Do I want a diagnosis? I still can't decide would it be soothing to have a name for my shortcomings? Part of me would be relieved to know I'm not just a failure that my inner struggles are more than just imaginary that they have medical substance It might be a comfort to know my distraction and distress my lack of tolerance for frustration in any form are not merely personal faults But what if a definitive label would be something I would use as an excuse to clip my own wings in yet another new way a limit to my possible potential It might reinforce my self-doubt assure me that I'm inherently limited in my creative and cognitive abilities a dark stain on the one part of me I've always felt proud of The older I get, the less sure I am that this brain is something superior the intellect of the collective world moves forward as it gets tangled inside it's own inner alleyways unable to keep pace with progress If I'm not the smartest person in the room I'm not sure who I am at all left doubting the one thing that made me feel safe in myself unable to trust even that
Self-help books, new age rituals, skill building, knowledge gathering, psychoanalysis, deep introspection. These things have stood as guiding pillars in my life. I ended up majoring in psychology, not because I had any idea of how to turn that into a career, but because it utterly fascinated me. I couldn’t get enough of the things I was learning in my classes. I never had to study. My brain naturally absorbed and integrated every scrap of knowledge I was given in those four years of riveting education.
The pursuit of knowledge never needed to have a higher purpose for me. It was an end in and of itself. I LOVE learning, especially about the mind, my own mind more specifically. I am truly blessed with this passion for academia. Learning is a hobby that can never get old. There are a limitless amount of things to study. Learning something new never fails to light me up inside and send me into that blissful flow state. The rest of the world falls away as I become engrossed in new knowledge and sharing that knowledge with anyone and everyone who will listen.
Society has a way of twisting my intentions though. I get bogged down with the motivations of humanity as a collective, or at least what the media portrays as our motivations. Everything we do as a species seems to be directed at some ultimate end goal, whether that be a physical reward like wealth or simply becoming “better” in one way or another. We lose the moment in our fixation on the ending. Sometimes I have to stop myself and ask, “Wait, why am I doing this again?” Any answer besides “I enjoy doing it” fills me with a dreaded sense of obligation, yet just doing something for pleasure can overwhelm me with existential doubt. “What’s the point then?” As if any point besides pleasure and happiness could make an activity matter more.
When I get too caught up in focusing on outcomes or “bettering myself” through my personal pursuits, I eventually get burnt out and want to give up on everything. It really wears you down mentally to spend every day trying to reach some self-growth goal, implying who and where you are right now isn’t good enough. I never seem to reach whatever goal I’m aiming at, not that I’d be any happier if I did, because what then? No, the real purpose is found in the experiences themselves, in the very act of growing.
For example, when I began my daily practice of drawing during the pandemic, my intention was clear. I like to draw. It makes me happy. It helps me connect with my inner child and reminds me of those carefree days of doodling in my school notebooks or sketching manga with my best friend. That was it. Pure and simple. And it did bring me so much joy. Without trying to, I saw myself getting better and better. I didn’t care how my art stood up against the art of others, or what I was going to “do” with all these images. I found innocent satisfaction in the miracle of the mind and body’s ability to improve at anything that you choose to practice.
After such a long time doing this, however, I began to forget what the purpose was. Instead of wanting to draw everyday, instead of it being a time of rest and relaxation, it became a duty, just another chore, something I had to do. I started getting stressed about not somehow making money off of my work. I got jealous and disheartened rather than inspired by the work of others. I was distraught and frustrated at my lack of progress. I felt stagnant and full of self-criticism and self-doubt.
I am writing all of this down as a reminder of the remedy, if and when this cycle should unravel again. The first thing I need to allow myself to do is TAKE A BREAK. Not drawing for a few days, a few weeks, even a few months, does not mean I will never draw again. It just means I need a break to give myself the space to want to draw again. Forcing myself to do it under some assumption I have to keep practicing to get better makes no sense when the point isn’t to get better, it’s to have fun. Getting better is just part of that fun, but is meaningless on its own.
The second step after a reasonable break, is to try something new. I cannot express the joy I have rediscovered through this step. Trying something new is a great way to shake myself out of stagnation in anything, but especially art. Not only do I have to focus more, it breaks me free from my strict expectations. Whatever I create doesn’t have to be the best thing I’ve done. It doesn’t have to top yesterday. I feel mentally accepting of the fact that I won’t be incredible at what I’m doing. It’s the first time I’ve even tried! When I do something new or in a different way than usual, I escape the fear of failure, while also opening up the possibility of surprising myself with success.
I think most of us end up running our lives entirely on autopilot. Then we wonder why we are so unhappy. I’ve come to realize, without changing anything externally, I can completely shift my experience of daily life by just shifting and/or re-centering myself on my intention. Sure, I enjoy doing things that largely fall under the umbrella of “self-improvement,” but that doesn’t mean I do them because I’m not good enough, or because happiness lies at some personal perfection finish line. I like getting better, not because I’m “better” at the end, but because it’s fun to play with that edge of your own ability. It’s exciting to see what I’m able to do whether that be mentally or physically.
So, future Rachel, if you’re reading this, don’t forget! Whether in art or anything else you choose to do, happiness and purpose are not to be found in results. The joy and the meaning are inside the very moments of creation, of learning. You don’t have to know the ending. All you have to do is follow the feeling. The feeling of curiosity, of playfulness, or even the feeling of laziness when you need a rest from it all. No final product matters if you have to be consistently miserable to get there.
Lead weight of lethargy limbs made heavy by slow flowing blood cursed with a natural inclination to bow before gravity's siren song taking small sips of poison potions in search of a lightening elixir squinting eyes gaze at the sun soft prayer for this feather soul to grow glorious wings Sloppy frustration of trying to swim through water with baggy clothes saturated by the dense atmosphere of all the things that can never be known while holding the boulder of what is Energy wasted and unseen between tangled networks of misfiring neurons thoughts running thick like black ink spilling over and staining everything filled up with empty fear Invisible burden of a world on fire venom coughs from soggy lungs silent sickness of a sinking mind staring blankly upwards from beneath the dark rhythm of the sea
Extroversion takes energy the one woman show I perform cannot be dropped in front of another No one knows the immense effort it takes to make conversation and answer phone calls to smile and be presentable and friendly For once I'd just like recognition for all the inner work I'm doing to fit the mold society expects of me It's hard to accept I must spend my limited mental resources on tasks other people do on autopilot Never knowing if my performance is enough wondering if little slip ups have gone unnoticed and made me look arrogant, careless, and rude It can take hours or even days to return to a sense of internal equilibrium after an interaction an animal trembling and pacing from stress Violently shaking off the charged emotional energy is generally frowned upon by polite society so I choke it down and hold it in People say "be yourself" but I've always known that didn't include me when I speak a different language entirely Misinterpretation and misunderstanding my wires are tangled and connected in ways that do not translate I've always felt like an alien endangered by my innocent inability to blend in envious of how others make it look so easy
I tested out a little journaling exercise the other day that I really enjoyed, so I thought I’d share it with all of you. As you may have picked up on from my poems yesterday, I went to a wedding this Saturday. Even though I was really excited, there was still a lot of anxiety surrounding that day. I’ve only been to one other wedding in my entire life. It was also going to fully take up one of my only days off for the week, which for me is a huge trigger for my anxiety. The night before I decided to lie in bed and journal for a bit before going to sleep. But instead of just letting my thoughts flow freely onto the page, I decided to try doing it a bit differently.
Normally I would have started writing about how anxious I was and how irritated I am at myself for being so stressed out about something so silly. I didn’t really feel in the mood to ruminate on the negative feelings I was already experiencing though. Instead, I started to write from the perspective of how I wanted to feel. There was a part of me that was excited and happy and looking forward to the next day. So I let that side of me take the reigns and remind me why I had nothing to fear. It felt like the way I used to write when I was a kid excited for a field trip or something.
I wrote about what a beautiful day it was going to be, how I was going to feel spending time with people I love, and all the little details about what the day would consist of that I was going to enjoy. I felt much better after I was finished. I really believe how well the wedding ended up going was directly effected by my positive focus the night before. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I definitely want to start doing more journaling like this in the future.
I hope you give it a try and it is helpful to you. Let me know if you’ve done this before or if you have any other journaling tips/tricks to put you in a better headspace. I’d love to hear how you like to journal or what you’ve discovered or created that you find useful.
trapped inside a groundhog day of my own design rinse and repeat for the thousandth time why not fall back into bad habits when there is nothing better to do it's tedious and troublesome but the truth is far more terrifying it's always been easier to hide behind a mind set to autopilot than to confront the chaos and uncertainty that causes me so much fear at least this way the days fly by sticking to strict schedules provides the protective illusion of control assures there are no unexpected surprises but the unexpected, the unknown that's where spontaneous joy resides as well hidden behind a writhing wall of fear and hesitation I am what's holding me back
I recently read that one of the most important tips given to new race car drivers is, “whatever you do, don’t look at the wall.” When I heard this, it immediately reminded me of one of my very first practice driving sessions with my mom when I was a teenager. As I was driving 25mph down a street in my dinky little home town, my sister yells out from the back seat for us to look at a house to our right. Without thinking, I turn my head to look. In just that one split second, turning my attention away from the road and just to the side, I had swerved the car and nearly driven up onto the sidewalk. Whether you realize it or not, where you place your focus is the direction you are heading.
We say something similar when teaching arm balances in yoga. In teacher training when we practiced cues for bakasana (crow pose) we were told to always make sure to emphasize the importance of our gaze. If you look straight down between your hands as you try to lower your body’s weight forward onto the backs of the arms, you’re inevitably going to tumble forward and possibly hit your head on the floor. The trick is to look a few inches ahead of you. Looking forward, but not down. Our gaze is a reflection of our focus and intention and a reminder of how important these things are.
I think these physical examples are an excellent demonstration of how this same principle applies in more abstract matters. If you look at the wall, you’ll hit the wall. If you look at the floor below you, that’s where you’re going. If you focus on the potential problems or possible ways you might fail, that is where you’re going to find yourself in the future. It seems so obvious when I think about it in this context.
My anxiety is always directing me to the worse possible outcome. It would be great if I were able to print out a pie graph of my mental energy expenditure from day to day. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of my thoughts are about what I’m afraid of or what could go wrong. Even when things usually go pretty well for me, I always immediately find the next fear to latch onto as soon as one disappears. Somehow my brain convinces itself that it is doing this to keep me safe. And to a certain extent, it is smart to contemplate obstacles that may come up and how we can deal with them in the event that they do. However, this is not really what my anxiety is doing. It’s not coming up with calm, rational contingency plans. It’s telling me that the experience will be inherently stressful and traumatizing and trying to find a way to avoid it all together.
It’s really helpful for me to remember the real life examples of the way our focus determines our experience and even has an influence on future outcomes. Yoga gives us ample opportunities to practice these principles before putting them into action in other areas of our lives. Getting into an arm balance is scary. You’re quite likely to fall down the first few times you try. But if we focus on that fear or how it feels to fall and hurt ourselves, we’re never going to master bakasana! Focus on what’s in front of you. Focus on where you want to be or what you want to see happen. If you focus on falling you’re going to fall or perhaps never let yourself try in the first place.
Realizing and reminding myself that my focus on fear is not helping me to avoid it, but instead propelling me toward it, is exactly where I need to begin. Normally when I contemplate shifting my thoughts to the positives and letting go of my anxiety about any given situation, I become afraid that by not looking at the scary bits, they’ll sneak up on me or something. It’s like trying to keep your eyes on a spider at the corner of your room so that it won’t suddenly appear on your arm. But what if staring at that spider was an invitation for it to come over to you? You’d probably keep yourself busy with whatever you’re doing and leave it alone.
It’s time for me to start giving my energy to the good things in life that I want to create, not the parts that I want to avoid. If I focus on the good, I’ll naturally move past or through the obstacles in due time. When I let myself focus on only the scary parts of life, that is all I’m going to experience, whether my fears come to fruition or not. I’ll have already lived the worst of them out in my mind anyway. It’s okay to let myself think about the good things that might happen too or the things I hope will happen. It’s safe to let myself be happy. It’s safe to imagine a future full of positivity and light. In fact, that’s the first step towards manifesting that future.
Only now am I making the connection between my childhood and the way I celebrate myself. It’s interesting to think about. When I was a child, I was exceptional. I didn’t realize it at the time, having no perspective on the matter. But now that I work with children every day I understand why so many adults in my life (my teachers, colleagues of my parents, etc.) seemed so amazed and excited about me as a person. I was always able to outperform my peers in nearly every way. I was incredibly intelligent and curious. I was creative and quite talented in my artistic endeavors. I even got straight As all throughout school, even in college.
Despite the showers of praise I got from so many people, my parents and family members never seemed too impressed. Because of this, I assumed the other people were just being polite or kind, and didn’t take their compliments to heart. My parents always treated me like I was a normal, average child. While other kids in my class got money for a report card with Bs and Cs, I never got anything at all for returning home with perfect marks. I was barely even patted on the back. While this was frustrating, I still believed it must just be because that was expected of me and I wasn’t doing anything special or impressive.
I’ve come to find out that, despite my parent’s apathetic reactions to my childhood accomplishments, they were very proud of me and knew I was gifted. In their minds, they didn’t want to make me arrogant or conceited with constant positive reinforcement. While they meant well, this approach definitely had other unintended consequences. Namely, as an adult, I find myself unable to give myself credit for my accomplishments or feel proud of anything that I do.
I never learned how to celebrate and enjoy personal success. Instead when I succeed I merely think that’s what I’m supposed to do, so it’s nothing to be especially pleased about. I find myself looking at other people’s lives and thinking I would be so happy and confident if I were them, but in reality I don’t think I would be. After all, I have a lot of amazing qualities and achievements myself. I just don’t acknowledge them. In fact, I even feel rather guilty when I try to tap into a sense of pride for who I am and how far I’ve come in my personal journey. I guess my parent’s fear of me developing an inflated ego has seamlessly transferred into my own mind.
Today, no matter how uncomfortable it might make me at first, I want to take the time to consciously note all of the incredible things I’ve done and continue to do on a daily basis. With the perspective of an outsider looking in, I’d like to try to adopt an objective perspective of my personal growth over the years. Maybe then I won’t feel so guilty about “doing nothing” or being “lazy” all the time. So here is a list of some things I think I should feel proud of.
- Bachelors Degree in Psychology, Minor in Writing: I’ve learned a hell of a lot about the human mind and my own internal biases and blind spots through my education. Sometimes I forget that the general public is not privy to a lot of the information I now use to guide my everyday life and decisions. While society doesn’t seem to value my degree very much, I’m still glad that I chose the major I did. I’m also proud that I graduated at the very top of my class, Summa Cum Laude.
- Certified Yoga Instructor: It sounds weird, but I feel so unworthy of this title that I often forget to even think of myself as a yoga teacher. I still remember idolizing my teacher in college and having a pipe dream that maybe I could teach yoga one day. Well I did it! I’m that incredible, beautiful, spiritual person that I once looked up too. And damn it, I deserve to give myself all the credit in the world for accomplishing something I hardly thought would ever be possible.
- Healthy Habits: In my late teens/early twenties, I really aspired to form healthy lifestyle habits. I would watch YouTube videos and follow Instagram accounts of people that I saw living the life that I so wanted to emulate. I really put people that could wake up early, exercise, and eat healthy on a pedestal. Yet, now that I’ve been waking up at 5AM and working out before work everyday and doing yoga and meditating religiously for years, I feel like it’s no big deal. It’s helpful for me to imagine how elated my younger self would be with the life I’ve cultivated for myself.
- Veganism: Being vegan is another goal that I had for a very long time, but never thought I would be good enough to manage it. Now that I’ve been vegan for just under ten years, it is just second nature. Even though it’s ridiculously easy now, I have to remember that this is an impressive feat to a lot of people, my former self included.
- Creativity: Despite not feeling very creative or talented most of the time, it’s still impressive that I manage to find time to dedicate to my creativity and imagination every single day. Even people that loved to write or paint in this youth often have given up these endeavors entirely once they transition into adulthood. My own sister, who is a phenomenal artist, no longer paints because she can’t find the time. I might not be a great artist or ever make anything that will have an impact on the world, but I think it’s beautiful that I make an effort to foster that artistic nature that we all have within.
While these things are not the only things that I’ve accomplished or think are deserving of my pride, they are a few of the most important to me. When I start feeling down on myself, like I’ve never done anything worthwhile with my life, I plan to look back on this list, add to it, and remember that I’m still an extraordinary individual.
Every being on this earth is truly unique. No two people think, feel, or experience the world the same. Therefore it stands to reason that each person in the world also has something unique to offer, whether that be in the smaller scale of people in their lives, or society at large. Each form of giving is equally valuable and fulfilling. I think it comes naturally for us to want to give back to our family, friends, and community. There is an inherent satisfaction in being helpful to other beings. Giving of ourselves is not the hard part. The hard part is knowing what our own special offering is.
Creativity and inspiration come from the deeply held belief that we have something worthwhile to offer to the universe. Artists can often feel compelled beyond all reason to express this powerful urge from within. Even in my darkest hours, a part of my intensified creative energy in this state is a deep longing to reach out and share my personal suffering with others. The idea that my suffering could be a comfort to someone else or an acknowledgment that they are not alone, that someone else understands, is a beautiful driving force.
I think one of the many reasons I’ve been feeling so stuck and unmotivated is that deep down, I really don’t believe that I have anything worthwhile to give. This feeling hanging in the background of all I do makes me want to be as small as possible. I shrink away from the world, trying to get out of everyone’s way. The bitter taste of conceit turns my stomach when I contemplate creative efforts. Who am I to create? Who am I to take up space? Lately everything I do, everything I am, feels like an affront to the world rather than a gift. I am filled with shame by the perceived presumption that what I say, do, feel, or create should or even could matter to anyone else.
Somehow I’ve always been able to hold two contradictory believes in my heart simultaneously: Everyone matters. I do not matter. Everyone has a unique and valuable gift to offer. I have nothing to offer. Everyone deserves to be loved. I do not deserve love. Even though logically I realize both of these statements cannot be true, that doesn’t seem to affect my conviction toward either one.
Perhaps I still just haven’t determined what my unique gift is. Despite all of my varied talents and skills, there are always a lot of people that out perform me in any arena. Once again, I would never proclaim that you have to be “the best” at something in order for your work to be worthwhile, somehow I hold myself to a very different and unrealistic standard. Maybe it would behoove me to get some outside perspectives on this matter. I wonder what those closest to me would say is my special gift. What is my unique value in this world? What I am able to offer in a way that no one else can?
Then again, despite the value you perceive personally, there is beauty in the idea of giving regardless of the “worth” of whatever that may be. Sometimes it is even more moving when someone with little or nothing of value shares the small amount they do have. Part of me believes that it is only our role to give, not to determine the value of that gift. After all we can never truly tell how something may affect or benefit another person. It’s the thought that counts, right?
I may never be able to determine for what reason I matter in this world. But I have faith that there is a reason for all of this despite my limited ability to understand. Maybe it’s not my place to know but to learn how to continue being without that knowing. Maybe it’s my place to give what I have and not worry about whether or not anyone else “wants” it. It’s the intention that matters. It’s the energy behind our actions that determine their worth, not the physical manifestation of those actions. No matter what I have, I can choose to give it with love, and that’s more than enough. And if others happen to think it’s not enough, that is their obstacle to overcome, not mine.
Our thoughts and inner chatter come at us so quickly that it’s hard to realize what is an objective truth and what is a distorted or biased perception of that truth. The events that play out in front of us don’t necessarily have an emotional undertone or meaningful significance, yet we are so used to assigning these things to every little event in our lives that they feel inseparable. The rejection we might face from a loved one is so immediately followed by our thoughts about what that rejection means, that it feels impossible to distinguish between the two.
I don’t think it has any immediate benefits, but I do believe in the long term just making a conscious effort to pull real moments away from our automatic perception of them is a valuable practice. It can feel pointless and frustrating to do so at first. Just cognitively realizing that rejection, for instance, does not mean we are unworthy of love, doesn’t make our conditioned reaction feel any less true or painful in that moment. This is just the first step though. Eventually once we’ve worked on recognizing and accepting that distinction, then I believe we will be able to move on toward challenging our painful perceptions and subconscious convictions.
It has been interesting for me just to notice how violently my mind resists the very idea of my immediate reaction being a choice or something I could view differently. There is a physical sense of revulsion in my body. My heart closes tightly. My mind attempts to shut down this new direction in my thought patterns. Despite how painful a belief might be, I find myself clinging to it desperately instead of being open to reevaluating the situation. Isn’t that a curious thing. Why am I so stubbornly trying to maintain a way of thinking that causes me so much suffering unnecessarily?
I think the answer to this question is that somehow, part of me has developed this stimuli/reaction cycle as a form of self-protection. It doesn’t seem to make any sense how genuinely believing someone couldn’t or shouldn’t love me could be protecting me, but that scared little animal inside of me must have some basis for mistakenly thinking it will. Even our most hateful inner voice is ultimately just trying to keep us safe. It is just afraid for us. It’s up to us to work every day to push through that fear and show ourselves that we don’t have to hold on to these harmful inner narratives any longer.
One way I’ve learned we can distance ourselves from the intensity of these upsetting thoughts is to speak to ourselves as if we were someone else. Internally addressing ourselves in the third person, saying our own name instead of I, can provide a mental cushion of space between the emotional energy of the thoughts and our conscious awareness. A question I’ve been posing to myself in this way is: “Rachel, what are you making this mean?”
Framing the question in this way is actually a reframing. It has become so automatic that we’ve lost the original question we’ve been answering which would be “what does this mean?” After being confronted with an uncomfortable reality such as rejection, the small voice of fear inside whispers this follow up question in it’s desperate attempt to make sense of things and create a story around what’s happened. Our well worn response to the situation is our answer to that question.
Even though I might feel as though I am constantly doubting myself, I never seem to doubt these explanations and narratives I create around the moments of my life. Why not? Part of the problem is I’ve somewhere along the line lost the ability to recognize I am the one creating this particular meaning. After years and years of unwitting reinforcement, the voice that tells me how I have to think or react doesn’t feel like it’s coming from me anymore. It doesn’t feel optional. It feels like a hard and unavoidable truth.
When I ask myself “what are you making this mean,” it is a reminder, however surreal it may seem at first, that I’m deciding to add qualifiers and opinions to otherwise neutral events. The way I see a situation is not the one right way, or the only way to see it. Really there are an infinite number of possibilities when it comes to interpreting the experiences we have in life. It might feel like those possibilities are extremely limited at first, but the more we encourage our awareness of their existence, the more we will feel capable of pivoting our perceptions towards ones that better serve us.
At the end of the day, I don’t believe there is necessarily any objective truth in this insane experience we can life. All that matters, all that is, is what you believe. It’s not easy. Sometimes I don’t even feel like it’s possible. But even so, I do believe it is worth the effort to help ourselves see the world and our own lives in a way that brings us joy, peace, self-love, and equanimity. What else could be more important or meaningful? Even on the days were my battles with inner demons and mental illness feel like a living example of Sisyphus, I know the only thing to do is keep going.