We are in the middle of preparing for Passover which will soon be upon us. I was listening to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discuss his interpretation of an element of the Exodus story when something he said struck me. He said that identity requires memory. This is why we Jews retell the Exodus story annually. Yes, we were slaves, but we were also freed. It is in the remembering that the memory is made new and freshly relevant to our present identities.
I immediately began looking up reliable sources regarding memory and identity. Are our identities founded upon our memories? Apparently, yes. I found numerous essays and books discussing this very topic. What fascinates me about this premise is the implication that we can influence the development of our identity through what we remember, and this becomes particularly important in the case of trauma (EMDR for example).
Ulric Neisser, referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology”, spent years researching memory and divided our memory and, thusly, the self into five unique parts or ‘selves’:
This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with daily life? Quite a lot as I learned last weekend.
My mom and stepfather visited with the intention to help me get my house in better order to sell. I often feel like I’m making a deal with the devil when I accept their help. While my mother’s borderline personality disorder symptoms have vastly improved with age and repeated illnesses, she still struggles at times.
We were folding laundry together at my dining room table, and my mother mentioned quite out of the blue that she never understood why my grandmother had acted so meanly to her in Norway.
“I told you about that, didn’t I?” she casually asked.
“No, I don’t recall your taking a trip to Norway,” I said feeling curious.
My mother went on to relate to me a somewhat fantastical tale in which my grandmother was the center of the Norwegian press’s attention in the summer of 1969. It seems that my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, was a much celebrated and famous artist in Norway. I knew he was a painter of landscapes from Norway, but I had no idea that he was a celebrity in his home country.
“Oh yes,” my mother explained. “There were bronze busts of him and paintings in museums. The press was very excited to interview your grandmother. We traveled to Fagernes and stayed in his ancestral home. Your grandmother ate it up. She preened for the cameras, and she dragged your grandfather around. He didn’t like it. Not once did she ever tell the press that he had a granddaughter. She never mentioned me. So, when the press wrote about his children–you know, his descendants–they never included me in that family line. She completely edited me out, and I couldn’t understand it. I always thought that it was because I was adopted. I wasn’t blood or something.”
I was stunned at this revelation, and, at the same time, her story was believable. My grandmother could be extremely petty. She used to put onions and lemons in the Christmas stockings of children who annoyed her. She could be childish and self-centered when she felt socially injured. The idea, however, that she blacklisted my mother from the family line because she was adopted did not resonate with me at all. My grandparents never treated my mother differently because of her adoption. They loved her. She was their daughter, but, for my mother, her memory of the event was related to her adoption. Her identity from that moment onward in 1969 had become one of deficiency. She was “less than”. Never good enough. Rejected. Never acceptable. One can’t change their DNA after all.
I couldn’t accept this narrative. I had to know more. So, I began to ask questions. My grandmother’s behavior seemed so distinctly relationally aggressive that it seemed to be tied to an action rather than an identity such as being adopted. I asked my mother if something had happened before the trip to Norway. As it turns out, something had.
“Well, I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I was supposed to be in college, but I didn’t like it. Your grandparents strongly suggested I go to this Christian college that trains missionaries, but I never wanted to be a missionary. I didn’t like the school. So, I quit and got a job instead. I paid my own way in Norway. I bought my own ticket, paid for my food, paid for everything. I asked them if I could join them and struck a deal with them,” she explained.
Suddenly, it became clear to me. My grandmother had a life-long infatuation with the idea of missionary life. She supported many missionaries. She and my grandfather owned rental properties and often rented to missionaries on furlough. To her, the missionary was the embodiment of the Great Commission–an icon of the Gospel. The darker side of this romantic idealism is that my grandmother enjoyed social status within her religious community, and a missionary daughter would have given her a leg up in her social climb. When my mother quit that missionary college, she forever deprived my grandmother of having a missionary daughter from whom she could derive social capital. Put simply, my mother socially shamed my grandmother by quitting college, and, to my grandmother, it was always tit-for-tat. My mother socially injured my grandmother? Fine. My grandmother socially injured my mother in Norway in return.
To me, the narrative was so clear, but, as I explained it to my mother, she could scarcely accept it. She was shocked. I felt quite angry on my mother’s behalf. In that moment, I so wished my grandmother were alive so that I could confront her. I asked my mother if she confronted her mother, and my mother lowered her head.
“Why? Why did you not ask her about this?” I almost pleaded.
“Because she was my mother. You know how she was…” my mother said quietly. She looked ashamed.
It was then that I observed it. My mother was afraid of her mother, and I know that my grandmother was afraid of her own mother, too. If I were in a movie, this would have been the moment that the camera pulled back. I descend from a line of women all terrorized by their mothers except that I no longer fear my mother. For the first time I finally saw her as her own person, fully human and hurting. For the last 50 years of her life she has believed that she has been unacceptable because her birth mother didn’t want her. She has believed that her own family didn’t want her because they were ashamed of her. She has believed that she wasn’t worthy to be included in the family line of her ancestors because she wasn’t “blood”. And, because of this belief, she has made almost all of her life choices accordingly–as if nothing better was worth fighting for because she wasn’t worth fighting for.
All because of how she remembered a singular event playing out. Her identity was forged according to her memory. And, her memory was inaccurate.
When we hold onto one interpretation of an event for years, it is excruciatingly difficult to let that interpretation go and accept another in its place because, as we are learning, identity and memory are dependent on each other. For my mother, she has truly believed that she is a “second-class citizen”, and she has made life choices according to that belief. Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to find out that the events in your memory from which you derived such an identity were actually misunderstood? You never were unacceptable? What would you feel?
We believe our caregivers when we are developing. Our interpretations of events, how we remember them, the meanings that we apply to them, how we talk to ourselves about them, and how we relate to them become a part of our internal landscape and shape us. Even if we find out later that there is a better interpretation, there is still loss associated with identity transformation and healing. I watched my mother try to understand the shift in her narrative. All she could say was, “This is a lot of information for me to take in.” I don’t know if she’ll internalize a new narrative, but at least an alternative is there now.
All this is to say that part of how we heal ourselves is to assess our memories and, thusly, our identities for they are inextricably linked, and seek out better interpretations and narratives.
I have been winding down my life in the cold North in preparation to pack it up and move it to the Bay Area. Adieu, snow and cold. Hello, Karl! This is Karl:
Karl the Fog has his own Twitter (@KarltheFog) and Instagram (karlthefog) accounts. After two decades of snow and ice, I am thrilled to get to know Karl. In the midst of asking my sock drawer if it sparks joy, looking through Bay Area real estate when I have insomnia, and dealing with the expected (and unexpected) challenges of life, clarity and a sound mind have finally begun to emerge, I will carefully admit.
As usual, I will elaborate.
The hardest thing about this process has been meetings with my ex-husband. Were it not for the Ex Factor, I would enjoy this process of transition more. To me, there is something essentially good about intentionally closing one chapter of your life and beginning another. I observe this because, in my experience, so many endings in life seem forced upon us without our say or expectation, or they are one-sided. Bring to mind the events in life that evoke the concept of an ending–divorce, job layoffs, breakups, serious illnesses, betrayals, financial ruin, and, of course, death. Many of these events come upon us out of the blue particularly in childhood and adolescence. If your parents or primary guardians divorced, then you certainly had no say about the dissolution of your family as you knew it. From a child’s perspective, divorce can feel one-sided and often unexpected. It is not the gentle closing of a chapter but rather a metaphorical book burning. As with divorce, other life experiences can feel the same, and that sense of finality can equate to a feeling of life closing in around us rather than life opening up bringing new possibilities.
I have wanted to give my daughters (and myself) a positive transition, but, whenever I have had scheduled meetings with my ex-husband, I have experienced the situation through the lens of trauma and anxiety feeling thrust back into that ever-narrowing emotional experience of perceived forced entrapment and fear. That is what unresolved traumatic experiences leave us with–a belief that we no longer have choices. Sometimes there is an internalized and often unchallenged belief that we are being forced into former roles and thought patterns. We must play the part no matter who cast us. I asked of myself if I was the one casting myself in an old role. A hard but necessary question to ask. There was no black-and-white answer.
As it turns out, all those necessary meetings with my ex-husband forced me to challenge those negative core beliefs and, I say begrudgingly, resulted in something quite beneficial. I admit this cautiously because my marriage didn’t end well, and I also want to emphasize that it isn’t always healthy or safe for people to meet with former abusers. While my ex and I are presently civil and negotiate adequately, I was very afraid of him when we separated. When my former therapist, whom I was seeing at the time my marriage ended, directly told me that I was experiencing domestic violence and suggested that I get to know some local women’s shelters, I, to be blunt, lost my sh*t. I was not ready to be confronted with that truth. I unfairly judged myself as a woman who “knew better”, and I learned that some people I knew judged me in much the same way–“I thought you were a woman who would know better.” After everything I had been through with my parents and even the process of recovery from adolescent human trafficking, I honestly believed that I was beyond being victimized again. Surely I would never again put myself in a situation to be traumatized or abused. I never imagined that I would be someone who would lie to people about how I was injured–“I don’t know why I’m limping. I think I ran into the door or just woke up that way.” Alas, that wasn’t the case.
The first few times I met with my ex-husband after our initial separation, I endured the meetings while trying to present a calm, cool affect. I would later return home and descend into a strange purgatory-like state of depersonalized, emotional zombiism–feeling neither psychically alive nor dead. Our interactions would replay in my mind, and, in hindsight, I noticed a pattern in his communication style. We would cover the necessary ground in our meetings, but he would characteristically say something extremely hurtful and mean. The verbal tactics were quite familiar to me, and, in retrospect, I should have anticipated this. I refrained from passive aggressive remarks or even bitter verbal swipes. In the beginning, it would take me weeks to recover from a one-hour meeting. I would sink into a kind of depression adrift in very negative intrusive thoughts and surges of flashbacks. In those moments, I felt quite stuck in a mélange of distorted thoughts and toxic emotions melding together into a manifestation of negative beliefs and self-judgment. I would feel like I would never be free of him. He would always be the all-powerful perpetrator, and I could never truly have the ability to effectively self-advocate. I was essentially stuck in the all-or-nothing distortion of Him/Perpetrator:Me/Victim. Derailing that thought train became one of my primary goals.
How? In the moment when the past becomes present and former injuries be they physical and/or psychological become brand new again, how does one clarify the distortions and dam the deluge of negativity in order to properly interpret circumstances and achieve emotional regulation?
These are not simple questions, and they are not easily answered in one blog post. What I can say is that I turned a corner recently, and I share it because it might be useful. I met with my ex-husband and our accountant a few weeks ago for the annual tax paperwork exchange. After she left, we awkwardly sat in a Panera making small talk. I was quietly sipping on coffee when I heard him loudly yawn and assume The Catapult Position except his feet were outstretched into the aisle rather than onto the table:
In terms of body language, the Catapult is described as “an almost entirely male gesture used to intimidate others or to infer a relaxed attitude to lull you into a relaxed sense of security just before he ambushes you…The gesture is typical of…people who are feeling superior, dominant, or confident about something.” (Dimensions of Body Language)
He then told me, as he leaned back in this dominant-style pose, that we should never have been married. He also said that I was the cause of all his anxiety during our marriage–something he rarely shared with me while we were married. He went on to say that he was continually stuck in “fight-or-flight” because of me, and he said all this with a smug grin on his face as he looked off into the distance. Smirking, he turned to make eye contact with me and said, “Oh, the last two years might have been painful for you. Sorry about that.” He was referencing the physical violence in that passing remark. We then parted ways. I drove home feeling confused and crazy. What was he talking about? Was he being truthful? And then the thought train started…
I told a friend what he said. Her comment? “MJ, he abused you for years. Of course, he said that!” She went on to validate me and ask if I was okay, but I couldn’t internalize anything. In my mind and body, I was stuck in Panera, looking at him leaning into that booth, outstretched and smirking, blaming me for his violence and newly confessed misery. I felt re-victimized. But then…
A moment occurred when I stopped and questioned the entire experience. I know what happened. My medical records document what happened. My therapist knows what happened. The people who love me know what happened. Just because my former husband claims something doesn’t make it true, and, to be honest, it comes as no surprise that he is behaving badly now because he has always behaved like this. There is a reason our marriage ended. I paused and let what DBT calls one’s Wise Mind speak, “Why are you surprised that he is still engaging in unhealthy and victimizing behaviors? Isn’t this just another confirmation that you made the right decision? You walked away from a bad situation to build a better life. You did the right thing, and this meeting is just another sign post that you are on the right road.”
In that moment, something clicked for me. People who tend to abuse engage in abuse. People who tend to exploit engage in exploitation. People who engage in dishonesty tend to lie. People who become violent tend to perpetrate myriad forms of violence. People who are cowardly tend to display cowardice in different contexts. Why would I expect a different set of behaviors from someone who has rarely historically offered different behaviors? And that’s when I knew. The one person whom I can always count on to provide a different set of behaviors is me. If I wanted to feel better feelings, think better thoughts, and stop the maladaptive thought train, then I was the one who had to change my paradigm. Funnily enough, cognitively speaking I knew this! I’ve devoted a good part of this blog to this very topic, but internalizing this in real time while facing down a former abuser is very different than the intellectual process of knowing. But, it can be done.
I don’t know how to neatly wrap this up because there is no pithy ending to a process like this. I don’t believe that our processes to become better, healthier humans ever end, but I do think that it does become easier in some respects particularly when we know with whom to place our expectations and what to expect in general and specific. In line with this idea, self-compassion comes into play here, and this may be a foreign and unpleasant idea for those of us with codependency in our backgrounds. As I continue to try, however, I have come to believe that to truly take care of yourself and show yourself compassion showing up for yourself in small and big ways does make a difference. Self-care and self-compassion do not seem to be about tuning out the world and checking out but are rather about tuning in to what you are ruminating on, what is driving you, and what you might be avoiding because you feel anxious and afraid. Discerning the difference between tuning out and tuning in as I’ve tried to keep going has been very effective in helping me maintain momentum even in the midst of what has felt like setbacks. And, I think that’s what is called resiliency.
It’s normal to be scared, anxious, and dislike uncertainty. Preferring isolation when you’re stressed and fed up isn’t unusual either nor is avoidance, rumination, and intrusive thoughts particularly in the wake of post-traumatic stress. But, there is also a much wider emotional spectrum that extends beyond these emotional and physiological experiences that includes joy, hope, increased distress tolerance, increased self-esteem, and the alleviation of shame and internalized judgment. Once again, I will say the same thing because it continues to prove itself true time and time again.
You must keep going. Always.
I think I’ve tried to write a blog post six or seven times in six or seven weeks and failed each time. If you knew my writing process, then you would know that is not me. I have never had a problem writing anything. The words have always flowed with ease. Since the beginning of January I have felt frozen inside not unlike my upper Midwest environs. An emotional Polar Vortex has settled within me, and I feel locked up and iced in.
So, what gives? I ask myself. It almost feels like mild depression. I don’t want to shower. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to eat anything unless it involves chips and hummus. I only want to drink coffee. These are my two “vices”. And, I just want to sit on my couch under a blanket in comfy pants and watch crime procedurals. I don’t even want to vacuum anything. The climate of my mind has turned cold, damp, and grey. But, why?
I think I can pinpoint the reason. It’s my ex-husband, but I’ll name him The Straw. He is akin to the straw breaking the metaphorical camel’s back. When I take a breath and assess the situation, the word resiliency comes to mind. I think you and I, my readers and me, we ought to have a discussion about resiliency in real time. How it works and what it looks like because “resiliency” is all the rage these days. In the simplest terms, resiliency is defined as the capacity to recover from difficulties quickly. As I lay out my circumstances, think about your life in the context of resiliency. Maybe we can make some connections together.
I entered a graduate medical program in January 2017 after ending my 20-year marriage in 2015. My marriage wasn’t always abusive, but it was never fulfilling either. Due to alcoholism and domestic violence likely fueled by addiction and personality problems, I had to leave the marriage for my health and safety. Healing from domestic abuse is probably one of the hardest endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. It has, for me, been far more grueling a process than healing from human trafficking (which I experienced in 1991). Allow me to explain.
Generally speaking, one expects to be treated in a sub-human manner by a human trafficker. It isn’t like human traffickers are upheld as paragons of virtue. They’re criminals who commit heinous crimes. When you’re abducted for the purpose of sexual slavery, you figure out very quickly what’s ahead of you. The only surprise is the degree to which you will be degraded and abused. When you are trafficked, you are designated a slave. Slaves are no longer perceived to be people with rights or even identities. Slaves are chattel. For the most part, you know what to expect when you lose all humanity, and you know what to expect from your slave owner. Expect nothing and everything at the same time–it will all be far beyond the worst you could imagine anyway. But, you never expect your life partner to treat you as you were when you were trafficked.
And this is key–domestic violence and abuse are dehumanizing because it is another sort of objectification. The victim becomes an object of rage and violence In my experience, this is the parallel–the objectification. What made it harder to overcome was how it crept up on me. I never expected to feel so utterly un-human as I did at the end of my marriage. My mind could not accept what was happening to me in the midst of the violence, and I continued to believe that it wasn’t true in part because my abuser denied it and still denies it. It was and is functional denial.
Even though you are called Wife and Partner you are treated as Other. The descent into abuse feels like a surreality of your own making because the entire time he hurts you he tells you that it isn’t real. It isn’t happening, and he never did that. You feel as if you are going mad or perhaps you provoked him. Maybe you wanted it. Maybe you imagined it. Maybe you deserved that which he said never happened. Perhaps it was all your fault even though it never happened. You question everything and believe nothing. You begin to gaslight yourself in the context of his gaslighting.
Until you hear tendons snap. And see your blood. Until you have surgery. Twice.
Physical healing comes far sooner than any emotional, psychological, or spiritual healing does, but I don’t like to put my life on hold because some part of me is lagging behind. We must keep going. Catch a vision. Keep trying. There will never be a convenient time to try something new or even build something. Risk is never convenient. So, I forged ahead with graduate school never expecting to be sexually harassed within three months of beginning my program. The sexual harassment was consistent and prolonged, and I was eventually granted a restraining order by a county judge. The entire affair was escalated to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights who, after an investigation into my college, found them guilty of discrimination based on sex. All in all, the harassment and subsequent investigations lasted almost two years. So, I dealt with one circumstance of sexual violence in the context of another. Simultaneously.
One would think that I felt empowered, but I didn’t. I felt victimized all over again. Sure, I stood up for myself and other people. The perpetrator is no longer with the school, and the school was found guilty of discrimination. They are now going to experience two years of remediation and governmental oversight. As discreet as I was during the entire process, I was alienated by other students in my cohort who knew about the situation; and I was even shunned by people who had called me ‘friend’–simply because I advocated for myself and others. I became something of a pariah. It felt like blame. Should I have just taken it? Should I have said nothing even though the man who was harassing me had harassed other women, too? That would have been wrong. Alas, there are people who seem to think that we should just turn our heads and let people victimize others. Don’t make waves. Mind your own business. I can’t do that. To me, that’s immoral. I am, however, very familiar with victim blaming. Friends and family blamed me for the domestic abuse in my marriage, too. It’s a common phenomenon.
I was actually feeling somewhat relieved after everything with my former college came to a close, but that changed when my ex-husband asked to meet with me a few days into my winter break. He has been making unexpected demands that have violated prior agreements, and this has been my undoing. It isn’t the demands that are the most stressful or triggering. It is his undying belief that he is a victim of our divorce proceedings. He believes that he is a “good guy” and that nothing wrong ever happened. To him, he is the Do-Gooder. The Innocent. Consequently, when I meet with him, I interface with this persona who is utterly convinced of his personal awesomeness, and, all the while, I am sitting across from someone I once trusted implicitly who became my perpetrator.
So, what does all this have to do with my current lability and affect, and what does this have to do with you? I like to say that our resiliency falls on a spectrum. Bring to mind an emergency room nurse or doctor. How many times can a clinician declare someone dead after trying to save them and walk away unscathed? Ten times? Fifty times? At what point will it finally register on a deep level? When will it break you? When will an emergency responder finally see one too many horrific car accidents with fatalities? When will a social worker hear one too many horrible accounts of abuse? When will a guardian ad litem witness one too many child abuse cases? That moment of “one too many” is the moment that you’ve hit the end of your resiliency spectrum. You’re done. You’ve got nothing left. You can’t cope anymore. You can no longer resist the pull of the dark gravity of hopelessness and despair. You are desolate.
Everyone has a resiliency spectrum (RS), and I suspect that each RS is uniquely our own developed over time and tailored to our life experiences. What requires me to be resilient will be different from what requires you to be resilient simply because your experience of trauma will differ from mine. The point is that we can develop resiliency with practice, but there also comes a breaking point. Even the most flexible of trees eventually breaks or uproots when a hurricane blows through the forest.
What might be an appropriate thing to do when you feel like this?
I don’t know about you, but when I feel bent over, desolate, and overwhelmed, my mind is immediately overcome with thoughts that are shame-based. I feel accused and afraid. Suddenly, I feel inadequate and terribly alone, and my knee-jerk reaction to these feelings is to become excessively self-reliant and withdrawn. I have a strange fear of being “discovered”. All of this is rooted in my experiences with my family of origin. My mother declared with great pride that she needed no one and could do everything by herself even though everything she did was motivated by a profound fear of abandonment. Alas, to need anything or anyone–to her–was an abomination. It was a weakness that she would punish with great severity if she spotted it, even in me. It is ironic to me then that the first step to restoring your resiliency is to reach out and restore connection.
Connection through vulnerability eradicates shame. Shame cannot exist in the presence of true connection and vulnerability, and we are able to begin to restore ourselves when we connect to other people who support, validate, and believe us. For many of us who have experienced trauma, reaching out while feeling vulnerable inside ourselves feels like the hardest thing to do particularly if you experienced trauma within close relationships. I suspect the reason for this is because you’ve experienced violations of trust from people with whom you allowed yourself to be vulnerable, and your brain isn’t going to let your forget that. I can attest to this experience. After experiencing sexual violence in a marital context, I find it extraordinarily difficult to be vulnerable with anyone now. I still try, but it is much harder. There is a great confusion that wants to settle in. Feelings of trust can become confused with feelings of suspicion. After all, the people I once trusted are the people who hurt me the most. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That statement alone can fuel self-imposed isolation and fear of intimacy and vulnerability, but, in reality, your brain is trying really hard to keep you safe.
So, what is to be done then? I’ve got three suggestions.
Together, we will keep going even when it feels like we can’t.
I can usually write a blog post in an hour or two but not this time. For some reason I could not put this post together no matter how hard I tried. I sat down in December to write a post on personal inertia. We were on the cusp of 2019. I was taking stock of 2018. Did 2018 have a personal theme? What could be gleaned from the experiences of 2018 in order to make 2019 even better? You know, I was being contemplative.
And then I was in a car accident. My daughter and I were rear-ended quite hard so much so that the insurance company totaled out my car. The car of the driver who hit us was towed from the scene. I really started thinking about my own personal inertia at that point.
What is inertia?
There are two definitions for inertia: 1) indisposition to motion, exertion, or change (“I don’t like or fear change.”) and 2) a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force. Generally speaking, people tend to be inert. We develop habits, and we stick to them. It doesn’t matter if the habits are good or bad. We like predictability (“I like my car and would like to keep it.”). We don’t want to be confronted on how we do things, what we think, or how we interact with others. If it’s always been done a certain way, then most people will continue in this customary fashion from the smallest habit to the grandest cultural traditions. In terms of inertia, this is called uniform motion. For the most part, we like to remain in a state of uniform motion and/or rest, and this is not necessarily bad. Society needs structure and uniformity to function from the nuclear family all the way to level of government.
In terms of health, this is called homeostasis. The human body requires a certain amount of sleep. We require vital nutrients, daylight, human interaction, physical touch, exercise, and clean air and water in order to maintain homeostasis. All of this is part of uniform motion. When an outside force acts upon this homeostatic inertia, that usually means a stressor has occurred like a virus, toxin, physical injury, genetic mutation, car accident, or the like, and homeostasis has been disrupted. We are no longer inert.
The same comparison can be made to the emotional self–the mind. Emotional homeostasis in terms of wellness and looking after our mental health is a priority , and there are any number of factors that affect this from hormones, diet, and genetics to relationships, jobs, and family history–and, of course, trauma. How we structure our lives in order to maintain our emotional and mental homeostasis is where inertia becomes a factor in either propelling us forward or sabotaging us.
Why is a discussion of inertia worth having? Well, from what I’ve experienced in life personal inertia is often the primary reason we do not take action to make changes that will actually better our lives and set us up for success in the future. There is another name for personal inertia, and that name is fear. Let me define this particular sort of fear:
Somewhere between our internal experiences of our lives and our external perceptions lies the reality of the consequences of whatever action was actually taken–the choices we made. And, this is what I want to talk about because that nagging fear of living in that place–the land of consequences--is often what keeps us locked into our circumstances, thusly, preventing us from ever making the most necessary changes which ultimately gets us where we want to go.
Inertia and Fear of Negative Consequences
In my experience, there are two things that sabotage us when we are presented with the opportunity to take action. We become anxious because we don’t know what will happen (but we’re quite sure that it will be bad), and this anxiety/cognitive distortion exacerbates our personal inertia, thusly, thwarting our innate resiliency and ability to change; and we can’t overcome our own inertia long enough to implement the desired and likely necessary changes in ways that count.
What does this look like in real life terms?
Jane is a talented, intelligent woman with two college degrees who has traveled extensively and lived abroad. She runs a non-profit. She is multi-lingual and has a large social and professional network, She is kind, generous, and strives to make everyone around her feel comfortable and welcome in her presence. She volunteers at her kids’ school and teaches Sunday school classes. She is well-liked by her neighbors and her community at large, and she is beloved by her many friends. She met Tom, her husband, in college. Tom is a charismatic, extraverted man who aims to be the center of attention wherever he is. He thrives on admiration. He gave up his successful law practice to become a political consultant, and he excels at this occupation. He is highly paid and enjoys advertising his wealth and status by driving expensive cars, wearing expensive brand name clothing, and paying for everything in cash. He is loud, boisterous, and obsequious, but people seem to be drawn to him–particularly women. He has strongly narcissistic tendencies and a mercurial temperament behind closed doors to the point of being verbally and emotionally abusive to Jane and their three children. Male colleagues like him because he mirrors back to them their own positive perceptions of masculinity, and female colleagues like him because he is flirtatious but not excessively so giving them a sense of importance. Tom had one extramarital affair within the first three years of their marriage. They have been married for 18 years. Both Jane and Tom are from conservative Christian families who do not support divorce believing that “God hates divorce”. While Jane doesn’t believe that women should stay in abusive relationships, she will not label her relationship as abusive even though she is verbally/emotionally abused as well as pressured to stay married by both her family of origin and her in-laws in order to keep up appearances and “be obedient” to what the Bible teaches. During the last two years, Jane is experiencing symptoms of an undiagnosed autoimmune disease and chronic fatigue symptoms. She is also experiencing depression symptoms. She argues with Tom daily. Jane and Tom have verbally violent fights at least once a week in front of their children, and their oldest son is beginning to model some of Tom’s negative personality traits.
Where is the inertia in Jane’s situation?
How do we begin to overcome our own personal inertia and take action?
Put simply, we can begin to take meaningful and effective action in our lives when our desire for change is greater than our fear of change and the potential consequences that our actions could bring. In terms of inertia, our desire becomes the outside force acting upon our uniform motion which changes our direction or propulsion.
Desire can be an unwanted emotional experience for some particularly if it’s strong because it seems that fear and desire go together in a sometimes awkward and toxic dance. The stronger the desire the more powerful the fear, and it often depends on how desire manifests. Desire can feel like ambition or intense focus on a goal. It can feel like a consistent attraction to specific daydreams or fantasizing. It can also feel like longing or yearning unearthing a profound sense that you are not living a life meant for you. You may feel like something is missing drawing you into a sort of quest or search. In its more helpful form, desire can be an ontological state that motivates an awakening which drives the self to deeper self-actualization–desire freed from fear. Desire mingling with fear often manifests as envy, jealousy, toxic competitiveness, judgmentalism, and comparisons with others. Desire can be highly disruptive to the self.
What is very interesting to note is that there is a neurochemical connection between desire and fear, and it is found in dopamine:
“The chemical dopamine induces both desire and dread, according to new animal research in the July 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Although dopamine is well known to motivate animals and people to seek positive rewards, the study indicates that it also can promote negative feelings like fear. The finding may help explain why dopamine dysfunction is implicated not only in drug addiction, which involves excessive desire, but in schizophrenia and some phobias, which involve excessive fear.” (Society for Neuroscience. “Brain Chemical Shown To Induce Both Desire And Dread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 July 2008. )
How do we take this information and make it work for us? The things that we often fear are quite valid–the loss of community, fear of retaliation and violence, social injury and rejection, fear of God, loss of occupation, inability to survive, and loss of social standing. This is about survival. Staying “stuck” and in predictable circumstances–even if we hate them or they’re hurting us–may often seem like the best choice when faced with potential outcomes that we fear should we allow desire to influence us. Our own neurochemistry can bolster this mindset. Desire or dread. What should influence us?
The question of influence, to me, is one of the most important issues we can consider. When we are influenced more by a fear of potential negative outcomes our natural response will be an inertial one which is to maintain. Stay put. Stay the course. Refuse change. Do what you know even if what you know is making you miserable and sick or even making your loved ones miserable and sick. It is an internal battle that must be fought. Where there is desire, there will be fear particularly when the potential for change is present. In theory, this might sound all well and good, but what comes after desire?
I like this list:
Why endeavor to engage in this? I’ll let Dr. Jim Taylor answer this:
“When we change our life inertia, we liberate ourselves from those forces that have, until now, propelled us in a direction we would not have chosen. With control of the spaceship that is our lives, we will have freedom from debilitating fear, doubt, anger, shame, and despair. It also means we will have the freedom to hope, feel, accept, engage, and strive. When you are in command of your spaceship you are on track to live a life that will bring you meaning, fulfillment, and well-being. And you can be sure that you will not have to experience the most frustrating of all emotions – regret. Once you have gained command of your life you will not have to ask, “I wonder what could have been?” (Four Forces of Life Inertia, Jim Taylor PhD)
May 2019 be a year of daring to desire and taking action.
The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete. I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow. Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome. I see now why all the locals drive SUVs. Nothing seems to stop them. Not snow, ice, flash floods. Pedestrians.
Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit. This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend. You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.
About 11 years ago I had an epiphany. Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them. What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking. Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.
The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving. Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder. The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child. She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury. Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’. It never went well for them. Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk. Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.
So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us. She had in-laws. Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt). That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me. For five years.
So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening. Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday. We eat in the evening. We stay at the table. We enjoy drinks and desserts. And then the games come out. Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun. She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised. My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped. As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.
By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night. It wasn’t fun. It felt like playing a social game of Tetris. People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly. I was glad when it ended. As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.
Why do we do it? I ask it honestly. Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?
Ah yes, tradition. How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time. Just like last year. And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.
I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do. I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly. You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore. Can we please start a new tradition?” You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me. I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.
What does it feel like? It feels wonderful. There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do. I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress. I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.
One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.
This is the most important takeaway. Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason. Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body. Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. When you are stressed, your body produces it. One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response. Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick. Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event. Why is this?
The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus. Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen. In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug. In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus. Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen. So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection. You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production. The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation. We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection. We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self. And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.
Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system. Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult. Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.
With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.
Have you ever been in the middle of a particularly major life transition and wondered if you were doing the right thing? Or, perhaps you were quite certain that you were headed in the right direction; you, however, weren’t sure that some of the lesser but still impactful decisions you had to make were correctly decided.
That’s descriptive of me right now. I’m in the middle of a huge life transition–I’m planning a move to the West Coast next summer. Were it just me it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ve got my daughters’ quality of life to consider. We are all in the mix. I’ve got to sell my house, put the finishing touches on moving to a different post-graduate program, find housing in the Bay Area (yeah, that’ll keep you up at night), minimize all my possessions, and…and…and…
It’s a colossal effort, and yet I know it will come together. But…
There are those moments of quiet when I take in the magnitude of it all, and I ask, “Am I doing the right thing for everyone?” It’s not often, but it’s not an unimportant question. When there are children depending upon us to care for them and build a foundation under them, we need to ask such a question. As a Jew, I pose that question to God as I and my ancestors have come to understand him both personally and corporately. And, I sincerely expect an answer although answers don’t always come on my preferred timeline.
The late Brennan Manning once told a story of a Jewish Bubbe out with her grandson at the shore. She was delighting in watching him play with his new shovel and bucket until a large wave unexpectedly washed ashore and swept his toys out to sea soaking her young grandchild in salty water. Running to her grandson as he sat crying on the sand, Bubbe called out, “Bring back my grandson’s shovel and bucket! It makes him so happy to play with them, and, if it makes him happy, then I am happy!” A few moments passed, and suddenly a wave spit out her grandson’s bucket and shovel right at their feet. Smiling and clapping, her grandson resumed playing as if nothing had ever happened. Bubbe, however, frowned and said, “He had a hat!”
Some would say that Bubbe is ungrateful. Look at the miraculous quality of what just happened! The sea returned the shovel and bucket! So what that his hat wasn’t returned to him. I say that Bubbe is expectant, and this boldness and sense of anticipation in believing God, as she understands him, is what informs how she interacts with him.
So, what does this have to do with my moving out West? Well, I think that regardless of one’s understanding of who God might be–even in terms of agnosticism, interacting with God (or if you want to call the Divine “the Universe”) can be a highly rewarding and reassuring process. It can remove a sense of ontological loneliness that plagues so many of us and guide us through incredibly difficult circumstances. In my case, on the day I decided that we were going to move West, I asked for a reassurance that it was the right decision–something I rarely do, but it was such a big, life-altering decision. I wanted the strongest sense that it was right. So, I drove my car along a stretch of highway pondering what a “good reassurance” might be. Something that I could look back on when circumstances got rough and remind myself, “Oh, you’re on the right track. Remember? You saw that sign.”
Suddenly, I had it! I love bald eagles, and we have a few of them in my neck of the woods. I decided that I wanted to see a bald eagle in a tree right by the road as I was driving–something I never see. It didn’t have to be that day. Just…soon. I’ll confess that I felt silly. Asking for a sign. P’shaw! as my grandfather would say. As soon as I asked God to give me a sign, I almost took it back. I don’t do things like that. But then, in the middle of my embarrassed rumination, I saw it. I slowed down my car to take it in. A beautiful bald eagle perched majestically on a branch overhanging the highway’s shoulder at 7 AM. I was shocked. “Did that just happen?” I thought. It did indeed.
My mind has returned to that moment during times of high stress and anxiety, and it has caused to me to wonder what signs really are. What is a sign?
When we drive, we see signs all the time, or at least we should see them if we are paying attention. We’ve probably all encountered people who don’t pay attention to the road signs. Those are the people driving the opposite direction on a one-way street or doing a U-ey when they should not. How about those folks who run stop signs for lack of paying attention, thusly, causing an accident? Signs serve a very good purpose. They let you know where you are, what you should do, how fast you should drive, where to go, and where not to go. The most important thing to note about signs is that one has to see them in order for them to be effective.
Well, if Tom Cochrane’s song is correct and life is a highway, then it stands to reason that we need signs, too. We need to know when we are on the right road. We need to know where the next rest area is. We need to know where we should not turn and where we should. What does a Do Not Enter sign look like in terms of our own lives? What does a Be Alert For Bears sign or an Avalanche Warning sign look like metaphorically speaking? More important, what does a Dead End sign look like? How do you know when you can’t go any further?
For me, this is why I asked for a sign. I needed to know that the road I had just turned onto was the right one since the journey was going to be so long and, frankly, fraught with hurdles.
So, how does one recognize a sign?
But risk we must if we’re to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops – as my son is itching to do – but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life’s decisions, big and small.” (Risk Aversion and Anxiety)
I am seldom on Facebook, but, as I was up bright and early this morning, I indulged my urge and took a peek. This is what I found:
My knee-jerk reaction was, “What the fu…” Was I more shocked by the original “prayer” or with my Facebook friend’s additional commentary? And, why did these words strike a nerve in me?
I must turn back the clock to 2014, when I wrote my most highly viewed blog post “Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage”. In that post, I described the emotional experiences of my former marriage:
“If I could remove all emotional desire from myself, then I would be able to do this (stay married). I actually asked God to make me like Spock. That has to be one of the weirder prayers to ascend. Like some warped psalm:
“Oh God, make me like Spock. Purge me of emotion. Oh my soul, shut the hell up so that only my brain will speak and my heart will sleep a thousand years.”
Oddly these two entreaties, if you will, have a similar tone. I longed to be purged while Byron Katie desires to be absolved as elucidated by the use of the word “spare” which means “to be released, acquitted, exculpated, or pardoned”. The end result would be the same–a kind of subjective idealism that could take a person all the way to solipsism. What does that mean? Allow me to explain.
Firstly, it should be stated that nothing that Byron Katie teaches is new or ground-breaking. She is combining the Narrative Approach in psychology with certain Buddhist principles to craft a teaching that has been used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for years. Her Four Questions are well-stated. She has made solid therapeutic guidance highly accessible to many people. With Oprah’s stamp of approval, people who have perhaps disregarded therapy as ineffective or stigmatizing will now have a chance to experience what solid therapy is all about. That being said, her Four Questions are straight out of CBT and Narrative Psychology.
So, what of this philosophy of subjective idealism? Simply stating it, subjective idealism states that your reality and how you perceive it is contingent upon how you experience it; Reality is contingent upon The Knower–to be is to be perceived. The extreme form of subjective idealism is solipsism which states that “I alone exist”. British Idealist F.H. Bradley explained solipsism as such:
Bradley’s explanation almost defines 21st century human interaction. You stay in your experiential bubble. I’ll stay in mine. Nothing beyond my experience exists. Nothing beyond your experience–if that is valid–exists or is germane to mine. We are but ships passing in the ether in anonymous, quick interactions either on social media, in consumeristic interactions online or at retail outlets be they malls, indy stores, or cafés big and small. Disconnection.
This brings me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
Directly above our two most basic needs in terms of our humanity–Physiological and Safety–lies Love and Belonging. Putting it as simply as possible, one of the reasons why people require therapeutic interventions and outside help for prolonged periods of their lives is because they have to figure out how to acquire and develop Esteem and Self-Actualization without Love and Belonging. Or worse, if a person experienced hardships and traumas in which their Physiological and Safety needs were threatened or unmet, then certainly their needs for Love and Belonging would go unmet as well. In that case then, how would one go about developing Esteem and Self-Actualization in a coherent way? How do we build bridges over deficiencies in order to continue maturing until we can increase our capacities for those needs to be met? Is it possible for everyone?
What Katie and my friend are suggesting is that we simply obliterate the need and desire. We resort to emotional subjective idealism–particularly my friend. If God is meeting my desire for love, approval, and appreciation, then I no longer need it from humans. Well, that contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament, and I only say this because my friend is a Christian. So much of the New Testament and the Gospel are concerned with relationships and community and how people are to treat one another. Why then post something that essentially advocates extricating oneself from reciprocal relational experiences and responsibilities, thusly, retreating into a self-created pseudo-solipsistic model?
This I know all about. To counteract pain and grief.
Human beings are social creatures. We are mammals after all. There is a scene in the film “The Horse Whisperer” in which Robert Redford’s character, Tom, stands in a field for hours near a traumatized stallion, Pilgrim. Pilgrim, appearing fatigued from standing in the same spot for such a long stretch, finally approaches Tom reluctantly. Tom gently leads him back to the stables. When asked why the skittish horse allowed Tom to touch him, he answered that horses were social creatures and would eventually have a need to join their herd; or, a herd of some kind.
Humans are no different, but we have very clever ways to convince ourselves otherwise. We build bridges inside ourselves over the empty and dark crevasses of unmet needs that have morphed into unnamed pain and call it Stoicism, Enlightenment, or Individualism. We will say that we are absolving ourselves of our needs or desires for love, approval, and appreciation, and it sure does sound like something…worthy. In my mind, however, it is a form of bargaining in order to avoid grieving that which has been lost or never experienced, and I say this because I used to believe these things, too.
The problem herein is that absolving yourself of your desires to be loved, approved of, and appreciated also pardons you from giving these things, and this is, in a more profound sense, what is causing people to pray for this sort of absolution to begin with. The world we have today is in no way more evil, chaotic, corrupt, or violent than it was 100 years ago–or 1,000 years ago. History seems to always repeat itself, and humans still struggle to learn from the past. What the world continues to lack is goodness in the forms of love, approval, appreciation, generosity, courtesy, and neighborly concern.
What might our cultures look like if more people were appreciated, loved, and approved of? How would you feel day-to-day if you felt truly appreciated by your friends, children, co-workers, and partner? If you felt approved of–truly liked–by the people in your life? Well-developed and self-actualized people do not require other people’s permission to make their life choices or hard decisions, but it is much easier to achieve self-actualization if you have a foundation of Love and Belonging beneath you rather than a foundation of grief for never having had it.
The healthy and ultimately most healing “prayer” that I think one could offer up instead of the aforementioned is:
God, help me grieve the times and experiences in my life wherein I did not receive the love, approval, and appreciation that were meant to develop me for Esteem and Self-Actualization. Introduce me to healthy people who know how to love, approve of, and appreciate me and others properly so that I may become a fully-developed, healthy person who can not only fully internalize and experience the spectrum of loving experiences but also go on to love, approve of, and appreciate others in order to become an agent of Goodness in the world. Amen.