Archive for the ‘struggle’ 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.

Assumptions

Wow, sometimes I think I might be prescient. I started writing this last Saturday, following a train of thought that has been nagging at the back of my brain on and off for a while now. A couple of things have happened in the three days since I started writing that seem to confirm all my thoughts on this topic. Weird how the brain works sometimes.

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Everyone assumes things, big and small, right and wrong, from time to time. There are some overt assumptions given as a starting point in certain situations that everyone involved agrees to be true. But often when we speak about assumptions it is in the context of blind assumptions, those thoughts that set a baseline, coloring our actions and outlook on a given topic, person or activity, without much basis for that thought or opinion. Those kinds of beliefs can be tricky to navigate and hard to challenge and change, especially when they are about ourselves.

Lately, I have been encountering assumptions that I have about myself in odd, unexpected ways. For the most part, I think that’s a good thing. Being aware of what we think about ourselves helps us examine our path and can help us make good choices (or bad) and take us in new and exciting directions. It can also make us retrench in those beliefs, habits, practices that we find comfortable and true, often regardless of other knock-on effects of keeping those things in tact.

At times, I feel that this constant self-examination, endless striving to improve, to be and remain positive, to challenge every shortcoming, is just another treadmill of “not good enough”. It feels like all this self awareness, personal growth and discovery work is more about destruction than construction. Some days it feels like there’s nothing good enough in me and I’ll have to completely remake my entire being in order to get to a place where I can look at myself in the mirror (both physical and metaphorical) and be content that the person looking back is acceptable.

This self assumption of inadequacy is insidious. It lurks in places you don’t ever expect to find assumptions. There are plenty of overt, obvious places where it is easily recognizable. These are predictable and annoying, sometimes hard to cut loose, but they don’t have much camouflage and are capable of being tackled head-on. The cynic in me sometimes thinks these are intentional distractions, ruses placed by the subconscious to divert attention from the deeper places where this assumption truly lives, to make it nearly impossible to root out and eradicate. If all our energy is focused on the surface assumptions, then the roots have time to go deep and unchallenged.

A place I’ve recently confronted this assumption – that I am not and will never be good enough – is superficially obvious, but there’s a taproot from the obvious surface to the hidden depths that I didn’t expect. And that unexpectedness makes me question if it’s really an irrational assumption or just the plain truth that I have to accept.

The surface bit is easy: I encounter disapproval/rejection/reprimand and I immediately assume I’m in the wrong or not up to standard, so that treatment must be deserved and I need to change and improve to be worthy of better treatment.

Now, clearly, there are times when everyone falls short and that self-castigating assumption is accurate. Being a mature adult means taking accountability for our mistakes and flaws and committing to do or be better. This is a healthy response to confronting personal shortcomings.

But the deeper bit is harder to articulate. It’s part “I’m working really hard to improve X quality/personal trait yet am not seeing expected results” and part “damn, I thought I’d mastered that one, but I guess not”. I guess what it boils down to is that frequency matters, more so than personal effort. Basically, if criticism is repeated, especially when it comes from different sources, then I gotta think that it’s not my irrational insecurities, but fact.

That’s painful on a lot of levels, but mostly it hurts to know that my inner saboteur was right all along. It’s painful and embarrassing to discover that I was a fool to take comfort in the easy platitudes of well-meaning acquaintances who urged me to believe myself to be good and smart and worthy, when my brain was telling me where I was falling short of all of those standards.

So what do you do when the illusion is revealed and all your comfortable self beliefs are debunked by cold fact?

I suppose the healthiest response is to redirect all that self-improvement energy to a more realistic, achievable goal. When your inadequacy has been proven to be reality, get to work on becoming adequate. Seems fairly straightforward. But so much in life that seems simple is not. Bootstrapping yourself to the finish line from square one is really f’ing hard and exhausting. Especially when the leaden weight of failure is still hanging around your neck.

So the real question is how do you take that leaden noose off your neck?

Let me know when you find out, won’t you?

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.

Reasons Be Damned

Last post, I talked about reasons to stay/go at my job. By sheer numbers, Go won hands-down. But I was still working through the logic, trying to figure out whether it was salvageable. Then, later that week, I had a terrifyingly open discussion with my boss in which I admitted to being extremely unhappy and unable to identify what purpose and value I have to the company anymore. He again advised that the chief source of our mutual misery will be leaving in under two years and I should stick it out.

Since that conversation, I’ve been doing my best with the dreck I’m dealing with. I keep looking back at that list in my last post and trying to beef up the Stay side, attempting to persuade myself that giving up on nearly 20 years of work and professional investment isn’t failure. I have dug as deep as I know how, and I keep coming up empty.

And in the face of the blatantly unfair and wrong directive I received last night, which completely disregards my leadership, undermines my authority, and eviscerates my agency,…for the second time at this job…I can think of no good reason to stay and endure the continued abuse and poisonous politics.

Reasons be damned. I’m out.

I even applied for a job I saw on LinkedIn today. I won’t just walk out, leaving my team unsupported and work undone. But I’ve made the choice inside my head and committed to myself that I won’t put up with it any more.

Now I just have to find the least disruptive path to a new start. Oh, and tell my family…and my boss…and my team.

Ugh, this sucks.

Conundrum

I’m really freaking tired of the up/down, positive/negative emotional treadmill that’s taken up residence in my brain and psyche lately. It hasn’t even been a full week since the victorious settlement of one of the biggest litigation matters in my professional career and I haven’t even had a chance to celebrate or even fully grasp that it’s no longer a problem I have to deal with. Yet I’m already embroiled in the next (few) crises, battling the next source of negativity.

But I don’t want to fall into the trap of repetitive, unrelenting negativity. So I’m trying to come at this one from an attitude of learning: what can I learn from this, how can I reframe this into some positive, practical good?

Here’s the puzzle:

How do you separate your emotional investment in something from the intellectual and logical, even logistical, considerations of any given issue, especially when faced with the projected emotional experience of the people around you?

Here’s today’s experience that triggered this query:

In the midst of a vent about the way a few people at my company have handled certain issues lately, a person I respect and admire and whose judgment I have always trusted described their decision to change careers and come work at my company in a field and position similar to my own as “abject failure”, going on to express how their parents had lamented their decision to change fields, go to law school, and take a leadership position at a company rather than continue their promising career in an entirely different professional field with the opportunity to “do real work with value for the world “.

I know logically and intellectually that these comments were borne of their frustration and stress, that they were venting and speaking about themself and their experience, relating memories from their past. I also am perfectly clear that their comments were not directed at me, only to me, and that the judgment held in those words was directed at their life, not at mine.

I know all of this.

Yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to apply that same judgment (that being an attorney, especially an in-house lawyer for a company not “doing anything important” for society is failure) to my own career. That judgment stings sharply, especially because I don’t have that second career, that other skill set to return to.

It seems to me a reasonable conclusion that if being an attorney and business executive is a failure for someone with such considerable accomplishments and valuable alternative skills, then it surely is more so for anyone else in the same company in a similar position who is less accomplished and has fewer alternative skills. How could it not be? Only if the less accomplished yet similarly situated person has exhausted their potential – if they were always going to be less, couldn’t expect to achieve anything more or better.

But that’s as big a smack in the face as the assertion that a chosen career and its associated achievements is necessarily a consolation prize, unworthy of pride and celebration.

So, what’s the lesson to be learned, how can this be turned into something positive ?

I don’t have these answers yet. I’m still struggling not to internalize the notion that everything I’ve worked for, all my professional achievements, and me into the bargain, aren’t some pathetic joke, undeserving of the esteem I’ve ascribed to them for nearly two decades. But I have to believe that there is something positive to salvage from the junk heap of professional ego.

Maybe it is this: even if the career I’ve built and the contributions I’ve made to my company’s success are less glamorous or valuable than some other esteemed career by someone else’s measure, I at least can be proud of what I’ve accomplished because I’ve done it honestly, with integrity and by the work of my own mind and skill; I have exploited no one, mistreated no one, cheated no one, and taken nothing that I did not earn by honest means. If that’s pathetic, abject failure for some, I’m unsure what could possibly measure up to success.

Still, it doesn’t sting any less knowing that my measure of personal success seems weak and valueless to someone who I have respected and admired and whose esteem I have labored to attract. I wonder now if they regard me with as much contempt as they apparently regard my career?

That’s not a super-shiny positive on which to end this post. But at least I’m thinking about it and making an effort to divine a positive meaning from a hurtful encounter. That’s supposedly a “learner’s” mentality and the first step to positivity. So there’s that.

Anti-Positives (not Negatives) For Those Days When Sunny Positivity Just Can’t Cut It

As you know, I’m on a mission to center positivity, gratitude and kindness in my life. I want to be the best version of me that I can be, every day. But because I am human and imperfect, I don’t always succeed. Sometimes finding the silver lining, the “one good thing” in a day utterly full of crappy, negative experiences and energy is simply too much. Some days I just can’t fake it ‘til I make it.

On those days, honoring the darkness, letting the emotional, political, mental sludge breathe and have its moment in the middle is all I can do. And, if I’m both lucky and careful, that momentary dominance will satisfy the perverseness of the universe and let me pin that day to the past, moving forward into positivity once again. It’s brutal and not at all pretty to live through, but once on the other side, relief at having given the darkness that moment makes the light a little more bright and a little more bearable.

So that’s the silver lining, the good out of the bad.

But what gets you to that place is acknowledging the pain points, the dreck that’s built up and is clamoring to get out. Catharsis, I guess. But not necessarily just a good ol’ fashioned, wracking, sobbing cry. Sometimes it calls for naming the enemies, a litany of the poisons steeping in the blood, to extinguish their power and potency. Only after being called to the fore can some of these venoms be neutralized – the power of light to bleach the stain of the dark.

To that end, I’m braving my fears of vulnerability and derision to call out some of the poisons currently plaguing my peace:

Imposter Syndrome

Being a Pathetic Loser

Loneliness and the Fear it is Forever

Inadequacy in Every Dimension

Fixating on the Unobtainable

Reliving Humiliating Moments of the Past

Beating Myself Up for Giving in to Anger

Fear of Change

Wow. That’s a lot of mental and emotional poison.

I wrote all of that over a month ago, after nearly a month of lost sleep and continual stress. I set it aside to breathe, thinking that it was too raw and left me too exposed to actually publish. I thought I just needed to get it out of my head and it would be enough. But it hasn’t stopped.

So last night, Wednesday October 24th, while I was, again, not sleeping and after my eyes called it quits on reading anymore as an escape from the poisonous thoughts, I lay still and let the poison wash over me. I decided all the fighting I’d been doing to avoid it had been futile, so maybe giving it its freedom would bring some relief. Again, maybe if I honor the darkness it’ll let me go?

So I spent the entire night reliving the most cringeworthy, painful, humiliating moments of my life, watching each scene and acknowledging it’s continued sting. It felt like walking through a thrift store, cruising the aisles full of dusty, dented, useless junk that somehow still holds a degree of fascination, picking up items and replacing them on the shelves. It was a miserable experience, yet I managed to get to the end of the aisle without shedding a tear. Despite feeling the oppressive weight of humiliation and shame that each memory carried, I looked at each one and then set it aside without further judgment or sorrow.

No profound conclusions resulted and no existential clarity emerged. I did notice a pattern in the moments that rose to the surface and it’s still percolating through my brain trying to resolve into a clear shape that I can put a name to. But there’s been no epiphany.

Still, I think it helped, in some perverse way, to let my brain purge the dreck. I’m not certain that I won’t have to confront those moments again another time, but I feel that surviving that ordeal is a triumph. Even though it cost me a day of vacation time (I was in no shape to go to work today) and a day-long headache that’s still pounding, in addition to the night-long anguish, I’m calling it a win. It’s not a bright, shiny, joyous win, but a win nevertheless.

And because any positive out of all this oily, oozing darkness should be celebrated, I’m taking my courage in both hands and am publishing this very personal realness, despite feeling naked in the spotlight by doing so.

Slowly imploding

Ever seen a time lapse video of something (a tin can, a vehicle or building) weathering, crumpling, decaying? Remember how the thing starts by looking new and whole and shiny?

At first, it’s straight and un-damaged and looks like something you’d like to own or have in your home. Then weather and age and use and abuse start to happen. You can see in the video how it starts slowly, almost imperceptibly, with a scratch or ding or fading. But then it accelerates.

Soon it’s shape is significantly altered, sagging or buckling or caving-in, here or there. Maybe it shows signs of vandalism or mistreatment. Maybe it’s natural erosion by age and exposure. Either way, pretty soon it’s looking sad and forlorn and dingy and ratty and not at all like something you’d want to have or touch.

It’s not long before the thing is unrecognizable as its original self. Bleached or dusty or rusted, it’s labels and distinguishing characteristics are gone. It’s a generic lump of twisted, rotted, useless material whose structural integrity is compromised and its utility is depleted.

I find such videos fascinating. They speak so eloquently of the insidious damage caused over time by forces both avoidable and inevitable. They are a metaphor, of sorts, for the creeping decay to soul and spirit from the harsh disdain and callous indifference we face in the world at times.

Right now, for instance, I’m feeling a great deal of empathy for, and affinity with, that weathering tin can. That gradual, yet accelerating, erosion of strength and dignity is exactly what it feels like when under constant strain and scrutiny. Every suspicion, every undeserved criticism and every added burden of obligation feels like a blow. Each leaves a mark or bruise or scar, like the dents and chips and dings that distort the shape of the tin can.

It’s really a slow-motion implosion. Everything turning inward and compressing, getting smaller. But since there is also erosion, the material doesn’t get deeper and more dense. Rather, everything of value is leached out, leaving an empty husk.

Now, some of these videos go on to show new life reclaiming that material and space. This is supposed to be an uplifting message of continual renewal, the circle of life and what not. But from a certain perspective, this positive spin glosses over the sadness and devastation wrought in the process. While it is true that good and great things can arise from the ruins, it is equally true that those benefits come at the expense of the life, the existence, the entire value of the original source.

Shouldn’t some time, attention, emotion be spent in mourning what is lost, before all focus and energy turns to celebrating the renewal or rebirth? Shouldn’t there be some homage to honor the value that was there before it was trodden down to base elements?

Are we in such a huge hurry to change everything and everyone from what it is to what we want it to be that we leave no room for those things, those people to simply be enough, good enough, just as they are?

I’m a huge believer in continuous improvement, of bettering oneself, of trying always to be a better person than I was the day before. But there has to be a balance between becoming the best ‘me’ I can be, and eliminating everything that is ‘me’ in favor of everything that everyone else thinks I should be.

What is the secret? Where is that elusive division between constructive criticism and oppressive reconstruction? How, when you’ve given so much, worked so hard at positivity and self-improvement, do you tell the difference? How, after such a struggle, do you not internalize these things as “not good enough”, “not worthy”, “wrong”, “broken”, “inadequate”, “less than”?

That’s exactly what it feels like. And its abysmal.

And the glib platitudes that accompany these needles of derision – “well, look on the bright side, this is just one area for you to work on”; “stay open minded and look at it as a gift, the knowledge of what you can fix”; “it’s character building”; and my favorite “just think how much better you’ll be after you change ___” – do nothing to soothe the sting of message that “you’re not good enough “.

It all just leaves me wondering how long, how many times, a person can pull herself up before the bootstraps break.

Painful Lessons

I’ve had a headache for over a week.

Before you start lobbing “go to the doctor” bombs at my head, please be aware that I’m neither stupid nor a glutton for pain. I just know my body and this is one of the many daily, chronic headaches that I’ve experienced since I was in the seventh grade. The quality and intensity of the pain is exactly the same, if it is running longer than normal. It’s not a migraine, and, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “It’s naht ah tooomah!” This isn’t new to me.

But it IS painful.

The pain, in a sick and twisted way, is a teacher of sorts. Sometimes effective, sometimes dysfunctional. But I’ve definitely learned a few things from pain.

One thing I’ve learned in my years of dealing with sustained pain and pressure in my skull is that it is possible to compartmentalize a heckuva lot of sensory input and feedback in order to focus on the immediate moment. This ability can be key to getting things done in really crappy circumstances. It can also be a crutch to get from one moment to the next. But it can fail, spectacularly, at exactly the wrong moment. So it isn’t a one-stop solution. But it’s a good, occasional-use tool.

Another trick I’ve learned from pain is that smiling can often avert an embarrassing, technicolor return of one’s last meal. That is, smiling can sometimes thwart the gag reflex and keep you from puking long enough to get to a bathroom. Smiling is also useful to mask the outward effects of a grinding, low-level, always-there pain. That’s a necessary art, because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that invisible pain is the slippery slope to ridicule and derision. If people can’t see a wound or scar, they tend to think you’re a goldbrick or hypochondriac and treat you as less-than. So, smiling through the ache can be a useful trick to preserve one’s dignity on a number of levels.

Yet, it takes a toll–the pain and smiling through it–it has a fairly high price that eventually comes due. Patience and good humor inevitably wear thin. Energy and will power last only so long before they have to be recharged. Managing mouth, emotions and pain tolerance simultaneously is a tricky business at the best of times. But when nearing the end of patience or energy reserves, it’s a whole ‘nuther level of delicate. I’ve learned over the years to pay attention to those subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints from the folks around me that my tone or wit is a shade too sharp; for me that’s a sure sign it’s time to retrench on the rest and self-care.

But through all of this, pain teaches that we are each stronger, more than our circumstances, each of us able to cope with an amazing amount of adversity if we are careful to balance grit with rest, determination with discretion. And it can teach those outside of the pain, too. You who observe the pain of others, know that ‘pushing through it’, ‘sucking it up’ is often more an act of courage than capability. Try not to judge too harshly when someone’s batteries run low and sucking it up no longer works.

So what’s the point of this post?

The short answer for those who hurt: Listen to your body, take care of it, and be kind to yourself.

The slightly longer answer for those who see the pain of others: Don’t assume from a smile or pleasant voice that a person isn’t suffering (physically or emotionally). Pay attention to what someone is not doing or saying for a clue to what pain might be doing to them, and be sensitive to their efforts to make it work.

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