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. 🙂

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.

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.

October 12th, 2015

I couldn’t come up with a title for this post. But I realized that isn’t a good enough reason not to write.

Neither is the fact that I haven’t updated this blog in about a year.

Neither is the fact that I’m not even sure if I want to keep this blog around, or move the content over to a new one I’m sowing the seeds of an idea for.

It’s not a good enough reason not to write that I have a bunch of other projects that I’m working on, nor is it that my work makes me tired and feels unfulfilling compared to what I want to be doing. It’s not a good enough reason that I don’t know if my latest project will come out worth anything, or look anything like the vision I have in my head.

I’ve had a couple of kicks in the existential arse in the last couple days. The idea that the job I have right now, even though it’s full-time, wouldn’t be enough to start paying back my student loans and keep a roof over my head once I graduate being one of them. As is my beginning to follow the Writing About Writing Blog, and in particular my reading of the article 20 Guaranteed Ways to Sabotage Your Reading (of which I currently subscribe to at least a solid dozen). As well, the reading of Seth Godin’s book The Icarus Deception, and the unceremonious writing of a book that I began in the middle of the night last Wednesday when I couldn’t sleep.

Basically, this confluence of events and actions have combined to help me realize that despite my being terrified of my future economically, existentially, artistically, career-wise, relationship wise, and even health-wise, is insufficient reason for me to not only not create art, but not create art EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

If anything, it’s the best reason in the world to start.

2015 Update

So, new year, new… okay, not new me. But at least, new efforts to get healthier emotionally. As most of you may remember, last time I posted I was in the midst of possibly the worst depression I’ve ever had. It took a toll on my physical health and my academics, but luckily, thanks to some EXTREMELY understanding professors, I was able to recover my grade in at least most of my classes. Going into the new semester, I finally got a counsellor at Student Accessibility Services at my University, and have been working with her doing CBT (that’s cognitive behavioural therapy) in order to try and address and reprogram a lot of the self-negative anxiety and depression-producing thought patterns I get caught in.

I’ve also been trying to improve my sleep quality through better sleep hygiene (not doing anything in bed besides sleeping, no naps, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, etc). I’ve also been making use of a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) light in the early mornings, since I like to get up early and work before the sun comes up. Apparently I’m Kryptonian, because the ability to charge my batteries with the light 0f a yellow sun for 30-45 minutes in the morning makes a huge difference. I’ll be joining my first support group(s) ever this next week, which is a little weird, but I’m more nervous about having the time and energy to do those as well as keeping up with all of my classes and side projects.

Speaking of side projects, I’ve got quite a bit on the move now, and hopefully it will lead to some positive change on a number of fronts. I finally heard back from my local comic book shop (which happens to be the Eisner award-winning The Dragon in Guelph, ON) about producing a revival of their podcast through the website I run. We’re looking at a tentative starting date of the February 6-8th weekend, so that’s exciting and I look forward to seeing how that materializes. I’m also back in the editing business, working on the Let’s Plays I do with The Rogues’ Gallery. Started recording on my desktop, and now just getting the hang of Photoshop and Adobe Premiere. Seems like a long road to go, but it feels good to be learning something NEW again.

Anyways, that’s about the long and short of it. I just thought I’d check in to make sure you all knew I wasn’t dead, at least as of this post. Cheers and new years to all of you, and hopefully I’ll see you there.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.

Snakes, Shame & Silence

I’ve been having a real rough time of it this November. Becoming more and more reclusive, not leaving my room or doing almost anything I enjoy. My schoolwork has gone undone, and now I’m combatting the constant feeling of futility as I battle to get late papers done and handed in, though I know the late marks will decimate my grades regardless. A big part of that struggle is shame. Shame that I’ll have to spend another semester in university, shame that even with meds and being in a better living situation, I can’t get what I need to get done, done, and about 36 other colourful flavours of shame I won’t get into.

One of my favorite writers I’ve been introduced to lately is Brene Brown. A shame and vulnerability researcher, she talks about the power that shame is given when we choose to be silent about it. I talked to a friend last night about what I’d been feeling, and while it wasn’t enough to spur me to work, I felt considerably better. This whole month (and longer) I’ve been totally silent about it, not even writing or daring to say my thoughts out loud. The whole time, the sensation of paralysis from all these dark thoughts felt like a python wrapped around me. Every cycle of rumination was like those coils getting tighter and tighter, to where I could barely move enough to leave my house, let alone attend to my responsibilities and own well-being. When I spoke to my friend over Facebook, I felt that binding loosen a little, so I wanted to write about it a little on here, both for myself, and so that maybe someone who feels something similar can read this and know that they’re not alone.

There’s this odd precipice with this blog, where I always enjoy writing in it and putting up something new, but when I write frequently enough, it’s like a switch gets flipped in my brain, and instead of an enjoyable activity, putting up a new post becomes an obligation. The fear of expectation comes into it. “People are expecting new content!” it says. I imagine (somewhat narcissistically) the followers of my posts impatiently tapping their toes as my page goes un-updated for days, weeks, even months. The whole experience is enough to keep me from writing in here for (surprise, surprise) days, weeks, even months. I feel like it’s the same with my school work. I get a little behind, maybe have a day where I’m feeling out of it, and immediately see the professors judging me for not handing things in or attending class, my mom being disappointed in my inability to apply myself… and the shame python starts to squeeze the life out of me one self-destructive thought at a time.

I don’t know if this will actually help, but I know for my own sanity I have to hit that pressure release valve on my psyche and get this out there. Have any of you guys had the same or similar feelings? What did you do?

What to Write About (When There’s Nothing to Write About)

I want to make writing in here a regular practice, but I have this problem of not knowing what to write about when I’m neither in the middle of a full-blown meltdown and need to do the creative equivalent of venting nuclear gas (bonus points to those of you who, like me, got a mental flash of that episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes morbidly obese), nor inspired by a particular idea.

Though many people use their blogs as a digital journal, which is totally fine, I kind of want this to be something more than that. Given, a big part of the content is me talking about the emotional comings-and-goings in my head, but I feel like that’s such a huge part of what goes into my creative work that it’s something beyond a simple “Dear yawning abyss of the internet, today I X’ed…”

“What to write about when there’s nothing to write about.” Hm. I mean, that in and of itself is an interesting topic, given how many creators (myself included) have a crippling fear of a blank page. It’d be easy to ascribe that to a human fear of the unknown and be done with it, but I feel like the comfort of unused potential is a particularly artistic flavor of psychosis. It’s like… so long as the page is blank, I lose nothing. But the moment I start putting something down, trying to realize something in my head, or even just noodle around in my sketchbook, I make myself vulnerable by simple fact of engaging in the artistic process.

I feel like that’s a big part of why it’s so difficult to be creative or artistic when you’re intentionally TRYING to be. It’s like TRYING to be happy, in the sense that it’s something that happens out of the corner of your eye when you’re not expecting it, and then suddenly “I accidentally a whole editorial.” I forget the person who said the quote (it occurs to me I could take two seconds and Google it, but I’m on a roll here), but the idea that “the moment you ask yourself if you’re happy, you cease to be.”

I think a similar sentiment could be applied to art. I mean, in some sense you have to make a conscious decision to start drawing, or writing, or filming, or whatever, sure. But when you’re in the middle of the process, the moment you start second-guessing yourself, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt while you erase that eyebrow 50 times because IT DOESN’T LOOK QUIZZICAL ENOUGH, DAMMIT.

A lot has been made of the idea of Flow, the state where you’re utterly lost in the moment of whatever task you’re participating in. I find it a useful concept, and it gels well with the readings on Zen and Taoist philosophy that have informed my current worldview. However, I do find myself having trouble reconciling it with the necessity of conscious practice to develop skill. When we (or… I, I suppose I should just speak from my own experience) feel stuck and unable to create, there’s a good chance that it’s because I’m thinking too much about it, and just need to breathe, go with the flow, and see what happens. The thing about practice, though, is that you NEED that conscious self-reflection to process the new techniques you’re acquiring. To refine them, straighten out any kinks, and to truly connect the dots and gain a deeper understanding.

So how do you Flow enough to get out of your own way, but be present enough to get everything you can out of it?

Anyone?

Seriously, I was asking you, because I’m still swamped by the question as much as anyone.

Well, if I can just spitball here, maybe that letting go is crucial to the INITIALIZING of the creative process. Like, if you’re scared that no matter what you put on the paper, it won’t look as good as in your head, that you don’t have your ideal materials, or workplace, or you don’t have enough time… something will ALWAYS find a way to get in the way. So that’s the point where it might be useful to take a breath, set out your tools, and see what happens. When you’re in the midst of making something and you hit a roadblock, or something isn’t coming out the way you want, maybe then it’s time to put away the artist brain for a moment and ask yourself why. Is it a perspective problem? Plot? Characters? Inking? Deconstruct it into as simple components as you can, try different things, access some resources online or otherwise, whatever. Try looking at it as a puzzle instead of proof that Uncle Gary was right all along and you’ll never amount to nuthin’ tryin’ to draw them funny pictures.

Do I know if it’ll work? Not even slightly, but it sounds at least plausible. At the very least, it’s better than sitting in a steamy stew of existential dread, staring at a blank page.

The quote was John Stuart Mill, by the way.

Vince Smith is an aspiring writer, podcast host, psychology/philosophy student, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out articles and Let’s Plays by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.