Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On empathy, personal responsibility, and health

Often, during more connecting periods of my life, I find myself overwhelmed, out of sorts and feeling, as Bilbo Baggins put it in The Fellowship Of the Ring, "Sort of stretched, like....butter scraped over too much bread". One of the late warning flags for me is a feeling of anger or contempt toward those who ask for my time or emotional energy, and it's especially sobering to me when the bitterness turns toward my children.

Trying to find affection to give feels like pushing a swivel chair across a gravel parking lot. During those moments, my children's needs seem to attack me, like poison darts rather than little hands extended, and I find myself muttering tearfully, "How did I get here?" Every fiber of my soul screams at me that something is out of balance.

More often than not, I find myself emotionally dry because I've been sucked into carrying the daily load of someone else, when it's not rightfully mine, leaving me with barely enough energy to heft my own reasonably sized daily routine. I do this almost entirely without pondering whether I should, since, without wisdom or logic, empathy knows no bounds or boundaries. As wisdom and logic are something I must consciously chose to employ, at least at this juncture, exercising them consistently is a matter of "practice makes perfect".

At any rate, my own normal "load" becomes much, much heavier when it carrying it receives the sloppy seconds of my energy resources.

One of the biggest obstacles, for myself at least, in grappling with boundaries and empathy simultaneously, is the idea that "nice" people listen patiently and give of themselves to others when they're emotionally distraught. Isn't that what we're taught to do as little girls and boys? That it's unkind to not share unreservedly of our resources, if someone asks us to hand them over? Unconditional "sharing", though, becomes a strange and dangerous monster for the person who intuits and anticipates the needs of others, because there's no limit to human pain and it's need to be alleviated.

In a technological age, the ever-presence of the discomfort of others is even more pronounced, because it's not merely daily life encounters that make the hurt of others obvious to us, but we're also cursed with a sort of artificial emotional omnipotence made possible by television, the internet, facebook, blogs, message boards and the like. The sheer volume of emotional information we receive can potentially drain our reserves by midday, and is compounded by the fact that people tend to be drawn to those who make them feel "better", even if only temporarily.

We have an open window into the thoughts of close friends and vague acquaintances alike- irritation about the tasks of daily life, burdens or causes that have sprouted in their hearts, worries about the future, anger and frustration (some warranted, some not) over some event or interaction, explosions over minor problems, giant actual problems...etc. All sorts of doors into the lives of others are opened in a wild orgy of collective knowledge, and I, for one, find myself scrambling to sort through what I should open my heart to and what I should shield myself from (and I mean shield in the most pragmatic sense, as an actual strategic move to protect my own energy). I worry while reading through them that I run the risk of becoming drained dry or completely jaded.

Some people have gaping holes in their hearts and souls that have been long standing, that they're unable/unwilling to pay attention to and fix, which cause them to be ravenous predators of the attention and sympathy of others (some through aggression, and some through passive whining). Pouring energy into their symptoms is as pointless as pouring oil into a bottomless cruet. Nothing will come of it, other than the complete taxation of my resources-resources that rightfully belong to myself and my family.

Other people lack the support system they need to hack through their own difficult (or just average) journey. And, of course, there are always those who experience tragedy on such a profound scale that they *must* reach out for support from those around them, least they be reduced to emotional and physical ash. Even so, I can chose to offer practical help within my ability, without allowing myself to become completely consumed by collective chatter and speculation about the details of their struggle.

On a grander scale, worthy random "causes" rip my sanity and actual usefulness to shreds. (I once counted 15 different links and invitations to support different causes in one day's facebook news feed alone! Serial cause-supporters tend to get hidden from my feed altogether. :P) I believe that people who find their burden and calling in dedicating their time to causes is a beautiful thing, and, I recognize that it's unrealistic for me to donate little snippets of my time and worry to 40 of them at a time. Not only is it unhelpful to me, it's also not particularly useful for the cause itself, on such a diffuse and halfhearted level.

When all these needs swarm around my chest like a living being demanding entrance, wrapping through real interactions or the computer screen with hungry, indiscriminate tendrils...I find it helpful to make myself a cup of tea. I like to remind myself that I'm only a small part of the universe, completely incapable of meeting every need I notice (especially the ones that spring from unhealth). I'm just one person, out of billions who have walked before me, and billions who walk alongside me, and the billions to come. My footprints are not solitary. Just because I see a need doesn't mean that I should meet it. Knowledge does NOT equal responsibility on an individual level.
It's not my job to know about all the minor daily discomforts of three or four hundred people, much less step aside to offer positive emotional energy to each (or even some!) of them. It's not my job to go along on an emotional roller coaster ride with someone who refuses to seek health for themselves. It's not my responsibility to feel the depths of the pain of every hurting group of people brought to my attention, though I can breathe a prayer for them.

That's not to say that sometimes there won't be a moment when the spirit of wisdom shows me where it's appropriate to extend a need word of encouragement or grace to someone. That's also not to say that I shouldn't be aware of how my own personal life-sustaining choices effect others on a community or global level-(but then, that's part of *my* burden, isn't it?)

Humility demands not only that I keep an open, pulsating heart available to it's leading, but also that I recognize that I am limited and finite. Walking one true path that is my own and lending an ear to those who cross it or walk alongside me is far more sane and useful than trying to frantically dash down EVERY path to experience everything that everyone has ever experienced.

Humility also requires that I be the shepherdess of my own thought trails, (being an intuitive thinker, especially), and take responsibility for what rabbit trails I expose myself to. Too many rabbit trails completely stamp across the clear water of the life course my heart has been called to, muddying my focus and rendering my energy diffuse and ineffective. Knowing that I have a tenancy to relate easily and that my mind *needs* to make sense of and explore each mental path I see...dictates that I be mindful of how many voices I allow to call out to me at once.

Calm feet planted on my own road, with my own pack strapped on my own back results sometimes in being "tired", but, more often than not, it's the good kind of tired you feel after an honest day's walk and a nourishing dinner-my bones were made for this. My heart is free in this.
I can do this without anger, fatigue or fear, with light in my body and heart.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

So, where does one FIND a chill pill?

I thought I'd follow up yesterday's

  1. Be aware of my expectations. Being an idealist means, whether on purpose or not, having lots of ideals, which often means a "vision" of what something might look like before it happens.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why my judgement-oriented self sometimes needs a chill pill.

For those of you familiar with the Myers-briggs personality theory, I'm an INFJ (we make up a fairly small portion of the population). I have a deep and lively inner world, a decent sense of what's going on around me emotionally, and a tenancy to be intensely idealistic. I don't take things a step at a time and see where they go; rather, I have an a really colorful end-vision of how something should preferably turn out, and drive toward it.

Generally, this serves me really well! I loathe cruelty and violence, so, generally, kindness trumps severity of response and I'm able to appear flexible (at least on the surface! ;oP) Boundaries keep me from flying off the handle too often when someone else has done something truly horrific, and, generally speaking, I can understand why they're behaving the way they are. It helps that I don't usually expect myself to spend massive amounts of time with anyone, and, therefore, I never get especially (visibly) agitated with most people.

The bump in the road comes when an inflexible value conflicts with the sanctity of my private, daily life. Generally, these two things only ever intersect within my own home and family.

My family should absolutely get the best part of my behavior, rather than the worst, since what I say and do really does effect them permanently and profoundly. (One of my few absolutely inflexible values is that children should be treated with patience and kindness. Even if everything else in my life has to meet the chopping block in order to do so, children must be treated with love and dignity and consideration.)
However, I often find myself irrationally, ridiculously angry my children for doing things that really are just appropriately childish.

For instance: My oldest daughter uses a harsh tone instead of a kind one. My 4yo dawdles on the way to the car when I know we're on a schedule. My 2yo wriggles and lunges and screams her way through a grocery shopping trip. And, the anger mounts.
I find myself growling loudly in the car, "Mama is about to be not-nice-mama,
I'm going to absolutely YELL unkind things at you all soon;
In my head, I'm calling them all sorts of colorful names. My entire body is vibrating from massive amounts of adrenalin and tension and fight or flight. My heart is literally thudding through my chest.

WHY do I get to this point? Logically, I know that they're behaving out of innocent immaturity. Ideally, I understand that I need to be the adult in the situation. Realistically, I'm able to give myself grace and know that I'm also human, but my level of anger reaction gives me pause and makes me consider what's triggering such a physical reaction for myself.

Thinking back over the day, it's obvious that I've had a lot of unarticulated expectations, some consciously self-imposed and some culturally ingrained. I hate being talked to with harsh tone; no one SHOULD ever speak to me that way. I worry that the neighbors will see my very capable 6yo in the front yard without me and make a stink about, so I fuss at my 4yo for keeping me from making it obvious that my 6yo is attended (even though she doesn't need it). I notice the annoyed/judgmental glances of fellow shoppers at the grocery store that doesn't generally have many children in it as my 2yo yowls obliviously because she's getting hungry. I feel embarrassed and insulted.

These are all my own feelings, my own expectations of the life I'd ideally like to live, or at least the way I'd likely live it that day if I didn't have children. The glaring truth is: I *do* have children. And children, by their very definition, are little tender, fledgling people without the experience or mental development to follow ALL my self-imposed rules for living (some of the rules good, some of them unfortunate coping mechanisms).

Keeping frustration at a productive level is important even for those who don't have children, because constant tension in the body can be physically damaging! The ability to disconnect from the moment a bit, and judiciously chose which issues are worth that intense emotional attention, can be literally life-saving.

For parents, it's all the more important to not live in the turmoil of anger triggered by violated "values". Children tend to react to the emotional state of their parents, and often feel the effects of those emotions in their own bodies. Keeping the entire home in uproar because we lack the discipline to stop and employ a realistic filter is, quite literally, tearing down our own family with our bare hands (preaching to myself). I can keep my kids from coughing and choking emotionally on my secondhand rage. ;oP

It becomes obvious that I have to learn to adjust my personal expectations, so that my that one of my values is "wronged" by one of my children doesn't produce an anger reaction inside my own body. I can't reject my own idealism any more than I can reject my own nose from my face; it's a valuable part of who I am. What I can do, though, it bring my unspoken expectations up to the surface level, run them through the filter of what's actually important and healthy, and what's not.

Making these "values" conscious allows me to think about them rather than merely intuit them. Exhausting sometimes, yes. But, in the long run, it allows for more relaxation, peace and freedom, because I've pre-decided what I'm going to allow myself to get worked up over and what I'm going to let slide. My strong logical tertiary can hop in and say, "The emotional effect your reaction has on your children is far more important than anyone else's mores, including your own. Let's make a plan to anticipate your reaction ahead of time, and troubleshoot." (I kind of make my judging function my bitch, a little. ;oP )

I can let my low-level irritation (anger in it's productive stage!) let me know that there's a need I should be paying attention to.

Really, in my own life, bringing the reasons for my anger to my awareness is key. A lot of the reasons I feel the urge to blow up are due to my own expectations, which are built on my own issues. My expectations are what I need to take responsibility for course-correcting, and when I set aside purposeful time to talk about it or self-reflect, usual become apparent really quickly.

Once those unrealistic expectations bubble to the surface, I ask myself: Why is having this met SO important to me? What need is it meeting? If I can identify the need, I can often get it met in a healthier way, outside of that intense moment, so that when the trigger for a huge, angry justice reaction to my children arises, it's much more easily manageable.

A few of my own needs include:

  • the need for sanctity/alone time of uninterrupted thought to process the week's events
  • regular food/blood sugar stability
  • quiet (oh, mylanta, that's a big one that is tough to meet)
  • Sleep
  • physical space (another toughie with small children)
  • limited social interaction so I can concentrate on what I'm doing (why having attention brought to us in the grocery is so hard!)
  • creativity/self expression
  • meaningful adult conversation
  • order (especially in my visual field)
  • Advance notice for changed plans (the explosive poo diaper or the preschooler who decides on an impromptu "art" session with the toothpaste might be triggers for this one! Another big one is a child who suddenly makes a "jump" from one phase to another, leaving me scrambling for a new plan for how to best teach them.)
Obviously every person's needs will be unique, and children sometimes require me to "give up" or delay having one of those needs met, but it helps if I make that call a judicious, purposeful choice. :O) That way, I'm still mindful of the need, and can make a plan for it getting met at a later time! This lowers my desperation level, and keeps my anger at a more productive level. :O)

More later...off to make egg drop soup! :grin:

{amazing mama art at top of page by the talented Erika Hastings of Mud Spice. Thanks, Erika! }