Monday, September 14, 2015

Sweet (Inner) Child o' Mine


It is fair to say the image below largely impacted me and had a direct influence on my writing this post. An art installation from this year's Burning Man was shared on the World Wide Web by many and made it's way to a friend's Facebook page (thank you, Cherie!) where I spotted it for the first time a few days ago. This piece, titled "LOVE" by Ukrainian artist Alexandr Milov, depicts two adults (a man and a woman), backs turned and posing in a display of despair while their encaged inner children reach out to one another.

I'm certain this piece struck me in the same way it did most people: as a commentary on the way adults are often quick to turn inward during times of struggle, so enmeshed in their own suffering they cannot see they are not alone. In addition, this piece spoke to me, personally. It asked the questions: Is my inner child trying to tell me something? And if so, what?

The answer was painful to face: I haven't the foggiest.

As a student of psychology, counseling, and spirituality, the inner child concept was familiar, if not somewhat elusive. Wikipedia describes the inner child as:
"...our childlike aspect. It includes all that we learned and experienced as children, before puberty. The inner child denotes a semi-independent entity subordinate to the waking conscious mind."
In essence, the inner child represents our innermost desires and feelings, often screaming to be heard over the everyday humdrum of life we, as adults, face. In more dire circumstances, the inner child may be suffering along with the "waking conscious mind" of its adult counterpart, due to pain, suffering, and/or trauma experienced in childhood.

Having attended many Overeaters Anonymous meetings, I learned many twelve-step programs also adhere to this school of thought, suggesting healing the inner child is an essential part of addiction recovery. The implication is if our inner child represents our purest selves, our most independent and carefree parts of our being, when s/he is damaged in some way, it can (and in many cases) will affect our everyday lives. The idea being, as adults, we find ways to drown out the inner child's pleas through overworking, addiction, eating disorders, self-harm, distractions, escapism, anything really.

Having some knowledge of the inner child concept and viewing the Burning Man image opened my mind in a way I was not prepared. While the above image of the woman viewing herself and her inner child in the mirror can, upon first glance, appear to be nothing more than an animated horror movie scene, this is precisely how I felt after viewing "LOVE": alarmed and afraid. 

I was/am frightened of what I might have done to my inner child with my addictions and disorders, depression and anxiety, self-loathing, self-injury, and self-deprecation. I was afraid she was angry with me after yelling at her for not being smart enough, skinny enough, strong enough, or just plain ENOUGH. I imagined her cowering in the darkest corners of my mind and body, crying and feeling hopeless, longing to hear anything close to praise. But worse still, I was most frightened she was gone-given up on me the way I had given up on her. I feared she wouldn't trust me again, for all my failed attempts to nurture her in the past. And, in all honesty, she had every right not to. 

The twist is, when I went looking for her she was eager to connect with me again. She trusts me implicitly and expects no explanations for my failures. She welcomes me with open arms, as if she were there all along, waiting for me. Because that is exactly where she has been. She didn't leave me, I had left her. She waited, patiently, knowing I would return, understanding that my journey may involve letting her go for a time, but always confident I would someday reappear. She didn't scold or pout, she didn't cry or scream, instead she danced and sang and played with my comeback. 
She became radiant, glowing as if from within, as she laughed and joked, prompting me to do the same. I felt my insides begin to heal, both symbolically and literally. It was as if her glow of rejoice was beginning to consume me. The air felt lighter and  easier to breathe, my feet carried me with ease and purpose, I straightened my back and adjusted my smile. I felt honest, sincere, genuine...I felt like me.
Me, age 3 
As if this epiphany wasn't enough, in true Melissa fashion, I found a song to encapsulate this very feeling of "coming home" to my inner child-to acknowledging her and freeing her from the emotional traps I had kept her in. Interestingly, in the past I had tried to make this song fit with lovers and a couple months ago I heard it again and decided it was a love song to myself. Saturday night, this song happened to play on my iPod and I was paralyzed for 2 hours as this song repeated and the realization unfolded that this was me singing to my inner child. 
The song is "A Thousand Years" by Christina Perri. The lyrics suggest that not only have I known and loved my inner child seemingly forever, but also that I have always known I would reconnect with her-seeing her alone in the shadows of my mind, wiping away all doubt of her existence. The opening line: "Heart beats fast, colors and promises, how to be brave, how can I love when I'm afraid to fall?" reminds me of the feeling I had (and continue to have) once rediscovering my inner child and inner spirit: reckless abandon, colors seem brighter, bravery reignited after being long forgotten and yet the oh-so-human response of "what if I fall?"
Granted, this song can hold some negative connotations for its association with the Twilight movie and it has been used by many as their wedding march. But, if you are willing to look past that, listen to the lyrics, and imagine what I do, I believe you may experience the same goosebump-y feeling I had Saturday night, when each time the song ended I silently said, "One more time..."

I suppose this means I am, indeed, "one step closer" to reconnecting with the me I haven't seen in some time. The me that loves to color and joke, makes up songs and poems, and dances around the house. The me that laughs uproariously at nothing in particular, has dreams and chases them, sets goals and is hopeful they will pan out. The me that plays. The me that leaps. The me that lives.

Me, 8 hours after my "A Thousand Years" reverie
Rumi said: "When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy." I think he was right.
*Title credit: Song: "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N' Roses in 1987


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Silence is the New Black

I am guilty of what many of us do: fill quiet moments with unnecessary (often mundane) chatter to avoid silence. I call this "jibber jabber," (taken from the indisputably hilarious relationship of "Penny" and "Sheldon" on The Big Bang Theory).

To me, jibber jabber and small talk has become mind-numbing. It appears the more change our world sees (socially, politically, environmentally), the more obsessed with monotony some become. For example, on a day when marriage equality is achieved for the entire country AND the President of the United States attends funerals for some of the Charleston 9, I may hear two neighbors discussing, at length, how the time the mail arrives has changed over the past few months. This is just one of many examples. I have never before heard so much discussion about mail arrival, lawns that need mowing, why this restaurant opens at 11:00 versus 12:00, and so it goes. I don't mean to sound judge-y, but for real? In the words of one of my favorite comediennes and podcasters, Jen Kirkman: "I don't want to do small talk anymore, I want big talk." I am beginning to reach a point where I am interested in one of two things: big/ "medium" talk or silence. Larry David has similiar sentiments.

In this post, I am hoping to encourage all of us, myself included, to enjoy, accept, and embrace the silence, when big talk isn't possible and small talk is irritating. In graduate school for counseling, we learned silence is not only a good idea, it is essential to growth. It gives both the client and clinician the room and space to process what has already been said. In a world where it is easy, most times unavoidable, to fill every silent moment with media static and white noise, this concept may seem unconventional. I am positing that it IS unconventional and that can be good.

I, for one, am constantly inundating myself with noise. If it's not TV, it's my iPod. Or I'm watching videos on YouTube, answering e-mails and texts, while also balancing my checkbook. In fact, as I write this post it is the only silent moment I will likely have today and yet my mind is still quite stimulated. As someone who struggles daily with mental hygiene, I speculate my avoidance of silence is due to fear of the places my mind wanders when there is no stimulation. The far reaches of my mind where dark thoughts, sad memories, and fear of the future reside. On days I am particularly motivated to embrace silence, I often achieve this by still distracting my mind, just in a less noisy way-reading. While it is a much needed break from screens (unless I'm using my Kindle...), it is still distraction from silence in its truest form.


It may be obvious to some what I am suggesting: less time online, more time outside, put your phones done. And that is all true, but I am also challenging us to go a bit deeper than that. Instead of only leaving 5 minutes before bed for meditation or 10 minutes in the morning for solitude, I am advocating a Lifestyle of Active Quietude or LAQ, as in lack of distractions, lack of noise, lack of disturbance. We can all use LESS in our lives. In fact, I have designed a second blog to devote especially to this idea. New blog here!

What I am suggesting may seem radical: how does one build a lifestyle around quietude? Like any change in perspective, it will surely take time and patience. It will involve yielding to other disciplines as well, such as mindfulness, choiceless awareness, and compassionate love (all topics that will be discussed at length in my additional blog). It will also involve actively setting boundaries with myself (limit game time, limit the number of times I check Facebook, designating certain times for texting), as well as boundaries with others. Admittedly, I have a tendency to become rigid and obsessive any time I implement a plan, no matter how beneficial it is or how good my intentions are. Something I need to be mindful about. 

Some ways I hope to spend my quietude:
  • Reconnecting with a spiritual path
  • Spending more time in nature
  • Reviving new creative interests
  • Finding new hobbies
  • Enhancing meditation practices
  • Journaling
Some things I hope to learn from my quietude:
  • Patience
  • Mindfulness
  • Non-judgment
  • Compassion
  • Gratitude
  • How to let go of all "The Stuff"
I am eager to begin my journey and grateful to have the time and space to explore my solitude to its fullest. While I am hesitant to see what lies in the quiet moments I so desperately try to drown out, I am hopeful that taking time throughout the day to be quiet, mindful, and aware will only calm my chaotic mind. 


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Don't Be So Sensitive!

I am an empath or HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). Some of you may have suspected, based on personal interaction with me or previous blog posts. Some of you may be perplexed as to what an empath or HSP is. That is understandable. Let's begin with some definitions. As described on Dr. Elaine Aron's website, someone who is an HSP experiences most or all of these traits:
  • Easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens
  • Rattled when you have to do a lot in a short amount of time
  • Makes a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows
  • Needs to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room (or some other refuge where you can have privacy and relief from the situation)
  • Make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations
  • Notices or enjoys delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art
  • Has a rich and complex inner life
  • When you were a child, your parents or teachers saw you as sensitive or shy

Dr. Aron's website goes on to espouse that not only is being an HSP normal (15-20% of the population are reported to be highly sensitive), but also innate.
"In fact, biologists have found it in over 100 species (and probably there are many more) from fruit flies, birds, and fish to dogs, cats, horses, and primates. This trait reflects a certain type of survival strategy, being observant before acting. The brains of highly sensitive persons (HSPs) actually work a little differently than others’."

I adamantly agree and relate to every single bullet point listed on Dr. Aron's webiste, as well as previously written blogs or articles on HSPs. The two pieces I linked include some super relatable quips such as:
  • "That annoying sound is probably significantly more annoying to a highly sensitive person."
  • "The effects of criticism are especially amplified in highly sensitive people."
  • "They're probably used to hearing, 'Don't take things so personally' and 'Why are you so sensitive?'"
  • "We notice that subtle change in your tone."
  • "We're always willing to hear you vent."
  • "They're more prone to anxiety or depression (but only if they've had a lot of past negative experiences)." 
Sounds pretty exhausting, doesn't it? It IS. Being highly sensitive, coupled with my OCD, is quite literally the definition of mental exhaustion. My mind is constantly thinking, rethinking, thinking again, and thinking from the other person's perspective. Then, my brain does the ever-so-awesome analyzing of facial expressions, sighs, tone of voice, and body language. In addition to all that activity I am juggling just having a typical conversation, I'm also on sensory overload. Fluorescent lighting, dings from my phone and yours, TV blaring, the tag in my shirt, and food smells. And probably the most prevalent sensory disturbance (for me) is loud talking. Which, admittedly, is ironic considering I am also a loud talker. However, when I am already in sensory overload and my systems are ready to abort, loud talking is the living worst.

Keeping in mind this is an example of a typical conversation, void of conflict or subtext, it is easy to see how I would often have a hard time asserting myself, setting boundaries, and saying "No." Unfortunately, this had made me extremely vulnerable to abusive and toxic relationships, as well as bottling up my feelings which leads to resentment which leads two things: uncorking every negative thought or feeling in a frightening and unexpected manner or subconsciously creating a conflict that validates my reason for cutting the person out of my life. I have more often than not done the latter.

Knowing I am an HSP has helped me feel FAR less crazy. It has also helped me recognize and accept my limits. Unfortunately, I am still not fully comfortable asserting my boundaries and limits with others and have a very small group of people I explicitly trust, who understand and respect me. But, no one is perfect and even my most trusted confidantes may struggle to understand me all day, everyday. And I don't expect them to. I've accepted that there will be moments of emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue where I have nothing left to give or receive, needing only the sanctuary of a dark room and a movie I have seen 18 times.

Even as I finish this blog, sights and sounds that didn't register hours ago (it's 7:00pm) are beginning to grate on me. The sound of the keys as I type, cars speeding past the house, the way my bed sheet is bunching in the middle of my futon in couch-position, my bedroom light glaring onto my glasses. Harmless annoyances, yet all signs I am hitting my limit. I hope to follow up, someday, with a post about how I manage my HSP-ness in a relationship, as that opportunity has not yet presented. Soon enough, I suspect.