The Great California Shenanigan

I returned from my two-week romp through Northern California Monday night with my three hyper-sensitive daughters in tow.  My phrasing might make it sound like I have ten daughters seven of whom have little to no requirement of my presence.  Well, that’s not true.  I have four daughters the oldest of whom will be a senior in college this year.  She had the presence of mind to stay home.  Actually, she had to work.

I feel as if I have returned home a shell of a person.  Do I say this with humor? Yes.  Do I admit this honestly? Mmm…yes.  I prepared them for this trip.  I explained all the ground rules.  I drew diagrams.  I asked them to draw on their reservoir of manners and social skills which runs deep and wide.  I quizzed them on responses to possible scenarios.  I had it locked down not to mention they had been on a trip before.  We are not feral people. None of this was new.

When we entered the airport, I began to experience a subtle but very real feeling of dread.  Our last trip to California was trying.  To be honest, everyone behaved like assholes except for my youngest daughter who is on the autism spectrum.  She managed herself like a champ! “Surely, that won’t happen again,” I naively thought to myself as the TSA was patting me down.

But, a conspiracy was brewing, and my 16 year-old was no doubt thinking something like this…

And shenaniganate she did! It started when we arrived and didn’t end for 15 days! I parented more in two weeks than I do in six months.  I overcompensated, deflected in gardens, ran interference in restaurants, pulled aside and coached in museums, flat out disciplined in quiet corners of conservatories, had in-depth discussions privately, validated, encouraged, pulled out DBT self-soothing techniques, and then took ten-minute baths to cry just to excrete all the stress hormones coursing through my body.  By the 13th day, I was so amped up and anxious myself that I freely admit to feeling like this about my own child…

When we walked into our house at nearly midnight, I didn’t fall asleep until after 4 AM.  I’m still emotionally spent from the trip and feel like I might burst into tears at any moment.  For me, it was a bit nightmarish.  I am not wont to take her anywhere ever again.

In the middle of all of her missteps, shenanigans, and displays of teenage angst all of which I had zero control over, I felt a very familiar feeling creep in.  I started walking on eggshells.  My daughter’s behavior was offensive to our host.  There was no getting around it.  She was politely asked to stop engaging in certain behaviors, and, “forgetting” herself, she would continue to do those very things.  Being very sensitive to changes in mood and atmosphere, I discerned our host’s frustration as soon as he felt it, and I almost couldn’t bear it.  It made me feel ill.  So, I did what years of living within abusive environments have trained me to do; I began to attempt to minimize our environmental impact.  I cleaned up every single thing that I could.  I made beds.  I cleaned up dishes.  I cleaned up the kitchen and countertops.  I wanted there to be little to no evidence that we were there.  I removed the girls from the environment for long periods of time in hopes that our absence would lessen the emotional load.

Does this sound familiar to any of you? If you make yourself invisible then perhaps you won’t cause any sort of negative impact on the environment or those within it.  If you can anticipate the outcomes, then you can run interference in order to prevent negative outcomes.  I grew up doing this in order to mitigate suffering.

I knew I was doing this, but I didn’t know what else to do.  No matter what I said to my daughter or how I tried to influence her, she refused to stop engaging in the very behaviors that were causing the problems.  I eventually concluded that we would have to deal with this once we left California.  I was stuck.  We were all stuck, and I felt trapped.  My two other daughters were feeling it, too, and they were frustrated with their sister.  I didn’t know what to expect from moment to moment, and I was starting to feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety.  I couldn’t anticipate anyone’s responses.  That type of uncertainty causes terrible suffering in me.

As I sit here this morning looking at my shenaniganating daughter, this is how I feel…

I feel profound frustration with her, and I feel almost 100% depletion.  I don’t know how to restore myself.  My host has reassured me that he had a positive experience, but I don’t remember the past two weeks positively.  I remember spending the past two weeks overcompensating for my daughter as well as trying to reach her in a cognitive sense.  Can she practice perspective taking? Will she try to remember to respect the environment? Please…pleaseplease

Raising humans to be good humans is hard.  That is no joke.

So, what do I bring to the table aside from snarky bird pictures that capture my existential and experiential state brilliantly?

  1. As I watched my daughter play the role of Teenage Asshat Extraordinaire with the aplomb of Meryl Streep, I remembered just how hard it was being 16.  Sixteen sucked.  Being the parent of a sixteen-year old sucks, too, and I realized once again that compassion is hard.  Compassion is not for the faint of heart.  It is not a romantic thing even though there is this inspirational notion out there that would convince us of that.  Nope.  Offering mercy to those whom we are currently experiencing as the least deserving of it is when compassion becomes the hardest because that is the moment when you must restrain your judgment.  Using judgment is a great way to cope with emotional distress, but suspending that, entering into perspective taking, setting aside our immediate needs and our beliefs that those needs trump everything else while offering mercy can be the the hardest choice to make.  And yet this is the moment when authentic compassion becomes possible.  This is probably the moment when compassion becomes the most necessary because compassion might be the one thing that changes a gridlocked situation.  Not force but mercy.
  2. I observed that I am all too sensitive to environments wherein there is any sort of emotional negativity or intensity particularly if I have no control.  If I have no way of escaping that environment, then my distress tolerance decreases rapidly.  I will immediately use old coping strategies to cope or survive in such an environment, and this makes me vulnerable to stress-related health issues as well as issues with self-advocacy.  I do not know if this will ever change.  It may be a tendency that I have, and I have to be aware of it.  If I am around people who do not contain well, then I am doubly  affected.  I observed that.  This may be a common trait in people with longterm PTSD.  A return to hypervigilance.  I don’t say this with a lack of hope, but I do think that self-awareness of one’s tendencies is important.

School is starting next week.  I am exhausted.  I feel the need to sleep for a thousand years, but I am determined to regain my composure and find my way back to myself…

What I find interesting about this situation is the idea of perception.  My host’s perception is so different from mine.  My perception could very well be distorted, but, then again, I am the parent.  I was the one standing in between my daughter and everyone else.  I was trying to absorb as much of her negativity as possible in order to ease the stress.  There has to be a way to ground yourself in order to let that negativity go.

In the meantime, life progresses, and, once again, I will let a troubled bird have the last word…

 

I have to laugh a little.  We might have had a very pleasant trip had shit not gotten real, and, in many ways, we did have an exceedingly good time.  There was just one little bird who kept interrupting the flow of fun with her antics.  Sometimes shit happens, and then…we go home.  And, life goes on.  Shit gets real in my house a lot, but maybe that’s okay.

To see more of these delightfully troubled birds, visit The Mincing Mockingbird.

 

 

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An Honest Question

I’m leaving for the West coast today.  I’m taking three of my daughters with me.  I would say that I’m excited, but I have to get through the TSA checkpoint before I even indulge in latent feelings of glee.

Last year, when we matched wits with the TSA agents, it seemed to go well enough.  My youngest daughter was somewhat terrified of the experience.  I decided that my strategy would be to play it cool the entire time.  No rush.  Just give gentle instructions.

“No worries, honey.  Take your shoes off.  That’s right.  Place them in that bin.  Put your backpack in there…”  While most people would not be able to decipher any of her behaviors now, my youngest is on the autism spectrum.  Flying for the first time activated her, and she struggled with perseveration, rigidity, anxiety, and clinginess in ways she had not for a long time.  She had practically wrapped herself around my leg like a juvenile koala bear.

Meanwhile my oldest daughter, the college student, was leading the other girls through the TSA like Winston Churchill! Her commanding presence and sharp instructional voice were heeded by every single person in line–even the other people around us.  People just seem to follow her.  She is a natural leader, and I don’t say that like a proud parent.  It is just a fact.  The first time I put her in a room full of toddlers she started herding them like sheep, and they didn’t seem to mind!

By the time I got myself and my youngest daughter through the checkpoint, a TSA agent approached us and said, “Hey, your mother is waiting for you over there.”

My mother?

My daughter and I looked at each other quizzically and then at the TSA agent.

“Our mother?” We looked around in confusion.

“Yeah, your mom.  She’s over there.  She’s waiting for you with your sisters.”  She pointed to my oldest daughter standing with her hands on her hips.

I felt confused.  Clearly, that person is not my mom.  I’m the mom.

“Uh…she isn’t my mom.  I’m the mom.  This is my daughter right here, and that is my oldest daughter,” I said stifling a laugh.

The TSA agent looked at us both.  Now, she looked confused.  She then asked, “Are you sure?”

Am I sure?!

“I’m pretty sure,” I clarified.

She gave me the once-over, shrugged, and walked away.  My youngest daughter could not wait to tell her oldest sister about this “mix-up” in our identities, and my oldest daughter was called “Mother” for the duration of our trip.  It is a story that she will never live down–that time that the TSA Agent thought she was my mom.

I share this story because 1) it’s funny and 2) it’s reflective of the stress of getting out there and doing.  There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t do what you want to do.  Why you shouldn’t start building a life that you want to live.  I know this.

Alfred D’Souza said this:

For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time to still be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.

The obstacles will never go away.  Real life will always be real life.  Unfinished business will always remained unfinished.  There will always be debts.

If that is truly the case, then…why not get started? I’m not being inspirational.  I’m asking an honest question.

If not now, then when? As I oft say, it is a question worth considering.

With that final question, I bid you a lovely two weeks.  I’m now off to face off with the TSA.

Shalom to you…xoxo

Having a Good Time in Hell

I had final exams this week.  With the same teacher.  How I ended up taking three classes with this man I can’t quite figure out.  Serendipity, I guess.  He was a doctor with a reputation, too.  Other students would hear his name and cringe–“Oh, you have Dr. Ferguson? Good luck…”  Aw, come on! How bad could he be? I had professors in undergrad who were notoriously terrible, and I came to really appreciate them.  I probably developed the most as a student from these infamously difficult professors.  I should have kept my philosophizing about growth and development to a minimum.  I should have prayed…or something because what I witnessed yesterday during the administration of our Surface Anatomy final exam I can’t say I’ve ever seen before.   It was like something from a movie or maybe the sitcom “Scrubs”.

I am taking parallel coursework in both Eastern and Western medical traditions.  This term I took exclusively Western medical courses excepting one Eastern medical class.  I took an exam on Wednesday and finished two exams yesterday–Anatomy and Physiology I and Surface Anatomy which is really more comparable to Gross Anatomy.   Anatomy and Physiology I was a typical class in that it was not very difficult in terms of expectations;  I had a sense of what was expected of me in terms of learning.  Surface Anatomy, on the other hand, was epic in that our teacher continually broke the rules of good pedagogy.  He rarely tested us on the material that we studied.  He tested us on obscurities.  Every exam was a trick, and he tricked us weekly.  This doctor-turned-professor adored the weekly exam.  I’ve never taken so many exams in a trimester–36 exams plus 3 midterms and 3 final exams! That’s a lot of “bend over and grab your ankles”.

So, yesterday during the final sadistic and wanton display of subterfuge exam a few people…broke.  Upon receipt of the exam, one young woman in my Surface Anatomy class started openly weeping.  Another woman just walked out! Someone else threw a pencil.  The only guy in our class began grinding his back molars so loudly that I thought I heard a belt sander.

It didn’t feel real.  I kept thinking to myself, “Is Cathy really crying? Did Lee really throw her pencil? This is really happening.  Kat really just walked out.  Yeah…this is like one of my nightmares.  We might all fail.”

When we all finished, we met in the common area outside the classroom.  We all looked like we were going into a state of medical shock.  I kept wondering what Dr. Ferguson’s wife was like.  Did Dr. Ferguson have any insight into himself? He was a very nice guy, but his pedagogical talents were…lacking.  I imagined him in a very hyperbolic way as I waited for him to call us back into the room.

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Dr. Ferguson contemplates the meaning of his life.

I observed us all as we attempted to self-soothe and self-regulate.  Twelve weeks ago, most of us didn’t know each other.  Now, we were bonding over the ordeal of taking one of the worst exams in the history of our academic careers–Surface Anatomy with Dr. Ferguson.  His reputation was well-deserved.  He had truly earned it.

Dr. Ferguson liked to grade exams directly after we turned them in.  We were about to get our grades for both the exams and the term.  David announced that he was going to have words with Dr. Ferguson.  He wasn’t as nice as the rest of us.  He threw his hacky sack against the wall and disappeared down the hallway.  I just stood against the wall and made snarky comments–my default social habit.

How did it turn out? Well, I don’t know how everyone did, but I don’t think anyone failed the course.  Dr. Ferguson joked about the class wanting to run him over in the parking lot.  No one laughed.  We all just stared at him pointedly when he said that.  It was very awkward for a few seconds.  I think he understood.

I don’t want to endure another Ferguson-style exam, but, alas, I will.  I have numerous other courses with him.  We all will.  He will, I think, go down in the history books as the worst exam writer in all my years of academia, and that’s saying something.  I’ve studied at three universities under a plethora of instructors–foreign and domestic.  He wins that award hands down.  The bright side? All of us in this cohort have become friends because of this ordeal.  Ordeal does that to a group of people.  You have experiences together, and then you have stories to share and tell.  No, it’s not in any way fun, but you bond.  This is why people stay in touch after college and graduate school.  Post-secondary education is often an ordeal for many people.  It’s hard.  We need help from other people to do well.

There’s that asking for help part.  You gotta do it! (Now I’m grinding my teeth.)

The Prince of Darkness might be one of my instructors, but I think we could learn to have a good time in hell if we’re there together…maybe.  It’s an idea worth considering.

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Bad Days and Vanity Plates

I was having a bad day last week.  I didn’t feel well.  I couldn’t seem to catch up on anything related to domestic life.  My laundry pile looks like Mt. Everest.  I seriously need to send up teams and establish base camps.  People might never return! Oh, and the cat has decided that my laundry pile is her turf now i.e. her litter box.  It’s soft, right? It’s a comfortable place to sit back and contemplate one’s place in the grand scheme of life while one pees.  I cried a little when I discovered this.

I have a 16 year-old daughter who is making the most of her adolescence right now.  Were she not mine I would find a lot of humor in what she’s doing.  Yesterday, for example, I asked her to help clean up the kitchen.  Suddenly, it was as if she were possessed by an alien completely unfamiliar with our ways.  This Body Snatcher du Jour had never seen a kitchen, a fork, a pair of scissors, or even a dishwasher! Of course, this alien had never seen my daughter’s body either.  Suddenly, she’s stumbling around the kitchen as if she couldn’t walk or hold a spoon.  The dishwasher? What’s that? Wait, is that a hand? Do I hold things with a hand? How do hands even work? They flex and extend? Dare I say…grasp objects?

It was infuriating! My oldest daughter used up all her patience trying not to fly off into a homicidal rage whilst trying to coach her in how to rinse out a bowl.  Yes, that’s right.  Rinsing out a bowl.  A task she’s done countless times.  The strategy is brilliant.  Feign incompetence so that no one asks you to help ever again, but I’m not falling for it.

It is, however, exhausting and more than a little annoying.  It’s frustrating as hell! Raising children to be good people is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Going back to school as a single parent with a persistent health problem?

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Yeah, I kind of want to lose it.  Daily.

It’s August, and I’ve almost done nothing all summer except study.  I don’t say that with some kind of disillusionment.  I knew what I saw signing up for.  It’s hard work to begin again.  I knew that it would be.

But, on a bad day, sometimes all you can see is that which doesn’t look or feel good.  You question your choices.

So, there I was, walking in a parking lot, counting the losses.  Feeling acutely unwell and tired.  Overwhelmed and somewhat alone.  Feeling very behind in everything that one could fall behind in–bills, tasks, homework, parenting.  That very familiar drowning feeling was about to show up.  And then I looked to my right and saw it.  A vanity plate.

“NVRGVUP”

Huh.  “Never give up.”  I felt a little patronized at first.  “Really, God? I was about to really enjoy a moment of self-pity.” Fine.  Okay! I get it.  This is my mantra.  Keep going.  Never give up.  Switch my mindset.  This could just as easily be a kind of mile marker.  I am on the right path.  Be encouraged rather than discouraged.  Is it that easy? Really?

Well, look at what is difficult today. Laundry.  My daughter’s antics.  Persistent health issues.  The toils of grad school.  Three years ago, I was in a terrible marriage dealing with domestic abuse, and I saw no way out.  I could not imagine my life as it is today.  It was not a possibility for me then.  I have today what I wanted then.

Hmmmm…

This post is not an ode to my own persistence.  Hardly.  What I would like to say is that there are reminders around us, sometimes in the strangest places, that we are doing okay.  That we are on the right track.  That we are cared for.  That we should keep putting one foot in front of the other.  License plates.  Friends.  Movies.  Books.  Other people’s narratives.  In reality, there is nothing romantic about grit and tenacity.  The daily grind is called the daily grind because it grinds you down and out.  It is wearing and exhausting, but it also gets you where you intend to go.  And, during the intensity of that process, we often need to know that we chose well.  That’s where the encouragement comes in.

And, it’s everywhere when you look for it.

So, on that day in the parking lot, when I was feeling discouraged, wondering if I had set the right trajectory for my life (and, consequently, for my kids), when I saw that vanity plate, I felt validated–but only when I was willing to give up feeling discouraged.  Don’t give up.  Keep going.  Gather momentum.  Live life.  Now that I actually have a life worth living.

That’s what I would like to say.  Don’t give up.  Never give up until you have the life that you truly want to live.  It is possible.  It might be very hard to acquire, but it’s possible.

Endings and Beginnings

Playwright and actor Sam Shepard died on Thursday from ALS.  I grew up reading his plays, acting in one or two of them, and watching him give blood and bone to otherwise cut-out characters.  Sam Shepard was quoted in The Paris Review sharing his experiences with trying to create endings in his writing process:

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“The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.”  

Wow.

That gets me.  Right in my gut.  And, it makes me smile.  Yeah.  Endings don’t necessarily mean that everything is over.  We aren’t stalling out.  We aren’t dying.  Our dreams aren’t going down in flames.  Things are…revolving towards another beginning, as he said.

That is genius, and, to me, this is exactly how you have to approach life particularly when you are facing difficult choices and pain.  Sometimes certain things do need to end.  Some things do need to be left behind in order for our lives to evolve and revolve towards a new beginning–a new trajectory.

It’s a thought.  A good thought.  An invitation to a different way of processing circumstances and narratives.

Go in peace, Mr. Shepard.

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ברוך דיין האמת / Baruch dayan ha-emet

 

The Trust Fall

I’ve written here before that I have migraines–chronic migraines.  Whenever a therapist gets wind of that, they always make some version of this face:

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“Oh boy! Somatic symptoms…”

Last week, I was doing the deep dive into some very old “stuff” with my therapist.  I leaned over and started rubbing my head which caused him to blurt out, “Are you getting a migraine?”

I wanted to say this…

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“For the love of God, no, no, and more no! Big barrel of nope!”

Instead I just politely said, “No, I’m just scratching an itch.  I’m fine.”  I really was fine.  I don’t know if you ever feel like this, but the experience of having a clinician or even a friend causally link physical symptoms like chronic migraines or autoimmune diseases to past trauma grates on me.  It has happened so many times over the years that I have developed a maladaptive coping strategy of hiding any and all symptomology in order to avoid oncoming interrogation and analysis.  Does stress trigger a migraine? Sometimes.  Alas, correlation is not causation.  Many other things do as well like aged cheese, sleep deprivation, and MSG.

Hiding one’s physical symptoms is not a good idea.  I freely admit this.  Pretending to be fine when you’re not isn’t a great approach in the long run.  I tell myself that I do it in order not to stress everyone around me.  I believe that my symptoms cause people more stress and worry.  My kids, however, are older now.  They know when something is off, and they know when I’m faking it.  It has been suggested to me that I stop hiding my symptoms and begin being truthful.

Well, that sucks.  You mean I have to start being truthful about how I feel physically?

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WHUT?! NO!!

So, what am I not being honest about here? I have a complicated health history that makes even the most steely physician cry.  This is why many people like to blame it on past trauma.  My past trauma is extreme.  All the more reason to play that card, but it would be premature and lazy to do that.

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with a blood disorder.  A really annoying blood disorder.  This blood disorder, however, explains a lot of my other autoimmune conditions quite nicely.  In fact, it could be the reason I have the other issues.  In other words, all my autoimmune diagnoses might be manifestations of this singular blood disorder diagnosis, and, from a diagnostic perspective, that’s pretty cool.  It could also explain my long list of allergies.  Imagine that.  One diagnosis explaining almost everything that is wrong with me–including the migraines.  It’s almost miraculous in terms of a diagnosis.  The treatment? Management.  Not cool.  High dose medications that control certain cells in my body.  That’s okay, I guess.

What’s the downside? Some of these medications just happen to lower the seizure threshold.  That’s totally fine if you don’t have a seizure disorder, but I do.  I’ve been seizure-free for 16 years.  What happened this week? I had a seizure thanks to all those medications.  What did I try to do? Hide it.  Was that a bad idea? Apparently.

My daughters were very upset with me.  Someone close to me explained to me why I needed to start including people in on these types of events.  Honestly, I’d rather go into my room, get it over with, and come out.  That is what I’ve always done in the past.  A question was asked of me, “Were you conditioned to do that?”

Well, my mother was not helpful, and my ex-husband always bailed when I was ill.  I learned to handle all kinds of health issues alone–even seizures.  This has become normal to me.  Is it normal? For me? Yes.  Is it normal? I did not want to answer.

Okay.  Would I want someone to have a seizure by themselves? Of course not.  There are myriad reasons why they should not.  I have a friend with a seizure disorder.  I have stayed with her during her preictal, ictal, and postictal times.  It would be wrong–almost immoral–to abandon her.

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“I have backed myself into the logical corner…”

There cannot be two sets of rules–one set applying to me and the second applying to others.  We treat others as we treat ourselves.  I have to give up this maladaptive coping strategy, and I feel suddenly very exposed and vulnerable.  I do not want to broadcast or share my physical symptoms.  Have a seizure? In front of people? 

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Can’t we say I did and then..not?

I guess not.

My boyfriend suggested that I treat it as a trust fall.  Trust fall?! Oh god…

He’s right.  I find certain things relatively easy, but this isn’t.  Telling people that I’m actually really sick and need legitimate help puts me in a very vulnerable position, and I hate feeling vulnerable in that way.  But, this is how we heal.  It’s how we allow people to get close to us.  I want to run off and be sick alone.  Like wild animals do.  They do it to preserve themselves.  That’s probably why I do it, but I don’t think I need to do that anymore.

I will say this.  Life provides us with many opportunities to heal–even when we are sick.

Just stay present.  You’ll see.

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If a cat can do it, then so can I.

The Path of Humility

This post is a kind of musing if you will.

I have written in previous posts that I’ve returned to graduate school.  I’m pursuing a medical Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The Western and Eastern tracks are symmetrical in their instruction.  Currently, I’m immersed in Western medicine classes, and I’m well beyond saturated in terms of information overload.  I no longer care what hematopoiesis is and why it matters.  I dream about anatomy almost every night.  I woke up last night dreaming about the greater trochanter and linea aspera of the femur.  I have had nightmares that the quadriceps group formed a gang with the adductors in order to hunt me.  The vastus lateralis had a voice that was reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s.  The metatarsals of the foot had teeth and tried to bite me.  They were taking orders from the sartorius muscle who had transformed into Russell Crowe.   I will not attempt to interpret this…

In the midst of all this, I have been observing the culture of my school environment.  My college is almost a duplicate of a medical school in China and is considered the sister school to this medical school.  All of the TCM instructors are physicians from China, and the Western medicine instructors are American physicians.  It is a very interesting duality–bouncing back and forth between the traditions.  I anticipated some of the differences–language barriers, socio-cultural differences, and different teaching styles.  Something else was very different as well and completely unexpected.  The Chinese instructors are extremely humble and socially gracious while the American physicians are, well, not.

I’ve met numerous teachers from China since January, and their humility is almost immediately evident.  They do not engage in self-promotion, bragging, telling war stories wherein they feature as the star physician who saved the day, general peacocking, active or passive namedropping, competition, or one-upmanship.  I found their subtle social footprint disconcerting.  I am so accustomed to blatant displays of self-promotion in people with any sort of academic and/or professional achievement that I didn’t know how to handle a complete lack of it.

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There’s a reason people think this (and I’m a grad student!)

Then, I found a list of biographies featuring the professional achievements and training of the school’s instructors.  I was gobsmacked.  Our Chinese instructors were overqualified to teach us.  Our Asian physician teachers are scholars and masters of their respective specialties, but you would never know.  They do not behave as if they are unique or special.  They do not make us, the students, feel stupid or incompetent.  They don’t dress or speak in an intimidating manner or exploit our anxiety in order to make themselves feel better or bigger.  I have yet to be called an idiot. I was called an idiot frequently by my teachers in France, and my American university experiences were peppered with  professorial egotistical hit and runs that left me marinating in self-doubt and self-recrimination.

My Western instructors are brilliant, but I can’t really describe them as…humble  The game is afoot when I spend time in my Western medicine classes.  I know this game all too well, and I know how to jump through those hoops.  Fostering competition is how we are taught in the West.  It begins in preschool and continues throughout our mandatory schooling.  It motivates people to try harder.  Shame is a ruthless instructor.  Be the best, but the idea of “best” is put in the context of judging other people and their best.  Who knows more? Who runs the fastest? Who answers the questions with the most speed and precision? Who has the most expertise? Who writes the best? Memorizes the best? Retains the most and recalls the fastest? Who does what the best? Suddenly, your focus is on everyone else rather than learning, and your ego wakes up and readies for a fight.  Your peers become enemies, and your teachers are the gatekeepers.  Someone has to come out on top.  Who’s it going to be? Who is going to prove to be the best? The superlative? Who’s the winner? Your identity is at stake here! Not only is your cohort objectified but you are as well.

 

The difference between the two attitudes, if you will, has been stunning.  I have found myself very attracted to the East Asian attitude which I would ascribe to the virtue of humility.  The idea that the more you have studied the more you view yourself as knowing less rather than possessing expertise feels freeing to me.  I described this to a close friend whose family is from Asia, and he emphasized the virtue of humility in scholars.  In Asia, one of the primary virtues of a scholar is humility.  One never attempts to flaunt expertise or engage in self-promotion even after years of study.  This idea is highlighted in Taoism: “The more you learn, the more you realize there’s still so much more to learn. This tends to make you humble. Arrogance and egotism come from ignorance – knowing a little bit and assuming you know a lot.” (What is Tao)

I decided to do an experiment in order to check the status of my ego.  Just where was I in this developmental process? Could I participate in a conversation wherein people were discussing a subject that I knew something about and say nothing? Could I merely listen for the purpose of listening? You know what? It’s hard, and being in an academic environment affords me countless opportunities to practice this.  I know a little bit about a lot of things, but what exactly am I an expert on? Truly an expert? I had to think about it.  I also had to assess the reasons why I was contributing.  Was it for the maintenance of my own ego? Suddenly, I was weighing my words and thoughts.  Did anyone need to hear that story? Did I really need to say that? Deliberately putting myself in the position of an apprentice while acknowledging that what I was about to say probably wasn’t nearly as important as I thought has been…interesting.

The side effects?

Well, you see where your ego is wounded very quickly and where you are looking to compensate for that through social behaviors like preening, peacocking, namedropping both passive and active, bragging, and recounting narratives that are merely attempts to show off one’s awesomeness or make one feel legitimate.  What is passive and active namedropping you might ask?

Active namedropping looks like this:

“I just picked up Paramour at the airport and their youth minister! Now we’re all friends on Facebook, and I might get together with the drummer…”

This actually happened to me once.  You know it’s ego-driven if you respond with, “Who’s Paramour?” and you’re suddenly on the receiving end of an apocalyptic eye-roll and some kind of insult indicating that you don’t get out much.

Passive namedropping looks like this:

“I was IMing this musician the other day that I’ve gotten to know online.  They are fairly well-known…but…uh…you wouldn’t know who they are.  Anyway…”

My family does this a lot.  You know it’s ego-driven because of the superfluous information describing the musician’s popularity and the additional ad hominem-esque attack.  The only information that would have been truly necessary was “I was talking to an acquaintance and…”

It is extremely easy and tempting to engage in self-promotion.  Our culture almost demands it.  Western culture does not readily value humility.  It isn’t a virtue.  It’s seen as almost being milquetoast or meek.  Our general culture seems to offer up the Teddy Roosevelt personality bursting forth with over-the-top self-reliance and inspirational, epic stories that can be tapped on Youtube via a TED talk.  We want to be moved, spoken into constantly, and perpetually validated as a wider culture.  It isn’t necessarily wrong.  Everyone needs an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl’ from time to time.

Is cultivating an other-oriented mindset milquetoast? Is pursuing the virtue of humility worth it when humility is defined as “a disposition toward accurate self-assessment, other-orientedness, and the regulation of self-centered emotions”? (Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health) Believing in your own competence and ability to complete a task with excellence is humility.  Rubbing that belief in everyone else’s face is arrogance.  Believing that you are capable today but can always become more capable is humility.  Believing that you are intelligent but are often surrounded by more intelligent people and can, thusly, always learn from others is humility.  Being able to rely on yourself for validation is a very high form of humility because so often we look to others to tell us that we’re awesome, smart, capable, etc.  Believing that you no longer need external validation but instead need external constructive criticism and pointers to become better is a huge step towards attaining the virtue of humility.  Frankly, it’s a bit scary, and yet I witness it almost daily.  I find it to be so attractive and valuable.  It is the direction I need to take in terms of personal development.

I study for hours every day, and I truly feel like I now know less than I did when I started.  It is extremely uncomfortable, but, at the same time, I have discovered that there is a lot of emotional and intellectual energy invested in maintaining an ego that must “front” all the time.  If I no longer need to maintain or support my ego in this way, then I can divert more energy into other more worthwhile efforts like healing, learning, practicing, relating, loving, and serving others in ways that will actually make a meaningful difference.

I have not found this practice to be easy.  I have found it to be challenging.  I have found it to be vastly uncomfortable, but I have also found that I like myself more when I am not attempting to assert my impoverished experience of myself onto other people in hopes that they will complete it for me.  When I let it go and focus on simply being present to the moment in which I am occupying, it suddenly becomes easier.

Wherever I am, I am just trying to be there.

Practicing humility.  See what you think.

Further Reading:

Humility as a Psychotherapeutic Virtue: Spiritual, Philosophical, and Psychological Foundations