Stepping Out of my Shell

I’ve been telling myself that I’m digging deeper these days. That I’ve worked through the outside layers of the “onion” that is “me” and all the things I believe. Which ones are true? Which ones are the assumptions and expectations that I’ve taken on from society or somewhere else “outside”? Which ones help me and which ones no longer serve me in this journey we call “life”?

As I walked this morning, something occurred to me…

I’m not working my way in – I’ve been at the heart all along! In reality, this struggle has been about “coming out” so much more than “going in”…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Northern Voice ’09  session with Barbara Ganley, Laura Blankenship & Nancy White about “the space in between”.

We talked there about this struggle many of us are feeling to bridge between our on-line and offline lives – how to stay connected in both? How to find meaning in both?

I feel the same conflict that David Truss has talked about between the on-line taking him away from meaningful in-person interactions (with his kids, with his wife, with his co-workers) and, on the other hand, the feeling that the interactions and learning that happens with his on-line network are much deeper and more meaningful, somehow.

So as I thought about my own struggle, it struck me (and I literally mean it was a physical realization – that “OMG” kind of moment). This isn’t really about the boundary of on-line to offline for me – it shows up there at times, but that’s not the core of my struggle. It’s about how I negotiate and bridge the boundary between “me” and the rest of the world.

I have a strong visual of being inside my shell, my bubble. I’ve built it over many years – starting in childhood, as I learned to think, to judge, to fear…  It’s almost like I’m in one of those hamster balls, but that’s too transparent. A “shell” makes more sense to me. Or a costume. Or a mask.

It is that outer image that I’ve patched together from all of the messages I’ve absorbed about who I “should” be, what people expect of me, what I have to be in order to be accepted and loved. And it’s a hard shell! For a long time, it served me – it protected me from feeling. I let it make my decisions for me (Nope, can’t do that. What would people think? Yup, have to do this. I have no choice because otherwise people won’t like me anymore… )

But I’ve experienced something else. There are moments when I lose those stories about myself and the world – and I just “am”! I find that space where I lose all judgement all sense of time (and the day just flies by!) and all uncertainty. It’s a space I walk into when I’m engaged in an exciting project, when I’m problem solving complex issues, when I’m playing music, when I’m looking with my “inner” eyes in order to create (art, photography, ideas, etc…). I’m there when I play and learn with my children.

And over the last couple of years, I started noticing those spaces, those moments. I get curious (and often frustrated) that I can be so inconsistent – in one moment, completely immersed and powerful, fearful and doubting in the next. I want to live in that space more often – all of the time, really!

So that is when I started searching, going deeper, introducing myself to my self. I’ve courted that self. I’ve gotten curious, asked questions, spent time sitting silently & just listening for the feelings that can’t be put into words without losing their meaning.

Now I sit at this new boundary – struggling and trying to learn how to “be” that authentic person in interaction with this world. With one hand, I hold tight to the hand of that inner self – with the other hand, I’m grasping. I’m reaching, struggling, sometimes grabbing impatiently. And, so often, it hurts – it doesn’t work, I’m uncertain, I’m afraid, and I pull back into my shell again.

If I let go of my “self” and then reach out to the world, I know how to interact – I have learned well how to mold myself, to anticipate what people want from me, to be what others need. But I pay a price for that letting go – I can’t look in the mirror, I get stomach aches, I get headaches, I can’t sleep at night, I obsess about whether what I did was right or if it offended or if I should have done it better…

This is the bridge I don’t know how to build yet – the one that touches both of these shores.

I know I want to be me now, all of the time! I know I want to look in the mirror every day and see myself looking back without judgement. I know I want to be loved unconditionally – just for being me, as I am. I know I have to love myself unconditionally before I’ll ever be able to accept that kind of love from another. I know I want to love my children, significant other, friends, family (and everyone) that way. And the best way to learn to do that is to learn how to love myself that way.

I think many of us are struggling on this boundary right now. Being anything other than my “self” is no longer personally acceptable.

I can’t give up…

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Purposeful Pain

Our bodies were made to feel pain for a specific reason – to let us know when we should STOP doing the thing that’s inducing the pain! Seems simple enough, right?

Many times in my life, I’ve stood with my hand on the stove. The element is lit, and the small blue flames spit and dance. As my hand rests above the fire, the flames jump up and wrap around my fingers.

The pain is excruciating! And yet, I continue to stand there, with my hand resting on the element. I writhe in agony.

As people pass by, I call out my pain – “It hurts so much! And I don’t know what to do?? Please help me!” Some walk right past, not knowing what to say. My friends try to stop and give advice. “Just take your hand off” they say, as if it’s no big deal. But I can’t understand what they’re saying! Others tell me how stupid I’m being – that I should know how to take my hand off the element, that I’m just being silly!

I cry in pain and frustration, because now not only does it hurt, but now I’m questioning myself – am I really that stupid? They’re right – I should know what to do! What’s the matter with me?

So I learn to hold all that pain inside, not wanting to call out anymore because others will see how stupid I am. Yet I can’t figure out how to make the pain stop!

The pain becomes all consuming. Although the small flames only lick around my fingers, I am so obsessed by this pain that I can think of nothing else and it feels like my whole body is engulfed in flame. The pain is overwhelming!

Every once in a while, I momentarily taken my hand off the element, perhaps to scratch my nose. And in that moment, I notice and am grateful for the relief from the pain.

Inevitably, though, I put my hand back on the stove as I lean back again, falling into my familiar position – just because that’s how I’ve always stood. And the pain comes back…

This morning, a dear friend listened to me talk about my pain and confusion and then gently said “You’re not stupid – don’t you see that your hand is on the stove and the element is lit? Of course it hurts! It’s only natural that it hurts when the flames touch your skin! Come take your hand off the stove now.”

Suddenly I remember how it stopped hurting before when I scratched my nose. I remember the feeling of relief when I removed my hand from the stove for that moment. And the light finally goes on – THIS is what the pain was trying to teach me!

I lift my hand from the stove and it is as if a weight has been lifted. Not only has the pain stopped, but I finally realize that the solution was within me all along! I wasn’t really at the mercy of all those around me who couldn’t seem to help!

First I experienced the pain.
Then I noticed the relief when I removed my hand but didn’t realize why the pain stopped.
When my friend gently pointed out what to her was obvious, I finally recognized what had been the cause of my pain all along.
And finally, I realized that I could create my own salvation.

Experience. Recognize. Create.

It’s pretty easy when we’re talking about physical pain, isn’t it? It seems ridiculously easy to figure out the problem! When something hurts, we can most often figure out what’s causing the pain and make changes that remedy the situation. When you step on a piece of glass, it hurts. You take the glass out and it stops hurting. When you put your hand in fire, it hurts. You take your hand out of the fire and it stops hurting (well, not right away, but you know what I’m getting at…)

But it’s not so easy with emotional pain. It’s not nearly as obvious to see what the cause is, and even harder to stop or change. How often do we struggle with our pain, not knowing why? We’re lonely, our hearts hurt, we feel alone, we feel stupid for not knowing how to make it better.

It’s easy to experience the pain – that part seems to take care of itself quite well, thank you very much!

The trick is how to recognize what’s really causing the pain – and to recognize our own part in creating the pain. Perhaps by our hidden beliefs. Maybe from our old, ingrained habits, since it’s the way it’s always been done. From our assumptions, expectations, reactions and fear.  Or maybe we need help recognizing the way out of our pain?

Because we all really want to get to the point of being able to create the lives we want!

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Is Happiness an Acquired Taste?

(reposting this one from a couple of years ago – it’s really resonating with me today and fits with the recent discussions we’ve been having.)

There’s something I’ve noticed. Happiness doesn’t sit easily with me. It’s like I’m always waiting for (even looking for) the bad feelings to come. Or for the bad things to happen. Do other people feel that way? Or is it just me?

Sometimes, I even think feeling bad comes more naturally. How come it’s so much easier to feel sad? Lonely? Like a failure? Why is that? Because it’s familiar? Because of evolution?

So often, what I know to be good and healthy for me – in relationships, life, etc… starts out tasting so darned bitter. Even when I know I’m making good choices, there’s still a sense of failure. Maybe that I should have known better in the first place? Or that it shouldn’t be so hard to do what I already know is right?

Recognizing negative thought patterns and choosing differently even brings a sense of grief – for beating up on myself, which I’ve done for as long as I can remember. For missing all the good things that could have been. That I never felt acknowledged/valued for who I am, rather than who others needed me to be.

I wonder. If patterns of thinking create well worn neural pathways, cemented and made ultra-efficient by a myelin sheath, does a lifetime of negative self-talk become self perpetuating? Hard wired into my brain? Are brain cells generated within the chemical cocktail of stress or anxiety different than those created amidst joy and peace?

If so, it makes sense to me that it takes time to change thought patterns. The benefits lag behind the changes that need to be made. By a wide margin, I suspect…

That means I have to trust that certain things are good for me, recognize I won’t feel good for a while, and keep doing them anyways.

Lately, I’ve been trying to recognize the negative patterns and simply put them aside. I try to examine the “data” instead – a bit of convincing myself, I guess.

For example, if I worry that I’m not “good enough,” then I look around at the amazing friends I have. If I know how amazing they are, and I know that they think I’m pretty great too, then there must be some reason they like me. I don’t even have to understand it. I just have to trust in it – I must have some value, for them to want me as their friend.

And then I find it easier to “surf” the emotions, the bad feelings that feel so real in the moment. Instead of “diving in” and wallowing in that beating up stuff, I’m trying to give myself a break instead. Recognize that the wave will pass, and go have a bubble bath. Or watch a movie. Or chat with people on twitter. Anything that distracts me.

Inevitably, once I’m back in calm waters, I see the world differently again. With perspective. And compassion for myself. And hope.

More and more often, I’ve noticed that happiness knocks on my door. “Hey there! I was in the neighborhood. Wanna hang out for a while?”

Indeed, I do! And, oh my goodness, how sweet it tastes…


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I hate that feeling – like I can’t move forward. I’m spinning my wheels. And it feels like I’m making the same mistakes again. and again. and again…


And yet, I can’t go back either. I can’t un-see what I’ve seen, unlearn what I’ve learned, un-do what I’ve done.

I hate feeling stuck.

And what paralyzes me the most is the overwhelming shame that comes with telling myself that I shouldn’t be in this place – I should be strong enough/smart enough/mature enough/old enough/something enough to figure this out. If only I was better… Other people must be better – they’re not stuck like I am…

The voice in my head natters on and on: what’s the matter with me? why can’t I do better? why can’t I stop doing the exact things I know I shouldn’t be doing?

Oh, the anguish of being stuck between knowing and doing

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When my husband and I were fighting most of the time, I often knew it wasn’t a healthy situation for my kids. I knew something needed to change.

I would have moments of clarity and certainty – I’d decide on a path. In a calm moment, I could see that I needed to change things, I’d make a plan. I’d feel solid and sure and grounded in what matters (my kids, health, happiness).

And then I’d talk with him about it and all the certainty would disappear. Whether we were just talking or if it escalated to a fight, the result was the same. Everything would feel all muddled again. I didn’t trust myself – I must be wrong.  No, I’d think, I should keep trying. It must be my fault. I have to fix this. But some things, you can’t fix…

One of my best friends once said “I don’t get you. You keep starting down these paths – good paths – and then you stop and turn back. Why??”

In hindsight, I wanted him to agree with me. I wanted to convince him and have him say “you’re right – this is what we should do.” I suppose I even wanted his permission. And none of that was ever going to happen in that situation.

Sometimes, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Sometimes, there can be no agreement. Sometimes, you just have to stop…

Eventually, I found the support I needed (which is key – I couldn’t have done anything alone!) and I left that relationship. It hurt like hell, but I learned to trust my own voice, my own needs, and what I felt with certainty my kids needed. I didn’t know what would come next or how I’d handle it, but I knew I had to change.

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I wish I could say I “figured it out” and haven’t been stuck again since.
Not a chance!

That pattern – of not trusting myself, of thinking I have to “fix” things or I have to “convince” others before I can move forward – is a deeply ingrained need that keeps popping its nasty little head up in all sorts of situations. I want people to like me. I want reassurance (but I don’t trust it when it’s given). Sometimes, I feel like a child, all alone, curled in a ball, and no matter how loudly I call or how desperately I reach out – no one is there, no one will help me.

I can’t describe the desperation and fear nearly vividly enough. I’m gifted – I feel deeply. At moments like that, I wish I didn’t, but I do. I feel like I will drown, in the dark, alone. There is no loneliness like not trusting in yourself. No one else can fill that hole. Ever.

For a while, that pattern defined me. I was a failure. Not as a parent – my kids always inspired me to keep being a better parent and to work past any barriers that stood in my way (internal or external). But in everything else. It was all too much. I couldn’t handle it. And though I knew I would never do it, I often wished I could die.

When I get that overwhelmed, I withdraw. I hide. I collapse in on myself. If I could have, I would have curled up in the fetal position, under a pile of blankets, hidden in the very back corner of a closet.

The funny (or maybe sad) thing, though, was that I kept getting up, feeding my kids, getting them to school, doing dishes, cleaning the cat’s litter box, posting little quips on Twitter, and, generally, functioning. And when people see you moving around, they assume you’re fine.

But when they see you acting strangely, so many people make assumptions – that you’re a bad person, or you’re mad at them, or they get mad at you for treating them badly (like not returning phone calls or cancelling plans or not getting things done etc…)

When really, the truth is that you’re in pain.

But I rarely knew how to say that. How’s it going? someone would ask me. Fine. I’d say. After all, how could I possible say I’m drowning in a pit of despair. How are you?

Is this depression? Maybe, but not the kind that I hear people describe, the kind that hits you no matter what, for no good reason. I certainly felt depressed. And I suffered. But I also knew I had reason, and I never lost faith that I would (eventually) figure it out.

I wonder if there are different kinds of depression? I think so. And too often, we lump them all together, rather than understand the differences.

In gifted, creative and highly sensitive individuals, there are times when the struggles we face in life reach crisis proportions. When we question who we are, what we believe and how we want to be in this world. The thing is, it’s a crisis we have to work through, not something we have to get over.

What I’d call traditional therapy (and popular belief) says that when in such pain and dysfunction, you have to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. The focus, therefore, is on “fixing” what’s broken. And sometimes, I’m sure, that’s necessary.

What I have needed, though, was more aligned with Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. I’m not dealing with things that are broken – I was “stuck” in between an old/flawed way of seeing myself/the world (in my case, my pattern of not trusting in myself) and trying to figure out what my healthier, more enlightened way could be. I couldn’t go back, and I certainly didn’t want to go back. My idea of “normal” needed to change, not reinstated!

That in-between is the painful part. Not knowing is hard. Falling apart hurts – but destruction is necessary in order to rebuild.

What I’m learning is that being “stuck” isn’t really a static place, after all. Even though it feels like I’m making the same mistakes again and again, I’m actually applying lessons learned to different situations. And that takes time. And patience. And effort – because it’s not easy!

The people in my life that have helped me the most have been the ones who gave me less judgement, more compassion, more patience, even reassurance. Just calling and saying hi was a touchstone I needed, at times. But I know I pushed a lot of people away…

I also found the perfect counsellor for me – someone who saw himself as a companion on my journey, as a support (not as the “expert” with all the answers). We worked together. I needed truly honest feedback, observations and questions – which he gave me, but with the openness of not assuming he knew my answers.

I don’t feel like a failure anymore. I suffer less, even though I still struggle. I’m getting better at not allowing shame to keep me “stuck.” I don’t want to curl up into that fetal position (as often). And as much as I still feel stuck at times, I remind myself that I’m actually moving forward!

This is the journey – with all its messiness and struggle, it’s kind of beautiful.

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If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you have no hope, please reach out to someone.
Ask for help.
Talk with a doctor. Talk with a friend.
Call a helpline.
In Canada: 
In the USA:

Know the warning signs:

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