Today I want to talk about a psychological mechanism that, I think, all of us utilize but are mostly unaware of. I know I was for a very long time. It’s something I’ve been calling: Emotional Capital.
Now, “Emotional Capital” is also a term marketers use to describe the emotional relationship cultivated between company and customer.
I’m NOT using the term that way. Emotional Capital is something I discovered almost two years ago. And by discovered, I really mean uncovered. It’s a way to visualize how our emotional and psychological health is really a kind of, economy.
Whether we are aware or not, we all live our lives on an economy of emotional capital. Sometimes we have plenty of “money” in the bank. Sometimes we are severely in debt. The key to emotional stability is to figure out where you “make your money,” emotionally, and where you are hemorrhaging that emotional “money.”
“The key to emotional stability is to figure out where you ‘make your money,’ emotionally, and where you are hemorrhaging that emotional ‘money.'”
So what does it feel like when you are managing your emotional wealth well?
Happiness. Contentment. An ability to shrug off criticism. Not take things too seriously. Work on projects that are important to you. Be kind and compassionate. Feel invigorated by new experiences instead of drained by them. Enjoy music, art, and theatre. More energy. More empathy. More energy to create your OWN art, or create new, positive structures in your life.
What does it feel like when your are NOT managing your emotional wealth well?
Depressed. Restless. Unhappy. Searching for all the bad things in your life that must be causing this sadness/anger/resentment. Low energy. Reclusiveness. Desire to seek out escapes: TV, smartphone/tablet screens, the internet, food, drugs, mindless sex, etc.
Any of this sound familiar? It should! We all swing back and forth between having “money” in the bank and depleting our funds and resorting to quick thrills (like drugs, sex, food, and screens) to make us feel full again. Those cheap thrills are like credit cards: You can use a credit card to buy a new sweater that you can’t really afford. You can also use a credit card to repair that hole in the ceiling that HAS to be fixed. But each time you use a credit card you are drawing upon funds you don’t have. It’s the same emotionally. When you try to fill your emotional bank account by seeking escapes (like TV, drugs, sex and food) you may initially feel better but you are just kicking the can further down the road.
I realized this, like I said, only a couple years ago at 26. Up until the age of 21 my life had been fairly easy. I was growing up gay in a heavily Mormon community, yes, but I didn’t come out until after high school. I was white, upper-middle class and smart enough that no one ever really bothered me. My health was good and I was conformist enough to do the work the teachers gave me and get the best grades possible. In college I majored in Acting and had an incredible cast of friends, teachers, and colleagues that kept me happy and on keel.
I had no traumas in my life. None of my friends or family died. My parents didn’t lose their jobs. My siblings had their own minor problems, but nothing crazy.
So it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with leukemia that I realized what trauma really was: a force outside your life messing up EVERYTHING without your control. It also causes your animal brain to initiate a FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE response, even though there is NO physical threat. So you just stay hard wired, 24 hours a day, in a scared, defenseless animal mode. Which is REALLY bad for you!
“Trauma causes your animal brain to initiate a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, even though there is NO physical threat.”
I had no way to cope. This was the first time anything really traumatic had happened to me. First I decided to FIGHT. Ya know, what they tell ALL cancer diagnosees: “You have to FIGHT this thing! Don’t let it win! You can BEAT this!” SO I did! I went into remission within a month and saw that as some sign that I had what it took: that somehow, my EFFORT, my FIGHT was what destroyed my cancer.
As the months of chemo wore on (to ensure the cancer wouldn’t relapse)–and my energy flagged, and my hair started to thin and fall out in chunks, and my face and body became more and more unrecognizable to me–I entered the FLIGHT response. I played video games. I got high. I drank too much. I stayed out late, or worked on writing musicals and scores until 2 or 3 in the morning, trying to appear as normal as possible, and running myself thin in the process.
After nine months, I reached the end of the heavy chemo. They put me on a lower dose that would last for the next 3 years. I thought that I would feel so much better! The poisons were lowered. The chemo was lessened. I should do more! Get back to my life! Accomplish! Move to New York!
But instead I got even more depressed. I still had low energy. My body still seemed like a stranger’s. This was the lowest low. Worse than the diagnosis. Worse than the physically sickest times during those first nine months. About a year in I entered the third animal-brain-trauma-response: I FROZE. I tried to stop everything. I withdrew from life. I shut myself off from friends and family. I slept as much as possible. I evacuated as much of my brain, and spirit, as possible, from the body they were inhabiting.
Finally it became too much to handle and I went to see a therapist. She was the one that explained to me that I basically had PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that I had to find ways to calm the animal brain inside me before I could move on with my life.
She helped me realize that in my depression all I was focusing on were the things I couldn’t change: I had leukemia; I was on chemo for three more years; I was sickly, pale, and bloated; I was stuck in Salt Lake City; I couldn’t be an actor because I couldn’t count on my own health; and blah, blah blah.
She said that I WASN’T thinking about were all the things I COULD change. I needed to start doing the things that were good for me, even though I didn’t feel like doing them. So I started to exercise, which I had NEVER done before. I mean, not regularly. I started hiking more and enjoying Utah’s incredible outdoors. I cultivated new friendships and started dating again.
When I finally finished chemo, in Spring of 2011, I thought I was ready to “resume my real life,” pick it up where I had left off four years earlier and move to New York City. But when I got there I realized I was chasing a dream within a dream. I wasn’t the same young man I was anymore. Just as I had felt like a stranger in my own body only three years earlier, I now felt like a stranger in my own life.
I talked about this more in last week’s entry “The Plane Ticket.” I pulled the parachute and floated back to Salt Lake City after only four months, to lick my wounds and rehabilitate the rest of my life.
I read the book “The Artist’s Way.” I started journalling. I went to Yoga. I started lifting weights. I became a vegetarian, and then a 90% vegan (pepperoni, sausage, hotdogs: PIG! Why are you so delicious?). I cultivated my relationship with my boyfriend Devin and created a new, sustainable vision for my life.
And then one night, 6 years after I had been diagnosed, when our friend Shanna was visiting from New York City, and we are staying up late laughing and reminiscing, I realized I had finally paid my debt.
It was life changing.
I realized the entire concept of Emotional Capital that night. I realized that my cancer diagnosis was like a huge mortgage that someone had taken out in my name, and not even told me about. That I was expected to make monthly payments towards this huge loan, but no one ever told me how, or even what the currency was! Up until cancer I had been managing my emotional wealth paycheck to paycheck: letting the tides and winds of life dictate my happiness and depression. Never doing the things that were good for me, and thus not building my emotional wealth.
I had bought a house. Emotionally, anyway. Somehow, bit by bit, I figured out what the currency of my emotional wellbeing was, and I started making the payments. I now have a huge, beautiful “house.” The house is the life I built for myself from the wreckage of my former one. Cancer came in like a wrecking ball and destroyed everything. But really, it just destroyed my ego. And over the next 6 years I built a better one. I built a better house. I made the payments and now I owned something long lasting and something that gave me true happiness.
I’m still making the same payments, only now they are an investment.
So how should you start making your own payments and build your own emotional wealth?
We gain emotional capital from the following activities:
1. Exercise – Some kind of regular exercise. The most effective I’ve found is actually weight lifting. I try not to go more than two days without going to the gym or it makes me grumpy and depressed, and I start cataloguing all the problems with my life. But it could be aerobics, or dance, or cycling, or walking, or yoga. Or all of them! Exercise never really feels like the most fun thing to do “right now.” But we don’t do it for the value of the experience itself. We take it like medicine: because it will make us better, and keep us balanced.
2. Eating Right/Eating ENOUGH of the good stuff – Watch the movie “Fed Up” if you want to learn about how AWFUL sugar and artificial sweeteners are for our bodies and minds. It doesn’t really matter what you choose to eat as long as you are conscious about it and try to make some better choices each day.
3. Meditation/Prayer/Journalling – I think these all fulfill a similar need. They give your brain a reprieve from the constant inner monologue of stress and negative thinking. We are programmed to have negative thoughts. There was a time when negative thinking kept us on the alert for dangerous animals and predators. But we generally don’t need them anymore. Meditation, prayer and journalling let us cast off those negative thoughts and make more time for the positive and neutral ones that feed our emotional capital.
4. Creation – This could be artistic like a poem, a painting, or a song. Or it can be a giant spreadsheet to manage your household finances. Or it could be something you create with your kids, or a new recipe you want to try. Or a new way of organizing your closet. Or volunteer work! Anything where you have to rethink the way something is done, or think up a new something to do, is an act of creation. We are products of creation, and we are meant to create ourselves. Take ownership of yourself as a creative being, and take ownership of your own life: create the life you want. Create better ways to do annoying things. Create better relationships with the people you love, and more empathy for the people you don’t.
I’m sure there are more! What do you do to recharge in your life? Let me know in the comments section, and thanks so much for letting me share my transformation with you.
Have a great week, and see you next week!