I said “No”

I said “No”. no1

A casual friend asked me to do something to help her out – for pay – and I answered, “I’m sorry, but I have another commitment on Wednesday afternoons”. Here’s the big news – the commitment is to myself. In the (not so distant) past I would have felt compelled to alter my own schedule for 2-3 months in order to help her.

You see, because I could do it, I was programmed to say, “Yes” and abandon whatever I had planned. In this case, I would be giving up something that it’s taken me years to begin doing for myself. Somehow I found the clarity of mind, the actual (not pretend) belief in the importance of my own life choices to say, “No, I have another commitment.”

I may be belaboring this point, but the urge to take care of others, to meet their needs before my own, to save them (from the consequences of their own choices), that compulsion is very strong. I really thought that the drive to serve was hard-wired in my little brain, after all these years. But its true what the neuro-psychologists say, you can alter your brain circuitry. All the years of reciting affirming words about my self-worth seemed silly; honestly it felt like a joke. But the little, powerful synapses or whatever, have triumphed. New grooves!

no2I have held the deeply seated, life-long belief that the only way to be a ‘good person’ (whatever that means… probably ‘a ‘good female’) was to selflessly rescue others. I’m certain that I said “No” as a child. I must have. Every child does. But the older I get, the more I am aware that those were different times.  I was trained to acquiesce, to agree, to do what I was told or asked to do. Long before I had any significant cognitive abilities, (age two?) the habit of saying, “Yes” was well established. Certainly the family unit functioned more smoothly that way.

I was a docile, compliant girl, trying to please even those who treated me poorly, even when my inner voice began to protest.  As a college student, I began to participate in public protests regarding social/political issues. But in the personal arena, I remained a “Yes” girl for a very, very long time.  Now I’m rewriting the script.  I said “No”.



Fretting is what I intended to write and post about last Wednesday.  But when the ‘post now’ clock ran out of time on Wednesday evening, I was so tired, yes, worn out from fretting in fact, that I could only offer somewhat inane sentences about tired parsley and soup.

Is fretting different from worrying?  And where do fear and the burden of responsibility fit into the equation?  What equation?  Ah, just a ‘turn of phrase’.  Those expressions that fill my conversation and writing voice are often an enticing distraction.  Where did they come from? What was their original meaning?

And why do I consider them a distraction?  Am I not free to follow my thoughts as they come and wherever they lead me?   Which brings me back to the topic of fretting and the heavy-handed ‘shoulds’ (and should-not’s) of my life.  So, what do I fret about?  Often I am responding to a perceived ‘should’; a sense of being responsible to or for something or someone.  Care taking is one way to put it.  The sense (belief) that I must help or fix; I reflexively take on the tsoris of others. And fret.

I’m sorry, Mom…  Friday was your birthday and I missed you terribly, perhaps more than at any time since the numb days and weeks right after you died.  I’m sorry, but my memories of fretting about others begin with you.  So miserably unhappy you were, or so it seemed to my little child soul, that I could not live without taking on the burden of trying to make you okay.  It continued that way, all your life, Mom, right down to your final days.  At which time I was handed the utterly thankless task of caring about and for your husband, my father.  Those were really miserable years for me.

He’s gone now and I have arrived at today.  My reflexive care taking was illuminated and revealed, highlighted by my mother’s departure.  It has been reduced, that is, the globalized part of it… I no longer feel compelled to take care of every T D & H that crosses my path.  My own child is becoming a woman and it is to her benefit (therefore I will do it) for me to step back and care take her less.  I believe that I can only do that convincingly if I train myself to fret less about her and her life – her future is hers.

Tend to your own life, I say to myself.  clemchtomduo

Next question: What does that mean?

Owning my story

Back to de-constructing shame for a bit.

 “… that core belief that we are enough comes only when we live inside our story.  We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.  Perfectionism is exhausting, because hustling is exhausting.  It’s a never-ending performance.”

from Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, pp132-133

Perfectionism and performance.  Ouch.  The effort to ‘look good’ continued far beyond my adolescent years of hustling for appearance-based acceptance and approval.  Long past the drive to ‘look right’ physically, I was caught up in a trap of questioning: ‘What should I be doing?  Is this how I should behave?’   Frequently feeling like a failure, but worse than that, an empty failure.  Questioning why I was doing this or that and if I really wanted to be doing it.  Failing at the doing and at the same time not really having my heart in the doing.

What am I trying to get at here?  Is that hollow feeling actually resentment rattling around inside my head, asking ‘Why am I doing this?”  And how does this relate to the Brené Brown quote above?  The part that resonated for me was ‘owning [my] story’.  I want to do that.  All of it.  I want to feel that I am enough.  I want to know, to find out if I can be enough without hustling and performing and meeting the needs and expectations of others, or more accurately, what I believe they expect or need from me.

In some ways, that’s what is at the root of my messy stories:  the deeply ingrained habit of ‘reading’ and responding to the emotions of others.  Hustling to meet the needs of others, to ‘make’ others happy, has set me up for a lot of misery and manipulation.  Feeling used and resentful, but at the same time, blaming myself, knowing that I’m the one making the choices.  Each time I do this, (and there is/has been too much of it) it feels as if I’ve again stepped away from my path, my story.  My needs and desires and dreams.  Or am I?  Is this my path?  Service?  Service with a smile?

A therapist once asked me, astounded, “Are you really only as good as the last good meal you cooked?”  Yes.  This is still very often the truth.  If I write something that feels honest and expressive, that is another good feeling, which gives me a flickering sense of self worth.  But meals I have to cook every day.  Writing, I don’t have to; because cooking is for other people and writing is for me, the cooking has greater value?.

I’m able to feel pride and self-acceptance in terms of cooking.  I have confidence in my ability to make a meal.  I find value & self-worth in feeding others.  (So frigging retro.)  A corollary to the question “Are you only as good as…?” is that if I make a meal that’s imperfect, sub-par or even one that I like, but others don’t, I can serve it.  I do serve it.  I may feel twinges of shame, but they are survivable because I have a reservoir of feeling worthy as a cook.  The shame does not win in those situations.  I do not crumble when I fail to reach perfection.

Here’s another quote in Daring Greatly, from an interview Brown did with Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project).  She says, (cribbed from Voltaire) “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  What a concept: doing something imperfectly is better than not doing the perfect thing at all.  Two examples that hit home for me are “The imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer.  The dinner party of take-out Chinese is better than the elegant dinner that I never host.”  Hmm.  I obviously have more thinking to do about this…

In closing, here’s a political cartoon from today’s paper. (see 2/15 blog post)

I laughed out loud. globe


What was the meaning of the quote I posted on Wednesday?

Since I took the sentence out of context and it was significant for me because it spoke to my personal situation at that moment…  Let me first provide a link to the works of Eckhart Tolle.  The friends who suggested I read his work several years ago told me:  “Either it speaks/makes sense to you or it does not.”

I sincerely hope that you find some meaning there, as I have.

“Life isn’t as serious as my mind makes it out to be.”

This stuck a chord, because I was ‘taking myself far too seriously’.   I had chosen to respond to a situation through my shame filter.  In fact, I had chosen to enter the:                SLOUGH OF DESPOND

You may say…”What the…?”

Allow me to share a wee bit of literary history.  In the 17th century, a writer named John Bunyan (not the American folk hero, Paul) wrote a book called The Pilgrim’s Progress.  It is an allegory, describing the journey of a character named Christian, who encounters characters named Evangelist, Hypocrisy, Pliable, Obstinate and Help, among others.  I think you can get the idea.

It’s not my cup of tea, but apparently it spoke loudly to the 19th century writers, Louisa May Alcott and Emily Bronte.  It was in their works that I first encountered the Slough, when I was a girl.  The expression spoke to me as well.  The Free Dictionary defines the Slough of Despond as:  “Depression, a mental state characterized by a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity.”

“The name of the slough was “Despond. Here, therefore, [I] wallowed for a time… because of the burden that was on [my] back, [I] began to sink in the mire.”  (from The Pilgrims Progress, The First Stage)

So there I sat, in the 21st century, wallowing in the Slough.  I suppose one could say that the writings of Eckhart Tolle and the support of some good friends took the place of the character Help and pulled me from the Slough.

I am no longer sinking, but doing a lot of thinking.  I hope perhaps this digression was at least slightly entertaining.

And wasn’t that a gorgeous display of radishes and beets in the photo I posted?  Taken at the Brattleboro VT Farmers Market last October.


Some new thoughts about addiction arising first from the writings of Brené Brown; the concept of ‘numbing’.  We humans tend to seek – and find – ways to numb ourselves, to avoid feelings.  Technologies developed in the last half century, from TV on, up to and including video games, FB, Pinterest, Twitter and many others, have been added to the traditional list of alcohol, drugs, food and work. A wealth of options.

Addiction as numbing.seeds1peg                          [Radish for color–>]

Numbing and sleep.  A new line of thought.  Ideas from the book Healing Night by Rubin R Naiman, PhD.  In my humble opinion, he’s right on point about the incessant activity in our daily lives and why we ‘struggle with rest’, that is, resist and “… fear slowing down and stopping… If we do ‘hit the brakes‘, unwanted thoughts and feelings stashed in the back of our vehicle might come flying forward.  All the shadowy stuff we have been too busy to deal with…”

Some folks think of rest as an activity “… tennis, golf, swimming, hiking, biking” or reading or watching a movie.  For others, being tired has become a cue to alter one’s consciousness with alcohol or other substances.”  (pp. 37-39)

The same thing, Naiman asserts, is happening with night time sleep.  “… many of us do not apply the brakes until we are in the garage; we fail to slow sufficiently before getting into bed… Some… just roll along until they run out of gas… others… knock themselves out with the help of chemical emergency brakes.” (pp.49)

“… evening appears to be the most common period of substance abuse.  [It] is generally about applying chemical brakes to help slow down the bullet train of our waking lives and to buffer our encounter with darkness.  The most common substances used at night are alcohol, marijuana, [sleeping pills] …and for those of us averse to using substances, overeating can do the trick.” (pp. 51)

So, numbing as another element of addiction; the less (but not totally separate from) physical part of addiction. We acquire numbing habits to fend off thoughts and feelings.  Feelings of shame, for example.  Perhaps anger at those who/a culture which stigmatize(s) and mock(s).

Happiness, joy, habit and shame

I love sticky rice.  I love making it and I love eating it and I just plain love the look of it.

Although this drawing hasn’t ‘made it’ onto a towel or tote bag with EAW designs, it’s still a favorite.  Certainly the color makes me happy.

And how does this relate to the topic of this blog?  Well, I’ve been reading in Brené Brown‘s book about the difference between happiness and joy.  One way that she defines them:

Happiness is tied to circumstance and joy is tied to spirit and gratitude.

When I make sticky rice for my family, I have created circumstances that make me happy.  I enjoy the soaking and the rinsing and sight of the rice cooker steaming away.  I love the dousing with rice vinegar and the mixing with the wide, flat bamboo spoon that I brought home from Kyoto.  So I have made myself happy.

The beauty and simplicity of the cooked rice and the memory of the little side-street bamboo shop in Kyoto awaken my gratitude.  Those pearlescent grains remind me of the joy of cooking whole foods and connect me to all that I have en-joyed in this life.  That’s an especially wonderful thing when I’ve been raking muck, about PPFIC and personal shame history, as I have been so often lately.

So what about Oreos?  Am I happy when eating Oreos?  Not an Oreo; Oreos.  Me and the rats.  What circumstances take me to the Oreos?  None of the sensory pleasure that I’ve been extolling about the rice, that’s for sure.  In fact an Oreo eaten whole can be a bit dry.  I’m not a ‘dunker’; although tea or water does help.  But it’s that creamy white center: sugar and fat whipped up together to seduce my bliss point.  Pleasure centers in my brain start ringing and singing and, as I understand it, producing a spurt of happiness chemicals.

But memories? Nothing but shame.  No gratitude or joy to be found.  Sneaking cookies, hiding cookies, eating cookies when I wasn’t hungry.  All for that unbelievably brief illusion of happiness.  How did I respond to that flush of shame?  How did my body respond to the shot of sugarfatbliss?  I would reach for another Oreo.

But to repeat the question:  What circumstances take me to the Oreos?  I believe another important piece of the puzzle is habit.  Okay, maybe that seems ridiculously obvious, but the thing is that while the pleasure centers are being zinged by the creamy filling, neurological patterns are being reinforced in my brain.  Every time I would reach for that Oreo, the habit became a bit stronger.  Again, that may seem too obvious, but understanding the process has been eye-opening for me.  It’s all part of the same show.

I read Charles Duhigg‘s book, The Power of Habit almost as soon as it was published in 2012.  I am rereading now, along with the other sources I’ve been writing about, because it so clearly dovetails with my explorations.  I want to make sense of the connections between the PPFIC’s push toward producing addictive food products and personal habit and shame.  It’s all there, it’s all of a piece, I am sure of it.

A final note about getting the car into position for jump-starting.  It has taken years of sweating and pushing to turn the vehicle of my life around, so that a jump start was even  possible.  So that this writing exploration could begin.  And as you know, you can’t push a car by yourself, even a 1960’s VW beetle.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me, believing in me when I have not, reminding me I am not alone no matter how hard it gets and helping me onward by sharing her own courage, I am ever grateful to my dear friend and writing ally, jc.  Tea and toast for two.