Stuck on the Story

I have been tied up in myself lately, is what it comes down to. I’ve been feeling a need to write and put something out there for awhile, a need to pull the tangled web of thoughts and spinning ruminations out of my brain and twist it out into something smoother, cleaner– words. Yet, I haven’t written. I haven’t done a whole lot at all. I have been tied up in myself.

I have been strongly attached to my ego and Storylines these days. Not caught up in my life overtly; that’s not not really my scene, to draw attention to myself and what I’m doing. But in my brain? I have had a lot of “I” time. I worry about how others are perceiving me. I worry about all the unskillful things I’ve said. I worry about how much everyone must (surely, must) hate me. I have felt overwhelmingly behind at work. I have been unwaveringly hard on myself. My perceptions have been distorted, bizarre. My brain has snowballed into my stomach– and my heart? Forget about my heart.

It’s been the Story that’s running the show lately. The Story of how I can’t do anything right. The Story of how I am incompetent at work. The Story of how I am unkind, inconsiderate. The Story of how I can’t be bothered to eat. The Story of how my low self-esteem and lack of confidence ruin everything. The Story of how I can’t leave work because I’m too behind; the Story of how I haven’t earned kindness from myself; the Story, the Story, the Story.

I find myself scared to check in with myself. Nervous to be real. What’s under the hardened exterior these days? What happens if I let go of the Ego, the Story, the tenacious grip I have on my Self? What happens if I let myself relax? What may happen?

Even as I write this, it’s all about “I” … it’s all about my week, my failures, my resistance.

Love begins with letting go of the self and genuinely connecting with others, with the world.

I’m clinging to myself in confusing ways this week.

And perhaps awareness is a step. Perhaps I’m not the only one who has these weeks. Perhaps we all have days and weeks when we get caught up in our lives, our pereived failures; maybe we all have times when we are being ridiculously hard on ourselves.

Maybe I don’t know why it’s so hard to lessen my grip this week, but I also, maybe, don’t have to know why.

And I’m going to take a deep breath, and try to recenter myself. And let go. And open my eyes.

The world is out there.

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Let go of what no longer serves you

There is nothing wrong with you, friend. You are not broken, you are not a failure, a fuckup, a mistake. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. You do not destroy every life you come in contact with. You are not broken and nothing is wrong with you.

I know, I know. Some days it feels like it though, right? Some days you’re flailing and worrying and taking life so seriously and you’re swimming in the pits. Waves of fear, anxiety around social ineptitude, and perfectionism crash over you. Waves and waves and waves. Some days it feels like you’re broken, I get that. And you feel alone in a crowd and rush to escape only to realize you can’t escape you. Some days the waves keep coming.

Here’s a thing I know about you, friend: You soak up everything. Every detail, every nuance, every vibe of emotional energy– whether it is your own emotion or someone else’s– you soak it up and that gets heavy. It feels heavy sometimes and when it feels heavy, surfing the waves is a lot harder.

Today was one of those days, wasn’t it? I can tell by the look on your face that the thoughts are spiraling in your head. Your ruminating, analytical brain is haywiring again. It’s been hard for you to focus lately; you’ve felt frazzled and disorganized. You’re doing your best to stay calm and I can see that.

There’s nothing wrong with you, friend. You’re clinging tenaciously to the faults of the day, the seriousness of it all– and I want you to know it’s okay to let go. It’s okay to tread lightly– to mean well, believe in what you do and who you are– and to let go at the end of the day of what no longer serves you. The pernicious memories try to persist– that’s who you are, again, you have an excellent memory and sometimes that makes it hard to let go of the details.  But it’s okay to let go.

Dear friend, let go of what no longer serves you.

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Invalidation cycle

Observations:

  1. Notice the energy in the room, full of spinning anxieties and pain.
  2. Notice your sense of “there isn’t enough room for me,” and witness yourself shutting down.
  3. Notice how you disqualify your own emotional experience, invalidate yourself.
  4. Notice that you tell yourself you shouldn’t feel the way you feel, and that other people have it worse.
  5. Notice how you decide to put other people’s needs before your own, during a time in which you have valid needs.
  6. Notice how you do not get your own needs met because you put other people first.
  7. Notice how, on this evening,  your action is not selflessness, but rather self-neglect.
  8. Notice your anger and resentment.
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It’s okay

It’s okay to feel exactly how you feel exactly when you feel it. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed even when “nothing major” is going on. It’s okay to let other people feel how they feel and let yourself feel how you feel.

There is no better or worse, or any particular qualifying event for anything– be it anxiety, panic, fear, worry. And it’s okay to not know why. You can say, “I feel overwhelmed,” and not track down the solution. You can say, “I’m feeling so weird inside and I don’t know what’s going on,” and you can certainly say, “I don’t know what I’m feeling right now.” You can say any of these things and it’s okay.

You don’t have to justify or explain why, or narrate a whole series of events that allow you to feel the way you feel. There is no allowing. You can feel however you feel. Period. End of sentence. You are of course welcome to share anything about your day that may have contributed to your emotions. You are of course welcome to tell me why you think you’re feeling the way you are. But here’s the thing- you are not obligated to. Your feelings are just as valid because they are feelings and they are your own. You don’t need to explain or justify yourself to me. Come as you are. As you are is exactly who you are supposed to be.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed because it’s the end of a long week and you lost your lunch and forgot your water bottle and the train was hot and packed and your blood sugar got too low because you lost your lunch and then you had to buy a sandwich and you’re stressed about money and you’re exhausted and your socks are itchy. That sounds overwhelming. It’s not the same overwhelm as your friend whose cousin is dying, or your friend who may have an STD. If in your head, whatever caused your feelings isn’t “enough” or other people “have it worse,” notice those thoughts. And know that those are old tapes playing because that’s the habit. And that’s okay, too. Know you have a new tape, telling you it’s okay to feel exactly how you feel. We all have emotions. The situation happened. You never have to defend yourself or rationalize it.

It’s okay to feel exactly how you feel.

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Rattled frazzled Wednesday

I had been enjoying the slow month of July at work. Several projects and deliverables would be on my plate shortly, but I had no deadlines on my calendar yet and a minimal sense of urgency. In the past, empty time has been anxiety inducing: What am I doing wrong? What could I be doing right now? How can I be at work and not have anything going on? I don’t deserve to get paid for this. And on and on. Clearly an area for some growing.

And I’ve grown—less often now do I feel the need to put every single second of my time to good, “productive” use. Resting is okay. Being still is good. And if there’s not a whole lot going on, well then, enjoy it. Because the busy-ness of non-profit land will surely pick up soon enough. So I was enjoying the slow month of July.

Then we had a team meeting on Wednesday. “Have you started thinking about this?” “Have you started planning that?” “Have you thought about your plan to present this?” This that this that. I felt bombarded with questions that I felt unprepared to answer. In practicing honesty, I said nope, haven’t given it too much thought yet, but here’s what I have right now, and I’ll start to write up more concrete plans. Objectively, it was a positive meeting. Starting to put things on the books.

I left the meeting overwhelmed. Anxious, self-denigrating thoughts spiraled about my head. I should have been working on this already, I should have I should have I should have this I should have that. A common loop for me to ruminate on is the notion that if someone has to ask me to do something, or suggest that I start something, I am the problem, I should have already known, the other person shouldn’t have had to ask or suggest. It’s an old loop, but there it is, even when it no longer serves me.

It spiraled. It snowballed. It went from my boss saying, “You can start to think about x, y, z,” to me panicking that I can’t do anything right, this is the wrong job for me, this job was all a mistake, I am a mistake, I can’t do anything right, my boss hates me, everyone hates me, I’m a self-absorbed narcissist, I have no consideration for anyone else in the world…. hold up!

I’ve said this before: developing awareness is frustrating because I can see the habits, I can see the thoughts, I can observe my tendencies… and then sometimes can’t do anything about it.

So I watched. I observed. I took good care of myself. I stayed as present as possible. I acknowledged: I got overwhelmed on Wednesday. Feeling overwhelmed seemed to send me off on my spiral.

I brought it back to a framework I find helpful: sensitivity.

I gently reminded myself that this is basically in the definition of high sensitivity: “getting rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time” and “easily overwhelmed.”

Some validation for my rattled frazzled Wednesday self: You’re highly sensitive. It’s in your wiring. Of course you became worked up! Of course your mind spiraled down the habitual rabbit hole, that’s the place it has gone to so many times in the past.

I’m working on re-wiring, telling myself new stories, reframing situations with what I know now: And hey there, Self, you were overwhelmed. It happens. And it’s okay. The important thing is knowing that the overwhelming sense will pass (for now) and you have the skills you need to meet each deadline and produce each deliverable that are now slowly filling your calendar and sitting on your plate.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. You are you and you are okay exactly as you are. Know this is “overwhelmed,” know this is “rattled” and “frazzled” and know that your brain is going down paths of thought that it has done so many times before.

You can work to change your pathways, you can slowly notice new truths. You are doing both of these, every day.

It’s okay. Breathe. Make your daily to-do list, and breathe.

Breathe.

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Developing a growth mindset

I am the only student in my Kindergarten class who starts the year in September knowing how to read. I don’t think too much of it, but some adults, especially Mom, have told me I am so smart, and I am special. I love reading. I’m learning how to write, too, which is amazing—I love the words and I love watching the shapes appear out of my pencil. I’m having trouble drawing an E, but for the most part it seems silly. Why can’t I add as many horizontal lines as I want to fill in the space in a capital E? I think it looks cooler that way, but Mrs. Neils insists, so I learn to just draw three lines. I just love Kindergarten – I have new friends and dinosaur books and I feel special because different adults sometimes pull me out of class to let me read with them.

One day in December, I’m playing on the playground with Rayna. She is in the other Kindergarten class, so we only see each other at recess. While spinning around the tire swing she tells me that we won’t be at recess together anymore because she’s being moved to first grade. “Oh,” I say. I feel hurt but Rayna looks excited. Inside I also feel jealous and scared. Why her? Why not me? I already know how to read! Why didn’t I get promoted? What’s wrong with me? Am I stupid? I must be stupid if I didn’t also move up a grade. I must be stupid if I’m left to spend an entire year in Kindergarten. I want to ask my parents why I didn’t move classes but it seems like something I’m not supposed to ask about. I remind myself I like my friends and I love my teacher and the dinosaur books, so it seems okay to still be there. I decide to not talk about it.

*
We’re learning fact families in first grade. 3 and 2 and 5 are a fact family, Mrs. Sherman says, because 3 + 2 = 5 and 5 – 2 = 3 and 5 – 3 = 2. They are a family and they stick together. I’m listening and think it makes sense until I take my workbook home that night and try to do homework. The numbers jump all over the page. I see numbers and I see words and I can read the instructions but I don’t remember what to do. I sit at the dining room table, face flushed, embarrassed and frustrated and angry. I’m supposed to circle the fact families in certain groups of numbers but I don’t know what they are. I don’t know what to circle. I must be stupid if I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to admit I’m stupid and I don’t want to ask Mom or Dad for help because I don’t what them to know I’m actually stupid, not smart like Mom says I am all the time. I circle haphazardly. Some of the circles include the problem number, not the actual numbers in the problem, but I just want to get this over with. I hate pencils. I hate math. This is hard. I must be stupid.

*
In second grade, I find that a couple of my new classmates are also really smart kids. Brandon and Alicia were in different Kindergarten and first grade classes, and this is the first time we have the same teacher. They read all the same types of books as me, sometimes harder ones. Brandon and I join the same soccer team and Alicia and I have a lot of play dates where we adventure through our imagination with animals and swords and magical forests. Sometimes we write a lot of stories together, too. It’s so cool to have a friend that wants to write as much as I do. But in school, sometimes I feel scared and worried. What if Brandon and Alicia are smarter than me? What if I’m not the smartest? I’m not sure if we can all be smart. What happens then? What will Mom think if I’m no longer smart? What will happen then? I don’t know the answer and this scares me. I don’t tell anyone about this worry and I feel it fester inside my belly.

*
Long division arrives in fourth grade. Alicia, Brandon, and I are in the group that gets the really hard problems. Everything is step by step and it’s so hard to follow all the steps but it’s the only way I remember the multiplication tables and how to divide. We sit at a table together one afternoon and get a little silly. I put my head in my hands after laughing because laughing feels so good but it also doesn’t make long division any easier. Mrs. Farber walks by and asks, “Doesn’t it feel good when your brain hurts?” I stare at her. How does she know my brain hurts!? “It means you’re working hard and you’re learning! Keep it up.” My brain hurts about long division. But it does feel good. This is all confusing. Fourth grade is my favorite year at school.

*
Pre-Algebra brings its own slew of worries. I don’t understand the process. Adding and subtracting negative numbers? 7th grade was hard enough already. In my head I understand that if I have 7 apples and I add -3 apples it’s kind of like subtracting and 7-3 gives me four apples. So I skip the process and write the answers to the problems I know, but the harder ones I can’t do in my head and I don’t understand the step-by-step way we are supposed to do it. I must be stupid. Math is stupid. I get a quiz back. I have most of the answers right, but Mr. McGunner didn’t give me a grade. In big block letters across the top of the page, he writes “WHERE IS YOUR WORK?” I don’t know what to say. I want to crumple the paper and shove it in my bag. I think I’ve done something wrong. I think I’m in trouble and I feel scared. Mr. McGunner pulls me aside after class. “I need to see your work,” he tells me kindly. “I don’t care if you get the problems right or wrong, it’s about doing the steps and the process.” I stare at him. Of course it matters if I get the answer right or not. Isn’t that the whole point? I disagree, but I’m scared to get in trouble, so I try to do better and manage to only cry a little during the conversation.

*
In 9th grade, my kind-of–boyfriend volunteers me to do an Algebra 2 problem on the board in front of everyone. I make a mistake. When our teacher goes over the problem and corrects it, I start crying because I’m embarrassed, but I also start laughing to cover it up. For the next four years, whenever my kind-of-boyfriend brings this story up, I say that I was crying from laughing so hard, but it’s not true and everyone knows it. Making mistakes is okay, our teacher said, it’s not a big deal, it’s how we learn. But I don’t really believe that. I know I’m especially stupid when it comes to math. I make so many mistakes. Usually it’s when I skip steps and want to rush. I don’t want to slow down and work methodically; I insist on doing everything my way, by myself, and asking for help is such a sign of failure. Math is hard. I am stupid at math.

*
Junior year of college I find my perfectionist tendencies spiraling out of control. In a panic, I ask my favorite professor what kind of grade I may be getting in her Syntax class. She doesn’t grade our assignments throughout the year, just provides comments and feedback which leaves me anxious. It’s my favorite class and I feel desperate to know my grade, to know if I’m getting it right or not. This wise professor dances around the question: “You’ll get a grade that reflects your level of work,” she says. “But I won’t give you a grade you haven’t earned.”

I stare at her, blankfaced at this non-answer. She smiles slightly, and adds, “Maybe you’ve never had to work hard before.” No one has ever said this to me before. Something clicks. I raise my eyebrows. “Maybe not,” I respond. A part of me feels like this was a shaming criticism, but this professor is kind and she looks me in the eye. I feel seen. Throughout the semester she pushes me harder and harder. Work that may have earned high praise at the start of term is not passable as the months tick by. Analysis after analysis my brain feels like it’s on fire because it hurts so good. Mrs. Farber was right, working hard feels good. I let this professor push me and I push myself. I earn an A in Syntax and have never felt more proud of myself. The grade feels like a cherry on top—I already had the ice cream sundae.

Senior year I ask this professor to serve as my thesis advisor because I know I’ll do my best work with her. I do. I am so proud of myself when I graduate college because I feel like I earned that bachelor’s degree.

*
After college, I work in an urban public school. This is education of a different sort. There are no grades for tutoring and mentoring. The members of my team are all smart and talented in their own ways, but more than that, everyone is passionate and everyone works hard. Most people work much harder than I do. Sometimes I feel stupid in the face of all this. Sometimes I feel defeated, weak, and useless. I feel like a bad person sometimes.

But I also begin to work hard. To persevere. To stick with something. To struggle and know that just because something is hard, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I tell the middle schoolers I work with that struggling is a reality—the purpose of reading groups and math class is to teach us how to struggle successfully. How to stick with it. I tell them that when their brains hurt, it means we’re working hard and learning and it’s a good thing. I see Tyrone’s face light up after he solves really hard geometry problems and I see Aisha’s quiet pride when she sticks with a social studies reading assignment long enough to answer a comprehension question. I encourage my students and I encourage myself.

In staff professional development, we learn about Mindset and we read Carol Dweck’s book. I feel ashamed the first time I look at this information, because I realize that I grew up with a fixed mindset. I believed my talent and intelligence were static and I constantly needed to prove my smartness over and over and over again. I want all my students to have a growth mindset. I want myself to have a growth mindset: I want to believe that we all can learn and develop, that by working hard, committing, learning from mistakes, and willing to fall and get up again—we can always improve and grow.

I feel guilt that it took 22 years to be introduced to the idea that I didn’t have to constantly prove myself over and over and over again, and it’s taken several more years for me to begin to embody this. It’s a constant practice. It’s a reframe of my whole education. The guilt is not helpful and I try to let it go. I grew up how I grew up, I heard what I heard, and I took in what I took in.

It is difficult to imagine a time where I won’t ever be hard on myself, where my perfectionist tendencies don’t creep in at all. But it is easy to remember years past, and it is easy to recall the paradigm shifts over the last several years. It is less difficult to imagine a more hopeful future, a constant flux of mindset framing and reframing, and gentle encouragement.

To my little ones: I want to hug you and help you understand that struggling doesn’t mean stupid, that stupid is not a very nice word to call yourself or others. I can hear your frustration, your guilt, your worries and fears. They are all so real. Take a deep breath. I love you. It’s going to be okay. It may take a while, but I promise you- I love you no matter what.

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vulnerability is hard

I’m noticing how often I try to protect myself and others. Perhaps not in the most direct, transparent ways, but I think the root of many habits and tendencies I have is protection.

When I tell a lie, or bend the truth? I’m telling you what I think you want to hear.

When I shut people out and isolate myself? I don’t want to inflict myself on you.

When I replay an embarrassing incident over and over in my head? I want to be sure I don’t do it again.

Today at work we did some team building within the staff. Some of the questions and information we shared were easy: Name, birth date, birth place, hometown, shoe size. Some of the other ones were more difficult. Favorite food? Favorite drink? Favorite musician?

I found myself filtering. I found myself going with safer options. Sushi is a favorite food, and that felt safe to share; other favorite foods for some reason felt “weird” to share, like quiche or gefilte fish or peas. I went with sushi. Favorite drink? Alcoholic options were definitely out; alcohol is anxiety-inducing enough as it is. Water seemed like the straight-forward answer since that’s what I drink most of the time. I felt that was too weird, too boring, too much of something and not enough of something else. I went with seltzer. Close enough, and not a total lie. But it wasn’t my gut response. Favorite musician? Oh this one was the worst. I quickly scanned through the artists I listen to the most and tried to think of the which to share. Indigo Girls? Too gay, too old fashioned. Melissa Ferrick? Way too gay. Ani Difranco? Too angry– and too gay. I went with Josh Ritter, who seemed a fairly neutral choice. Yet not as true.

I wonder– who else on staff filtered their answers? Some people so confidently owned their favorites and I learned such interesting things about my colleagues! What would it have looked like to be honest? What would it have looked like to be honest with myself, and then to share– and let go of the fear of ridicule or judgement?

What would it look like to let go? To open up? To be vulnerable even a tiny bit?

In practicing compassion, in practicing gentleness, I want to remind myself of protection: This is a new job. This is a time of transition for you. You historically get to know people better in informal, rather than formal, settings. You are surrounded by new people. Of course you feel nervous and anxious! Of course you want to protect yourself. You often fear judgment and criticism– of course this was a scary exercise! Of course you did what you did! Maybe next time we can take a baby step forward and practice one more honest answer together. You can do it. I believe in you.

Today was a benign example of the lying, the holding back, the pretending habits– yet the root was the same: Protection. Keep me safe.

It was also interesting because I noticed I was doing this in the middle of the exercise and I both observed the habit and tried to stretch myself. Both/and. Protection/challenge.

Vulnerability is hard.

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