OPINION: An open letter of healing to all South Africans

OPINION

Dear South Africans,

To all of you, no matter what you are feeling right now, please know that these emotions are here as a gift to teach us something. Stay with me and I’ll show you how.

As you watched unrest spill across South Africa, heard different reports and listened to friends and family speaking about their experiences, emotions could have come up for you, too. You may have felt anger, fear, pain, shame or guilt. Whatever feeling arose for you over last week, and certainly as the weeks unfold, are OK. Having a feeling is never the problem and recognising our feelings allow us to respond with intention.

When we see something, hear something, smell something, we may find ourselves feeling triggered or awakened to an emotion or feeling without fully understanding the ‘why’.

How we react to trauma is a complex process and a very clever way the body protects us. When most people think of the word "trauma", they think of Big T abuse like a car accident, assault, or detention. But we now know that trauma can be much subtler than that and just as wounding. Trauma is basically the internal process we go through in any overwhelming situation, including experiences such as long-term poverty or foodlessness.

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So, this is how it works: When we are going through something overwhelming, and what we are being exposed to is much more than we can handle with the skills at our disposal, our mind freezes the pain to protect us. So, most of our deepest pain is muted or numbed to help us survive. And of course, we will react differently depending on when we were exposed, how often, the age and intensity, and more.

What I would like to encourage you to do is to connect with your body. The ability to heal is linked to being able to connect with your physical body and starts with awareness of these internal process.

I would say that, rather than suppressing what you are feeling, try to find a time and a place to slow down and do the following:

  1. Quiet yourself by breathing in deeply for a count of three and out slowly over the count of five – repeating as many times as you need to feel calm.

  2. Name the emotion by asking ‘what am I feeling?’. The ability to give a name to what you feel helps you gain control. As the saying goes “name it to tame it”. Stay away from using big words such as depression or anxiety, asking instead whether you are sad, mad, glad, scared, etc. Does it feel painful?

  3. Give yourself permission to feel the emotion by:

  • Closing your eyes or focusing on something that helps you feel calm – we call this a resource. It could be a picture of your child or loved one, your favourite jersey knitted by your gran, your pet – anything at all.

  • Imagining your anger or pain or fear or guilt or shame.

  • Where in your body are you feeling it?

  • What colour is it? Identifying the colour helps give that emotion shape in your mind’s eye. Allow it to move through your body from wherever it is to the bottom of your feet and out of your body.

  • Allow the feeling to flow through you like you are riding a wave. Most people worry that emotions will overwhelm them but emotions, while uncomfortable, are in motion. They are a wave that goes through your body, but you do not have to live in it, just allow it to flow right through you.

4. Once it has passed, allow the emotion to teach you what it is here to teach you. Ask yourself ‘what is this feeling here to teach me?’

  • Anger is usually the emotion of action and teaches us that there is a wrong that needs to be righted – it gives us strength and energy to do this. Why are you angry and what are you called on to do? This emotion, unfortunately, is a default one that we use because it is socially acceptable. This emotion is incorrectly interpreted as showing strength. You may need to look deeper and ask, ‘why am I angry?’ ‘Is there something else behind my anger?’

  • You may be feeling scared, fearful, threatened, or even overwhelmed. The gift of this emotion is the ability to think of ways to protect oneself, to preserve oneself by asking what you need to do and what you can decide not to do.

  • You may be feeling sadness, pain, pity or even helplessness and the gift here is to look at the kind of healing or growth that needs to happen to eventually move on from the situation.

  • You may be feeling shame or embarrassment. Ask yourself what it is about what you witnessed that has connected to your humanity and why? What do you need to do for yourself to contain who you are versus what you see?

  • You may be feeling guilt and the gift of guilt is that it points us to looking at our values, amend what does not align with them and possibly make whatever amends are needed to right the wrong.

The ability to still yourself, breathe in deeply and slowly out, quiets your nervous system to slow down and rebalance. Being aware and connecting to your body is a longer-term practice that is an amazing resource that we can get better at the more we do it.

If, dear reader, you have a preexisting condition and the trigger that you feel is much harder than you can handle, please reach out to a qualified therapist who can create a safe space for you.

Linda Mthenjane is the managing director and founder of The Space Between Us, a human-centred digital mental health platform in tune with the African psyche. She has over 20 years’ experience in strategic human resources and as a clinical psychologist in private practice.

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