On uncertainty, and self-compassion

I’ve always wanted to be important. To do something “important.” Is that a sign of neuroses, or merely indicative of a passionate personality? I liked to read The Boxcar Children series as a kid, but as an adult I’ve turned almost exclusively to non-fiction. Maybe that came of believing “I can figure things out,” as a reaction to the depression and mental stewing that have overtaken me for years. I’m getting a little bored of trying to figure things out, though—at least in terms of “what’s wrong with me.” I think I’m ready to do things differently.

But can I escape it? Here I am, with time on my hands with which to “do something,” and I’m writing a journal entry on what’s going on in my head. Pathetic.  No. Just habitual. Time spent on stewing has reinforced the neurological pathways between “I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing” and “There’s-something-I-should-be-pursuing.”

I read the other day of the importance of self-compassion. There’s a website with guided meditations, but I think I’ll create some of my own here. [I’m a rugged individualist–always wanting to do things my own way. Hmmm. Better yet–I’m a fearless experimenter.] Here goes:

  • It’s going to be okay. Worrying is painful and unproductive. Life has a way of teaching us all things we need to know.
  • Uncertainty is in the Universe’s game plan, it appears. Trying to force certainty is vain—in both senses of the word. I don’t have to know everything, or even what tomorrow holds. Each day presents me with lessons to discern, interpret, or ignore. Maybe the lessons add up to one great whole. Maybe they are magical merely for the meaning they give in that moment. (Don’t I love feeling connected with grander things when I am given a lesson that seems supernaturally in sync?) I can enjoy the ambiguity-laden lessons, without understanding all things.
  • It’s okay that I’ve been confused of late—and of longer. It is evidence that I have a keen mind, a discerning mind, which is willing to do the work of exploring. I can be kind to myself by emphasizing the explorer in me rather than the neurotic personality.
  • I can identify the feelings and circumstances that trouble me. I can keep track, but I don’t have to solve them all at once.
  • I am blessed with people who need me. Our lives intersect regularly, which strengthens the web of human sympathy and support. I am part of an entire ecosystem of lives, and derive much of my energy from the symbiosis.
  • I’ve come a long way, baby—even if the steps are hard to trace. Who I am today is so much more interesting than who I was at an earlier date.
  • I like my mind. I can help it to be kind.

I feel a little better. Time to go pick up my kids.

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Training for a marathon

or “Overcoming an obsession with a result”

Some of you on Facebook know that Erik and I ran a marathon last year—almost exactly a year ago (Sept. 11, 2010). It was a great blessing and a thrill to be able to complete the 26 mile race, which was a goal we had set together and prepared for for over 8 months. But I must be honest in relating that I started to get anxiety that spring as I worried whether or not I’d be able to complete the goal since there were so many things that could go wrong during our training—in terms of injuries. I remember thinking that the outcome was outside my control, which made me really nervous, anxious, and almost hesitant to invest in all the effort if I couldn’t be promised the outcome. Has that ever happened to you? The cold-feet of a control-freak?

Fortunately, an idea came to mind that became a saving grace for my continued commitment to my goal. It was this: I had set goals in ninth grade seminary—including the lofty, challenging “Graduate from high school with a 4.0”–but I had not experienced anxiety then. What was the difference? I realized that when I’d set those earlier goals, I had expected I could do it. I was counting on success. I hadn’t immediately worried, ‘Oh, there’re a thousand things that could prevent me from getting my 4.0–I could get sick, I could get in a car wreck and have to miss class for a long time, etc.’ Perhaps I was simply naïve, but my confidence carried me forward with enthusiasm and commitment toward my goal. When this thought occurred to me last spring, I realized its applicability to the current situation. ‘I should just plan for success with this marathon, moving forward in the positive energy that it’s going to happen, and not allow myself to be anxious.’

Not long after that, I came across an online article written by a marathon professional—a trainer—which again challenged my marathon anxiety. The author mentioned how, so often, people put all of their focus on the day of the race—the marathon itself. She wanted to remind people, she said, that the great benefit of a marathon is not actually the day of stuff, because the long-distance race actually puts a tremendous amount of strain and stress upon the body. The real benefit of running a marathon is all the necessary preparatory training at shorter distances in the months preceding it. It’s what builds up the heart and the lung capacity—the stamina. People with a regular regimen of vigorous walking can be just as healthy as marathon runners, she asserted. The regular, moderate cardio training is what provides the long-term benefits, not the race itself.  Reading these comments was inspiring.  My training alone was what mattered most!  What an important point to help me stop worrying about my personal outcome in the actual marathon. It inspired me to start telling myself, ‘I am engaged in marathon training. I am a marathon trainer <wink, wink>,’ and to lose concern over the results of the race.

As I started getting closer to the actual marathon, I told Erik, “I’d like to re-state my goal. Rather than have it be ‘Run a marathon,’ I want it to say ‘Run in a marathon.’ Finishing the race would be nice, but I don’t want my goal to hinge on that. I have trained for, prepared for, and will actually run in a marathon. That’s what counts.” He smiled at my semantic games, but understood where they were coming from.

The night before the race, I had a hard time falling asleep. The paper thin walls of the Price hotel we were staying in did not dampen the noise of the noisy teens next door—darn it—but I imagine they were not the only cause of my insomnia. I’m not cognizant of all the reasons for it, but I’m guessing the idea of going 26 miles was a bit daunting. Would I be able to do it? We’d never run that far before (the marathon training schedule we’d been using limited the longest preparatory run to 22 miles, to avoid strain), so I knew I didn’t know what those last miles would be like. Maybe the unknown is what scared me, more than a fear of failure. Not sure.

Well, we both were able to finish the race. What a thrill! The last 3 miles were extremely painful for me, however, when the tendons on the sides of my knees began throbbing and sobbing, “Overload! Overload!” Not. Fun. But, fortunately, it wasn’t so bad that I had to stop. My training had given me sufficient stamina to finish. Hurrah!

I wanted to blog about this incident because I think that we, as perfectionists, too often obsess over outcomes. I guess, if I think about it honestly, that is the definition of perfectionism: being unsatisfied with anything less than the ideal [a measurable outcome state]. When we have an ideal—a desired goal, an expectation—we measure ourselves against it. Even if we acknowledge that the ideal is something we can work toward, we feel anxiety about the uncertainty of our reaching it. Placing emphasis on the end result rather than the learning/training process can truly thwart us—as it almost did me last spring. It’s an unhealthy way to evaluate and experience life—making us ungrateful for all that is good in our lives, and overwhelmed by the pressure to be more.

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The Yahtzee Lesson

This summer our family spent some time down at Fish Lake. One of the mornings, when the kids were duly occupied with either cousins or the literary Harry Potter, I found myself alone. Being in the mood for a little diversion (since Erik was home working and I had no cell reception within the campground with which to call and interrupt him to explore “life, the universe, and everything”–which is really my favorite diversion), I pulled out Yahtzee.

I like the game. Having three chances to shake the dice and strategize about the most likely scenario for earning points, I often manage my risks and do fairly well. Having no control over the dice, though, keeps the game unpredictable and interesting.

Interesting, that is, as long as I am at least occasionally graced with a great roll. For some inexplicable reason, NONE was coming that morning. I could not believe how poorly I was doing. Despite my best theories and most elaborate shaking schemes, I repeatedly missed the necessary runs or sets to earn a respectable amount of points. No upper section bonus. No large straight. No full house. Don’t even ask about a Yahtzee. I finished with a score of 131. Pathetic!

Well, that wasn’t any fun. So, hoping to get the happy endorphins rolling again (assuming, as I was, that I would of course do better this time), I quickly started a new round. I do not exaggerate when I say (and In Case You Didn’t Know, I’m quite incapable of lying–at least 99.9% of the time), that I honestly believe that I was well on my way to receiving the absolute worst score anyone has ever earned in a completed round of intending-to-winYahtzee. What the heck?!

As the nightmare was happening, I found myself trying to will the dice (in a sort of self-imposed trial of faith) to produce the numbers I was desperately needing. It didn’t work! Nothing worked! Realizing that my final score was likely to be even worse than the previous round, I started to panic. (Note: Only slightly hyperbolic language here.)

Now you non-type-A personalities may not understand why I was getting so emotionally involved in the game. It’s only a game, you may be thinking. Yeah, right! Just like it’s only a song for the American Idol aspirant who is blowing it, utterly blowing it on the final contest of the season–for some inexplicable, perverse reason for which she cannot account given that she’d prepared fully (I’m talking vocally, emotionally, mentally, wardrobally) to nail the song, wow the audience, and win the glory. While I concede it might not appear that the stakes of my Yahtzee game were anywhere near those of a final song on the final night of American Idol, I will try to explain their similarity for me.

For a perfectionist personality, expecting oneself to do well and then doing well is the name of the game. Anticipating-and-then-accomplishing provides immediate-though-temporary evidence that one is worthwhile. Perverse, isn’t it? So whether it’s a second game of Yahtzee or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on American Idol, the mental and emotional stakes are very high when a person depends on successful outcomes to validate one’s worth and importance.

It was this state of reality that led to me sobbing uncontrollably for over an hour! Not while at Fish Lake, not during this game of Yahtzee, but around the age of 15–after messing up on a self-accompanied vocal solo in a sacrament meeting featuring our stake’s youth activities committee.

I had prepared to play the song from memory but, unfortunately, I messed up and lost the flow of the memorized piece.  An awkward silence ensued as I scavenged my brain trying to come up with any feasible place where I could resume my song. (A day-old cadaver would have a hard time feeling as mortified as I did in that morgue-like silence!) Somehow or other I started again, finished the piece, and then dragged myself back to my seat in the choir—only to endure the torture of public tears during the duration of the meeting.

When my dad came to pick me up and I had the privacy of the car to keep me from public view, the small semblance of self-imposed composure I’d forced upon myself during the meeting gave way to Sobs! Heaving chest! Convulsive breaths! The Works!–for over an hour. I had completely humiliated myself–I believed–in front of not only an entire ward but, more importantly, in front of my peers on the activities committee. My externally-oriented personality judged that I was a worthless failure—and I reeled in panic and pain.

* * *

Now, Twenty-five years later, a crazy, double whammy of epic Yahtzee failures was again threatening my sense of self. With only a few turns left in that second game—minute opportunities for my Importance to reveal itself via a good score or two–I was suddenly graced by Wisdom:

Why are you are getting emotionally involved in this game? The outcome has nothing to do with your worth.”

Moved, I paused to consider that thought. Of course it’s true, I mused. Sometimes people win, sometimes people lose, but does that mean they’re any more or less valuable because of it? No! Silly of me to have forgotten. Grateful for the reminder, I smiled and rolled the dice—curious, as an observer is curious, to see what Life was Going to Deal Me this time.

Five sixes landed face-up in the box. One single shake: a Yahtzee of sixes?!!

A shiver ran through my body. Holy Cow! This is a transcendent experience! What does it mean?!

I became (and continue to be) deliberate in my analysis. When I gave up my emotional involvement in the game, I was given the highest possible roll—like a hug from on high. But, ironically, I couldn’t use it in its ideal spot–the Yahtzee field –since I’d already zeroed that out. Was this a reminder that Scores and Success don’t determine my Soul Significance? But since the 6’s slot was still open, I experienced a “Redemption”: 30 points there to make possible my attaining the upper bonus!

All this was amazing, fascinating, otherworldly! It suggests to me that Grace comes when and where it will, and that I can Know Love regardless of my success or failure. (Or Something Along Those Lines.)  I’m very grateful for my Yahtzee lesson, but if I forget it again (as I undoubtedly will), Grace will provide!

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