I got really sick this past weekend–as in, couldn’t-get-two-steps-away-from the bathroom sick. When I wasn’t shuffling to the porcelain throne, I was flat on my back in bed. In the realm of Getting Things Done, I was an utterly useless life form.
But that’s not why I’m mad at me.
In the spirit of misery loves company, I broke my own rule about limiting exposure to the combination circus/madhouse that passes for news these days, including the comment sections (which are the online equivalent of slogging through a septic tank barefoot). Using only my trusty Kindle and a stylus, I was able to work myself up into a froth of frustration, fear and rage in a surprisingly short period of time.
But that’s not why I’m mad, either. (Well, okay, maybe a little bit. It’s not like I don’t know better by now.)
Being out of commission gave my mind all kinds of time to come out and play. A few of its favorite games:
Compile impossible To Do lists to be accomplished when I felt better.
Take me on a trip down Memory Lane, featuring stops at every bad/painful/embarrassing thing I’d experienced since kindergarten.
Conjure up doomsday scenarios of a remote future that somehow managed to bleed into the present.
But that’s not why I’m mad at me, either. My mind is an unruly beast under the best of circumstances, of which being sick isn’t one.
Being sidelined brought everything–work, job, chores, all the “gotta do” yadda-yadda–to a screeching halt. At first I was too busy being miserably sick to realize it. (Intestinal bugs are demanding little critters.) When the worst was over, I had ample time to look–really look–at my life.
And it wasn’t pretty.
I discovered I’d been so busy scrambling to meet expectations (both my own, which are insanely high, and external ones, some of which verge on the impossible) that I had left no room in my life for……
That is why I’m mad.
How could I let this happen again? How did I manage to fall back into the trap of
comparing my insides to other peoples’ outsides?
thinking that I, and I alone, am responsible for anything and everything that crosses my orbit?
When I finally made it to the mountaintop,
I had to sit for awhile to catch my breath.
I’ve always been afraid of heights, but I didn’t let that stop me.
On the way up I found myself hurting in places
I didn’t even know I had places,
But I kept on climbing.
Did I ever get discouraged? Oh, hell yes!
But the only options I had
Were free-falling to a certain death,
Or crawling back down to where I’d started.
One seemed just as bad as the other,
So it was onward and upward.
The breeze tells me it’s time.
A surge of energy brings me to my feet.
I extend my arms as far as I can and open my hands,
Releasing all my emotional pain to the breeze.
It scatters in multi-color sparks, twinkles for an instant
Before going nova.
I scatter more things to the breeze–
Feelings of being trapped, overwhelmed and helpless
Form a temporary blazing circle, then dissolve into nothing.
Self-doubt and fear of change shine like a marquee
Before the breeze pulls the plug.
“You’ll never survive without me!” howls my Inner Censor
As I send it spiraling after the rest of my jettisoned cargo,
But I know better.
I tossed lots of other things.
So many that I expected to feel empty.
But I didn’t.
The only thing I felt was…….free.
Artists who can touch a brush to a piece of canvas and embody a dream. Writers who create whole worlds with people so real you can almost see them. Athletes. Musicians.
Me? I have an absolute gift for making myself miserable.
With the flick of a brain cell I can turn a molehill into Mt. Everest or a pothole-sized problem into the depths of perdition. Physically, I can be in the midst of a group of people, maybe even conversing with them, while mentally I’m in the Obsessional, pacing holes in its dreary gray carpet.
It’s not fun, that’s for sure. It solves no problems, lightens no loads. So why do I insist on making myself miserable? I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times and never found a good answer.
Until tonight, when I realized I’ve been going about this all wrong.
It was one of those flashing marquee moments that highlight the belatedly obvious, usually followed by a resounding slap to the forehead.
What if, instead of mulling over my absolute gift for making myself miserable, I concentrated on making myself happy?
Duh! I can choose to be happy!
Can it really be that simple? Why not? After all, it only takes one person pulling one lever to stop a merry-go-round, right?
What I can do are simple stretches that loosen up the old bones and alleviate the discomfort-du-jour. I can also sit in a mercifully-modified lotus position, focusing on my old buddy Captain Serenity until my racing thoughts get bored and go off to find better things to do.
My all-time favorite yoga pose has got to be savasana, better known by the deceptively ominous name of corpse pose, where the body and mind relax completely. I find myself feeling peaceful, unhurried, unworried, serene.
Until I’m back in the World Out There.
In less time than it takes to say “namaste”, petty irritants multiply like loaves and fishes. I find myself mentally casting aspersions on the parentage and IQ level of fellow drivers while stressing about what fresh hell awaits me at work and agonizing over the 5,234,678 things I (think I) need to do when I get home. Next thing I know I’m back on that souped-up hamster wheel, wondering what happened to all that wonderful serenity I had just the night before.
News-flash-to-self: I’ve still got it.
It’s just gone into functional mode.
Which is a good thing, because most workplaces take a dim view of unfurled yoga mats during business hours, and closed-eyes meditation is not conducive to safety in heavy traffic.
But Life Out There can be stressful and chaotic, and it’s easy to get swept away.
So how do I tap into this functional serenity?
Take a long, deep breath. Or two, or twelve. When I’m rushing around like a lunatic, I breathe like a lunatic–one step away from hyperventilation. This in turn kicks my body and mind into totally unnecessary “fight or flight” mode, and I’m off to the races. If I stop, breathe, and allow myself to center, I can see things more realistically and am better able to cope.
Step back–or better still, away–from the scene of the crime. It doesn’t have to be for long. A walk down the hall and back. A quick visit to a nearby coworker. Even a trip to the water fountain. Sometimes just a minute or two away from my cluttered desk and ever-blossoming email inbox helps break the spell of Overwhelm.
Say or do something nice for somebody else. This is a biggie, and it has never failed me. Besides generating positive energy for everyone concerned, it reminds me not to let the chaos of daily life overshadow the importance of the human connection. (Hey, we’re all in this together, right?)
Give myself permission to feel good. “I allow myself to feel peaceful and serene through whatever comes my way today.” “I allow myself to detach emotionally from (name that situation).” “I allow myself to feel confident.” Laugh if you must, but I’ve found this to be surprisingly effective. I may have to repeat it more than a few times, but eventually it kicks in.
And last, but definitely not least:
Be grateful. Yeah, you knew that one was coming, didn’t you! 🙂 But it really does work. Tallying up the many good things in my life is a great little equalizer when I’m feeling beleaguered.
When someone else makes a mistake, I always tell them, “Hey, no big deal. Perfect people are boring.”
When I make a mistake, however, I summon up the Spanish Inquisition, a howling Greek chorus of condemnation, and the ghost of Sister Mary Gwendolyn from fourth grade.
And from what I hear, I’m not the only one.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Darned if I know. All it does is make us feel worse than we already do, and it certainly doesn’t improve the situation. I could analyze the whiz-bang out of the whys and wherefores, but I’d rather look at a few home truths that just might help:
To err is human.
It really, really is. And–guess what? We are all plain old garden-variety humans, and we’re going to screw up. To think otherwise is to foster the unrealistic expectation that we are supposed to be superhuman, above and beyond mere ordinary mortals. (Sounds kinda arrogant when it’s put that way, doesn’t it?)
A mistake is just something that happened.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because you make a mistake, you are a mistake. I’ve been known to hop on board that particular mental crazy train, and in no time at all I convinced myself I was a complete, total, hopeless
Don’t go there, okay? It’s not a fun trip, and it can be awfully hard to find your way home again.
Listen to Eleanor
It really sucks when you screw up in front of other people. When it happens to me, I’m always morally certain that everybody’s buzzing about it behind my back, texting about it to their friends, and plastering it all over their Facebook pages until I remember one of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt:
“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
It’s definitely humbling, but oh so very comforting.
So anyhow, folks, we are all flawed vessels, doing the best we can with what we’ve got. So take it easy on yourselves, okay?
If your mental world looks frightful, And everyone seems spiteful, When it’s all a big tale of woe, Let it go, let it go, let it go! (To the tune of “Let It Snow”)
Yeah, I know–easier said than done. But not impossible.
I’ve spent more years than I care to think about trying to will the world to conform to my expectations. If brooding was a natural energy source, I’d be a gazillionaire twenty times over. If obsessive thinking moved the minds and hearts of others, I’d be breaking bread with Gandhi. And if driving myself crazy with worry or stewing with resentment made the slightest difference in the martyrdom of pinpricks we call daily life, I’d be as simperingly sweet as Pollyanna. (Okay, that last one’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea.)
A few months ago I came across a book that turned my old mental patterns upside down (for the better, let me hasten to add): The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Reading this book helped me see that, while my mind is a nifty little critter, I am not my mind, I’m it’s owner.
And, like other nifty little critters the mind needs to be controlled by its owner, not the other way around.
This, my friends, is power in its truest form, the one area in our lives which we truly can control: how we choose to let our thoughts color reality.
Here are a few excerpts from “The Voice Inside Your Head,” the first chapter of Untethered Soul, that grabbed me from the get-go and kept me reading:
“There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind–you are the one who hears it.”
“Eventually you will see the real cause of problems is not life itself. It is the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes problems.”
(When listening to all your internal thoughts): “What you end up experiencing is really a personal presentation of the world according to you, rather than the stark, unfiltered experience of what is really out there.”
“If you can’t get the world the way you like it, you internally verbalize it, judge it, complain about it, and then decide what to do about it. This makes you feel more empowered….In the thought world, there’s always something you can do to control the experience (italics mine).” Note to self: there usually isn’t…
“Reality is just too real for most of us, so we temper it with the mind. You will come to see that the mind talks all the time because you gave it a job to do. You use it as a protection mechanism, a form of defense.” In other words, we’ve given the mind an impossible task–protecting us from the World Out There. No wonder it never shuts up!
In Chapter Two: Your Inner Roommate, the author has you imagine your constant mental chatter as coming from another person who’s always beside you–when you’re trying to sleep, take a shower, watch TV, get some work done. How to handle this obviously neurotic individual who never, ever gives it a rest? I don’t know about you, but I’d bitch-slap her to Mars!
But bitch-slapping your own mind isn’t so simple. Resorting to copious amounts of drugs and/or alcohol might shut it up, but only temporarily, and a hiatus of this nature often leaves a host of problems in its wake.
So how to handle the never-ending stream of thoughts that emanate from the eternally-babbling monkey-mind?
As soon as they pop up, every time they pop up. Then go about your business.
After reading Untethered Soul and doing some additional research, I’ve managed to cobble together a little routine that serves me pretty well:
Example: As I’m driving to the grocery store, my mind shifts into protective mode: “You should have started out earlier. The store’s going to be crowded. It’ll be a madhouse. You’ll get all stressed out. You might even have a panic attack, like that time in 1982. You don’t want go through that again, do you?”
What I do: I cut off the babbling brook in midstream and ask myself the following questions:
1. “Is any of this helpful?” Answer: Hell, no. 2. “Can I release these thoughts/shut them off?” Answer: Of course I can. I’m the owner, right? 3. “Do I want to release these thoughts?” Answer: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. 4. “When do I want to release them?” Answer: How about right now! (I usually accompany this last one with a gesture like I’m throwing a handful of sand into the air, but that’s just me and I’m weird that way.)
Then I crank me up some reggae and get on with my errand.
When I first started challenging my thoughts this way, they were not pleased and resisted as hard as they could. (The mind’s trying to protect me, remember?) I just kept releasing them, every time they cropped up–and they cropped up a lot! Eventually the thoughts became less frequent. A lot of them have gone away for good. My little routine became second nature to me, and I found myself becoming a much happier and more relaxed person. (Added bonus: I’m actually a whole lot more productive than I ever was back when my thoughts were riding herd on me all the time.)
I’ve come to the conclusion that my mind is like television–chock full of all kinds of programming, available 24/7 whether I want it or not. It’s up to me to remember that I’m not a captive audience. I’m the one holding the remote, and I can hit the mute button–or change the channel completely–any time I choose.
In my time, I have been a black-belt master at comparing myself to other people.
I must have been using some kind of fun-house yardstick to measure the differences, because invariably I came up short (and I’m not referring to my five-foot-nothing height).
According to the fun-house yardstick, The Other Person (TOP) usually:
had more money (see the BMW and designer handbag?), ergo was a far better financial manager than my struggling peon self, or
had a svelte figure, while I was Moby Donna, the Great White Whale, or
kept her house spotless, unlike my own hit-or-miss (more often missed) efforts
I could go on (and on, and on), but you get the idea.
I wasted a whole lot of time beating myself up for my perceived inadequacies and failures. I had a lot of help with that from the media, which could always be counted upon to reinforce my abysmal self-image, and from advertising (there’s tons of money to be made by whipping up people’s insecurities and presenting a variety of “solutions”, each more expensive than the last.)
I might have gone on like this indefinitely if I hadn’t hit a particularly rough patch in my life (I guess you could call it a blessing in very heavy disguise) and ended up in counseling. With all the craziness going on in my life, I was startled when the first thing the counselor zeroed in on was my dysfunctional relationship with…me. (Say who???)
We talked at length about my tendency to compare myself to other people (always to my detriment) and how this was actually an effective form of self-sabotage. (If I’m a total failure, then what’s the use in trying?) We also discussed how other people were probably not the perfect paragons I built them up to be in my own mind. My homework assignment for the week was to jot down a note every time I caught myself wielding that fun-house yardstick, plus–and this is really good–describe howI was comparing my own insides to other people’s public outsides.
Talk about a revelation!
I realized I didn’t know anything about these people beyond what I saw in a quick surface glimpse. I disliked and resented them because I pounced on one thing that made me feel bad about myself. I had no clue what they were really like. I had no idea what problems and challenges they might face in their lives. I had been every bit as unfair to these people as I’d been to myself, and, while they would never have a clue about it, I knew. And I didn’t want to be that person, not any more.
I’m still very much a work in progress, but the operative word is progress. I try to keep in mind that we’re all in this life together, everybody’s doing the best they can with what they’ve got, and kindness doesn’t cost a damn thing.
Take care, all!
If you catch yourself comparing yourself to somebody else, remember:
See that brightly-smiling lady snuggled up to the singularly handsome bearded gentleman? This picture was taken at a Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Johnny Lang concert last summer.
It was held at a medium-sized, very crowded venue called the Hard Rock Rocksino. To get to the seating area she had to walk through acres of slot machines, noise and flashing lights. She’d never been there before, had no idea what to expect, but look at her–she’s absolutely glowing.
You’d never guess it, but for years that same lady was terrified of crowds and unfamiliar places. She developed a comforting routine built around well-known stores, arriving just as their doors opened and scurrying home long before the thundering herd (read: more than ten people) arrived. Anything outside this routine left her riddled with anxiety and totally drained of energy.
I know all this because I’m that lady.
The year leading up to that concert was insanely stressful, and I’d been clinging to my safe little burrow even more tenaciously than usual. My wonderful husband and I both tend to be homebodies, so there was no pressure to go out, do stuff, socialize. I might have stayed in my cozily decorated rut indefinitely if I hadn’t seen the ad online: “Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Jonny Lang. Hard Rock Rocksino. June 23.”
I knew my husband liked both of these performers a lot. The date was close to our anniversary, and tickets to the concert would be a terrific present. The price was reasonable, the drive wasn’t bad, and he’d be thrilled. Making Judd happy is one of my favorite things to do, so I jumped out of my chair and headed for the stairs to run it by him.
And then the voice of the Great God What-if weighed in, stopping me in my tracks.
What-if my nerves short-circuited and I got sick on the way to the venue? Or, even worse, what-if I got sick at the venue? What-if I passed out? (Note: this last thing has never happened to me in my entire life, but I tend not to consider such fine points when I’m in full-blown catastrophic mode.)
“Better not chance it”, warned the Great God What-if. “You don’t need more stress in your life right now. Stay in your comfort zone.”
“But Judd would really love to go to that concert,” I argued.
“Judd won’t even know about it if you don’t tell him. No harm done.”
“I would really love to go to that concert!”
“Now, Donna. What if you get all the way out there, have a panic attack and have to come all the way home again?”
That almost stopped me. I visualized the humiliating scenario and cringed. But then I straightened my shoulders, tossed back my hair and replied, “What-if I don’t?”
And the Great God What-if fell silent.
With that, I pounded up the stairs to tell Judd we were gonna go see Kenny Wayne and Jonny.
I haven’t become an overnight-sensation-best-selling-author who will never have to worry about money again in this life.
Nor have I discovered the Fountain of Youth (as my knees will attest) and my generously upholstered derriere is in no danger of fitting into a size zero. (Is size zero really a thing?)
The lottery gods certainly haven’t smiled upon me, and the Lords of Karma know where I live and still pay occasional house calls.
Life hasn’t magically become all yellow brick roads, rainbows and lollipops. It’s more like a tapestry of bright and dark with occasional flashes of circus-colored lunacy.
In other words, it’s life, on life’s terms. And it ain’t about to change just to suit my convenience.
So it’s a good thing I finally pulled my head out of the comfortably upholstered derriere mentioned above and stopped obsessing about stuff I didn’t have or things that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.
Instead, I took a long look at the good things that were right under my nose. (Einstein moment: thinking about good things is much more happy-making than dwelling on bad ones.)
There were lots of them–some big, some small. Enough to contribute a whole lot of bright to life’s tapestry.
And I realized that I’m one lucky little old white-haired chica who has a whole bunch of reasons to be grateful.
But there’s always bright in the tapestry–if I choose to see it.