Breaking the Habit of Numbness

A couple posts ago, I talked about my attempts to learn as an adult several of the emotional skills that I never learned as a child. One of those things is self-soothing; the ability to bring yourself back down to Earth when something painful, stressful, or otherwise distressing happens, but doing so in a way that involves engaging with those often unpleasant emotions rather than blocking them out or pretending they don’t exist. It’s really difficult for me, as for most of my life, I’ve done precisely that.

Part of the problem is that I live with ADD, so one of my tools for getting stuff done is to have a podcast on in the background, a YouTube video going, or just something else to center myself around in order to escape the cognitive gridlock that happens when my brain gets overloaded by too much input at once. The issue is that, when I’m experiencing upsetting emotions, feeling anxious about starting or working on a project, or doubting that I have the time or resources to accomplish something… I tend to reach for the same tools. I drown out those threatening voices or take up my entire attentional space with some form of media or stimulation so that I’m physically incapable of thinking the things that are bothering me.

Only recently I’ve begun to understand how much I use this as a crutch, and how ultimately it harms me more than it helps. I heard once that the coping methods that let us survive as kids become the habits that can torment us as adults, and I think that has a lot of truth to it. For instance, a lot of the work I do requires my full attention, whether coming up with original ideas, figuring out the right way to communicate them, or even things like editing that make having my full focus a necessity. If I have something else flooding my senses, I can’t do my work. The longer I can’t do my work, the more stressed I get about things I haven’t done, and the vicious circle spins ever onward. Beyond that, a lot of the things I use are easily abusable. Blasting my brain with sugar, or mainlining endorphins on a steady drip via video games or porn (sorry if that’s TMI for some of you, but it’s the truth) for hours on end only diminishes me at the end of the day, even if indulging in any of them in moderation would be absolutely fine.

A major hurdle for me is finding healthy means of self-soothing. I have many things that I enjoy, but I that partially as a result of how I was raised with a results-oriented mindset, I feel pressure, anxiety, and… a sense of obligation whenever they come to mind. I love writing, I love going to the gym, I love making creative stuff. But whenever I think of them, my chest tightens up with these evaluative thoughts of “well, unless what I do/make is the BEST THING POSSIBLE, then it’s not worth doing”, and the accompanying fear of not doing or being good enough. And it sucks. I think that immediately jumping to that mindset of “grading” myself is something that’s going to take a lot of de-programming to uproot, because it’s been there for a long time. But I know that it’s something that I have to do.

What are some of your guys’ favorite methods of self-soothing/healthy coping? Let me know. ūüôā

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The In-Betweens

As many of you know, I do a fair bit of freelance writing work, as well as putting together some audio/video content of my own in my spare time. Last week, I had the rare experience of having all of the various projects I’d been working on come to a conclusion at about roughly the same time (among them my first paid, feature article for a major site).

I should feel proud, and I suppose for a very brief glimmer of a moment, I did. But the feeling of accomplishment was quickly replaced by an all-too-familiar sense of dread: the feeling of “…what now?”

And I mean… it kinda sucks, right? The conventional wisdom is supposed to be that if you put everything of yourself into a project, push through and have it come to fruition, one of the benefits you’re supposed to be able to reap is the feeling that you brought something into the world that otherwise might not have been, that you expressed yourself in a way true to you, etc. I almost feel kind of pissed, like I’ve robbed myself of something I¬†should¬†be feeling but aren’t.

I suppose that’s kind of the point. Like… for a while now I’ve found there’s a lot of merit in the idea of being a process oriented person. Of practicing mindfulness. Of making conscious effort to “be where you are” rather than worrying about where you’re going next. And I guess to an extent I’ve made progress along those lines. I’ve lost a little weight (only like 5-6lbs, but it’s not water weight and it’s STAYING OFF DAMMIT), and the exercise that led to that wouldn’t have been possible without me being able to center myself when I began to overthink myself into paralysis regarding what I was going to do at the gym, if I had enough time or energy, if that workout would impede my ability to accomplish OTHER stuff that day… you name it.

So I guess, like most things, it’s a process. I’ve made some headway in the practical application of being present, but I’ve yet to integrate it to where I can enjoy that moment, but let it go without worrying about whether another one is in my future. Even if I’m trying to stop predicting my future, maybe the perspective of where I’ve been will help me remain rooted to where I am. I hope so.
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Emotional Neglect and Being Human

I just recently finished reading a book on emotional neglect entitled Running on Empty by Dr. Jonice Webb. I can highly recommend it for anyone who feels like they’re struggling with a lot of the emotional stuff that should be easy in adulthood but for whatever reason… isn’t. Y’know, things like forcing yourself to do stuff that you don’t want to do, knowing how to self-soothe in healthy ways in response to stress, how to be firm but kind with yourself about your mistakes instead of beating yourself up.

Through reading it, I essentially learned that while contemporary culture tells us that these are inborn character flaws that we should look down on and tsk, tsk people for having… like many other things, they’re skills that for whatever reason, a lot of people didn’t learn growing up. You can learn them as an adult (and indeed, that’s what I’m trying to do now), it’s just hard.

It also lead me to come to terms with my situation in my adolescence in a way I hadn’t before. You see, the book is titled “Overcoming Childhood Emotional Neglect”, and emotional neglect in particular paints a particular picture of the caregiver that… I don’t know,¬†perpetrates¬†it, I guess. Specifically, a picture that tends to paint them as a villain in the mysterious case of “why am I so fucked in the head?”

But at least in my case (and I’m willing to bet in others, as well), I don’t think that’s true. What’s closer to fact is that my mom was in an untenable situation and did the best she could. Essentially my dad left us when I was at the end of elementary school, and left us in such dire financial straits that my mom took on a second (and sometimes even a third) job. Even when my dad came back, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and a lot of my mom’s energy went towards trying to make sure he took his medication, getting him to apply to jobs and just generally even do the basic kind of helping out around the house one expects from a partner. My dad himself had effectively been absent as a father figure since the day he left, and continued to be up until the day I severed ties with him.

As a result, I didn’t really get… PARENTED (at least not emotionally) when I was in high school. My mom always worked, or if she was at home, she was either catching some brief rest before going to her other job, making sure I had something to eat, or using the few threadbare moments she had to keep HER sanity intact. She believed that, since I was a bright kid, I had things handled. At the time, I enjoyed the freedom, but it’s only just now that I’m learning what the cost of it was.

I didn’t get, and then internalize a loving but firm ‘inner parental’ voice that I could use as a guide when I made mistakes, letting me deconstruct where things went wrong so I could learn from them. I, like many kids, had to make my own, and the result was an unbalanced voice that ranged from complete permissiveness (“It’s okay, just don’t let it happen again”) to outright abuse (“Why are you so fucking stupid?! What’s WRONG with you”).

I didn’t really learn how to self-soothe or practice many elements of self-care. When I was upset as a kid, we went to McDonald’s. Or my mom would bring home a treat. As an adult, I routinely eat emotionally… and over-eat, at that. I never really learned to grapple with and accept my emotions (even the distressing ones) as okay to have: I learned to bury them alive in a shallow grave of carbs, or otherwise to just ‘not think about them.’

All that fueled a lot of anger I had for a long time, first towards my dad, and then even towards my mom. But through reading Running on Empty, and thinking more about my mom’s situation at the time has lead me to be a lot more empathetic. If I’d been in her shoes, what more could I have done? We were holding on by the skin of our teeth as best we could, trying to keep the basics intact as far as a roof over our heads and food on the table. A mentally ill, largely unsupportive and increasingly alcoholic husband and a teenage son grappling with anxiety, depression, and unresolved abandonment and self-esteem issues would be overwhelming for even the most emotionally well-prepared person. Essentially, I’ve learned that even though I’m going back and understanding what I didn’t get emotionally growing up, the reasons I didn’t receive that emotional nourishment isn’t necessarily “my mom/dad/caregiver was a bad person.” A lot of the time, they’re the same as anyone else:

Scared. Broken. Dealing with unresolved issues of their own. Doing their best.

No one is given a how-to guide on raising an emotionally healthy family. Until very, very recently, it was just expected that we all knew how, and that silence has let a sickness of ignorance spread that claims thousands of lives and stunts the potential of millions more.

In the end, it’s not about placing blame. It’s about healing through understanding. Less about trying to go back and undo what was done (or wasn’t done), and more about seeking out and giving yourself the love, knowledge, and emotionally nourishing connections I need now, as an adult.

Perspective (From the Bottom)

Right now, I’m at a point in my life where if I can make this work, I’ll remember it as “the low point from which I rose like a triumphant phoenix through hard work and gumption!” …Or some other dishonest, self-aggrandizing garbage.

Straight up: I had to ask my mom for help with rent money this month. I have five-digit debt. My hours at work were cut down to a couple shifts per week, leaving me worried that I wouldn’t have enough money to my name to pay for the basic automatic withdrawals that come from my account each month.

But I’ve also begun to see a glimmer of hope.

I wrote my first paid, front page feature for a website. I have a meeting with business folk this week that could result in me being paid to run a D&D game live on-stage. I started recording and editing videos for YouTube again.

So with the possibility of success in mind, I wanted to write something of a letter to my future self.

Dear Future Vince,

Books are crammed with stories of successful folk who were once hard on their luck, and only too eager to tell you that your misfortune is only a result of your own shortcomings and flaws. That if you could JUST work that extra hour, JUST hustle a little more, then Ayn Rand herself would reach one of her gnarled harpy claws down from whatever plane of existence she currently resides in to bestow her bounty on you.

Right now, I know how bullshit that story is: I just want to make sure that you still do. If at this point, you are making money doing what you love, having endured the hardships I’m currently in the middle of, I want you to know that I’m proud of you. You DID work hard. You DID persevere.

So have I. But I’m still poor.

In enjoying your success, don’t forget to be compassionate to those who aren’t where you are. Who don’t have what you have. Because (and I know this is gonna be hard to swallow, because it’s hard to type even now) the fact you’re successful and they’re not does not mean that you worked harder than them. It doesn’t mean you earned your spot, and they didn’t.

Knowing pain made you kind. Knowing isolation made you want to make sure no one felt like they were alone. Desperately trying to breathe life into the embers of distant, impossible dreams taught you the immeasurable power of small kindnesses and gentle words. Don’t let success take those lessons from you. They are, indeed, some of the most valuable ones you’ll ever learn.

Listen. Teach. Encourage. Lift up. Give others what you didn’t have. The dark moments you brighten will be worth more in the end than any paycheque you’ll ever earn.

– Vince

PS. Call your mom more. She misses you.

On Giving Up

We’re taught growing up that giving up is one of the worst sins one can commit. Fail as many times as you want, but never, ever quit. Fall down seven times, get up eight. The quitter is the archetype to be reviled, spat upon, and feared. Feared that if you decide not to get up that eighth time, you’ll be cast out of respectable society and stripped of any right to support or empathy.

I think the “never give up” lesson is one of the most toxic ones that we still teach kids, and here’s why: there’s about a 99.9% chance that in your life, at some point, you have given up on something. So… now what? Game over, right? “Well, looks like I’ve failed at life! Time to go home and self-flagellate myself with the bootstraps that I so shamefully failed to pull myself up by.”

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think people should be encouraged to hold on in the face of adversity, to not acquiesce on things that mean a lot to them when the going proves difficult. But I think there’s a significant difference between saying that, and the narrative of “quitters never win” that’s been the craze for about as long as the ‘rags to riches’ myth has been around.

When you say that some things are worth fighting for, you’re saying that, when something sets your soul aflame, when something is so fundamentally powerful to you that causes you to ignite with vitality and purpose… hold onto it. Hold onto it until your knuckles turn white and your hands bleed. Don’t give up that feeling, because that is a feeling that is very, very hard to come by in life, and you deserve to feel it. Something that awakens passion within you such that it brings you to tears is¬†worth¬†undergoing strife.

The “quitters never win” narrative, on the other hand, has deep, deep roots in the “not enough, never enough” story that so virulently infects millions of people in our culture (and helps¬†no one,¬†besides). When you say to a child ‘never give up’, ‘quitters never win’, you are giving them an ultimatum; a warning. If you give up, you will never be worthy. You will never be enough. Never have enough, never do enough, and never be worthy of love or acceptance, even from yourself. To be a quitter is to be the North American equivalent of the Untouchable caste. The sheer amount of disdain and disgust we hold as a culture for those we label ‘quitters’ is absolutely remarkable, when you consider that everyone has done it.

And for what? To what positive end do we continue to perpetuate this myth? So that individuals can continue to bang their heads against a wall in a relationship, a job, a vocation, that isn’t working? For those who, having attained material wealth or cultural status markers of success, are still miserable (but don’t you dare¬†give it up, after all you’ve been through)? Of course not, because stubborn misery is the North American badge of pride.

The reason I write this, is that having left school for a year, come back, and struggled, I only now just completed and submitted a take-home assignment for the first time in two years. For the longest time, the assignment would come up, I would become paralyzed by anxiety, not do it, and inevitably fail the course because, well… not doing assignments tends to result in that. But once I gave up once, I was a Quitter. The narrative I was so afraid of had manifested, and I felt locked into a role that I couldn’t escape. Yesterday (the day I submitted the assignment) had been the first time I had not simply given up in two years.

I won’t lie; I felt proud that I persevered. That I plowed through when I wanted to curl up in my bed and hide from the world. But I also realized… having “never give up” drilled into my head for as long as I can remember did me absolutely no fucking good. All it taught me was that giving up is bad and wrong, and if YOU give up, you TOO, are bad and wrong. It taught me nothing about asking myself why I felt overwhelmed. It taught me nothing about how to objectively assess my circumstances and emotional state to see what could be improved (whether that be working for different time intervals or at different times, seeing a counsellor, being assessed for a learning disability, getting a good social support group, confronting distorted thoughts I might have, etc). All it taught me was not to do the Forbidden Thing (that is essentially inevitable at one time or another in life), and if you do the Forbidden Thing, well you should feel besmirched and ashamed for such an ugly failure.

The “Don’t Give Up” narrative is about pride. Pride to be able to say, “I didn’t give up!” after the fact. Absolutely, you should feel proud for overcoming your own personal struggles, but pride over your past should not blind you to the fact that other peoples’ battles are yet to come. Battles where many are woefully underprepared. Pushing the next generation onwards with only “quitters never win” to help does about as much good as it would to an unarmed soldier on a battlefield. Instead of sending them out to get skewered by the slings and arrows of life and then rubbing their nose in the mud, let’s help them armor up instead.

Middling

This probably won’t be the best thing I’ve ever written. And that’s okay.

I mean, it probably won’t be the worst either, but something about comign to terms with that is extremely freeing. A friend of mine, a PhD student and super duper smart lady, retweeted something that said along the lines of “Your next job probably won’t be your last job. In fact, it probably won’t. And that’s okay”, as mostly a message towards academics not to worry about being locked down into a singular research/teaching oriented job their whole lives.

Now, as the eleventy-hundred other posts about the topic might have alerted you, I struggle a lot with anxiety and procrastination. It makes me dread doing the things that give me joy as well as the typical drudgery stuff (in fact, in a lot of cases, the drudgery stuff ends up feeling EASIER to do). I’ve wracked my brain to figure out why I have so much trouble, and I think a piece of the puzzle lies in the above frame of thinking.

Thinking of the next thing I create (the next video, the next blog article, the next test) as the thing I’ll be defined by, it turns into this BEHEMOTH of a thing that will make or break me, and, like someone avoiding the final quest in a game because they don’t want it to end, I find some way to put it off or force myself to momentarily forget that it exists.

But the reality is that, for better or worse, I’m not going to know whether or not this is The One, or just another of the thousands of iterations on my way to it, until well after the fact. Hindsight is 20/20, but I would add the addendum that forecasting is fantasy. No one knows the impact or irrelevancy of anything that they do until after they do it (beyond a certain point anyways), least of all with art.

So basically, my fellow lovelies, my passionate artists and headcases of every stripe, I would say: Make mediocre shit until you make something that isn’t. There’s a good chance you won’t know the difference until you’re finished anyways.

Getting There

When I leave for work or class, I tend to leave pretty early ahead of time. Some might say earlier than I really have to. We’re talking early enough that I arrive 20-30 minutes early. Now, it might sound reasonable to do this to avoid the possibility of being late and experiencing the consequences thereof… but that’s not why I do it.

I mean… maybe it SHOULD be, but that’s besides the point.

The reason I leave so early is that being on my way somewhere but not in a hurry is one of my FAVORITE things in the world. Just being able to take everything in, enjoy the however many minutes I spend walking somewhere, maybe while reading a book or even just being alone and able to process my thoughts in absence of video games, TV, internet, or what have you. On top of that, the lack of stress over “oh my gawd did I leave early enough, am I gonna be there on time, oh what happens if the traffic is slightly heavier than usual aaaaaaah” is absolutely fantastic. It gets to the point where I actually fear the stress of being late over the ACTUAL consequences of being late (which is interesting in and of itself).

As I was heading to campus to do some work tonight, I was thinking about this whole thing, and how it might be useful to apply it in a more abstract way to my writing, creative projects, or whatever it is I happen to be working on at the moment. It’s kind of a more complicated version of the whole maxim of “it’s the journey, not the destination”, but I think that going at least one layer deeper helps grant a deeper understanding of why thinking in such a way is so valuable. For instance, with respect to procrastinating.

In the “leaving for class/wotk” example, if I leave earlier, it alleviates that worry that I won’t get some place when I’m expected or “supposed” to be there. When I procrastinate, it’s like the existential dread version of the same fear. The later I leave something, the more I get anxious that I won’t be where I’m supposed to be (a certain skill level, a career goal, whatever yardstick you want to use for successful adulthood) when I’m supposed to be. By the same token, if I “leave earlier” (get started working right away), it’s valuable not simply because I’ll arrive to my adulting destination “on time” (whatever that means), but because when I decide to leave early, it frees me up to not be thinking about that whole endgame in the first place. Instead, I can take my time, free up my mind to process and appreciate the whole progression of whatever it is I’m doing. Therefore, it’s almost as an accidental side effect that I end up enjoying the consequences of starting early and often.

So, by ceasing to care about the outcome enough to just start whenever, you actually end up getting the outcome you want HAD you cared about it in the first place.

Brains are weird, you guys. Well. At least mine is.