For Crying Out Loud

By Na’imah Saffiya

September 2022

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Thumbnail illustration by Tiffany Zhong

I grew up in quite a chaotic household; the oldest daughter to second-generation Caribbean parents living with five sparky family members, crammed into one South London flat. It may be needless to say, as soon as I reached the ripe old age of 6 years old, there was a zero tolerance policy on crying in public. In fact, I quickly learned that tears were still quite the inconvenience at home.

But don’t worry, I’ll save the psychodynamic stroll through my unequivocally f—d up psyche for Debbie, my counselor who sometimes I feel is really more like an aunty than a healthcare professional. Debbie is a professional of course, but I’d never had that ease with talk therapy before her. I’d been treated for all sorts by NHS Talk Therapies at this point, so when I eventually reached my limit with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I was so grateful to find a unique kind of support that grounded me instead of making me my own psychiatrist. Now we could get to the nitty-gritty, down to those emotional caves that cushioned whatever core beliefs had taken root in my 20-something years.

One Saturday I removed a veil of confusion, me and Debbie uncovered my overwhelming struggle with emotional self-regulation. My boyfriend at the time helped me identify my inability to be alone with particularly strong emotions causing me to reach out for one of my two safe people to emotionally dump and displace my feelings onto them. This incapacity to experience and organise my own emotions included emotional unavailability for others while in the middle of my own kind of storm resulting in an ultimately self-consumed partner or even sometimes friend.

I honestly never knew I was bad at emotional self-regulation. I thought I was just clumsy and selfish at worst. But it’s more layered than that, interestingly I accepted being labeled selfish for so long until one day it struck a chord with me. Having a counselor who I identified with enabled me to be open about the cultural norm of parenting children through shame, especially shaming difficult emotions. I feel Caribbean children grow up to laugh at this as adults and so many of us share common experiences of not being given the space to react, emotionally respond or emote for the sake of avoiding punishment. I don’t think our parents knew any better but I do know now that the intolerance I was met with as a child is the same emotional intolerance I treat myself with as an adult today. I note the unequivocal influence of an anti-black society shapes our self-perception and perception of each other as having to be tough, adultifying our babies compared with their non-black peers in childhood. But I take great comfort in the work of black counselors, therapists and mentors creating safe spaces for us to reparent ourselves out of this ‘tough love’ trauma. I wish everyone finds themselves an aunty Debbie whether they know they are struggling like me or not.

You can find more of Na’imah’s work here and here.