Mental Health and Being Nigerian – Identity Shoudn’t Dictate Levels of Emotional Vulnerability

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By: Fikayo Kayode

“Not everyone needs to know of your issues. Solve them yourself.”

This is something my mom would tell me anytime I went around blabbing to relatives about better-left-unsaid issues that were going on in my home. This is also what she would say when we watched shows on E! or Lifestyle where people went to therapy.

Like many Nigerian youth, I grew up thinking that therapy, or any situation where you opened up about your emotions was for white people. It was something I only saw in Hollywood movies and when I attempted to replicate it and told my Mother I felt sad, she would say that I had a roof over my head and so, there was no reason to be sad. I’m sure many African and Black youth can relate to statements like these. Even though these statements did not solve our sadness in those moments, we too grew up to imbibe the attitude of hyper focusing on the good things we may have as a way to deflect from acknowledging the emotions that are slowly eating us up. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should all be ungrateful – I am saying that being grateful will not take care of the trauma that you deal with on a daily basis. If it is anything, it is only a momentary ease that will dissipate the second something so insignificant manages to trigger you.

It was not until I moved away from home that I began to consider being emotionally vulnerable among friends and maybe with my sisters. But even that was awkward because they were oceans away and with the “reconnecting” interruptions of WhatsApp calls, it just wasn’t giving the intended effect. I still have huge commitment issues with therapy and counseling but that is because of the lack of POC and Black therapists in my area (that’s another topic for another day). At least now, I acknowledge what I feel.

A lot of Africans, a lot of Black people are raised to be hard. To be tough, and things that we now know as emotional and physical abuse are done to us in the name of love. We are raised as if in preparation for what the world has in store for us without actually being told what the world has in store for us. And so, we grow up fearing the unknown and ourselves, never being sure of what to feel and how to express it. Many Nigerians still believe that only girls or people who are aje butter cry and that keeping your emotions bottled up until you explode is the way to go. I used to think that, but I am highly against that ideology now. As you read on, I will explain two things I realized that have helped me gain some more mental and emotional freedom for myself, as a Black woman from a Nigerian culture. I am no professional, but these are just some things that have worked for me and that I wish I knew earlier in life.

1. Acknowledge

Before I even explain, I would like to preface by saying that having emotional and mental freedom does not mean that you will not have bad days ever again. It means that on those bad days, you will be able to identify the emotions you are feeling and do something about it, rather than feeling more frustrated because you don’t know what you are feeling or how/where to channel your expression.

The very act of acknowledging how you feel goes against everything you were taught and not taught about emotional vulnerability. The moment you admit to yourself that you feel sad, angry, annoyed, lost etc., you start to gain control over yourself, and that limits situations that end up triggering you into realization. That is one thing I aim to avoid: realizing and expressing negative emotions when I am surrounded by people who didn’t really cause those emotions. I am sure most of us have a memory of our parents coming home from work and instantly being annoyed by everything, acting like every wrong thing is our fault when we actually had nothing to do with it. I am no psychologist or anything, but I do know that cycles and behavioral patterns don’t lie. Most of our parents were stressed about work, life, relatives and because they also grew up in environments where expressing your emotions were seen as negative/weak, they attempt to “chest it”, while basically traumatizing their children in the process. They are thrown off balance by emotions they never learned to control and end up using their children as emotional dumping grounds. I will assert that despite age and life experience, many Black parents are very emotionally immature because of this.

And so, it is okay to take control. I used to be scared that acknowledging my feelings would mean that they will completely engulf me, but recognizing that you feel sad does not have to mean that you will remain sad. Instead, it can mean that you work towards doing something to uplift yourself. You cannot solve an unidentified problem.

2. Express

I strongly believe that expression is an important step to healing. Once you recognize what troubles you, you have to let it out in some way. Expression is a range: whether it is talking to a friend, writing down how you are feeling by journaling, praying or talking to the universe, dancing, singing, taking walks, working out, crying, even taking time for yourself is a form of expression. Literally doing anything that makes you feel better which is not at the expense of other people’s emotions. “Feeling better” is also a range. It can be feeling completely relieved of your heavy emotions or even just easing that tight sensation in your chest a little bit, either of these is progress. When I was younger, I tried a lot to express myself, but I was often met with “you complain a lot.” Now that I look back, that makes complete sense being that Nigerians don’t generally have a culture of expressing emotions. It took me a lot of years of rewiring to learn that expression does not always mean complaining. Things bother us and it is okay to talk about them.

So, acknowledgment and expression. This is my seemingly simple two-step method to gaining some mental and emotional freedom while breaking from the shackles of what “a Nigerian is supposed to act like.” I say seemingly here because everyone goes through their own processes differently. You certainly will not wake up one day and forget all the ideologies you were fed as a child – it will take days, weeks, months, even years of unlearning, acknowledging your emotions, and finding your unique ways of expression. In it all, always remember that your identity should not dictate your level of emotional vulnerability. Being more expressive does not make you any less Black or Nigerian. It only makes you more emotionally mature and this way, you practice healing and break cycles of trauma and emotional abuse.


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