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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

Accuracy Versus Precision

I subscribe to Seth Godin, who provides me with a few sentences of daily food for thought in my Inbox. This week, I read this link about the difference between accuracy and precision.

Godin’s distinction between the two is one I never thought about before, but I have been thinking about roots.

Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash

Deep roots. Strong roots.

Roots grow toward sustenance. They don’t grow toward, or in, barren soil. Cell by cell, rootlet by rootlet, inch by inch, they spread, seeking water, seeking the soil and mineral resource they need. Cell by cell, stem by stem, twig by twig, inch by inch, trees and plants grow aboveground in search of sunlight.

Trees and plants want to live. They seek the resources necessary to do so. Survival is their simple, accurate agenda. A seed germinates and grows toward successful reproduction, wherever it happens to be.

Exactly how the roots and crown need to grow, exactly where the best sustenance and water will be found, exactly what the quality and quantity of sunlight will be, all these precise determinations have no meaning unless the imperative to survive exists, and can’t be planned ahead. It all depends on context.

The accuracy comes first. Then the precise details.

I’m thinking about this because we are relocating, not from Maine, but from this old farmhouse.

A year ago, I wrote a series of posts about holistic management, and I’ve been reviewing my holistic plan regularly ever since. My intention, my accurate intention, in Godin’s language, is to create a simpler, more sustainable life.

The precise details? Well, that’s a hairball of monstrous proportions that’s currently keeping me up nights.

Maybe it doesn’t need to. I started with an accurate intention and have taken all kinds of steps toward that, not only with my physical living situation, but also with my writing and life in general. The precise details of each of those steps were not visible to me a year ago when I created my plan and started acting. I moved forward, and identified and dealt with specifics as I came to them.

When I was younger, I had an easier time with big changes, because there was always time to adjust, to go back, to change my mind, to make another choice in the future. But now, as my partner and I age, it feels more urgent to get it exactly right and position myself perfectly for any eventuality.

This is silly, of course. The things we agonize over usually never happen, and if they do, they don’t happen in the way we predicted. The challenges we do encounter are often complete surprises we could never have foreseen or imagined.

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

Godin’s thought for the day reminded me, again, that life is a journey. It’s a process. It unfolds. Much as I’d like to know exactly where and when, who and how, those precise details are hidden in the future. It’s not time to know them yet. Right now, today, I need to live those questions and steer with my intention: a simpler, more sustainable life.

That’s the tree I planted last year. Now it’s beginning to grow. The roots are seeking nourishment. The plant aboveground is seeking sunlight. When I look back over the last twelve months, I can see how much growth there’s been, but as I lived the last year I didn’t think about growth or progress. I dealt with specifics arising out of my accurate, intentional seed and put one foot in front of the other.

Now we approach the still, dark, heart of winter, and as I take stock, look over my shoulder and raise my gaze to the horizon ahead, I realize afresh movement in the right direction is what counts. The specifics reveal themselves in their own time. Whatever my feelings of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm, I’m also flowing in the current of my accurate intention.

I’m forced to admit I have a choice. I can rest in faith in myself, in my intentions, and in life generally. I can cultivate my curiosity and sense of exploration, discovery, and fun.

Or I can make myself miserable trying to figure out every single detail yesterday and pushing this important transition to go as fast as possible so I don’t have to feel my feelings and wrestle with my panic-stricken thoughts any more.

It’s really not a choice I want to make. I don’t feel I have the energy to fight my compulsion to speed like a maniac through my life right now, obsessing about money, cleaning, and showings, collecting and packing boxes, and checking online every 10 minutes for new MLS listings. In Central Maine. In December. In our modest price range.

But even as I think that thought, I know it’s a lie. Whatever will be, will be. There’s only so much power I have in this picture. What’s really at stake is whether I enjoy the ride as much as I can or exhaust myself, risking illness and injury, just when I most need to be healthy and whole. One way or another, we are leaving this place and necessarily going somewhere else. Part of me wants to throw up my hands and spin out of control, but the wiser, saner part of me sees the choices clearly and knows which ones to make.

Sigh.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

Jailbreak

I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks. It’s funny how a brief note to myself, frequently glanced at, suddenly grows into a vital, dynamic idea compelling me to weave a net of words and capture it.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

For most of my life I’ve been a compulsive list maker. I had lists of lists and carefully checked items off as I dealt with them. I thought of lists as tools to keep track of things and remember what I needed to do, and that may have been partly true, but an uglier aspect was how useful they were as weapons of self-hatred for not working hard enough, not being productive enough.

After I moved to Maine, I came across the idea of making reverse lists; that is, listing what I did accomplish rather than what I thought I should accomplish. This reduced my ability to schedule shame myself, but my nasty internal critic was never satisfied. No matter how much I’d done, he thought I should have, could have, done more. However, reverse listing allowed me to see more clearly that I actually accomplish quite a lot most days, and that helped me push back against the internal critic. He lost a little power.

Still, my sense of self-worth was entirely tied to production, to doing rather than being.

Over time, my reverse listing became more of a series of short, journal-like notes, part of my daily routine. Now and then I looked back at them to see what day I’d run an errand or made a phone call, but I never stopped to consider the real value of reverse listing.

A few weeks ago, I realized the purpose of reverse listing had become a way to hold myself accountable, to be sure I didn’t slack off or forget everything I have to do to justify my existence. I needed to keep an eye on myself because I’m so lazy and undisciplined. If I don’t watch myself all the time, I won’t do any work at all. The practice was a daily no-confidence vote for myself.

Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash

This is so ridiculous I had to smile. I am many things, but lazy isn’t one of them. And if I do spend a lazy hour sitting in the sun with a good book, who cares? The world doesn’t stop.

I asked myself a daring question: What if I stopped making reverse list journal notes every day? What if I closed that notebook and put it away? What if I adopted an attitude of complete confidence in myself, my value, and my effectiveness, no proof required?

Hey, less clutter on my work table!

Immediately, I felt guilty and a little scared. If I didn’t write down tasks as I did them, where would the evidence justifying my existence be? How would I hold myself accountable, keep an eye on myself, make sure I’m being useful?

Honestly, sometimes the inside of my head appalls me. It’s good no one else is in there.

Along with all these thoughts and feelings was something else. A gleeful, childish feeling of getting away with something big, a sense of freedom.

Jailbreak.

So I closed the notebook and put it in a drawer. I got up the next morning, went through my morning routine, wrote, went to work, swam ¾ of a mile, came home. And the next day. And the next day. I did laundry and cleaned the bathroom. I cooked and fed myself. I swept cat litter off the floor and took the compost out. I paid bills, took walks, and ran errands.

I lived my usual life and not one single authority came knocking at the door demanding to see my reverse list in order to decide if I was allowed to go on taking up space.

Not even me.

Which brings me to the realization that finally brought this post into being.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I build myself all kinds of jails. Lists were just one. Trying to please others is a jail. Trying to meet expectations is a jail. Trying to understand others when they don’t communicate clearly and give mixed messages can be a jail. Trying itself can be a jail. Ironically, having poor boundaries is a terrible prison that shrinks a little more every day. Shame is solitary confinement. Taking on too much responsibility, arguing with what is, agonizing over things I have no power to change, trying to fix things for other people, are all prisons.

You know what? I’m really, really tired of living in jails of my own construction.

Fortunately, I have keys to all of them.

Now, I know I’ll be back in jail, at least temporarily, because it takes me a minute to realize it’s happening again. It’s such an old pattern.

But I’m not going to put sheets on a cot and live in a prison cell. It just makes everything worse. Whatever the challenges or problems I face, they’re much better dealt with from a place of freedom and power.

I’m a far from perfect woman, but I don’t deserve to be locked up for the rest of my life with the key thrown away.

No more jail. I’m outta there.

More or Less

A frequent conversation among my coworkers at our rehab pool facility, as well as our mostly middle-aged and older patrons and patients, has to do with the unexpected places life takes us. How did we get here from there?

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

For some this is a bittersweet question, for others an amusing one, and for others a bewildered or even despairing one. Whatever our current reality is, none of us could have foreseen or imagined it when we were young adults.

We can all talk about dreams we’ve had, intentions, hopes, and choices we’ve made in pursuit of the life we imagined we wanted, but life itself is always a wild card. It picks us up by the scruff of our neck, sweeps us away, and casts us onto strange shores.

As I age and practice minimalism, I realize keeping my dreams flexible has never been more important. My dreams, along with everything else, change. What I longed for as a young woman is not what I want now. What I needed in midlife is not what I want as I approach my 60s. Some things I’ve thought of as merely desirable are now essential, and other things I thought I needed no longer seem important.

In some ways I like dancing with change, my own as well as external circumstances. It feels dynamic and healthy. Resilience and adaptation are strong life skills.

In other ways it’s hard, the way my needs and I change. Often, I feel my own natural change and growth are hurtful to others. I try to hold them back. I try to stop myself, make myself quiet and small so no one will be upset, including me!

In the end, though, there’s something in me that’s wild, and sure, and deeply rooted in the rightness of change. It can’t be silenced or stifled, and there’s no peace for me until I begin living true to myself once again, no matter the cost.

The costs are very high. The personal costs of living authentically have been catastrophic for me. Sometimes I feel I’ve paid with everything I ever valued.

And yet the power of living authentically, the peace of it, the satisfaction of shaping a life that really works and makes me happy … How much is too much to sacrifice for that?

For a long time, I’ve thought about balance. Financial balance. Work-life balance, which is a term so nonspecific as to be useless. Balancing time. Balancing socialization and solitude. Balancing sitting and writing with physical activity. The complex balance of give and take in relationships. Balancing needs and power.

Minimalism is about balance. Achieving a simple life demands balance, something hard to find in an overcrowded life. Practicing simplicity and working toward balance take mindfulness, which is a difficult skill to hone in our loud, distracting, manipulative and addictive consumer culture. There’s a lot of social pressure to want more and bigger, to hang on tightly to our things.

But I want less. I want less stuff, less expense, less noise (visual and otherwise), less maintenance, less complication. I want less because I want more. I want more peace, more beauty, more sustainability, more time for loved ones and the activities that are most important to me. Gardening. Animals. Walking. Writing. Playing. Spiritual practice.

I don’t want more than I need. I don’t need more than I can use, enjoy, take care of, or pay for.

I do want to accommodate change, my own, and changing circumstances around me. The simpler and easier my life is, the more space I have to welcome my own aging and wherever my life journey takes me next. I don’t make myself crazy trying to anticipate all the future possibilities, but I want to know I can live well with the resource I have and build reserves for whatever the future brings.

Ironically, it often takes resource to go from more to less. Financial resource. Time and energy resource. It takes sacrifice, in the sense of being willing to give up things valued for the sake of things even more valuable and worthy. In its own way, moving in the direction of living simply is as much work and emotional cost as the endless treadmill of more. It does have an end point, though, whereas more is never satisfied.

Last week I read a post from Joel Tefft titled ‘Abandon, Embrace‘. He suggests daily journaling (which I also highly recommend) using the writing prompts: Today I abandon ___ and today I embrace ___. This is balance in action. What is not helping? What is most important? Abandon something in order to make space for something better.

We can’t find a place for what’s most important if our cup is already too full.

Photo by ORNELLA BINNI on Unsplash

Deciding what kind of a life we want to live and working to create it is a difficult process of choice. It’s difficult because it can be so hard to tell the truth about our needs and feelings. Sometimes we have to give up on cherished dreams and hopes, come to terms with our current limitations. Our choices can affect others in hurtful ways. Sacrifice is not easy. Managing our feelings is not easy.

Choosing, as I’ve said before, involves consequences we can’t always control.

But to make choices, especially difficult ones, is to be standing in our power, as is creating an authentic life that allows us to grow deep roots and be the best and happiest we can be, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world.