The Pressure From Within: Beware the Self-Imposed Demand

A wrecked ship on shore. The words "Point Reyes" are on the front of the ship.
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Have you ever considered, beloved other, how invisible we are to each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside our self. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe OUR meanings of other people’s words.

-Fernando Pessoa

The Shipwrecks of Our Understanding

I used to catch myself really far along into the process. Way down the path. Several miles from where I started. Huffing and puffing over some Herculean feat I was begrudgingly attempting.

“Why are you doing that? That doesn’t look fun,” an observer would ask me. Usually someone who didn’t want to see me in agony. Typically a well-meaning friend or lover who was witnessing me doing something ill advised and suffering for it.

I did a lot of stupid things. Sometimes I’d (pathetically) attempt to clean my house when I was so sick I could barely move. Other times I’d cry as I tried to find money that just wasn’t there to buy something extravagant for a romantic partner. Or I’d stay up all night studying for a test I was already well prepared for and in the morning I’d throw up in the shower from stress and sleep deprivation.

It always started out innocently enough. But I’d push myself so hard that I’d end up hurt somehow. Over and over again.

I had trouble doing things halfway, you see. Driven to the point of obsession. And I’d never learned to really listen to my body or what it was telling me.

I come from a long line of stoics. And I grew up in a house where complaining was forbidden. And complaints certainly weren’t listened to. So I not only learned not to complain, but I also learned to stop listening to my own. This isn’t something I consciously did, exactly. But it happened nonetheless.

Ignoring Your Inner Voice Makes It Scream Louder, You Just Can’t Understand It

The funny thing about your internal voice is that if you ignore it, it doesn’t actually go away. Instead, it gets louder. Like a child screaming for attention from the back seat.  Your internal voice gets louder, more insistent.

Something inside me was screaming at the top of its lungs — but I couldn’t hear it. Let alone understand it.

And yet, I couldn’t escape the internal voice. I registered it on a subconscious level. The emotions still crept in. But I didn’t recognize them as my own — instead, I would mistake them as coming from other people.

So at those moments when I’d yet again done something completely asinine and unnecessary that had ended up harming me, I’d answer the person asking me why I was doing it with a false answer. Not a lie, really, because I believed it.

The Self-Imposed Demand

“I had to do it,” I’d tell them. Because I believed that so-and-so would be miserable if I didn’t do X, Y, or Z.  I had put all that pressure on myself for a close friend, a relative, or a partner. “They’re counting on me.”

I didn’t want to make the people I loved unhappy. I didn’t want to fail. To my thinking, my self-imposed demands were coming from those other people. And if I wanted to have people in my life who loved me, I needed to move heaven and earth for them. Right then, no excuses. Fuck my cold. My sleep. My health or well-being. Who cared about any of that? Not me. I didn’t matter. There was work to be done.

There was only one problem with this. I rarely asked those other people in my life what they wanted. Instead, I assumed. And interpreted demands that were actually coming from inside of me as ones that were coming from them. And typically, what they actually wanted wasn’t for me to work myself to the point of oblivion to achieve something that was really only a minor issue for them.

But I kept doing it over and over again.

I kept projecting that intense pressure from within on them. Confusing self-imposed demands with external ones.

Ignoring myself and my own needs didn’t lead to strength. It led to not being able to understand other people at all, especially as I threw my internal voice onto them like a ventriloquist working a dummy.

Hearing That Inner Voice Again

It took me years to realize that it was even happening. Even once I did, the path back from that behavior wasn’t easy, but the shift in how I related to myself (and subsequently to others) was profound. As I wrote in my journal:

I need to write about this because one day I’ll have worked everything out and be so far beyond my current troubles that I’ll forget how I got past this point.

I can hazard a guess, but I don’t know for sure exactly when or why everything changed. Somehow somewhere along the line I stopped listening to my emotions, my pain, my preferences, everything.

This emotional disconnect certainly had benefits – otherwise I never would have distanced myself in such a way – but it also carried a large cost. My low points seemed like they happened to someone else, a definite perk, but then, again my high points weren’t mine either. And questions about my opinions became impossibly difficult, arbitrary.

Recently, I heard my own inner voice again. At first, it was like a stranger living with me in my body. It’s soft and subtle. It feels like a quivering inside of me, but I feel it stirring, and I know when it moves, and if I focus, I know what it wants. What I want.

Locating Where the Pressure Comes From

Working with clients later helped me to understand that I’m not the only person who has ever struggled with this. It’s an easy thing to do, to put huge pressure on yourself internally for the sake of other people without even consulting them.

Even in non-clinical settings, I regularly encounter people who are half-killing themselves trying to accomplish something they think someone else wants them to do. Except they haven’t even asked that person. And when they do, that person doesn’t care half as much as they think about whatever trivial thing they’re obsessed with.

Hell, I even find myself in those patterns sometimes (albeit to a lesser degree than before).

And when I do, I find it helpful to stop and ask myself: “Where is this pressure I’m feeling coming from? What is my evidence that I need to be doing this?” And if necessary, I investigate with some followup questions, to myself and to others.

It can be humbling when I realize I’ve jumped to some insane conclusion yet again. But it’s better than not knowing at all. Not realizing where the pressure I feel is coming from until it’s too late.

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