Giving Myself the Silent Treatment

My thoughts have been exhausting me lately.  I just can’t stop the mouse wheel from spinning around and around. I can’t seem to resolve anything, and I lazily just allow the thoughts the proliferate and escalate in intensity.

I don’t know how to silence myself. 

One day, while out walking the dog, I observed my wandering thoughts, taking note of how negative and catastrophizing they really were.

How harmful to think those thoughts.

I realized then and there (as I have about 50 billion times over the course of my life) that I need to halt these thoughts.  While this wasn’t a revelation, the way I imagined stopping them just might be.

I will give myself the silent treatment. 

The silent treatment has significant meaning for me, as it used to be associated with pain and rejection.

My childhood.

I am almost ashamed to admit that I did not have the most healthy upbringing.  Both of my parents were moody and dissatisfied with their lives, and they often took their pain out on me and my sister.  My mother’s favorite tool was giving us the silent treatment.  She could go for days intentially averting her eyes and withdrawing from us.  Saying nothing.  I remember sitting in front of her, begging her to talk to me, sobbing from the confusion and pain of being shut out.  It was humiliating and deeply affected me.

Reappropriation.

Something so powerful (and negative) begs to be reappropriated and used for good.  Since I now associate silence with peace and meditation and relaxation, I want to invite those new associations to infuse the silent treatment with embracing love.

In giving myself the silent treatment, I will halt the escalation of negative thoughts and remind myself to be gentle and forgiving with myself.  I will breathe in the silence, knowing in my heart that it is being used for the greater good.

New Goals

The past few months have flown by. I am indeed at a new job I really enjoy. I’m grateful to be using my brain and my research skills on a daily basis. I have also found a way to fill my “other” time doing volunteer literacy tutoring. I get to do lesson planning (which I’ve always loved) and help someone learn a new language. It’s been quite fulfilling and very interesting work.

I thought I would write a bit about my goals for the new year. The overarching goals that affect each of my individual goals (below) include:

  • Act smart. I feel like far too often I am unfocused, or not present, or insecure, and so I rely on others to be smart for me. I want to act smart and to assume I’m smart. To make decisions singularly. To speak definitively. To believe in my knowledge.
  • Listen to my body. I generally am cued into my body, but I want to do even more close listening. I want to stretch more when I’m feeling stiff, to lie down and rest when my body hints at a nap (rather than when it’s screaming for relief), to eat foods that feel nuturing and healthy. To eat when it feels right to eat.
  • Be kind to myself. My goal is to be deeply understanding of myself. To give myself a break. To trust in my own hardworking nature such that I don’t beat myself up for taking a break or choosing not to do something. I should know by now I’m not lazy or unmotivated. I’m still driven and focused; only now I’m realizing the importance of taking it easy and not feeling like I have to do everything.

The rest of my goals are more specific:

  • Work out 3-4 days/week
  • Do calorie tracking most days of the week
  • Lose 10 pounds by June
  • Get rid of plantar fasciitis
  • Eat healthy (fruits and veggies every day, limited sugar, fat, and breads)
  • Continue literacy tutoring, and keep lesson plans and resources organized for future use
  • Attend Loudoun Literacy Council events
  • Take LLC online course on Adults with Learning Disabilities
  • Read fiction, and join or start a women’s book club (even if online, but preferably a community club)
  • Plan and take one fun, unusual trip this year
  • Go hiking locally
  • Have dinner dates with friends
  • Paint upstairs rooms; hang pictures
  • Become more knowledgeable about gardening, and stay involved in gardening planning

Work

Just a year ago, when I talked about work, I meant studying, coming up with new ideas. Developing courses for classes I was teaching, or just as an exercise for a course. Reading dense material, and being overcome by new ideas. Writing incessantly. Writing my ideas and forming them into a coherent narrative. Pages and pages of writing. I was rigorous, disciplined. I worked.

The New Work

Now that I’ve graduated and work full-time in a postacademic job, work has a whole new meaning. It means, get up early, before the sun rises most days, and drive for well over an hour to a j-o-b. A place where I’m expected to sit for 8+ hours, typing away at a computer. Occasionally chatting with coworkers about trivial things. Typing away some more. Work now refers to the act of being in front of a glowing rectangle.

Whether I do work or not is another story. I’m not required to be doing work constantly. At my current workplace, there simply isn’t enough to keep me typing away on specific projects. So I keep typing anyway, spinning that little rollerball on my mouse, clicking clicking, and it looks like I’m working.

Changes

Well, I’m tired of this. I want to actually be working. I am hoping this will be the case at the new job I just landed, to begin in 2 weeks. I want to be occupied with projects that use my brain, that require me to really think about how things fit together. That demand my attention. That cause me to spin in different directions, working problems out in my head.

Of course, there’s a decent chance this won’t be the case at the new job. It may just be the same notion of being in front of a glowing rectangle, ticking away at the keyboard.

The New New Work

In anticipation of this reality, I need to figure out what to do with my brain the rest of the time. When I’m in the shower in the morning, getting ready for my job. When I’m driving. What do I think about? While on my lunch break. At home after dinner. What stimulates me the way school did?

What new new kind of work can I do now?

Taking the Learning Out of the Classroom

Finishing graduate school has upended my notion of time.  I no longer have to be writing or thinking in the service of my graduate education.  The neurotic need to be doing something all the time, to be moving forward on multiple projects, all of which feed into the Dissertation, has passed.

Well, the need to be writing and researching for the dissertation is over, but the neuroticism remains, I’m afraid.

I’ve always been plagued by the Need to Be Doing Things. I am never content just sitting still. I always want to have interesting projects in the works.

Prior to graduate school, I did. I read new books, researched, wrote frequently, took classes just for the fun of it (well, also to get back in the swing of school, since I planned many years in advance of actually going to graduate school). I took 2 semesters of German, so I could exercise my brain and learn another language. I took literature classes, one on Native American literature, which was excellent, and another called the History of Ideas on Women — tracing views of women from Plato to today. They were well conceived Harvard community college courses, and I dutifully trekked to class after working all day. 

What do classes offer me?

Observing communication.

I know I don’t have time to take classes now, but I crave what it is I got out of classes. For one thing, I love lectures. I enjoy hearing people speak knowledgeably about topics, to pose questions I hadn’t considered. I like thinking about how people formulate their talks. I listen below the surface, beyond words (sometimes at the risk of missing the actual content!). I study gestures, turns of phrases, the very structure of the lecture. My attention span is seemingly infinite in the classroom, as I always find objects to study. It is for this reason that I have often had a connection with professors and speakers, because I make eye contact and visibly nod with understanding. In short, I like observing communication and hearing how thought is structured.

Reading Books.

It goes without saying that nothing pleases me more than to crack open a new book and absorb its contents. I love the idea of being “assigned” a book, and having the chance to learn from it. I really do need to kick the bad habit of skimming texts. This practice served me well in graduate school, but I no longer need to digest more information than I want. I get to choose how much information I want to let in. No one expects me to show my knowledge on certain topics (well, except for my Knowledge Monster).

Writing.

The final topic I’ll address here about course education is the opportunity to write as a way to work through ideas. If left to my own devices, I tend to write about material I know, or that is rote for me. For example, my feelings or self-help strategies. But taking classes enables me to explore areas I would not otherwise write about. Writing helps me assimilate material, to learn what I know about it. I can focus my interest and make connections among topic areas.

Taking the learning out of the classroom.

So the question, then, is how do I experience these things now that taking a class is not feasible?

Some options:

  • Take a class online. Open Yale Courses offers free classes you can watch or just listen to (downloading or streaming). Open Culture is another option.
  • Research a topic of interest. Then blog about it. Or journal. Or write a piece that addresses questions raised. Then research some more.
  • Develop your own syllabus. Commit to learning about a certain topic, then read the material and write about it.
  • Join a book club. This is one way to have an “assignment” and then an opportunity for communication (aka discussion).
  • Write your article/book. This is a great way to get in the practice of research and writing. The tough part is lack of communication/interaction, making this feel like the most solitary option.

Those are great ideas, but here’s the problem. I’m all over the place. I can’t seem to focus. I’ll listen to a lecture or a great story on NPR, do some research, and then I drop it. I can’t seem to commit to any one topic long enough to feel well-versed in it.

Another challenge is I feel like I don’t even have ideas about what I want to learn. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve been trained to believe everything I do is for a greater goal (ie, dissertation). It’s like I feel internal pressure to continue my dissertation research, or otherwise conduct legitimate academic research. And if I don’t, everything else is fluff. Or if I don’t, everything else is a distraction from the true mission at hand – to keep doing academic research, the only legitimate work to be doing if one has a PhD.

Didn’t I write some posts about letting myself off the hook? Gah, here I am, expecting certain things from myself.

I guess I need to sit down and really think about what I want. This post is a start, as I have reminded myself of elements of learning that are especially stimulating and important to me. It would be useful now to consider how to put these into play in a way that alleviates expectations and makes me feel alive, like I have all the time in the world to learn whatever I want.

All the Monsters Have Hearts

So there’s this blogger guru that I follow. She talks a lot about those wily, persistent, often self-desparaging thoughts many of us have. The ones that go you’re so stupid why do you even bother trying? and of course you’re going to fail, you will never make it and also where do you get off relaxing? get off your lazy ass and actually get some work done for a change.

What’s in a Name

This coach is a strong advocate of being able to actually name these thoughts, and even came up with the strategy of calling them “Monsters.” This led to a guide she created that helps you name and interact productively with these beasts.

I am playing along and have begun the process of naming my Monsters, which has, quite to my surprise, been empowering. That was an important first step, because now I’m a lot clearer on what issues have been tripping me up lately. There’s the Money Monster, the Laziness Monster, the Unworthiness Monster, the Despairing Monster, and the Hateful Monster.

Just Ask the Monsters

A technique that this lovely blogger employs is to ask the Monsters what they want so that you can figure out how they’re actually trying to help. For example, the Money Monster might be trying to help you stay solvent so that you don’t end up on welfare like your family.

I never said they were rational.

They’re actually quite rash and intense, quick to swoop in and protect you from the inevitable worst case scenario.  They mean well, but they’re big and pointy.

Ow.  

So, I’m working through my current Monsters, and it’s been immensely helpful. There’s something healing about creating separate beings for my negative thinking that helps me understand where they come from and how they work.

Crayons and Monsters

One of the fun products this blogger has produced is a Monster Coloring Book. The drawings of different kinds of Monsters are fabulous, and it’s fun to color these Monsters with crayons. In fact, MM and I sat down the other day and colored in some Monsters. While Monsters for MM aren’t something, at least as far as I can tell, he subscribes to, I will always treasure that meaningful time of coloring together. It was a great tribute to my Monsters, while simultaneously letting them go.

I still have more Monsters to color. I probably always will. But I noticed something so surprising that first night of coloring Monsters, something that gave me hope:

All the monsters have hearts.

Novel to Me: Two Epiphanies for the Price of One

I had a couple epiphanies recently. I was in a bookstore in a sketchy section of Philly, near Temple University, taking a break from a wonderful day of conference speakers at the Society for Disability Studies conference. My mind was swirling with new ideas; it was invigorating to be immersed in an academic setting again — a place where people shared fresh concepts and tried to come up with solutions to difficult issues. A place of theory and practical applications. Such a diversity of bodies and minds!

But back to my epiphany.

I was sitting there in the bookstore, staring out the window, letting myself be. That doesn’t happen very often, simply allowing my mind to go still. I had just finished reading Ann Patchett’s published speech to the graduating class of Sarah Lawrence college called “What Now?” I love Patchett’s writing, and I must say, this book was inspiring.

She reminded us that there are a myriad of paths one might take after graduation — a notion especially relevant to me, since I just graduated with my PhD a couple of weeks ago. Of course, I knew all this, right? As a reflective person, a self-aware person, a person who devours self-help books, I had heard everything she was saying. The idea that we can trust ourselves to find the right path, we can be whoever we want to be, and so on.

Listen.

There was something about the way she shared her own experiences with writing and observing the world, though, that caught my breath. Patchett describes graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop with a graduate degree and then immediately getting a job waitressing. It wasn’t until she stopped and listened, really listened to the stories all around her, of people, of places, that she began to be a writer.

Ping.

Something opened up inside me. Wide.

I realized that now was my time to write. I am in such a contemplative, vulnerable place that I must write. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. In fact, it’s what I did before graduate school, and it’s what I did all throughout school, and it’s something I plan on doing until the day I die.

I must write.

So there was that epiphany. And on the heels of that, another.

Epiphany #2

Immediately after epiphany #1, it occurred to me that nothing was stopping me from writing what I wanted. Right now. I can’t even explain how novel this idea still feels to me. Perhaps I made the assumption that I had to write certain things before grad school to prove I was worthy of graduate education. And during grad school, I often felt the same way. The dissertation is such a peculiar project, and I suspect it is the practice of writing the dissertation that will be a more useful tool in any future writing — more so, perhaps, than the contents of the dissertation itself. I have more to say on this, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Permission granted.

What I’m getting at is that I have now given myself permission to devote time to write. I have legitimized it for myself. I have something to say, and I am going to say it. I am going to write articles and submit them for publication. I am going to simultaneously work on a book manuscript for publication. This is what I am going to be doing.

Further, I have decided that I am going to follow a writing schedule — three days a week, 2 hours a day. This is similar to what I did for the dissertation, and it’s very effective. What’s more, it makes me feel productive, something I find I must feel in order to be satisfied with my life. Probably more on that in a later post, too.

I already completed the first week of this commitment. And I feel fantastic. Accomplished. My mind feels active. I am doing something for me. Ahhhhh.

Want to know a little secret? It’s surreptitious writing, at work. I know. Scandalous. I am writing on the government’s dime. More about that later, too, once I’ve thought it through more. I think Michel de Certeau might have something to say about it, though.

Tactics and subversion, yeah baby!

Being Stationary

My first blog post talked about stationary malaise, that condition I felt when I was stuck at my desk all day, and trapped in my car on a long commute.  That’s the icky physical stuff that results in stiff hips, sore shoulders, and an aching back.

There’s also a kind of stationary boredom I feel when I am doing any one thing for too long. Looking back at my 20s and 30s, I realized that I moved around a lot. Lived in different apartments in different cities. Held multiple and varied jobs. Had lots of adventures. Dated a variety of people. Made new friends.

Things stay the same.

All that is different now. I’m older, have completed the education phase of my life (when you’re more likely to be mobile), have a job, live in a house with a mortgage, largely have the same circle of friends, and have pets. My life is by its very nature more stationary.

On the road again…

So I’ve been feeling the itch to travel, to have a change of pace. That involves more coordination when you have a partner, pets, and a house with a garden that needs tending. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life and am grateful for what I have, especially its predictability and comfort.

However, I also need to nuture that part of me that just needs to get away. Just for a day, or an overnight. I need a change of scenery. That craving is getting stronger, and I need to satisfy it. I need to see different people, experience a different landscape. Thankfully I won’t have to drive very far to do this, since I live near mountains and the ocean.

Sussing Out Shame

This isn’t really Act III, but rather an aside. A bonus. A trundle of thoughts, if you will, that try to get at the issues I addressed in the previous Letting Myself Off the Hook acts.

Ah, for shame.

It’s an elusive concept, something I really don’t understand. I do know that I often feel shame when I don’t know things. What things?

Gosh, anything I think I should know. Or that I think others think I should know.

Things I think I should know a lot about.

  • current events/news
  • politics
  • American history
  • world history
  • classical music
  • types of flowers
  • dog breeds
  • kinds of foods
  • cooking techniques
  • geography
  • religion
  • very popular things

It’s interesting because some things I’m okay with not knowing, because I don’t expect myself to know them (partly because I don’t think others expect me to know much about them). 

Things I am okay not knowing much about.

  • cars
  • computers
  • household repairs
  • music genres (except classical)
  • science
  • math
  • different cultures
  • taxes

This is actually a great exercise in confronting my discomfort about not knowing stuff. When I elevate each subject to a bullet, it brings to the fore just how arbitrary the items I think I should (or in turn, that I don’t expect myself to) know are.

Where did I get these topics? What is their unique origin story? For surely they must all have one.

I can tell one of these stories.

The oh my god I can’t believe I don’t know this I must be so uncouth and uneducated-current events topic originates from an experience in high school. My super smart friend – who believed I was also super smart and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t in the Gifted & Talented program with her (yet another source of shame) – had us compile a montage of stories of the year for the school newspaper (which we both wrote for).  As she listed off each major global news event (and they were major because I looked them up, full of shame, later), I either expressed ignorance about the event or it was clear I wasn’t familiar with what had been happening in the world all year.

I don’t remember all the details, and I certainly don’t remember my friend’s saying anything directly to me about the not knowing, but I do recall

turning red and feeling tremendous shame at not knowing these things.

I berated myself and for a long time afterward, I vowed to read the newspaper diligently every day, so that I would know about things if someone asked. Not because I was genuinely interested in current events, but because I had learned that I was expected to know certain things, especially given how smart people thought I was.

That was a lesson that has stuck with me and influenced my behavior. I do realize much of my fear of being exposed as ignorant is self-made and self-perpetuated; however, as I’ve mentioned before, I know people who have a tendency of boasting about knowing things, and scolding others for not knowing. I’ve experienced it, and I’ve seen it. And I’m not just saying that because I’m highly sensitive. I know this happens.

So in the spirit of letting myself off the hook, what next?

Well, the first step, which I’ve taken, is acknowledging the lists of things I think I should know or that I’m okay with not knowing. If possible, it would probably help to figure out where each comes from. Their origin stories may reveal the reasons behind my knowledge-shame. I won’t spend years tracking each of them down, though. I’m a firm believer in accepting the state of mind I am in now, and not always trying to thoroughly resolve past hurts. So at some point, I’ll move forward and…

…and what? What do I do with these lists? When a topic comes up about which I feel I should be well-versed (especially in a social group), what do I do?

Fake it until I make it?

Conjure up a different personae to issue a public diatribe?

Take a moment to reason with myself, thinking about what I do know, and let the rest fall away, including other people’s stuff around knowledge (because I can’t be the only one with knowledge issues)?

I don’t know!

Success and Shame: Letting Myself Off the Hook, Act II

Not long ago, I talked about shame, specifically around socially expected knowledge. I have long felt a sense of shame or embarassment at the possibility (or reality) of not knowing certain information, especially knowledge linked to cultural expectations. For example, the type of knowledge that leads to appreciating classical music or knowing which fork to use if you’re a member of a certain social class.

Ah, the classic dichotomy: upper versus lower class.

The Pretty Woman syndrome.

These social class issues are often connected to formal education. Someone educated at a university is often* viewed as part of a certain social class, versus someone who never obtained a college education. If that education occurred at an elite institution or the person went on to graduate school, the expectations re: knowledge and social class are even more rigid and specific.

*One of my limitations here is a tendency to overgeneralize; while I acknowledge there are nuances to these rigid views, I want also to point out that there exist social expectations that influence behavior. Nota bene: I have already pointed out that I am acutely sensitive to this issue, which may throw into question my ability to objectively study this issue. Luckily for me, there’s no such thing as objective.  But I know not all audiences espouse this belief, which is why I feel such unease with factual knowledge – I know it’s expected, but another part of me believes it’s bunk.

Stereotypes.

Many people would agree that a person with a Ph.D. conjures up a certain set of images. A Ph.D. is often equated with Professor, academic, scholar. Somewhat elite, old, stodgy, stuffy. Expert. Absent-minded. Nerdy. Elbow patches.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these adjectives are my own, rather than belong to this elusive “many people.”

Imposter syndrome. Again.

I have a Ph.D. It was a long road, and I worked very hard. A part of me is tremendously proud to be part of this elite group.

Yet I am also ashamed at my degree.

I am overwhelmed by the attention I sometimes get. And scared sh*tless that I’ll be found out to not have the knowledge I’m expected to have. Feeling pre-emptive shame at the possibility of being exposed as not knowing things. Especially because now people think I should possess certain knowledge because I have a Ph.D. I have ratcheted up my social capital such that I am more visible, respected, and better regarded because I have this degree. Expectations are now higher for me, the person with a doctorate. I am the doctor, after all.

“So, what’s your dissertation about?”

In social groups, I wither at the thought that I’ll be asked to dissertate on some topic simply because I have a higher degree. That I’ll be encouraged to tell everyone about my dissertation.

This terrifies me.

I accomplished the Ph.D. for myself, for my own edification, not so that I could be legitimized to go on a diatribe about an obscure topic. The last thing I want to do is share my knowledge, particularly concrete or factual knowledge (personal or emotional knowledge, such as what I learned while completing my degree, is another story altogether. I’d willingly “lecture” about the emotional aspects of graduate education – clearly a topic of a future post). I am really uncomfortable sharing specific, factual knowledge.

Maybe because I’m afraid I don’t have any.

I’d rather keep to myself, share my ideas (especially academic ideas) with my close friends. Sure, I write and research, and I have been published. I want to continue to be published, in fact. So I’m not interested in completely hiding. Yet, especially when asked to recount factual information,

I have this paralyzing fear I’ll be found out to be completely incompetent, uncultured, and not terribly smart.

It all comes down to money. And social class.

It occurred to me while discussing financial matters recently that there is a correllary between the embarassment I feel around my “lower class,” poor  upbringing and the shame I experience related to knowledge expectations, my current social class, and higher education.

I feel an Act III coming on.

 

Checking In: Notes to Self

I vowed recently to re-read and observe my Notes to Self more. I wanted a more smooth week, with less stress. I figured that I would benefit from regular reminders of what works for me and as a result have an easier week.

And go figure, it was easier. I made sure to plan meals out, and to account for when the plan fell apart, which it totally did. But that’s okay; I was able to make a good, healthy-ish decision without a melt down.

That’s a very good thing for everyone in my house.

I have also been getting more sleep, which has made a difference in my mood as well. Optimistic thoughts permeate my mind. Whoa. How did that happen? Is it a fluke, or am I really doing something right with respect to honoring my self-principles?

Maybe I should refer to my Notes to Self as Self Principles or something. However, they’re flexible guidelines that will likely change over time, so I don’t want to be too rigid.

I’m grateful all my strategies paired together have been working. Here’s a reminder of what they were the past week:

  • Get sufficient sleep. I went to bed a tad early a couple of nights this week.
  • Limit overly social activities. I ducked out of a social event at work when I’d had enough. Ahhh.
  • Journal regularly to check in with yourself. I have journaled almost every day, exploring sticky issues as they come up.
  • Plan meals, and plan for meal plans to fall apart. This worked well. I made sure to breathe and relax when plans did not work out. Knowing I would be taken care of (by me or my partner) made all the difference.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. I’ve been keeping one for almost a month now. I try to make sure it’s not rote but rather an honest representation of what I’m consciously happy about. It’s not always serious: One day I wrote that I was grateful for my good hair.
  • Stay present. This one is kind of elusive, but I’ve found that breathing makes a tremendous difference. I try not to think ahead and fret about what must be done, or what’s not done yet. Just appreciate the moment. It’s beyond a cliche, but when I can be mindful about my present circumstances, it appears to make a difference, especially long-term; it has a cumulative effect.
  • Spend time outside. The weather is perfect now, dry and warm. So I’ve been sitting outside more, just reflecting quietly, with appreciation for all the growth around me (especially in our garden).

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