I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
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I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.
I’ve spent most of my life being flung from one story to the next.
None of the stories were mine.
More than anything else, this blog has been a step-by-step process of finding my own voice and path. It’s not a coincidence that during the same time I’ve surrendered to my need to write and been working on a fictional series.
As an empath, I’ve always been deeply invested in the lives of those close to me, particularly in my role as a character in their stories. All my energy went into becoming the kind of person others most needed in order to have a happier, healthier autobiography. I felt responsible for the quality of their experience.
It never occurred to me to wonder about my own narrative. I defined myself solely through the eyes of others. Living in such a way was intolerably confusing. I was useless. I excelled. I was too smart. I wasn’t smart enough. I was too dramatic. I was too stoic. I was a quitter who lacked ambition. My interests and ambitions were ridiculous. I was selfish and cold. I was generous and kind. I interrupted others. I held space for others. I was loyal. I was disloyal. I was a good ___. I was a bad ___.
As I entered my 50s, I knew a great deal about what others thought of me, but I didn’t think much about myself. There was no me independent of the perceptions of others.
I read somewhere that other people, even those closest to us, can only see the shadow of who we really are. When our choices, feelings, thoughts, and expressions are attacked, that shadow is the target, not our true selves. The shadow we cast in the world and in the tales of others is a fuzzy, one-dimensional, monochrome shape created by the perceptions, expectations, and experiences of other people. A shadow is not and can never be an accurate representation of a human being.
As a writer, I’m familiar with the process of developing a character. A well-drawn character is not a senseless jumble of contradictions, but a being with his or her own logic and behavioral patterns. A strong character may have ambivalent or confused aspects, and certainly will have attractive or sympathetic as well unattractive or unsympathetic attributes, but it’s the writer’s job to create a cohesive personality that’s logically predictable, even if profoundly disordered.
A vital character will at some point leave the page and enter my dreams, whisper in my ear, and begin to direct his or her own role in my story.
The only time in life we have this measure of power in story is when we’re creating our own narrative about our own life.
Once we absorb that fact, everything changes. We move from being disempowered and captive to everyone else’s expectations and opinions about who we are to standing in our own power to fully express ourselves regardless of what anyone else has to say about it. We move from weakness and irresponsibility with regard to ourselves into self-discipline and responsibility for our lives and choices.
We begin to intentionally write the story of our own lives.
Life conspires a hundred times a day to distract us from what is ours. Our love and care for others can quickly turn us away from our story and into theirs. Video games, movies and headlines clamor for our imagination, sympathy, attention, and outrage. We are trained to believe everyone has a better or more valid life experience than we do. All that energy is lost, energy we gave away instead of investing it in our own story.
It’s interesting and amusing to think about shadows. If others can only see the shadow I cast, it follows that I see only the shadow they cast. Why, then, am I investing energy into nothing more than shadows? Is it useful to get deeply enmeshed in our perceptions of the experience of others? Do we have the power to force others to use us as specific kinds of characters in their stories? Do we have the power to write a single word of anyone else’s story, no matter how closely connected we feel to them or how deeply we love them?
If I go out in the world and actively criticize and judge or praise and support others, that’s material for my story, not theirs. At best, I can only see their shadow. I can’t possibly know the entirety of their narrative and experience.
If I am criticized and judged, or praised and supported, I can choose what to do with that feedback, retain it or delete it. I can change settings and get rid of characters. I can emphasize some elements and deemphasize others. I can have adventures, trials, and tribulations. I can follow paths that catch my interest or compel me. I can make choices and deal with the consequences. Only I can decide what my story is.
Interestingly, this idea of writing one’s own account intersects with the practice of minimalism. So many of our possessions are props for various stories. There are the stories we wish were ours, the stories we hope will be ours, the outdated stories that once were ours but now have changed, the stories we want others to believe about us, the stories of others who are no longer with us, and the stories others say should be ours. Somewhere in the hairball is the true thread, the simple narrative that is ours right now. The only one we have. The only one we can write. Everything else is clutter, noise, and distraction.
Stories are for telling, sharing, inspiring, and learning from. My life is enriched beyond measure by the stories of those around me, and I’m honored to be able to share them. I’m also honored to add mine to the mix. I can’t write yours, and you can’t write mine, but we can listen, and witness, and bless the stories of others with our presence and attention.
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread that runs vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breath and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems that the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. It’s in that deep space that I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.
A reader commented on my last post, asking me what I thought about obedience. What a great question!
According to Online Oxford Dictionary, obedience is “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”
Before we continue, let me make clear that this is not a religious discussion. I know obedience is an important idea in a religious context, and I respect that many people of faith have specific expectations about obedience as it pertains to their belief system, whatever that may be. I’m not a religious scholar, nor do I follow any formal religious framework, so I don’t feel capable of exploring that aspect of obedience.
However, the concept of obedience is everywhere because we are social creatures and naturally form ourselves into groups. Where there are groups there are power dynamics, and, for me, obedience is about power.
Power, by the way, is not love. It’s important to be clear about that.
Obedience is a timely topic, because the coronavirus crisis has changed and limited our lives in many ways, whether we agree with the necessity for masks, social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines or not.
The choice to be obedient hinges on our willingness to recognize authority. Authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” I freely admit to being wary of authority, because it’s often about power-over, and that kind of dynamic takes away or limits choice.
How do we determine the legitimacy of authority, and how do we agree on whose authority we will follow?
These are vital questions, because if we don’t trust or respect the authority giving orders and making decisions, we are less likely to be obedient.
People claim authority for all sorts of reasons, including their biological sex, the color of their skin, their age, their social position, their wealth, their education and experience, their size and strength, their religious beliefs, and their personal sense of entitlement. Some pathetically impotent people believe their willingness to intimidate or hurt another gives them authority.
Psychologically speaking, some people are better wired for obedience than others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I view the willingness to be disobedient as necessarily negative or positive. It seems to me we need the ability to practice both in order to reclaim a vital, resilient culture.
Obedience, like faith, tolerance, respect and so many other intangible ideas, needs limits and boundaries, which means we must stay in our own personal power when we deal with authority. Mindless, blind obedience (or disobedience) is a slippery slope. An authority that cannot tolerate questions, controls information and accepts no limits is a problem.
Some people feel most comfortable with someone else in power, making decisions, mandating behavior, and keeping everything cut and dried. They keep the trains running on time and don’t worry about what’s loaded in them or where the trains are going. They do well in schools, big businesses and the military, any context with clear operating procedures and chains of command. They look to their peers and popular culture, like memes, movies and social media, to shape their opinions, tastes and in-groups. They are content to be led and influenced and often welcome authority with open arms. As long as the authority they bow to is competent and benign, all goes well.
However, authority is power, and power attracts corruption and the corruptible. Cluster B personalities are everywhere, in family systems, in religious organizations, in businesses and schools, in the military and in politics. They think they’re more important than anyone else. They think they can do whatever they want whenever they want because they’re special. They operate strictly out of self-interest and are without empathy or interest in anyone else’s well-being. They reject expert advice and collaboration, data, and education. They always have to win and be right, and must maintain their sense of superiority and control.
Such people are catastrophic authorities and don’t deserve to be in power or command obedience, but in order to discern between benign and malign authority, we must be willing to see clearly; educate ourselves about social power dynamics; research, explore and think for ourselves; and have the courage to rebel and resist. We must learn to manage our power of consent, which includes being able to freely and firmly say no or yes, and be willing to shoulder full responsibility for our actions. If we don’t do these things, we can’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we’ll be deselected.
Obedience is a dance with choice and consequences. I am frequently disobedient in one way or another, and I accept responsibility for the consequences of my choices. Make no mistake, consequences for social disobedience can be extremely harsh. Tribal shaming, scapegoating, silencing and chronic long-term shaming and blaming are devastating to deal with and leave permanent scars.
Institutional disobedience can be punished by things like jail time, fines, getting fired or getting kicked out of businesses and venues.
Refusing to follow CDC and expert medical guidelines right now puts everyone at higher risk for illness and death, and will further destabilize the economy, the food supply, the medical system, our country, and our world.
Many methods of enforcing obedience are possible only in a power-over dynamic. The person claiming authority is in a position to withhold benefits like money, position, power or even love. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world are masters at this kind of exploitation, and it works well as long as the victim believes the authority has something they needand will make a deal.
Again, this harks back to personal power. If we are healthy enough to be self-sufficient, independent and confident of our abilities, if we love and respect ourselves and refuse to negotiate our integrity, we’re less dependent on the power of others. If we recognize malign, incompetent authorities for what they are, we’re less likely to become their victims.
I frequently choose to obey or comply with authority. It just depends on the context and the nature of the authority handing out the orders.
When I do a Google search on obedience, I find memes that imply obedience equals safety. I don’t believe that for a single second. Obedience, in my life, has never meant safety. Self-reliance has been far safer. Equating safety with obedience is an authoritarian tactic that keeps people in line. I wear a mask in public right now, per CDC guidelines, because I believe it to be a sensible choice for myself and others. It may help me avoid COVID-19, and it may help prevent me passing it to others. It does not guarantee anyone’s safety. It’s no one’s responsibility but my own to keep myself safe.
In the end, my greatest obedience is to myself and my own integrity. I trust my common sense, empathy, and wisdom. I don’t put myself in a position of dependence on others. I’m rigorous in evaluating sources of news, information and guidance, and I’m happy to submit to such authorities, not because they demand or expect it, but because I choose to.
I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)
I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.
Life is strange.
Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.
Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.
Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.
But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.
It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.
Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.
For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.
What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.
It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.
Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.
So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.
I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.
There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?
My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.
I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.
I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.
This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.
I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.
I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.
That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.
Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.
Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.
As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.
I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?
Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!
All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!
Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.
I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.
Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!
I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.
I don’t want to live like that. Do you?
Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.