Change happens every day

Trying to think, feel, and behave in new ways can get abstract and confusing very rapidly. Today I had the perfect example of an interaction that contributes to negativity in my life and how I chose to change it.

My son returned from an out of town trip at 1 AM this morning. It was a school trip and the kids were informed in advance that they would be getting home late, that they would be tired, and that they were expected to show up for school the next day. We knew this was going to suck, but the trip was worth it.

So this morning, the expected sluggishness ensued. My husband usually does the morning wake up and drive to school routine. This morning, he had some trouble, and without giving it much thought, I stepped in and reminded the boy that he was not going to be excused from school for being tired and he’d better get ready because he was late.

After, I felt grouchy and resentful because I felt I had been “forced” to intervene and solve a problem for two other adults, or 1.5 adults, even though they both had the ability to resolve it themselves.

In the past, this situation would have led to some lingering resentment and grouchiness, and, in the past, I dealt with it in my not-entirely-healthy-but-relatively-functional way by basically not thinking about it.

In the present, this is the kind of situation that can trigger my PTSD, so I have to be very careful. I can’t afford to spend 1-2 days in a pit of suicidal despair.

In analyzing the situation, I was able to see pretty quickly where my responsibility was in creating the dynamic. The mini-crisis emerged at 7:25. I felt I had to intervene or the kid would be late for school. But school starts at 7:30. He was already late. My assumption was incorrect. I was intervening for other reasons. Those reasons being underlying beliefs that both of them would come to the “wrong” decision about what to do, that the two of them are not competent to handle the conflict, that the two of them expect me to handle the conflict, that I must follow the same pattern as in the past, that I am a “bad mom” if I don’t fix things, etc., etc.

I chose to intervene. No one “made” me take responsibility for the situation except myself. Whether they wanted or expected my help was not relevant.

Once I decided that I was not going to be mediating anymore father-son conflicts, and that I would be telling them both clearly later today, all of my bad feelings disappeared. There’s no need to blame anyone, because no one is to blame. Nothing bad actually happened, except that someone was tardy for school. I feel no resentment, because I took responsibility for my needs. I feel no anger, because the anger came and went in seconds as I identified a new boundary that I need for myself. I have no need for dysfunctional coping mechanisms because the problem is solved. I don’t need to analyze or understand why the two of them behaved the way they did because it’s irrelevant (tiredness probably explains it, anyway). I don’t need to identify who is “right” or “wrong” in the situation because those concepts don’t really exist in this context.

In the past, abandoning my own feelings and not setting a boundary left me feeling “okay” but not great. The unasked self sacrifice eroded my self esteem and left me feeling a bit of  victim of circumstance much of the time.

In the present, staying with my feelings, setting a boundary, and taking responsibility while releasing blame feels terrific–a total solution. Not only is my self respect enhanced, but there’s an unexpected boost of freedom and happiness that comes with it.

Little things can make a big difference.

How do I handle my insecurities?

On his blog, Ferrett Steinmetz asks How do you handle your insecurities?

I have destroyed relationships by overreacting to my insecurities, demanding my partners prove things to me that they could not possibly ever reassure me of; sadly, I have also destroyed relationships by notlistening to my insecurities, and having partners then go on to cheat, abuse, and hurt me because I didn’t interpret that signal properly.

So for me, the trick is to try to find reality.

I am like the Sherlock Holmes of my own psyche, whenever those tides of anxiety roll in.  I sift everything for clues.  I make lists. I replay conversations in my head over and over again like that lunch at Chipotle was the fucking Zapruder tape, relentlessly scouring it to try to determine whether she was actually Not Into Me or whether I was just misinterpreting the signs.

The following Twitter conversation ensued:






Ferrett has shared extensively about his struggles with depression and social anxiety. Mishell is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I have PTSD. None of what I have to say is intended as a facile solution for anyone’s mental health challenges. There are no quick and easy solutions. But I do know a thing or two about self love, and the terrible pain we cause ourselves when we withhold it.

Basically, self-love is like vegetables. Your body needs them, but a lot of people have trouble with vegetables for one reason or another and avoid them. Likewise, for a lot of very valid emotional reasons, many of us have grown up not knowing how or refusing to give ourselves love. The result is emotional pain that can contribute significantly to mental illness and cause chronic disconnection from others and relationship problems.

The subject of self and personal development is important for writers. As artists, we funnel creative energy through ourselves and when we become published authors, there is unavoidable attention, public scrutiny, and criticism attached to that role. If we lose ourselves, the art suffers.

Learning self love when you don’t have a foundation is extremely difficult. Like Ferrett, I’ve been prone to rumination and people pleasing, and I know how those habits can be an important way to cope. It feels like if you can understand other people’s behavior well enough, you can keep yourself safe and continue to feel ok about yourself, when the alternative is a pretty nasty series of attacks of self loathing. It can work “well enough” for a long time, but if some life crisis or event takes away that “base” of external validation–maybe you realize that all of your calculations and simulations have failed all at once–you’re in for a world of hurt.

Self compassion is like a couch to 5K program. When you first start, it feels unnatural, difficult, and exhausting. There is little immediate reward.

For a long time, months maybe, I worked diligently at improving my self concept through practicing self compassion, but would still spiral into episodes of “badfeels” that would flatten me like roadkill for days at a time. It felt like self love couldn’t possibly be enough. It felt like I HAD to get something more from outside myself, though I couldn’t have easily explained what that was, and I knew it wasn’t coming.

I now know that the sensitive inner self, which is variously known as the emotional self, the inner child, the true self, the vulnerable self, the feminine essence, yang, etc. does not immediately respond to self love when it’s been withheld for a lifetime. It takes time, and practice, to learn to trust yourself to provide what you need. Think about adopting a neglected or abused child. Is that child going to open up to joy and trust on the first day you bring her home? No! The child will need time to learn to feel safe and trust in your love as a parent.

In the same way, when you first start attending to your own emotional needs, the pain doesn’t immediately vanish. It takes time, a lot of time, and patience. Your inner self needs to learn that your adult self will back up its promises with action.

Things finally started to shift for me when I had a dream. Until that point, my self care efforts were inconsistent, and I was feeling frustrated and despondent and alone. My attitude was like, “I did self care a week ago Tuesday, so why do I feel crappy today?

Then I had a dream. In the dream, I was hanging out with some friends I lost contact with a long time ago. At first it was great, because I had felt rejected when we drifted apart, and I was happy that they still seemed to like and welcome me. But in the dream, I was also aware that I had grown and changed, and I wasn’t feeling super comfortable with this friend group anymore. Plus, their affection for me felt lukewarm. Then, suddenly, there were kittens everywhere. I was the only one who seemed to notice that multiple litters of kittens were running around loose all over the house and property. Some older kittens were attacking and playing too rough with the younger kittens. I tried catching and containing the kittens, but the task seemed impossible.

When I woke up, I knew the dream had a message. I knew my subconscious was telling me that others opinion of me didn’t matter, that the real question was how I felt about them. Like Ferrett, I had spent way too much time trying to figure out who is Into Me, and had been ignoring any messages from my inner self about who I was actually into. But that was old news.

The real key was the kittens. I’ve dreamt of kitten infestations before. What is up with that? And then, in a flash, while running errands, the answer came to me. The kittens were my inner self (selves), which I was neglecting while trying to get people to like me and chasing after external validation and approval. Bam!

After that, I got serious about self love and self care. I made it a daily practice, and instead of whining when it seemed like I needed MORE from myself, I started generously giving myself all of the time and energy I needed. The more I gave, the more my inner self started responding, and talking to me about her needs. The more I understood those needs, the more I was able to respond and give. The “badfeels” went away, and have not returned since.

I have had to learn inner dialogue, which healthy, well-nurtured adults do without thinking about it, but felt very difficult and unnatural to me. I’ve also worked on it through exercises like journaling, nondominant hand writing, art, meditation, role playing with dolls and teddy bears, etc. etc. Mostly, I’ve just tried a lot of things and tried to be open to my inner voice. It was nice of my subconscious to offer the kitten avatar, because that turns cat cuddling into therapy.

I would venture to say that learning self care for the average adult in our culture takes at least as much time and energy investment as raising a puppy. So many of us were either denied a healthy example or actually given a negative example through childhood abuse.

None of what I say is meant as a fix for a chemical imbalance of the brain, variations in structure or wiring, or neurodiversity. But learning self love can give you extremely robust coping skills for managing those conditions and choosing safe, supportive people to connect with, and it’s something each and every one of us need. Self love is not a way to “fix” yourself. It’s just something you need. Self love is the key to pulling yourself back in and not getting caught up in ruminative cycles about other people’s behavior, none of which really has anything to do with you.

I honestly no longer care what people think of me, and have no need to seek approval, acceptance, or validation from anyone. I invest in people I like and care about. If they want to reciprocate, awesome. If not, meh. There are 7 billion people on the planet, and I have shit to do.

It feels good. Like srsly.

Do you have a personal bill of rights?

When learning boundary skills, our first efforts look something like, “Person X is not allowed to be mean to me and call me names,” or “I don’t have to talk to people or be nice to them if I don’t want to.” As first efforts, they’re not bad, but they still end up placing all of the power and responsibility outside yourself. Because, dude, Person X gonna do what Person X gonna do. So what are YOU going to do about it?

Connecting your boundaries with what you view as your personal rights empowers yourself and brings responsibility for your life back where it belongs, with you. Boundaries empowered by personal rights are like, “I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and to protest when there is a failure of such,” and “I have the right to end relationships that are no longer serving me.”

When you frame your boundaries in terms of your own personal rights, there’s a bonus enhancement of respect and dignity for others. I am not telling Person X how to run his life. I’m just saying, hey, I’m not available for disrespectful or abusive interactions. Likewise, in taking responsibility for ending a relationship that’s not working for me, I do not have to devalue another person’s dignity or blame them for a choice I’m making. Rights are not withdrawn or taken away when we make mistakes, behave badly, or change our minds. If people have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, they don’t lose that right if they go on a week-long bender and drive a car off a cliff (and survive), so if we have made mistakes, or are afraid we have, that’s no reason to give up the high ground of upholding your personal rights. You can and should demand respect even if you are drunk and lying in a puddle of your own vomit. Rights are independent of the situation at hand and are non-negotiable. If anyone is trying to modify, negotiate, or take away your rights, they need to be set straight and it’s YOUR job to do it. If people are justifying their mistreatment of someone on the basis that they don’t deserve the same rights and respect as others, those people are abusive assholes and you should make note, NOT hand your power over to said abusive assholes in the hopes of earning your rights “back.”

Many of the rights we claim for ourselves have reciprocal benefits. If I affirm my right to speak honestly and authentically, YOU receive the benefit of knowing where you stand with me, how to have successful interactions or relationship with me, and how to love me better if you’re in a relationship with me. That’s win-win, and win-win resolution is the goal in all adult conflicts. Huzzah! Only childish, immature people aim for “win” in a win-lose scenario. Yuck. Ptooey. Dominating others feels like self loathing.

Here are some of the rights I reserve for myself.

I am equal in dignity to any other person. No more, no less.

I am the expert in my own experience and inner life.

I have the right to protest mistreatment and boundary violations.

I have a right to grieve my losses.

I have the right to laugh, have fun, and enjoy my life.

I have the right to ask for what I need.

I have the right to change my mind.

I am not available for ambiguous, indirect, or passive aggressive communication, and will not labor to interpret anyone’s hints, manipulations, or silence.

I have the right to experience and express all of my feelings.

I have the right to process and forgive in my own time and in my own way.

I have the right to choose my associates and with whom I share intimate information.

I have a right to privacy.

I have the right not to be responsible for other people’s behaviors, choices, or feelings.

I have a right to hold myself and others accountable.

I have a right to make my own mistakes and deal with them in an adult manner.

I have the right to say no.

I have a right to bodily autonomy and integrity.

I have a right to grow and and be healthier than those around me.

I have a right to basic courtesy.

I have a right to be my unique and authentic self.

I have the right not to explain or justify my choices, my self, or my behavior.

I have the right to tell and be told the truth.

If I am accused of wrongdoing, I have the right to confront my accuser.

If I am wronged, I have the right to confront and accuse.

I have value.

What’s on your personal bill of rights?

Some favorite self help books

We all have inner resources. One of mine is book-learning. I gobble up “how to” type information. Some of them are just all right, but there are a number of books that have really helped me understand the nuts and bolts and all of the moving parts of the issues I’m dealing with. Those issues, it turns out, are pretty universal, so I thought I’d recommend some of my favorites.

Codependent No More, by Melodie Beatty. This is a modern self-help classic, and although it reads a little bit dated, I would say it’s an important book to read if you’re going to delve into personal growth. Codependency is a very common “disease” in our culture, and most people grow up in circumstances that foster it. It’s basically a malady of making yourself responsible for others’ feelings and making others responsible for your feelings. Changing codependent behavior is tricky, even after you’re fully aware of it, because it’s very deeply wired. But becoming aware is the first step. CNM will get you up to speed. (Warning: once your eyes are opened to what codependency is and how it is a barrier to love and intimacy, you may be really sad for a while.)

The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection, by Robert Karen. I read this book with tears in my eyes. All the way through. In tackling the topic of forgiveness, Karen addresses the theory of self and sources of our deepest pain. Because all relationships involve conflict, apology and forgiveness are the essence of intimacy, and the forgiving self is the self that guides us deeper into relationship when we are open to learning from conflicts between our needs and others. The book also tackles topics like healing and forgiving when reconciliation is not possible and times when forgiveness is not appropriate. I really appreciated the treatment of premature forgiveness, something we are often pressured to do in our culture. Karen explains how forgiving too quickly, before you have had time to experience and process your own feelings, can erode your sense of self and poison your relationships with simmering resentment. I very much enjoyed his use of examples from literature and movies. A fun and refreshing way to illustrate concepts compared to composite “case studies” you see in many self help books.

Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown. Brown researches the psychology of shame and has been very influential in her writing and TED talks. Everything she produces is basically awesome. She approaches shame from a scientific perspective, identifying the ways that shame keeps us from living to our full potential. If there’s one complaint I have about her work, it’s that in reading it, I felt vaguely ashamed of my shame. I think it’s the way she talks about “wholehearted people” comparing their experience to the rest of us schmucks who have to deal with shame from our childhood wounds. I know this is probably unintentional, but my takeaway from the book was that people who live with shame need to get over it and start being wholehearted. None of us can do that. Working with and letting go of shame is a process, and the more limited we are by shame, the more help we need from others. Each of us has a “wholehearted self” inside, so there’s no such thing as “wholehearted people” vs. “flawed” or “broken” people. Brown herself talks about extensive time spent in therapy. If you look at the book as a treatment of how your life can be better if you undertake a journey to heal your shame (which you did not inflict on yourself and is not your fault), it’s a really inspiring read.

The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, by Wendy Maltz. Speaking of shame…yep, here it is. The shamiest thing that roughly one third of women struggle with for their whole lives. This is probably THE book to read if you’re a survivor of rape or sexual abuse, especially in childhood. It lays out how those experiences affect you, the universal tendency to minimize (“my experience wasn’t really that bad, I’m totally fine”), and some of the symptoms and behaviors survivors use to cope, which you may believe are simple personality quirks. There is a roadmap and rough timeline for healing, exercises, and information for partners, who should most definitely also read the book.

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, by Judith Herman. This is just a really helpful and really complete treatment of trauma and how it affects the human psyche. Many of us have experienced trauma and not been aware of how affected we were by it, but unhealed trauma can shape–and warp–our lives. Unhealed trauma=shame, linking above to Brene Brown’s work. The problem then, is that most of us are prevented from letting go of the core beliefs causing our shame because we are unconsciously afraid of experiencing the emotions and loss encapsulated in that unhealed trauma. This is WHY letting go of shame is not as simple as deciding to “be wholehearted.”

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences, by Peter Levine. This is a completely fascinating treatment of trauma and PTSD. The book begins by talking about trauma and recovery in prey animals. They go limp when the predator captures and starts eating them. But if the same animal survives uneaten, it will come out of its frozen state with a release of energy and trembling, after which it trots off and gets on with life. The theory of PTSD in this book is that the disorder occurs in humans when we get “stuck” in that frozen state and are not able to release the energy. The author believes this happens because of our large, overly thinky cerebral cortex. The book describes somatic experiencing therapy, which I have not tried. But I have experienced in EMDR a very particular energy release when completing processing of a “unit” of trauma. It feels like rushing water throughout my whole body. It’s really fascinating. Another very good read if you have trauma in your background, even if you believe you’re unaffected by it.

Inner Bonding: Becoming a Loving Adult to Your Inner Child, by Margaret Paul. This is my current read. I picked it up because my therapist does a lot of inner child work. After umpteen sessions of me going, “You want me to what?” I thought I might as well read up on the theory. I’m not sure how accessible the material is if you haven’t had a therapist shoving it down your throat working with you on it. I think without therapy I might dismiss it all as useless woo woo mumbo jumbo. But please don’t. Learning to care for your inner child is incredibly powerful. Like magic, but it’s real science. It’s hard to explain. Many of us have tremendous inner pain (reference, above, trauma, sexual abuse, codependency) and it feels like nothing will help. Then you sit there and write out a dialogue in your journal or you have a conversation with a teddy bear, and incredible changes happen in your mind and your heart. Nondominant hand journaling is one of the most mindblowing exercises I have ever done. Try it try it.

Be well, my friends. Whatever journey you are on in life, keep walking.

State of the Cath, March 2015


I’m a little teapot


How am I doing? Great! Thanks for asking. I hate talking about myself at parties. If you ask me this question in person, all you’re likely to get is the “Great,” and then I will subtly and skillfully shift the conversation to you. But me and how I am doing is a topic of interest, and I thought spring equinox was a decent time for reflecting in my blog where I don’t mind blathering.

It’s been nearly ten years since my mother was diagnosed with cancer. That same month, April 2005, I lost my second pregnancy and my husband was laid off from his job. My lifestyle has pretty much been one crisis to the next ever since, bouncing from medical issues, to work and financial crisis, to loss and grief, to renovation adventure, finally culminating in a PTSD diagnosis in 2014. All of that can make you a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so the first thing I want to say is my current life is calm, and thank god because I really couldn’t take any more.

Working on my self has been the most rewarding and important thing I’ve ever done. I’ve blogged some of the lessons I’ve learned through therapy, obsessive review of the self help culture, and a great deal of personal reflection. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to take that journey. It really has been a privilege. At the end of the day, the only thing we have the power to change is ourselves, and yet most of us spend our whole lives tilting at those external windmills. Now that I’m no longer dancing to the tunes of others, so much space has opened up in front of me that I can fill with people and experiences that nurture me.

And it’s not so much that the music has stopped, although ordeals such as my mother’s cancer had to be allowed to run their course. It’s more about learning not to dance. About handing responsibility back to others, not in an uncaring “deal with your shit” way, but with real trust and faith that other people can overcome their own challenges, and that I will cheer them on and love them and support them from the sidelines. And that has created so much peace in my life.

My latest career adventure is broadcast journalism. If you hear my voice on your local public radio station sometime in the near future, you’re not hallucinating. Michigan Public Radio fans have probably already heard news spots written (but not voiced) by me. I completely love it. I came home from the first day at the station and declared, “That place is full of Catherineses! I have found my people!”

All phases of renovation of our house are now finished, including the final phase wherein you’ve gone way over budget and your credit is overextended and you’re house poor. We’ve pushed the decimals around and now have a beautifully expanded and renovated home and a budget we can survive on. That’s a huge relief. It also means we can finally “settle down” and have space for all of our stuff and all of our hobbies and decorate and relax and garden and such, instead of struggling with a cramped space made for a 1924 lifestyle.

My health is virtually perfect. I seem to have developed a new latex allergy, but since it’s not formally diagnosed yet, I’m going to write “allergic to underpants” on all of my medical forms from now on. I’m otherwise holding up remarkably well for a person of a certain age, and I never stop being amazed and grateful. Having experienced so much loss in the past ten years, I fully understand we can’t take one single day for granted.

My social anxiety is gone. Vanished. I never had severe, life-limiting social anxiety, but I did struggle with situations involving lots of new people like conventions. Going to Confusion was a breeze this year. I was simply not worried about other people. It was such a mellow experience, and it was great to be able to stay in the moment. I remain an introvert and a generally reserved person, but the hamster wheel of anxiety is not a part of my experience.

That also means I now have a zero drama social life. If I want to be social, I reach out to friends or accept an invitation. If I need downtime to recharge, I send regrets. All with zero angst. I feel very satisfied with my relationships and my options. I am grateful for the people I have, I feel connected, and I welcome new experience. I am not part of any ongoing real life telenovella.

I’m also spending a lot of time with myself. I’ve always required time alone to recharge, but I’ve been really getting to know me lately, and guess what? I’m cute, kind, creative, and a lot of fun. Five out of five stars. Would friend again.

My son is nearly sixteen and is a complete delight. I hear so many comments about how difficult teenagers are, and that simply has not been my experience. The worst part of having a teen is missing my baby and my little boy. But in exchange, I get someone with adult level conversation and humor skills who can handle heavy lifting, to boot. Glen is doing well in school and in life and in every way I am pleased with him.

Life isn’t perfect. I still have challenges, and goals and aspirations. I would like to be in an even better place a year from now. But I would hope that each and every one of us could say that. A funny thing about living a more authentic and vulnerable life is that you realize a lot of people who seem to have their shit together are, in fact, struggling just has hard. I hope that the coming years are kind to me, but, more than that, I hope we can all be kind to each other. None of us asked for the burdens we carry, but we all have to deal with them.


Crazy what is it even

I grew up with a mother who had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, so the concept of insanity has been a part of my life since forever. Even with such a clear and specific example, it’s hard to draw a line between what is sane and insane, what is “crazy” and what is “normal.” It always feels arbitrary, even when you’re dealing with someone who is actively psychotic. You feel pretty sure a person is crazy when they calmly inform you that they just saved you from a nasty smiting by God Himself. But it’s less clear when God Almighty uses the person as a vessel to demand a hamburger and a small coke, without too much ice. Because people get hungry, you know. And God knows that, and He cares. What’s crazy about that? The existence of God? God wanting someone to eat a hamburger? God giving messages to people about hamburgers? Having less ice in your coke? Suddenly we’re splitting hairs.

In my past perspective, I viewed reality as being a pretty stable consensus construct, and crazy people were partway or all the way outside of what the rest of us “normal” people would agree is reality. Sort of like so:



But that conception leaves out a lot. How do we really decide what is inside the circle and what is outside of it? Are gods’ requests for hamburgers crazy, or reasonable? I feel like a hamburger is a reasonable request. It’s not even like He wanted to Biggie Size it. Just a simple meal to meet human energy needs. God gets it.

And what about people like Galileo? Galileo was clearly all the way outside the big non-crazy circle by the standards of his time. But Galileo pretty much saved all of humanity from one of history’s greatest reality distortions.

I now view the sanity/insanity spectrum more like a shared projection, to which we all equally contribute, and which is co-created by each person’s individual point of view. Sort of like this:



So each of us, whether we have a DSM diagnosis, a unique experience, a unique identity, or a totally “normal” experience and identity in every way has our own independent and unique and equally valid view of reality. None of us is experiencing reality directly. We perceive through our five senses, then we process and construct a model. Each of the smaller circles is an individual reality simulation, and the greater simulation only exists through social connection and communication.

If you envision all of the circles as a sphere, then each smaller sphere casts its own light through a convex section of the sphere–a LENS. Each of us sees reality through our own LENS. The nature of that reality is related to the clarity and accuracy of our simulation. In turn, the clarity and the accuracy of that simulation is determined by our connection to self, and our ability to process what we receive through our senses.

When connection to self is murky, distorted, or broken, our lens will show us a murky, distorted, or broken image of the reality we share with others. As a result, our communication and connection with others will be murky, distorted, or broken.

The degree to which any person is “insane” is less about whether their objective facts are correct, and more about the battle they are waging inside and their ability to sense and connect with their own inner selves. When those functions degrade to a significant degree, the result is pain and suffering. My mother didn’t suffer because she experienced God speaking to her directly. She suffered because she had an abusive relationship with her God. If her experience of God had been loving and uplifting, she would have been an extremely happy and highly functional person.

No one is crazy. Everyone’s beliefs and behaviors make sense inside their own sphere. But some people are waging such an epic battle inside themselves that they can’t function.

No one is sane. Because we are not directly experiencing reality, but an estimation of it, we all have distortions. I have come to appreciate people with psychiatric diagnoses much more as I have grown older, because people who struggle with those diagnoses are forced to have that simple insight–”my perception of reality is distorted.”

It’s so damn refreshing, compared to people who in their smug “saneness” never, ever look inside themselves, examine their own perceptions, or–God forbid–actually ask other people what their thoughts and motivations are. Instead they impose their worldviews on others, and if necessary validate their distortions by invalidating others.

Not that I want people to suffer. It’s a huge burden to live with any kind of psychiatric diagnosis. But it would be a better shared world for us all if supposedly “normal” or “sane” people were able to engage in introspection, and sought to raise their own self awareness. Everyone’s lens could use a bit of polishing sometimes. And because ultimately the light we need to see each other and our shared world comes from within us. If we are disconnected from ourselves, we truly can’t see others.



Why your inner child needs a babysitter

The idea of an “inner child” has become very popular, and most people interpret it as an encouragement to engage in playful activities. There’s nothing wrong with that. Play is an important part of a happy adult life. But that limited use of the inner child concept pretty much misses the point, too. Serious inner child work is about addressing self parts that for one reason or another didn’t get the nurturing they needed in childhood. The reason could be anything from trauma to bad parenting, but what happens is that as children we split off those unmet needs and they sort of “freeze” into a sub-self that remains at the stage of development where the trauma or failure of care happened.

When we grow up, we learn to suppress those childish needs, but at times of stress, the inner child takes charge, like a toddler climbing over the seats of a moving car and taking the wheel. When we are children, not getting our needs met is a life or death crisis. Children are not able to meet their own survival needs, so rejection, abandonment, or mistreatment by adults triggers a life or death crisis response, including some very strong emotions. When our adult self is reminded of that crisis, a child self may respond with life-or-death level emotion.

What results are some very childish behaviors, like:

Refusing to apologize
Refusing to accept an apology
Hitting, pushing, biting
Not taking responsibility
Not using your words
Running away, freezing up
Not asking for what you need
Not wanting to go to bed
Black and white thinking (“good” and “bad” people; “right” and “wrong”)
Grudges and resentment
Excuses and justification
Not taking responsibility
Emotional overreaction
Demand, threats and controlling behavior
Sulking and pouting
Trusting too easily or not trusting at all (sometimes at the same time)
Not being able to say no
Pandering, trying to please
Not doing chores
Neglecting self physically
Seeking allies in a conflict
Gossip and backstabbing
Failure of empathy
Overindulgence (cookies, TV, video games, alcohol, recreational drugs, etc.)
Etc., etc.

If you’re thinking that most adults have some of these behaviors, you’re exactly right. Now that I know what to look for, well-adjusted, continuously-centered adults stick out like a sore thumb. They radiate calm assertiveness like a heavenly light. But they are few and far between. Most people I know get “little” sometimes. (And that’s ok. We’re all human.)

For some people, especially those with a specific childhood trauma or set of traumas, the psyche can temporarily fully regress, in a truly amazing and rather spooky display of human adaptability. Whether or not you have had a trauma, if you feel your emotions spinning out of control, and you have some of the behaviors above, try asking yourself how old you feel. You may surprise yourself with a very specific answer. Like I said, it’s spooky.

Most of us have learned to deal with our inner child through shaming and punishment. When the inner child starts taking charge, we punish her with harsh words and rejection. We shame her for behaviors she can’t control.

Would you treat a real child that way? Well, possibly, because our culture tends to support shaming and invalidation of children. But we do have another model. I’m sure even if you had parents who shamed and invalidated you, that you saw or knew of parents that would comfort, console, and reassure children who were having an emotional experience, and would meet their needs while setting limits with love. If you had parents who didn’t know how to do this (even though they may have done their best), it’s time to do it for yourself, which starts with acceptance and putting your adult self in charge. It’s not easy! Many of us operate from our inner child perspective, and then try to extrapolate what a centered, adult behavior would look like. From this, we derive a set of “rules” and then we force ourselves (and maybe others) to follow them.

One example would be “always apologize when you have done something wrong.” So if you have an inner child part that is a pleaser, she may apologize very quickly and preemptively in any conflict in order to get her needs met, without taking steps to protect herself or assess whether she was really at fault or is possibly appeasing someone who isn’t really treating her that well. The adult self, if in charge, would know when to set a boundary and would be able to acknowledge her own feelings in the conflict and take care of herself emotionally, only apologizing–if appropriate–after she had processed those feelings and taken time to consider all sides of the situation.

Likewise, some people are aware that their inner child rages when they don’t get their way, and they know that tantrums are unacceptable in adults. So they shame the child, suppress the rage and angry behavior, and do whatever seems “nice,” “mature,” or “generous.” Except the awful result is passive aggression, which fools exactly nobody. Just because you write a “nice” anonymous note about how to wash the dishes in the office breakroom doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know how pissed you are about “having” to wash everyone else’s dishes. A person with their adult self in charge would either ignore the unwashed office dishes or attempt to talk directly with the culprit.

Adult behavior extrapolated by children can look and feel pretty uncomfortable.

The solution is not to punish and shame your inner child, but to embrace and care for her, and, yes, set limits for her. If you don’t know how to do it, it starts by acknowledging that you/your child have needs. Everything follows from there. For me, I really struggled until I was able to connect it with how I take care of others. I am very good at taking care of other people, including children, so I had to start very deliberately externalizing my inner child needs, thinking about how I would meet those needs, and then bringing it all back in. Voila! Adult Cat is back at the wheel. Kid Cat is strapped into her car seat with a sippy cup and a stuffed animal. (Actually, it’s a minivan with stairstep children between 3 and 6, plus a couple of surly adolescents.)

When you start doing inner child work, things can get a little crazy. If you’ve ever been a parent or cared for children, you know what happens when you realize behavior has gotten out of hand and you need to set limits. Tantrums! Protests! So many feelings! If you stick it out, things get better fast. Inner children, like all children, respond well to limits, and you can then enjoy the childish wonder and enthusiasm that is their birthright.

When tended properly, our inner children can indeed enrich our lives and feed our creativity and happiness in the way that popular culture tells us. But we can’t play until we have done our work and had our needs met.

Narcissism and the Working Writer

I had a conversation with a friend who wanted to bounce a self promotional communication off me. He wondered if it came across as too arrogant and self serving. It was a good, solid piece of writing, and it didn’t seem arrogant to me at all. I tried to stretch a bit to imagine if from a different perspective it might seem that way, and I realized something. I’ve seen a lot of grossly narcissistic behavior in the industry since my introduction to it in 1997, and some of it has disgusted me, but I’ve never seen it harm anyone’s career–at least not the positive, self-promotional behaviors. Amanda Palmer is a good example of an artist prone to over-the-top self promotional stunts, and it seems to work really well for her.

Real narcissism–the clinical kind–is diabolically effective for its “sufferers.” It creates a bulletproof shell for the overinflated ego that makes life very comfortable for them. (Not so much their partners and children.) People are attracted to the grandiosity of the narcissist and his egotistical behaviors. It looks like confidence, and confidence makes other people feel good about themselves when they can align with it. Narcissists are generally very popular, endearing people, and their self-aggrandizing antics are tolerated and often admired.

As a writer, I’ve always subscribed to the puritan work ethic–work hard, don’t grasp for attention, and your effort will eventually be recognized. This was a mistake. There’s no meritocracy in any entertainment-based career. Self-promotion isn’t always effective, but humbleness will get you nowhere. Waiting for others to notice you and give you your “big break” is taking a backseat in your own road trip to success.

Increasing your narcissism could be good for your emotional health, too. There is such a thing as a healthy level of narcissism and if you don’t have it, you may not be taking care of yourself well enough in your personal life, either.

I’m not advocating that we adopt the negative behaviors of narcissism–the callousness, interpersonal exploitation, entitlement, rage, dishonesty, compulsive infidelity, etc. But no one is going to “come down” with the actual clinical disorder by giving themselves permission to toot their own horn. Just believe me, honestly, every time I thought someone’s self-promotion activity was “too much” and it was going to cost them friends or hurt their career, I’ve been wrong. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be ignored, and that leaves you right where you started.

Now, don’t be stupid about it. Don’t fill your cover letters for short story submissions with crazy talk about your greatness and why the editor should buy your story. That’s not self promotion. That’s just being ignorant about how to write a good cover letter. Don’t accost editors at conventions and force them to listen to your novel pitch or shove manuscripts into their hands. That’s rude and kind of scary. But of all the things you might get judged for in the publishing industry, having too much ego is the least of your concerns.

My friend went ahead with his slightly narcissistic communication, and I got a text a short while later indicating success. Narcissism: go for it!

We’re not writing for our haters

As writers, authenticity is our currency. I’ve made an effort in my blogging this past month or two to stretch harder for authenticity, to challenge myself more, to dig deeper. A problem I have is worrying too much about image management. What other people think of me vs. what I think of me and what I want to say. And when I’m caught in that loop, authenticity suffers. For me, that results in preachy, didactic, disconnected writing that doesn’t have the resonance of real truth.

When I worry about what others think, I inevitably focus on the extremely small number of people who have poured poison in my ears, rather than the legion of friends, editors, and readers who have responded positively. I don’t want to give the haters more material. I want to prove to them how wrong they are. I want to SHOW THEM. But writing for the haters is like signing up for failure. If someone thinks a wrong thing about me, there’s really nothing I can do or say to prove to them that they are wrong. They’ve already decided. And if they change their mind, it will be their choice. We can debate our political beliefs. We can debate historical events. We can debate science. But who I am as a person is not open to fucking debate. And trying to prove my worth to someone who has already devalued me is like trying to teach algebra to an emu.

The only reason I would even worry about my detractors’ opinions is if they had hooked into my own self criticism. And so my quest is not to shut up my detractors, but to shut up my inner critic, so that it doesn’t take random uninformed asshat opinions and use them to disrupt the work of me being me.

Seeking validation by changing the minds of haters is a roundabout and largely ineffective way of dealing with your own inner critic.

When I’m writing anything–a blog post, a piece of fiction, a tweet–when I find myself straying from authenticity or digging defensive trenches, I have to remember that I’m not writing for the haters. If people are hate-following or hate-reading me, that’s actually kind of flattering. That’s attention, and people give attention to what’s important to them. So if someone wants to feed a grudge or resentment, or gather material to reinforce a wrong-ass belief about me, then more power to them. It’s a crapton more attention than I give them.

Writers agonize a lot about criticism. The thing about any criticism is that it’s first and foremost a confession. People will reveal their deepest insecurities in a piece of criticism or attack. If you can separate yourself from it, you can watch the fireworks and not worry that much about it. Try turning the criticism around. If your detractor calls you a dirty whore, then think about what that says about his/her sexual values. That sounds like an insult that comes from a place of hating women, doesn’t it? That person has a problem with women, and if it comes from a woman, she has a problem with herself. It also sounds like she’s kind of jealous, too, doesn’t it? The only reason an insult like “dirty whore” could hit home is if you were afraid of it being true. Is there even any such thing? Does *anyone* deserve to be called such a thing? Really deconstruct that shit. It’s full of gold. Where “gold” means “taking power away from your critic.”

What if someone lobs a criticism grenade at you that doesn’t make sense? Do you work hard to make it fit? To try to see in yourself what it is that “made” them come up with that? Senseless criticisms can show you a lot about the twisted logic inside someone else’s head. When someone tells you how you should have behaved, responded, felt, or believed and it doesn’t make sense, don’t question yourself. That’s just a close up view of the tools they use to flog themselves. There can sometimes be valuable feedback in a critical attack, even a meanspirited attack. But you have to be RATIONAL about evaluating it. If it doesn’t fit, it’s worthless, and all it tells you is that the person is mean. If it does fit, there’s a nugget of value, but it still tells you the person is mean. So you have information either way.

No one can tell you who you are, how to be, what to believe, or how to feel.

Who I am is not up for review. There will be no referendum on how I manage my life, my career, or my heart. I choose to write for people who support me and are interested in hearing my authentic voice, not those who want to shut it down, or use my truth as a weapon in their own inner battles. If people don’t like what I have to say, let them get their own blog, write their own story or article. I am not required to represent every voice in my work. I speak only for myself.

And this is the art of giving no fucks.

I’m in the alternate universe this time

My father had a heart attack Friday. He came through it with flying colors. In the world of heart attacks, it was the best possible outcome. But there was a day or so where we weren’t sure what the outcome would be. What a day.

When you lose a parent, the whole world changes, especially if it’s a parent who has been in your life since birth (or before). They day they are gone is the first day of a whole new world–a world without that person. I lost my mother three years ago, so when I heard my father was at the hospital with a possible heart attack, my emotional response was “Nope.” I’d actually been working with my therapist on some better tools for dealing with big stresses and emotions, and for the first couple of days was having a lot of success. But when this happened, I leapt frantically back into my dysfunctional patterns. I avoided. I spent two hours driving around town looking for a specific yarn. I refused to make any telephone calls. I refused to think about it. I refused to talk about it. I did not stay with my feelings. By the time I got home Saturday after my Dad’s procedure, my lower back had spasmed up so hard I couldn’t even bend over. That’s never happened to me before, but it’s a wake up call for me about what I face in my own life and with my own health when I deny those hard feelings.

Meanwhile, I have spent the subsequent days in a relief hangover. The vision I had–only briefly because I couldn’t allow myself to think of it–of burying my father and entering that new world where he doesn’t exist anymore, did not come to pass. And so I find myself living in the alternate universe that we so often wish for desperately when the terrible thing has indeed happened. For example, in some other universe, whatever DNA mistake triggered my mother’s cancer in 2005 would never have happened, so in that universe she’s still alive.

In some other universe, maybe my Dad didn’t take an aspirin or get to the hospital quickly enough, and the me in that other universe is hurting a lot harder. Meanwhile, I get to live in this one. It’s hard to say how rare or lucky it was that I got to be on this timeline, but I won’t be taking it for granted.

When my Dad came out of his heart cath procedure, he told me he wanted me to write more stories. That he’d been looking opening his subscription copy of Analog every month looking for my name. That’s something he maybe doesn’t get to say to me in that Darkest Timeline. So I’m going to go with yes. I’m going to go with gratitude. I’m going to let myself feel with my heart what had to be taken on by my back muscles Saturday. Time to write.