pattern. As a relational psychologist I agree with this, people- pleasing can seep out from cultures in which there is an emphasis on group harmony, conflict avoidance, high expectations of success and following tradition. For example, a child will seek validation, love and acceptance from its parents. If the parents are emitting the message that compliance, conformity and achievement results in validation, love and acceptance, then that child will quickly adopt a people-pleasing pattern to gain this. They will also learn that not doing certain things will result in a negative response, a withdrawal of love, acceptance and safety. To avoid disapproval, the child will avoid displeasing. People- pleasing traits do not develop overnight. The rules are written from childhood (Seltzer, 2008) or other repeated experiences in older life. It is a learnt, adaptive, survival, strategy.

Now let’s take look at some potential rules within some ethnic minority and faith- based communities that feed this self- esteem issue

 “I must be a good Muslim so God is pleased with me/ God doesn’t punish me”

“I must be a good daughter/ son and always keep my parents happy”

“If I achieve a good education my parents and community will be proud”

 “I mustn’t bring disgrace to my family”

“I should always listen to my elders”

These rules leave absolutely no room for human error.
Making people- pleasing a hard task!

Cultural rules are often maintained via a strong emotional noose of shame.
If a person goes against the norms of a group, shame points them out. If a person has transgressed traditional boundaries, shame shows up. If a person tries to expand out of cultural confines, shame fights to push them back.

A culture of watchful judgement, often internalised, can create internal rules and beliefs that are common of people-pleasers’ such as:

“It is my job to keep other people happy”

“Others’ needs are more important than my own”

“I am not important”

“I must not upset people”

“I shouldn’t share my difference of opinions”

Individuals learn to self- sacrifice, to give, to please, to conform, to perform and can end up losing their own sense of self, their own identity. Living a life for other people can create anger, resentment, exhaustion, guilt, unappreciation, disappointment and unworthiness.

Now that you’ve identified it, what do you do about it?

Changing this pattern takes courage and openness. It is a challenge to push against this cycle and stop it in its tracks. If people- pleasing is about shame, self- sacrifice, loss of self, validation seeking, then it is your challenge to get to know your true self, to set boundaries, to be assertive, to value yourself and notice your worthiness, to build your inner strength and autonomy (Seltzer, 2008). Yes, people may not like this, but that can be a good sign, it shows you are taking your power back and giving as much to yourself as you were giving away to others. Bear in mind, this may also feel extremely uncomfortable for you! You’re essentially going against years of conditioning. So you may feel guilty for not doing what you, and others, have been used to for so long; following the people-pleasing pattern. But, is it really unacceptable if you want to spend some time by yourself? If you follow your own interests, does that really mean you are selfish? Breaking away from people- pleasing can bring about much self-discovery, excitement, happiness and actually healthier relationships!

It’s a process of re-writing your rules to re- balance the scales.

 

References:

Mosquera, R. M. P. (2015). Cultural influences on interpersonal relationships. International Encyclopaedia of The Social and Behavioural Sciences. Pp 426- 432. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.24054-3

Seltzer, F. L. (2008). From parent-pleasing to people-pleasing. Psychology Today.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/parent-pleasing-people-pleasing-part-1-3

Triandis, C. H. (2002). Individualism- collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69; 6, pp. 907- 924.