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

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.

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.

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.

Thoughts on Orlando

By now, most if not all of you have heard of the tragedy that befell a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, when a gunman opened fire and systematically took the lives of over 50 LGBT identifying individuals. I have many thoughts following this awful incident.

About this being a consequence of the refusal of certain senators to progress gun-control laws to keep automatic weapons out of the hands of potentially unstable individuals.

About the members of the Christian right who are attempting to turn this into yet another excuse to spew bigoted vitriol towards the Islamic community, despite themselves being the source of over 200 different anti-LGBT bills in the past six months.

About how once again the NRA lobby wants to trot out the scapegoat of “mental illness” to somehow convince us that this is yet another “exception to the rule” (in a week where the US has had 7 mass shootings since last Monday).where a crazy person somehow got a hold of a gun. How they want to shrug and, in response to yet another building filled with the decaying bodies that once held the promise of dozens upon dozens of lives, say that “These things happen.”

However, this post is not about that.

This post is about the thousands upon thousands of Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and social media mouthpieces talking about “how tragic this is”, or that “their thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who fell victim”. or even those who “stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community”

Notice how none of these statements have anything remotely approaching a stance. A call to action. A call to accountability. Something that requires you to actually put yourself out there and take a stand and say that something HAS TO CHANGE in order to keep this from happening again. The closest thing resembling a position in any of these is perhaps, “Shooting civilians is bad.”

But when you stop there, when you refuse to (god forbid) risk alienating some part of your fucking market demographic by saying something like “we need better gun controls” or “we have to address toxic masculinity” or “this is a product of the anti-LGBT bigotry we’ve allowed to spread”, YOU DON’T GET TO clutch your pearls and look like the tragic, compassionate onlooker who looks at the events as they unfold and say, “Oh no, what are we TO DO?!” You don’t get to pretend like you stand in solidarity while you sit idly by when it actually counts. When you COULD use your voice to contribute to some real, positive progress ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

Fuck every single celebrity, corporation, or brand that hides behind their marketing-and PR-team approved, non-committal sympathy. Fuck every single person with even the SLIGHTEST bit of societal pull who has the gall to give their condolences and then conveniently fail to show the fuck up when its time to put their money where their mouth is.

Know that you are complicit in this. Every time you choose to say nothing, to DO. NOTHING. You make it that much easier for this to happen again. You’re not shaken. You’re not sad. You’re not even sympathetic. You’re just a leech, nourishing your own goddamn public image off of the spilled blood of a tragedy.

Inspire Through Struggle

I had a bad day today.

Not because anything in particular happened, but rather because it didn’t. I’ve done just about nothing all day, despite having the whole thing to myself. Doing basic stuff like shaving, brushing my teeth, and getting some milk from the store constituted the most productive things I’ve done today.

Essentially, I’m dealing with a lot of negative self-talk in my head. In particular, the re-appearance of one of my longest running mental “scripts”; that being the “you’re not working hard enough, doing enough, trying hard enough, you’re lazy/you could be successful if only you’d try harder” script. It’s a voice I’ve been hearing going back all the way to elementary school, and any day where I don’t completely clear off my to-do list (and some days when I do) it comes roaring back. I’m working through some exercises in the book Superbetter by Jane McGonigal, and they’re helping, but this is such a deeply rooted script that it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to dislodge.

Continue reading

Cult of Positivity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of positive thinking. Particularly because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It seems like a fairly reasonable idea at first glance (“If you’re sad, why not think happier thoughts?”), but I think at the end of the day the problem with it isn’t that it’s WRONG rather than oversimplified. At my work (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) there’s a lot of lip-flapping about “creating a positive atmosphere for customers/members/workplace, etc”, but the practice of this version of positivity usually involves the punishment of those who speak of anything negative or critical of the company or its management to anyone other than the management in a one-on-one basis. It’s this sort of thing that led to my realization that a lack of negativity and the presence of positivity are not the same thing. All it resulted in was this latent tension as everyone is aware of things that are wrong but are too afraid to say anything (or are cynical because they’ve followed the prescribed procedure and nothing was done to improve it). It’s almost more stressful than an outright negative environment because of the amount of fakeness and performance involved.

But aside from the specifics, I think the cardinal sin of those in the cult of positivity is failing to understand the factors that lead to a positive mindset. And I think that’s it: having a positive (or Challenge, credit to Jane McGonigal and her book SuperBetter for teaching me that word) mindset is different, more complex, and more difficult, than the kind of fast-food drive-thru advice that people give when they say, “Just think positive!”

Essentially, it’s a means, not an end. It’s a result of a hundred different little skills that all take effort, to overcome a hundred little nightmares that haunt the people who struggle with them. The steps also vary from person to person along with how their struggles manifest, and I feel like that’s what not a lot of people understand. That even though one person may not find X problem a struggle, that does not make it less real or difficult for person Y. Especially with mental and emotional health, I think one step we can take towards better understanding is getting rid of the illusion that all pain is measured on a singular scale, rather than branching out like the subway from hell.

I get the distinct feeling whenever I hear that bullshit prescription, the only good it’s doing is helping the person who is saying it to think that they’re elevated in some way above the person asking for help. And it’s the perpetuation of that illusion that makes me pity them the most.