A Question of Selfishness

I realized I was going down a dark hole after I spent days obsessing over a stupid question I had blurted out at an inopportune moment. I was sure I had brought shame to myself and my family. I was certain I’d ruined lives and changed the course of history. While lost in this bizarre mental oblivion, I suddenly realized that the next day was a loved one’s birthday. Gulp.

At some point in life, I convinced myself that I must serve a penance for doing or saying stupid things. I must berate myself, even as I steep my brain in the cortisol this punishment releases. I couldn’t allow myself to enjoy food, entertainment, sleep, virtually anything, until I had sufficiently beaten myself up. I thought this self-flagellation would somehow “fix” things.

I can only guess that this act of martyring myself was supposed to prove I possess a loving, caring nature. But, in reality, it is just plain selfish. Not to mention, bad for my hippocampus.

While I waste precious time fretting, the people I care about are left hanging and abandoned. I’m not doing them any good by obsessing over my mistakes. Mistakes, I might add, that most people didn’t even notice. Nobody marked their calendars. No one demanded I lose sleep over it. It was all me.

I managed to salvage the birthday, and this near miss ended up giving me a gift. I finally realized I needed to get out of my head. It was time to think about others. To really think about others.

Let it go. Live in the moment. Breathe. I used to think those were lame platitudes that promote selfishness. Now I realize they are actually words to live by.

Now excuse me while I plan the next birthday party.

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Accentuate the Positive

It lies in wait. I can feel it at the edge of my consciousness beckoning to get in. It’s dark and insidious. It has no mercy.

My only recourse against it is to ignore it, but my self-doubt won’t let me. I try humming my favorite song. I think about new story lines. Sometimes I even yell, “NO!”

These meager attempts at stopping it are futile. My inner voice has turned on me. It has become the enemy. For some reason it has decided that I deserve to be berated.

My job is to chance its mind. My mind.

I have to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. It’s that simple. What’s not simple is the implementation.

Some of the best advice I’ve read is to ask yourself, “Is this fretting and berating yourself doing any good? Will it change anything?”

The answer is, of course, NO! So common sense tells us that a more productive stance is to let go of past mistakes, forget embarrassing moments, laugh off stupid utterances, don’t dwell, and just live in the moment.

One of the things I like about New Year’s Day is we’re encouraged to start anew – do a complete reset.

So I’m giving the ‘reset’ plan my all. Goodbye gnarly, cruel, belittling thoughts. You’ve been given your notice. I’m going to like me for me. I’m going to eliminate the negative.

I’m going to accentuate the positive.

Happy New Year!!

. . . There You Are

I’m not sure why I signed a contract with myself to carry excess baggage forever. Well, not “carry” exactly, more like burden myself with. Well, not “burden” so much as chain myself to. Yeah, that’s more descriptive. Heavy-duty, unbreakable, all-consuming, suffocating chains. Everywhere I go. Endlessly.

I remember reading a depressing sentence that really hit home. It was written in answer to someone who wanted to escape their many disappointments in life by running away from it all. The pragmatic, blunt, honest response was, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Ouch! In other words, your baggage is chained to you. It’s going with you.

A few days ago I wrote that throughout my life I had done some really stupid things. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone so I googled, “What is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done?” The answers were disappointingly lame. I felt even more alone.

But then I realized I was guilty of doing the same thing. I talked about making mistakes but had not been willing to divulge the stupid things I had done.

So here’s a small sampling: I was introduced to one of my son’s acquaintances at an important social function. She wasn’t a close friend, was somewhat overweight, and I had been forewarned that she could be needy. She had been married for a few months, but had come to the function alone. She stood on the periphery of the group with a hopeful smile on her face.

I was anxious about making a good impression on my son’s friends and was therefore a nervous wreck. Social functions are not my forte and I tend to blurt.

In an attempt to be supportive and welcoming to this girl, I blurted out, “When is your little one due?” Thank goodness we were out of earshot of the group.

You guessed it. She wasn’t pregnant. I tried to cover my unbelievably stupid faux pas with lame excuses like, “You have such a healthy glow.” And, “I thought I heard that you were trying.”, etc.

She was gracious about my mistake, but in return seemed to expect my undivided attention from that moment on. She gathered my contact info and started writing me daily. She wanted my opinions, my advice, my acknowledgement, and my acceptance. I felt like I owed it to her and she knew that. She capitalized on it. I dutifully played my part because I wanted her forgiveness.

I found myself desperately wanting out of this contract. Sure, I made a really dumb mistake, but do I have to carry it with me forever? Will I somehow be atoned if I do so?

We eventually went our own directions, mostly. She still contacts me occasionally. She did get pregnant soon after and has a beautiful baby.

But I still ruminate over my stupidity and the way it might have influenced future actions on both of our parts. I have chained this memory to my psyche forever. It crops up to bite me whenever it feels like it. It reminds me of my immense capability for thoughtless stupidity.

No matter where I go, there I am.

A Mother’s Unexpected Legacy

My mom died 4 years ago this October. She was a few days away from her 92nd birthday.

I’m still going through her paperwork. Every time I sit down with a box, I have to fold everything up and put it away when it comes time to get tough. I can’t bring myself to throw her personal paperwork away. There are old cards, lists, newspaper clippings, and odds and ends.

Going through a box the other day, I found a scrap of paper with a verse in her handwriting. It was about planting a garden, except each vegetable name went on to become a homophone. Peas became peace, squash became, well, squash, and lettuce became let us. So you would plant 3 rows of peas – of mind, heart, and soul. 4 rows of squash – indifference, selfishness, grumbling, gossip, etc. It was inspirational and I was so impressed with my mom for writing it.

I decided it was a rough draft of a card she was making for us children. I lamented that she didn’t actually make the cards. What a wonderful gift they would have been.

Today, right before I sat down to write the story of my mom’s lost verse, I googled the first line. To my amazement, dozens of entries popped up. It is obviously very well-known.

At first, I was disappointed, then, not to be deterred, I decided Mom must have sent her verse to a publisher a long time ago. I studied the scrap of paper. It seemed old. There were add-ins above lines, like she had changed her mind as she wrote.

But, as I did more research, I found that the poem was attributed to other people that weren’t my mom.

Instead of feeling sad, I realized this episode was actually an incredible tribute to my mom. I’d always known she was a talented writer, so I readily gave her credit for this verse. She was definitely capable.

This helped me realize how much respect I have for her.

Her legacy will live on, verse or not.

Why You Should Stop Ruminating

Anxiety is a bear. A big, ugly, growling, slobbering, terrifying bear. It grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go. It keeps you awake at night. It takes over your thoughts. It causes confusion, inaction, and despair. You want to be alone, but then you don’t. The thought of having to live alone in your head is unbearable. It’s scary in there. You’re forced to relive your embarrassing utterances, thoughtless gestures, stupid questions, hurtful comments, over and over and over. It’s like watching a video on an endless loop. The bear wakes you up to watch it again and again. It starts playing while you’re eating or shopping or watching tv. It’s relentless. Your heart races. Your appetite wanes. You want it to stop, but you don’t know how.

And the bear is clever. He sees to it that you not only worry about the stupid things you’ve done, but you also worry excessively about your loved ones. You’re overcome with thoughts that they may have had a horrible car wreck if they don’t answer your text right away. Or were kidnapped, or fell down some stairs, or were hit by a car while riding their bike, or . . . You name it, your over-anxious mind will concoct it. You pace and wring your hands and text them repeatedly. Then you start calling. If they don’t answer, you start calling their friends.

This ruminating and excessive worrying is hard on your mind and body. It causes cortisol to be released into your blood stream. Cortisol, one of the flight or fight hormones, is released by your adrenal gland. It can do damage to your hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories. It causes your heart to race and an overall ‘jumping out of your skin’ response. It makes it hard to fall asleep and then interrupts your sleep if you do.

Time heals all wounds, you think, you hope. And eventually you do start feeling better. Yet, days or months later, the bear is back. Something will remind you of one of your past stupidities and you’re back inside the jail you’ve built in your head. You’re once again being held prisoner and forced to watch replays of those bad memories over and over.

You try mindfulness, yoga, meditation, camomile tea, every anti-anxiety herbal supplement you can find. Your counter is soon over-flowing with supplement bottles and boxes of tea.

Nobody around you seems aware of your torment. Life goes merrily on. You decide you must be the only one who feels this way and it’s just what you do.

Sometimes, when it gets really rough, you bring it up to someone in your life. Unfortunately, you will sometimes get an answer like, “Are you still on that?”; “Let it go!”; “Try thinking about something else.”; “It’s not that big of a deal.”; “Move on, already.”  Or you’ll get the dreaded blank stare and the even more dreaded shrug.

These people aren’t meaning to be inconsiderate or impatient (I hope). They just don’t know what to say or do. I’m sure they feel as helpless as you do.

If you have these overwhelming feelings of anxiety or worry, talk to somebody who will understand, be it a therapist or an empathetic friend or family member. Take deep breaths. Exercise as often as possible (I like hiking through pine trees. Take your bear spray – wink). Drink plenty of water. Do the things you love to do (pine trees – I’m not kidding).

And, most of all, know you’re not alone.