Archive for December, 2018|Monthly archive page

Q4/Full-year Report Card

It’s the end of the fourth quarter already! Wow, what a year! It’s had it’s ups and downs, but it’s been full and interesting.

And now it’s time to check on my progress against the goals for personal growth that I set for myself at the beginning of the year. You can see my prior quarterly report cards here and here and here.

Quick reminder: these goals and my efforts to achieve them are for me, and this report card is an accountability device that helps keep me motivated, not a means of passing judgment or a tool for overly-harsh self-criticism. I try to be fair and gentle with myself when rating my performance.

Last quarter I regained the Honor Roll after a slip in Q2, and re-committed to my original and stretch goals for Q4. So let’s see how I did. I’ll be grading on three main topics (Weekly Posting, Creativity/Nurturing My Spirit, and Work-Life Balance) plus the stretch goals (More Substantive Blog Posts, Writing (replaces the Sand Casting goal of the first half of the year), and More IRL Socializing) on an A through F scale.

Q4 2018 Report Card:

Weekly Posting: A

Substantive Posts: A

I posted every week and they were mostly substantive posts exploring topics that have meaning for my life and my journey of positivity. The fact that I continue to struggle to remain as positive as I want to be is merely indicative of the circumstances of my life (sleep deprivation, high stress, etc.) and should not diminish my grade for this goal. I’m posting, that’s what counts. This is a solid A.

Creativity/Nurturing My Spirit: A

Writing: A

As I said last quarter, I changed the creative activity from sand casting to writing. Whether that’s cheating is debatable. However, that writing is creativity is not. So, in addition to my intentional spirit-nurturing through more frequent contemplation of the sky, and the art project I did to create gifts for my staff (stone-inlaid keychains), I’ve been writing. Although I ultimately gave up on doing it exclusively by hand on paper – my laptop is a much better tool – I’ve made time to pursue it, which is a big achievement for me. I’ve finished one long-ish short-story and am in the middle of what is shaping up to be a novella-length story. I’ve got ideas for more, too. I’ve even done some very preliminary research into writing retreats that might give me some inspiration and better skills to tackle this thing called being an author. Yikes! But whatever comes of it, I’m engaging in the activity and that deserves an A.

Work/Life Balance: A

IRL Socializing: A

I definitely earned an A. Despite work demands being at an all-time high in terms of both volume and stress levels, I’ve again this quarter been good about prioritizing myself over the urgencies that result from others’ failure to plan. Too, I traveled to see a friend just for the pleasure of her company, made an effort to reconnect with several local friends in honor of the holidays, and even did a quick-turnaround trip to visit family for Christmas. I’ve spent more time in social situations this quarter than in most recent years combined! The intentional, purposeful action to visit and socialize despite my inherent reticence is the whole point of this goal. And I nailed it. A.

Overall Grade: A+

I said in Q3 that “I’ll count it a win if I am not completely consumed by deals and litigation deadlines and holiday prep to the point of becoming catatonic. If I can stay on top of the work load, keep up with the few friends I have, and keep writing, all without imploding or exploding, I’ll happily end the year with another set of A’s.” I did all of that and, I think, with a quality that exceeds the “merely”, “just” and other limiting qualifiers stated and implied in that Q3 prediction. I worked hard on these goals all year and in Q4 particularly.

I’m proud to have stuck with the campaign, achieved some really good results on challenging aspects of personal growth, and set myself up for continued achievement in the coming year. Whether I continue to use these report card blogs to monitor and encourage my personal accountability next year is still up in the air. But I’ve developed some mental and emotional muscle memory by being diligent in this process, so I’m not too worried about regressing if I choose to move on to something else. The habit of intentional growth is in place now, and of that I’m proud and grateful.

I hope the holidays have brought you joy and an opportunity to show your love and gratitude to the people in your life. My hope for each of you in the coming year is that you find ways to live well and to love without reservation. Happy New Year, my friends!

Happy Holiday

I had a really wonderful Christmas Day, spent with some of my family and supplemented with texts and calls and emails from others who couldn’t be with us in person. My brother, sister-in-law and I surprised my niece and her son by showing up after pretending we couldn’t make it. It was the first Christmas in their new home and it was fun to be a part of that celebration.

Being together, enjoying each other and the gifts of love and laughter shared was amazing.

It’s all too easy to take those things for granted and prioritize the material gifts of the holiday above those essential interpersonal blessings. I am certainly guilty of that. But seeing smiling faces, getting hugs and joy from these precious people, brought that lesson home to me this year more than in recent years past. And that’s a wonderful gift, too.

Whether you have or are celebrating any holiday this winter, my hope for you is that the rich blessings in your life be made evident and you celebrate the gifts of the loved ones in your own hearts.

A Case for Vulnerability

If you’ve read much of my substantive posts on this blog you’ll already know that vulnerability – specifically risking personal mental/emotional/social/physical safety for the sake of frank, open, transparent disclosure – is a huge struggle for me. While I always try to be honest and authentic, I don’t always have the courage to be as open and vulnerable in IRL discourse as I have been in some of my posts on this blog. Sometimes that’s intentional self-care, protecting myself from known risk. But often it’s habit, reticence borne of fear and practiced over years; an automatic response instead of a consciously reasoned decision.

Still, that habit was formed with a certain amount of logic, as a response to real-world circumstances and events, not merely the irrational response of the primal mind. I’ve experienced a fair bit of trolling, baiting, gaslighting, and other intentionally humiliating behavior in my life. Fear and a reticence to be exposed to that kind of abuse again is a logical, rational, healthy reaction to being called on to make oneself vulnerable. But that reaction, to be most effective, should be actively managed and consciously controlled so that opportunities for growth aren’t missed due to the automatic dismissal caused by fear.

For me, that’s much easier said than done.

However, being a thinker, I have thought a lot about how to make my experience in various circumstances better, more comfortable, more likely to meet my needs and desires than the current situation in any given scenario. In most cases, changing things for the better means a certain amount of (hopefully) short-term disruption, discomfort, and, yes, vulnerability. I don’t like that that’s the case, but it certainly seems to be the truth for my life.

So, what’s a logical, rational, risk-averse, sensitive thinker to do to reconcile the dissonance? For me, it’s just a matter of resigning myself to the necessary evil of risk in order to benefit from it. “Bite the bullet”, “grin and bear it”, and “just do it” are the hackneyed, yet apropos, expressions that spring to mind.

That’s exactly what I did earlier this week and – spoiler alert – it worked out fairly well. I admit I’m surprised at the outcome, which isn’t a great commentary on the state of my faith in this “just do it” philosophy, or in the generosity and compassion of the people I work with. But I’m counting it a win, anyway.

Here’s what happened:

As I’ve said a lot over the last few months, I’m struggling with stress- and anxiety-induced sleep deprivation. It’s been particularly bad over the last week, impacting my focus and precision at work. Wednesday was an especially rough day, with a ton of project work that required me to be ‘on’ and participate actively in substantive debates on the merits of our case, concentrate for prolonged periods of time and analyze lots of data and synthesize cogent legal arguments from that analysis – all on less than 4 hours sleep.

It was brutal. I yawned my head off, was slow speaking to particularly complex ideas, and generally felt slow-witted and sluggish all morning. By 2:30 in the afternoon I was running on fumes and about as stressed as I’ve been in ages. Making it through the afternoon without collapsing and without committing homicide was all I could hope for.

Then, about 6:30, my boss stopped into my office to chat on his way home for the evening. What I expected to be a momentary check-in, a “good job, have a great evening ” kind of thing, turned into a deeply supportive, substantive conversation in which my boss acknowledged not only that he recognized the burden and stress I’ve been bearing, but also that he’s been contributing to it by his venting to me his frustrations and his sudden changes in direction with the strategy on some of our matters that adds a lot of work for me.

Given his genuine contrition and sincerity, I chose to respond in kind, though it cost me a lot of vulnerability. I confessed to a high level of anxiety and the fear that I would let him and the company down because my ability to cope with the effects of the anxiety and stress is beginning to falter. I also shared with him that I am taking the matter seriously and have sought help to get the anxiety under control so that I can sleep again, including my unsuccessful attempt at counseling and my so-far successful engagement with an anti-anxiety coaching group.

His response was overwhelmingly supportive. He praised my efforts with the coaching group, calling it both smart and brave. Then he turned practical, saying that we needed to take action to fix it. He offered some good suggestions for things he and the company can do to relieve some of the stress that’s beyond the ordinary pressure that just comes with my role. We settled on getting me some administrative/process-oriented help – a gatekeeper, he called it – to give me some relief from so many operational and sales personnel having direct access to me and my brain.

And when I expressed what is, perhaps, my greatest fear of asking for help (no longer having value for the company because someone else has to do some of my work), he was quick to reassure that not only would he not feel that way about me, but that he has plenty of substantive, high-value lawyering work for me to do once some of the stressful, lower-value procedural work is handed off to someone else. He then committed to do whatever is necessary to get me that help, including lobbying with the CEO and board for the necessary exception to add headcount and finding the budget to pay for it.

It’s not a silver-bullet solution to my sleep problem and it will take time to implement. But just hearing him admit to, and apologize for, the extraordinary stress and offer to help fix it was a huge relief. It validates what I’ve been experiencing and lets me know that I’m not crazy for feeling as I do.

And all it took was the courage to be vulnerable about an aspect of my professional identity that I’ve always held internally out of fear it would be derided or exploited: fear of being useless. It’s good to know my contribution is seen and my value as an employee is secure. It’s also nice to think that soon I’ll get some relief and have new and different responsibilities with opportunities to add value in new ways. That’s a really great thing.

Happy holidays, friends! I hope you all receive validation, support and opportunities to shine in your every endeavor.

Three Quick Things

So I’m trying a couple different things to address the surge of negativity and sleeplessness, including an online anti-anxiety workshop and some offline-not-for-publication personal writing. Both help in small ways and I feel good about the prospects for success. It’s a process and a journey, so it won’t be quick or sudden improvement, but so far so good.

The small bits of progress have yielded some results, though. Here are a few I’m counting in the plus column:

1. Spending time doing art is a positive coping strategy. I have been working with my sister-in-law learning a new technique for stone-inlay on metal. I’ve made keychain fobs for my local staff for holiday gifts. It’s been really fun and the process has helped take my mind out of the stress while I focus on the art. Here are some pics:

2. During the process of making these, I kept a running series of posts on Facebook. Lots of people liked and commented on my posts and pics. I’m proud that I was mindful throughout and was able to gratefully accept their praise and compliments without diminishing or deflecting them. That’s a skill I have been working on for a long time with mixed results. But a really great, in-depth text chat with a friend and application of some of the anxiety workshop info have helped hone the process. Still a long way to go before I’ll ever be comfortable simply saying thanks and nothing more, but this project was good practice in gracefully accepting a compliment.

3. Finally, I took action to put myself (my home life, really) first, above the job – an activity that has been a great source of stress and anxiety for me throughout my career. Putting myself first is always a struggle, in large part because of early childhood training to never be selfish and always have a Christian, “servant’s heart”. (I’ve written a bit about that on this blog before.) That cultural conditioning is what the anxiety workshop coach calls a mental “sticker burr”, like those little thorny brambles that stick in your clothes and hair and skin, pricking and irritating until you do something about them. Those social lessons that stick in your head and jab your conscience until you change behavior (like “don’t be selfish “, or “smile and be sweet”, or “don’t be negative”) can really amp up the stress when your adult mind and sensibilities rebel against the childhood training, especially when the adult response is more appropriate to the situation. In this case, I’ve been conditioned to value hard work and company loyalty, and to put the company’s best interests above, my personal desires. That has translated into not taking time off during the busy quarter-end periods of the year, despite that nearly all major holidays fall near a quarter end. Yet this year, my family wants me to be a part of a special Christmas celebration that will require me to travel (and, thus, be away from the office) two days next week that are not treated as holidays by my company. Taking two days of vacation at the busiest time of the year, especially when my staff will all be working, was a ridiculously hard decision. Far harder than it logically should have been. But I chose my family and home life over the job and it was the absolute right thing to do. I’m gonna try to not stress over it. I admit that I’m anxious about how my absence those two days will impact my team. But they’re all professional adults and my not being in my office won’t break any deal, so I’m faking it ’til I make it and going on my little trip and will have a good time. That commitment to myself is the positive out of the anxiety-inducing decision.

Progress, even small and (experientially) glacially-paced personal growth, feels good. It’s nice to chalk up some wins over the stress-monster in my head.

Happy holidays to you all. May your season and the coming year be full of light and joy and love. Thanks for sticking with this blog and for all your encouragement.

More Lyrics of Me

A couple of months ago I posted about seeing myself in the lyrics of some songs I heard that day. I was surprised at the pattern I detected and that some of the artists of those songs were so different from me, yet sang experiences that resonate so closely to my own life. One of my readers, an author whose work I admire a lot, posted a comment that when we become aware of these types of patterns, we’re supposed to pay attention to what they reveal about our path forward. I find that concept both unnerving and intriguing.

So when I felt the same resonance with lyrics of some weird, and at least one relativity obscure, songs I’ve encountered recently, as well as an oldie that’s almost an anthem by now, I thought I’d post again.

I still haven’t sussed out what the message is or what path is being revealed, but it’s interesting to note when and in which songs I recognize myself. Here are four lyrical places in which I found at least parts of me:

Who Needs Sleep? by Bare Naked Ladies

My hands are locked up tight in fists

My mind is racing filled with lists

Of things to do and things I’ve done

Another sleepless night’s begun…

Who needs sleep?

(well you’re never gonna get it)

Who needs sleep?

(tell me what’s that for)

Who needs sleep?

(be happy with what you’re getting

There’s a guy who’s been awake

Since the Second World War)

American Girl by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Well she was an American girl

Raised on promises

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there

Was a little more to life

Somewhere else

Missing Piece by David Choi

There’s a missing piece

Inside of me

Trying to figure it out

But it amounts to nothing

I want to realize

But nothing I find

Ever feels like the real thing

Can you empathize?

I don’t know

What I’m looking for

But I’ll know

When I find it

I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

I’ve got all my life to live

And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive

I will survive

They’re little snapshots of parts of my mind and life, these lyrics. Some are melancholy and some just fun. They’re not all of me, but the hopefulness in that last one is closest to my heart right now. It’s what I’m focusing on, building on.

Have a great weekend, all. I hope it’s filled with great, hopeful things.

Coping with the Sky

I’ve had a couple of extremely high stress days with the added bonus of high anxiety along for the ride. Sleep is still next to nonexistent and I’m having trouble keeping my tongue on the civil side.

But I’m trying out a coaching group to try learning new skills to tackle the anxiety. Only had one meeting so far (last night) and, honestly, I think I’ve had more anxiety today trying to assimilate what I heard and schedule time to do the homework than I had before I signed up. But I’m going to see it through and give it a fair chance to help me. Something has to work eventually, right?

Until then, I have to find ways to cope with it all. Indeed, identifying what I do to cope is one of the homework assignments. So, bonus, I get a post to keep my streak alive and do a bit of my workshop work at the same time. Win!

I already know one thing I’ve always done to cope with stress – I look up at the sky. #Lookingup is sort of meta, in that the activity serves to lift my head physically as well as lift my heart and spirit. Watching the sky change from moment to moment, seeing the beauty in its infinite variety and depth, watching the birds revel in the freedom of their wings through its vast spaces, and hearing the movement of air through the trees all make for a relaxing, uplifting experience. I’m particularly fascinated with the light of the sunrise through the bare branches of trees – the interplay between light, color and shadow never fails to awe my mind and calm my spirit.

Taking pictures of sunrise, sunset and everything in between that occupies the sky is a favorite pastime. I’ve posted quite a few of these on this blog and I hope they haven’t worn out their welcome from you all, especially since there’s a lack of variety among their locations. I do tend to be near my office for most morning and evening sky opportunities.

Since this week has already proven itself to be impossibly difficult, it’s only right to acknowledge the beauty of this week’s skies. Here is a sunrise from Sunday, as well as sunrise and sunset from today. These glimpses of heavenly loveliness have been the best parts of my week so far.

I hope you are finding beauty all around you and good ways to cope with what’s not so lovely in your world.

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.

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.

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