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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.
Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”
Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.
Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.
We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.
There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!
Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.
Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:
Chronic physical tension and pain.
Working without pausing for rest or food.
Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.
For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.
I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.
I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.
I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.
The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.
Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.
When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?
The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.
One thing I can say is I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!
Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed of wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.
This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.
What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.
Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.
The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.
I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.
I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.
Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.
When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.
But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.
I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.
We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.
I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?
The most evil twist of all in this is caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.
So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?
Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.
Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.
That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking.
I follow Courtney Carver’s blog, Be More With Less, and she coined a name for a dynamic that’s been a problem for me my whole life.
She calls it schedule shaming, and it describes “measuring who we are by what we accomplish.” Accomplish in the sense of produce. In other words, being mean to ourselves at the end of the day because we didn’t “do” enough.
I’ve known for several years this is a problem for me, but I haven’t had a way to change it until I read Courtney’s post. The remedy is so simple I’m embarrassed I didn’t come up with it myself. I’m usually good at this sort of thing.
Instead of listening to that internal voice about what we should have done and didn’t do, and what a lazy, worthless, waste of space we are, she suggests applying a new set of questions, a better set of questions, to determine our value.
A list! I like lists! I took the idea and ran with it:
What were my feelings today? (Feelings are single words like mad, glad, sad, scared and ashamed, and we can experience any combination and number of them.)
After reading Courtney’s post, making my list, and making notes for this post, I put all my focus on these replacement questions every time I started hearing that internal critic tell me I’m useless and don’t deserve to take up space.
I immediately noticed two things, and those things have remained unchanged every day since then.
I am a much nicer person when I don’t judge my worth by production.
I accomplish far more, with less resistance and more joy, than I did before.
I feel like a dumbass on a couple of levels. First, I know very well (who doesn’t?) a carrot always works better than a stick. Nobody has ever been able to beat me into submission, including myself. Love and connection motivate me far more than any kind of force or coercion. As for disapproval – spare me. I don’t give a damn about winning anyone’s approval. People have been disapproving of me my whole life no matter what I do. I’m used to it.
Second, I’ve struggled with schedule shaming forever, and when I say struggle, I mean self-loathing, self-harm, financial dysfunction, compulsion, speeding, and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. And all those years it was this easy to fix. All I needed to do was put being before doing and give myself permission and recognition for the person I naturally and honestly am.
The coronavirus has cast a harsh light onto the balance between being, doing, and having. I think about this kind of thing all the time anyway, but the shutdowns, furloughs, and limitations to our ability to live normally have made many people who were too busy and driven to notice such things newly aware. Interestingly, present circumstances have impacted our doing and having much more than our being. Being goes on, sick or well, rich or poor, working or not working, masked or unmasked. Being is what truly defines us, in spite of our attachment to things, activities, and identities. Without being, we’re just empty shells, and we really are wasting our lives, no matter what we accomplish or have.
Today I laughed until I ached at our kitten, Ozzy, who falls asleep on his feet and spends minutes with eyes tight shut, swaying and slumping, before he finally gives up and lies down. That’s what I remember about my day. I cleaned the kitchen, did a load of laundry, wrote, and dealt with the green caterpillars eating my growing dill, too, but none of that was as sweet, as real, or as important as laughing at Oz and the love and gratitude I feel for this small creature.