December 13th, 2010

The Normative and the Outlandish: Growth and Opportunity

For as long as I can remember, I have tended to procrastinate—frequently and characteristically. To be perfectly frank, sometimes the phenomenon has seemed to manifest less as procrastination and more as simple avoidance. By this I mean I procrastinated until it became avoidance: the deadline, opening, opportunity passed. And often I did so knowingly—though not necessarily because I wanted to.

It is something I have felt enormous frustration about even as I have watched myself do it over and over again. And perhaps even more frustrating is knowing exactly why I do it and the clear knowledge that I do not want that reason to be why I do (or don’t do) things.

The reason? Fear.

More aptly, in the form it has often taken in my experience, it could be labeled anxiety. The deep-seated, freezing fear of doing almost anything I may not perform irreproachably, especially if anyone else is going to witness or experience, directly or indirectly, the process or result of it. (Feel free to consider how much those criteria narrow things down.) The resulting anxiety I have been known to experience in varying degrees has sometimes been the motivator for the simple avoidance of doing it. Not necessarily indefinitely—but if I put something off “for right now,” and the anxiety I felt about doing it thus abates, a subconscious cycle is formed. The avoidance reinforces itself by resulting in a lessening of the anxiety each time, and the actual specter of facing that which I have avoided seems less and less appealing in the face of this quick-fix of decreased discomfort.

I have been avoiding a number of things lately (I may call it “procrastinating” sometimes, but I know what it is). Blogging, writing, and especially emailing (which triggers the immediacy of someone else singularly and directly witnessing something and thus the “perfection” required under such scrutiny) are a few of the things I dearly would like to be doing and have been known to feel particularly frustrated when I avoid. I know the reason I have been doing so lately is this feeling of underlying anxiety I have experienced upon consideration of embarking on them—barely conscious, just that tight, tense feeling in myself that makes movement seem about as forthcoming as in unloosened clay. (Ironically, this has often been compounded by the historically persistent internal voice ordering that I “should” be doing them.)

Very often, the things I have avoided thus have not been things I don’t want to do. On the contrary, sometimes I have felt like a little child looking out the window at my own life, my own actions, watching the other kids play outside and not understanding why I don’t get to go out and play too. I want to do these things. I do care about them. (Alas, sometimes it’s seemed the more I care, the more I have felt fear.) I move to do them, and the child part of me watches the fearful part of me, the one that has often been in charge of opening (or not opening) the door and letting me out to play, and I feel, like that child, as though I don’t have any control over it. Like I’m just watching. “Why can’t I go out and play?” the child might say. “You might not do it perfectly,” the large, shadowy, abstract figure answers with finality.

At my last appointment with her, I told my breathworker I didn’t want fear to run so much of my life. She said the only way for that to happen is for me to face the fear, to “lean into it.” Wanting to avoid fear, trying to “keep it at bay,” means engaging with it, and like Chinese finger traps, that just gives it energy and results in its holding more tightly.

That concept was not new to me. But I felt, and feel, like I don’t even know how to face or lean into this “fear,” because how absurd does it seem to feel nervous and fearful about something like emailing a friend or colleague (who would probably be astonished to know the degree of anxiety I have felt at the prospect of emailing him/her back)—to experience in the face of it an unconscious fright that I will somehow not say the exact “perfect” thing, and that anything less than perfection elicits a vague, terrifying punishment that results in the child within me curled into a ball of cowering, trembling, petrified fear?

It seems funny to me to realize how outlandish that sounds even as I also recognize it as perfectly normative in my experience. This, of course, is where and how the unconscious pattern arises and subverts the perception of the actual situation. It is not that I feel literal anxiety about responding to someone’s email (usually). It is not the actual lack of perfection that is the fear—it is the psychic structure in me that formed when I was a child that associates lack of perfection with the punishment it perceived as resulting from a lack of perfection, from ever making a wrong move whether it was known in advance that the move was wrong or not. Punishment that somehow seemed much larger than whatever the literal act of reprimand was at the time and felt as though it ravaged my very foundation.

I do appreciate—deeply—that I consciously recognize this, and it has taken some Work to do so. It does, however, still affect me, at least at the time of this writing. There has seemed to be a gap sometimes in awareness of such internal patterns and their dissolution. Still, I know awareness is where growth and healing begin.

In a way I smile at every story I’ve written and polished enough to submit for publication, because every instance of it represents a time I shoved whatever was blocking that internal door aside and opened it myself, joined the potential landscape of my life outside the window and became an active partner in it. Fuck what’s blocking the door—really, fuck the door itself.

I am an adult now. I am no longer the child I once was in a situation in which I felt perpetual terror about punishment and doing something wrong. I have the opportunity now to parent myself. I am allowed to speak to myself gently, to reassure the child in me that she is safe—and to keep her so from the harsher and more denigrating voice of psychic habit in me. If I’m not paying attention, that shadowy figure does the addressing instead and speaks to me harshly, rigidly, sometimes violently. It is still wanting to protect me from circumstances it saw me in as a child, when it felt it needed to teach me to act and feel a certain way so that I could avoid the external punishment it witnessed and felt so afraid of. It is not necessarily external circumstances now that may block my authentic experience and expression of myself as much as the internal patterns that formed in response to the perception(s) of such in my young development.

It is because of this, actually, that anxiety may sometimes indicate that something unconscious (including, perhaps, recognition of a projection or egoic pattern) is coming to the surface: the psyche feels anxious because whatever is surfacing is likely unconscious because the psyche found or finds it in some way traumatic. I recognize—and appreciate—that in this way this kind of discomfort can be part of the psycho-spiritual inner Work that I do. Anxiety may be an invitation or opportunity.

Fear. I feel it in my body right now. Lean into it. I feel like I don’t know how to do this, but maybe that in itself is an opportunity—do something I don’t know how to do. Risk doing it imperfectly. Allow the imperfection. Learn that it is okay.

In the meantime…if you contact me, and I take a while to get back to you, I apologize. I assure you it is not because I don’t want to.

Love,
Emerald

“I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell, I know right now you can’t tell, but stay a while and maybe then you’ll see a different side of me…”
-matchbox twenty “Unwell”

15 Responses “The Normative and the Outlandish: Growth and Opportunity”

  1. Wow. This is a very wrenching, and brave post, Em.

    I can sense the depth of fears in your writing.

    I can also sense the strength growing in you, as you bring forth a confrontation between the gentle tutor within you against the unjust taskmaster that has shaped these fears.

    All I can say is, keep up the good fight and keep growing.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Tim says:

    Em,

    I relate hugely to this. The only real difference from my experience is that my perfectionism comes from a fear of being rejected rather than from a fear of being punished.

    In particular, I find that often the things which I put off or avoid most persistently are the ones I most want to do: contacting someone I care about but haven’t been in touch with for several months, for example. Or applying for a job which I really want because it’s ideal for me. Or writing about something I really care about.

    With writing, there’s sometimes a solution for me: write something that’s far from perfect, and then edit it until it’s the quality which I feared I wouldn’t achieve. With the other things it’s more difficult, because it does entail doing things that feel scary.

    I don’t believe that the way to face fears is to leap straight in at the difficult end. The CBT approach is to build up, doing related things (or steps) which provoke a manageable level of anxiety, testing whether outcome is really the one we fear or a better one and so on. After doing something at the low end of the scale and seeing what the outcome really was, the things further up seem a little less threatening, and ones which were too difficult become manageable. In this way one gains experience of the fear failing to be realised, and it gradually fades. (For me and you, it would probably involve gaining experience of imperfection turning out to be OK.) Jumping in with the most terrifying thing merely reinforces the experience of it being terrifying.

    I’m part way through this process, and although much still holds me back, I’m now able to do things which a few months ago I would have been crippled by. So I’m trying to continue along that path.

    I hope you don’t mind me writing such a long comment. I’ve felt the kind of fear that you talk about, and I know how horrible an experience it is.

    I hope you find your way through this more quickly than you expect to. And for where you are now: big hugs.

    Thank you for writing so openly and honestly; doing so is a sign of strength.

  3. Emerald says:

    Hi Craig,

    Thank you very much. For whatever reason I hesitated to share this post, but…too late now. :)

    I found what you said lovely, and I appreciate it.

    Thank you for reading and for commenting.

    Xoxo

  4. Emerald says:

    Hi Tim,

    You are welcome at large to comment at whatever length you feel so moved. :) Thank you very much for reading, and for commenting.

    I have undergone cognitive behavioral therapy as well, many years ago when I sought treatment for arachnophobia and later a little bit when I briefly undertook therapy in relation to OCD. There were certain ways I feel/felt it helped me as well.

    The shifts I have experienced since then have come, in my perception, as less from particular psychological treatments (I was not actually undergoing therapy when I experienced the monumental shift of OCD not controlling me anymore) and more from fundamental opening in and shift of perception in a not only psychological but holistic/consciousness-oriented sense. Of course, it seems to me that had I still experienced being under the control of OCD, for example, when I began that(/this) Work, I would not have gotten very far even moving to undertake it—that neurosis would have had to have been addressed first. I see cognitive behavioral therapy as a potentially considerably helpful approach to address immediate affects of things like anxiety. (In this way I experienced it as very supportive in working with arachnophobia in me a decade and a half ago.)

    What seems to me an interesting aspect of the psycho-spiritual inner Work I do is that it may necessarily seem to involve discomfort and vulnerability sometimes; that is, we are working through our unconscious, much of which is unconscious because of things that happened in our past, especially childhood, that we found traumatic and thus defended against. In the process, things became unconscious because we didn’t know how to (or couldn’t) process them then. In many cases, such things stay unconscious because we’re simply not aware of their existence or even the effect unconscious patterns or unprocessed pain may have on us. (Most of us spend most of our time being run or at the very least affected by these patterns.) So in doing the Work, we may encounter things we once found traumatic, and as you mention, it’s important for us not to be re-traumatized but rather, ideally, to process what has been in us in a safe environment with awareness, consciousness, and love. Since in large part we have automatically numbed ourselves to whatever we found traumatic if we did not process it at the time, encountering the content of our unconscious may seemingly ironically sometimes make us feel, at least short-term, more vulnerable and open and perhaps even less efficient at functioning as society deems “normally” (a subject on which I could probably embark on another, and considerable, tangent! :)). This is why the phenomenon I mentioned in the post of encountering anxiety when doing this Work may arise—when we come close to something that is unconscious, our psyches may automatically feel anxiety at the specter of it becoming conscious since they once found it traumatic. Yet becoming aware of such seems the only way we may truly process and release it.

    My…speaking of long comments, heh! Anyway, thank you so much for commenting, and for reading, and I also want to offer my heartfelt congratulations and support for your process and the way you (seem to me anyway) feel you have helped yourself and been helped in the ways you have—therapy, when performed sincerely from all sides, seems to me not necessarily an easy thing to do, and I commend you for being in touch with the love that you fundamentally are such that you felt moved to pursue and participate in it. All very best to you. Xoxox

  5. Erobintica says:

    Hahahaha – I’ve not read past the first paragraph – because I’m here reading your blog because I’m …. procrastinating!

    huge hugs, I’ll read the rest later, back to what I really should be doing. ;-)

  6. Emerald says:

    Lol Robin. I hear you! All best with what you’re working on. :)

    Xoxoxo

  7. Erobintica says:

    Even though I am not finished with what I’m doing (and won’t be tonight) – I had to come back and read this.

    (((((((((((((((((((Em))))))))))))))))))))

    “Lean into it.” Wise words. Think of the swells and waves at the beach. In order to not get knocked down, you lean into them. Sometimes you even jump, letting the rise lift you and the fall settle you back down. Sometimes the waves are huge and storm-driven. Sometimes just little lappings at your feet. But there are always waves. To have a perfectly calm sea would be unnatural.

    Be yourself, and that will be “perfect.”

    But I do understand the fear, as you well know from reading my blog. I am proud of you for posting this.

  8. Kam says:

    I was intrigued by your description of why you have difficulties writing – they are different from mine, yet eerily similar. I, too, have done a lot of self-examination/analysis work over the last few years, and I agree that CBT can be quite useful – realizing that responses to trauma/ disappointments when I was a young child still affects me strongly was also really illuminating. I love what you have managed to write so far, and I’m disappointed that I will miss your reading this month in Philly. Thank you for your post.

  9. Emerald, I so admire how you acknowledge and confront your inner challenges. The inner ones can be the toughest sometimes!

  10. Emerald says:

    Hi Robin,

    Thanks so much. I love your analogy—and it has occurred to me before.

    “Be yourself, and that will be ‘perfect.'”

    Indeed, on the ultimate level, that is so true….

    Thank you for coming by and for expressing what you did. ::Multiple hugs::

  11. Emerald says:

    Hi Kam,

    Welcome, and thanks so much for coming by. :)

    “responses to trauma/ disappointments when I was a young child still affects me strongly”

    Indeed, I very much hear you. It seems extraordinary indeed, doesn’t it. As I understand/have understood the process of inner Work, the first step in processing and freedom is awareness. From there, it may be necessary to release the blockages and tensions we have around such memories—which may mean experiencing the trauma or associations we had with them again. But as Tim points out, it’s important to do this with awareness and in an environment that is safe and supportive.

    (This sure seems to be a topic that brings out vebosity in me!)

    “I love what you have managed to write so far”

    Thank you so very much. :) I too am disappointed that I won’t get to see you next week—I so appreciate that you would have planned to come were you free! Safe and lovely travels to you. And thank you again for coming by. Xoxoxo

  12. Emerald says:

    Thank you so much Jeremy. Hugs.

  13. Nikki says:

    Hey Em,

    Ah, what a brave post love. Well done. I always admire how thoughtful and considered your writing is. Maybe part of that stems from anxiety – it can have ultimately beneficial effects on us as well as detrimental. Although I know how damaging it can be, too.

    Anyway, I wanted to say hello and hopefully without pushing anything towards you, suggest a book you may find interesting/useful: The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is about Buddhism/meditation, and the author himself experienced acute anxiety as a child. The book deals specifically with fear. I’ve found it very useful, liberating and comforting.

    All the best, babe! xxx

  14. Emerald says:

    Hi Nikki,

    Thank you so much.

    “I always admire how thoughtful and considered your writing is. Maybe part of that stems from anxiety”

    First, thank you so much (I find that very flattering)! I hear what you’re saying. It does make sense to me that certain traits might develop particularly in the face of anxiety (sensitivity, awareness, carefulness occur to me…that is not to claim those in myself particularly but rather that they occur to me as things, like you said, that might seem beneficial and to have increased or developed in response to anxiety). Very interesting observation.

    I very much appreciate the book recommendation (and don’t find it “pushing” at all); from what you describe of it, it strikes me as an astute recommendation…I appreciate that and am making a note to check it out.

    Thank you for coming by, Nikki. It’s lovely to see you, and all best to you as well. Hugs.

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  1. Unblocking says:

    […] a higher degree than in much of the last decade. I trust this is due to something I have mentioned before, namely that anxiety may be an indicator of things being shaken up and reaching the surface of the […]

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