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And why Brits don’t know what to do with their feelings…

Failing the fact that Brené Brown, the Queen of Vulnerability, was born in San Antonio, Texas, us British adults are light years behind our American brethren in sharing our feelings with anyone, let alone ourselves.   Thankfully this week is Children’s Mental Health Week in the UK and so young Bob’s emotional tool kit continues to grow: “Mum I need to express my feelings”, yes you do!   This is my call for grace for ourselves as we slowly start to learn how to express our feelings, just as our children are. 

In fact, I’m a case study in feeling more things today than ever before in this upside down and inside out COVID world. I’m essentially in charge of a working London convent (aka my house): with nowhere to escape to, without a whole bunch of outside distractions, and a whole lot of feelings swimming around. But what the heck to do with them??? My Hogwartseque education did NOT prepare me for this! I don’t mean COVID – I mean what to do with feelings! I’m British for God’s sake. And you know what, I KNOW I’m not alone. How are you doing? Do you know what to do with your daily emotional shipping forecast? “Running fair at 5, perhaps gale 8 later, potentially moderate or rough”. And the funny thing is us Brits have made a national sport of talking about the weather, our feelings? Not so much.

But I think we need to give ourselves a big cuppa grace – us humans feel safer when we armour up and detour around pain in the first place, then you add on an extra draw bridge of denial (and perhaps a moat) and you’ve just about got the picture of how painfully difficult it can be for a Brit to open up, peek over the garden wall to express how we feel.  We’re famous around the world for our “stiff upper lip”, for being reserved and rather uptight. Our country’s mantra is “keep calm and carry on” for Fs sake, as emblazoned on our kitchens’ towels, mugs and cereal bowls (I probably have one lying cracked lonesome in my cellar). The more stressful something is, the more it MUST appear that we have everything sewn up, buttoned up, and held together. We don’t want to tell our neighbours we’re struggling, we’d much rather talk about our flower beds. This isn’t some Taoist “be the observer” and let it fly over your head shizzle. No, it’s more like: pretend it’s not happening, brush it under a rug and carry on. Quite frankly we think wearing your heart on your sleeve is dangerous, so we politely advise against it!  

This makes sense to me when I remember we’re a nation which has been ruled by the “aristocracy: emotions! Ha! Oh no! Because that could risk the carefully curated public façade of alluring happy waving princesses, stoic smiling queens and and palatial fairy tales. It’s noble, honourable and dare I say polite to smile and “keep calm, and carry on”.  Emotions are perhaps therefore impolite and just burdensome as we don’t know what to do with our own, let alone yours!  Would we trust that our Queen was “of sound mind” and holding it all together if we saw her in “an emotional state”, perhaps even hysterical? (p.s. which tellingly comes from the Latin, hystericus (“of the womb”). A condition thought to be exclusive to women – sending us uncontrollably and neurotically insane.  Being emotional means we’re out of control).   Would we sign up to fight and defend our country in her name if we didn’t trust that she was holding it all together for us? This stiff upper lip might hide her true feelings but it glues our nation together, especially in times of uncertainty. When everything else is uncertain, the Queen doesn’t waiver.  And neither do we, as we in turn “hold it all together” for our families.

But “heavy is the head that wears The Crown”.  It’s not that we don’t feel (even the Queen is human) we just encourage a noble denial over open truth.  The Crown on Netflix is a wonderful study of this very British sensibility.  What about that “hide behind a cushion from cringing” episode where the Queen tries to choose her favourite child and each child in turn presents her with emotional woes (p.s. let’s not talk about Andrew…) she doesn’t know how to deal with any of them other than to say “pull yourself together for God’s sake – do you think anyone cares how you feel?” (poor Charles).

But listen out, as us Brits do actually express how we feel just never directly, don’t be silly!  We may “with respect” sarcastically (and somewhat sardonically) mock you, but only a Brit will hear whether it’s with love, disdain or despair. And if we tell you to F++ck O+F it may well mean true love (give me a call if you need a British love languages translator or study Love Actually!).  

I’ve noticed though that this pandemic IS changing us. I’ve never before heard us Brits talk so openly and regularly at work or with friends about how we feel. It’s now totally acceptable, perhaps even expected, that on a first date you will ask “so what were your highs and lows of Armageddon 2020” and for people to actually tell you.  This is moving beyond the usual vulnerability of “what’s your favourite biscuit?” to “are you ok?”.  But maybe I’m just hanging out with people who are like me who have watched Brené’s Ted Talk.  Trying to crack ourselves open despite it feeling like we might just die from telling someone how we feel.  And whilst change is occurring it needs to hurry from its glacial rate if we’re to help more people from feeling alone right now and stuck in a storm of feelings they don’t know how to sail through.  Rates of suicide, self harm and eating disorders are rising fast in the UK and these will take more than a vaccine to help.

One last thing before I go: let’s please put away our self flagellating whips and stop feeling guilt and shame for struggling and not being “ok”.  I think there is a sense of survivor’s guilt right now if you’re feeling like rubbish but you “have no reason to complain”.

No one is having the time of their life right now and yes many people are suffering. This isn’t a contest.  Be grateful for what you have AND still feel what you feel… they’re not mutually exclusive.

So, as a slowly emotionally evolving Brit I’m going to give us permission to keep our emotional training wheels on.  We ARE doing our best, and we ARE carrying on, and through quivering lips we might just tell you how we feel on any given day – but please know, that each time we do, we are proving to ourselves that we didn’t die in doing so! In fact we might just find out it helps.

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