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Overreaction

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.

Photo by Jonathan Crews on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

 

When Things Don’t Go As Planned

In the online Red Cross Lifeguard Course, there’s a segment titled “When Things Don’t Go As Planned.” Every time I come across it, I smile.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Yes, indeedy. Because things often don’t go as planned.

Learning, in a real or virtual classroom, from text or videos or slideshows or YouTube, is necessarily simplified. The situations are controlled. Even the blood looks like cherry-flavored candy.

As a blogger, I ruminate, explore, define, proceed logically, and research. I’ve touched on so many different topics over the years here on Harvesting Stones. I’ve examined needs and boundaries, reciprocity and connection, contribution and authenticity.

However, this kind of intellectual exercise, learning at a remove, is not where the real mastery is.

The mastery comes when we put it all into action in real life. And real life is unbelievably messy. Real life is a loose cannon on a rolling deck. Real life does not go as planned.

We are occasionally plunged into chaos, into complicated experiences involving a lot of feelings and requiring all our skills. Our predictable routines and schedules turn inside out. We are not able to care for ourselves or anybody else as usual. We become exhausted. Our personal demons crawl out of our subconscious attics and cellars and play with us. Our physical weaknesses take advantage of our stress. We lose track of our power. We lose track of ourselves.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I would avoid such times if I could. I believe most of us would. Few people enjoy living in a maelstrom. The thing is, the maelstrom holds gifts, insights and growth we would never realize if we always lived serene, well-controlled lives.

I’m writing this on Wednesday morning. A week ago today, less than 24 hours before closing on the house we’re selling and the house we’re buying, closing was cancelled. Well, “extended.” I’m not sure there’s a difference, but my hope is pretty frayed right now, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic.

I thought I had been living in chaos before that abrupt last-minute change of plans, but those far-off days seem like a cake walk compared to what the last seven days have been like for me.

When our lives fall apart in painful ways, part of the stress of it is the rest of the world goes right on without giving us space and time to process, remember our resilience, and get back on our feet. I still needed to figure out how to get the car in to get the studded snows changed. I still have bills to pay. I still have a job. I still need to search the stores for cat food. I still have family birthdays to remember. The bed still needs to be made, the dishes washed, the laundry done. I want to remain consistent in my writing.

Autoimmune disease is highly opportunistic. I have not had this amount of stress since I moved to Maine seven years ago, and within a few hours of the cancelled closings my back went into spasm, which means I need all the love, rest, and care I can give myself right now, in the middle of the shit show. My body would feel better if we could close and get this move over with. And I can’t possibly move with this level of pain.

Meanwhile, the world turns. I feel guilty about my struggle when I know people in Ukraine are losing their homes, lives, loved ones, and perhaps their country. I tell myself I’m being dramatic, I’m whining, I never deserved for things to work out in the first place, etc., etc.

I told you about the personal demons crawling out, right?

So what do we do during times like these? How do we get through them? How do I turn the concepts of letting go, courage, detachment from outcomes, and emotional intelligence into tools to help myself? It’s all so clear, logical, and neat on the page/screen. I believe every word I write. It’s all organized and categorized.

When things don’t go as planned, nothing is neat, organized, or categorized. We can’t think well. Our feelings sweep us from fear to fury to despair and back again.

In my old dance group, we used to say when you feel overwhelmed, dance small.

Dance. Small.

Dancing small is focusing on breathing in and out. It’s making small movements. It’s wrapping your arms around yourself, facing a wall or a corner, closing your eyes, and concentrating on the floor under your feet. It’s deliberately sinking into yourself and letting everything and everyone else go as best you can. It might be the healing release of tears.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

This strategy doesn’t make the chaos go away, but it does give us a small resting place within the chaos. It allows us to find and hold onto ourselves. It gives us a tiny bit of power. It allows a little space for rational thought, for us to remind ourselves of what’s true:

  • Nothing stays the same; all things pass
  • Things invariably work out somehow, some way
  • There is always much to be grateful for
  • We are allowed to have feelings about our experience, and they’re allowed to be messy
  • We always have some choice
  • None of it is personal

This week, though in many ways painful and difficult, has also provided me with valuable practical experience in using some of my newer skills. It’s given me a chance to stay in my own power, always a worthy practice. I’ve had an epiphany about a longstanding destructive pattern in my relationships which has emotionally freed me in significant ways. Paradoxically, the current chaos has brought me clarity.

I’ve also been touched and humbled by the support I’ve received from friends and other members of my community. I am not alone.

Most of all, it’s given me a chance to deal with my feelings. It occurs to me the word “stress” is misleading. I don’t need to deal with my stress. My feelings need attention. They need to be named, welcomed, fully experienced, and released, no matter if they’re in my head, heart, or back. Managing my feelings will take care of my stress and my physical discomfort.

By the time you read this, things will have changed. Perhaps we’ll have a new closing date. Perhaps I’ll have decided to make a different plan. Perhaps we’ll still be in limbo, but it will be a different day in limbo. Today, we’ve taken my car in to get the tires changed, so that’s something taken care of. At some point, the muscles in my back will unclench and I’ll move freely again and be able to resume exercise.

Meanwhile, frogs boom, chuckle, and peep in the pond. The birds are busy and the spring dawn chorus gladdens each morning. The phoebe has returned and hunts from the barn roof. Rain falls and the sun shines. The mud is gradually drying up. I will feed the cats, play with them, clean their boxes. I’ll go to work, teach swim lessons, wipe down the locker rooms, read the pool chemicals, guard lives, answer the phone. I’ll feed myself, drink cups of tea, rest, write, read, and sleep. Time will pass. Days will pass.

It will all pass, the things that go as planned, and the things that don’t.

Photo by henry fournier on Unsplash

What I Learned

Unless the sky falls (again), we will be moving in less than a week. It’s hard to believe. In fact, it’s impossible to believe, but that’s okay. Today is real, and I know what I need to do right now. The future can take care of itself.

As I moved around the kitchen early this morning, feeding (and tripping over) the cats, making breakfast, heating water for tea, watching the sky lighten, it occurred to me the last seven years in this old farmhouse have taught me a magnificent lesson.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

When I moved to Maine, I had a solid idea about what I was moving into, a whole set of expectations and dreams, none of which turned out to be real.

The loss of my fantasies was heartbreaking and took me years to process. During that time, I started this blog and later remodeled it, finished my first book, wrote my second, and began my third, started publishing my fiction serially on Substack, put everything I’ve learned about emotional intelligence into action, grew deep roots in my community, found a great job I love, and became part of a second family.

At the same time, I experienced disempowerment in terms of my living space and physical surroundings. Never before have I lived in a place where I had so little power to respond to my needs and preferences, and never have I been so overwhelmed with maintenance tasks I could not take care of.

Because of my emotional intelligence training, my disempowerment was visible to me, and I was able to turn towards what I did have power over, again and again, until it became second nature. It didn’t feel good, but it was invaluable practice at managing my own power, at recognizing my own power.

Always before in my life, I’ve had plans and projects, things I wanted to buy, walls I wanted to paint, the ability to rearrange furniture, make repairs, have new shelves built, and discard what was no longer useful. Such activity gave me a great deal of pleasure and was thoroughly distracting. It was never finished, so I stayed firmly focused on externals.

In this house, that distraction has been unavailable. To stand in my own power has been to stand still with myself, to work internally, to feel my feelings, create, stretch, grow, learn, explore. It’s been lonely. It’s been uncomfortable. It’s been transformative. It’s been internal, invisible, and has nothing to do with a shiny presentation.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Most of us would acknowledge real change and healing come from the inside, not from the surface. But understanding that intellectually is not the same as spending years living it. I would never have voluntarily given up the power to manage my surroundings. When I realized it was happening I had a choice to make, and I chose to explore this new, unexpected territory.

That choice is one of the best I’ve ever made.

I have learned a dream home, a dream wardrobe, a dream body, a dream library, is not a life. What others see of me and my possessions and home is not me. My presentation has nothing to do with my state of health, presence, and groundedness.

Our new home is old, though not as old as this farm, and it needs some work. Sure, it needs new exterior paint and other cosmetic help, but that’s not where I’ll start. Those changes are fun and everyone can see and appreciate them, but the invisible, internal issues like plumbing, wiring, and insulation are what will really make a difference to my experience living there.

The looks of the new house are not what matters. It’s the life we create inside it that matters.

The color of my hair doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside my head that matters.

The clothes I wear don’t matter. It’s the health and peace in my body that matter.

Attaining perfection (and perfect control) of my space is not what matters. It’s the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings, maintain integrity, and live well that matter.

In these last few days of packing, sorting, and endless tasks and details, at every step I’m thinking about what I learned and how grateful I am for the lesson. I didn’t choose to learn it. I wouldn’t have volunteered to learn it. I was forced into it, tricked into it, even.

But that’s not important. My life has consistently taken me exactly where I need to go, in spite of how much I whine and complain about some of the places I’ve been. Now, just ahead, is a whole new chapter.

I wonder what I will learn.

(Next weekend we’re moving, so you won’t see a post here from me. I’ll be back in two weeks!)

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

Uncovering Peace

This quote by Joshua Fields Millburn landed in my Inbox last week:

“Peace cannot be created – it is already there beneath the chaos.”

The truth of this struck me at once. We don’t construct peace. We uncover it.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

The practice of minimalism, for me, is the practice of letting go, of letting things fall away. I don’t do that to make my life empty. I do it to uncover the life I want.

If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.

If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.

If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.

It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.

How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?

Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.

Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.

This goes back to subtractive problem-solving. We don’t need more to solve our problems. We need less.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.

Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.

That’s why emotional intelligence matters.

What might lie beneath the chaos along with our peace? What are we most desperately in search of or trying hardest to create?

Love?

Health?

Time?

Our true selves?

An authentic life?

What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?

What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?

We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.

It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.

Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.

Uncovering peace. And other things. My daily crime.

Photo by fancycrave on Unsplash

Emergence

I am having a strange experience of becoming.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Or perhaps not becoming, but emerging. I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

I’m emerging as someone I was always meant to be.

This emergence began (I know you’ll be shocked) with a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. In the pages of this book I found the self I’ve always known and the private experiences I’ve hidden out of guilt, fear, and shame.

I also found a map to a new person.

Although the catalyst was the book, which by its nature is intellectual, the process itself is almost entirely felt. I can’t think myself into a new sense of self and my life; I must feel my way.

This makes it hard to write about here.

As so often happens, a poem came along that perfectly describes what I feel in the subtle, intuitive, symbolic language of poetry rather than carefully crafted, concrete prose.

The Return by Leanne O’Sullivan

I walk through paw-prints the frost has dug, among the moist grasses, my silver hair flowing like a cat’s deep stretch.

This is my season. Again and again I die under the blossom of leaves and count my lives by the sapped rings of trees.

No one will know me, none but the wood growth, its hug of frost its scent of moss its naked shadow

and I, standing at the end of an embered wood where once a light passed through me and passes again,

before I remember how I appeared or how I ended, folding myself into my arms —

the seed, the root, the blossom, the stone shining with all my running juices.

From Cailleach: The Hag of Beara (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)

Emergence, I discover, is a kind of death, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or moth. It’s a process of uncovering, of freeing something hidden inside, somehow familiar but never before seen. The soul and spirit I was meant to be was covered with a stony crust, originally formed for protection, but long ago becoming a prison. A crust of coping mechanisms and beliefs. A crust covering feelings too painful and overwhelming to acknowledge or face when first felt.

As I scrape away that crust, the feelings it covered swell into life, and they do not want my intellect or to be pinned down into a blog post.

They want to be felt.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

And, having been felt, they dissipate like incense smoke, leaving behind a coating of scented ash that scatters with a single breath and reveals someone I’ve never known or been before.

In the meantime, external life goes on around my internal experience. My car is in the shop. It’s a heavy work week. We are stifling in high humidity. I have just finished editing my second manuscript and am rolling up my sleeves to begin writing the third. I’m working on my new website.

As I live the days, I recognize triggers I wasn’t aware of before, triggers to old feelings and reactions, and I apply new tools, habits, compassion, and understanding to them. I’m grateful for the foundations I’ve already built of mindfulness, creativity, and emotional intelligence. I didn’t know they would become the foundations of a new self.

I am changing. I am emerging. I am learning and growing. I am wondering where I’m going.

Wherever I’m going, it’s better than where I’ve been.

Emerging. My daily crime.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash