Category Archives: Emotional Intelligence

Anxious Outcomes

I recently had a conversation in which I learned about the degree to which my anxiety affected at least one of my adult children.

Parenting is an ironic business. Having been a chronically anxious child myself, always feeling unsafe and afraid, I strove mightily to protect my own children from any sort of fear or insecurity. Of course, I did this by assuring them all was well, all the while fearing all was not and never would be well. Being no less intelligent than I am, they heard the words but knew the truth of my feelings, and thus their trust in me was damaged, an exact replay of what happened between me and my own mother. You know, that thing I was never going to do when I was a parent!

Well, I’m humbled. I’m also sad, because I didn’t want either of my kids to battle with the burden of anxiety. It’s a hard way to live.

However, I understand that parenting, at best, is an imperfect process, and I try to hold my mother and myself with gentle arms regarding our choices as mothers. Parenting less than perfectly does not imply a lack of love. I know we both did the best we could with what we had at any particular point in time. No parent can do more.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Still, this kind of revelation is a far cry from my hopes, dreams and intentions when I held my newborns. On the other hand, it speaks to the strength of my relationship with my adult children that they can tell me the truth about their experience and I can hear it.

After our conversation, I’ve thought a lot about fear and anxiety. I can’t go back and reparent, but I wonder if I might, even at this late stage, find a way to extricate myself from the insidious tentacles of anxiety. I’ve been thinking about my life and trying to understand exactly what the roots of my anxiety are.

According to an internet search, fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is considered real, in that it’s right there in front of us, and elicits an immediate response.

Anxiety is an “emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of turmoil; a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically regarding an imminent event or something with uncertain outcome; a nervous disorder.” Anxiety is differentiated from fear by being more diffuse and generalized and focusing on imaginary outcomes and possibilities. Physiologically, it elicits the same response, and therein lies part of the problem.

Both are unpleasant emotions or feelings that affect us physically, intellectually and emotionally. We evolved to respond to fear in certain specific physiological ways, returning to baseline as the fear passes. Fear is a valuable feeling, helping us discern and avoid danger. I certainly don’t want to disable mine. I know the feeling of fear, but it’s not a frequent experience.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic state for me. I can’t remember ever being free of it. I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms over the years, some more effective and appropriate than others, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. As far as I can tell, the feeling of anxiety provides no benefits whatsoever to me or anyone around me. It’s highly contagious and negatively impacts others in my life, to say nothing of the damage it does to me. We are not constructed to tolerate the chronic level of physiological arousal produced by anxiety.

I never before actually looked up these words, and I’ve never had the above distinctions between fear and anxiety until this week. I conclude that I have no problem with my relationship to fear, but I’m a slave to anxiety.

I find a kind of mordant humor in having a chronic unpleasant feeling regarding uncertain outcomes. Excuse me? All outcomes are uncertain for everyone until they happen! Most of us operate most of the time as though we know exactly what will happen next, but we don’t. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s all an illusion. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next on any level. For some reason, I’ve given that fact the power to make me miserable.

I have a powerful imagination, which makes me a good writer and creator. However, it also occasionally makes me captive to my own stories. I forget that my stories are just that–stories. I make them up, tell them to myself over and over, and behave as though they’re true, never really noticing when they diverge from reality. In my head, it’s all so real. I do know the difference between a story and what’s real, but I have to remind myself to keep the two separated.

Some stories are so old and deeply ingrained it takes a cataclysm to make us realize they’re not true, and then we have to deal with being wrong and all the consequences that follow, an uncomfortable, humbling and messy process.

If my anxiety is rooted in uncertain and imaginary outcomes and possibilities, it seems obvious that I can disable it with a little discipline, a dash of surrender to uncertainty, a lot of presence and the will to change. I’m chagrined by the possibility my anxiety is a lifelong bad habit as much as anything else. Could that be true? Yikes.

I wish with all my heart I’d been a better equipped and less distressed parent, but I remind myself I can’t go back. I can’t begin parenting again from ground zero. I can’t go back to the young woman I was and explain all this and give her the support and safety to actively choose to turn away from anxiety before starting a family. There’s only today, so many years later, as I sit with my laptop in my lap and the sun coming in the windows, glancing at my notes, thinking and writing.

I know all I’ve ever wanted for my own mother is health and happiness. I want the same for my kids. I suspect Mom and my sons also want that for me. Perhaps it’s time for me to shape an anxiety-free life now, not only for my own sake, but for those closest to me as well.

We build our lives on outcomes, one after another, more than we ever notice. We remember the spectacularly good and spectacularly bad outcomes, but what about the countless others? Outcomes are complex, not black and white. Outcomes can create visible and invisible ripples that last a lifetime. I can hardly think of a more fruitless endeavor than worrying about or trying to control outcomes. I’ve survived every outcome to date. What makes me think I won’t continue to do so–until I don’t, of course? But the outcome of death is largely out of my control, too. Why worry?

There are so many things I’d rather do than struggle with anxiety!

There are so many stories to imagine, share and write, rather than keep in my head and hurt myself with!

Anxiety is too expensive. I’m not interested in maintaining it anymore.

Better late than never.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

The Mistaken Gardener

Middle age is great fun. I’m constantly amused at how much time I spent during the first half of my life being ineffective. I’ve always had heartfelt intentions, goals and plans and I’ve always worked hard, but I’ve never understood a thing about simply letting life be. I know all about discipline and almost nothing about surrendering to the natural flow of anything, including myself.

A few months ago I read an article about what makes plants happy . It was a revelation.

I call myself a gardener. During some periods I grew most of my own vegetables and herbs. It was a lot of work. In Colorado, water was always a problem, and in my rural gardens deer were a constant threat. Keeping a garden weeded, mulched and watered, along with raising two little boys, working and running a household on a shoestring, was quite a challenge. I thought I knew a lot about gardening.

Here in Maine I don’t garden. We don’t have dedicated garden space protected from the deer, for one thing. For another, my diet has changed and I mostly eat meat now. I’m also older, my knees complain bitterly if I spend a lot of time kneeling, and my body does not want to bend over in a garden every day.

On the other hand, we probably have thirty or more apple trees, wild raspberries (red and black), wild strawberries, highbush cranberries, blueberries, elderberries, roses, an ancient and persistent grapevine of unknown variety, sugar maples, pear trees and nut trees spread out across our land. The whole place is a garden.

We also have a short hedge of beach roses, thickly thorned and tough, that runs right along the road on the east side of the house. It gets the snowplow drifts of snow, ice and sand in the winter and the heat, exhaust and sometimes trash of every passing vehicle in the summer. I couldn’t kill them with an axe. It’s not a tall hedge, but it blooms pink in the spring and provides a small barrier between the house and the traffic. In this season it’s loaded with fat red round rose hips.

In the spring, we saw a lot of dead wood in the rose hedge and we began to give it a heavy pruning. It had been neglected for years, and I was certain it would come back, thicker and healthier than ever. It was miserable to work on because the thorns, though short, are numerous and tough, and defy the heaviest work gloves. We got about halfway through the task and then Spring caught us up, along with many other projects, and we never finished pruning the hedge. I raked up what we did take out, pitched the debris over a bank so the thorns were out of the way, and did nothing else for it. The denuded hedge looked spiky and ugly until it leafed out.

In the ensuing months I’ve watched that hedge bloom as usual with its bright pink flowers. One day I saw wild buttercup was also blooming in the places we’d pruned. Wild violets crept around the edges. Yellow hawkweed moved in. After the buttercups came white and yellow daisies. Then a froth of Queen Anne’s Lace draped around it, and tall purple clover beckoned the wild bees. As those faded, I recognized goldenrod and wild asters beginning to grow. Every couple of weeks my partner mowed between the hedge and the house. That’s the only care and attention it ever got.

Wildflowers have bloomed, each in their season, mingling with the roses, all summer and fall. Now there’s a foam of purple and white wild aster and the roses are blooming for a second time, mingling with hips. The hedge is a riot of color.

Beach rose hedge 09/17

This takes me back to the article I mentioned about what makes plants happy.

The article points out that plants grow in the wild according to their evolution, needs and contribution in a system. Some plants are tall and grow in isolation. Others are immensely social and form clumps or swathes. Some plants like to creep along the ground and grow low. Others are quite high and grow with tall grasses because they need the support of the surrounding stems. Look at a natural meadow or field in summer that hasn’t been grazed or recently mown, and you’ll see a system of plants and grasses growing together with no input from humans. There are no bare places that need to be mulched. Nobody comes along and dead heads and tidies things up. As flowers fade and plants die, or are fed on, vegetable matter and seeds fall to the ground and become food or sprout into the next generation of plants. The meadow or field, if healthy, will have a full complement of insects, birds and small rodents present, and so on, up the food chain.

Okay, you get the picture. Biology 101, right? But that’s not a garden.

A garden is where we prepare the ground by banishing “weeds;” amend, dig and turn the soil by exposing it and sterilizing it and wearing out our backs; spend money protecting the area with fences, animal repellents, insecticides and herbicides; buy bags and bags of expensive manure, peat, top soil and mulching materials; spend more money buying plants, often without particular regard to whether they’re native to our area and with no idea or interest in how they grow in the wild; and plant them in solitary confinement, carefully spacing them out in sad little oases amid the mulch. We do not give them appropriate companions or communities, allow them to build a family around themselves or allow them to make the contributions they were evolved to make to other plants and wildlife.

We hold gardens to our own standards of neatness, cleanliness, obedience and beauty. We cut and tidy away brown leaves and spent blossoms lest they offend the eye, never imagining we’re depriving our plants of the free food they were evolved to need. We plant to please our color and variety preferences, never asking ourselves or bothering to find out what those particular plants need in order to be happy. We never imagine ourselves a shrew, or a chipmunk, or a grasshopper, and it doesn’t occur to us to lie on the ground with our chins in the dirt and appreciate the complex layers of plant life that cover it. The only view we consider is looking down, and the only layer we see from that vantage point is the top one.

That’s what we call a garden. Isn’t it beautiful?

We humans have an incorrigible, idiotic kind of blind arrogance, myself included. I confess I never once thought about observing how Nature gardens and modeling my gardens on hers. Not once. Yet Earth has survived for millions of years, creating rich, self-sustaining forests, swamps, grasslands and other habitats without the interference of human beings. We don’t think about the plants’ point of view, though. We come along, wear out our bodies, spend money, try to reinvent elegant and sustainable life systems and wonder why gardens don’t thrive.

Duh.

Beach rose hedge 09/17

I’ve been thinking about this article about what makes plants happy for months, and watching our little rose hedge. As we move into fall, I spend a certain amount of time pruning away dead wood and crowded saplings in many different places. We’ve cut a couple of old and dangerous trees. As I work, I carefully lay all the debris at the base of the plants I’m working on. I don’t uproot things. I don’t disturb the soil or the layer of wet rotting leaves on the forest floor. I cherish the sight of mushrooms growing everywhere, because I know they signal a healthy mycelium net underground, serving every plant and tree on the place and beyond. Apples and berries fall and rot where they lay, sinking back into the ever-richer earth. I notice how the wildflowers grow and spread and who they grow and bloom with. I’m making friends with the low ground-covering plants: Wild chamomile, wild strawberry, white clover, wild basil with its purple flowers, the sweet little violets and rabbit’s foot clover.

Unless in our way, we let trees lie as they fall and rot over time. We run the mower over autumn leaves and let them lie. We carefully stake volunteer or rodent-planted saplings to avoid mowing them, so the next generation of black walnut, maple, oak and beech can grow. We leave the tent caterpillars alone, because they provide food for birds, bears and other creatures.

I realize now all my neat gardening was driven by perfectionism, by a desire to feel in control, and by a need to please the eye of myself and others. I invested a lot of sweat equity in trying to garden “right” without ever questioning what that really meant. I made it much, much harder and more expensive than it ever needed to be.

It’s worth noting this is exactly the way I treat myself.

The rose hedge reanimated itself. It grows in the most inhospitable area of the whole place, but it knew just what to do. I stood back, let it alone and marveled.

You know what? I take it back. I’m not a gardener. But I do humbly enjoy a 26-acre garden.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Poisoned Bait

A good thing happened recently. I declined to take poisoned bait.

The bait arrived in the form of a terse email from an individual with whom I’ve recently done business. I’ve never met them in person. I approached our business transaction with a willingness to negotiate, share power, cooperate and communicate directly, thoroughly and clearly. I saved all documents, contracts and emails regarding our business, and upon successfully (in my view) concluding our interaction, I moved on with a sense of gratitude, satisfaction and relief.

More than a month later, I had an email expressing frustration and blame.

It felt like a slap in the face, and it was unexpected and hurtful.

My immediate impulse was to strike back, followed quickly by the thought that I hadn’t communicated well and I could fix things by explaining myself (again). Obviously, I had been misunderstood.

Then I decided to pause for a day or so and think carefully about this.

The fact is, I have a longstanding deeply-rooted pattern of believing I’ve been misunderstood due to my inept communication. This belief keeps me firmly locked in escalating attempts to explain and be heard and understood. What I’ve failed to perceive, over and over again through the years, is that I’ve frequently been in relationships with people who had no interest in explanations. They were deliberately fostering misunderstanding, drama and conflict because it fed them in some way.

This, by the way, is a very common strategy of narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personality disordered people. I’ve written previously about projection and gaslighting , two tools frequently used to control others.

Deliberately keeping another in confusion and on the defensive, constantly changing the goalposts and passive aggressive tactics like the silent treatment are all baited hooks I’ve eagerly swallowed and writhed on for years. Words can’t convey the anguish and erosion of self that occurs in the context of this kind of long-term abuse. I’ve crept away from relationships like this as nothing more than a cracked shell of woman, my sexuality and femininity withered, my emotions torn to shreds, my body impoverished and barren, and firmly convinced of my own worthlessness, ugliness and inadequacy.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

A perfect set-up to fall for it all over again.

And again.

And again.

But not this time!

This time I had hard evidence. Over and over again, I checked the timing of contract and closing, emails sent and received, all the fine print. It was all right there, the date my responsibility ended and the date after that of a sudden dissatisfaction I was expected to fix.

I concluded I’d done nothing wrong. On the contrary, I’d consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity I aspire to in every interaction. I went above and beyond. I provided explanation, suggestions for resolution and alternate options, along with names and numbers.

That email was bait.

So, a couple of days later I took a deep breath, opened my email and replied with sincere wishes for happiness and success. One sentence. Then I signed off and hit “send.”

This happened about three weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a small thing, but it reveals to me how very far I’ve come in healing, growth and wisdom. I now know that I have the power to decline an invitation to struggle. I recognize poisoned bait for what it is, and I know it conceals a hook, and that hook no longer tempts me. I don’t need to waste any energy in defense or repeated explanations. I don’t choose to revisit old bones of contention and chaos. I accept that people think what they think, make up and believe the stories they make up and believe, carry the assumptions they carry, and none of it has anything to do with me.

Misunderstanding certainly occurs, but it’s not that difficult to clear up, given two adults who intend to. The trick is to identify as quickly and accurately as possible if the person I’m interacting with is an adult who to intends to clear up misunderstanding. In the case of my email, that person was only peripherally in my life and we’ll probably never interact again, so I didn’t bother. However, we all have people in our lives with whom we have ongoing connection. In those cases, I use a single question to clarify “misunderstanding.”

“Is there anything I can say or do to clear this up and repair our relationship?”

This direct, simple question seems to encourage surprisingly honest answers, albeit answers I haven’t wanted to accept or believe. However, if the answer is some variation of “no,” then everything immediately becomes blessedly clear. I want to repair. They don’t. Continuing to engage is a waste of our mutual time and energy, and if any kind of a hook remains dangling, I know it’s a manipulation. They’ve made up their mind, and I have no power there.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

The words on the screen fail to convey the annihilating heartbreak attendant on understanding that someone you care about and even love doesn’t value your relationship enough to make repairs, but arguing with what is has never worked for me, and I think we owe it to ourselves and others to pay attention when people tell us who they are, no matter how devastated we might feel or how much we want to deny.

I don’t think of this as a too-sweet maiden, politically correct, starry-eyed liberal ideology. Neither is it a religious thing for me, or some kind of higher moral ground tactic. It’s not about making nice and giving others the benefit of a doubt, turning the other cheek, or making excuses for why people do the things they do. It’s also not a blanket rejection. I’m perfectly prepared to turn aside into another conversation, activity or form of connection. I’m also perfectly prepared to walk away.

No. This is about dignity. It’s about wisdom. It’s about self-defense and self-care. Explaining oneself once, apologizing if warranted, taking responsibility if appropriate, is healthy, adult behavior. Distortions, refusing to hear or accept explanations, verbal or physical threats or violence, scenes, emotional meltdowns and shame and blame games are signs and symptoms of a dangerously abusive relationship and I’m no longer available.

I’ve changed my diet and I don’t take that poisoned bait anymore.

I’ve had a bellyful of it already.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted