Moving by feel…

It has been driving me nuts to not know. To not know how to move forward. To make progress. To make things better. To “fix”…

Amidst much reflection and working on an appreciative inquiry kind of approach (look to what worked previously to find the way forward), I’m realizing something: whenever I’ve faced really tough situations or crises, I’ve felt my way out. I moved by instinct, not really knowing what to do, but simply doing the next thing that FELT right.

follow your heart

Often, what felt right was the exact opposite of what people were telling me to do. Sometimes, what felt right was the exact opposite of what the voices in my own head and “logic” told me I should do!

Life was scary and overwhelming and I just couldn’t figure out what to do. And somehow, in that state of neural shutdown, I finally had no choice but to follow my gut and/or heart!

Why did I have to get to such a crisis state in order to trust my feelings? I learned young not to feel. A legacy my mother passed along from World War II were survival skills centered around hiding and denying my feelings. The ripples of war move beyond the people and places involved and extend through generations. Layer on top of that all the society and media messages about being happy and such. I suppose it makes sense.

Regardless of why, I have struggled to allow myself to feel – and particularly to trust those feelings and instincts.

In high school, I loved science. I had a great physics teacher who taught me Physics 12 one-on-one (because no one else wanted to take physics 12 at my tiny high school, and back then, such a situation was allowed despite the cost!). I also loved music (I played piano) and acting and writing. But I chose science as my route in post secondary – studying engineering at UBC. I’m an analyst and an introvert who loves quiet time in order to collate and curate all that I’ve learned and observed – so that I can make sense of it within the larger context of my life. I love when everything makes sense…

But when it came down to it and life fell apart, or my kids needed me – I stumbled around in the dark, disorganized and discombobulated. Only in hindsight did I realize the wisdom of the paths I chose.

As a parent, even when the teachers and school counsellor said I “had to” do anything necessary to force my son to come to school, then let them take it from there – my instinct made me say “No! I won’t be doing that…” They thought they knew best, how to help my son overcome panic attacks and anxiety about attending school. They had research studies and expert advice from trained psychologists and university professors. But my gut told me that I couldn’t physically and emotionally violate the trust I had been working so hard to build with him – which I would have had to do, in order to “force” him to go to school. My instinct told me that secure attachment was more important that attending school.

No matter what evidence and data and experts were brought out to convince me that I was harming my child, I knew deep down, somewhere, what mattered to me and what I wanted for my child. I knew what was most important to me, even though I couldn’t articulate it. And regardless of the self doubt and fear that arose at the thought of messing up this oh so important parenting job, I truly felt I had no choice but to follow my gut.

Overwhelmed, I simply put one foot in front of the other each day and did the things I didn’t know how NOT to do. I loved my kids. I worked on my own issues, so that I could teach them better ways of being. I figured out how NOT to react in the moment of conflict, not to tone police, not to shout. Instead, I learned how to listen beyond their words, to figure out their needs. I am still learning how to know when to push/coach/mentor and when to simply hold them or sit beside them. I am learning how to trust their voices, their ability to know what’s best for themselves, and the appropriate/healthy boundaries around decision making (which are theirs to make vs. my responsibility to keep them safe).

An even stronger example was the end of my marriage. The fighting steadily increased. The counselling we went to for almost two years wasn’t making it better. And my gut told me that the dysfunctional patterns and our daily interactions were hurting our kids. I knew they were hurting me and him too, but it was the responsibility to my kids that spurred me to action. And yet, I hesitated. I let my head rule too often – I tried to figure out what I had to do, what I could do, to make things better, to convince him to change, to change myself. But it just got worse.

In quiet moments, I knew in my gut, with absolute certainty, that I had to leave. Perhaps we could still figure things out once we each had a break and some space from each other, but first we needed to get out of the daily “fire.” And yet, in the moment of trying to talk it through and work out the details, I lost that certainty and I let the voices in my head take over. And letting that hellish time drag on is probably one of my more profound regrets. If I had acted more decisively and quickly, based on my gut level knowing, my kids would have suffered less, been traumatized less. Instead, I doubted myself.

What that all means to me now is a reminder: I have never regretted my gut/heart driven decisions. They have been right, even when they have been brutally hard.

And now, as I face more churning and mental “tail chasing”, feeling unable to figure out what to do or how to do it, I’m reminded that I need to find enough silence in order to hear my heart…

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When there is no answer…

“You may be over-thinking this,” I said to my eldest.

panic cat by bill stilwell

photo by Bill Stilwell via Flickr

She had been describing her frustration at some intense emotions/feelings that she just couldn’t make sense of.

Once I clarified that I wasn’t questioning the reality of her feelings – we got to talk about something I’ve noticed about myself and my own anxieties and intense emotions.

Sometimes, there is no reason why. There is no explanation. There is no understanding the “story” behind why we feel some things. You just FEEL…

Feelings happen. They don’t necessarily make sense. And something Nancy Michel ( a local psychologist) once said has always stuck with me about exactly this: “Feelings are real, but they’re not necessarily true.”

So, what do you do when emotions and mood swings are intense and threaten to overwhelm? Remind yourself that your feelings are real. And nothing to be ashamed of. And that they won’t last forever.

And then:

Do what you know you can do.

1) Move your body. Transform some of that excess emotional energy into physical motion. Walk. Exercise. Go to a yoga class. Whatever way works for you. Motion and big muscle movements help take the “edge” off of those unmanageable emotions.

2) Make some progress on something. Anything! It can be mundane things like doing the dishes or throwing in a load of laundry. It could be making art or building something. It could be sitting down to write, or journal. It could be de-cluttering or cleaning your room. It could be planting something or working in the garden. It could be researching next steps on a project or a job search. It really doesn’t matter much – just DO something. Momentum matters. Get yourself moving in some direction.  You can always change it later!

As a natural analyst and problem solver, I hate not knowing. I want to understand. And it drives me  nuts to not be able to figure something out – particularly something about myself. I want to KNOW the answer.

Gradually, though, I’m learning and practicing. When there is no answer, perhaps this is the only way I can manage to live the questions…

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903

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The Physics of Feeling

So, my kids and I are moving from our current apartment to a house. And we’re really excited about this move!!

As my eldest and I were chatting a couple of days ago, she said “Mom, why are you feeling so good about this move? I’d like to know…”

I had to ponder that for a few minutes, but mostly, I’ve felt like I’m constantly chasing my tail in the apartment we live in currently. I love the neighbourhood and the community we have here! But the place is just too small for us. We moved here at a time when I had to cut costs. My kids were struggling, I had one child with me full time, and shortly after that, circumstances dictated that I have all three children with me full time.

We’ve been four highly sensitive, intense, significantly introverted and “need our space” kinds of individuals living in a three bedroom apartment. With a dog, cat, two aquatic frogs and three guppies! And two are teens, with all the increased intensity and developmental need for self definition and volatile emotions!

We need space to be ourselves and grow/develop. And yet we’re four people in a space that feels like one of those little puzzles where there’s only one square free and you have to jiggle all the pieces around to try to make the picture right! I’ve been trying (and failing) for three years. I’m tired.

Now that we have space (a house with a bedroom for each of us, an office, a rec room downstairs, a yard, etc…), I feel so relieved! Literally, like I can breathe again – a weight has been lifted off my chest. It’s not that we couldn’t live in the smaller space, but it took so much continuous energy to make it work!

But, I also feel really good about how the increased space, individual rooms, ability to move, etc… will affect our relationships and our emotional reactivity! The shame has been crushing, I realize now. And having to constantly co-regulate with my children, as we try to navigate these familial relationships while so stressed out, is also exhausting! They are such capable and skilled kids too – much more self aware and intuitive than I remember being at their ages! And yet, we still all get on each others’ nerves on a regular basis. Conflict and the need for relationship repair is ever present.

It’s not entirely a bad thing, to practice the every day logistics of getting along with people. But it does consume energy. Which is then unavailable for other important tasks.

And here’s where I’ve really learned that human beings and our energies also obey the laws of physics!

When I separated from my husband, the kids began to spend time at both of our homes – they worked up to living one week with me, then one week with their dad. For the first time since becoming a parent, I was kid-free for extended amounts of time!

Those empty hours were hard in the beginning! Too quiet and too much time to think. Too much to be anxious about. Too much time to feel emotions that I had long supressed beneath “too busy”…

The only thing I could do to get through those early weeks was to walk. I spent hours walking at Rocky Point Park, beside the ocean. I walked until my toes bled, some days! I remember a good friend saying, half joking, “You know, at some point you’re going to have to do something other than go for walks, right?” But after walking, I could go home to my empty house and manage the rest of my day – it was the only way I could cope for a while.

I also remember reading an article about how President Obama eats the exact same breakfast every day. He puts no thought or creativity into deciding what he was going to eat – he just turned it into a routine and stuck with it! Why? Because he has much bigger things to spend his time/energy on deciding!

Self regulation research points to the same concept. We have an “energy pie” and if it’s being consumed by simple survival, then there’s no energy left for self actualization, learning or joy! This is why studies have shown that living in poverty drops your IQ score by a significant amount (something like 20-40 points). Just finding food and shelter uses up your resources…

Physics taught me that energy can be neither created nor destroyed – only transformed. I learned that this applied to all sorts of physical, chemical, atomic, and more kinds of energy!

A marble, lifted up and placed at the top of a ramp the kids built now has potential energy – gravity wants to pull the object towards the center of the earth. Let go of that marble and it will start to roll down the ramp. That potential energy has transformed into kinetic energy – it’s moving!

A campfire, on the other hand, is a chemical reaction involving the carbon based wood and oxygen – and chemical energy is transformed into heat that we use for roasting the perfect marshmallow!

And while physics taught me this concept, life taught me that human beings and their emotional/physical/intellectual energy are not exempt from this law of physics!

When I went walking because I was simply feeling too much and didn’t know how to handle all those emotions, I transformed emotional energy into physical motion.

And when I am constantly feeling ashamed of myself for not doing better or being better, I’m using a significant amount of the intellectual and physical energy I have available to get things done for my emotions instead!

The best thing about this application of the physics theories I learned way back in high school is what it has taught me about helping me and my children to live the lives we want!

1) We feel intensely – we can’t help it! But we don’t have to wallow in those feelings, paralyzed and overwhelmed by emotions like shame, anger, frustration, etc… Problems with anxiety can be seen as a buildup of emotional energy with no opportunity to dissipate it. And yet, we can “burn” those emotions off with a good workout! A walk. A kick boxing class. Some jumping jacks! Emotions don’t have to STAY emotions – we can transform then to physical energy and ease the pressure.

2) Being highly sensitive to all sensory stimulation will transform into behaviour challenges, it’s inevitable! Being aware of the energy overload of noise, crowds, lights, smells, voices and such allows us to make choices about our environment. As the “meter” goes up on the sensory input scale, we can respond by using strategies to calm down. Taking some quiet and alone time, having a nap or soaking in a long bath/shower! I’ve been encouraging each of my children to think about the things that calm then, since it’s different for each of us. For example, a shower calms me and my eldest, but stimulates and overwhelms my littlest one. or it might be like #1 above – physical release of some sort. The trick is to find out what calms YOU!

3) Emotional and sensory overwhelm will consume every bit of your available energy, if you let it. And the parts that suffer are executive function (the ability to plan, organize, remember, etc…), creative energy, physical energy and intellectual energy. Feeling overwhelmed very quickly becomes a self perpetuating spiral. I feel overwhelmed, I don’t get stuff done. I don’t get stuff done, I feel ashamed and get more overwhelmed. I feel more overwhelmed, I get less done! And so on… The key to this is to recognize the need to dig deep to understand the foundational patterns and dysfunctions that lead to our overwhelm. At some point, you have to actually deal with the issues, not just manage them – they become too big to try to manage. Some aspects of this are simply physiological – some of us feel more deeply and intensely, it’s how our brain works. But a lot of my overwhelm has come from the “stories” I tell myself about what I feel. That I “shouldn’t” feel so much. That I “should” be able to get things done. I bet you know what I mean! I try to remember a mantra that helps me: “Struggle is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” In other words, sh*t happens – I can either deal with it, or I can beat myself up about it. My choice. It’s a work in progress! These “stories” need to be understood and never underestimate the power of an outside view or a good counsellor to help wade through to find more functional ways to see ourselves and the world!

4) We have our “energy pie” for the day, and we have to choose how we’re going to use it! Nowhere is this better described than by the “spoon theory”, I think! It was used to describe living with MS, but applies equally well to highly sensitive, intense personalities. So, this tells me that choosing my environment is critical. If I want energy available to get things done and create and work, then I need to be in a space that feels good and supports me. When I’m struggling with writers block or can’t manage to organize myself or keep track of things – I have to look at my choices. Mitigating all the other energy drains will allow me to focus on what I need to get done! Eat the same breakfast. Or, in other words, create routines for things that don’t need my creativity or thought.

And so, I’ll now go back to using the excitement and anticipation of moving to this wonderful new space, to transform into the physical energy and stamina I need to pack boxes and move furniture!

Let me know how you’ve seen energy play out in your life – I’d love to learn more!

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Gifted, But In Denial

I presented recently at the Gifted Children’s Association of BC annual general meeting.

One of the first things I did was ask the group: who likes the term “gifted”?

GCABC AGM presentation

(Insert dramatic music here: dun dun daaaaaa)

Not a single hand went up.

Heads were shaking “no!” People laughed (as if to say “of course not!!”) They looked around, connecting with each other in their negative experiences and dislike of this word.

It’s a loaded word. And a misunderstood concept – this being gifted thing. We all feel it.

Then I asked: how many of you consider yourselves gifted?

Two or three hands went up. And the rest of the room sat there, with their hands in their laps, looking kind of embarrassed. Heads were shaking “no!” again. Some even said “no way!” quietly.

Or maybe I’m just projecting – because I’m sure embarrassed when the topic of being gifted comes up!

Well, I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve got a child who has been identified as being gifted, chances are very high that you are too!

Being gifted is a physiological difference – it’s about how your brain and nervous system functions. And it’s part of our genetics. I mean, really, none of our kids got dipped in vats of radioactive waste to make them this way!

I’ve found it’s an important step towards being the parent my gifted kids need, for me to understand my own giftedness! After all, if I’m in denial about who I am, then how can I expect to successfully support my children as they learn about and value and become who they are?

That whole “do as I say, not as I do” thing has NEVER worked for me! I’ve made a point of inviting my kids to help me see when I’m being hypocritical or inconsistent, so they do! Surprise surprise!

And beyond supporting their growth and self awareness, the hardest part of parenting for me has often been not letting things trigger me! When I react to something my kids say or do, it’s often because whatever is happening is something that resonates with one of my fears. It’s those big red buttons that kids (particularly teenagers) seem to be able to find and push.

I grew up feeling like I didn’t fit in. I grew up learning to bite my tongue and not ask all those questions churning around in my head. I’ve always struggled with overthinking things. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome and worrying that I’m not good enough. I’ve felt like no one loves me and that I’m not worthy of any attention or praise that came my way.

Now, imagine trying to parent a volatile, intense, sensitive gifted kid from that wounded, damaged place. Yeah, it’s NOT pretty!

The most important things we can do to help our children grow to psychological maturity is deal with our own baggage!

Otherwise, we’re likely to just pass it right along, without meaning to. That’s how generational patterns of dysfunction continue on. And that, if nothing else, was something I wanted to stop. This is true for all parents/kids/families, but particularly important for gifted, highly sensitive, intense and creative kids!

I want better for my kids. And that ended up meaning that I had to want/do better for myself. When all is said and done, we can really only pass along what we have to pass along. Intentions and wishes are great, but I couldn’t expect my kids to learn lessons that I had never learned!

So, if you’re insecure about being gifted, being different, being too intense, too curious, too loud, thinking too much, feeling too much – may I highly recommend that you explore those feelings and where they come from.

I found “The Gifted Adult” and “The Drama of the Gifted Child” to be excellent resources for exploring what giftedness means to me.

I summarized much of what I’ve learned about giftedness here:

Dabrowski’s work re: overexcitabilities and his theory of positive disintegration were major stepping stones for understanding my struggles and feelings.

I found immense growth from working with a counsellor who focused not on analyzing my thoughts (when I was already too good at over thinking to begin with!!) but instead got me out of my head and feeling/listening to my body and emotions instead. You can check out this amazing therapist here or look for someone similar in your area! It may take a few tries to find a therapist who “gets” giftedness, but it’s worth the effort!

I’ve always noticed that I self select friends who are also gifted and sensitive and intense, so spending time with friends and talking always helps too.

As much as learning about myself and facing so many deeply painful thoughts, memories and patterns has been difficult, it has also been immensely rewarding! Becoming the parent my children need me to be is what has driven me on this journey, but the personal growth has been the real gift in all this. Once I let myself, I started seeing things this way: my children were sent to teach me what I needed to learn.

And, well, I sure do love learning…

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