Learning from illness

This weekend I got sick. Like really, really, really, REALLY sick. I can’t remember the last time I was this sick. I got little sympathy from my family because I’ve sailed through many household bouts of ick without so much as a sniffle. It was my turn. And what a turn it was! An excruciating sore throat that made every swallow a torture. A nagging cough that wouldn’t let me sleep. Generalized fatigue and misery just kicking my butt all over the place. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to get comfortable, as one often can with a cold. It was just torture.

After three days, I called my doctor, and she told me it was a viral thing, and to suck on cough drops and wait for it to go away.

The ick finally has let up a bit, enough for me to get to that place of still-sick-but-comfortable through combination of stretchy pants, cough drops, kitty cuddles, soup, and so forth. Comfortable enough to not feel taxed by surfing the web or watching TV. And now that I’m here, I realized I learned something.

See, during the worst of the misery, I tried as best I could to find a combination of home remedies that would speed up my healing, and get me to the place where I could ignore or power through my symptoms. I was not successful. It wasn’t until I wondered if it might help to write in my journal that I saw what I was doing.

I see illness and weakness in myself as something to fix. I am not ok just being with myself in pain or misery. I can’t let it happen, and trust in the process. I have to make it better. And some part of me recognized the parallel between having a virus and the many emotional episodes I’ve ridden out in the past year or so.

Just as the intense pain in my throat was actually a normal and healthy immune response, so, too, the intermittent pain in my psyche has been a normal and healthy processing of extremely intense experiences. Unpleasant, sure, but not something to be stopped. Not a sign that I had failed or regressed. Just little psychic immune cells attacking and digesting old pain that had waited a very long time to be released.

There were some intense times, ya’ll. Super intense. And I did learn better coping skills. And I did feel better as a result, often right away. But, at least on a conscious level, I missed something. I missed learning how to really be with myself in pain. And obviously, some part of me made that connection with the whole journaling idea. (In my defense, I was feverish, and hallucinating a little.) (Some day I’ll blog about hypnagogic hallucination and lucid dreaming.)

I think this is something my therapist has been trying to tell me for a long time, whenever I ran up against my own impatience and my determination to eliminate all symptoms through force of will. I can be very determined, very persistent, and I’ve approached my recovery like a personal Manhattan project.

But looking back, I can see how spending a few days shooting the rapids of an intense emotional release is a lot like riding out a really bad cold. Achievement unlocked!

Making a better world

I’ve been reading The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren, and even though I’m only part way through, the book is lighting up my brain. There’s so much wisdom packed into a small space, and it’s a huge synthesis of everything I’ve been working on and learning about myself lately. The book is basically a training manual for empaths. The skills it teaches and describes apply to all people, but it is most accessible if you are an empath-type personality, or someone who is highly sensitive, because you already have access to the emotional resources to do the exercises and understand the concepts in the book. If a person is extensively cut off emotionally, I’m afraid it will read sort of like a quantum physics book for someone who never got past eighth grade algebra, and a different starting point is needed. But for people who are aware of their emotions, or have emotional challenges at a conscious level, it is an amazing resource.

The aspect I find most inspiring, and also most frustrating, about the book is her discussion of the role of trauma in society. Since I’ve been doing intensive trauma therapy, my eyes have really opened to the way that trauma shapes personality and behavior, and, through individual behavior, our whole society. We are so collectively blind to the ways that we accommodate trauma and allow it to disrupt relationships. In fact, we view as normal a great deal of trauma-driven, disordered interactions.

McLaren’s background is that she came from a relatively healthy family, but was traumatized through stranger sexual abuse between age 3 and 5. Like every traumatized child, the abuse disrupted her development and her sense of self. She became hypervigilant, and therefore highly sensitive to the emotions of everyone around her. This is very common, and not unlike my own experience. I had a fairly normal nurturing environment until I was 3, then my mother had  major psychotic break and I experienced abandonment and neglect between the ages of 3 and 5. I, too, became hypervigilant and hyperempathic.

But we are not unusual. McLaren says about 50% of people in our society are affected by unhealed trauma, and that people deal with it in one of two main ways. The first way is directing the pain inward, which causes PTSD, and the second way is directing the trauma outward, which inflicts the trauma on others, sometimes criminally.

In my own personal growth work, I’ve been interested in what the endpoint looks like. How does a healed, whole, functional person behave and conduct their life? I’ve found lots of answers and have a pretty comprehensive picture at this point, but the best summary I’ve found is, “When you are at peace with yourself, you are at peace with everyone else.” People with unhealed trauma endlessly re-enact their traumas until they are resolved. Unfortunately, the ways that they choose to re-enact rarely lead to healing and resolution. This is played out in much of the suffering we see in our every day lives. Every time you see someone in conflict with anyone or anything, that conflict is mirroring an internal conflict in the self. This is so hard to see and teach because we are so accustomed to victimhood–and with good reason, because many of us have been victims.

McLaren points to a culture of emotional repression as the reason that we have so much trouble healing from trauma–because trauma, in itself, is natural. We are not allowed our feelings, and without acceptance of feelings, we can’t release the energy of trauma. We carry it with us.

I’ve found a significant path to healing through therapy, and I encourage others to try therapy when I can. Advising people individually to try therapy, however, feels like an ineffective way to heal the culture at large, and that’s something I worry about a lot, because each generation of unhealed traumatized people visits more trauma on the next generation. And although indigenous non-western cultures have in the past provided models for effective *cultural* healing of trauma, colonialism and genocide have visited unhealed trauma on those people, too, making our western emotional repression into a universal problem.

Therapy can be effective, but there are a couple of problems with therapy. The biggest problem is that people simply refuse to use it. Therapy doesn’t work unless the individual is highly motivated. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who have shared their struggles with me, and who I have advised to try therapy, and who have told me they are all for it and fully intend to take my advice, and then simply don’t. Many reasons are offered, but it’s all one. People resist therapy. Until some spark or change occurs that makes them truly want to change and heal, a person will not seek therapy.

Another problem is that not all therapy is equal. The most popular therapy modality is cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s nothing wrong with it. CBT is about changing distorted patterns of thinking and belief that lead to dysfunctional behavior, and it’s good for that, but it does not usually address early trauma that is at the core of those beliefs. A person undergoing CBT will be managing symptoms, but not healing. Another problem is that not all therapists are equal. Many people are driven to the helping professions out of their own woundedness. There’s an axiom that you can not heal beyond the level of functioning of your therapist. And when you are significantly wounded yourself, it is very hard to assess the woundedness of your caregiver. Lastly, therapy is a medicalization of a problem that spans not only mental health but spirituality, physical health, and relationships. Many people are not drawn to a medical solution as they rightly sense their trauma has disrupted these other aspects of themselves.

I’m convinced that the origin of the widespread emotional repression that prevents natural healing of trauma is inequality. When humans began setting up hierarchies with the dawn of agriculture, they forced some people to sacrifice themselves–self care, self respect, dignity, etc.–to benefit others. Women. Slaves. Children. Humans living in hunter gather groups tend to be non-hierarchical and egalitarian. But once agriculture is introduced, social hierarchies are created, and when hierarchy exists–when people are unequal–emotions can not be allowed, because the core emotion created by inequality is anger, and anger can not be expressed by those who are “less than.” It would disrupt and destabilize the hierarchy. Even people at the top of the hierarchy are affected, because they are inculcated with a kind of narcissism–either narcissistic parts or actual clinical narcissism. Believing that one is superior disconnects a person from their core self. So even the people that “benefit” from a hierarchical system are suffering from disconnection.

The solution is social justice and restoring our birthright of equality–perfect and total equality. The problem is that the people who must protest and reclaim their power are the same people carrying unhealed trauma–by definition. As long as they are in victim mode, their protests actually hand power to their oppressors. All the time, I see valuable social justice work undermined by traumatized advocates who don’t know how to assert their rights without at the same time asking for acceptance and validation in return. And making their own power and equality contingent on the acquiescence and behavior change of their adversaries, they give power to those others. I see too much explaining, too much undirected emotion, too much hurt, too much backpedaling and placating, and not nearly enough boundary setting and refusal to accept–or argue with–bullshit.

I want to know how we can combine healing with our social justice movements for stronger cultural change. I want to know how we can begin to create a culture that will motivate people to heal not only by providing resources in a medical context–difficult to access with many barriers–but in a social, cultural, physical, and spiritual context. I want to know how we can help people with unhealed trauma move more effectively toward healing. How we can make it the obvious and inevitable choice, rather than fueling their battles against their boss, landlord, ex-wife, mother-in-law, or other irrelevant villains. I want to know how we can hold people accountable without compounding their trauma, without sending them to prison to be victimized and made into better criminals, without forcing court-ordered psychotherapy (which is a pointless waste of time). Can prison become a place where people are forced to confront their own wounds and CHOOSE healing, rather than a storage facility for broken people?

In a culture that is increasingly narcissistic with each generation, I want to know how we can cure narcissism, which has NO clinical cure. How can we heal the disorder which refuses to admit that it is less than perfect, much less actually sick? How can we heal an entire culture infected with such a sickness?

These are answers for which I have no questions. I am probably underestimating the benefits of each of us working on ourselves, on creating our own bubble of peace and stability, and being an authentic, grounded presence for the frightened and disordered people around us. We all know that one truly connected person can have profound effects on others. And yet we live in a society that continues to be unequal, and as long as we allow that to continue, children will also continue to have their birthright of authentic selfhood stolen from them, because they happen to be unfortunate enough not to be white males. They will continue to face the dice roll of circumstance, hoping to be lucky enough to escape childhood without a massive wound in a world where their ability to heal through free-flowing emotional release is disallowed and shamed.

I don’t have comments enabled on my main blog. (The mirror on livejournal still has comment capability.) But if you have answers, or the same questions, you’re welcome to share by email. I’m cathshaffer at gmail dot com.

On the doing of things

I’ve always envied people who clean frenetically when they are stressed or anxious. It seems like if you have to have an emotional episode, you should at least have clean floors afterward. That’s rarely how it works, though, and my failure mode is inertia and immobility. Hibernation. Retreat. Incubation.

I think of this because I suddenly noticed how busy and productive my life has become. I remember some time last fall, going over to my sister’s house and watching her prepare a simple meal. Something like baked chicken with two sides. And she did it with such ease and aplomb, cleaning as she went. I marveled because I could remember having energy and ambition to do things like cooking a meal, but at that time every individual thing cost me so much, I felt exhausted just thinking about it. I could handle one, maybe two things a day, and it would require a great deal of time both in mental preparation and recovery. My typical day started with one or two hours lying in bed in the dark of the early morning fearing and dreading my day. It ended when I decided I had stayed awake long enough and it was finally time to sink back into sweet oblivion for a while.

And now, I realize that cooking a meal is no problem. That my days are full of things. Yesterday, I started my day of things at 8 AM with a yoga class. Then caught up on a bit of email and facebooking, lunch and pedicures with a friend, writing and submitting a 400 word article, then dinner and a movie with my sisters, which included a two-hour round trip. I got home at 11:30, threw some laundry in the machine, and got up again at 6:30 to fold it before heading out to the day job. No dread, no oblivion. No exhaustion. I use up my energy and more is there when I reach for it.

That’s typical of all of my days, lately. Slates full of chores, errands, hostessing, playing, working, dancing, yoga, etc., etc. Spontaneous 3 mile walk? Sure, why not? Surgical strike on grocery store and pharmacy in between teen chauffeuring stops? Icandooeet! And this from a person who once wondered how anyone managed to bake chicken and steam broccoli simultaneously. I’m like a thing-doing fiend. I think I may actually be more energetic and more productive than before “all of this”–however one defines that.

I’m glad, and also surprised. I didn’t get here by accident. I have worked hard. Nearly a year ago, I asked my doctor about meds for managing mounting anxiety. I never got around to getting and filling a prescription. Meds weren’t the right choice for me, although they are absolutely the right choice for many. I’m glad I took the time to find the right solutions for myself. It’s good to know the process works. It’s good to know things happen if you let them. It’s good to know the world keeps turning and the sun comes up again. I still am not writing much fiction. For that I need for periods of stillness and boredom to open up in my headspace. We’re not quite there yet. Soon.

Feelings woah oh woah feelings

Most everyone in our society is doing feelings wrong. The result is a pervasive sense of isolation, alienation, and general dysfunction. We are a bunch of emotionally dysfunctional people bumping into each other, having bad emotional experiences largely created by our subconscious minds, and then suffering the consequences and limitations thereof.

A lot of people have a basic misunderstanding of what emotions are. That has definitely been true for me most of my life.

There is a life cycle to every emotion. Emotions are generated in the brain, and manifest as bodily experiences. Different people have different ways of experiencing emotion, although there are some common broad patterns. Fear might make your chest tighten up, or your throat hurt. If you’re angry, your face might flush and your head pound. I get a peculiar and very specific unpleasant tingle at the base of my spine when I encounter something horrifying.

Once we have a bodily experience of an emotion, our brain recognizes it, names it, expresses it, and, possibly, does something about it. For example, if someone steps on my toe, I experience anger in my body. My brain identifies anger. I acknowledge that I’m angry. Then I say, “Hey, you stepped on my toe! Be more careful next time!” And then it’s done. Gone. Properly felt and expressed emotions dissipate. Forever. If the circuit is complete, I have no residual anger or ongoing resentment of the toe stepper. It’s over.

Fear, sadness, happiness, all of them work this way. The emotion is not released until the circuit is complete. The entire life cycle of an authentic, in-the-present emotion is measured in minutes or seconds. I had a therapist tell me that anger lasts an average of 17 seconds. This assumes we are able to functionally experience and express it.

In our world, emotional expression is generally not acceptable, for various reasons. Some of it is cultural. Values of stoicism, for example, stigmatize people who are having emotional experiences. As well, repression becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon when people experience loss or trauma, and are not allowed to express it. Their repressed emotions are fragile, frightening, and potentially explosive, so they now have a vested interest in repressing other people’s feelings.

It can be a deeply alienating experience when your own personal container ruptures, feelings start emerging whether you want them to or not, and the people around you avoid or attack you because your newly released feelings are reminding them of their own contained-but-radioactive feelings.

And the thing about this is that it all happens outside your awareness. As a person with large, delicately contained emotions of my own, I have always been triggered by “needy” or highly emotional people. And I have most likely been a bit unkind by avoiding or stigmatizing those people. It all happened below the radar. I was not aware I was avoiding. I felt vaguely sorry for the person and also annoyed or even angry with them because they were not “handling” their feelings. The truth was that if I were able to “handle” my own, I would not be able to be triggered by theirs. When someone else’s deep feelings trigger a strong reaction in us, it is really not about *that person.* It’s about whatever *that person* reminded us of in our own experience.

Now that I am aware…it still happens. Needy, emotional people push my buttons like whoa. And I now know exactly why and how. I am able to identify my triggered reaction, say, “Ok, I see you, but this has nothing to do with the present situation,” and save it for later. Sometimes, I still need space from the person having their emotional experience, because my need for self care becomes primary over their need for comfort. But I’m able to do that without, I hope, reinforcing society’s stigma against their feelings.

There are a lot of ways that people cut off the cycle of emotional expression, mostly based on how they were treated by their caregivers in childhood. Abandoned and neglected children abandon and neglect themselves (and others). Abused children abuse themselves (and others). Etc. Etc.

Some people are feelings stompers. When you express a feeling, they will immediately start telling you why you shouldn’t be having the feeling, sometimes subtly, sometimes very aggressively. There are emotions that are unpleasant to have, but there are no “bad” or “wrong” emotions. If someone tells you you shouldn’t be having a feeling, it doesn’t mean you can’t have it or it isn’t real. It usually just means that a) you are reminding them of something in their own Schroedinger’s box of contained feelings or b) your feelings look out-of-sync to the situation as they understand it, which doesn’t mean your feelings are invalid, just they they are not on the same page. If you identify someone as a feelings stomper, stop sharing your feelings with them. They don’t get it. Also don’t be surprised when they erupt in rage or tears and expect you to validate them. That goes with being a feelings stomper.

Some people are cut off from feelings almost entirely. They learn to interrupt the cycle and do not experience or recognize feelings at all. They “live in their heads” and whatever bodily sensations are created by emotions are not acknowledged. They simply don’t notice it. They are numb. Numb people don’t understand their own emotions, and therefore are not able to understand other people’s emotions, except in a vague, intellectual way. They confuse thoughts with feelings. Numb people lack empathy, but ironically can sound very self aware and sensitive because of the lack of affect in their voices and expressions. They project an image of someone who has mastered and processed feelings, when in reality, they aren’t even having feelings. Numbness can cause feelings to get “stuck” in the body. Sometimes, people who are cut off from their bodily emotional experience can end up having a lot of aches and pains and vague illness (or even specific illness). Numbing usually requires some kind of addiction to keep the brain from paying attention to feelings. It can be obvious, like alcoholism, or less obvious, like workaholism or relationship addiction. Most people engage in some numbing behavior, although a small percentage of people are completely numb. The cost of numbing is that pleasant, positive feelings like joy are also numbed.

People who are significantly numb can, sometimes, be untrustworthy. They tend to outsource their feelings functions to others, and you can end up pouring a lot of energy into them. If you encounter someone like that, it’s best to keep a safe distance and understand they can’t be “helped” or “saved” or “loved” into having a better connection with themselves. They can only change if they become aware and choose to do the work.

Some people get overwhelmed by unprocessed past feelings, and are so constantly triggered and exploding with those past emotions that they can’t feel anything in the present. Their authentic, in-the-moment emotions are stifled and submerged under the weight of immense trauma that never goes away no matter how often it comes up. The old feelings can’t dissipate, because they are not recognized for what they are. Instead, they’re projected outward, onto other people. The old emotion becomes “road rage,” or is assigned to a “difficult” or “toxic” person, and the old anger/fear/grief whatever never has an outlet, can never be recognized and authentically felt and released because it is being perceived as an external battle.

If you have someone like this in your life, it can be very challenging. You need to have very healthy boundaries, and although they do need a lot of love, care, and compassion, you need to be clear on what you’re able to give and not go beyond that or you could end up very hurt.

Whatever strategy people use to avoid their feelings, the result is generally anxiety, depression, and low self worth. Repressed and contained feelings don’t sit peacefully in the psyche, or in the body. They also have a way of coming out sideways. If you’ve ever known someone who you know to be kind hearted, but somehow they come off as aggressive and mean in their tone or in “accidental” statements, that is feelings coming out sideways. Passive aggression is another common outlet for repressed feelings.

People with repressed feelings (most of us) tend to have a lot of negative beliefs about themselves and the world, and those beliefs end up limiting them, damaging relationships, hindering career success, creating patterns of “why does this stuff always happen to me?”

Basically, whatever you stuff down into your subconscious is going to totally run your life. There’s a high price to pay for not letting your feelings out. The very sad irony of it is that we can spend years or a lifetime running away from feelings that could be expressed and dissipated over a much shorter period of time. Sometimes minutes. The fear of feelings is much worse to endure than the actual feelings. And yet so many of us live our lives in that fear.

It’s not exactly easy to open up that container. Often you can’t. Your mind won’t let you. You have to start gently, and open it up one teeny crack at a time, then slam it shut again. Sometimes, you want to get in there and just can’t. Other times, you get triggered out of the blue and the container is wide open. It’s hard. This is what our culture has done to us. Most people are fighting this battle. If we recognize this, we can be kinder.

Neighborhood music fest

20150503_153803Something cool that happens close to my home each year is the Water Hill Music Festival. I seem to miss it every year for some reason, but this time I was able to have a quick look around. I don’t know how it started, but it consists of musicians performing on their own front porches, driveways, yards, etc. Thousands of people attend, and it is a very cute and earnest festival. There are no vendors, no commercial presence of any kind. (Well, I did see a kid selling popsicles for 25 cents.) Just music. This is one of the reasons I like living in Ann Arbor.

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Conflict, forgiveness, reconciliation and its malcontents

Conflict drives fiction. If you have no conflict, you have no story. A story is all about how the hero resolves conflict–or fails to, repeatedly, until finally succeeding. Conflict also drives relationships. Relationships grow and deepen when partners encounter conflict, resolve it, learn from it, and progress to new levels of intimacy and trust. In fiction, all too often conflict is resolved through conquest. The Good Guy is Victorious, the Bad Guy is Defeated. This is the kind of conflict resolution most of us have been conditioned to crave.

Although in life there are conflict situations in which there is a clear Good Guy and Bad Guy and in which it is literally necessary to defeat the Bad Guy to restore justice, most of those conflicts are covered by our legal system, because through millennia of human history, we have recognized a need to protect victims and punish perpetrators. Often our interpersonal conflicts are also played out as victim/perpetrator situations, and guess what? Everybody is the victim.

Like relationships, I think fiction can be better when we don’t look at conflict in light of good and bad, victim and perpetrator, but as two human beings, or two parties, who have created a damaging situation. Unfortunately, in real life, relationships become broken, stuck, or completely disintegrated when one or both parties refuse to step out of the victim role and look at how they have contributed to a conflict, or what they can do to resolve it. The roots of this behavior are in woundedness and shame, but the behavior is so pervasive we see it as normal. “Did you hear Aunt Gertrude forget Aunt Bessie’s birthday, and now Aunt Bessie is Not Speaking to her? Ah, family drama. What can you do? By the way, I can’t believe that Suzy asked me to help out at the school bake sale again. Doesn’t she know we’re not friends anymore?”

It’s so much easier to see the splinter in someone else’s eye than the log in your own, as the bible says. Unfortunately, too often the remedy we jump to in correcting the pervasive culture of blame and unaccountability is a rush to forgiveness, and even pressure on ourselves and others to “forgive” people who are…actually…not sorry for what they’ve done. The guilt and shame of being an “unforgiving person,” then piles on top of the existing hurt, getting in the way of healing.

This article about apology and forgiveness, “Forgiveness and Pseudo-forgiveness,” is a great explanation of what is wrong with pop culture concepts of forgiveness, and how it really works.

Forgiveness occurs when the guilty party takes responsibility for their own behavior, recognizes the harm it caused, and tries to make amends in some appropriate and proportionate way. Sometimes a person will offer a faux apology, in an effort to move past the uncomfortable part of a conflict, and it leaves the aggrieved party still feeling hurt, and trust is lost as the relationship moves forward.

Another thing can happen when the guilty party is unable to take responsibility for their part in a conflict. Sometimes the aggrieved party has to move forward without the relief that an apology would give. Some people are not able to ever see anything wrong with their own behavior. Others have huge blind spots. Too often I’ve seen an otherwise decent person hurt someone, and then double down on that hurt with toxic, metastatic blame in order to avoid admitting that they had behaved hurtfully. Sometimes a conflict arises from past traumas–well, actually, the worst conflicts are always driven by unprocessed trauma–and no one involved can see clearly enough to realize that no one is to blame, or that someone being cast as a villain is actually being victimized. Life is messy.

In those cases, the path to “forgiveness” involves fully grieving the losses and damages sustained, a grief that sometimes requires revisiting ungrieved losses from the past. I wish we didn’t call this “forgiveness,” because it gets mixed up with the kind of forgiveness where you can be friends/family/lovers once again. When all it really means is that you’ve accepted the loss and no longer hurt. Perhaps you could call it “letting go” or “acceptance,” but those things carry cultural baggage, too, as if they are states you can consciously decide to enter, rather than states achieved through allowing and expressing all of the emotions involved for as long as necessary. I have worked through this form of unilateral forgiveness, and it’s a huge relief, but at the end of it, I do not wish to have any relationship with the person who hurt me. That is something that would require some kind of effort on the part of the other person.

Often, in real forgiveness, the acts of apology and forgiving merge. When the guilty party says “I’m sorry,” the victim usually says “I’m sorry, too.” That’s because, as I said, most conflicts are co-created by the people involved in them. The guilt that drives one to apologize mirrors the hurt experienced by the victim. Forgiveness really is about empathizing with another person. Not overempathizing and sacrificing yourself to save face for someone else. Nor underempathizing and rationalizing or trivializing someone else’s pain. But really seeing someone for what they are feeling in that moment.

Apologizing–asking for forgiveness-requires the that you forgive yourself first, otherwise you wouldn’t feel worthy of forgiveness. You can’t get there until you take responsibility. You can’t take responsibility if you’re stuck on blame.

Likewise, letting go of a hurt, executing unilateral forgiveness, also requires forgiving yourself, and letting go of blame for whatever you think you did wrong that led to the harm, loss, and damage you’re experiencing. And also letting go of blame of the other person, a tall order, but possible when you get some perspective and understand that people don’t choose their brokenness and limitations. You can’t forgive yourself until you take responsibility for yourself–for care of yourself.

Both processes require self-forgiveness and self-responsibility. That can be pretty hard to achieve in a culture where Suzy is just an oblivious bake sale bitch and Zoltrothor must die for attempting to usurp the throne and take away all of the sunshine from the whole kingdom.

There’s so much fiction fodder in the real human experience of forgiveness and reconciliation. Fiction writers give that process short shrift when we portray it as a martial arts competition that results in a winner and a loser. It is a good example of what Faulkner described as the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which, he said, alone can make good writing.

EMDR realities

I’ve been in EMDR for 6-7 months now, and I’ve been processing ONE memory all this time. It would frighten me to add up the money I’ve spent shuffling this single memory into deep file storage in my brain. Because damn. But it’s worth it. Every penny. So many changes.

I had a very idealized, almost magical vision of EMDR when I began. I read the books, and I had expectations of doing EMDR for a couple of months, processing all of my shit, and being loooong done with therapy by now. Instead, it’s been a slow process. I have what they call complex trauma. It’s not like being an adult with a “normal” childhood who got in a car wreck. That can sometimes be processed in a single session. Complex trauma is like a million Russian nesting dolls. Or maybe a huge wound oozing puss. The kind that you think you drain, and then a few days later it oozes some more.

Nonetheless, there is progress. My life is basically normal, now. Stable. Peaceful. Sometimes I struggle, but I manage it. When I look back 6-8 months, I remember waking up every morning at 4 AM in a heart-pounding panic. Damn that was hard.

Here are some things I’ve learned about EMDR by actually doing it. I’m still learning.

1. There’s no “right” way to process. Trying to stick with a “goal” can make the whole thing stall. I spent a lot of sessions trying to think very hard about my target memory and ignoring where my brain was trying to actually take me.

2. Processing is excruciatingly conscious and deliberate. There’s nothing automagical about it. You take every slip of memory, manually insert it into a manila memory folder, walk it down 18 flights of stairs to Memory Permanent Storage, open the file drawer, stuff it in, and then climb 18 more flights to do it again. There are no shortcuts.

3. Stuff comes back up. Memories get processed down from, say, 10 to 3. Then you come back next session, and the damn thing is a 7 again. It’s all normal, she says. It’s all part of the process.

4. Trust is necessary. You have to develop a lot of trust in your therapist and in your self to process traumatic memories. Sometimes that means stopping to have “regular” therapy before you can move on.

5. Internal communication is necessary. Almost as if you were a multiple personality (and many people with childhood trauma are). I am not multiple, but each of us has “parts” and we need to be able to “talk” to the traumatized parts without necessarily putting them in charge.

6. Self care is necessary. So important. Some of trauma processing is the process of learning self care.

7. A lot of it is just crying. Crying at $150/hour. Quality crying.

8. It’s exhausting. I’ve had sessions where I went home and took a long nap, then crashed early for the night.

9. It’s messy. Present day stuff gets mixed up with childhood stuff. People in your life turn into your parents, your parents turn into dinosaurs, your body parts have feelings and you start talking to them, or for them. You have dark thoughts about the therapist. You think about quitting and then have a breakthrough. It’s like whoa.

10. Your subconscious works things out between sessions, which is both fascinating and tiresome. Like, “Are we doing this now? Because I thought I was just going to the bank, but now I’m naked and screaming at the manager. Ugh.”

11. It can take a very long time. Some people process for years. It’s still (supposedly) faster than traditional talk therapy. And it feels fast. Sometimes changes happen very quickly week on week in terms of symptoms or behaviors. Many, many times I’ve gone from needing an anxious/protective/coping behavior one week to totally forgetting about it the next.

12. Each traumatic memory can have layers of emotion, with additional layers of cognitions attached to them. For me, this is when numbers go back up. For example, I have worked hard and processed a whole bunch of fear out of the memory, and am down to a 2. I think I will be able to clear the memory next session, but when I arrive, it’s gone back up to a five and I’m working on anger. And so on and so forth.

My therapist said she is also learning more about EMDR from working with me. I forgot to ask her what she’s learned. I would very much like to know.

Imposter syndrome: stop feeling like a fake

Imposter syndrome is one of the most common afflictions of writers. Not new writers, but writers period. I haven’t yet met a writer who hasn’t struggled with it. Imposter syndrome is a persistent feeling that you’re not worthy of whatever success you are having or trying to have in your endeavors, and that you’re going to be found out. It can suck the energy completely out of you, and actively sabotages your actual success. Conventional wisdom goes like this: everyone has imposter syndrome. You are not alone, so keep working, keep believing in yourself, and fake it till you make it.

Some writers take “fake it till you make it” to an extreme, and they create a “persona” or a “brand” for themselves. Maybe a distinctive style of dress outwardly, or an over-the-top personality. That helps them live up to the ideal in their heads of what an author is and how an author looks and acts in public. And there’s nothing wrong with this, if it’s the best you can do. There are a couple ways that “faking it” can be problematic, though.

One is that it is simply exhausting. I’ve seen authors come home from convention or tour, shed their personas, and collapse for a week. Another is that some people will inevitably see through the act and be put off by it. Lastly, it actually gets in the way of you doing you, which is better than any brand or persona. Whenever you “fake it,” it’s a vote of no confidence in you. When you let your authentic self shine, opinions of others matter less.

I used to be a “fake it till you make it” advocate. Now I’m all about “you do you.” I believe that in the long run authenticity wins every time. Being authentic as an author at a convention or on tour may mean not actually being out and about that much, because you need time alone to recharge. Being authentic might mean wearing “boring” clothes like jeans and T-shirts or business casual because that is how you actually feel comfortable and attractive, rather than an “author uniform.” Not that an author uniform is necessarily inauthentic–I know people who have certain lucky items of clothing they pull out for appearances, but if it doesn’t match who you are deep down, you’ll never feel right.

Much of this attachment to image and persona comes from a belief in and attachment to specialness. That’s a challenge that the science fiction writer and fan community share. The community believes that some people are special–specially gifted and talented, specially important, etc–and some people aren’t. And everyone wants to be on the right side of the divide.

Since being special is about comparing yourself to others, in order to maintain a consistent belief in your specialness, you need constant confirmation and validation from others. When the supply is cut off, imposter syndrome strikes! And no writing career provides consistent praise and validation.

Check out this statement: “Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).”

How true does it sound to you? Do you either believe you are special or are you afraid you’re not special enough?

That sentence is actually cut and pasted from the DSM IV criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Just because you may subscribe to it in some way doesn’t mean that you have a personality disorder, but the fact that believing it puts you at 1/9 criteria for actually having a personality disorder should be enough to give pause, to look around and see that even if you don’t believe in the statement, that the industry and fandom function as if it were true.

There are no special people. 

You are not more or less special than your siblings, your elderly neighbor, the developmentally disabled guy who bags your groceries, or your bigoted uncle.

Many of us get stuck on specialness as we’re growing up. Maybe we were “smart” kids in school, getting praise from teachers for academic achievement while at the same time not quite getting emotional needs met at home. Suddenly, it seems very important to be special and smart at school, and we carry that with us into adulthood, where being special and smart is completely useless, and in fact can backfire badly.

Then, as authors, every success or setback becomes a re-evaluation of that specialness. Did my story get rejected? Oh no, I’m not special enough. Did I land an agent? Yes! I am special.

Feeling special, important, or more talented than others can be a very good feeling, but you can’t escape disappointment, failure, and occasionally being “beaten” by others, either. These are the roots of imposter syndrome, of knowing deep inside you’re not perfect and superior–because no one is–and of feeling like you’re on the verge of being “found out.”

When we no longer believe in specialness, we are free to just be and do whatever and whoever we actually are. It is no longer necessary to exhaust ourselves maintaining a persona, and mistakes and failure are just an occupational hazard of being human. If you stop looking for the “special” and “superior” qualities in yourself and others, and start appreciating basic humanity, imposter syndrome becomes irrelevant. It’s just not a thing.

Will someone, at some point, eventually read a book you wrote and declare it garbage and you a bad writer or worse? Quite possibly. But who cares? You are too busy writing your next one to bother with some random opinion.

Fake it if you want to. I’m not here to take anyone’s coping mechanism from them. But my advice is that if you suffer from imposter syndrome, whether you’re a brand new writer or a seasoned professional, take it as a sign that you need to believe in and love yourself and stop worrying about the illusion of specialness.

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.