Psychological health is like a fountain, a beautiful movement between water and air. Healthy happiness has an outward flow to it, a kind of self-replenishing loop in which the energies of life circulate outward, then back into our core, then up and out again.
Psychological disorders, on the other hand, are like swamps and whirlpools. We use words like “down” and “agitated” to connote depression and suffering. Psychological suffering has an aimlessness to it, like a stagnant pond with the oxygen sucked out of it, or a churning froth going nowhere.
All healthy children and animals live in fountain-mode, expressing their feelings and wishes freely from the core of their being. A baby’s first act in life is to cry out for connection, and self-expression is the two-year-old’s full-time career. If caretakers are kind and welcoming enough, children learn that things go well when they express themselves, and they learn to be ever more effective at getting their points across. The two-year-old’s tantrum gradually gives way to verbal pleading and case-building, and we learn to get along with others while still trying to make ourselves happy. Our methods improve as we become socialized, but we still need to express what is inside us, one way or another.
When we are healthy, we express ourselves in the form of interaction, creativity, or productivity. Our internal fountain circulates and flows freely, our energies unimpeded. Like a fountain, we become an uplifting sight for others as well. Other people enjoy being around us when we are bubbling and flowing along our chosen path, creating tiny beauties in our wake.
Unfortunately, some of us learned early in life that being a fountain was a dangerous thing. It made people mad, made people withdraw from us, or got us sent to our rooms. Of course, we didn’t give up right away; it takes a lot to gum up a fountain. But there was a pivotal moment, a negative aha, where we grasped the nature of the game and hesitated to express. We reversed our flow and started holding things in. Instead of being naturally expressive, we became overly receptive.
Being receptive in moderation is not a bad thing at all. It helps us to learn and to empathize with others. But we are not made to be solely receptive. The urge to express is at the heart of our connection to other people—and our connection to ourselves. If early life experiences have made us passive and stagnant, this can lead to depression and anxiety. Depression is a swamp of unexpressed feelings, and anxiety is pent-up energy that wants to express, but has too much fear of what might happen.
Instead of depression, some people choose rebellion instead, becoming either passive-aggressive or angrily defiant. But there is little real expression in rebelling for its own sake because rebellion by itself is reactive instead of creative. If you are caught up in a rebellious attitude, other people still rule your creative energies because resistance to them takes the place of true expression. Rebelling is a form of healthy expression only when it is in the service of creating a better life for oneself.
If you often feel down or lacking in confidence, you probably have lived in situations where your natural flow of expression was criticized. If your expressiveness got squelched, you may find yourself chronically swallowing other people’s wishes and ideas rather than expressing your own. It may seem like a good idea to hide our true feelings in order to keep the peace, but our bodies and spirits will not tolerate this suppression indefinitely. If we stay too long in chronic expressive reversal, we will become physically and emotionally symptomatic.
Self-expression is necessary to getting your liveliness back. You can start by sincerely asking yourself what you really feel or think about something. At this initial point, you are not expressing anything to the outside world; you are just privately getting to know yourself again as an expressive person. Thinking your own thoughts and knowing your true feelings are the first steps toward getting your fountain started up again. There might be a lot of algae and muck holding you back at first, but just keep asking yourself what you really feel.
The next step is to start small by being willing to say little things that want to pop out. By relaxing the internal censor a bit, you allow yourself to comment or joke when you feel like it. Even if it comes out wrong, you will know it’s worth it because you are deliberately working to get your expressive flow going again. Making mistakes or mildly ruffling a feather or two is to be expected at this stage. You may feel more like the halting spurt of an old school water fountain rather than the Trevi fountain, but we have to start somewhere.
The final step is to reverse your reversal, by stating your feelings and thoughts responsibly after you have realized them. Other people may have grown accustomed to your abnormal receptivity and self-denying kindness, and they may not like to hear your side of things. They may even try to criticize you back into the emotional swamps and whirlpools, but all you have to do is keep intending to flow outward. Expressing yourself clearly and tactfully is not a crime against anybody. You will not become obnoxious to other people; you will be appreciated as an authentic person, and it will change the way you feel about your life and other people. A fountain is not a bully; it is a beautiful sight.
Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.