Check Thyself

More off the cuff than usual today, friends. It’s been a year so far, with few signs of relief upcoming. Breathing deeply:

Do you speak and act out of fear and a strong desire for control, in situations where you cannot have it?

Signs that this may be happening to you:

1. Your muscles get tense

2. Your chest feels tight

3. You feel your heart thumping

4. Your ears ring

5. Your speech becomes louder, higher pitched, faster

6. You feel ANGRY, especially if it’s sudden and intense rage

7. You interrupt people and start gesturing more

8. You feel self-righteous

9. You feel certain that everybody around you is stupid, ignorant, and/or either out to get you personally or totally corrupt and willing to destroy anything in their path to forward their own interests

10. You feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained after a brief encounter

What else?

Words spoken and actions taken in the throes of active emotional hijack can wreak lasting damage on our relationships, social function, and collective culture. The emotions themselves, however, are temporary. They serve to call our attention to something we need to address, something important to our safety, security, and well-being.

How we address the somethings is key to our personal and relational success or failure.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are the core skills to train in here.

Some tips (from dialectical behavior therapy [DBT] and elsewhere):

–Ride the waves of emotion like an expert surfer—balance atop them as they complete their natural journey to dissipate on shore, delivering you to the beach again and again

–Check the FACTS of the situation–distinguish between what can be observed and described objectively and what you assume/judge/project subjectively–recognize how you may have it wrong

–BREATHE. Deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, countering the activating effects of fight or flight. Slow, steady breathing grounds us and allows us to see, hear, and think more clearly

–Ask yourself, “How will what I’m about to say/do really make things better in the long run, and at what cost?”

–Slow down. Count to ten. Call a time out. Step away. If it’s worth saying or doing, it can wait this little bit.

More and more I see impulsive behaviors, in reaction to acute on chronic individual and collective stress, destroying relationships and shredding our social fabric. It’s so frustrating, mostly because I see it as so preventable.

Self-awareness and self-regulation:  The concepts are simple. The skills acquisition and execution constitute a lifelong pursuit of wildly imperfect mastery.

YES, things are shitty everywhere. YES, we are justified in our fear, anger, frustration, impatience, and dissatisfaction.

AND we can choose, at any time, to manage these intensely uncomfortable emotions in ways that either connect us in solidarity and cooperation or divide us in mutual denigration and destruction.

Recognize emotional hijack. Breathe through it.   

Let us speak and act from our core values ahead of impulsive, fearful, and self-righteous rage.

And let us thank one another for the effort.

Read more along these lines from one of my heroes, Brene Brown.

Mantras for 2022

What words encircle your consciousness this year?

Maybe you don’t roll with words?  What ideas, feelings, sounds, or other sensations, then? 

When you get still, where does your energy settle, and what aspirations arise?

I share some of mine here; I’d love to read some of yours in the comments!

“Stop Shoulding All Over Yourself”

As I get older, I reach for larger, stronger mental shovels to evict certain voices from my mind.  “New Year’s resolutions are useless, don’t bother” (see evidence to the contrary). “Get up early and write in the morning, it’s the only way.”  Do this, do that, think this, feel that.  I’ve internalized enough societal standards and constraints, some helpful, many not.  Every year of adulthood also solidifies my own core values and goals, which themselves drive me forcefully—not enough, never enough, must be better, always more.  In the end all the ‘Shoulds’, both external and internal, can feel heavy.  I know who I am, I know what’s important to me.  I’m a lifelong learner.  I progress because it’s my nature.  I do what I need to do and I’m good at it; I am enough.

Competence and Confidence

So many recurring challenges—this past year especially, but just generally in life, right?  When I look back only at the past weeks or months, it’s too easy to judge myself harshly and wonder, am I really enough?  Look at all the mistakes I keep making, over and again!  But when I breathe slowly and deeply, looking back farther on the long arc of learning, I see unequivocal progress.  “If it’s important, it will be repeated,” they always told us in medical school.  Life lessons always seem to come around again just when I need them.  With every iteration, when I can be fully present, tame my feral emotions, and call forth skills already learned, my ability deepens, even shines.  Every such instance prepares me for the next trial.  This is the benefit of mid-life: seeing clear evidence of advancing competence, and feeling the confidence to own it.

Transform the Story

The first and most important lesson I learned from coaching was to recognize the stories I tell.  All of our perceptions are, in very large proportion, formed in advance by our past experiences, biases, and expectations.  “Reality”, how we make meaning, is far more subjective than we realize (ha!) or admit, and I’m convinced that most human conflict arises when we deny awareness and acceptance of this.  I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing and moderating the stories I tell in new and low stakes encounters.  But in longstanding, intimate relationships and high stakes situations, I am often still chained to my deep, often negative, and ultimately self-defeating stories.  Ironically they are stories about others which, when I’m honest, are actually projections of my own concealed wounds.  How fascinating…and worthy of the work to disassemble, to free myself and my loved ones from these abstract cages of invented being.

Lightly, Lightly, Ever Lightly

*deep breath*

It’s all so much, this work, this drive, this constant striving in potential and possibility.  There is a role and a place for the Shoulds; the challenges all make me stronger; and the old stories all served a purpose once.  To grow is to shed, break, and deconstruct, and also to synthesize, integrate, and reform, ad infinitum.  It can and does often feel pretty heavy.  But now, this year, I choose lightness instead.  I have only this one life, yes, and it is finite.  There is only so much I can do…  And that’s still a lot, and I’m still young yet!  I’ got time, I’ got this; and even if I don’t, damn, I’ve done a fair bit already.  If it all ended today, of course I would have serious regrets.  And I’ve done my best; I’ve never stopped trying.  What more could I ask of myself?

Any and every moment can carry all hope, could make or break everything (really?), and could have nothing to do with anything–who knows in that moment?  I’m learning and doing every day anyway; why apply unnecessary pressure?  No, I’d rather have more fun in this time that I have.  So I’ll keep doing what needs doing.  I just don’t have to take it all (or myself) so damn seriously.

Oh and ODOMOBaaT, of course.  That just goes without saying.

Decompress

NaBloPoMo 2021:  Do Good, Kid

Life often turns out not—so not—how we want.

How do we cope?  Over and over, ad infinitum?

Between hope, expectation, and reality,

Where creep the fissures?

When they propagate into crevasses,

What do we feel?

Disappointment

Guilt

Shame

Anxiety

Rage

Resentment

Resignation

Drop in there, name it.

Spelunk the caves, Shine the light.

Allow, contain; then soothe the hijack.

Find the way out—it may be different each time.

Run; in place if necessary.

Punch, lift, kick, jump, yell, throw—just do no harm.

Talk, but only to someone helpful (if that’s not you, find someone else this time).

Write.  Anything, everything.  Doodle, scribble, jabberwocky.

Take that pent up, swelling, potential(ly negative) energy,

Held under pressure like a great balloon of hot gas;

Expel it.

Aim it to propel you, ya?

In the direction of your meaning, your purpose, your mission,

Or just your peace for now.

Life may be an exercise in elasticity, among other things.

Practice holding strong tension, then releasing it fully.

Repeat.

Condition and train this discipline.

We’ got this.