The audacious wisdom of falling apart in a keep-it-together-world

In 1995, I carefully printed these thoughts in a journal: I don’t know how to share…release…spill. I keep worrying about how my feelings will make other people feel. I can’t seem to break out and really let go of anything. Even when I start to cry it gets strangled by this “hyper-self-conscious I” that’s controlling me, a precision machination that automatically subverts my feelings. But they don’t go away—they just get compressed back inside.

I had recently started therapy after finally admitting at age 36 that I didn’t have the emotional compass, ropes and flashlight to navigate my dark inner territory alone, especially without self-medication as a prop. In some ways I was painfully together, as in one-day-at-a-time-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-taking-care-of-business together. But in other ways I was disconnected from my true self and lost in a confusing maze of compartments built for control. I was tight-shouldered, tight-assed and brittle.

I instinctively suspected—and felt in the pit of my perpetually-clenched gut—that what I needed more than anything was to fall apart, to let go of what I had been carrying for years—soul secrets, deep trauma and unprocessed grief—but I didn’t know how. Control had been my fortress; to deliberately step out into the open with defenses down seemed perhaps the most dangerous choice I could possibly make.

I feared, as I believe many of us do, that to fall apart—to allow the flow of suppressed emotion to begin—might mean I could never stop.

I was so unbelievably analytical that I drew this diagram in that same journal to illustrate the challenge I saw myself facing. Over the previous 30 years I had strategically built a “forcefield” of control- and performance-oriented coping and defense mechanisms so elaborate as to virtually prevent me from unlocking myself to myself.

Insular sefl journal diagramWhat is heart-rending for me now as I look back at that painfully-accurate, almost scientific diagram of a human being named Marva is that the forcefield of control served to screen out more than fears and threats like pain, hopelessness, loneliness, and powerlessness. It also prevented me from experiencing joy, anticipation, love and empowerment. I had suppressed feelings for so long, I was emotionally disabled.

Crazy as it may seem in a keep-it-together-world and in the face of my own over-sized fears and against the advice of my security-conscious ego, I deliberately chose to commit to the task of falling apart. It was by far the most audacious and wisest choice I ever made.

How long did it take? Half-a-second. Five years. The length of a deep exhale. A lifetime.

I am still falling apart in ways that I could not have predicted. I disarmed the forcefield so totally that I can feel everything now. And oh, my God! Wow! No wonder I felt so unalive before. My defenses had cut me off from life itself. And the threats I’d defended against—like hurt, need, shame and chaos—dissolved along with my blockades, as if only shadows cast by the fears themselves.

Now, after 20 years of practice flowing with my emotions, I joke about buying stock in Kleenex. I cry as easily from joy and deep compassion as from grief. If you tell me something deep and real about your life, I will cry with you. I also laugh readily and with abandon. I am deeply touched by the experience of being fully alive, which would never have been possible without falling apart.

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend—as the old Steely Dan song goes—any minor world that breaks apart falls together again. 

I am living proof.

7.3 billion realities (I’m OK, you’re OK)

I am so grateful to a transgender friend of mine for putting up with my ignorance and curiosity. I asked lots of questions because I didn’t understand. I kept trying to fit his square experience into my round bias and it just wouldn’t go. Luckily I knew how to befriend my confusion and was eventually rewarded with a brilliant flash of insight. Although I wanted to really “get it,” I couldn’t fit his experience in my worldview because we view the world differently. And that was OK!

Perhaps even more enlightening and enlivening was my realization that my bafflement with my friend’s proclivities was exactly the same as my family and friends who don’t understand my preferences.

Suddenly I felt more comfortable with all of us!

This may sound ridiculously simple, like a fool should have gotten it decades earlier. But I didn’t. This post is an attempt to explain why it isn’t as straightforward as it looks.

Today I sat for a bit and watched the rapidly-flipping numbers on the World Population Clock. What I thought about as I observed the mounting total is that every single one of the 7.3 billion humans alive right this minute have an absolutely unverifiable and unduplicatable experience of reality.

I believe a natural human assumption (until proven otherwise) is that we all see life through basically similar lenses, our human-colored glasses. We want this to be the case or wishfully think there is one true way of seeing, an objective standard for reality. We take refuge in rules that may seem to make life safer and more predictable. We assume that some of us are right and others who believe differently are wrong. We sometimes even doubt our own perceptions if they don’t fit consensus reality.

Today I watched the population clock and practiced keeping my mind and heart open with curiosity and reverence for the boggling variety implied. Worldview is the unique sum of everything about a person: gender, ethnicity, geography, biology, sexuality, religion, personality, beliefs, assumptions, intelligence, interests, imagination, talents, preferences, burdens, blessings and every single life experience. No one – not even identical twins – has precisely the same cognitive orientation.

This might be frustrating to consider if you prefer predictability, uniformity, and standardization. This may dismay you if you crave categories, labels and neat generalizations. If black-and-white is your comfort zone, a plaid-and-paisley world may not feel like a good fit for you.  

Here’s what I’ve noticed: the more I acknowledge and respect worldview differences – without trying to win people over to my way of seeing or feeling like I need to change my views to match theirs – the more safe and comfortable I feel being my multi-colored, multi-faceted self.

Cultural competency, as I learned in peer support training, is not learning everything I possibly can about other cultures and deeming myself competent, but almost exactly the opposite. True cultural competency is understanding that there are over 7 billion different worldviews and I don’t know diddly about most of them.

If, however, I stay open and cultivate compassion instead of competency, my own worldview will become increasingly rich, colorful and accommodating. At the same time, I will learn to trust, appreciate and celebrate my own reality, knowing it is one-of-a-kind instead of one-size-fits-all.

Afterthought. As I drifted off to sleep last night, I thought of how this topic correlates to the four life positions in the 1970s self-help bestseller, I’m OK, You’re OK (Thomas A. Harris, M.D.):

  • I’m not OK, you’re OK: ashamed, hopeless, helpless, powerless, insecure, victimized
  • I’m not OK, you’re not OK: rescuer, enabler, expects to fail, gives permission to fail, reinforces victim mentality
  • I’m OK, you’re not OK: rigid, authoritarian, critical, blaming, mobilized by anger, oppressive
  • I’m OK, you’re OK: champion who wants success for all, tolerant of differences, director of own life, not dependent on external approval

The great sense of joy and freedom that came when I realized I could accept and appreciate my friend without understanding his worldview was a perfect example of I’m OK, you’re OK.

The power to change your world one sentence at a time

Twenty years ago, in my mid-thirties, I started rubbing my eyes and waking up. Until then I’d been asleep and wandering around in invisible pajamas for decades. The deep sleep was a form of mental mesmerism, an assumption, a world view, a default program. I believed my life was happening to me.

If you say, “Hey! Wait a minute! That’s true!” I hope you’ll stick with me long enough to hear a bit of my story.

I don’t know enough to generalize about how common this belief is, but I can imagine that those of us who’ve had traumatic experiences in childhood may be more prone to what is sometimes called a victim mentality. After all, at a time when we were without a sense of power or authority, scary and hurtful things happened in our lives.

From a simple cause-and-effect mindset appropriate to the developmental stage, we make assumptions and create internal beliefs. We naturally develop our own unique ways of interpreting our circumstances, reacting to stimuli, and coping with stress. These perceptions become our reality. As the perceiver, you are indeed the center of the universe. How you perceive the world is your reality.

In a recent peer support training, I learned more about how this reality-creation works:

  • In order to make sense of life experiences, we create beliefs.
  • We nurture these beliefs because they help form and support our self-concepts.
  • We protect our beliefs by selectively filtering out what contradicts them and letting in what supports them.
  • Our mental radar continually seeks out evidence that supports our beliefs and reinforces our worldview.
My scribbles from peer support training

My scribbles from peer support training

This helps me understand what I instinctively began to move toward as I started awakening. With the help of a supportive therapist, I dared to begin questioning my self-beliefs and worldview. I was tired of being sad and in pain and I knew something had to change or there was no good reason to keep living. I started noticing how many default programs were running on my emotional system, especially negative messages about my self-worth and automatic, mindless reactions to external triggers.

I started experimenting with a small but poignant issue, my over-the-top reaction when I spilled or broke things. Since childhood I’d experienced out-of-proportion fear and self-loathing in reaction to so simple an act as accidentally knocking over a glass of milk or breaking a dish. My body would flush with shame. I’d hasten to clean up the evidence, all the while talking to myself (both in my head and sometimes aloud) with incredible disrespect and meanness. Here’s how I set about altering my pattern:

  1. I began by simply staying aware and noticing my reaction. Wow! I was tougher on myself than I would ever dream of being on anyone else.
  2. Next I chose to stop talking shit to myself, a form of if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. The absence of negative messages turns out to be more important for self-image than the presence of positive messages.
  3. The icing on the cake was to come up with some sweet and soothing words to use with myself in place of “you stupid idiot.” Someone introduced me to the idea of treating myself as I would a beloved child. “Oh, darling,” I practiced saying to myself, “this is not a problem at all!”

Spilt milk

The power of resetting this one default was similar in effect to a small amount of yeast causing a big batch of dough to rise. I began noticing other places in my life where my beliefs created stress and unhappiness. The more beliefs I examined and methodically changed, the more exponentially my self-esteem and self-acceptance rose.

As my awareness and compassion for myself expanded, I began to build a different mental model based on how my beliefs influenced my reality. I noticed my point of power always rested in the present moment and not in the past or future. I saw I had the power to choose beliefs that began building me a roomier, zoomier, happier world.

I no longer believe I am a victim of my life. I see myself as its architect, builder, inspector and grateful resident. We can theorize all we want about what causes traumatic events to happen in our lives, but in the end our point of power rests in choosing how we interpret and respond right now. 

In my peer support training manual I scribbled this line: change one sentence of the story. I love this. If our beliefs create our story of the world and where we fit in it, a place to start is this simple: change one sentence at a time, maybe even one word at a time. Darling.

Still in my robe and pajamas

At nearly noon on a bright, sunny weekday morning I am still in my robe and pajamas, just now getting around to eating breakfast while most people are pondering lunch. Friends and family who know me well might be tempted to worry. Am I sick? Am I feeling discouraged?

No, the truth is far more startling. At 56, I am pregnant. With triplets.

April Fools! But only sort of. The truth is slightly less sensational, but the metaphor of pregnancy is perfect. I have entered into intimate and passionate relations with my inner desires and am determined to carry these three babies to term: writing, music, peer support.

I’ve miscarried many bright ideas over the years. I feel this deep in the pit of my belly as these words resound in me.

This morning I awakened and realized there was good reason to be just as doting and compassionate with myself as if I truly were pregnant. Get plenty of rest, exercise and healthy food. Daydream about baby names and nursery decorations. Make a shopping list for little outfits and supplies to tuck away in preparation. Call my friends for advice on labor, delivery, mothering. Don’t overdo. Put my feet up and congratulate myself. Pay attention for those reassuring kicks.

Throw myself a doozy of a shower. And then get dressed for the day.

This is part of the storyboard I created in January to inspire myself