Tag Archives: panic

Speeding

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

Being Good

Relationship is the finest crucible I know for personal growth and transformation. Unfortunately, it’s also the best crucible for abuse and destruction, but I no longer focus on that aspect of connection with others. My relationships now are based on growth, not destruction. I have promised myself this.

As my partner and I slowly move toward shaping a life of self-sufficiency and holistic collaboration with our land and community, we are experiencing (naturally) many unwelcome pauses and fallow periods as we wait on favorable weather, the scheduling needs of others or the availability of funds.

I’ve noticed that during these frustrating pauses my partner serenely deals with the work of the day and then is perfectly happy to sit on our sagging couch, a book in one hand, the TV remote in the other and the cat velcroed to him, occasionally getting up to feed the wood stove.

Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

It drives me nuts. How does he do that?

We had a conversation about it over breakfast recently.

He’s hanging out and waiting for the stars to align so we can begin to move forward again. That might come in the form of some income, a phone call, a stretch of really warm days, or who knows what other miracles. He figures it will all work out, one way or another, in time, and meanwhile he might as well relax and enjoy life.

I, on the other hand, from my earliest memory, make Deals with the Universe. My Deal is that I’ll Be Good in order to get what I need to survive. Being Good is specifically defined.

  • I will not complain, whine, want or need anything I don’t have.
  • I will hoard what I do have and be grateful, because I have so much more than many others.
  • I will work as hard as I can at all the tasks that can be done right here, right now, even if it’s only scrubbing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees or cleaning out closets.
  • I will not wait, hope, dream. I will act. Now!
  • I will not make excuses, procrastinate or (God help us) relax.
  • I will never admit to feeling afraid or anxious or impoverished in any way. Being truthful about our experience is “airing dirty laundry,” which is shameful and vulgar.

Somewhere inside me is a hysteric who knows my partner is wrong. Sitting on the couch means he’ll never see his dreams come true. He won’t deserve to see dreams come true, because he’s not doing anything to help himself, to prove himself worthy of good things. He’s not hoarding what we have. He’s got a light on for reading and the TV on and he’s putting wood in the stove as though those six cords out in the barn will last all winter! (They will.) He’s not doing all the tasks that could be done. He’s failing the test, failing his side of the deal, and we are screwed.

All this panic and fear impel me to work harder and harder at everything. At anything. I must demonstrate to the Universe that I’m not a slacker, a sponge, an ingrate. I must also make up for his blasphemy of sitting on the couch, because we hold dreams in common, and we can’t manifest the lives we want without each other. Clearly, I must Be Good for both of us.

The infuriating but inescapable truth is that I can’t honestly say my Deals with the Universe work better than my partner’s approach. I’ve always had what I’ve needed to survive, but so has he!

It’s not fair.

Then, this last week I read the best essay I’ve come across on rape culture and its effect on women. The writer perfectly expresses much of my longing and the difficulty of allowing oneself to be fully and powerfully female. I feel more and more tension around this in our climate of hysterical political correctness, labeling, jargon and sloppy thinking. The increasing visibility of symptoms of rape culture give me hope that in some quarters there is a will to change, but will it be enough? Will we ever really see an equal playing ground for all people? Not necessarily the same playing ground, but equal in contribution and value, equal in respect, resource and power?

I don’t know.

Anyway, I went for my morning walk with the essay and my Being Good rules rattling around in my head. There were snowflakes in the air under a mostly cloudy cold sky with occasional gleams of sun. The river flowed quietly along and I sat for a while under the trees to watch the snow fall in the water.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

What if, I wondered, instead of my exhausting and not-notably-effective list of what Being Good entails, I changed my Being Good Deal with the Universe to living the truest and fullest expression of myself possible? What if that included the entirety of my wants, needs, feelings, thoughts, creativity, passion, power and sexuality? What if that included all the great and small activities and experiences that give me pleasure? What if I gave my obnoxious, persistent and compulsive judgement a sabbatical, with an option for permanent retirement?

I was so intrigued by this that I’ve been playing with it for the last few days. In that time my laptop developed technical problems and is in the shop, so I’ve been without my usual habits, tools and routines. This blog was not published first thing Thursday morning. I notice that life manages to continue in spite of it. I’ve read, walked, laid on my back on the ground in the sun, meditated, gone swimming and luxuriated in a hot therapy pool, done Tai Chi and ordered my favorite body oil. I’ve listened to Christmas music. I’ve eaten a bowl of ice cream. I’ve had an honest conversation with two women I like and admire. I’ve taken walks with my partner. This looks much like my usual life, it’s just that currently I’m allowing myself to enjoy my experience without shame, expectation or judgement.

Life is a lot easier and much more fun under my new (and simplified) Be Good Deal with the Universe. Will the Universe frown or smile upon this new Deal?

Who knows? Maybe it’s none of my business. Maybe the Universe isn’t looking over my shoulder, recording every action and thought, maintaining a cosmic scorecard. Maybe the Universe is sitting on the couch, alternately reading science fiction and watching reruns of Star Trek on Syfy and paying absolutely no attention to me whatsoever, and all my frenzied flapping around is just a waste of energy.

Sometimes I make myself tired.

I think I’ll go sit on the couch.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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

 

River of Stone

Photo by Andrew Montgomery on Unsplash

I often imagine life as a river and myself in a boat of my own making, floating on it. I don’t picture a sailboat, having no experience of one, but a small boat that glides with the current and can be paddled. I don’t imagine a single river, but a vast network, far more than I could ever explore in this lifetime. Sometimes it’s a river of water, sometimes a river of stars. Sometimes it’s a river of green moss that carves a path through thick forest. Sometimes it’s an air-borne river of leaves and feathers and pieces of sky.

Sometimes it’s a river of stone.

The thing about rivers is they take me where they take me. I can paddle and steer, but whatever river I’m on at any given moment is a living thing in itself. I’m not its master and it doesn’t ask me where I want to go.

Of course, I don’t have to surrender to this kind of movement. I can refuse to make a boat in the first place, refuse to learn how, refuse to try. I can take a short cut and buy a premade boat or jump in someone else’s boat. If I do manage to create a boat, I can still make my way to the shore at any point and stop.

I can always throw myself out of the boat, too … but then I’ll never find out where the river is taking me.

I can also fight with the current.

I know a lot about this.

In the last few days, I’ve been floating on a river of stone.

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

Photo by Paul Van Cotthem on Unsplash

Stone is very, very, v…e…r…y slow. Oh, it moves, in the deep foundations of life. It shifts and compresses, slips, breaks down, heats and cools. It tells an old, old story, whole volumes of which are faded and weathered into illegibility, or hidden so well I know I’ll never read them. Now and then, though, a period of grace arrives in which I inadvertently enter a river of stone and have an opportunity, which I reject, avoid and try to escape, to hear whispers of stone stories.

During these times, others on the river are out of sight and out of hearing. My calls echo back to

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

me off stone canyons and cliffs. If I reach out for another in my sleep and wake with bloody knuckles. On the river of stone others do not respond. They don’t follow through. They don’t keep their word. My password doesn’t work. I can’t log on. There is no clarification or confirmation. I’m alone, in my little boat, and I feel adrift and forgotten, unseen and unheard, left behind.

The river of stone tells me a story of foundations, of beginnings, of layers of time and events, of family and tribe. My agenda, my insistence on movement and progress, my puny frustration with things not done, makes less impression than a fragile-winged dragonfly that flung itself into the stone’s embrace uncounted aeons ago and flies now forever in the river of stone.

The river of stone is inexorable. It forces me to slow down. It provides me with no distraction and no easy entertainment. Creativity falls into sleep from which I cannot wake it. Those tasks and activities I call “productive” cease. Frantically, I paddle my boat, one side, then the other, until my hands are bloody blistered and my shoulders are a block of pain. All the old demons in my head leap into life, jeering and heckling, joining hands in gleeful celebration, and they have their way with me because I’m trapped in a river of stone.

I accomplish nothing on a list. I write no pages. Plans fall through. I wait too long to walk, and then it rains. Dirty dishes sit on the counter. All I want to do is get lost in an old familiar book–if only I could stay awake long enough!

Then, gradually, frustration, panic and fear exhaust themselves and lie down to rest. I rediscover the beauty of emptiness. I begin to see veins and gems and stardust in the stone around me. I remember the difference between doing and being, and the delicate balance they must maintain. The stone speaks to me of strength, of endurance, of centering and grounding. I give myself to the pause in communication, in creative work, in the forward movement that I crave. I put down the paddle, the oar, and stretch out in the boat and rest, dreaming of stone-lipped wells refilling with spring water, dreaming of a spray of words leaping off waves or trailing behind stars in a river ahead, dreaming of friends whose faces I haven’t yet seen and broken connection repaired.

I doze, rocked in a cradle of stone. I rest, floating on a river of rock. I sink into the slow, deep, stony heartbeat in the center of all things, imagine inhalations and exhalations, each lasting 100,000 years.

Photo by Brent Cox on Unsplash

I surrender to the river of stone, and in doing so I float out of it.

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