Category Archives: Emotional Intelligence

In Search of Normal

This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.

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I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?

It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.

Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.

Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.

In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, that they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.

I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.

During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.

I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.

We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?

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Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?

And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?

What about our failing democracy?

Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.

That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.

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It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?

I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.

I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.

Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.

The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.

We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.

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Now, wouldn’t that be something?

I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.

In search of a new normal. My daily crime.

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Strength From Discomfort

I recently came across an article in my newsfeed describing several ways in which parents can help kids develop mental strength.

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I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast that I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.

Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.

It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?

Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.

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So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.

Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.

On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling that I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.

On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.

Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.

It’s notable that I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.

Storms do pass.

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If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about the everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings—the kind of experiences we all share.

Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.

Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.

It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt—and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.

It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.

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Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.

Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.

It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.

Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.

Discomfort. My daily crime.

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Compulsion

I’d love to be one of those serene, appropriately disciplined (as opposed to compulsive or utterly feckless) people who achieve an effective, useful, consistent morning routine.

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

I’m not.

Even during what I think of as “normal” times when my life was structured predictably by work and other obligations and activities, my morning schedule varied. Now, during weeks of unstructured time, I’m realizing how important it is for me to take responsibility for creating the shape of my life, rather than passively allowing work and other extrinsic forces to do it for me.

On the other hand, spontaneity is good, right? Going with the flow? Following my bliss?

I’m better at routine than I am at spontaneity. I’m better at working than relaxing. I get an A+ in productivity and a D at simply being.

I watch people who spend hours a day in front of a screen, reading, or otherwise appearing to do nothing but laze around with a mixture of envy, fury and contempt. How can they do that? I wish I could do that and still live with myself. What a waste of time! I hate myself if I reach the end of the day with nothing to show for it. (Show who?) The shame and guilt of just being and not doing is annihilating.

Doing is also my favorite remedy for anxiety, and that’s when the dark tentacles of compulsivity wrap around my ankles and start crawling up my body.

I’ve written before about my tendency to speed, back in the old days before coronavirus. My life was familiar to me then. I knew how to use my time and energy. I felt effective without being compulsive. I thought I’d defeated my old self-destructive patterns. I felt balanced and healthy most of the time.

Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was still speeding unconsciously in some parts of my life. It troubled me, and I resolved to bring that behavior into consciousness and change it, which is why I wrote about it. I discovered a great way to pull the plug on unconscious speeding is to develop a practice of sitting in silence daily.

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I’m avoiding using the term “meditation” because it’s so loaded, for me at least. I’ve no interest in a guru, a chant or a sacred sound. I don’t have a special cushion or adopt a particular position. That’s all just in my way. What does work for me is sitting comfortably with my eyes closed, concentrating on the natural flow of my breathing. The world doesn’t have to be quiet. The room doesn’t need to be light or dark or smell of incense. I don’t need a special timer. The only thing required is the most difficult, boring part: Stop. Sit my ass down. Breathe.

I call this my Be Still Now time, and I’m annoyed by how powerful it is. I’m annoyed because it can’t be right that sitting, doing nothing but being, is more powerful and peaceful than doing and doing and doing. Everyone knows how important it is to be productive!

The problem with all this pressure to do is that sometimes I can’t stop. It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who’s not been compulsive.

I start out feeling focused, energetic and excited about a project or task, looking forward to the satisfaction of completing it and looking back on a day in which I didn’t “waste” time. I begin working. I think about the task in front of me, but my mind also wanders as I work, sometimes into dark, fearful places. Pretty soon I’m working a little harder, a little faster, trying not to feel uncomfortable feelings, trying not to remember, trying not to worry.

Time ceases to exist, but vaguely, through my mental and emotional chaos, I realize I’m tired. I’m overheated and my shirt is sticking to my back. I’m filthy. The bugs are feasting on me. I’m thirsty. I feel all those things, but they’re not nearly as important as the noise in my head and my momentum. Doing the project or task (as perfectly as possible) becomes far more important than my state of being. I’m no longer in control of my day or my activity. I’m not pacing myself. I don’t give a damn about taking care of myself. I’m not having fun or feeling satisfied, and I don’t care about finishing. In fact, I hope I never finish. I want to go on and on until I’m beyond thought or feeling. If I stop, something just behind me, hard on my heels, will tear me to pieces.

I absolutely know that if I work hard enough and long enough I’ll find peace, my uncomfortable feelings will resolve, and I’ll be safe and happy and able to rest.

In that state of mind, just stopping is unthinkable. The very suggestion makes me want to tear out someone’s throat. Part of me realizes I’m out of control, speeding again, and it’s dangerous and self-destructive, but I feel unable to make a different choice.

I do, of course, eventually stop. I tell myself I was productive and did good work. I search for that feeling of gratification over a hard job well done, but I can’t find it. I feel more like I’ve been beaten up than anything else. I’m physically exhausted but my thoughts and feelings are churning and I’m pacing the floor, trying to crawl out of my skin, searching desperately for another project to throw myself into.

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I’ve acted out this pattern my whole life, and until very recently it didn’t stop until I got sick or physical pain disabled me. I rarely get sick now, and I no longer have physical pain, thanks to my diet. I’ve gotten much better at using my support system and dealing with my feelings more appropriately. Still, the right kind of stressors over a long period of time, combined with not paying close attention to how I’m doing, reactivates my compulsivity.

The best way to pay attention to how I’m doing is to sit for a few minutes every day and just breathe. I’m not sure how, or why, but I’m quite sure it helps. The funny thing is, I don’t inquire within during that time, I just watch thoughts rise in my mind and let them go. Now and then I get a creative inspiration, which I jot down before going back to breathing. I’m not trying to process feelings or figure anything out. I’m not, in fact, doing or producing anything. I’m just sitting and breathing, and it’s so quiet!

I realize, in that timeless space, that peace and safety, both of which I’ve searched for my whole life, are fully present and always have been. I can’t chase them down or earn them. They’re not elsewhere. We have not become separated or severed. I am not lost. Neither peace nor safety can be found in compulsive doing. All I need to do is be still, be quiet, for just a few minutes, and they are there.

I’d love to say that I’ll Be Still Now every morning for the rest of my life and never be compulsive again, but it’s probably not true. I’ll get distracted, or bored, or lazy. My routine will change. I’ll make something else more important than my sit time. I’ll self-sabotage in all the ways we do self-sabotage. Fortunately, life will continue to be challenging and provide plenty of things to feel anxious and fearful about, and I will continue to work for growth and health, which means I’ll hold myself accountable and return home, to that quiet daily space in which compulsivity cannot live or take root and peace can find me.

Be. Still. Now.

My daily crime.

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

–David Wagoner

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