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You Can’t Unring a Bell

“You’re being too hard on yourself.”

There was a time, really not that long ago, when the statement above would have been met with resistance on my part.  My instinctive response:  scoff and declare I was not hard enough on myself.

I know this because it is still the instinctive thought.

Had I taken the time to self-examine, the statement would have seemed complimentary in nature.  There is value in being hard on yourself.  It motivates you to achieve more, it alerts you when you are wading into morally ambiguous territory, and it prevents you from adopting that godawful victim mentality.

Possibly deeper still:  if you are hard enough on yourself, then anyone external being hard on you is likely not to hurt as badly.

All of this is conjecture, of course; introspection was not an activity I placed high on my list until the years following active addiction.  Now it seems I am questioning every thought and feeling I have.

And yes, some days the jury is out as to whether or not this is a good thing.

One rather startling revelation has come up in the past few weeks, so revolutionary that I feel compelled to write it out.  Through the endless self-examination and awareness of internal dialog, I have reluctantly concluded that perhaps I am more critical of myself than is necessary, certainly more than is effective.  This is not necessarily news.  What is the newsflash:  the Inner Critic manifests itself in a variety of ways, ways I would have previously defended to the death as virtuous.

It has been recently pointed out to me that in describing an event about which I’m feeling badly, I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the other side of things.   It could be an argument with my husband, disappointment with my kids, hurt feelings with a family member.  No matter what the situation, I am compelled to state their case, project their feelings, or rationalize why I may be overdramatizing the situation.

When this pattern was first pointed out to me, I dismissed it as a non-pattern.  When the pattern became too obvious to dismiss, I was defensive, indignant even.  This shows my extreme sense of justice, I proclaimed self-righteously.   I am a better person for considering all sides, aren’t I?

And then, the question I can’t un-hear:  but if you’re spending all your time understanding and appreciating the perspective and feelings of everyone else, then when are you understanding and appreciating your own?

Every once in a while I am asked a question that makes my brain fall silent.  Even now, and this is a few weeks later, I think of that question and I mentally blank.  Which always, without fail, means I’ve got shift in perspective coming.

So if considering all sides of the problem, all the possible scenarios, all the feelings and thoughts of everyone involved is not the way to go, then what the heck is?  Apparently, the answer is to relate the story, and end with how I feel.  Period.  No explanations, no rationalizations, no justifications.

Even, especially, if I am relating the story to myself:

I feel (fill in the blank), and then refrain from rationalizing the feeling away.

And then, apparently, I am to feel the feelings.  Oh, how hard it is to keep the eyes from rolling.

Feel the feelings.  Does that sound as inane to the rest of the world as it does to me?  Except, ever since discovering this pattern, I have attempted to take the advice.  And found it almost a physical impossibility.  I will clamp my mouth shut, then open it to say, “But I realize that…”  The closest I have come is to say, “I want to say…, but I’m supposed to just say how I’m feeling, so I feel…”

So now I’m in the really annoying stage of criticizing myself for criticizing myself.  Exhausting to read?  Imagine living it!

At this point someone might be thinking, “How does someone get a few years into sobriety and not learn how to feel her feelings?

I suppose comparing post-recovery life to pre-recovery life, I have made progress with understanding, acknowledging, and even communicating feelings.  For example, in the earliest days of sobriety, I needed one of those smiley face charts to even figure out what I was feeling.  So there’s been progress in the years since.

What is the endpoint, I demand?  Let’s say I figure all this out, and feel my feelings, what then?  Do I live happily ever after?

No such luck.  What is supposed to happen is a greater sense of peace, of calm, of self-worth.  Learning to identify, process, and resolve internal “situations” will create room for positive things like happiness, gratitude, and joy.

Or so I’m told.  To say that I am in the experimental phase of this (the world “bullshit” has rolled around through my head several times while writing this post) would be an understatement.

And how does one get started on this magical process?  The first step, one in which I am deeply entrenched at the moment, is developing awareness.  Every time the negative inner voice speaks up, I take note of what is being said and how it makes me feel.  In case you’re interested, my heart picks up a few beats, and there is a small clenching in my stomach.

Now, here is a critical part:  don’t get impatient.  Don’t criticize the critic!  Just take note, become curious, detach as much as possible:

“How interesting is it that you feel anxious about something, but you’re trying to convince yourself why you are wrong for feeling this way?”

Fascinating… you are angry about a situation, but at the same time worried that you will upset someone with your anger?”

“Isn’t that curious that you just walked by the mirror and told yourself how fat you are?”

It sounds preposterous, I know.  But I will say the few times I’ve successfully done this, I usually laugh, and it does seem to break some pattern.  I suppose time and practice will tell if there are long-term benefits.

From there… to tell you the truth, I’m not sure.  Since I’ve really only gotten as far as awareness, I can’t say for sure what’s next.  I find myself pointing out when I’m doing the things I shouldn’t be doing, like making excuses for my feelings.  Perhaps that’s another step on the ladder.

In terms of a step-by-step guide to feeling the feelings… well, I’m working on it.  So far I’ve learned a few on the “What Not to Do” list:

  1. Open a bag of chips
  2. Binge watch a Netflix series
  3. Name your feelings, then talk yourself out of them

I’ve gotten back into the practice of meditating again.  This was no one’s suggestion but my own, because I find that even a small daily practice of sitting still and being mindful tends to increase my ability to detach from my thoughts.

Like most things, it is a work in progress.  I am a work in progress.  We’ll see if all this awareness results in a peaceful, yogi-like existence, or I wind up talking to the walls…

Today’s Miracle:

This post has been rolling around in my head for weeks; the miracle will be, if you are reading, then I have actually published it!

The End of the Innocence

 

It’s a staple lecture in my house:  getting your feelings out, saying what’s going on in your head, is always better than keeping it in.  It’s never as bad as you think it is, and you will feel better for sharing your mental burden.

Sometimes, I wonder, though, if there aren’t some exceptions to this rule.  Are some thoughts so childish, so disgracefully unkind, that perhaps need only be acknowledged internally and then dismissed?

Because once you share something, you can’t unring the bell.  Once you let someone in on your most troublesome thoughts, you can’t say, “You know what?  Never mind, I’m okay.”

 

Growing up, I don’t specifically remember too many crushing disappointments.  I’m not sure if this is because I was the most exceptional child ever, or if my expectations were that low, but when I think back over elementary school, high school, and even college and grad school, things I sought out I generally obtained:  good grades, positions of leadership, friendships, honors, employment.

The first major disappointment that stands out to me occurred at my first full-time gig after grad school.  To reiterate, I slid into every aspect of this career up to this point:  I was able to reside and work in my undergrad institution while obtaining my graduate degree, at which point a full-time job magically presented itself upon graduation.  Should of, could of, would of… been more grateful, but that is the trouble with youth, no life experience to allow appreciation.

And that job had everything (with the exception of good pay, but what’s money when you’re young and carefree?):  great hours, really fun working environment, and a belief in what I was doing.  I genuinely looked forward to going to work every day, it was fun the vast majority of the time.

There were two of us that landed these magical positions, and we were (in fact, are still) very close friends.  And what followed was predictable in a trite movie plot sort of way:  one of us received the promotion for which both of us were vying.

In case I need to state the obvious:  that someone was not me.

I am immensely oversimplifying a very old story, but what stands out to me the most is the outrage I felt with respect to the injustice of it all.  In my heart, that promotion was mine, and it was an egregious slight that I took very, very personally.

My solution to this problem was to detach emotionally, and jump at the very first position I could find.  A position which had nothing to do with my career path, had nothing to do with the advanced degree I just earned, and to this day I could not tell you what possible long-term career benefit it would have provided.  Not coincidentally, it provided no long-term career benefit.

Stupid, stupid youth.  If I could talk to my 20-something self, I would do so in a loud, frustrated tone of voice.

Why embarrass myself with this stupid story that is a distant memory?  Because there is a lifelong pattern to it for which I created my own catch phrase:  the end of the innocence.

When I started that particular career, I did not know where I was specifically headed, I was doing something new and exciting, learning and growing, and I wasn’t comparing or competing against anyone or anything.  There were no real expectations, and so anything good that happened was really good, anything bad was taken in stride.

But at some point, and I am too far removed from it to determine where, I did develop expectations, and I was comparing myself to others rather than to myself, and when I came up wanting, that is where the dissatisfaction sneaked in.  And since I did not have my sage 40-something self to advise me, we know how the story ends.

So, problem solved, right?  Compare self to self, rather than self to others, and all will be well.

Except when that sneaky, snarky voice finds its way back in, and even when you know it for what it is, it still manages to wreak havoc with serenity.

 

A few days ago I was at my son’s final track meet.  A very good friend from my college days surprised my son by attending and cheering him on.  It made my son’s day to see this particular friend, because he is akin to celebrity status in my house:  my friend completed his first Iron Man triathlon this past summer.  His advice has gold status as far as my son is concerned.

So I express my gratitude and try to explain to my friend why his presence means so much to my son.   He is surprised to be seen as a role model, and laughs, because in his circle he is the novice.  He knows professional triathletes, so compared to them, his accomplishments are small.  He told me a story that between events, I think he said swimming and biking, he stopped to eat a sandwich.  His friends rushed by him and assumed an injury that forced him to end his journey, and were subsequently astonished by his decision to take that break.  For them it was about finishing in the quickest amount of time.  For him it was about enjoying that experience in the most complete way possible.  And apparently complete enjoyment meant a sandwich break while enjoying the sights and sounds of Switzerland.

The best part of that story for me:  his complete comfort with his decisions and his outcome, and his complete detachment from the decisions and outcomes of those around him.

I am in that stage of innocence with my fitness right now, and I consciously enjoy it.  I do not see myself on the level of those training for marathons, or even 5K’s, I am just supremely happy with the fact that I can run a complete mile without stopping.

 

I actively miss that stage of innocence with other areas of my life.  In those areas that I actively see the downward spiral I have taken, similar in trajectory to the career decisions I described earlier:  I start something green and innocent, and am delighted by every new thing that comes along.  Then comes that mental shift, and that sneaky voice “shoulding” all over me… I should have more accolades, more progress should be seen by this point, I should have more defined goals so that I should be even harder on myself.

And then, even worse, is when I turn on the unsuspecting people around me, and my envy at their perceived success has me regarding them in a negative light.

And it’s wrong on every level, and it’s shameful, but damned if I know how to turn it off.

Maybe there are some things that are better left unsaid.  Just don’t tell my kids I said so.

 

Today’s Miracle:

 Had the opportunity to host two different family members at my house, and am still relishing the spontaneity of it!

Step One

The first of AA’s 12 steps reads:  “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”  I have found 2 things to be true:  that you absolutely cannot succeed in recovery without some basic belief in this concept, and that acceptance of this is an ongoing process.

But what I am also realizing is that acceptance of powerlessness does not apply only to recovery.  I am powerless with respect to all people in my life.  I cannot control what they think, say or do, and if I don’t like one of the above, that’s just too damn bad for me.  The sooner I can accept this powerlessness, the happier and more serene I will be.

One of my big character defects is railing against injustice, or what I perceive to be injustice.  Ironically, I used to consider this character defect as a strength… I believed I had a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and I spent a lot of energy in the past trying to get others to see my point of view.

I now realize this is nothing but an overinflated ego on my part, and I have nothing to gain by trying to control the people and events around me.  I have control over exactly one person’s thoughts and actions, and it is enough of a project trying to control my own behaviors!

The upside to all this introspection is that when I truly accept these ideas, my mind and heart are so much calmer, and I really can look at my day with a happier, more serene perspective.

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