Archive for the ‘sleeplessness’ Tag

Lost and Stuck

A friend on Facebook posts daily Reasons Not To Quit under Miss Hanne’s Academy For Wayward Girls. These little nuggets of wisdom and inspiration have been a steady source of courage and comfort for me for some time. Today’s post “Reasons Not to Quit #1070: What one specific thing are you going to do today to make it a little easier for you not to quit? #reasonsnottoquit” incited a lot of thoughts and feelings that I’ve been wrestling with for weeks.

Boiled down to it’s constituent elements, the particular sludge stew that’s been plaguing my peace lately seems to be equal parts professional burn-out, imposter syndrome, workplace political BS, and lack of inspiration. Stirred together with chronic anxiety and social isolation, and that thick, bubbling, acrid paste of unrelenting discontent begins to set into a cognitive and emotional concrete that is extremely difficult to remove.

So, being prompted by both my own cussed stubbornness not to be a quitter and today’s Reason Not To Quit, I decided to examine the situation. And, because I’m a literal, linear thinker, I resorted to using lists to help with the analysis. I started by listing why I’m struggling, then listed what I’m good at, what I need, and what’s in my way. The final list is supposed to be what would make it better, but so far I have nothing jotted there.

Themes I’ve uncovered in the various lists reduce to: lost and stuck.

Reasons I’m struggling include the feeling that I’m bereft of professional creativity and that I’ve lost the plot and the purpose I’m supposed to fulfill. Yet the top three things I know I need to be happy in my work are intellectual challenge, to contribute meaningfully to something valuable, and clarity of purpose. And things I know I’m really good at include issue spotting, problem solving, and diplomacy. And what’s in my way are things that obscure those levers: fear and insecurity, workplace politics, personal and systemic inertia, lack of imagination/creativity/inspiration.

I don’t think the obvious intersections among these things are accidental. When I am challenged and contributing to a well-defined goal that I believe in, I excel at identifying and strategizing solutions to obstacles and at leading and persuading others to achieve those solutions and the ultimate goal. But when there is no clear goal or its shape and boundaries are obscured by a fog of emotional, organizational and political flack, productivity and engagement tend to grind to a halt and ingenuity fades. When those tools are blunted and the stress is high, the doubts begin to flood in and I get swept into a current of fear, uncertainty, doubt and dread (FUDD) that blinds and hobbles an otherwise sharp and incisive brain.

It’s all well and good to know this, to recognize a cause for this rut. It’s a whole ‘nuther thing to know what to do about it. Hence the empty list of “what would make it better”.

I don’t have answers, only more questions. And I’m tired enough that my ability to bootstrap my own path out of the morass is pretty low. I’m feeling very lost and discouraged, uncharacteristically lacking in tools to fix my own problems.

And that admission in print has my heart pounding and my brain screaming for me to delete it, not let anyone see how useless I’ve become. But I’m going to leave it there and risk the derision and embarrassment that will likely result, because it may be the one thing I can do today to break the cycle of anxiety and let me see a crack in the solidified sludge coating my brain.

Contemplations

I wrote this a couple days ago, after a particularly rough bout of ambush emotions. I’ve let it sit and after some sleep and a re-read, I have decided it’s not entirely cringe-worthy and over-emotional, so I’m publishing it. But be warned: it isn’t the most logical or inspired thing I’ve ever posted.

— oOo —

There are times when I regard my brain as a foreign entity, as if it weren’t really a part of me, as if “me” is separate and distinct from my brain. I guess that’s the essence of the mind/brain debate. Does consciousness exist apart from cognition? Does the biological organ of the brain exist separately from the consciousness? Is consciousness the soul? These are unknowable facts, in my estimation. But what I do know as fact, as lived experience, is that my brain occasionally begins to work in ways that I do not recognize nor understand, leaving me feeling as if it exists separately from who I understand myself to be.

That’s often frustrating and sometimes scary. I cringe putting that admission in writing because I’m conscious of the fact that many will think me crazy, deranged, defective for thinking my brain and my self are severable in any way. But that’s the best way I know how to describe the experience of recognizing a thought pattern playing out in my brain and simultaneously feeling as if I’m separate, observing that pattern progress from outside of it because I feel no connection to that thought’s genesis and feel powerless to terminate it.

Lately, I’ve been actively thinking about a bunch of different concepts that intersect in my life in ways both predictable and surprising. There’s no way for me to encapsulate all of these thoughts in a blog post and no one, even me, would want to slog through it if I could. But a few of the connections and intersecting concepts are intriguing and might benefit from a public airing just to get them out of my head for a minute.

None of this is neat or tidy. None of it is resolved…maybe not even resolvable. It’s all a part of the messy, complicated, sometimes painful process of personal growth. My answers, to the extent any are forthcoming, are likely to be different from your answers on the same concepts and intersections. So, treat this as the thought experiment that it is and try not to get too caught up in problem-solving; rather, enjoy the journey of mere contemplation.

Three of the big concepts that have visited my cranial foreign office recently:

1.Apathy. Specifically, I have wrestled with how damaging apathy or indifference can be to interpersonal relationships, comparing (perhaps unfairly) the type and quality of that damage to that suffered from active abuse or intentional conduct of another ilk. Contrasting these impacts might be reasonable in some circumstances, but not in others. A big hurdle to taming this intellectual puzzle are the complicating factors, such as the nature of the relationship being examined, the relative power among the people in that relationship, any dimensions of privilege and marginalization that the participants occupy, and the personal characteristics of the people relevant to this relationship dynamic. That’s a ton of variables to control for in calculating the outcome of an analysis of the level of impact a participant experiences from the apathy or indifference of the other participants in the relevant relationship.

2.Authenticity. What role does validation of outside observers play in a person’s ability to live authentically in any given identity or presentation? If no one else within my inner circle of relationships (friends, family, colleagues, community) validates the identity or aspect of identity that I embody, am I likely to succeed in living that truth? Is this more complex than mere peer pressure? Is It more layered and nuanced than simply getting a nod or pat on the back as assurance that we’re “doing it right“? Does the community at large within the relevant demographic being evaluated as authentic feel the impact of an individual member’s failure to authentically embody that identity as a result of not being validated in that identity? What about if lack of authenticity is a result of something else?

3.Effort. This one is even more nebulous and hard to describe. My thoughts have been full of questions about effort, trying to quantify “enough” and “too much”, trying to ascribe qualitative value to types of effort, and trying to illuminate the points at which type and quantity and quality collide. This is all in relation to the questions on apathy and authenticity.

The ultimate culmination of all this thinking and puzzling and challenging and ideating isn’t clear. Is my brain trying to work out some therapeutic dosage of effort that promotes healthy authenticity and combats apathy, like some kind of emotional-political wonder drug? Or is this foreign entity trying to define the discrete boundaries of the emotional geographies of each of these concepts, charting the points at which borders combine? Or perhaps this is all just a lot of mental distraction to keep me from moving beyond the constraints and conditioned responses that my upbringing instilled?

I have no certain answers. But one thing that is certain is that my brain is not idle.

Creeping Sludge

A writer I admire, who’s published works and blogs I enjoy very much, recently posted a raw, vulnerable post to her blog about the toll that human interaction at a big event has taken on her introverted spirit. She has explained that she posts these thoughts that leave her exposed to others’ scrutiny in an effort to fight the stigma about mental health challenges and coping mechanisms.

I admire this bravery. There are many, including me, who shrink from being vulnerable to the examination and judgment of strangers and friends alike. But without the brave who expose the germs of anxiety and doubt and dread and depression to the light, the light has no chance to bleach away the stain of stigma, shame, and negativity that grows in the dark like fungus.

My own battles with this creeping sludge, more acute in the last year or so, have met with mixed success. I have chronicled most of this here, with mostly indirect references to the enemy. I’ve concentrated on my work to be and remain positive, to find the one good thing in every day that holds back a bit of the sludge, to be authentic and real. I’ve even acknowledged my failures and down days, named some demons to destroy their power. I’ve had many tall peaks of success and a few deep valleys of almost no success at intentional positivity. But overall, I believe the tally is still on the plus side, in the green and not the red.

Yet today is one of those that falls to the valley floor and adds a tick to the debit column. And, inspired by that author’s bravery, I’m going to fight this stain on my peace by exposing it to the cleansing light of transparency and vulnerability. Without the safety of hidden shame, this sludge will have no power to control my spirit.

What makes this particular encounter with the sludge so bad is that it has no apparent source, no catalyst or rationale. I was placidly content, feeling good about myself and my deeds one second and then the next I was literally gasping for breath in the wake of an unexplainable rogue wave of intense and sharply negative emotions full of criticism and self-loathing. Ambushed by my own brain, torn to tatters by my inner saboteur in a matter of seconds. And, truly, without warning or trigger. It’s baffling and infuriating.

Coinciding this morning with a particularly pronounced flare-up of the tremor in my hands that I’ve endured since second grade, this bout of emotional fatigue is acutely irritating. I’ve fumbled or dropped nearly everything I’ve touched since my eyes opened from far too few hours of restless sleep. Even had to change my shirt before I could leave the house because it fell victim to flying tea from a fit of shakes. This makes me feel dull and clumsy and useless – validating the hurtful things my brain insists on shouting at me.

I don’t know what brought all this on. It’s ridiculous. Intellectually, I know I’m not stupid and utterly useless, not a failed experiment of near-human biology, not a pathetic waste of space, not an imposition on the truly worthy occupants of this world. I know all of these hurtful, hateful, wrong things are the lies my anxiety tells me to perpetuate itself. I KNOW it’s a bunch of lies. I. KNOW. IT.

Yet, knowing and believing aren’t the same thing when the storm is raging.

This is the battle. Negotiating peace between the thinking, rational brain and the anxious, lying sludge is tricky. And it’s not a one-time event. Sometimes, like today, it’s a repetitive, iterative process of cajoling and pleading balanced with teeth-grinding, iron-willed cussedness (as my gran used to call my stubbornness). But calling it out into the light helps.

So, if you encounter a wild-eyed, bedraggled Butch in a possibly coffee splattered shirt and rumpled bow tie, muttering dark maledictions under their breath, maybe cut ‘em some grace and give ‘em some space. Everyone has an off day now and then and could benefit from the charitable kindness of their scruffy grumpiness being overlooked and not commented on.

Gut Churn

I’ve been trying not to be too raw, too vulnerable with my posts, wanting to protect myself and to avoid burning out readers with too much angst. But yesterday was a particularly crappy Monday and I wrote this in the heat of the emotion. After letting it sit overnight, I find it is still valid and not too overwrought with drama, so I’m posting it.

———-

305 days. That’s how long it is until my 20th work anniversary 17 April 2020). If I stay at this job that long, I will have earned my incentive compensation payout for 2019 (if any) and my milestone anniversary gift card (woohoo!) and will have proven to myself that I could do it. That’s the sum total of incentives I can catalog for staying (apart from my regular paycheck).

For going, I count a lot of things as incentives, not least of which is the salvaging of my self respect. I’m so weary of the stress and, now, the disrespect I receive from so-called peers. I’m utterly spent in terms of grace and charity for those that abuse my team and my good intentions. My sight line to the reason I keep going is more obscured every day. And I honestly don’t know what purpose it serves me or my company to continue as a lame duck “leader” under the direction of another who has been made the whipping boy/scapegoat for all things negative. He can’t shield my team anymore and I’m no longer given my full agency and authority to direct my organization. So what’s the point in remaining?

Except that I don’t yet have another job and that I still cling to the belief that I’m doing some marginal good for my team, I wouldn’t stay. I’d pack up today and walk out without another word.

Or, at least I like to think so.

Reasons

I’ve been having a hard time at work for a while now.  Well over a year, by my loose estimation. The reasons have diversified over that time, but the impact is the same: I’m stressed, not sleeping well, and generally unhappy and demotivated.

Lots of street-corner philosophers and internet meme wisdom would have me believe that (1) nothing and no one is responsible for my happiness or unhappiness, other than myself, and that (2) no one can “make” me feel anything, rather I choose how I feel about and respond to any situation or stimulus.

My gut and brain tell me that’s reductive BS, that, as with so much in life, the truth is a mix and somewhere in the middle.  I might have control over whether I rage and storm and become offended by innocuous and inconsequential things, but there is truth that humans have natural, predictable reactions to certain stimuli and blaming the person who reacts in those expected ways for feeling those things, naming those reactions a ‘choice’ as a derogation of their self-control, is emotional blackmail.  My intellect and rational brain tell me that feeling bad or overwhelmed or anxious or stressed when impacted by bad, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing and stressful stimuli is natural and rational and, in some ways, healthy and that I should not feel shame or guilt or failure because of these feelings.

But my heart, that thing so affected by emotion and anxiety and illogic, takes this so-called wisdom and views my reactions, in the context of my current turmoil, and turns this would-be motivational message into a cudgel to pulverize my already fragile confidence, making me question my own judgment and defeating any momentum for change that the stress and struggle may have produced. Almost as if from an outside vantage point, I see these contradicting forces at work, recognize that the turmoil is happening. But I seem powerless to overcome the internal saboteur, unable to center logic and reason over emotion and insecurity. The sludge rises and coats my reason with fear, miring my volition in inertia.

In an attempt to break the hold of anxiety’s inertia, I resorted to an old stand-by trick that has helped me overcome test anxiety, stage fright, writer’s block, and bouts of impostor syndrome from the time I started school all the way through my last birthday: making lists. By listing issues and risks and possible solutions and available resources and missing pieces and reasons for or against any given situation, I have learned to impose order on chaotic thoughts and calm the inner storm. This has helped me more times than I can count over the course of my life.

When I hit a saturation point a couple of weeks ago, when a particularly rank pile of workplace political horse manure landed on my desk, I decided I had had enough. It was the closest I’ve come in over twenty years to simply walking out of my office and never coming back.  But I’m not a quitter; I have a fundamental moral aversion to quitting before I’ve tried absolutely every possible alternative. And I don’t typically give in to rash impulses. So, instead of screaming “I quit” and walking out, I decided to make a list, two lists, actually: Reasons to Go, and Reasons to Stay, at my job.

On an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of graph paper, I listed the Reasons to Stay on the left-hand side.  There were 8 items on that list after spending an entire afternoon thinking about it and intentionally striving to add everything I could think of that would induce me to stay.  On the right-hand side of the page I listed the Reasons to Go.  It only took 15 minutes to fill the entire length of the page with 22 separate items, some with sub-parts. I bet if I let myself, I could add even more.

Now, in something so weighty and consequential as a decision to quit a high-paying job with professional prestige, sheer numbers of reasons listed in the midst of emotional upheaval shouldn’t be the only deciding factor.  I acknowledge this.  I also acknowledge that these thoughts, generated amidst emotional stress or not, are valid and shouldn’t be discounted simply because they’re items in a list.  The quality and consequence of the reasons matter and should be taken into account, too.

Here are my lists:

Reasons to Stay: Reasons to Go:
Paycheck Savings Enough for Months-Long Job Search
Loyalty No Loyalty in Return
Protect My Staff Can’t Protect if I’m a Lame Duck
I’m Not a Quitter I’m Not a Masochist, Either
Sense of Obligation – Don’t Leave in a Lurch Can’t Carry Obligation for Someone Who Doesn’t Want Me
Hassle to Find New Job I’m Unhappy
Age – Harder to Get New Job Out of Control Stress
Inertia Sleeplessness
  Don’t Feel I’m Adding Value Anymore When My Efforts Are Unappreciated
  I Can Find a Place to Add Value and be Appreciated
  Opportunity to Change Direction – Personal and Professional
  Chance to Re-Set and Re-Order My Life
  Take Time for Hobbies
  Take Time to Travel and See Friends
  Time to Write
  Chance to Work on Personal Growth
  Time to do Home Chores and Projects
  Relief from Pressure, Stress, Anxiety
  Distance from Boss’ Fits of Rage
  Change is Refreshing – New People, Places, Challenges
  Chance to Cultivate Peace and Tranquility in My Life
  I’m Not Irreplaceable – the Company and My Team Will Be Fine Without Me

What I take from the flat comparison of the two lists is that there are more numerous and weighty reasons to leave than to stay.  Assessing for depth, I can’t see that there is any urgency left within me anymore to continue fighting the anxiety, to endure the demoralizing disregard and mistreatment from my colleagues, or to achieve any specific professional objectives, that add up to a reason to stay. But I can see a lot of yearning to be free from the negativity, stress and emotional upheaval that is constantly generated by the people I work with.

Because it’s not the job, it’s the people. If I were to look for a new job (and I have been looking quite a lot), I’d still look for a similar position – I still love being an attorney for a company doing good things. I just don’t want to have to endure the toxicity that currently surrounds me in this company.

One of my frequent commentors on this blog said something recently about me being in a constantly toxic environment and continuing to expect to not be poisoned. That thought has been stinging the inside of my skull ever since I read it. At first, I was a little hurt to think they viewed me as naive and irrational for feeling so keenly the hurts from this job. But the more I think about it, the comment and my situation, the more I come to understand that what I’m feeling is grief over having finally reached the end of my creativity and ingenuity for inventing paths to resolution. I’m grieving over not being able to fix a problem that I didn’t create. I’m grieving a failure not of my making. I’m grieving the end of an era of my professional life that didn’t culminate in triumph, but in apathy.

One of those internet memes of wisdom I’ve seen a lot of lately advises not to hold onto a mistake simply because you spent a long time making it. Similarly, I’ve been advised by the interwebs that I can’t reach for something new if my hands are full of old junk.  While pithy, maybe even trite, and certainly oversimplified, these bits of advice hold a kernel of true wisdom: letting go of past mistakes gives you the opportunity to move on…hopefully to avoid making the same mistakes later.

My boss has been giving me little pep talks lately, taking pains to complement me and apologize for all his temper tantrums and the stress he adds to my life, and making a point of assuring me that the chief agitator causing the bulk of the drama is on a plan that has them retiring in 18 months or less.  He tells me all the time to just hang on for a little over a year and the main source of all our grief will be gone.

That’s so, so tempting.  By that time, I’ll have surpassed the 20-year mark with this company, a nice, round, milestone achievement.  Also by that time, my bonus for this year’s achievements will have been paid (if all the gates are met). And with the horizon free of the Senior Butthead and Top Drama Maker, I could see myself finishing out my career with this company.

But the rational voice still living in my head, however muted and small, still shouts that whomever replaces that jerk may not be any better and, besides, 18 months is a LOOOOOOOONG time in which much stress and turmoil can occur and in which they may change their plans and not retire at all.

So, since the present is all the time any of us has, should I waste my opportunity to take back my happiness on a hope for someone else’s decision to retire or not? Do I have it in me to stay another year and half while that plays out, enduring the continued toxicity and risking panic attacks and remaining unhappy – is the milestone and the potential bonus and the hoped-for relief solid enough of a benefit to make sucking it up worth it?

No answers, yet.  I’ve told myself, and even one friend who I trust, that I’ve already decided that I’m out.  But I don’t have another job, yet, so I’m not making any rash moves.  Will inertia win? I’ll just have to keep thinking and working on my courage to make a change, I guess.

 

Naming the Demon

I’m pretty sure I’ve written at least once before about believing that naming the demons, claiming the fear out loud, so to speak, can take away its power and give courage enough to rise above that fear. I do believe that. I try to practice that, especially in my professional life with my team, trying to make a safe space for them to do the same. But when it comes to my personal growth and self discovery and improvement, that naming requires significant vulnerability, particularly when the naming is in print for all and sundry to read…and ridicule.

While I have come a fair clip from the overly-cautious, fearful and shy person I was in the beginning of this journey, I still keep a good bit to myself and still guard my IRL persona carefully. I have a career and position that demands I bear a great burden of responsibility, so public behavior (including on social media) is something I’m very careful about.

Yet, I don’t want that burden to become a convenient excuse to hide from truth and let fear win.

So I’m going to try to strike a balance with this post, naming fears without context or explanation for the most part, saving some measure of privacy and dignity while putting into the universe my plea for peace. Here are some of the demons plaguing my heart and mind:

  • Isolation
  • Emotional upheaval and anxiety
  • Longing for, and also fearing, change
  • Terror of never being enough
  • Dread of always being judged to be too much
  • Shame at being fearful and insecure
  • Inertia that prevents logical, rational thought and action that might alleviate some of this dread
  • Utter lack of creativity and innovation in devising solutions to these problems
  • Disgust at my ineffectiveness in my own life
  • Self loathing over how pathetic this list is

Ugh. That’s a lot of sludge to expose to the world. And I don’t have any comfortable, warm & fuzzy platitudes to salve the negativity. But I cling to the conviction that as long as I’m working on it, putting genuine effort into trying to overcome and to improve, and by calling out the darkness into the light, there is a chance that it will get better.

I have to believe that. I hope you do, too.

Unanswerable Questions

Thinking, actual cognitive function of any kind, is truly beyond my ability today. But I have this push to keep the posting streak alive. So I’m embracing the delirium and posting a sampling of the absurdities that float to the surface of my brain during this sleep-addled fug. I have no answers for any of these – hence the title.

In no particular order:

  • Why do socks disappear from the laundry one at a time? And why is it always your favorite pair?
  • Why does sleeplessness make you emotionally compromised?
  • How can a bottle of water left in a car be warm, even when it’s only 30F and only partly sunny outside?
  • Where did Waldo actually intend to go?
  • What’s the point of sticky notes smaller than 3″ square – even my cramped (illegible) hand printing can’t squeeze a complete thought on one of those minuscule flecks of confetti they call mini PostIt Notes.
  • Why do aglets always come off when you’re in a hurry and need to re-thread your shoelaces or sweatpants or hoodie quickly?
  • Why is autocorrect so mean?
  • Why is the word effortless so hard to pronounce?
  • Why is the collective noun for turtle doves a pitying? Are they particularly empathetic?
  • Why do sales reps make me want to murdalize them constantly?

Maintaining

I took this week off to rest and recover a little from a very long, trying time at work. The polar vortex…and, to be completely honest, inertia…have kept me at home, doing next to nothing. While that sounds restful, I can honestly say it’s really not.

My sleep has not improved; if anything, it’s worse. Long, sleepless nights, days full of lethargy. Distractions, like reading and tv only go so far. And even as I recognize that my self-imposed lassitude is not doing the job, I can’t seem to make myself do more. There are chores I should do. There are things I should write. There are likely even things to do in this city, if I put in some effort to suss them out. But I’m not; can’t seem to pull it together enough to do anything.

Feels like I’m just biding the time until I can go back to work without getting crap from my boss for not taking time off.

Maintaining.

It’s a pitiful use…or not…of my time, I know. As a would-be writer and creative, it’s kind of demoralizing to realize how impotent my imagination is that I could find nothing better to do with a free week than get a suit fitting and then become a recluse.

Ah, well. Monday will be here soon enough and I can go back to work where I know what to do with myself and my time. At least there I seem to have a purpose and know how to fulfill it. Left to my own devices, I don’t know what to do with myself. That’s just shameful. Ugh.

Well, this turned out to be a post full of sunshine…not. Oh, well. That happens occasionally. At least I’m keeping my posting goal alive – maintaining.

Back to the grind

I took almost an entire week off from work, successfully avoiding doing any work-related stuff other than answering a handful of urgent emails in the first day or so. That felt great! I desperately needed the break. And while I did a lot of cool activities, including writing, and spending some quality time with my SIL, and getting the suit fitting I posted about before, I also spent a good deal of time just resting. I deeply needed the rest and am proud to say I got three separate nights during that week when I got 6 or more hours of actual sleep. That’s a marked improvement over most weeks since the first part of August.

But now I’m back at work and have already, in just two days, worked more than 25 hours on the same ol’ litigation junk that I thought I had put to rest for at least a few weeks when I filed, just as I headed out the door for vacation, the motions we’d worked on for over a month. In reality, we got just over 24 hours to savor having made those motions before receiving the other side’s latest salvo. Now we’re back to preparing response briefs and doing so much of the work for outside counsel.

Honestly, I’m over this crud. Totally. If I never read another pleading – or prepare one – again, it’ll be too soon. And there’s really no end in sight. Add to that my boss’ constant interruptions (seriously, more than 2 dozen since he got back from lunch today alone) to grouse and rant and curse and complain – so that I have to stop trying to get through reading the pleadings, stop making my own notes, stop getting anything productive done to listen – and I’m right back to the stressed-out wreck I was before taking last week off. Including back to sleeping only about 4 hours or less each of the last two nights.

And because we have to get these responses filed next week, I have to cancel my business trip that I was supposed to do next week. It was going to be an opportunity to get together with some of my staff from other countries and participate in some critical executive planning sessions. But court deadlines trump. It’s just frustrating that my “day job”, the work I’m supposed to do as the leader of a functional business unit, has to take a backseat to what are truly specious claims by a bunch of money-grubbers trying to get a free payday.

Ah, well. I keep telling myself that at least I’m doing substantive lawyering, not rote grunt-work. That’s something, I guess.

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.

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