A Snake in the Basement: Can We Conquer Our Fears?

Photo by Jérémie Crausaz on Unsplash

Since moving into our lush lake community ten years ago, I’ve had to dial down my skittishness toward bugs and other creatures. We share our wooded neighborhood with all kinds of wildlife, and slowly I’ve grown more comfortable with walking through spiderwebs and dodging flying insects that look downright prehistoric.

But lately the snakes have been out and about. First there was a snake in our back yard, and then one in the front yard. One day, I couldn’t walk down the stairs from our deck because a large black snake was slithering its way up the steps!

A week ago, my husband emerged from the basement and informed me that he had seen a snake in the storage room.

It’s one thing to be forced to give a snake a wide berth in the great outdoors, but the thought of one slinking around inside our house made me shiver.

“Well,” I announced, “I guess I’ll never go in that storage room again.”

Throughout the following days, I pondered my predicament. Staying out of that room forever was not a practical solution. We could ask the local wildlife wrangler to remove the snake, but it had already disappeared by the time my husband went back down a few minutes later.

We started jokingly referring to “snakey” and wondering where it might be. This helped bring some levity to the matter. Might it be possible to conquer my fear after all?

I’ve been working on my emotional growth over the last five years, so I have some insight into the challenge of personal change.

Like many humans, I’ve developed stories about myself and the world. These stories started in childhood and center around my insecurities and fears. My brain repeats them as a way to keep me safe from scary things.

I’m too chicken to do that.

I’m jumpy and high-strung.

I’d never try anything like that.

I’m anxious and paranoid.

This is just who I am.

Does leaving such stories intact grant them too much power? Can they be replaced?

I’m not a big fan of the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy. I don’t think the most effective way to change is to tell yourself something that your mind knows is not true.

What’s worked for me with other long-held beliefs, has been a more gradual process of: 1) trying to understand why I adopted a certain story; 2) questioning its ongoing usefulness; and 3) imagining how my thought patterns might evolve.

With the snake, this looks something like:

  1. As a kid, my family life often felt beyond my control, and I transferred that fear to other things that threatened my sense of security, like bugs, snakes, and other creepy crawlers.
  2. Does continuing to subscribe to this mindset serve me now? Not really.
  3. I believe it is possible for me to be careful around potentially dangerous snakes without getting so distressed that it negatively impacts my life.

Thus, when I needed to go down to that storage room yesterday because my husband was otherwise occupied, I did so. I banged on the door before opening it and announced loudly to any snakes that I was entering the room. I kept my eyes peeled, did what I needed to do, and exited quickly and calmly. I even went in there again later in the day.   

I think we can rewrite our stories. We can change assumptions about ourselves that feel fundamental to our identity. Now, don’t expect me to go adopting a snake anytime soon. But if I can tame this fear even just a little bit, it will help the next fright seem far less menacing.

Why Life Doesn’t Have a Skip Button

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

About a month ago I was driving around one morning running errands for my book signing that evening. (In case you haven’t heard, I’ve written and self-published a book!)

My heart was racing in anticipation of a gathering centered around me and my memoir. I was anxious about speaking in front of a group, and imposter syndrome was rearing its ugly head.

My brain said to me, “I’ll be so glad when this is all over.”

What the heck?! Why did I want this special moment to be behind me?

Adrenaline was flowing through my bloodstream, but there was no need to allow this physical reaction to steal my joy. I was not in any actual danger, and I needed to send my body this message. I also needed to interrupt the negative script running through my head.

I took a deep breath and talked back to myself: “Lisa, you deserve to enjoy this celebration of your achievement. You worked hard on that book. Savor this day!”

I kept breathing and telling myself that I was going to be okay. This event, even if it didn’t go perfectly (because how could it?), would be a learning experience and a critical step in my progress as an author.

Long before this landmark occasion, I used to dream of fast-forwarding through life. Even fun activities often felt like tasks to be checked off of my never-ending internal To Do list. I fantasized about reaching a point where nothing more was expected of me, and I could relax without anything hanging over my head.

The problem with that attitude is: a) no such moment exists, and b) I was literally wishing away half my life.

Over the past five years, I realized that I was in charge of creating the unburdened moments that I craved. I had to practice doing exactly what I did in the car that morning of my book signing—taking deep breaths to calm my nervous system and replacing my defeatist thoughts with more supportive ones.

Life doesn’t have a skip function. Nor should it! The only way we figure out how to get through a scary or difficult moment is to do just that: get through it. These challenges teach us all kinds of truths about ourselves, others, and the world—truths that are only unlocked by plowing forward.

Since I love a good analogy, here’s a quick one: I take indoor cycling classes, and I am usually the slowest person in the class (I know this because we receive an email at the end of each class with our ranking). I don’t let this bother me because I’m getting exercise and pushing my own personal limits in the process.

Each time I start riding and the instructor tells us what our RPM (revolutions per minute) should be, I’m at the very low end of that range. Like if I was riding a real bike, I would probably fall off! I struggle to get up to speed, and every time I think to myself, “Why am I so dang slow?!”

As the class continues, we are urged to ride faster and faster, and then we slow down briefly to recover, and then we pick up speed again. By the end of class, it’s no longer a battle to ride at that minimum speed that was so hard to achieve at the beginning of class.

I learn this little lesson at every spin class: The hard parts of life make us stronger, and before we know it, what was once intimidating seems so much easier.

That night of the book signing, I managed to relish the moment, and I came out the other end more confident and with a story to share.

Surviving People’s Best Intentions

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Have you ever been the recipient of unsolicited advice? Some of the circumstances that can trigger an influx of helpful suggestions include: having a baby, buying a house or a car, trying to lose weight and/or eat healthier and/or get in shape, making home improvements, suffering a lingering illness or injury, experiencing a legal challenge. People have lots of opinions on what are the right and wrong things to do in such situations.

Some of these people know what they’re talking about, and some do not. The overwhelming majority of them mean well. They really do.

A month ago, I self-published my first book. I’ve been very public about this on social media, so I have effectively invited folks to weigh in on how I should successfully market my book.

As someone who has struggled with self-doubt and anxiety pretty much my entire life, it can be difficult to absorb these recommendations while maintaining a positive frame of mind.

My brain hears a tip that had not occurred to me, and it immediately thinks:

Does this person think I’m in desperate need of help?

Do I appear to be floundering?

Why didn’t I think of that idea?

Does the fact that I’m not already doing it make me look stupid?

Do I have the time to tackle this task?

What if I don’t have the energy or desire to do it?

Ugh, how am I ever going to do everything I need to do?!

I’ve noticed that when my brain goes into this panic mode, I feel obliged to make explanations. I want to assure the advice-giver (and my own ego, if I’m being honest) that I really am being thoughtful about my choices. Inside, my mind is screaming: What about all the things I am doing, aren’t they good enough?!

Sound familiar?

This natural defensiveness is a sign that we are unsure of ourselves. And that’s ok. Doing something for the first, second, or even third time can be scary. You don’t have a lot of experience, so you’re learning as you go. Making mistakes is a given—it’s one of the most powerful ways of learning.

But it’s critical to remember that we don’t owe anyone anything. We can reject or “park” unsolicited ideas with no explanation. I’m quite certain that most people are fine with throwing out their advice and then moving on with their lives. We do not need to report back to them like they’re our boss. Well, unless you follow their advice and it works magic—you might want to tell them in that case.

When you have a lot on your shoulders, like a new baby or a new book, it’s ok to follow your instincts and to move at your own pace. We don’t all have the same energy or capacity levels. We don’t need to justify our decisions to others.

After that defensiveness subsides, and perhaps our time opens up a bit, we can always revisit that unexpected idea. I’ve found that days or weeks later, an idea that felt impossible at first starts to look like a possibility after all.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me at work over the years. I’ve pooh-poohed an idea in the moment only to warm up it to later. I guess my ego just needed an adjustment period.

We all want to feel competent, capable, and knowledgeable. That’s part of the reason we hand out advice, and its why we sometimes chafe at it. Realizing that we all share this need makes me more accepting of everyone’s good advice.

Learn more about my new book, My Unfurling, on my website or head straight to Amazon and order your copy now.

The Fine Line between Kindness, People-Pleasing, and Self-Sabotage

Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.”

You’ve probably heard someone say this. Maybe it’s one of your own favorite expressions. I’ve heard it used in the workplace more than once as rationale for forging ahead with an idea that might otherwise fail to get the green light.

As someone who can catastrophize with the best of them, I am not inclined to follow this advice. My mind is skilled at imagining a million ways for something to go wrong, so waiting to find out if I need to seek forgiveness does not sound appealing to me. At all.

I am currently at the tail end of the process of writing, editing, and self-publishing my first book—a memoir that covers multiple decades of my life. My book includes many stories from my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood that involve friends, family members, and love interests. To protect people’s privacy, I changed the names of everyone portrayed in the book, as well as some locations and identifying details.

All the same, I reached out to a number of people to give them a heads up that they appear in the book. The folks who got the most ink were first on my list. As the editing wore on, I continued to reach out to additional people who play smaller but still pivotal roles in the book.

With a release date of March 31, last week was pretty much my final chance to give these folks advance notice. As I typed out messages to this final round of people and hit send, my stomach was in knots and my heart was thumping. What was I doing?

Was I truly being considerate of these people’s feelings? Or was I following my long-established pattern of people-pleasing? Or…was I creating an anxious situation for myself because I’m a stress addict?

It’s probably all three. And maybe even a few impulses I haven’t uncovered yet.

Growing up, I was taught to be kind and compassionate. I often thought about what life was life for others and what emotions they might be experiencing. I didn’t want anyone to be unhappy or sad. I didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced or unnecessarily challenged. Especially those close to me.

I also absorbed the lesson that being a good girl meant being polite and accommodating. The idea that someone might ever get mad at me was terrifying. What did it mean if someone disliked me? Was it a sign that I was a bad person? Was I going to hell?

Furthermore, from an early age, I developed an attachment to my anxiety. Angst and uncertainty felt like home. A fretful state of mind became so familiar that I started creating added stress for myself.

So, yeah, I think all three of these motivations were at work last week. There I was, at a point when I could start focusing on proudly celebrating the end result that is my book. But I still couldn’t resist tossing in a last-minute test of my fortitude.

Or maybe, just maybe, a part of me knew that something good might arise from doing this difficult thing. Because it did. I reconnected with a friend I haven’t communicated with in decades. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I think even our most confounding instincts can have positive results. Not always, of course. Sometimes when we ask for permission or forgiveness, it doesn’t go well. And in those cases, all we can do is try to be understanding and to learn from the experience. And try to do better next time.

Is Life a Lopsided Tennis Match?

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

In my last blog post, I proposed that life is like a card game. I used this analogy to separate the things in life that we can’t control from the things that we can.

Briefly: We cannot control when or where or to whom we are born—those are the cards we’re dealt. Society’s laws and conventions are outside of our control as well—these are the rules of the game. With time and collaborative effort any set of rules can be changed, but we are subject to the existing regulations until and unless we can rewrite them. In the meantime, we can make a multitude of changes every day in our own lives—that is the skill and mindset we bring to playing the game.

So, please humor me because I’m about to add another metaphor to the mix…

What if life is also like a lopsided tennis match? (Or pickleball for you picklers.) Each of us is on one side of the net, and the entire world is on the other side, hitting a barrage of balls straight at us from all angles.

These tennis balls represent all the many events and influences we have to contend with starting at a young age:

  • A mother struggling with mental health issues
  • An absent or detached father
  • A learning disability that emerges in childhood
  • A hurricane damaging our home
  • A bully at school
  • A lengthy illness
  • A parent losing a job
  • A traumatic car accident
  • An unexpected death in the family
  • A violent stranger
  • An inhumane law or practice

A family member, friend, or neighbor might step in to help with hitting these balls, but most of the time we feel as if we’re on our own.

As a kid, I experienced some of the things listed above. I tried hitting back these balls as best I could. But I was flailing about because I lacked the proper technique. And even if I had developed the appropriate skills early on, a flurry of balls was coming at me fast and furious.

So, as I hit the balls back, the strokes I used were avoidance, distraction, anger, numbing, and procrastination. The mindset I brought to the game often included defensiveness, jealousy, self-pity, and fear.

I believe that our society poorly prepares children for dealing with life’s ups and particularly its downs. We shove our kids out onto the court with a racket and tell them to have at it. Oh, and try not to be a whiner—you’re not the only one playing this exhausting game, you know.

In place of more productive skills, we utilize alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, screens, gambling, lies, stealing, manipulative behavior, and so on. These tactics are like swinging wildly at the torrent of tennis balls. We do make contact with some of them, thereby protecting ourselves from getting hit by every single ball. But swinging wildly is not a long-term solution.

In middle age, I realized that I am responsible for building the skills that can help me play the game of life more effectively. I have since tried meditation, exercise, time spent in nature, journaling, learning, human connection, self-coaching, habit shifting, and more. These types of methods take some getting used to, and they don’t always deliver the immediate bang of buying an expensive pair of shoes. But they are almost always more powerful in the long run.

As I noted before, we players can band together to change the rules to the chaotic and often unjust game known as “the rat race.” (We call it that for a reason.) While reform is in progress, it is up to individuals to acquire the tools and hone the techniques that can sustain us.

As we do this, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has equal access or ability to improve their game. Some people might not be able to afford the same equipment or training as others. And the rules that are in place often favor some players over others.

Remember, we are all that scared, unprepared kid, swinging as best we can at a deluge of tennis balls.

What Sobriety Means to a Former Gray Area Drinker

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in October 2018. I am reposting it here in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir, which will address this issue at length.

When I decided to stop drinking in May of 2017, I knew I would eventually write publicly about my journey. Even before I made the choice, I started jotting down my thoughts about alcohol—the hold it had on my life, the challenges of drinking moderately, and the reasons why quitting was starting to look like the obvious solution.

Three months into my recovery, I revealed to Facebook friends and my blog’s tiny audience that I had managed to stay sober for the longest period yet in my adult life. I posted again at the five-month mark, at which point a few people suggested that it was time for me to congratulate myself and move on.

I don’t think so.

I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing stories about my life. Nearly two decades of working in communications for a political organization helped me develop a pretty thick skin. I learned that no matter what a person says or how they say it, someone is going to find something in their words to criticize. But that shouldn’t keep us from speaking our truth.

My concern about writing on this topic stems not from a fear of being judged but from a suspicion that I don’t belong in the recovery community. You see, I’m what’s called a “gray area” or “high bottom” drinker. While I believe that I had an alcohol dependency, my habit never escalated to the level typically associated with people who quit drinking.

I was doing well at work, and my personal relationships were intact, but my dreams were stalled. Drinking had made my life repetitive and stagnant. My writing career and love of trying new things had been put on hold. This went on for decades.

Like many gray area drinkers, I tried all the tricks designed to keep alcohol at arm’s length but still within grasp. I counted drinks, tracked how many nights in a row I stayed dry, diluted my wine with seltzer, only drank when I was home or only drank when I was out, and so on. Nothing worked. My mind was more preoccupied than ever with thoughts of alcohol.

When I finally quit, I did so with the knowledge that I didn’t have to hit a disastrous rock bottom to recognize the negative impact alcohol was having on me. As a writer, I am eager to share this news with the world. As a longtime activist, I want to help others make the same realization as soon as possible.

But I worry that by talking about my sobriety, I am claiming ground that belongs to those who have struggled more. The insecure, anxious woman who turned to alcohol for confidence and comfort is panicked at the thought of stepping on anyone’s toes.

Feeling like an outsider was a monster that haunted me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and into my adult years. The beast is clutching at my ankles again, even when I’m feeling my sharpest and bravest.

The only way I know to get past this fear is to march directly through it. So, I am sharing with you what recovery means to a gray area drinker like me.

Liberation

My drinking habit was like carrying a backpack full of bricks at all times. I could function, but something was always weighing me down. I often felt tired, cranky and frustrated with myself. Hangovers stole hours from me on weekend days when I should have been having fun or getting errands done. And when it had been a couple days since my last drink, I was consumed with thinking about my next one.

Taking off that backpack allowed me to wake up every morning with zero worries about what I’d said or done the night before. By the end of my drinking “career,” I wasn’t going out and doing crazy stuff anymore, but I was still capable of picking fights with my husband, drunk dialing friends and posting nonsense on social media.

Being clearheaded and liberated from the effects of alcohol is truly a gift.

Perspective

When I was deciding whether to quit entirely or continue trying to moderate my drinking, I worked hard to put aside my emotional attachment to alcohol and appeal to my logical side.

Despite overwhelming evidence that I felt better when I wasn’t drinking, I kept at it. What if I did the same thing at work, employing an ineffective strategy over and over? My boss would have taken me aside long ago and demanded that I try a new tactic.

So, as my own boss, I gave myself a “needs improvement” performance review and chose sobriety as the answer. The results were so successful that I am applying this lens to other aspects of my life. This means examining other deep-rooted practices and asking if they are serving me.

In the quest to live my best life, perspective is everything. Sobriety changed my vantage point.

Self-Respect

How many hours, how many nights did I spend drinking? Some of those events included laughing and bonding with dear friends, but many of them were more about getting drunk than anything else. What if I had spent even half of that time writing and taking on new challenges?

Alcohol allowed me to do things that would have been boring or foolish if sober. Some were minor infractions, like waiting at the bar for a table, getting buzzed and skipping dinner to get trashed. Some were more consequential, like barely making it to an early morning doctor’s appointment and then sleeping off a hangover in the back seat of my car.

Now that I’ve removed alcohol from the equation of my life, I find that I value my time far more. And what do we have if we don’t have time? In recovery, I’ve concluded that valuing your time is the highest form of self-respect.

Peace

Since girlhood, my brain has been full of obsessive thoughts—fear of death, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of being seen as unworthy of attention or respect. My first therapist put me on Zoloft to help me focus in our sessions. But alcohol was my favorite form of self-medication.

Drinking to slow down my mind was effective but not without serious side effects. Even worse, it was getting me nowhere. I was not learning how to deal with my stress or my penchant for latching onto a sense of dread and letting it flood my body and spirit.

Sobriety didn’t automatically bring peace to my mind. I had to take up meditation and yoga. I had to remember to pay attention to my breath in moments of distress. Taking away alcohol made space for these more productive solutions.

The transformation I am experiencing is slower and less noticeable than guzzling two or three glasses of wine. But one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced that panicky feeling in weeks. I still get lost in worry and self-doubt on occasion, but I have the tools now to acknowledge those thoughts and then carry on.

Sharing these breakthroughs is why I am proud to take my place in the sobriety community.

Quieting the Tyrant Within

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.

Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

Image of Jessica Lange from the movie Frances.

*****

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

*****

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

*****

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.

Lake of Tears

Image of geese flying over Lake Linganore in Maryland (photo effects from Nexmuse.com).

Recently I was reading through the memoir I’ve written, giving it one more light edit before sending it off to the proofreader. About halfway through, something occurred to me: I am a big crybaby.

My manuscript covers the full scope of my life, with a strong focus on my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. Apparently, those years featured a lot of bawling. Out of curiosity, I searched my document for the use of words like “cry,” “tears,” “sob,” “weep,” etc.

I found no fewer than 14 descriptions of me wailing, gasping for breath, whimpering, or blubbering. Despite my embarrassment at all this lamentation, I decided to keep each and every reference to tears in my book. Though I come across as dramatic and self-indulgent…well, that’s who I am to a certain degree.

Over the past five years, I’ve tried to interrupt this inclination to lean into my emotions, particularly the self-pitying and indignant ones. I hear a lot these days about the importance of sitting with your feelings: We are meant to feel our feelings, not run or distract from them. At the same time, it can be unhealthy to get lost in our emotions—to let them sweep us away.

Last week, I was in a yoga class, and we did a number of hip-opener poses, which can help release stored-up stress and emotion. Toward the end of class, in our next-to-last pose, I found my eyes filling up with tears. It freaked me out at first. I held back, and then when I got out to my car, I had a good little cry and got in touch with what was stirring inside me.

As I sat there, I thought about how our emotions are like water. They are important, but their power must be respected. They can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful.

The lake where I live is beautiful; it serves as a water source for our county, as a home for countless creatures, and as a place for recreation and connecting with nature. But it can also be dangerous if you don’t practice appropriate safety measures. People have died in boating, swimming, and diving accidents in this lake.

Emotions don’t often kill us, but they can swallow us up. In addition to all the crying scenes in my manuscript, I also write about my issues with anger. I have been known to let my temper get the best of me, to fight tooth and nail to win an argument. This fury can lead me to say terrible things to others, to push the most sensitive buttons of the people I love, and to act in a way that seems out of sync with my values.

So, I’ve been working on locating that fine line between exploring my feelings and drowning in them. Meditation has assisted in this effort. Spending time outdoors helps put things in perspective. And sometimes simply thinking about the impact of our emotions, as I did in the car last week, and as I’m doing right now, helps bring everything together in a lesson that’s hard to forget.

What Scary Things Can Teach Us

For the past 14 months I’ve been writing and editing a book about my life. This memoir tells the story of how self-doubt, drinking, and anxiety kept me from chasing my dreams. I am 56 years old, and this is my first full-length manuscript.

The young woman who chose creative writing as her major in college, and who relished the praise she received from her professors, would be dejected to learn that it took her more than three decades to finally write book number one.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of many of the things I’ve done over the years. During my most recent read-through of the manuscript, I noticed a number of times when I didn’t let fear get the best of me, when I took on challenges that were outside my comfort zone.

But those scattered moments of pluck were not enough to build a solid foundation of confidence that could sustain a writing career. It took years of self-exploration, sobriety, the death of a dear friend, and a worldwide pandemic to finally get me to draft this book.

After the writing came the endless editing. Just when I thought the revisions were done, they were not (and possibly still aren’t). Once my work was in good enough shape, I recruited people to read my manuscript to make sure I wasn’t deluded in my belief that it is worth publishing.

And, because I’ve written a book that recalls real scenes with real people whom I love and respect, I decided to reach out to some of the more prominent people to give them a chance to read the passages that involve them.

Sending your book out into the world before it’s perfect (is it ever?) is terrifying. At least it has been for me. I still have several more steps in the creative part of this process, and one of them is the most difficult step yet: talking with my mom about the chapters devoted to our complex relationship. I’ve been putting this off, and I cannot procrastinate much longer.

I know from the earlier steps I’ve already taken that I can do things that scare me. When I do scary things, I usually learn something about myself. One of the things I learn (almost every single time) is that I am brave and strong—braver and stronger than I could have imagined.

And when you keep doing things that intimidate you, you get to discover over and over how brave and strong you are. And who wouldn’t want to confirm that fact over and over? I think maybe this is a lesson we are meant to learn.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught myself that it’s ok to be frightened of doing certain things. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not scared in order to do these things—I can acknowledge my fear or discomfort and then do them anyway. An open and willing mind can lead me to take desired actions, and taking those actions produces an increasingly positive mindset.

In other words, the more I do this, the easier it gets. I only have to look back to yesterday or last week for proof that my heart can pound and my stomach can twist itself in knots and I might lose some sleep, but I will not fall apart.

Sweating the Small Stuff

My retired mom, who lives with me, came upstairs one day and told me she had had a very stressful morning. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she couldn’t find her cell phone. She looked and looked and finally realized that she had made the bed with her phone under the covers. So, she had to unmake the bed, retrieve the phone, and remake the bed. She wasn’t running late for anything, but she was huffing and puffing about what a setback this had been to her morning, and clearly it had affected her mood.

This was about 10 years ago, not long after my mom first moved in, and I remember at the time thinking that this sequence of events did not seem particularly stressful. It sounded exactly like that spilled milk we are told not to cry over. I even told this story to a co-worker and watched her eyes widen as she clearly agreed with me.

Over the past decade, I’ve thought a lot about my mom’s tendency to get flustered by life’s typical ups and downs. I reflected on how she often felt tired or unwell when I was a kid. It almost seemed like life itself was making her exhausted. Maybe because it was.

I’ve been trying to develop greater empathy for my mom, and my own current circumstances are helping me see things from a new point of view. After years of working at demanding jobs, I am currently unemployed. Now, when I get anxious, most of my stressors seem minor compared to my former work-related dilemmas.

When you’re an anxious person, like me and my mom, you often look for things to get stressed about. If you “require” a constant flow of tension in your life, your only choice is to find it among your daily experiences. The things that stress you out end up being proportionate to what you have going on in your life.

Some human beings are more sensitive when things going wrong. Even trivial mishaps and slights can mess with our day, and we want to say, “eff it.” Sometimes we do say eff it, and we give in to our worst habits and coping tools. These behaviors—like drinking, binge eating, scrolling on social media, or shopping—can be soothing in the short-term but not so efficient or healthy in the long-term.

I’m not saying we handwringers are a weak subset of people, but we react in extremes way to frustrating stuff. Some might call this a lack of resilience, but I think we’re actually a pretty resilient bunch. Maybe the issue is that we aren’t skilled at putting things in perspective, so everything feels like a good reason to throw up our arms. But I don’t think calling this a perspective problem is helpful, either, because it implies that we could get over ourselves if only we realized how insignificant our lives are in relation to others.

What if we decided, instead, that everyone’s emotional strain is valid? That stress is relative, and that’s ok. I think that’s a good start—by taking each of our anxiety levels seriously. By retiring the directive, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Then, if we want to diminish our reactions to stress and stop leaning on those short-term coping behaviors, we can work on that. We can take deep breaths and remind ourselves that this, too, shall pass. But, in the meantime, if we want to vent like my mom did that morning, we should do so without fear of being labeled a drama queen.