Joyous, Vulnerable, and Deeply Thoughtful

It’s holiday time and almost the end of the year. That often gets me into a contemplative mood, reviewing the year and thinking about people I haven’t seen in a while. So I’ve made arrangements with several of my favorite people to meet before Christmas and share some time and joy together.

Last night I was blessed to have have dinner with one of my all-time favorite colleague-turned-friends. She’s effervescent, positive, kind, whip-smart and funny as heck. Because she’s supportive, welcoming and inclusive, she’s also one of the first people I ever came out to. In short, she’s an awesome friend and I really looked forward to seeing her and spending quality time catching up. I wasn’t disappointed.

We went to a trendy new restaurant with a hip, foodie vibe. Sharing some incredible charcuterie and all kinds of personal news, we laughed and cheered and commiserated. She told me of her triumphant negotiation for a promotion and raise, demonstrating her badass, smarty-pants self confidence. I told boring lawyer war stories. It was an all-around wonderful evening.

At some point over the risotto and salad, conversation somehow turned to my gender identity and presentation. She asked incisive, sensitive and smart questions and was so kind and respectful throughout. In the midst of this discussion she described a theory she has that she hopes one day to form part of her research for her PhD. I have no doubt she’ll complete that research and be a noted voice in her field. I found the premise fascinating and our discussion, far ranging and lively, was full of vulnerability and challenge and intellectual curiosity.

My friend’s “Refrigerator Theory” posits that, like the internal compartments in a refrigerator, the boundaries, labels, categories that humans create and impose on every aspect of human experience have no purpose separate from the primary purpose of the thing on which it is imposed (i.e. cooling of food for the fridge, or defining the self for identity labels). Instead, she theorizes, these compartments or labels or boundaries exist only to soothe the human need for order – we create boundaries to provide context to avoid the disquiet of chaos or disorder, but the boundary isn’t necessary to the essential function of the object it applies to. Her devastatingly pointed example (at least if you’re an appliance manufacturer) is the infamous, useless and dysfunctional crisper drawer. It doesn’t crisp or even cool to a significant degree more or less efficiently than the main compartment, but we like that it’s a special place to put the veggies.

I love the intellectual exercise of challenging a premise, debating points dispassionately and pushing each other to consider new and different points of view. This is especially true when the person I’m talking with is smart and as into the verbal and mental gymnastics as I am. That was definitely the case last night.

I challenged by proposing that the need exists apart from the order, that perhaps the order rises as a consequence of fulfilling the need. My premise was that where more than one option or condition exists simultaneously, there is a natural need for boundaries or compartments or labels, else there is only ever trial and error. My example is a sink with a tap and two handles; without a n ‘H’ or ‘C’ to distinguish hot from cold, you have to try each one, possibly risking the pain of being burned or chilled if you guess wrong. In other words, it’s not a need for context to generate meaning, but an existence of multitudes of meaning and a need for order to allow each meaning to be evident.

We didn’t get to any conclusions, of course. But it was an incredibly fun conversation, trying each theory out on various aspects of life – corporate communication, change management, gender identity and expression, to name a few. My friend’s passion for learning and unbridled joy in the process of learning and communicating her knowledge is so fun to witness. I can hardly wait to see the work she produces when she embarks on that research.

My hope for all of you, as the year winds down and you think about that one to come, is that you will find occasion and loved ones with whom to experience the joy and challenge and vulnerability of great conversation.

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Disillusioned

Seems like every attempt lately to return to a positive, grateful, hopeful mind-set is met with a set-back. That’s oversimplified and probably exaggerated, but, experientially, that’s what I’m feeling.

This week, instead of focusing on the return to stressful work after a vacation and the miserable cold I picked up on the plane home, I have tried to concentrate on how grateful I am for time away with family and the beautiful skies I’ve witnessed.

But I cannot ignore the disheartening, disillusioning news I received about a colleague yesterday. Someone I have respected and relied on, a business partner and friend, has been discovered engaging in workplace activity that has the potential to harm other colleagues at my company, negatively impacting their quality of life in both their jobs and home lives.

This person, confronted, has admitted what they did and offered no rationale, just a shrug and a hollow “sorry”. This is someone I’ve worked with for years and whom I’ve helped mentor, someone I’ve trusted to handle issues in my stead and whom I’ve recommended as a reliable resource. Until they confessed, I would never have considered them capable of this behavior and would have been skeptically resistant to any allegation of such activity.

But there is no doubt of their culpability. The certainty of it is as devastating as the initial revelation. I’m really struggling with the enormity of their deception and, admittedly, with how foolish I feel for having had such certainly in their personal integrity and reliability.

Capping off that blow, I witnessed a very troubling sequence of online posts from a friend that has confirmed my long-held fears of openly discussing mental health issues. My friend posted about how they had recently struggled with depression and thoughts of self-harm and had begun to feel better. They spoke of focusing on self care and how being open, authentic and accountable on these struggles is a necessary part of their self care. They then posted about how their posts were met with a flood of intervention-type calls, despite their earlier clear statements that they were ok. They commented how these well-meaning, yet clumsy and misplaced, efforts add to the emotional labor and stress they are trying to overcome. Their message is that this reaction further stigmatizes mental health and chills open dialogue that could help those who are suffering and makes them censor their public discourse on these topics.

This sequence of events and chilling effect is precisely what I’ve feared and experienced all my life. No one seems to get that when you recognize the problem within yourself and you’re making a genuine effort to address it, reaching out to talk to others is the scariest, most vulnerable act of self care there is. And when that bravery is met with a smothering, ham-fisted, “you must do X”-authoritarian attitude that disregards the seeker’s agency and the work they’ve already done, it exhausts a person’s will, their very soul.

The confluence of these two soul-wrenching, saddening, demoralizing emotional tidal waves in one week was a lot to take, especially in the context of the baseline load of stress at work, which is, regrettably, quite high.

So, in a bid to salvage some scrap of positivity in this week of harrowing emotional experiences, I’m spending the day in my flannel pjs, watching college football while wrapping some Christmas gifts. Taking things slowly, eating what tastes good, enjoying the excitement of the game and, in between, listening to music and playing a video game or two – this is me coping for today. This is my positivity for today. That has to be enough.

Beginning and End

Here’s a quick one. I flew home Sunday from visiting some of my family for Thanksgiving. Because I had over an hour’s drive to the airport and anticipated security delays once I got there, I left early. And because I crossed three time zones flying East, my 3+ hours in the air brought me home late in the afternoon. So, I ended up seeing the sunrise at the beginning of my journey and the sunset as soon as I landed. Both were spectacular.

Here’s a pic of the beginning – sunrise and Mt. Rainier:

Here’s a pic of the end, sunset over a railway trestle next to I80:

I love looking at the sky. It’s infinite variety and it’s seemingly endless expanse always fascinates and nearly always calms my mind. Those are some very good things!

I hope you find something to look up for today.

Holiday Positives

I’ve been on vacation since Tuesday. It’s been a great break from the stressful routine I’ve been living for months on end. Some good things from this trip:

  1. Quick, comfortable, uneventful direct flight to Seattle and an equally peaceful drive over the mountain pass.
  2. Welcome hugs and pampering.
  3. Board games and movies and great catch-up chats.
  4. Wonderful holiday meal with family and new friends, including the best warm hugs from my beautiful new great niece and nephew who just joined our family last year.
  5. Unexpected support and validation in place of the hard questioning I expected from one person in particular. So surprised that I lost my ability to speak for a minute, but regained my composure and had a great conversation filled with gratitude and encouragement.

And because happiness is savored most when the hard bits are acknowledged and then set aside, here are a few no-context things to make the light shine brighter by their dark contrast:

  • 1 year and 20 days
  • Sleeping shouldn’t be this hard
  • Watching people you love age is both glorious and devastating

Thankful

As I get ready for a long awaited, highly anticipated vacation, I thought I’d toss up a quick post to keep the streak alive. Also, I want to try to return to my goal of positivity and gratitude. It is Thanksgiving week in the US and I have much for which to give thanks. So, here is a list of some of the many things and people in my life that I am grateful for and that I count among the best blessings I’ve received.

  1. My loved ones, beginning with my siblings and their families. My brothers, especially, have blessed me with love and kindness and examples of how to be good a leader and a good human. My sisters in law have blessed me with all these things and with tender care and an appreciation for the love that’s uniquely expressed by the labor of loving hands, whether through cooking, cleaning, sewing, art and craftswomanship, even warm hugs when I’ve needed them most. Also my beloved friends who are as chosen family, with their acceptance and validation and solidarity and encouragement. Above all, this love of wonderful people is a treasure for which I am thankful daily.
  2. Freedom. It wasn’t and isn’t free. The physical and emotional and political and psychological labor of so many, in so many capacities and across decades and centuries and in moments as recent as today, these gifts are priceless. And I’m grateful to be the beneficiary of all this work and sacrifice.
  3. Prosperity. Though I have labored hard and long in my life and earned the fruits of that work, I know that my work in isolation is meaningless. For all the work of all whose efforts have contributed, both the seen and unseen, I am thankful.
  4. Challenge. If everything was easy, I could not know the depth of satisfaction of my accomplishments nor the true cost of any achievement. To be challenged intellectually, professionally, politically, socially, even emotionally is a blessing whose worth is viewed in hindsight and measured from the steppes of maturity. I’m grateful to have overcome challenge and learned to welcome new ones.
  5. Leisure. It is a privilege and a great gift to have freedom and means to enjoy free time and the varied and wonderful opportunities for fun and relaxation. I’m grateful for a chance this week to step away from the cares and demands of my work, travel to a beautiful place, spend time with family, and enjoy time doing only things that bring us joy.

I hope there is much you can be thankful for this week and always. Enjoy your abundance, my friends and I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving holiday.

What if…

I’m weary. The kind of bone-deep tired from lack of sleep that makes me feel like I’m walking around with only half a brain through a dark fog that blurs everything into a grainy, indistinct mess. But also so the kind of impatient fatigue that makes me want to give up fighting against everything, capitulate to the sloppy, lazy, incompetence of the people around me and leave them to suffer the consequences of their own ineptitude without the heroic efforts I and my team put in to save them from themselves.

I’m genuinely striving to reframe my experience, get into a more positive, patient, tolerant mind-set. That’s my commitment to myself, my goal, and the core of my personal growth work. But I’m in a trough in the up-down rhythm of life, I guess, because it seems I have made no progress despite concerted effort every day.

Today, chatting with my boss about some of the hard work we’ve been doing together for weeks on end, he acknowledged that he was in a really negative place and regretted that his comments and attitude have added to my stress. My reaction, not as guarded or carefully phrased as it could have been, was to acknowledge that I was feeling the same way and that I hate it and hate not being able to control my reactions to stress and frustration the way I usually do. I told him I was putting a lot of faith in my upcoming time off for the Thanksgiving holiday giving me the distance, perspective and rest I need to get my head right.

But what if it doesn’t?

I’ve noticed how irritable, quick to snap, and more prone to profanity I’ve become over the last few months. It coincides, in my mind, with the start of my insomnia in the summer. Even though work stress and frustration was already high – this has been a really hard year at work – none of that was out of control when I was still sleeping. It’s only been since my sleep fell into the ditch that I’ve been biting salespeople’s heads off, telling sales operations leaders to figure out how to do things themselves, telling people to use their own brains and not rely on mine, and letting swear words creep into my language in delivering these biting diatribes. In short, I have witnessed a marked decline in the civility and politeness that has been my professional and personal habit for decades.

I don’t like this version of me very much.

And what’s so frustrating and galling is that I work really hard to not let this not-so-pleasant version of me get loose or stay loose when it does, but I don’t seem to have any success controlling it anymore. I just don’t have it in me to be charitable to the stupid, or to compensate for the inept. And I don’t seem to really care if my weariness-induced withdrawal causes them to suffer where they wouldn’t have if I’d made that effort.

What if a week’s vacation and visit with family doesn’t restore that charity and energy and will to help? What if I can’t get it back now that I’ve let it go?

What if this is who I am now, this burnt-out curmudgeon that nobody, not even me, likes or wants to be around?

Lessons in Self-Talk

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog about my efforts at personal growth and self discovery. Some of what I’ve covered deals with the insecurities with which I still struggle, despite all of the hard, intentional work I’ve done to be the best version of myself. I call the source of those insecurities my internal critic, because it’s my own voice that’s raging at me.

That internal critic isn’t easy to slay. It rears its poisonous head and spews the most shocking invective into my tender, impressionable psyche when I’m at my most vulnerable. Stress, sleep deprivation, nervousness, performing in unfamiliar circumstances, exercising new skills — these are some of the things that leave me exposed to the inner jerk’s most insidious evil. And when I’m in that state, I have very little ability to overcome, silence, and escape that internal saboteur.

A perfect storm of those conditions formed this week. It was the culmination of weeks of hard, frenetic, hugely significant executive lawyering, in preparation for depositions in a litigation matter for my company, all while battling my first real experience with insomnia. I’ve been working 11-15+ hour days for weeks on end on the shaky, unsustainable foundation of an average of 5 hours or less sleep per night. And everything I’ve been doing at work has required intensely critical thinking and application of new and old legal skills to meet the challenge of this unfamiliar litigation activity. So my defenses were kind of low by the time I showed up for my 30(b)(6) deposition – where I was testifying on behalf of my company, rather than in my individual capacity – yesterday.

I expected, and had prepared for, a very challenging experience. Litigation isn’t a joke and the stakes in this matter are high for both parties. I fully expected to be pressed hard and to have to be on top of my game. But even as prepared as I was, I had underestimated how hard it would really be.  Here was my raw, unedited reaction that I posted to a different platform last night:

So here I am, just getting home after my third consecutive 15+ hour day this week (4th consecutive 11+ hour work day) more than 10 of which were spent giving sworn testimony in a deposition conducted by a class-A asshat of the most egregious kind. I’m mentally, physically, emotionally, and intellectually exhausted. I know I did an incredible job in this depo – another day of undeniable Butch Boss Badasserry. Still my traitorous brain only lets me see the one momentary slip when, after over 9 hours of grueling questioning and countless repetition of futile questions, I lost my composure and was forced to go off the record and leave the room before I dissolved into tears of angry frustration on camera and in front of that jackass. Suddenly weeks of work and two long days of testimony are reduced to: “yeah, but he made you cry” by my overly critical brain. Damn.

So, yeah. The internal critic got me hard and sharp. That whole reductive reasoning trick is dirty and underhanded and has a really devastating bite to it. All the true, positive, celebratory thoughts get rendered ineffectual in a single blow: it doesn’t matter that I knew more than anyone in the room, including the other side’s attorneys and my own counsel, about this case and had a smart, cogent, legally significant answer for every question and didn’t fall into any of the verbal traps the deposing attorney lay in front of me, it only matters that he was able to break my composure and made me cry.

But, thankfully, a wonderful friend, who also happens to be a rock star Butch lawyer, too, reminded me of something important: the nature of depositions, the rules that apply to their conduct, create an environmental pressure-cooker that often results in the witness being reduced to tears and I did well, in spite of the tears. In other words, I need to give myself a break.

Not only is that timely, supportive reminder a deeply kind gift at a critical point, it has the virtue of truth. After a few hours of sleep and a short work day this morning, I was able to put a bit of distance between my wounded pride and the critic’s barbs. That let me have room to think about the overall problem of the internal voice. Here’s what it comes down to, for me:

Self talk is a dangerous thing.  Like a blade, it can be both a tool and a weapon, and both functions can have both beneficial and damaging effects. Balancing the utility of such a volatile thing is a critical skill that requires constant attention to detail. When one aspect gets the better of the other, whether weapon or tool, damage results; too much of either yields an internal voice with a skewed world view< The imbalanced voice will be either irrationally confident and blind to flaws, or overweeningly negative, drowning out all accomplishment and confidence. Without the confident self-discipline to manage the internal critic, spiraling negativity takes over.  But falling too much in love with your own voice, logic, skill, position on any issue – self delusion of even mild degree – and you get a big head and lose sight of your biggest opportunities for growth.

Ultimately, it comes down to mental discipline, being kind, yet firm, with myself, taking care to feed my mind the right mix of messages that can build healthy confidence while starving the internal critic so that it can’t have strength enough to sabotage the positive with unwarranted negativity.  Simple enough to say, Exceedingly difficult to maintain.

It certainly would help if I could sleep more…

Smart, Fresh & Sneaky

So here’s a quick, fun little plus after such a long stretch of gloom and rough days.

I’ve been hitting it hard, hard at work, doing some deep, substantive lawyering on a couple of litigation matters for which I’ve been managing outside counsel. For the last few weeks it’s been preparing rebuttals to expert opinions, supplementing discovery requests and preparing for depositions, including my own.

Today was in-person strategy with outside counsel, my boss and me. Lots of discussion, debate, review of documents, etc. In the middle of it all, one of the outside attorneys, trying to keep things light, characterized me and my boss as sneaky lawyers, which moniker I proudly admit. Then, when trying to convince me to agree to be the subject of a second deposition, my boss and the other outside lawyer described me as smart and fresh. Also appellations I willingly wear.

So, I’m a smart, fresh, sneaky lawyer and I’m gonna rock these depos this week.

Yay for being a bad ass Butch boss. Boo for more work. But also yay for being sneaky fresh!

Rejection Totally Blows

Jeez, this week was brutal, a mixed bag of jangling anxiety spiced with tiny moments of joy, wrapped in a sleep-deprived haze and topped with a glittering bow of flaming rejection.

It’s been a really long time since I’ve felt this disconnected from logic and rationality. I’m a logical, linear thinker and careful planning, meticulous language and precise action are my safety. When I get outside that realm, into areas where impulse and emotion appear to be the rule, I have a hard time coping. That kind of spontaneity, even chaos, stresses me more than any long work day or serious decision ever does. The disorder is unnerving and makes it hard to think and breathe.

So when I found myself in this situation, a nearly constant state of distress resulting from sleep deprivation-induced anxiety, desperation pushed me to do something entirely out of character: I asked for help.

Ignoring the cautions and warnings screaming in my head, I signed up for an online counseling service to get help with my insomnia. Normal people do this without compunction all the time. Surely, the millions of people relying on mental health professionals to assist with these challenges can’t be wrong, I reasoned. Surely, I told myself, there is nothing shameful in reaching out?

Still, I battled a heavy load of shame – you’re almost 50 years old, how can you not know the basics of how to be a person, how to get adequate sleep and deal with common work-induced stress? It can’t be that hard, what’s wrong with you? You’re so inept that you can’t sleep without instructions?

But I knew that most of that invective was simply fear. So, swallowing my pride and steeling my nerves, I looked for and found an LGBTQIA-supportive counseling service online. I did a little reading on it, and on counseling options in general, and decided to take the plunge. I knew I’d have to be a little vulnerable, letting an anonymous stranger into my head where I hardly let anyone before. But, I reasoned, if I was going to resolve whatever is plaguing my peace and preventing my sleep, I’d have be brave and face it head on.

So I filled out the forms and answered questions and logged my sleep activity and did everything I was asked to do without complaint or reservation. When my hands shook and my mind rebelled at the feeling of exposure, I forced it down and pressed on, telling myself that changing what I didn’t like required getting out of the cocoon of safety that my reserve and privacy have afforded.

Then, after nearly a week of uncomfortable logging of nearly every aspect of my daily activity, revealing an unprecedented amount of my private life, I was asked to give candid feedback on the process to date. I guess where I went wrong was in the assumption that it was safe to be frank. I guess I thought that because I had been required to be so vulnerable and open, I would not be ridiculed for being honest about my reservations about the process and method.

Not so.

It didn’t matter that my comment was politely and professionally worded, honest and offered without any hint of accusation or rancor. The counselor’s immediate response was to fire me as a client, telling me I clearly wasn’t a good fit for her service and that there was no need to even respond to her message, just to go somewhere else.

Ouch.

So, not only am I so abnormal that I can’t even take care of a basic need like sleep, but I’m so inept that I can’t even pay someone enough to help me cure that weirdness. Jeez, loser much?

Sarcasm aside, I have to admit that the rejection hurts and its potential consequences scare me witless.

I had let myself hope that with a professional’s help I could be back to a regular sleep pattern quickly and that the erosion of my thinking and communication skills, that have already begun to impact my work, would be set to rights before it becomes a serious problem. I can admit that my sense of self worth is very much tied to my professional success and the respect I’ve earned among my colleagues. The prospect of losing that respect and the reputation of being the go-to leader and problem-solver makes me quake with anxiety. And I have no doubt that will be the result if I can’t get my head back in the game. To do that, I need to get over whatever this mental block is and get regular, restful sleep.

So being fired from the one thing I thought would help has me reeling. And I’m fairly pissed off that someone I had paid to provide that help fired me, not the other way around. But even worse than the anger is the humiliation of realizing that I and my problem aren’t worth the time and effort to help, even for a fee.

I’m feeling pretty low, so I’m having a really hard time finding anything positive in this experience. But at least I got to see a bunch of cute small humans in cool costumes come to my house and beg for candy on Halloween. The sparkly princesses and fierce miniature Black Panthers were a bright spot in a rough week. I may not be sleeping, but at least there’s super heroes and princesses in my neighborhood.

Analysis Paralysis

I’m not sleeping well. Haven’t been for months now. This is a first for me, as I’ve always been a good sleeper. Part of me thinks it’s the perversity of a cruel universe punishing me for past brags about my (former) ability to fall asleep at will and sleep like a rock through the night. “Ha! Take this, bragger!”, it seems to shout at me as I continue to struggle for unconsciousness hours after laying down, exhausted.

But I know that’s irrational. There is an explanation, of sorts. I’m stressed and anxious, so my sleep is disrupted. But precisely what is the cause of that anxiety? I’m not sure. There is no shortage of triggers: work stresses are high, violence and hate abound in our society and scream nonstop in every media feed, internal pressures to improve aspects of myself which seem beyond my influence…so much to choose from.

I’m trying to address it. Reading a lot on theories and methods of tackling anxiety and sleep issues. Examining my thoughts, feelings, motives, fears, actions. Trying to isolate individual triggers and eliminate them. Mindfully, intentionally confronting each thought and feeling, honoring and acknowledging it before putting it aside. Even focusing on physical sensations, consciously relaxing muscles and slowing breathing. Talking, not talking; reading, not reading; teas and showers and warm blankets and chilly rooms and white noise machines and music…

I feel that I’ve given complete, genuine effort to resolving this problem. I’ve thought and reasoned and argued myself around in circles. I’ve given all my logic and reasoning and intellect to the problem. I think this is the quintessential manifestation of analysis paralysis.

And I’m still not sleeping.

It’s hard not to be discouraged and negative when nothing works and exhaustion dogs your every step.

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