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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

 

 

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

The Tower

In the Tarot, there’s a card called The Tower. It’s traditionally illustrated with a tower falling. The meaning of the card is destruction, chaos, danger, crisis, and unforeseen change. And liberation.

Liberation.

By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Some years ago, in the months before I moved from Colorado to Maine, my life unraveled in several painful ways. During those months, I pulled The Tower card from my Tarot deck (78 cards) time after time, though I always shuffle and cut the deck thoroughly before I draw cards. I couldn’t get away from it.

It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I felt for a time as though my life would never be anything else. I would never escape the falling tower. I didn’t think much about the liberation part, because when our lives are toppling we don’t think about anything except surviving the collapse.

I had a crate of odds and ends of wood from building a privacy fence and a deck. I pulled it out of my shed and built a tower on a table on the covered deck outside my front door. I hadn’t played with blocks since my children were young. The chunks of wood were in all kinds of odd shapes, and building the tallest tower possible was an absorbing task.

When my tower was finished, I left it standing for a few hours or a day or so, enjoying it as I went about my life and in and out of my little log cabin. Then, when the time was right and I needed an outlet for my fear and frustration, I would knock it down. Hard. Loudly. I would obliterate it, sending the pieces of wood flying, sweeping the tabletop clear. It was a practice of surrender. If the tower was inevitably going to fall, I wouldn’t try to prop it up. I’d create a glorious, earth-shaking, no-holds-barred collapse. I wouldn’t look away or pretend it wasn’t happening or try to escape or soften the situation. I would face my fear.

After a while I built it again.

And again.

And again.

I did that for months. I built and knocked down more than 100 towers while I pulled the card over and over again.

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago about wandering through a field of rubble from a fallen tower. In spite of the destruction, it was a peaceful, sunny, summer landscape. I felt no sense of dread or doom. There had obviously been a violent and frightening collapse, but it was over now, and all was serene. I found some scattered objects amongst the stone rubble. Some things were intact, but others were smashed to pieces. I was thinking about sorting through the wreckage and salvaging material for a new tower and a new life.

I wasn’t scared. I was peaceful.

I was starting again. I’ve done that before. The fear and anxiety, the feeling of oncoming disaster, were past. The worst had happened and now I was on the other side of it.

I was excited about piecing together a new tower.

When I woke, I thought, “That damn tower!” and smiled to myself.

We are now working with a fifth contract for the sale of this property. That’s right. Number 5. Gas has more than doubled from last year’s price. The cat food shortage goes on and on. Prices for everything are skyrocketing. I just received our power bill, which has doubled from last month, though our usage is slightly less. We are on the edge of war, thanks to Russia.

I remember this feeling of the tower falling.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

But I also remember the liberation on the other side. I remember starting afresh. I remember taking a long journey into health and healing, into creativity, into an entirely new life. In some ways, for the last seven years I’ve been working in a field of rubble, carefully salvaging and sorting the usable from the discards. I’ve thought long and hard about the kind of life I want to build now, and about my needs and resources.

I’m not on the other side yet. One of these days I will be, and I feel that day coming closer, though I don’t know how or when. I lie awake on windy nights and wonder if, metaphorically speaking, the wind will knock down the tower. Or will the rain take it down in the end? Or a spring ice storm? Or a completely unlooked-for earthquake, fire, or flood?

Or will it gently collapse, stone by stone, falling quietly into ruin around me?

Whatever happens, there will be debris and rubble. Some material will be salvageable.

I will start, as I have before, with what I have, with what remains, with myself.

When my last tower fell, I learned two important things. One is that a home, no matter how beloved, is not a life. It cannot keep me safe, happy, and secure for the rest of my days. It cannot substitute for my connections, contribution, or self-love. The place I live does not define me.

The second is that I am not my things. My security, identity, memories, strength, courage, and creativity do not reside in objects around me, the clothes I wear, the furniture I use, or the dishes I eat off of.

Many people new to the Tarot fear The Tower card. Few of us welcome destruction, chaos, danger, crisis and unforeseen change. However, change does come. Towers do fall. And once the terror and tumult have passed, we find ourselves in a new world with a chance to make a fresh start.

We might not have wanted to be liberated from anything. Or, on the other hand, we may have longed for liberation. In any case, we are suddenly dropped into a different life. The tower fell. We take some time for recovery.

Then it’s time to rebuild.

By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Give Your Best

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less  dropped this little spring blossom in my Inbox recently. I’m not on Instagram but she passed this on from @sierranwells from @theshineapp.

Paraphrasing, giving our all leaves us empty. It’s unregulated and indicates questionable boundaries. A better choice is to give our best.

Don’t give your all. Give your best.

What an amazing distinction! When I say that to myself, I feel as though a mountain has been lifted from my shoulders.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I don’t have to give everything and everyone my all. I can choose instead to give certain people, situations, and efforts my best. My best financial donation. My best support. My best effort. My best investment. My best love.

My all is reserved for me and my writing.

The filter between my all and my best immediately clarifies life and choices. It frees me to recognize when I’ve done enough. I’ve given my best. I can stop now. I don’t have to give and give and give until I have nothing left, not even enough to crawl away. I have the power. I make the choices. I decide where the boundaries are. I make an offering of my best, and if it’s not wanted or useful, I move on.

After all, if my best hasn’t been good enough, likely my all won’t be, either. I know that intellectually, but I’ve lived my whole life with the firm conviction that my best is inadequate and withholding. What’s required of me is to give my all, every last penny, every last bit of my time, energy, patience, and love. Everything. No boundaries. No reserves. No personal needs. Boundaries, reserves, and needs are selfish.

Wait, says a little voice inside me. Doesn’t unconditional love mean giving it all continuously, no matter what?

Does it? Is that what unconditional love means?

Unconditional love means love without strings attached.

I don’t know if human love is limitless. I don’t know if mine is. I’ve loved several people with everything in me before, but today I don’t feel as though any of those loved ones found my love useful or even noticed it for what it was. Perhaps it was lost in translation.

Perhaps they never wanted it or needed it in the first place.

I still love some of those people, because they are woven into my flesh and bone, but we are not actively connected and for the most part my love is mute and suffering. I have not found an acceptable way to give it, which is to say I have not found a way to feel it’s recognized, valuable, received or even welcome. It’s unconditional, but it’s unwanted.

Yet I do know one person who longs for my best and my all – all my unconditional love, all my compassion and empathy, all my strength and wisdom, all my creativity and courage.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Me.

As I approach my 60s, I spend less and less time thinking about how to give my all and waiting for scraps and crumbs to come back to me. Now I’m focused on how to connect with and unconditionally love myself. Because I deserve it. And it’s my turn. And I want me. I need me.

The people (and cats) in my life get my best. Sometimes that seems regrettably inadequate, but I’m intentional about giving my best to those I interact with, work with, and live with. I give my best to what I do in life, from cleaning the bathroom to teaching a child to swim. My best love, care, and effort are no mean contributions to my loved ones and my community.

But I don’t owe my all to anyone. Not at this point in my life. I’ve never yet given my all without subsequent emotional bankruptcy it took me years to recover from. I’ve never yet felt my all was reciprocated. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

I thought I had to give my all. I thought that’s what love was. I thought one proves love, commitment, loyalty, what have you, with an investment of one’s all. I thought that investment was guaranteed to provide rich returns.

So far, I’ve failed to reap rewards from that strategy. I’m rethinking my investment plan. Might it be that giving my all to me increases the quality of my best to others? Could it be that giving my best to others will prove a better investment than giving my all? Is this a case of working smarter, not harder?

Maybe our all is only useful when we give it to ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t work elsewhere because it’s not supposed to. Maybe our best is better for the people around us.

In any case, I feel lighter, freer, and healthier, both in myself and in my relationships, when I endeavor to do my best within healthy boundaries and reserve my all for myself and my writing.

Convenience

Convenience: The state of being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty (online Oxford Dictionary).

It’s a frigid winter morning here in central Maine with a wind chill taking us into double-digit negative temperatures and a big winter storm approaching. I’m wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my attic aerie in the thin winter sunshine, listening to the wind and thinking about convenience.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

The weather is inconvenient. I was hoping to load up the car for another trip to storage, but the wind chill is dangerous. Frostbite can occur in 10 minutes at these temperatures. The wind and cold have polished the ice and snow in our driveway to a slippery gloss, unforgiving as concrete. Nothing about the sound of the wind or the house creaking in the cold makes me want to leave my cozy blanket and chair and go out.

I think I’ll have another cup of tea instead.

I’ve never lived in a really old house before I came to Maine. The farmhouse we’re in now is 200 years old, and the house we’re in the process of trying to buy is more than 100 years old. I’ve learned, since I came here, to expect these old places to be less convenient in terms of closet space, ceiling height, finished basements, upstairs heat, and bathrooms than more modern homes.

Without considering it, I’ve always assigned a negative feeling to inconvenience. I read a few sentences from Seth Godin this week that made me think hard about the meaning and implications of convenience.

Looking at the definition above, I immediately notice how subjective it is. What may be entirely convenient for me can be ridiculously inconvenient for someone else, and vice versa. This is a challenge in my primary relationship. My partner cares a lot about convenience – his own. However, our ideas about what’s functional and workable are frequently quite different.

So here’s my first set of questions: where is the line between convenience and laziness? Is there a line? Should there be a line?

Godin opines that people will trade privacy and money for convenience, and I know from my own experience we sometimes behave as if we value convenience over relationships.

That seems wrong to me. Do we really care more about our own convenience – where things are kept, how we manage recycling and trash, how to load a dishwasher, how to position a roll of paper towels or toilet paper, how to iron a shirt – than our relationships?

Have I ever done that?

No, of course not!

Probably.

I have certainly received that message from others: I care more about having it my way than I do about you.

Ouch.

At the other end of the spectrum, I will say without hesitation there are certain “inconveniences” nobody should tolerate. Like being systematically abused or bullied, or ignoring a chronic issue that’s dangerous or a health concern. A car with a broken hatch or door that flies open while driving, for example, is more than an inconvenience.

Do we tolerate those kinds of things because it’s more inconvenient to deal with them than it is to live with them?

Speaking for myself, the answer is maybe. I will, and have, and do, tolerate constant small inconveniences because I value relationship more than my own comfort (not necessarily a healthy thing, especially when unreciprocated), and I find conflict and tension so unbearably inconvenient. I’d rather deal with my slow accumulation of resentment than stand up for what I find convenient in the context of a relationship and risk friction.

As I said, convenience is so subjective it’s hard to get on the same page in terms of discussing it. Convenience works in the shadows. We don’t talk or think about it directly. How many unconscious decisions a day do we make in an effort to make our busy, noisy lives more convenient, never counting the cost to ourselves or those around us?

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

The cost of convenience. Not only monetary cost, but time, energy, social, environmental costs. Cars are indispensable for most of us. If we don’t have our own, we have access to some kind of mass transit. But we pay for our cars, and the planet suffers for them. Plastic is unbelievably convenient. It’s also choking the planet to death.

Convenience is a moving target. Having to walk through a big house to the one bathroom is not as convenient as an en suite bathroom, but it sure beats having to go out to the outhouse! When do we have enough convenience? When are we satisified with our privileges?

At what point have we taken convenience too far? How do we persuade ourselves and others to accept something more inconvenient but healthier and more sustainable for everyone, including the planet?

Undeniably, our search for more convenience has motivated countless amazing technological and design breakthroughs. Our desire for convenience can fuel our adaptability and resilience, our creativity, and underpins movements like minimalism.

But are we entitled to demand ever-increasing convenience from the world and those around us? Do we have a right to encounter no difficulty, have to make no effort?

Absolutely not. Because our convenience may be creating inconvenience for someone else, which they may or may not express. For me, this boils down to what I’ve learned about needs: My needs are as important but not more important than anyone else’s.

My convenience is as important but not more important than anyone else’s. None of us can escape others, not in this crowded world. And that means we’re all going to encounter difficulty and we’re all going to have make an effort, whether it’s convenient or not. Inevitably, some of us will make more effort than others, and it’s up to those hard-working people (emotional labor, anyone?) to refrain from enabling others in a quest for total convenience.

Perhaps inconvenience, like discomfort, is not negative at all. Maybe it shapes us in powerful, positive ways, helping us stay creative and flexible, reminding us to stay present with our true priorities and whether our actions reflect them.

Sometimes we’re going to have to change our plans to accommodate the weather.

Sometimes we’re going to have to walk through a couple of rooms or down the stairs to use our bathroom.

Sometimes we’re going to have to deal with the inconvenience of other people or pets.

We can choose convenience over all the rest. We can. But, as Godin reminds me, some things, and some people, are worth a little inconvenience. Or even a lot.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash