Tag Archives: anxiety

Speeding

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I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)

I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.

Life is strange.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.

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Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.

Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.

But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.

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It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.

Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.

For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.

What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.

It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.

Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.

So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.

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I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.

There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?

My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.

I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.

I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.

This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.

I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.

I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.

That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.

Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.

Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.

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As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.

I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?

Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!

All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!

Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.

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Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!

I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.

I don’t want to live like that. Do you?

Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

My daily crime.

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Responsibility

One of my favorite things about life is that changing one subtle thread in the pattern of our behavior and identity can change the whole picture in unexpected but beautiful ways. The overculture promises this if we buy the right product, but that’s a hollow promise. If we really want change, we have to work internally, which is messy, confusing work, often filled with anguish—much less sexy and fun than buying a new pair of shoes or trying a different hair color.

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As I navigate through the process of submitting my first book manuscript to agents and publishers, the necessity to write a strong and appropriate query letter, synopsis, autobiography and pitch has forced me to come further out of hiding than I ever have before.

While sitting on the lifeguard stand at work last week, it occurred to me that one word sums up the change spurred by my creative ambitions and rippling into all areas of my life.

Responsibility.

This is an amusing twist of irony because I have always been overly responsible about everyone and everything other than myself. I’ve believed myself responsible for the health and happiness of every person and animal around me since I was a child. When things become challenging or unpleasant, I’ve blamed myself. When accidents and misunderstandings occur, I’ve blamed myself. When others make self-destructive or boneheaded choices, I’ve blamed myself.

It goes without saying that I’ve certainly blamed myself for all my own real and imagined flaws, weaknesses, mistakes, blue eyes, wide hips, wild hair, cellulite and countless other things.

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Futility doesn’t begin to describe the kind of life this behavior creates.

The literary submission process was not the only catalyst prompting me to reverse my old pattern of taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to me and ignoring that which does, but it’s certainly a big one.

I’ve been so uncomfortable with trying to present my creative work in a professional, objective, supportive, respectful manner that I haven’t had the time or attention to sit back and view the last two or three weeks with any kind of objectivity, but that particular hour of lifeguarding gave me the pause I needed to see the changing pattern of several different areas in my life.

In my primary relationship I’m gradually becoming more authentic and less concerned about taking responsibility for the needs, wants and preferences of my partner. He’s a grown man, intelligent and able to speak for and take care of himself. He’s also able to adapt, adjust and take his lumps like everyone else. It’s not my job in life to see to it that he (or anyone else) is never uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable all the time, and I manage to live through it.

Letting go of what I was never responsible for in the first place is an enormous relief, but the truth is I’ve always preferred caring for others to caring for myself. It’s not that I don’t know who I am and what I want. I’m not a bit confused about that. Since I came to Maine, I’ve learned to know and love myself.

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What keeps me caring for others rather than myself is the belief that I’m the only person who can love me. Choosing to be more open and real about my own needs, wants and preferences, even though they might conflict (and often do) with those around me, seems like a life-and-death risk. Even sitting here writing about It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want to be responsible for myself in this way.

I have a warm, gregarious, big-hearted friend who frequently invites me on activities and play dates of all kinds. At least half the time I say no. I cringe when I say it. I worry. I brace myself for the end of our friendship every time. But no is the honest answer—the real me. I’m a hermit. I like nothing so much as a quiet day or evening at home. My few social needs are well met, and I have no desire to be out and about in the world more than I already am. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty …

See? There it is again. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty, as do I, and that means I must take responsibility for my truths: knowing them, speaking them, and accepting that others will inevitably be affected by them.

I don’t want the responsibility of making anyone uncomfortable or unhappy. Ever. Under any circumstances. (Well, unless I’m really pissed off, like when the fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy at the pool announced during an exercise class that people with tattoos don’t have jobs and he wouldn’t have any such person in his house. Note: I have a tattoo on my left shoulder that’s quite obvious in my bathing suit, which is my work attire (you know, for my job), and I was present at the time. Also, two of my colleagues have tattoos, clearly visible in their bathing suits, not to mention many of our patrons. Fortunately, I’m able to be professional and keep my obnoxious opinions to myself in public.)

One of the greatest gifts of my current relationships is how often I’m forced to be authentic and speak my truth, trusting that those I interact with are adults who can deal with their feelings about my choices (I’m talking to you, fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy), just as I deal with my feelings about theirs. If others are not adults and refuse to take responsibility for their own feelings, well that’s not really about me at all, and those are not the kind of relationships I’m available for.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, I’m watching myself openly say yes or no, ask for what I want and/or need, state my feelings and preferences without apology or justification, and present my creative work with pride, love and belief in its value.

When I reread this, I smile. It sounds so smooth! It’s not, though. I feel a lot of anxiety as I come out from under cover. Challenging these old patterns gives me a greasy feeling of imminent doom. How can I expect anyone to love or even tolerate me if I insist on being a real person with needs and preferences? How can I admit openly what I think, feel, need and create?

No, it’s not smooth. It’s terrifying and exhausting.

It’s also exhilarating and freeing. Life is a lot easier when I give up taking care of anyone but myself. One of the great gifts of aging has been my gradual journey from a people-pleasing shell to sensual creativity, warty wisdom and vigorous connection to my own power and intuition.

Responsibility for myself. My daily crime.

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No Is a Complete Sentence

One of my first posts on this blog was about saying no . As I learned emotional intelligence and began applying it to my life, I started to understand how imprisoned I’d been by my inability to say no.

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In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you that saying no in the context of long-term relationships in which I’ve never said it before has resulted in unforeseen heartache and grief. I rejoice in reclaiming my power and authenticity, but some of my nearest and dearest are not celebrating my growth and healing, and connections I thought were unbreakable have, in fact, broken.

These days, I immediately exit any relationship in which my no is consistently ignored. At this point in my life I’m not interested in connection, intimate, workplace or social, in which no is not an acceptable answer.

In my experience, people who refuse to accept the answer no fall into two camps. The first camp is the controllers. Their goal is power. They view anyone with the ability to say no as an insult and a threat, and immediately react in the form of intimidation, emotional meltdowns, rage, manipulation and constant pressure to change the no to a yes.

The second camp is those who can’t say no themselves and are infuriated by those who can. Their goal is to undermine the power of others so they can feel better about their own disempowered state. They’ve stored up years of resentment around all the times they said yes when they wanted to say no, resentment which they vomit up at once if someone says no to them. They throw around words like “duty,” “responsibility,” “loyalty” and “obligation.” No is a personal rejection, an abandonment and a cruel betrayal. They frequently have all kinds of expectations of others. They use the weapon of shame.

These camps can and do overlap, but there’s no mistaking the resistance to no.

I confess that it still stuns me that long-term primary relationships have fallen down and died right in front of me because I said no. I’ve even checked out my perception, disbelieving my own experience and the words I was hearing.

“So, from your point of view, me saying no is unforgiveable?”

“Yes, it’s unforgiveable.”

So far, I am still unforgiven, because I stood by my no.

Unbelievable.

I ask myself if it’s possible I’ve never said no in the context of these relationships before. It seems unlikely. Perhaps I’ve just never said it about anything that mattered to the other party? I resolved to mindfully practice saying no, and also to observe carefully the effects of such a response.

I immediately discovered that the effects of saying no on me included panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD and extreme stress. All my life interactions with others has consisted of “reading” them in order to please. Any question they might ask was answered in whatever way I thought they most wanted to hear.

Effectively, every question was a test. If I passed the test, my reward was knowing I had pleased and was temporarily safe and tolerated. If I failed, which usually meant I had forgotten myself and answered honestly, the consequence was displeasure, abuse, guilt and shame and/or (worst of all) some kind of a scene.

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Learning to say yes or no based on my own desires meant finding and reclaiming myself, my needs, my authenticity and my power, and trying to ignore what I knew others wanted from me. Saying yes or no became a test of my own courage and honesty, as well as a test of faith and trust in those close to me.

I could hear no from them. Could they hear it from me?

This has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

I’ve been reading an important book: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Every woman in the world would benefit from reading this lifesaving and validating book. Here, too, is a discussion of the universally important red flag of refusing to accept no.

We are shaped by our culture, and in this culture women are taught to be cooperative and accommodating. Men are taught to be persistent. These behaviors are deeply embedded and reinforced in our media, entertainment and arts.

Women are not taught to say a simple, assertive, direct no and stick to it. We weaken our no with explanation, justification, mistrust of our own instincts and the desire to not make a scene, be unkind or hurt or embarrass anyone.

The instant a woman allows her no to be negotiated, she has handed her power over and sent a clear message that she’s prepared to be a victim. Strangers, family members, friends and colleagues who decline to hear no are either seeking control or refusing to give it up.

Sadly, the willingness to say no will not protect us. We may still be murdered, raped and otherwise abused, but the ability to recognize a danger signal like not accepting no for an answer is an important survival skill that can help us avoid violence before the worst happens.

Ultimately, no is about boundaries.  No matter how cherished a relationship may be, it’s not healthy if we’re not free to honestly say yes or no. Those who consistently violate our boundaries or punish us for having them in the first place are those who have benefitted the most from us having none in the past.

I value my power to say yes or no far more than any object, possession, sum of money or relationship. The complete sentences of yes or no allow me to maintain my integrity and authenticity, support appropriate boundaries and contribute everything I am.

Saying no. My daily crime.

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