on reconnecting (happiness project, part 7)

So let’s just start off by acknowledging that yep, I fell off the face of the earth. My bad, team!

Let’s reconnect.

I’ve been doing a lot of reconnecting lately, in a lot of spheres: physical, emotional, spiritual. It’s been a long, tiring few months: we’ve moved house yet again (though, hopefully, hopefully, for the last time for a long time), I’ve had a few sporadic illnesses that have taken awhile to bounce back from, work has been a whirlwind of activity and new projects…the list goes on. And my moods have been…well.

For someone who really, really doesn’t like change, the number of transitions, relocations, routine adjustments, and sudden changes of plans over the past few months have been challenging, to say the least. I wish i could say I’ve handled all of those challenges gracefully, but that would be a flat-out lie, so I won’t pretend about it. Spouse has been an absolute champ in dealing with me, but I’m absolutely sure that it has been neither fun nor entertaining to spend your down time with a cranky, over-exhausted, stressed-out wife.

So, that whole happiness project thing.

I’ll be honest: it’s fallen by the wayside in a number of ways. I’ve fallen back into a lot of old habits in the last few months–spending most of my downtime on a screen, not seeing friends as much as I’d like to, getting into a very skewed coffee : water intake ratio that generally left me crankier and more tired than I would have been if I was really hydrating well (and/or not drinking absurd amounts of caffeine).

But I’m trying to be better.

Back in May, I bought a three-month yoga membership to a studio near my apartment. I did a lot of yoga in college and some in grad school, and it was really great not just for my fibromyalgia (though it helped a lot with that) but for my mental health and my sense of connection to my mind and my body. The person in your yoga class that starts borderline crying during pigeon/eke pada rajakapotasana? Yeah, that’s me.

IT’S FINE IT’S PART OF THE PRACTICE

Surprisingly–or not–I actually started feeling emotionally better once I started connecting and crying through some of my poses, especially the restorative ones. I started using my savassana to actually just connect to my breathing, instead of letting myself run through my to-do list or stress list or any other list of craziness that tends to rocket around my head. Since starting to work at an amazing organization that teaches, among other things, mindfulness meditation as a spiritual connection practice, I’ve toyed around with the idea of starting a real meditation practice daily, but for now, I generally localize it to my savassana. But it’s been really wonderful, and since being more mindful in my day to day life was one of my new year’s resolutions, I also get to feel like I’m making progress toward a goal.

One of the most important parts of yoga has been setting an intention at the beginning of every class. When I first started getting back into yoga, my intentions were basically “get through the class without dying and/or falling over in a super embarrassing way”, but as I’ve kept going, I’ve ended up with two intentions that tend to make it into most of my classes: self-compassion and reconnection.

Living with a chronic pain disorder gives me a weird relationship with my body. Being in constant pain means that I’m always aware of my body–it’s pretty much impossible not to be–but I don’t always feel close to or connected to it. Sometimes, I feel like my body is something heavy that I have to drag around. While I’ve tried to take time to thank my body for what it can do instead of focusing on the ways it limits me, it’s an ongoing challenge to do that on a regular basis. Setting an intention at the beginning of class to reconnect with my body–to feel what it’s feeling without passing judgment; simply recognizing where my body is telling me it’s reached a limit and acknowledging it for going as far as it could–has been eye-opening for me because it’s given me space to sit, willingly and purposefully, with my body several times a week for at least an hour: not judging, not frustrating, not grumbling, just connecting and acknowledging.

And it’s…it’s been good. Not quite life-changing, and not quite automatic yet, but good. Meaningful.

In the spirit of reconnecting, I’ve been trying to spread that intention through the rest of the aspects of my life. For a while at the beginning of the year, and again when we moved to New York, I was doing a pretty good job of seeing friends regularly, keeping in touch with family, reaching out to folks I didn’t see often, etc. In the past few months, a lot of that has fallen by the wayside. It’s hard to know for sure if that’s because my commute is longer and I’m just too tired, if I’m mentally exhausted by all the transitions, if it’s just too darn hot for that kind of nonsense, or some combination of the three, but I’ve definitely lost track of a lot of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year.

So this month, I’ve been trying to move forward–or go back, I suppose–to the habits that I’ve been trying to build over the course of this year and this happiness project. I’ve been connecting with friends–grabbing a coffee, keeping a monthly breakfast date, doing virtual planner decorating dates, keeping my family group text amused with occasional memes and YouTube videos, even going to a few shows. And even though my inner introvert tends to hate it (kind of a lot, merp), it’s clear–just from my mood and the way I’ve felt at the end of the day–that it’s been worth it.

 

Still–I can’t do it every day. I’m still finding myself running into mental roadblocks with spontaneous plans that throw off my original routine (and things like weather and spontaneous friend/family events have made that a pretty constant reality over the last few weeks, grumble grumble), but the warm fuzzies of spending time with my friends and feeling human connections rather than isolating myself in my apartment has been worth it.

There are some things that I’m still working to reconnect with. My writing time has fallen by quite a bit (hence my very neglected blog), I’ve been journalling less, reading less. But slowly, that’s changing too. I hit the library this week and picked up two new books. I finished the first draft of the novel that I’ve been working on since November (TAKE THAT, WRITER’S BLOCK), and I’m starting some new stories. Slowly, slowly, I’m reconnecting to the the things that bring me joy.

 

When you set an intention for a yoga practice, it’s not meant to be an intention set for the rest of your day or week or life. It’s just that: an intention for your practice, whether that practice is a morning sun salutation, an hour-long class, or a full-day workshop. But you’re setting it for yourself, for the moment you’re in, the body you’re in, the space where you are. So that’s what I’m doing, one moment at a time: setting an intention to reconnect.

One moment at a time.

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when happiness is work

One of the odd roles I’ve taken on in a lot of my friendships and other relationships has been “the happy one.”

The first time someone told me that I was the “happy one” in our particular group of friends, I was…well, let’s say “confused,” rather than “offended,” because it sounds nicer. It wasn’t that being happy is a bad thing–it’s obviously not, and the work I’ve been doing on my happiness project is part of my effort to move toward the whole happiness thing–but that I’ve just never thought of myself as an especially happy person. I didn’t (and often still don’t) think of myself as unhappy, either, just not super happy.

At the time, I asked my friend what she meant by that, and she shrugged. “You look on the bright side of things,” she said. “You find good things in people. You smile a lot. You just come off as a happy person.”

Okay. All fairly true things–I will totally admit to being the sort of warm and fuzzy person who hopes that the person tailgating me on the highway is speeding to deliver a baby and not just being a dick, I have one of those weird smiles that seems to prompt people to talk to me and tell me about their feelings (basically the opposite of resting bitch face. Resting therapist face?), I don’t like cutting people off when what they’re saying seems important. But does that really make me seem like a happy person?

Apparently yes, because over the course of the next several years, more people in various walks of life–coworkers, friends, clients, relatives–commented on my positivity, my bright mood, my smile, my idealism, all that jazz. Meanwhile, there I am, looking around in confusion, because my head feels like a jumble of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and brain fog, and all the happiness that everyone else seems to see coming off me just doesn’t feel visible to me. In fact, I usually feel like I have to force it to show up.

Spending most of my working years in various “helping” fields, from childcare to higher education to mental health, means that I’ve rather inadvertently put myself in professions that require me to be more emotionally “on” than, say…I don’t know, working in accounting or something (sorry, accountants. I just assume that spreadsheets don’t bring that many feelings to the game). For most of my day, whatever my actual mood might be, I needed to be plugged in to the feelings of the people around me to offer support, advice, problem-solving, insight, etc. I’ve been lucky to work at places where I can be a little more “off” when not interacting with whoever the client base happened to be (students, campers, mental health clients, etc), but it still involves a significant amount of emotional labor on a day to day level that can get incredibly draining, especially when the positive emotions you’re expected to display might not be entirely reflective of your genuine feelings. But when people start taking your manufactured happiness as real, they start to expect it, and then you start to assume that you have to project that happiness at all times.

Being and looking happy, then, turns into a job. This is a problem that other women have talked about all over the internet and I won’t repeat their very good points, mostly because this is more about my personal experience than about my feminism, but then, it can be hard to separate the two. Would I be feeling so nervous about not feeling the happiness I project if gender norms didn’t expect me to be smiling and cheerful to every person I meet? I don’t know.

The big question I’ve always had for myself, though, is whether there’s a difference in my mood when I’m not making the effort to act positive compared to when I am. There is something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” effect, and I found that out the hard way over the past few weeks.

I haven’t been shy on this blog about my struggles with chronic pain and depression. Living with chronic physical and mental health issues isn’t a walk in the park, but they’re my everyday existence, and I find myself generally able, for the most part, take a bunch of meds, put some product in my hair, smack a smile onto my face (HELLO HAPPINESS IT’S SHELLY HOW ARE YOU TODAY) and get out the door. But that’s the thing about chronic issues–they’re chronic. You get used to them. You know what to expect, you know what they feel like, you get a feel for your bodies aches and pains and occasional-oh-hey-it-feels-like-there’s-acid-on-my-skin moments. But when you get something else on top of your usual chronic illness (for example, the ass-kicker of a flu I came down with two and a half weeks ago and am still getting over), all bets are off. The things that usually work stop working. All the energy you’ve saved up to get you over the hump of compensating for crummy joints or nerves or serotonin receptors is suddenly gone, and the spoons you’re used to having to get through your day promptly disappear.

Over the last two weeks, all of the positive energy I usually try to summon up to project my happy attitude–to be “the happy one”–went out the window. No more Shelly happy face. I was stuffy and cranky and sleepless and exhausted; I was coughing constantly and couldn’t breathe through my nose (my nose! the only part of my body that I can usually rely on to work! wtf??), I was, in conclusion, a mess. I meandered from my bed to my couch to my bathtub, I slept constantly, I mustered a few smiles for my nephews and family but overall didn’t really even try to be sociable during our Passover seders with my in-laws. I was cranky toward my husband and often asked to just be left alone, and didn’t take much of time to ask how he was doing (except for the occasional thank-you for the many, many sweet things that he did for me while I was being a brat toward him).

It sucked.

But now that I’m finally on the mend and had a bit of my spark back yesterday and today, I’ve started to realize that what sucked about it wasn’t that I felt like crap, but that I was wallowing in feeling like crap. Don’t get me wrong, the flu is miserable, and I think everyone’s entitled to a few “woe is me” days through the worst of it. And in all honesty, throwing a crappy flu on top of an already messed-up body should probably earn me a few extra days. I didn’t bother with any of the usual self-care I took on even on my worst fibro flare days, and losing that probably made things worse. I took baths, but spent them just staring at the wall instead of lighting something that smelled nice and putting on an audiobook or some music. I put the same pajamas on again and again. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t eat and barely drank any water. It felt a lot more like a bad depressive episode than a physical illness, and I think that my total lack of attempt to do anything to take care of myself because I was just in such a bad mood could have very nearly turned it into one.

It’s still strange to think of myself as the “happy one,” as I continue to struggle with the same health issues (both physical and mental), but the past few weeks gave me some insight into just how much I miss that positivity, mostly manufactured or not, when it’s not there. I don’t know if the positive attitude and forward-focused mindset I project are becoming parts of my personality that I like more than I resent, but my time spent feeling miserable and sorry for myself certainly didn’t help me with my healing process.

When we’re kids, no one really tells us that happiness can feel like work, and that sometimes you have to make your own, and that sometimes it sort of feels forced. But I think that I’ll take a little bit of manufactured happiness over my self-sustained misery bubble any day.

It might be faking it until I make it, but I think the faking it helps.

10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

As of 6pm on Friday, I am no longer a therapist.

It’s a strange, bittersweet feeling. For over a year, being a therapist was more than just a job–it was part of my identity. Work didn’t get to stay at work; it was part of my life in a deeply profound way. My co-workers became my supporters in ways that were unlike anything I’d experienced at any other job; the concept of a “mental health day” took on an entirely new meaning, being present in my work became more important than ever.

Looking back on the past year, it’s hard to pick out the things that I learned from being a therapist as opposed to things I learned simply by getting another year older (and maybe a few months wiser). But that, I suppose, is why self-reflection has become such an important part of my growth process. I’ve written before about journaling and how daily reflective practice has changed the way I spend my time, but it really has made a huge difference–not just in my ability to look back at moments of gratitude, but to watch myself experience learning and growth. It’s also allowed me to read old entries and see the places where I learned hard lessons and received some painful reminders of my own limitations–limitations that, thanks in part to that active self-reflection, I was sometimes able to turn into strengths.

But not without challenges, and not without luck, and not without help.

For better or worse, I’m a lists person, and I do my best memory collection through organization. So, here we are:

10 Things a Year as a Therapist Taught Me about Life, Work & Growth

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listening to the wise mind

Readers, it may have come to your attention, as you’ve followed me throughout this blogging adventure, that I’m a bit of a feelings person.

I mean, I’m a therapist, so it makes sense that I’m a feelings person in the sense that I understand feelings. I get feelings. I can look at someone’s face and body language and figure out what emotions are bouncing around their head. I can pluck an emotional heartstring like the prettiest darn harp you’ve ever heard. I can sit down and process emotions with someone in my sleep (not that I would, since it wouldn’t be very nice of me, but still: doable). But there’s more than that when it comes to being a feelings person.

When I talk about being a feelings person, I tend to mean that I listen to my feelings first and my thoughts second. I get vibes. I look for emotional energy in a room. I tend to trust my gut instincts over a logical argument. If my feelings are stuck somewhere, it’s hugely unlikely that any amount of thought or logic is going to change them, much to the annoyance of my therapist, who likes to tell me that there’s a breakdown in my cognitive triangle.

My husband, on the other hand, is totally a thoughts person. This dude is thought-oriented like you wouldn’t believe. He likes logic. He likes reason. He spent a few months as a philosophy major just so he could hang out and talk about logic and reason with other logic-and-reason-minded people for hours on end. He gets very confused when I flail around about feelings and he doesn’t understand why I can’t grasp simple concepts of logic, and then gets much more confused when I explain that I understand his logic perfectly, my feelings just don’t care about it.

So, fellow therapists, the feelings person and the thoughts person–sound familiar?

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The Wise Mind idea is a concept that comes out of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a treatment approach that combines cognitive and behavioral therapies. It was originally designed to treat borderline personality disorder by Marsha Linehan, a psychologist who developed the model based on her own lived experience with mental illness and suicidality.

The idea of the Wise Mind is simple: When we make decisions based only on reason, we miss out on the impact of emotional experiences. When we make decisions based only on emotional impulse, we miss out on the knowledge and logic that the rational mind provides. The Wise Mind combines both of these intelligences, and allows a person (or, in our case, a family) to take the logical experience of the rational mind and the sensitivity and feeling of the emotional mind to approach an issue with serene, informed confidence.

DBT is designed to be an individual approach, but I’ve had the luck of watching it apply in my marriage as well. This past weekend, the Husband and I went out to Westchester to explore the place where we’ll be living come April, and I just about had a panic attack in the car. I didn’t really like the apartment we had already decided (in a previous Wise Mind conversation) that we were going to take. I didn’t like how far we were from town. I didn’t like that I couldn’t walk to work. I didn’t like so many things.

But while I was flailing, Husband was thinking. And when I stopped flailing long enough to come up for air (and also to take some more migraine medication, because that was just adding insult to injury on a rough day), he gave me the rational mind approach. But he also listened to my emotional mind, and gave me room to have all of my feelings (and there were many). And what we ended up deciding, once again, was that yes: this was the right choice. This was the right, wise choice for our family–not just the family we have now, but the family we hope to have in the future.

Listening to the wise mind isn’t easy. As an emotional mind person, I tend to dig my heels in. I latch, stubbornly, onto anxiety and fear and worry, onto nervousness and apprehension. I don’t like change, and I fight tooth and nail against all logic attempting to remind me that change is, in fact, a part of life. The wise mind, as far as I tend to be concerned, can screw right off.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one in charge of making sure I listen to the wise mind. Until I learn how to do it myself, I have plenty of help. And I’m even learning to step away from my insecurity over needing to be independent, and accepting the help that’s being offered.

Maybe I’m learning to be wise after all.

the light at the end of the tunnel

There’s a weird sort of thing that happens when you get close to an ending that’s still just out of reach.

Right now, I’m very close–but not quite there–to arriving at a number of big accomplishments. I start a new job two weeks from today. In just about a month, my family is going to be moving to a brand-new city, leaving behind the roots we’ve put down in Western Massachusetts over the past year. I’m just about 12,000 words from the ending of the first draft of the novel I started for National Novel Writing Month back in November 2015.

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and won. because I’m great.

It’s weird to be coming up on so many changes at once and to not be rolling in absolute anxiety attacks 24/7. That’s not to say I’m not totally freaking out (so many freakouts, team. so many.) but rather that I’m trying, actively, to remind myself that this transitional time is temporary, and is going to end in things I’ll be able to be proud of and excited about.

That said: Endings suck, a lot. I’m coming to the end of a job where I’ve met amazing people and been able to make a visible difference in the lives of kids and their families. My husband and I are leaving our first “real” home as a married couple, and the first place we’ve lived for more than a year since we both left our parents’ houses at the end of high school. I’m inching closer and closer to completing a novel draft (something I haven’t done in…yikes, four years? and that last one was a mess, so we won’t even count it). I’m excited about moving on to what’s next, but saying goodbye to these people and places and projects is hard. Perhaps the hardest part is that these endings are close, but haven’t quite arrived, and in a lot of ways, I’m still in the slugging, logistical drudgery of transitions: finishing all of my paperwork and client transition documents, looking for new apartments and making packing lists and booking travel arrangements, outlining scenes and cross-checking character arcs to make sure everything gets at least wrapped up at least moderately nicely. Hardly the romantic wrap-up I like to daydream about, where I step out of one section of life and into a beautifully set-up and organized next section.

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If this picture represented me, I would crash into the far cliff and fall down.

A gal can dream.

In an attempt to deal with all of these transitions and keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel of these projects rather than getting stuck in the muddled middle of the tunnel, I’ve been trying to find ways to bring a bit of that end-of-the-tunnel light to where I am now. Because I’m obsessed with planning and lists, part of what’s keeping me sane is just keeping track of what needs to be done by what point helps me to not only look see what I need to be working on, but also how much time I have to complete each task (and, of course, gives me that thrill of victory when I cross something off the list).

I’ve also–and judge away, y’all–finally caved and indulged myself in a Pinterest account and started pinning all manner of interior decorating things. Part of this is because I am absolute trash for Apartment Therapy, but I also just really like to be able to visualize spaces. The down side of this is that we actually don’t have a new apartment/home yet (which makes me do this a lot) so I really have no idea at all what kind of space we’re going to be in–so any kind of design planning is pretty hugely premature. But whatever, guys. It makes me feel better. Picturing a new home with our own furniture and books and blankets and dog toys, maybe with a few new design pieces or bits of art, helps the interim anxiety of packing and moving and unpacking feel a little bit overwhelming.

As much as I’ve been trying not to indulge my inner packrat, I’ve also started looking for mementos–solid, actual ways to commemorate these places and experiences. Going through my office, I’ve found pictures that my clients have drawn and asked me to keep, collages that I made with them as we explored the therapeutic process together. I’ve started looking at key memento ideas as a way to hang on to our house after we leave, and my inner crafting brain is already hard at work.

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adorable.

But most of all, and as odd as it sounds, I’m trying to enjoy this process. This point of almost-but-not-quite-there in a transition is usually the point where I start regularly looking longingly at bottles of wine, but this time around, I’m making a conscious effort to step back and listen to what my body and feelings are telling me. My goal isn’t to cruise through these endings, but rather to savor them: to be present in each moment, listening to my clients process their transition between clinicians, appreciating the textures and sounds and scents of my house before it’s time to say goodbye, enjoying the time I spend working on this novel and getting to know these characters and settings as their stories come to an end. I’m hopeful–not positive, but hopeful–that leaning into the transition and listening to my limits as I go through it, I’ll be able to enjoy the process, rather than burying my head in the sand and just waiting frantically for it to be over.

I’m not going to be the kind of person who learns to enjoy transitions overnight. But I’m trying. I’m trying.

And maybe that’s a light in the tunnel all on its own.

preparing for change (or: the anxious girl’s guide to major life transitions)

It may seem odd coming from someone who helps people navigate life transitions for a living, but I actually really hate change. I’m a person who loves routine and predictability–there’s a reason why I love my planner so much and why I’d rather grit my teeth and deal with the devil I know rather than letting myself contemplate the anxiety of the devil I don’t. I’d like to play it cool and pretend that this anxiety only comes up about major transitions, but unfortunately I’d be lying–I once spent a half-hour in tears because the husband wanted to rearrange the living room.

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Yeah. That was a fun conversation.

As I’ve been working to improve my ability to embrace vulnerability, it’s ben a difficult journey for me to step back from my automatic reflex of recoiling away from transitions themselves and to instead let myself experience and process that discomfort. And allowing myself to feel anxiety and worry and stress as I approach a series of pretty huge transitions that will be happening all at once just got a lot more important: in just a little over a month, I’ll be starting a new job, and husband and I will be relocating. That means finding a new home and everything that comes with it: new friends, new favorite coffee spots, new doctors, new commuting tricks, all that jazz. For someone who tends to react to “hey, what if we changed our furniture around?” with vague, high-pitched shrieking sounds, this is a huge amount of change all at once. As excited as I am for the new opportunities in the job I’ll be starting in New York, it’s hard not to find myself totally overwhelmed by the amount of decisions, moves, and communications that will have to be made over the next few weeks.

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Embracing vulnerability or not, even a self-described martyr to the cause of anxiety like me can acknowledge that it’s not healthy to spend a month and a half in a constant state of stress and worry. Fortunately, I’ve spent the weeks and months leading up to this process figuring out what I need to make it bearable, and now that we’re heading into the crunch time period, I feel…Well, not great, not even all the way to okay, but not immediately on the verge of a panic attack 24/7. So that’s progress.

The collection of tips I’m sharing tonight have helped me a lot with managing my own stress and anxiety about the moving and job-search process. They’re not meant to be a one-size-fits-all approach, and your mileage may vary in terms of whether or not they work for you. Also (standard disclaimer here), this isn’t meant to be taken as clinical advice. While following steps to reduce anxiety and stress and overwhelming feelings can be very wonderful, this list is in no way a substitute for actual therapeutic interventions. If anxiety and stress are serious problems in your life, please consider contacting a mental health professional in your area. ❤

That said, here you are:

An Anxious Lady’s Guide to Managing Life Change

1. Make a visual.

I’m a hugely visual learner, and whenever I set out to do a big project, I need to have a visual map of the steps that project is going to involve. Being able to see everything I’ll need to do put right in front of me allows me to get a “big picture” view of the process while still seeing the smaller tasks that keep it from getting overwhelmed.

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Shoddy pictures courtesy of my four-year-old phone. Sorry, kids.

I like to do this using the game-changer maps in my passion planner, but there are plenty of other ways to do it, too: flowcharts, goal maps, goal snowflakes, etc.

I think the reason this process calms my anxiety is because it takes away some of the unknowns. When we think about moving or job searching, it can feel like there are a billion moving parts, too many things to keep track of. When everything is laid out in front of me, it feels easier to relax and not panic that I’m going to forget to do something.

2. Break it down.

Once the main goal is mapped out, I break it down into smaller steps. I tend to do this by making more goal maps, partially because they’re pretty and I like doing arts and crafts, and partially because it’s a good representation of how my brain works. These breakdowns tend to have more specific, objective goals: sending two job applications a week, responding to emails, sorting through books, etc.

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If you’re a less map-y person, having just a straight-up to-do list can be just as helpful. The goal is to break it up into sections. Rather than having a giant list with tons of tasks all mixed together, separating it by type of task (buying, organizing, donating, contacting, etc) or area of task (rooms in a house, networking groups, etc) can make a huge difference in how daunting something feels.

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One of the sticky notes that hangs out on my MacBook desktop.

3. Figure out where you’re dragging your feet (and why).

Whenever a huge task comes up with a ton of different moving parts, there will always be aspects of that project that make even the most motivated person start dragging their feet. For a novel, it might be writing That Super Emotional Scene, with a job search, it might be sending resumes or doing interviews, with moving, it might be the actual packing of your existing stuff.

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That said, when there’s a major project that needs to happen and you’re resisting tackling a big part of it, it’s important to identify that part and then figure out what it is about that part that’s making you pause. Sometimes it’s not a big deal (I’ve been holding off on bringing our donation books to our library for the sole reason that I’m lazy and I don’t like carrying big heavy books and parking in the crappy library parking lot), but other times it can speak to a bigger problem. I spent a lot of time struggling to send cover letters and completed applications because I kept reading and re-reading them. A conversation with my therapist eventually led me to realize that the reason for my hesitance was that I was convinced that as soon as I sent them, I’d find some huge error that I’d be unable to correct, and that error would cost me the job.

Letting go of that worry is hard, and was honestly one of the hardest part of this process. But as I explored in embracing vulnerability, without sending those applications and exposing myself to that vulnerability, I wouldn’t have opened myself to the giddy job of receiving a job offer, of sharing that offer with my family, of feeling my excitement mount as I prepared to call back to accept it.

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4. Ask for help.

This connects back to #3. If you’re dragging your feet on a tough task, ask someone to help with it. For me, that meant having friends proof-read my cover letters, delegating the bulk of the house search to my husband (who is a champ for taking point on that despite doing his own job search). And in a big way, it meant long, really uncomfortable conversations with my therapist about learning to be okay with not controlling every aspect of this process.

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One of the weird, tricky things that I’ve learned in my time both as a person with anxiety and as a therapist is that anxiety, perfectionism, and independence are fiercely co-dependent with each other. Anxious people are often determined to accomplish things perfectly on their own, because we worry that if we don’t do things perfectly, or we admit we need help, all of the people who love us will realize that we’re not perfect and will therefore immediately abandon us.

But a strange thing I’ve discovered in this process is that asking people for help–again, exposing ourselves to the vulnerability of doing so–allows us to share the joy of triumph and change with those same people. Talking to my friends and family about my struggles with this process makes their celebration feel that much more touching, because I know they understand how difficult it’s been for me. And let me tell you, when the congratulatory emails started flooding in, my wicked, jaded little heart shed a few tears.

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5. Celebrate small steps.

It’s been great to get emails expressing excitement from my friends and family now that I’ve gotten a new job. But those don’t feel nearly as great as the ones I’ve gotten along the way. Around the third or fourth job application I sent, I started texting a few close friends to let them know I’d submitted it, and the “YAY!” and “<3” and “YOU GO GIRL” messages, even if they were off-hand (not that I believe they were) made me feel like I’d actually accomplished something.

Coming full circle, being able to check off small tasks from my initial goal maps (if you scroll up, you can probably see a number of things that are checked off and crossed out) and seeing the ongoing to-do list get smaller and smaller. Maybe this isn’t as much of a celebration to people who aren’t as hugely obsessed with their planners and to-do lists (don’t judge, y’all), but it makes me feel all warm n’ fuzzy.

If you’re not a checklist person, celebrate in other ways. Accomplished your goal of applying to three jobs this week? Take a bubble bath! Finalized your needs/wants/hopes list for your next apartment? Have a glass of wine or a nice cup of tea! Acknowledging a success with a positive activity or reward, especially for difficult tasks, helps our minds connect those tough tasks with those rewards and makes us less reluctant to do them again. It’s classical conditioning 101, and there’s a reason it’s super effective.

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The process of getting this new job was long, complicated, emotionally and mentally taxing, and hugely exhausting. I’m totally and completely drained by it, and super hugely glad that it’s over. That said, accomplishing that task and seeing that I was able to do it without having multiple major breakdowns (note: I said multiple, not none, and I would like to reiterate my earlier statement about therapists being super hugely useful) is a huge change from the way I handled this process the last time I had to do it. (Poorly. I handled it poorly.)

I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of person who can be excited about a major change without having to seriously balance excitement with anxiety and panic, no matter how much I teach myself to lean into vulnerability. But it helps me feel a little bit better to know that there are, at the very least, ways to make the process a little more manageable. And maybe, someday, I’ll even be able to do it without color-coding my flowcharts.

But I’ll probably color-code them anyway. It just makes it more fun.

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my happy place.

Have you found any tried and true methods for handling the anxiety of major transitions? Got some tips to share? Feel free to share them in the comments!

 

embracing vulnerability (happiness project, part 5)

Fairly early on in my graduate social work program, our program director sat down with my cohort and talked to us, pretty frankly, about the burnout problem. Some fairly ridiculous percentage (like, 21-67% across multiple studies) of mental health workers report high rates of emotional exhaustion and cynicism with the profession, leading to increases in anxiety, depression, and stress-related health issues. She told us, gently but frankly, that in her experience, a significant number of MSW grads end up leaving the social work field, or at least direct service work, within five years.

I remember, distinctly, looking around that room of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed MSW students, and thinking to myself, “Okay, some of us are gonna burn out, but I’m not going to be one of them.”

What’s that saying about famous last words?

When I chose social work as a field, I knew I was getting into a profession with long hours, low pay, and high rates of compassion fatigue. I’ve written before about the struggle I’ve had balancing my own need for self-care with the desire to spend all of my emotional energy on my clients, and in all honesty, it’s something I’ve struggled with throughout my career–and probably always will, regardless of whether I’m in direct service work or not. It’s just another part of who I am, much to my husband’s chagrin.

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But as convinced as I was at the beginning of my graduate program that I was not going to be one of the social workers who burned out in their first five years, I’m beginning to admit that maybe I am. It’s impossible for me to ignore that in the year that I’ve been in clinical work, my health issues–both physical and mental–have gotten worse, my stress levels have skyrocketed (despite pretty significant work over the last six months on self-care routines), and overall, may happiness has just decreased. I love my clients, and in many ways I feel deeply fulfilled by the work that I do. But I also feel tired, frustrated, angry, sad, fiercely furious with the social systems I’m forced to work within, and overall, exhausted.

So, as I recently announced to my work colleagues–and therefore now all of you readers–it’s time for a change.

Besides being one of my absolute least favorite things on the planet just on principle, being on the job hunt means exposing myself to one of my biggest anxiety triggers: putting my own future in someone else’s hands.

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I spend a lot of time hanging out with my therapist and talking about why this is such a big deal for me, and in all honesty, we’ve been digging around in it for awhile. We’ve spent a while going back and forth talking about how much I love to plan and control things (case in point), and how job searching is basically impossible to plan or control, because all you’re doing is sending cover letter after cover letter out into the void, hoping like hell someone will send you an email.

(Also, can I just say that whoever started the “due to the amount of responses, we will only contact you if you are invited to interview” thing is an absolutely terrible person? Because seriously. Send a batch “rejection” form email if you have to, but leaving everyone else in limbo is awful, and I hate that it’s become the norm.

Anyway. I digress.)

Wrapping my mind around just why it is that this job search thing makes me so uncomfortable–beyond just the aforementioned frustrating limbo–has been an ongoing challenge over the past month or two that I’ve been engaged in this process. I’ve probably spent two or three days’ (or at least nights’) worth of time trying to connect to the feelings of fear and anxiety that come up every time I think about writing another cover letter or sending another email, and each time, I find myself back at the beginning of my thoughts, deciding that this must just be some kind of personal failure.

But help comes through in weird places.

In my post about New Years’ Resolutions, I talked about wanting to make an effort to watch one TED Talk each month. I spent most of January vaguely scrolling through the TED site from time to time and occasionally bookmarking things to maybe watch later, and ended up scraping in right under the wire last night, thanks to a list of 5 Must-See TED Talks for Social Workers that a friend of mine shared on Facebook. The one I picked was “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown, and you guys, I don’t say this much, but it was actually life-changing.

 

In her talk, Brown talks about the biggest barrier to human connection is shame–something that each and every one of us feels at one time or another. Shame is that deep, emotionally exhausting feeling of not [blank] enough–not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough. And that to overcome this shame, what we need to do is allow ourselves to be vulnerable; “to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen,” in order to embrace connection. And that, of course, is absolutely fucking terrifying.

So Brown set out to do some research, to deconstruct shame and kick vulnerability’s ass, and to figure out just what it is that separated the people who were able to overcome shame and believe themselves worthy of love and happiness from those who couldn’t. What she found, at the heart of the matter, was this:

“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”

Brown wanted to dig deeper, so she sat down with her interviews and did a more in-depth analysis to see what those people with a belief in their worthiness had in common. And she found four factors. The first three, I thought, seemed to make pretty perfect sense. They had a sense of courage, or as Brown phrased it, “the courage to be imperfect.” They were compassionate to themselves. They had connection.

But the last factor, to both Brown’s and my chagrin, was this: they embraced, wholeheartedly, vulnerability. They knew that in life, vulnerability was a necessary, if uncomfortable, emotion–necessary for connection, necessary for learning, necessary for growth.

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Brown’s reaction, and mine, was essentially this:

What the hell, research?!

(It was at about this point in the video that I realized that Brown and I would probably get along really well.)

I’m not going to recap the entire video, because you should really watch it–please, please watch it–but I will tell you what I really took away from it. Vulnerability, as awkward and stomach-churning and anxiety-producing as it is, is something that we must connect with if we are to connect with all of the emotions that come with growth and progress. When we close ourselves off from vulnerability in order to avoid the painful feelings that sometimes come with it–fear, anxiety, disappointment–we also lose out on happiness, on personal growth, on excitement.

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When I meet with my clients and they bring an uncomfortable feeling into the room–depression, grief, worry, pain–I ask them to spend a moment sitting with that feeling. I ask them where they feel it in their bodies, where they carry it–in their shoulders, in their chest, in their belly? I ask them to connect with the feeling and allow themselves to feel it, rather than instinctively away, because listening to those feelings is part of the process of understanding them. But doing this for myself has always been something I’ve recoiled against, preferring instead to press past vulnerability and project an air of surety or calm.

It may seem strange to bring vulnerability into my happiness project, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to understand that embracing vulnerability is a critical part of practicing happiness. Where my clients need to connect to the feelings they bring into my office, as I prepare to leave that office I need to connect to the vulnerability of allowing others to control where I go next. I need to lean into my discomfort, not push it away, and only through that discomfort and vulnerability will I be able to reach out to opportunities.

As uncomfortable as it is, I don’t know where the next step in my career will be. But I know that vulnerability is part of the journey.

And, strangely, I’m excited to start.