Musings from a darker side

This post is from a darker and murkier place where I seldom venture much less blog about, and the content may be upsetting and triggering for some who read. Not sure how long it will stay posted, but consider this a warning label for any other survivors who may happen upon it.

I have been seeing my therapist, TM, again on a fairly routine basis. Part of it was just an annual tune-up, because I value his professional expertise in guiding me through the emotional lumpies in my life. When friend J died so unexpectedly, I needed some hand-holding in coping with my grief.

For me, grief is a box that should stay sealed. Forever. It brings out all sorts of infinite emotions I am incapable of coping with in the period it occurs. Which is why TM and I have our annual routine. The box labeled childhood is always leaking something that must be cleaned up and put away in more orderly fashion.

Being human is a messy business. Being human and me is not better or worse than anyone else. Our experiences are unique and there is no basis for comparison. I don’t even want to admit how many years and how much therapy of various stripes it took me to accept that reality.

Yet this is part of why I am back in TM’s office a couple of times each month, discussing acceptance and my perception of reality. For the most part, my view of reality is like a clear pane of glass and the only distortion is what I manifest onto the view from my personal biases and experience. The view is not different for any stranger standing next to, yet our interpretation of what is or is not occurring could be very different.

My better health efforts are starting to show on the outsides as well as on the inside. Yay me, right? For the most part, yes. The rest of it – it’s complicated.

Self-image and self-esteem are things I have battled and struggled and labored feverishly over my entire life. Those who are important to my own worldview, their opinions mean a great deal to me. I value their esteem, and I work hard to earn and retain it. The rest of the population, sure it’s more pleasant if we can get along and interact in a civil and polite manner, but I could honestly care little about what they really think or feel about me. From a public relations perspective and as it may benefit me or my goals and objectives, the effort I put forth to maintain good rapport and friendly interactions varies. But since I am generally a decent, thoughtful person, it costs me little to nothing to be nice to others.

My own sense of self is warped. In my own view, I am an invisibly average sort of person, going through and living my life among the rest of the beings in the world and doing nothing particularly exceptional or worthy of much praise or correction. I have a good work ethic; I try hard to meet or exceed expectations attached to the responsibilities and requirements. In the work I’m doing right now, what my clients think about me personally matters more because I work directly for them, and accounting is not so complex that they could not find someone else as competent. However, my niche market seems to be more in the personal touch I bring to the work. I routinely remember and track significant family members’ birthdays, anniversaries, children’s events and have had success with suggestions for gifts for all occasions. While I myself dislike (and therefore suck) at party planning, I can put together something if called upon to do so. I have attended enough wing-dings in the past that I have a sense of what happens at corporate parties and retreats and can seek out appropriate resources if needed. Thing is, these are small details that may matter to a client and not a big deal for me to make note of and track.

But that’s work. It’s imperfect yet far easier for me to accept a compliment for a job well done than it is to have someone say nice things for and about my efforts in the gym or to overhaul my diet.

A standard disclaimer for me is that I am not model pretty, because it’s true – I am not the stuff even gracefully aging conventionally pretty women are made of. I also tend to discount the importance of physical attractiveness, gauging this as only that I have good personal hygiene and be well groomed when going to work or into most sorts of public forums.

Herein lies the big issue that has me back in TM’s office: I’m reshaping my shape into something more conventionally nice. Good even. I mean, I look okay in my gym leggings and capris. I can wear a racerback tank top and not be self-consciously freaking out on the inside. I actually have some muscle peeking out after too many years of fat slabs over my whole body.

People notice my effort. They say kind and complimentary things, or they say things that sound kind and complimentary with an overlay of snark so it comes out sounding like the opposite. I try very hard not to discount or pooh-pooh it. I am working at upgrading my gracious acceptance.

Mostly, I do not want anyone to ever know that it freaks me out and frightens me when they say nice things. Because it’s not ever that I want them to stop, or be afraid of complimenting my hard work and effort in this regard. If that were the case I’d be wearing baggy sweats and oversized t-shirts down to my knees. And I never want anyone to judge me as so very vain that I brush off their kindness as “I know, and I deserve all your praise and admiration.” Because that’s not me either. I am horrified at the idea anyone would ever perceive me that way.

The fear and the ensuing anxiety is real, though. And even though I know it’s completely irrational, I cannot make it stop.

Hence my back to therapy. My only consolation for being this type of nutball is that there are worse reasons to be in therapy.

For anyone who doesn’t know, I am a sexual abuse survivor. From the time I was 3 until about 12, I was regularly molested, then raped, then sodomized. I was a chunky kid because of it. I would rebel against washing my hair or even taking a bath because of it. I felt ugly then because of the abuse. The fear and self-loathing, the inability to control anything that happened to me or my body – it was real and impacts my life decades later. Those impacts are all but impossible to erase, and the best I can do is mitigate their influence and my reactions to triggers.

So, here I am – back in TM’s office talking about it. I am not going to stop trying to reshape my eating habits so I make better, healthier food choices, nor am I going to stop going to the gym and working as hard as I work to become stronger and burn away the excess fat from my frame. These are really good, really positive steps up, steps forward for me, and I do not want honest efforts that I should be proud of to be tainted by fear of physical improvement and anyone taking note and complimenting me on my efforts.

While I frequently wish myself into a mental and emotional foot-stomping tantrum about not wanting have to have these fights with myself, it’s not something I can change. I comfort myself that my scars are part and parcel of who I am in the here and now. And despite everything, I’m not too bad.

The war for my healthiest sense of self continues, one battle at a time. But I’m winning.

Reassurance, validation, compliments, praise, and perspective

From trainer J yesterday before and after my post:

Screenshot 2016-07-02 20.46.03

With regard to the first text, we had been chatting about my practice – J was inquiring to ensure my shoulder and neck were fine (they were and are today after pilates class) – which morphed into his own workout and need to keep working to maintain pace with another tribe member who has made some spectacular gains dropping weight and achieving muscle definition. My brother in the training tribe is extremely disciplined and it’s most definitely showing! A new hero and shining example to emulate is born. Unfortunately we are typically in the gym at opposite ends of the day so I only get to observe his progress via pictures posted or on the nights I venture into the gym for a rare evening practice.

The exchange coalesced a bundle of random thoughts from the past few weeks.

J is not a drill sergeant type trainer who yells or speaks very emphatically in our sessions. Nor is he the rah-rah cheerleader type who lauds me with positive affirmations and platitudes about every single thing I may be doing right and is overly kind in correcting form and such. His style is obviously a good match for what I need – he corrects me objectively when necessary, approves whatever I am doing right with in a normal, not overly effusive manner, and very occasionally might subtract or replace an exercise because of my present level of ability. His steadiness and consistency in this regard through the months has inspired trust; I absolutely believe the choices he makes for me are based on my evolving ability and not some cookie-cutter formula in the personal trainer cookbook. Genuine compliments are rare enough for me to perk up and turn around in sort of wide-eyed amazement. In other words, they are not just the carrot he uses to motivate me somehow. By now he also knows that just telling me straight is going to either move me forward or not move me at all, and no amount of window dressing is going to make a difference. In fact, if he were blowing smoke at me, I would have fallen by the wayside long ago.

So such positive comments – pride in his clients’ progress, pleasure at our shared effort to get some actual muscle definition on my arms and shoulders – these statements are weightier to me, and this was a very happy surprise delivered yesterday. I honestly did not see him and had no idea he was in the gym until another member stopped to ask me a question because she didn’t want to bother him. Our paths crossed briefly on the way out, and thinking about it after his text above, I realize he did ask me if I was wearing a new top, explained to him about my what day it is confusion, and did not think anything more about it.

But the exchange made my already happy day just that much sweeter. And of course got me thinking.

When I first got started in the gym, I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with training and the ways it made me feel. On the one hand I was happy because I was doing something to improve my health. On the other hand it was so hard and I hated it. J and I were getting to know each other, and while I liked him as a person I was not sure if I actually trusted him enough to want to know him better, let him know me better (because then he would not want to work with me, negative girl would assert).

This is true of the many coaching relationships in my life, and as I have grown more confident in my own instinct and voice, my tolerance for dilly-dallying – my own and those around me – is growing thinner and weaker. The more I trust my own validation and beliefs about me, the less dependent I am upon the need for external reassurance that I am okay, I am doing the right things, I am good enough. Make no mistake – it’s still wonderful to hear and to exchange ideas with others, to give and to receive praise and compliments. But I do not need it or feel so desperate for it these days.

M, my village, my core group of die-hard supporters within my tribe – my progress and good-for-me state of well being is somewhat dependent upon them. But they could tell me I’m wrong, I’m being a baby, I need to grow the f**k up (all things said to me over the course of the last year by various people within my tribe *smile*) and I will not be devastated or take it as personally as I might have once upon a time. Because for every time they felt the need to say something like that, there were probably 100 times they would be supportive, encouraging, propping-me-up type friends who would reassure me I am not the terrible, horrible person negative girl would megaphone inside my head 24/7.

I like that people believe in me, think highly of me, feel that I am a worthwhile human being who is trying. Just like they are, just like everyone else (so I like to hope). The difference is that now I know I can and will survive if all that dried up and blew away with a still breeze. It would be hurtful. It would make me sad, and angry, and really upset. But I would not die from it. I would simply continue and find myself a new tribe.

External validation is an intriguing thing. But is becoming dependent upon it another bad habit we should break? I am never going to be the Lone Ranger type; I am never going to be my better/best self all alone and completely independent of other human beings. As I have grown emotionally and mentally healthier, I have discovered my craving for validation and reassurance is faded as well. Not completely, and I still reach for it as warranted. But rather than hope or beg or dance around the subject, I simply ask. “Am I doing okay with [insert insecure hot button of the day]?” is far better for me than waiting and hoping those around me can read my mind and provide what I want and feel I need.

I am not in a helping profession; my work is not in the same sort of realm as those in my village. My area of business expertise does not lend itself to dispensing of professional opinions or advisory services, although looking at trends in a business’ finances can point out trouble spots or lend support for purchases or guidance for business decisions. What I mean is, I typically do not counsel people in their personal matters on a day-to-day basis, despite hearing a lot stories of marital strife or relationship difficulties, issues with kids, or life in general. Not being an expert does not insulate me from being a caring citizen in my world.

My recent lifestyle changes have not gone unnoticed in my world at large. For the friends who have commented with jealousy or derision about my lifestyle change efforts, I have at least 2 or 3 others who are highly complimentary and supportive. There is another small slice, however, that cannot be classified as positive or negative. It’s that frustrating and small slice of people who want to make changes, are struggling to go forward, and need more than just a baseline level of support and encouragement toward their objectives.

A life coach I am not. I have neither the training nor the temperament for such endeavors. Yet in friendship, there seems to come a point where I either need to set and enforce boundaries on the amount of time and attention I am capable of sharing or distance myself from the person. Just lately here, the former is going hand in hand with the latter.

It’s not actually that I am uncaring, or uninterested. I use this blog as my accountability partner for my exercise and overall better health efforts, because believe me, if M or any of my friends had to listen to me go on and on to the degree of navel gazing I do in my posts, M would find me tiresome and I would likely have a much tinier circle of friends.

Maybe it’s a good sign of my own positive growth and emotional health that I notice how dependent others are upon my approval and validation of their efforts. And I am truly happy for and supportive anyone I know who can take a tiny step outside their comfort zone and get started down a better road.

However, the healthier I become, it seems the more boundaries must be drawn. Codependency is very hard to eradicate, so I long ago stopped trying; however, managing codependency and my behaviors from it will be a lifelong quest. Being aware of it and stopping myself before I become drawn into such relationships takes some discipline, but for the most part I am currently doing very well. For all my positive outlook improvements this year, becoming more mindful of this behavioral habit and its consequences is possibly what makes me feel proudest. Yet I still slip and find myself feeling resentful because I cannot or do not wish to have relationships that are fueled by one party’s emotional neediness.

I wish there were kinder, gentler words for it than emotional neediness – that sounds so cruel even if it is accurate. But there are people within my tribe that are like energy vampires that leave me drained and lifeless if I allow it. But I also recognize that once upon a time our emotional exchanges were mutual, that my own neediness fueled them and mirrored their own. Now that I have found other outlets and built up my own emotional resources and confidence, the equation and relationship dynamic have changed. The other party now seems desperate for more of my time and attention, and while I am supportive of their efforts to improve their own reserves, a bottomless vessel is never going to be filled no matter how much I or others pour into it. And it also seems that the healthier I have become in managing my own emotions, impulses, and expectations, the less capable they are of even trying to do the same. Want a poor response from me? A demonstration of learned helplessness is a sure-fire ticket to making me step back and away.

Boundaries are kind of awkward for me. I set them, I can articulate them, yet when pushed to them by others I do not always react as skillfully as I might. My impatience surfaces and my usual directness become a lot harder and blunter. I have expectations that people will try to take care of themselves, and perhaps that is unrealistic when so many I know are prone to panic first and think later behaviors. And perhaps this is also why I feel almost like a sociopath in my reactions to traumas and how they unfold. Everyone is different in how we handle crisis and when bad things happen. I understand the need for support – to give and to receive – and I never want to become so cynical or jaded in my own responses that I cannot rise to the occasion when need is genuine and real. I also do not want to damage relationships to the point that calling or interacting to shoot the breeze becomes an endurance test in awkwardness.

But I have my own journey to manage, my own better health quest to pursue, my own blog to write to explore my thoughts and feelings about the journey. I wish I had the time, energy, and infinite emotional/mental resources to support others in the ways they desire and seem to crave. But I don’t. I am selfish enough to know my own limitations and guard against too much infringement, even with M, who very occasionally goes off the rails and does not take care of himself and lets that breakdown bleed all over our relationship.

I suppose like anything worthwhile in life defining the questions and then finding the answers is a complicated process. I will keep working at it. But sometimes I grow weary of applying myself to try and figure life stuff out and have to remind myself that there are always choices and alternatives, most of which I like even less. While it seemed so much more black-and-white in my younger years, I think the questions were just different and the filtering lens that comes with the demands of hands-on parenthood altered my perspective.

Older? Definitely, yes. Wiser? The debate rages on. And that, at the end of this Sunday, seems as it should be.

Good somethings

Last night I went to a yoga class with both daughter C and future daughter-in-law K. It was hilarious. None of us are particularly bendy people, but we tried. I have more experience with Bikram than either of them, and neither were prepared for how hot it is in a room heated to 105 degrees. Still, I treasure any time I spend doing just about anything with my kids, and yoga is no exception. K is game to try again on Thursday, C has to work, but we may be together again at a class on Friday. Girl power at its finest.

I used the cable machine all by myself again this morning. I had not definitively decided before getting to the gym, but I leaning toward another try at it and refining my technique and form. Then J asked me what my plans were, and I made my final decision to go for the cables. It was still early and the gym was still pretty empty, so I felt secure in my choice.

I was going to use a single, stand-alone cable machine, but when I got out there and set my stuff down near it, the nice gent who helped me lower the cable thing yesterday let me know the machine I was using yesterday was available – he was using only the other side of it – and I was welcome to it, so I moved back over there. My attachments were all nearby, too, so I not have to wander far to find what I needed.

And my whole body today is pleasantly sore, which rarely happens anymore. J’s guidance on Monday had been as many reps as possible while maintaining good form, so I tried for 20 on each exercise. I did not always succeed, but I feel good about the effort put forth. It was a good day at the gym.

Plus I was not completely freaked out when some other guy comes over and starts doing pull-ups right in front of me while chatting with the other member using the other side of the machine. I mean, I am standing there doing final set of rows and he just steps in front of me and starts doing pull-ups on the overhead railing. Disconcerting for a second, but not nearly as weird as the time the guy put on some sort of ankle boots and hung upside down from the TRX structure while I was minding my own business and using the TRX straps right across from where he was hanging.

Every morning when I get to the gym it is still dark out. I park right next to the swimming pool and realize how familiar and comforting it is to hear the sound of someone or several someone’s swimming laps. The regular, rhythmic splashes are soothing to my nerves.

When I got home, M was just leaving for his run so I pulled up and rolled down my window, ZZ Top blaring out of my stereo. I did turn it down – M yelling at me over the music it at 7:30 in the morning is not the image I want our neighbors to have of us – and our neighbor across the street yells “turn that music down!” Any of our other neighbors we would smile and laugh and suggest turning it up louder in their driveway, but this guy is a curmudgeon of the first order. I am so proud of us, proud of M in particular, for not letting him get to us and stalking across the street for a confrontation. This man is old enough to be ZZ Top’s grandfather and has gray hair longer than mine with a matching gray beard. Completely not worth getting into a heated discussion with him, which is he only type of conversation he (the curmudgeon) has with anyone.

One of the associates at my firm is a rather hipster cool kind of guy with a sharp sense of humor and scary smart type intelligence. He is on the quiet side, and when he does speak it is with this sort of crisp authority that makes the hairs on my neck stand up in respect and understanding that he could be cutting and cruel if that were his intention and goal; he is not someone who radiates warm fuzzies. This morning he strolled into my office with his time and expense reports for February, looks at me, then smiles – one of those genuine, sincere smiles that completely overwhelms his eyes – and says “I love your hairstyle; it’s beachy, what my niece refers to as ‘mermaid’ hair.” I was astounded and stuttered out a thank you. It was the first time ever he has made a personal comment to anyone in my hearing. And my hair? It one of those wash-and-goo and hope for the best events, and since my hair has a lot of natural curl/wave/puffy available to it, there is a lot of prayer behind that hope for the best. I have no appointments today so I felt okay with going a little more casual. Who knew Mr. GQ likes beachy hair?

The weather here has been absolutely glorious.

I have 2 nephews I have not seen in more than 15 years. Of the 2, the older one has been in jail/prison for most of that time, and the other was a beneficiary in my mother’s will and that resulted in several brief phone/text conversations while I was settling the estate. Other than that, though, I think it safe to say we are strangers who share some strands of DNA. Yesterday on FB the younger nephew popped up as someone I might know, and a brief scan of his page says he has a baby daughter that is about 6 months old, named after my sister, albeit her middle name, which was the name she always reserved for the daughter she never had. I looked through his page, at the pictures of him now and his son (about 12 now) that I have never met, and now this beautiful baby girl … and I closed FB without liking or commenting or opening the window to communicating. Because my sister and I were very different people with very different parenting styles, and I do not want to open my heart to a stranger I cannot trust. I thought I would feel guilty. Instead, I feel a little proud for protecting myself from the particular kind of heartache that comes with family drama.

Our next door neighbor’s son was working at her home with his 3 goldendoodles on the loose in the backyard. They are so goofy, friendly, adorable, and make me smile every time they come to visit.

After writing the post yesterday, I recognize the balance is not as elusive as it seems to be in my heart and mind. Balance for me is recognizing and acknowledging the positives of the good somethings as well as the impacts of the less desirable somethings. Counting my blessings, being thankful, gratitude journaling – however I phrase it, I too often discount or diminish my personal positives and overemphasize and obsessed about the soul-destroying negatives. Why I feel unworthy or less deserving could fill several blogs. An intriguing side effect of changing my habits and improving my physical health has meant that my brain cannot keep broadcasting messages counter to my new reality. Perhaps that is the best something of all.

Happy Wednesday everyone!