All my life I’ve been told I overreact and I’m too dramatic, two labels which automatically invalidate my experience, feelings, and any attempt I make to communicate honestly.
Being told we’re overreacting is a sure way to shut us down, especially when we hear it regularly. It makes us question our own experience. It breaks connection and trust. It isolates us in shame.
It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.
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When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.
As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.
My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.
Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.
My body betrays me.
Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.
But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.
The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.
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So, back pain.
In the middle of this experience, I read an article by Courtney Carver from Be More With Less titled “5 Thoughtful Ways to Help You Underreact.” As you can imagine, it caught my eye.
Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.
Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?
Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.
We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”
It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.
Here’s Carver’s list:
- Do what you can. Let the rest go.
- Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
- Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.
Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.
What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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!)
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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.
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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.
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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.
We are paradoxically stuck in the process of moving. Sometimes I feel we’ll never stop moving, and we’ve never done anything except slog through moving. Not true, of course. It’s only been about 4 months.
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash
One of the fun things about moving, for me, is creating a new home. Rearranging possessions and furniture. Making new mental maps of space and how to navigate from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen. I’m looking forward to that, but every day it feels farther ahead in an unobtainable future.
I’m figuring out strategies to help myself through this.
Right now, I’m metaphorically rearranging my mental furniture.
Most people arrange their living rooms around the focal point of a screen. It’s funny to think that’s only been true for the last 100 years or so. I would hardly know what to do with a living room that does not contain a screen.
Currently, my mental and emotional living room is overwhelmed by a big screen on which the reality show Moving is endlessly and relentlessly playing. Attached to the screen, of course, are a sound system, remote controls, and all kinds of additional tech and equipment. Beside the screen is a neon calendar counting down the weeks to yet another closing date (our fourth), and along the bottom of the screen a continuous feed of rising interest rates and costs for everything from cat food (if you can find it) to heating oil. I don’t have room to breathe. I can’t escape the noise. I can’t pull my attention away. I feel imprisoned and disempowered.
I want it to be over, to turn it off, to turn away, to think about something else.
I have hot, red fantasies of sledge hammers and the sound of smashing glass. (This is an old fantasy. I am a secret wannabe serial TV screen murderer. Turn off the effing TV!)
Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash
I can’t do much about the fact that the only sheets I still have unpacked are flannel, boxes are stacked to the ceiling in one room, another room is filled with empty boxes, tape, packing material, markers, and objects waiting for the right sized container. I’m not going to start unpacking because the weeks are dragging on.
But I can do something about my internal landscape, and I have got to get that screen out of my living room! Turning it off is not enough. It has to go, along with the sound system, remote controls, calendar, and scrolling rising interest rates.
I decided, a few days ago, to Stop Caring. Just stop. At least, Stop Caring so much.
I did Stop Caring for a day or two. A friend asked me what I did over the weekend, as she knew I was going to Stop Caring about Moving. I told her I worried about not caring, and she laughed. Will I stay stuck forever if I don’t Care? Am I supposed to Care? Is Caring some integral part of the process? Is something wrong with me if I Stop Caring? Am I abandoning or betraying the cause? Am I giving up?
I know. It’s ridiculous. But all you worriers understand. I know you do!
Anyway, I realized after I Stopped Caring I was feeling depressed. And I asked myself, is not Caring the same as sinking into apathy and depression?
Well, if so, that’s not good. That’s not what I want, either.
It was a relief to Stop Caring for a while. But I don’t want to Stop Caring about everything. I mean, I still have work to do, and people to love, and words to write, and the cats to enjoy. I still want to listen to music and light candles and exercise. I still want to read, and laugh, and hang out with friends.
What I want is to push back against the feeling nothing matters except Moving, that there is no life until we’ve successfully made this transition. I don’t want to watch the clock, watch the calendar, watch my email, watch the interest rates, worry about contracts, and think about all the places and ways I have no power in this process. I want to Stop Caring about all that.
I have to decide what to care about and what not to care about, and then I have to be constantly present with where my attention is and disciplined about redirecting it.
Oh, good. Just what I need. More work.
If we don’t arrange our living room around a screen, how do we use that space? What can I look at instead of the screen?
Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash
A window and the world beyond it. The weather. The sky. The light. Birds and trees and all the other life responding to spring, feeling the call of mating, foraging for food, living their lives as temperatures moderate and the light strengthens.
A bookcase. If you don’t love books, this makes no sense to you. If you’re a bibliophile, I needn’t say more.
A fireplace, or hearth, or stove. A source of warmth, light, alchemy, primal comfort.
A piece of art.
A spiritual altar; maybe something as simple as a candle.
And so on.
The point is I have a choice about where my attention is and what I care about. Clock and calendar watching are not effective or useful. Neither is obsessing over the interest rate or compulsively checking my email and the latest real estate listings. In fact, those activities add to my stress and make time slow down. Far better to Stop Caring about the clock and calendar, shut the computer, and channel my Caring into enjoyable things, creative things, small tasks and pleasures anchoring me to everyday life right here, right now, in the pre-spring season in central Maine.
The places in which I have power deserve my Caring and attention. They deserve my effort and presence. I don’t need to squander my love and Care in places where it’s neither effective nor appreciated.
It’s my living room, and I’m choosing what’s in it.
Get the sledgehammer.
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