Sifting sharp pieces

Something I have realised I need to do some serious work on right now is owning my mistakes, missteps and failures more authentically.

I instinctively absorb blame whenever a situation doesn’t go as I’d like. Because of this, and because of the story that blame creates in me, I will ruminate over how to make it better, and how to be better, endlessly, if the wiser part of myself doesn’t intervene. But I am also so cripplingly ashamed of being at fault that I dare not speak it. I want to fix the problem, fix myself, and never make the same mistake again, so I can move on and never have to look at how wrong, and thus unloveable, I was in that moment.

This creates a strange dichotomy whereby my inner world is swirling with blame and shame and deep remorse, usually far outweighing the requirements for the situation, while my outer facade dances around the admission of guilt, and clings to all the reasons why it both wasn’t so bad and wasn’t all my fault. I’m suffering enough, I don’t need you to add to it.

And that’s entirely right; I don’t. But what I’m learning that I do need is a space to openly admit the exact boundaries of my failings; to examine them with considerate and compassionate eyes, and to find validation that they don’t in fact make me the terrible monster my shame would gleefully tarnish me as.

There aren’t many people in the world, I don’t believe, who can hold space for that kind of deconstruction of events, particularly in the throes of conflict, so it’s not that I should try to do this the in the raw, unfolding moment. But I’d probably be better served removing myself before I start to hear the defensive claims of victimhood or rationalisation gush from my lips. Take a breath, take a step back, save it for later. Save it for a space where I can tip all the failings onto the floor, and sift through for the pieces that are mine.

And then fucking loudly announce to the world which pieces are mine, and revel in the freedom of the proclamation.

A mild quarrel

I had plenty of sleep last night, and woke up feeling lively. My son and I danced, and made stamp pictures, and talked about Pokemon, and were out earlier than usual to get some things to supplement our breakfast from the local shop, which we then enjoyed as a sort of mini morning picnic on our picnic step close to where I alarmed some passers-by the other day. I was having a lovely time.

And then it all changed. And not because something terrible happened. But because I was involved in what was, probably, from the outside, a mild quarrel, but what my brain perceived as me being accused of being such a terrible mother and all round person that it was barely believable.

I won’t be so uncouth as to go into further detail, but it’s fair to say that, while my brain had plenty of fodder saved up to fuel that interpretation for me, it probably wasn’t what was actually happening, and even if it was, my body did not need to take it so personally.

I always feel ashamed when my trigger gets pulled. For being so weak as to allow it. Giving someone that kind of power over me is a deeply troubling occurrence. But I also get inarticulate and kind of stupid; I lose all the faculties that my most primitive sense of self-worth is attributed to.

The shame is compounded when my son is a witness. Yuck, I never want him to see me like that. Disempowered. Reactive. Defensive. Small. I want to be able to lead him by example through difficult conversations with equanimity, compassion, curiosity, and integrity. In those moments, I fall woefully short of the standards I strive towards. I worry that all the good work I have done will be somehow undone in a moment of weakness.

I am fairly confident this shame spiral is an over-reaction. I am fairly confident that – based on everything I know about trauma, shame, people – if I was an outsider looking in, I would deem it a gross over-reaction. But I’m not an outsider looking in.

I have spent the day trying to recover from this fucking mild quarrel where nothing particularly bad happened. Luckily (or maybe unluckily), it happened on a Sunday, when my only expectations of myself were to run and to write. There was plenty of time to dig in.

I can always tell when I’ve been thrown out of myself because I roam the house looking for anything and nothing. I also do this when I’m excited, but when I’m excited the roaming is an attempt to regulate the surge of energy coursing through me. When the gun’s been fired I’m looking for something to fill the void where the bullet once was. I caught myself doing this within minutes of being left to my own devices, at about half eleven this morning. It took me until half nine tonight to get myself back.

And I am back. I’m good. If that’s what it took then that’s what it took. It used to take longer. Be nice if it didn’t take anything.

Holding hands

I try to live my life believing that if I do what feels, to me, like the right thing, something good will come of it. It may be invisible, it may be tangential, but it will be; something, somewhere.

That’s not the kind of thing a human like me will ever be able to prove. And it’s not even the kind of thing a human like me can always remember to believe. But it’s a choice I try to make.

One thing that felt right for me to do was to train as a Reiki practitioner. That decision changed the trajectory of my life to the extent that it’s pointless to speculate on whether it was good or bad.

But one specific thing that happened not long after I finished my certification was that my grandad had a stroke.

I got a call from my mother after the last of my night-shifts at a job I’d just quit and she said I should probably come, so I did. He died in the night not long after I arrived, but I got to see him before he left.

And because I’d just done my Reiki certification, I felt empowered to do some Reiki on him. Now, Reiki is Reiki, it’s neither here nor there in this story, because regardless of whether Reiki did anything for my grandad, the important part was that to do the Reiki, I placed my hands on him. I held his hand in one hand, and placed my other hand on his arm. And this felt totally alien to me, and a little bit silly. Because we never really touched in my family. And if I hadn’t become a Reiki practitioner, I probably would never have been bold enough to touch my grandad on his deathbed. And what else can you do, really, to comfort a dying man who’s lost the ability to move or to communicate, whose mind is swimming in chaos as his synapses drown in blood?

My family in the room commented that he seemed to be responding to the Reiki. Maybe he was. Or maybe he was responding to something far less esoteric.

I was watching Me Before You the other night, and a scene where one character is holding another character’s hand in the hospital triggered this memory to bubble up. Because of course they were. Of course that’s what you do. Of course it is a basic human need and a basic human response in scary, sad and perilous times to physically reach for each other.

I wasn’t there for a lot of my grandad’s last days. I didn’t see how the rest of my family behaved in that time. Maybe I missed the parts where they held him or stroked his hair. But what if I didn’t? What if, aside from all the utilitarian stuff, that was pretty much all he got?

I fucking love touching people. It’s probably my favourite love language. But it just wasn’t done in our family. So, watching Me Before You, I had the terrible thought, what if that was all he got?

And what if, trapped in his reeling, disorganised brain, that was the only thing that reached him? What if, lonely, frightened and confused, what he needed more than anything was for someone to hold his hand?

It’s probably best not to wonder. But I’m glad I learned how to do Reiki.

Sympathy

Recently, I talked about misplaced sympathy. But, actually, I think I have a bit of a problem with even arguably well-placed sympathy. Sympathy, to me, is a crutch for people incapable of empathy. There is a world of difference between “aw, poor dear” and “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. Sympathy is phoning it in. It’s a superficial, and usually judgement-tainted, cop out. It’s an inadvertant diminishment of another person’s humanity. Because it’s more effort for you to think of them as a full and gloriously complicated equal, so you don’t bother trying: You don’t bother trying to imagine what it’s like to be them. You might think about how ‘people’ might feel in their situation. You might even imagine what it would be like to be you, in their situation (and perhaps subsequently deduce that you would never get into their situation). But you refuse to expend the emotional labour that could create a true bridge between the two of you. You disconnect, but you wrap it up in niceness and hope they won’t notice. You might not even notice.

At face value, this doesn’t really track with the official definitions of sympathy and empathy. By those measures, empathy is something to be employed in situations where you can’t employ sympathy. Sympathy is where you actually share emotions, and empathy is where you don’t share them, so seek instead to understand. Empathy is for when the distance between you and another is too great for you to directly relate and so you have to employ imagination. This implies that the compassionate outcome of empathy is somehow inferior to sympathy, because there’s bound to be some error in your making up of the difference.

But what if the other person is not nearly so close to you as you imagined? What if the experience that on the surface seems to so clearly map to something you yourself have experienced is actually miles apart from it? What if a person’s expression completely belies their inner state of being, at least from your point of view? What if you don’t understand like you think you do?

Sympathy is shorthand. It’s built on assumption. If we are part of an homogeneous group, then the shorthand of sympathy will be relatively effective. So maybe that’s why I have a problem with it. Because I have never been part of an homogeneous group. Any group with me in it is inherently heterogeneous in meaningful ways. Now, I don’t know if that statement of truth is more reflective of my position on the bell curve or my definition of sameness (especially because my position on the bell curve directly affects my definition of sameness), but it does mean that, in my experience, the compassionate outcome of sympathy is profoundly inferior to that of empathy.

A problem shared

I like to talk about my problems. To give voice to them. To allow them to exist. To own them. To be honest about them. It lets me feel free. It reminds me that I expand far beyond the bounds of my problems.

I use this as a place to talk about my problems quite a lot because talking about them in conversation with others tends to lead to unwanted consequences. Like bad, unsolicited advice. Or worse, misplaced sympathy. Misplaced sympathy makes me feel physically sick. Don’t feel sorry for me just because I have more self-awareness than you, motherfucker.

I am not complaining about my problems. I am holding space for them. I am honouring them. I love them. They are so interesting, and they teach me so much. I am positively captivated by them, and they are literally my reason for being. Don’t rain on my problem parade.

I love it when other people talk about their problems, too. When they stand and bear witness to their own struggles, without seeking to be shored up or consoled. Just wanting to be heard. I fucking love it. It helps me feel less alone. Less fucked up. More seen. More acceptable.

Maybe, whilst I amuse myself taking stock of my problems here, my words will reach some people who enjoy how they land.