The Introspective Salon
When I receive positive feedback or affirmations from other people I view it in incredibly high regard. I ride the high of that stamp of approval from others, but it's not as often that I can do that for myself. I'm incredibly stingy with my own stamp of approval.
In order to work on my own personal battles, I've had to become highly self-aware. I've had to be critical of myself so that I can grow. I think that has caused me to be even stingier with my own approval because, in most situations, I know that I can do better. I know that I'm more capable.
I wouldn't give up being self-aware though. Recognizing my own insecurities and challenges has allowed me to change, and so much for the better. However, I would like it if I could be more willing to recognize my positive attributes. I would like it if I was less reliant on the approval of others so that I could sustain myself longer on my own approval.
When I was working as a para in a charter school, I needed to rely a lot on my own stamp of approval. I didn't buy into the discipline system of that school. I didn't respect much of the authority there and most of them weren't going to give me any kind of approval because I wasn't yelling at kids for minor behavior infractions or shhshing classes as they walked down the hallways. I had to believe that my view on how adults should interact with children was right. I had to be a bit of a bitch about it and think myself superior. I had to approve of the way I chose to interact with the students. When I was able to do that, I felt great. When I was able to sit outside for a few extra minutes after recess with a child who was tired and just asking for a little bit of extra attention, I was able to give myself praise. When I was able to let a child take a nap in the classroom because I could tell he was sick, I was able to give myself a stamp of approval. When I was able to tend to the students the way I thought was best, despite feeling pressure from the culture of the school to do otherwise, I rode the high of my own approval the whole day.
Self-praise is easiest for me when my actions align with my values. So, on those days that I said phooey to the harsh culture of that charter school, I was able to give myself mounds of approval. I think this makes sense, but I also think that's why I'm more often so critical of myself. I have strong convictions, but self-praise is needed even on days when I don't rise above every challenge. That doesn't mean there's no room to evaluate and reconsider how I'm spending my time, how much I'm living up to my values, or think about what I can do better, it just means that I can give myself small approval. My own approval shouldn't always have to be contingent upon the monumental. When I feel better about myself, I work better. When I work better, I feel better about myself. Being critical of myself may be necessary for growth, but approving of myself is also necessary.
Backsliding isn't exactly the word I want. When I googled it, a bunch of articles came up about "Backsliding Christians." I didn't read any of those articles, but I'm assuming based off these titles "Will God Condemn Backsliders," "Is a Backsliding Christian Still Saved" or "How Can I Come Back to God After Backsliding" that what they're talking about is Christians who start "sinning" by whatever definition they consider to be a sin. In my experience, that is a vast geography of things.
(OK, I felt bad having not read the "Backsliding" articles. I thought I was being insensitive and not giving Christian media a fair chance, but they were mostly what I expected. Though I was surprised by "Does God Condemn Backsliders," which had a gentle tone of forgiveness - very useful for the topic of this post).
I'm not talking about that Christian backsliding, though. I just can't think of the right word. Regression is maybe a bit closer to what I'm looking for, but that seems so much more clinical and too extreme for my uses. So, I'm sticking with backsliding.
What I'm talking about is backsliding in terms of mental health. Backsliding in terms of progress.
I have a tough time with this. I know it's incredibly common and even an appropriate part of mental health recovery, but it still gets me every time. I really hate it when I get into a funk, which, is actually a pretty consistent pattern of mine. I usually go steady feeling good for about a month or two, and then I hit something to lose momentum.
This pattern has gotten better and my window of feeling good has stayed open longer. As I mentioned in my last post, I no longer let bad days get me down like they used to, but there are still walls that I hit from time to time. Like this week, I got sick.
On Monday after work I got a piercing headache that was paired with nausea and put me to bed at 6:30PM. On Tuesday, when I woke up at 10AM I didn't feel much better (I always know I'm sick when I can sleep that much!) No food sounded good, so it was hard to keep my energy up. Then the headache and nausea returned that evening. Then Wednesday was still not great, though I did get out of the house for a good portion of the day at least, but when I was home I laid around. Even today, I've been struggling. I'm not only struggling with feeling physically unwell, but my thoughts are having a hard time staying positive. And after I just posted about being positive!
That's the backsliding. I can't keep up the energy it takes me to stay positive and feel better about myself all the time. Sometimes, that whole process just breaks down. I've been feeling like crap not only because I'm sick, but also because I don't think I deserve to have all this time to rest and recover so the negative self-talk resurfaces.
I'm not sure what to do to mitigate these episodes. I think I can kind of feel when they're coming, but because I'm great at avoiding things, I just pretend nothing is happening until I hit a wall, and then the backsliding begins.
I think the best thing to do is to curb them once they start. I haven't been great at that either because I usually think that I'll just take care of myself by laying around until the mood passes, but sometimes the mood lasts far too long. Sometimes, so much momentum is lost that it takes me a long time to get back on track.
I have to admit, I feel like I'm sounding like a real loser right now. Moods. Laying around. That's a real and unfortunate part of depression, though and it's easy to grow content letting these moods rule me. It's easy to believe that it's "just the way it is" because to change it requires work and effort and that's hard. But, I would so much rather work on it then continue to be wrapped around the finger of my own negative and harmful thoughts. I have to be aware, though, that backsliding will happen. I have to keep myself alert to it and do my best to lessen the amount of time I spend going backwards.
(I'd like to add that for a mild episode of sickness and depression, for me, one or two days of laying around seems reasonable. But four days is getting excessive and I'm gauging that off how incredibly restless I feel).
My plan to get out of this episode is to submit some poems and short stories to a few literary journals and publications. That is a manageable goal and I know it will help me to go forward again because it's work toward a future goal. I don't think this goal will work for every episode of backsliding, that's something I'll have to feel out each time, but that's okay. What's important is that I begin to identify these episodes sooner and that I work harder to get out of them. What's important is that I forgive myself for ending up there in the first place so that I can move on without guilt.
Working on depression and anxiety has been hard. I think that's why I get so upset when I hit a wall. It feels like the progress is stopping and that all that hard work was fruitless. It feels like I'm going backward in time, but that's only true if I let it be true.
I always have the power to keep working, to keep making progress.
Positive thinking might bring to mind the light and perhaps naïve thinking of the beloved literary figure Pollyanna, but thinking positively doesn't have to be that extreme. This may be a hard message to send through the dense overkills of the Internet, but not everything has to be extreme.
I mean, I myself am more naturally inclined to be like MTVs Daria.
But, when I consciously make choices to think positively, I find that I am not only happier, but that I work harder and feel less tired. This isn't some novel discovery, the field of positive psychology has my back on this. When we find something positive to focus on, something positive to live for, then we live more meaningful lives.
It's hard though, isn't it?
My brain is trained to think of disappointments, set backs, and failures before it recognizes progress and successes. That's why I have to make conscious decisions to think positively. I don't just wake up naturally chipper. I haven't always been able to shrug off failures and disappointments and I have a hunch that the majority of people in the developed world face the same problem. If we didn't, then positive psychology probably wouldn't even be a necessary field.
I've been thinking about this a lot today because two big disappointments happened. Disappointments that in the past, might have made me count the whole day as a misery. The first was that my husband and I had invited friends over for dinner and I'd cleaned the house, we'd planned a nice meal, but they cancelled. The second disappointment was that I made a pie, but I failed to follow the directions carefully enough and it didn't turn out.
I had a moment after the first disappointment where I thought wow, I'm such a shitty no-good person that people don't even want to come spend three hours with me for free food, but I bounced back super quickly and moved on with the day. Not only that, I realized that it wasn't personal and had nothing to do with who I am as a person. It wasn't about me. Most things in life are, in fact, not about me.
Then, after my pie was a weird chunky failure, I just tossed it out without hardly a moan. The pie, of course, had no vendetta against me as it was just a pie. Plus, I was making that pie for our friends, so it actually worked out that they didn't come to be witnesses to my pie mishap.
It's embarrassing, but I did used to be so dramatic as to let these disappointments be day ruiners. I may have even blamed the pie for my own carelessness. Since I've made more conscious choices to be positive, though, these events can pass by like any ordinary event.
That, I think, is the power of positive thinking.
It doesn't change us in a day.
It doesn't make us instantly happier, but overtime, it changes the way we perceive and respond to disappointments and challenges.
Ok, but, I do still like being a bit like Daria. I'll admit it. Maybe it's my inner emo kid living on.
What I like about Daria though, is not that she's some tortured emo soul - 'cause she's not - she's honest. She sees the truth hidden under people's falsehoods and lies. She doesn't fall for bullshit.
We could all stand to be more like Daria, actually. I'm not reversing my point about positivity, no, but it's important to be skeptical. I'm not trying to make the point that we should all be blissfully unaware for the sake of being positive anyway. What I am saying is that it's ultimately more exhausting to be negative all the time. Especially when it comes to our personal lives. If it's too hard to find any hope in the big picture, in the chaos of world events, then at least we can find some positives in our day to day lives - a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a favorite song playing on the radio, a kind conversation with a stranger, an unexpected kiss from a loved one, - even that can make a difference.
What I am saying is that being positive doesn't have to come with wearing rose colored glasses. Having even a vague sense of optimism can go a long way toward being productive and feeling good about what we do, but more importantly feeling good about ourselves.
This is all sounding a bit preachy and self-love guruy, so I'll bring it back to myself.
Looking to the bright side more frequently has allowed me to enjoy my days more. It has given me the strength and resilience to work through problems and challenges that, only a few years ago, I would have let defeat me. I'm still skeptical. I'm still cynical. Ok, even EDGY some days, but I'm more inclined to seek satisfaction and fulfillment than I used to be. Being positive is challenging and sometimes it makes me uncomfortable because it's just not the natural direction for my thoughts to go, but I'd rather be uncomfortable sometimes than miserable all the time. I would rather have a life, hope, and a future.
When I was a kid, all the way up to when I was 16 or 17, I didn’t walk through doors first. It wasn’t because I was just being friendly and letting everybody go ahead of me, no, because if someone did want to let me go first I would argue with them until they relented. I didn’t want to go first. I hated uncertainty. I hated when I didn’t know what to expect. I was scared of whatever was behind those doors, even if I was walking into somewhere familiar. It didn’t matter. I didn’t go first.
Thankfully, I outgrew that and I’ll walk in doors first without thinking twice now. I’ll charge ahead if I’m walking with my family or a group of friends and not worry about it at all. I am still, however, uncomfortable with uncertainty. Even more than that, I’m afraid of the unfamiliar. I live a pretty routine life, which doesn’t bother me most days, but every now and again I get an inkling of the person I could be if I’d try new things more often.
When I was younger though, and I tried new things, I either gave up quickly (guitar) or I felt embarrassed for even trying (I can’t think of a specific example that won’t require its own story here, but I know there were LOTS of times this happened. The feelings still linger). So, my brain built up an association with new things. New things = bad. If I try something new, I’ll give up. I’ll fail. If I try something new, I’ll be mortified.
My past self would slather herself in negative self-talk about anything new. Why even bother? I’m not good enough. It doesn’t matter. I’ll fail anyway. No wonder I didn’t want to do anything new, it was exhausting battling those thoughts. No wait, I didn’t even battle them. I just let them live inside my head. Also exhausting. I didn’t realize that I was talking like that to myself until I got into some counseling and confronted the part of me that hates myself and is so relentless about it.
Those negative thoughts still creep up on me from time to time, but I had a new experience that shed light on just how much progress I’ve made in the war against the mean voice inside my head.
Besides going into doors first without even thinking about it now, I’m also more willing to try new things. I might be resistant. I will be nervous, but I will try. Most the time. Usually I’ll try if I have my sisters or my husband or some friends to try the thing with me, but this week I did something all on my own. I’ve been wanting to take some kind of work out class, and I wanted something to build not only my strength but my confidence, so I dropped in on a kickboxing class.
At least, that’s what I thought it was.
The class was called “Cardio Boxing,” so I thought it was just a variation of kickboxing.
When I got to the gym, it was pretty immediately clear that I was in for something else, but I was trying not to get too hung up on all the tough guys boxing it out in the corner. I told the woman at the desk that I was dropping in for Cardio Boxing. I paid my $4. I went to the locker room. I sat on the bench and got a little panicky for a minute, but, there was no mean voice in my head! I didn’t even have to battle it. It just wasn’t there! Sure, I felt a little silly for my misunderstanding about what the class was and I told myself that, but the overwhelming voice was kind! I told myself I was just as worthy as those guys to be at the class. I told myself I could do it. And I did.
When I left the locker room, there were still five minutes before the class started and I sat and waited near the class. Then, after watching the guys spar for a while I went and told the woman at the desk that I was feeling nervous. Was that the class? She went and told the instructor my name and got me started.
My past self would have never thought to admit to being nervous. I would have been too ashamed. I would have been paralyzed with fear and I wouldn’t have even moved from my spot at the table where I was waiting. My mind would have been going crazy with negative thoughts. My past self would have been too afraid to leave, but too afraid to go into the class. My present self took charge and was all the better for it.
The coach came over and introduced himself. He got me a jump rope, which is what I attempted to do for the first 15 minutes. It was rough. I’m miserably out of shape. I honestly thought about going up to the coach and saying hey, I can’t do this. This isn’t for me, but I kept at it. The voice in my head said, “I can do it.” Even when I had to stop, which was a lot, the voice in my head remained kind.
After that, he fitted some gloves on me and showed me some basic moves on the bag. Then we (which at this point was just me and two boys, both related to the coach) did some bag work. Again, I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I had to sit down. My hair was a sweaty mop. There was a puddle of sweat where I sat; sweat that was both anxiety and physical exertion. My stomach was a little upset because I hadn’t eaten too well that day and because of the anxiety I’d felt going in, but I kept at it, even when I had to stop and sit down, I didn’t let myself give up. I made it all the way to the end. After the class, I joked with the coach about how I’m so out of shape and he was nothing but encouraging. The boys were encouraging. They said I better come back next week!
I felt so fucking proud.
I am so proud! I’m full of tremendous joy that I was kind to myself. It might seem so small, but it feels huge to me. Now that I know what my brain is like and what I’m capable of in the absence of negative self-talk I can really understand how bad it was before, how much I used to beat myself up verbally. My past self would have felt hideously stupid for not making sure I knew what the class was going to be. My past self would have tried to shift the blame and get mad at the gym for not making it clearer to their customers. My past self would have berated herself for w e e k s about it and taken the mistake and the embarrassment as proof to never do anything new ever again.
Just like, at some point in my life I decided that I can walk through doors first, I can also decide that trying new things is fun. It's worth it. I know I will always have anxiety about new things, that’s normal, but I know that I can face them by being kind to myself and in turn being kind to others. I know that I can face new things, and even if they aren't what I anticipated, I can come away having learned something. I can come away feeling good about myself for trying.
Today, I’m confident. I couldn’t jump rope for very long, I couldn’t keep up with a lot of the bag work, but I’ll catch up. I’ll be able to do it in time.