As I serial publish my Webbd Wheel series on Substack, I’m discovering some kindred spirits on the platform. Keri Mangis writes a newsletter called The Power Source, and she recently wrote a piece about being an outsider that caught my eye.
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I’ve written about the longing to belong previously. The desire to feel firmly anchored in family and community is an ache I’ve felt most of my life. Though I’ve belonged a few precious times in my life and I know what it feels like, I know more about what it doesn’t feel like.
Mangis suggests being an outsider is powerful because being an insider is so much work. We trim and prune and espalier ourselves to stay safe in our feeling of belonging. Humans are social animals. We’re neurobiologically wired to fear being outcast and alone.
Childhood is about learning roles, rules, familial and cultural norms, and, for most of us, under which specific conditions we can be loved and accepted and achieve belonging. Unconditional love is not our best thing.
By the time we’re young adults, we know what’s expected of us if we want to belong. The parts of us that don’t fit in are amputated or hidden, and we often live a double life, one secret and one playing to our audience, or we make ourselves into masks and shells, acceptable to our peers, families, and communities, but lacking authenticity or vitality.
Either choice is a lot of work. Making yourself small is exhausting. Ask any woman.
What we really want is for our real selves to belong, our honest, authentic selves, but few of us are lucky enough to find that easily, and the fear of being alone is huge.
We have a tendency to think of maturity as taking place in the first 20 years of life. By then we’re in our adult bodies and generally able to function on our own. We define ourselves as grownups, adults. We take on responsibilities, pursue education and interests, figure out the economics of independence. Some people form partner bonds and raise children. We’re busy in the world and much of that busyness has to do with belonging, taking care of social obligations, participating in production and consumption, and bumping up against limitations, rules, and taboos. We use our manners, follow traffic rules (sometimes), stand in lines, allow ourselves to be directed by signs, and generally follow the same standards of civility we learned in school.
We also subscribe to ideologies and resist change in the form of new information or critical thinking. We can’t endanger our places of belonging. Our identity depends on them.
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In exchange, we are paid for our work, have friends, family, and community, wear our labels comfortably, and stay safe in the middle of the herd.
Then suddenly we’re old, negligible, invisible, and burdensome.
Then we die.
But what if the first 20 years are just the beginning? What if, as Mangis suggests, we embark on a new level of maturity in late middle age? What if that level requires we outgrow the need to belong and leave the longing for it behind?
I know from my study of power dynamics fear-driven choices indicate power loss. The fear of being outcast and alone is terrible, and so is the fact of it.
However, it is survivable, and it’s also a much, much easier way to live. The degree to which we’ve spent our first 50 years or so living underground or in the shadows is the degree to which our lives simplify if we decide belonging isn’t so important after all.
Suddenly, we can be as big, as expansive, as individual, as happy, as creative, as expressive, and as strong as we choose. We’ve spent 50 years learning about ourselves and the world. We’re no longer overwhelmed with the physiological needs of reproduction. If we give up our fears and struggles around belonging, what could we do with that energy? Belonging is expensive, and so is longing.
Perhaps mid-life crises are really just another growth spurt, a milestone to be celebrated and welcomed.
Instead of framing these years as the beginning of the end, perhaps we could look at them as the beginning of our most authentic years, the years in which we’re less concerned about how acceptable others find us, stop apologizing for who we are, and focus on reclaiming ourselves and belonging in our own skins.
At the end of the day, we belong only to ourselves. We’re not required to give up our power for transformation in order to belong to anyone else.
All we have to do is let go of our longing for belonging.
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Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.
It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.
“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.
The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.
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I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?
Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?
I’ve written a series of posts about happiness, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, PhD. I went back and reread those posts.
Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?
Are ordinary people happy?
Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?
I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.
Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.
(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)
I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.
Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.
But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.
It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow it and take the time to be present in the moment.
When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.
Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.
The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.
Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.
Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.
Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?
That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?
Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.
Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?
But we could change our minds.
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By John Rose
I’ve written in detail about boundaries before. I’ve spent a lot of time on the concept because boundaries were a key piece of healthy functioning I never understood or had before I was 50, and that lack caused constant problems and stress in my life.
This week I came across some questions about budgeting from Seth Godin that really caught my eye and started me thinking about boundaries again. Budgeting is much in my mind as we transition into our new house, new systems, and a new routine for everything from cleaning out the cat boxes to paying the bills.
A budget, in essence, is a boundary. I never thought of it that way before, but a budget is a framework we agree to stay within as we manage the resource of money. Boundaries are not specific to money, and three of the questions Godin proposed can be applied widely:
- Are you able to understand yourself and your needs well enough to put boundaries around them? If you don’t, are you aware enough to know what you need to learn so you can?
- Are you willing to be on the hook for managing your life so you don’t exceed your resource (time, energy, money, etc.)?
- Can you embrace the imperfect nature of life and plans as you lean into boundaries and flex when appropriate?
Godin comes at this as a businessman, but the idea of budgeting (effectively managing financial resource) can be expanded to include any resource.
It strikes me budgeting is adulting. It requires a clear picture of expenditure and income, the ability to think ahead, the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know and need to learn. Whether we’re trying to shape a more effective life or remodel a bathroom, the process is the same. What’s not working? What are the needs? What are our options for change? What will the project cost in terms of resource over a period of time? What do we need in terms of resource for learning what we don’t know? Are we investing our resource wisely? What’s the starting point?
(This circles back around to showing our work, the subject of last week’s post.)
If we can’t dig into these questions, we can’t become a professional adult.
Budgeting also requires responsibility. Are we willing to be on the hook? Are we willing to make written commitments to ourselves and others? Are we willing to build in consequences for failing to meet our commitments, both to ourselves and others?
Lastly, perfectionism is not resilient. Plans, budgets, and boundaries are frameworks. They support us in meeting our goals and functioning effectively and appropriately. While we’re making plans and drawing up spreadsheets, however, life happens. Pandemics happen. Economic changes come and go. New technology comes onto the market. We often need to flex, consider new information, accommodate change, deal with delay and unexpected events.
None of those inevitabilities are excuses for abdicating from creating boundaries. If we care enough to take charge of our own lives or dive into a project, clarity and boundaries are essential, including a budget. It’s not good enough to fly by the seat of our pants, to say contractors won’t work within a budget anyway, or budgeting ruins the fun, or we’re unwilling to compromise in order to maintain our boundaries.
If we won’t take responsibility for our endeavors, why should contractors or anyone else? If we can’t manage boundaries around our lives and resource, why should anyone else respect our needs? If we won’t do the up-front planning and work and communicate it clearly to those we’re engaged with, how can we expect to meet our goals?
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Moving into a new house invariably results in needing skilled tradesmen like plumbers and electricians. Such people are not easy to find, especially in a small city. Obviously, one wants someone who is skilled, but I’ve also been reminded how important it is to find someone who runs an effective business. Liking and appreciating people who do work for us and being pleased with the work done doesn’t balance out lack of written bids, receipts, invoices, contracts, etc. I can’t budget if I don’t have good information. I can’t plan payments. Flying by the seat of one’s pants is not good business. It leaves both customer and service provider in the dark. Fortunately, I keep good notes and records, but there’s a big difference between a handwritten (by me) list of dates and amounts paid (Labor? Equipment? Was this the outside faucet or the leaking sink? How much more will I owe? When is the final total due?) and a professional invoice indicating costs for equipment, labor, the work that was done, and payment status.
Budgeting and boundaries. What an odd couple. Recognizing budgeting as a boundary makes me determined to embrace it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. I know all too well the result of having poor boundaries.
This tidbit landed in my Inbox this week. At first read, I simply agreed with it. As I’ve thought about it, though, I keep unpacking layers.
I’m sitting outside in the sun at our new house writing the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper on my knee, which is crusted with dirt. The knee, I mean, not the pen and paper! It’s too bright for my laptop out here. Inside, our plumber and his assistant are deconstructing our upstairs bathroom. Fortunately, we still have a dumpster. We are pleased to have our plumbing issues addressed: slow drains, old water damage, leaking pipes, and an unpleasant whiff of sewer now and then. We will be even more pleased to have a working shower.
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And it all costs money. A lot of money.
With no work as a distraction on this day off, I spent the morning in the garden, where I was thoroughly happy and busy. That took care of the morning. I got dirty (knees) and bug bitten. We have no water at the moment, so I’m going to stay dirty until the plumbers leave for the day, although, come to think of it, I don’t know the water will be turned back on when they leave. Hmm.
Near noon I went inside for shade and a cold drink, but the sounds of banging, sawing, and the shop vac, along with a steady stream of construction debris and old bathroom fittings being carried down the stairs and out the door on the way to the dumpster fueled my anxiety, so I turned to the comfort of writing, as I so often do. I started by catching up on my email, where inspiration frequently lurks.
It was then I read Godin’s brief thoughts about fear and footnotes. He suggests when we feel nervous and afraid about the “information” we’re writing or speaking about, we don’t show our sources, references, and work.
It made me think about my own fear about scarcity today. If I showed my work about that, about the fear I’ll run out of money and have to spend the rest of my life under a bridge, what would it look like?
Has that ever happened?
Have I ever been in serious want?
Have I ever been homeless or truly hungry?
Do I have a job I love and for which I’m paid?
In essence, I have no work to show because my fear of scarcity is nothing but an old ghost, an ancient traumatic wound, irrational and mostly in my head.
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Interesting. Does lack of research and background information indicate a measure of fear in our discourse, a measure of uncertainty, a degree of irrationality, even?
It’s a fact that I like my information (facts) served up with links, references, and footnotes. Content presented as information (facts) without such foundations is suspect in my eyes, and I do further research. Far too many people in cyberspace call their opinions, pathologies, disorders, fetishes, and lies facts.
On the other hand, some information (facts) is so widely accepted, taught, and promulgated footnotes are hardly necessary. An example of this is diet. Much of our (broken) healthcare system is built on the foundation of “facts” about what constitutes a healthy and appropriate diet.
But what if these “facts” arise from corrupted data? What if the real truth is less profitable for those in power and thus has been buried? For decades?
Collecting data and testing hypotheses requires funding. Doing it well requires a lot of funding. Corporations and other entities with deep pockets may have a vested interest in the outcome of studies. It’s not impossible to imagine unpalatable findings (by which I mean findings which threaten profit) are buried or deleted. It’s also not hard to imagine studies designed to explore data contradicting the (profitable) status quo can find neither funding nor support in the most powerful scientific schools and journals.
An unhealthy population is enormously profitable for some people, and those people have a lot of power.
This sort of thing has, after all, been going on since the time of Galileo, the sixteenth century astronomer who was interviewed by the Inquisition, forced to recant his scientific findings, and spent the end of his life under house arrest.
The thing is, he was a scientific genius, and he was right.
But the Catholic Church, very powerful during that period of history, felt threatened by his conclusions.
In other words, they were afraid. So they shut him up. Fear = silencing.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he was right.
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Tens of thousands of articles are available online about the health benefits of a plant-based diet. The better written, more thorough ones contain resources and links to various studies and data. However, one can also find studies and data by well-qualified scientists and doctors (mostly in other countries) indicating the reverse: a plant-based diet may cause a myriad of health problems.
Critical thinking, the ability to assess a problem or question, research, look at data, ask questions, and analyze findings, is an equal opportunity playing field unless we have no access to information (like the Internet) or are unable to read and write. What this means to me is we all have a right to question information, research for ourselves, and look for a variety of sources and references. Critical thinking in the modern age means we must be able to separate a fact from an opinion, information (facts) from lies.
That’s a big problem. I’m quite confident a plant-based diet caused me years of health problems and pain and the biochemical results (demonstrable data) my current carnivore diet provides to my doctor are not dangerous or problematic. My healthcare provider disagrees. Vehemently. I want to talk about my research, resources, and links. I want to ask questions. I want resources my provider might have access to which I haven’t found or don’t know about. I believe I have some solid data to back up my questions and concerns. I also know I am frequently wrong, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else to the glamour of bullshit wrapped up in science.
My healthcare provider refuses to discuss it.
So there we are. I’m not afraid to be wrong, but I am afraid to be in pain. My healthcare provider is part of a broken system. How much power does she have, really, to deal with someone like me? How much time does she have? How much energy or even interest? It’s much easier to fill out a one-size-fits-all prescription for a plant-based diet or pharmaceuticals. Her job may be in jeopardy if she doesn’t feed me with the medical establishment’s current party line.
Meanwhile, in the eyes of some others, I’m murdering the planet, taking poor care of my health, and clearly believe in hate and violence toward animals. Any self-respecting member of PETA would set my house on fire.
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None of that is true, from my perspective. None of it is even fact. I could provide several links and resources challenging those statements, many of them by scientists and including studies and data. But many, many, people would believe all those things and more about me based on my dietary choices, and they too could provide links, resources, and numerous studies and scientific conclusions supporting their point of view.
I agree with Godin. We should show our work. It won’t make everything magically clear because information from different sources frequently conflicts, and not all information sources are trustworthy, but showing our work helps us remember science is built on the shoulders of those who came before us (like Galileo), and honors the scientific process. Heck, it honors creative process. Godin’s original post is three lines. I just wrote more than 1,000 words because he poked at me and made me think, explore, question, wonder.
We are all connected, whether we like it or not. Showing our work makes us a little more human, a little more humane, a little more thoughtful, a little more careful. People who won’t show their work set off my radar. What are they hiding? Why don’t they have the courage of their convictions? Why are questions and investigations so threatening they must be silenced or stopped?
As for the inside of my own head, I need to show my work to myself, too. Anxiety thrives on the stories we tell ourselves without regard to whether the stories are true or have ever been true. We all need to be clear about the difference between our stories and opinions and information (facts). Stories and opinions have their place, but they’re not facts we can research, footnote, and independently verify. If we can’t show our work, perhaps we’re no longer in the realm of facts. If we won’t show our work, we lose credibility with people who think critically.
Updating a bathroom costs some money. We have some money. Those are the facts.
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Food for thought from Seth Godin: Productivity is not measured in drama.
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Sometimes life seems to me like a giant factory. The owners are busy manufacturing fear and drama day and night, making money hand over fist. We the people sit in little cubicles, brainwashed and manipulated by the factory owners, responding to fear and drama stimuli for all we’re worth (and much more than we’re worth, monetarily speaking) and providing a gigantic, endless river of profit to the few at the top. After a few months in the factory, we’re promoted; we’ve learned to create fear and drama all by ourselves! Now we can model good business practice for the newbies.
Fear and drama. Two top money-makers. Naturally, a capitalist culture would be constructed to relentlessly promote them, and any vehicle for increasing fear and drama would have enormous lucrative potential. Hence, staggering financial power and influence in the form of social media, conspiracy theory centers and advertising.
Information (facts) and critical thinking mitigate fear, so let’s demonize them and weaken public education so such heretical things are not taught.
Breaking our addiction to stuff and stimulation, instant gratification and validation, might allow us to realize how hollow and expensive those addictions are, so let’s not give people a single second in which to be tranquil and quiet.
Changing our belief that having and doing are more important than being, that doing more faster will lead to greater productivity and thus more money (with which we can buy more) will hurt the economy. Let’s make that unpatriotic, unpopular, and offensive.
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Let’s emphasize and support division, outrage, hatred, bigotry, procrastination, ignorance, catastrophizing, gaslighting, urgency, “alternative facts”, and disempowerment. Let’s prioritize making a profit.
Let’s train the culture to demand drama, and richly reward those who disseminate the most drama to the public. Let’s give those people power, authority, awards, and our money. Let’s give them our time and attention, our applause, loyalty, and praise. They entertain us. They tell us what we want to hear. They will be our saviors in a terrifying world. Without them, we’ll lose everything. (Starting with our guns.)
Manufactured drama. Manufactured fear. As though life doesn’t have enough organically grown drama and fear.
But one can never have enough money, right? And fear and drama are sound investments. Better than blue chip stocks, because they perform best in the worst of times.
At some point, we hitched drama onto productivity and conflated them. Godin reminds us productivity and drama are not the same or even related, unless it’s an inverse relationship.
We don’t have to choose crisis. We can build slack into our lives, quiet, unplugged time, time away from a screen. We don’t have to feed drama or get involved with it. We certainly don’t have to pass it on. We don’t have to attach to fear. We can unhook from fearful media, take our time and attention away from it.
Fear and drama don’t help us effectively manage our lives or make positive contributions. They don’t make us more humane or better problem solvers. They don’t help us find true love or good health. They’re neither creative nor connecting. Urgency is not high-quality fuel for life, and it doesn’t help us make empowered choices.
If we want to be productive, we need to disengage from fear and drama.
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All my life I’ve been told I overreact and I’m too dramatic, two labels which automatically invalidate my experience, feelings, and any attempt I make to communicate honestly.
Being told we’re overreacting is a sure way to shut us down, especially when we hear it regularly. It makes us question our own experience. It breaks connection and trust. It isolates us in shame.
It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.
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When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.
As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.
My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.
Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.
My body betrays me.
Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.
But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.
The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.
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So, back pain.
In the middle of this experience, I read an article by Courtney Carver from Be More With Less titled “5 Thoughtful Ways to Help You Underreact.” As you can imagine, it caught my eye.
Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.
Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?
Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.
We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”
It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.
Here’s Carver’s list:
- Do what you can. Let the rest go.
- Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
- Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.
Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.
What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.
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