In my recent post, Metaphor, I said that getting good things in life–like connection or perspective or a sense of self-valuation–can feel burdensome. Why is that? Why does getting something we want so much feel so scary? (Stranger yet, we remedy this by sabotaging our own successes.)
There are theories that explain this, lumping good change with bad change as a general source of stress, but theories aren’t that helpful in these situations. Theories aren’t helpful because in self-sabotage, we’re messing with our own lives. In my case, I talked about mounting a beautiful horse and riding it around Mall of America. (I didn’t really do that; the MOA ride was dream metaphor, summarizing the enormity of recent “real life” changes.) When it was time to put the horse away for the evening, I panicked. As in, “Oh my god, what do I do with this wonderful horse now that he’s mine to take care of?”
When I look hard at this dream, it’s clear that I feel scared about changes in my life. Though I felt certain that they’d change life for the better, the good changes came with not-so-good feelings: heightened feelings of loneliness, shame, and and even fear. Now that the changes have been made, how do I calm the feelings they kick up? Taking cover from these feelings–like the stinging spray of dirt and gravel launched by the hind hooves of a fleeing horse–is a hard-wired reflex. It’s hard not to duck.
“Were the changes worth it?” you might wonder. One of the biggest changes–time away from my practice in order to improve my emotional and physical health–felt (and still feels) especially uncomfortable. A cancer diagnosis made me do it, but despite the powerful motivation…not easy. In one big purge, I eliminated most everything that defined me, and distracted me from my own thoughts. Leaving me with–God help me–my own thoughts. Another change was to put myself (and my health) first. This meant eliminating most everything I loved and relied on as mood elevators, from sugar to overwork, with all the shades between. Leaving me with a pretty crappy mood the majority of the time.
Yet, these changes may have saved my life.
The uneasiness I’ve felt throughout my work hiatus highlighted just how much I’ve avoided “me as the focus” until now. Not the work me, or the thinking me, or the me that others reflected back. Just me. Maybe that kind of highlighting was needed.
This “duck and cover” avoidance is funny to me, because I so didn’t know I was doing it. Denial is like that. “I am so attuned to my inner world, I thought, prior to pulling down denial’s walls. I loved doing growth and introspection like others love ocean side holidays or scrap booking. I spent all kinds of time and energy to change careers in midlife, just so I could become a psychotherapist and spend every work hour talking about it, or something related. Listening to “self” has been the topic of endless hours of both clinical and private time.
I followed this inner voice like my goats trail me to their feed bin each morning. I obeyed it when it told me to initiate work changes, take on big work challenges, and when to start my own practice after my head injury in order to better control my environment.
Does the word “work,” repeated three times in that last sentence, stand out for you, too? I know, right?
I knew myself in the work world. I knew what I loved to do (in the work arena) and pursued it. I knew not to be afraid to go after new challenges. But I didn’t know a whole lot of other things. Which includes most of the territory outside of work.
A quick illustration: things I knew about my self as a creative, productive worker: pristine Half Moon beach. Things I knew about self-acceptance, love and connection: murky pond on 160th street. Through the muck, I could see only that I lacked confidence. And that I was often miserable. But I wasn’t willing to sit in that misery long enough to know much else. Sitting in a pond isn’t that much fun.
I didn’t know, for example, that I was scared to get close to people. That I worked so intently, consistently, and productively because a break in the action would bring intense loneliness and feelings of failure in relationships. I didn’t know that I had a general sense of myself as not worth the effort, and every time that idea was challenged, I struggled. I became, at the same time, both intensely happy and terrified.
A thoroughly described problem just screams out for a solution doesn’t it? I have a plan. For now, tell me: does any of this ring true for you?