Things I’m learning/unlearning

What a ride the past six months have been. I’m clocking in at my third existential breakdown for the past few weeks, and frankly, that seems right on target given the current state of things. 

I’ve stepped back and spent a lot of time learning, raging, exploring, examining, and collapsing and reconstructing my idea of myself as a person, as a woman, as a researcher, as a psychologist. I’ve had lots of interesting, nuanced and juicy discussions with people, and have given myself permission to explore diverse viewpoints offline – which, over the past few weeks is tantamount to violence according to some. So, additionally grappling with the challenge of what it means to sit with shame and not feel compelled to enter, uninformed, into a dialogue for the sake of gaining external approval or saving face. 

There are an exceptional range of resources, stories, art and voices that have been amplified over the past few weeks – a range of which will inspire, enrage, challenge and elevate. I encourage you to make space, continuously for such resources. And from there, make efforts to detangle and integrate your learning – allow it to help shape you into the type of person you most want to be and let it inform how you show up in the world. 

Here’s a glimpse of a few things I’m learning/unlearning…

BEING SEEN

In therapy, we understand the importance of being seen and heard in one’s fullness, in one’s vulnerability, in one’s pain and in one’s truth. Finding a voice and having a space where we can be heard and acknowledged, free from judgement or expectation, is something we all deserve. Unfortunately, structures within our society have made it so that some voices are louder than others, and some people are rarely given the space to be seen. This is unjust and needs to be confronted.

NEEDS & BOUNDARIES

We all have needs and boundaries and we should all feel worthy of expressing them, without feeling as if we are being burdensome or over-demanding. Unfortunately, structures within our society have made it so that certain people’s needs and boundaries are overlooked/disregarded. Our needs run deep, and reflect our human yearning for safety, for inclusion, for belonging and for autonomy. We cannot progress as a collective until all individuals feel empowered to express their needs and boundaries, and expect they will be met with acknowledgement and respect.

INTENT vs IMPACT

We may not ever intend to, but we will, throughout our lives, do things that hurt others. In this way, we all have a duty to both become aware of the ways in which we might unwittingly diminish or injure others, and understand what triggers our own personal hurt and offence. We must honour emotional truths which means not telling an upset person “Don’t be upset” and not telling ourselves “Just get over it” when we find ourselves hurting. We must be compassionate and curious about what drives us to act in certain ways, and how these actions impact others, just as we must be compassionate and curious about what drives others to act as they do and how this impacts us. 

SELF WORK IS HARD WORK

Lately, folks have been bandying around the idea of “challenging your implicit biases” like it’s the same thing as remembering to pre-heat the oven. Dudes. This is a lot to expect from some people who aren’t even socially-aware enough to realise that catcalling out the window of their Subaru Impreza is not going to be taken as a compliment. We are all operating with implicit biases – around race, around gender, around values, around who we are and what we deserve. If you’re not questioning these on the reg, you’re basically an automaton and will be discarded once the robot apocalypse comes. 

WHAT ARE YOU BRAVE ENOUGH TO LET GO OF?

Self exploration and analysis is hard fucking work. And I can say with 100% certainty that you, me, everyone, is holding onto shit they don’t need or that might hurt others because it’s comfortable, familiar or allows one to retain status/dominance. It’s difficult to confront but essential if you want to cultivate an authentic relationship with yourself, with others, and with the world. So what are you holding onto that’s holding you back? A feeling of superiority around some kinds of people? A feeling to stay small bc you’re afraid of making a mistake? The desire to be constantly approved of? Do the work, and bin it. 

WE NEED TO BELONG SOMEWHERE

As individuals, we are soft-wired to be both selfish & groupish. It’s what helped our ancestors survive in harsh environments within tribal communities. This tribalistic desire to belong and to be approved of by our in-group is still as salient as ever, and is explicit in society today, particularly when confronted with politicised issues. It’s easy to admonish and dehumanise others when you feel as if they’ve made conscious choices to believe what they believe – and those beliefs (according to you) are wrong. However, it makes it harder to understand one another, reach common ground and find positive solutions to problems. 

WE ARE ALL OUR OWN UNIVERSE

While the conversations around race, gender, sexuality, etc. are all completely necessary, a danger these conversations can pose is the unintentional definition of an individual by what is essentially only one part of them. We are all complex, multi-faceted, radiant, unfinished and often contradictory organisms. Our brains have the tendency to fall into the default of stereotyping or simplifying the complexities of others, particularly when we don’t know too much about them. Don’t be lazy. Learn. Be open. Fuck up. Do better. Be compassionate. Be curious. And be prepared to be dazzled. 

Why you won’t know who you are and what you want out of life until you give yourself a fucking break

Out of high school I was very passionate and driven. There was a whole life and career that I envisaged for myself and I was keen to get started on it. However, as become clear through my tumultuous, laborious and scattered twenties, none of the things I believed I wanted for my life actually brought me any joy or sense of accomplishment. I drifted from one career aspiration to the next, with fabulous opportunities to grow and cultivate myself in live theatre, commercial radio, film & television production, and the visual arts. And each time, the opportunity and experience fizzled out leaving nothing more than a brittle sense of disappointment and failure. 

Looking back on all that now, I recognise that I actually had no idea what I wanted. I was a complete and utter stranger to myself. And it’s no surprise, because I treated myself like an absolute c*nt.

When understanding our relationships with others, it makes complete sense that most of us only reveal our real and authentic selves when we feel very, very safe. People cultivate this sense of safety in the way they treat us – with kindness, softness, understanding, and trust. We rarely bare our souls and reveal our intimate needs with someone else who heavily criticises us, demeans us, takes advantage of us and doesn’t ever listen. However, this is pretty routine behaviour when it comes to the relationship we have with ourselves.

When it comes to ourselves we don’t think twice to label ourselves “stupid” or “lazy”, “fat”, “old” or “a failure”. We push our bodies to the breaking point with work or parenting or partying, never heeding the growing demands to pause, reflect and rest. We avoid quiet time with ourselves, instead, drowning out periods of stillness with illuminated screens and endless Seinfeld re-runs. It’s no wonder we’re reluctant to reveal our innermost needs & desires. We treat ourselves like crap. But while you may have made this kind of inward relationship second nature, it doesn’t mean you can’t turn things around – after all, you have a lifetime so it’s never too late. I have been working on reinventing my relationship with myself over the past 4 or 5 years. I won’t say it’s been easy, after all, my inner self was understandably suspicious after all the initial maltreatment. But slowly, and reticently she’s begun to reveal herself. And here are some kindness practices that I used to help coax her out – hopefully they’ll help for you too…

  1. Stop with the negative self-talk.
    It’s not motivating. It’s not chic. And it’s not necessary to make hilarious memes out of. Think of the things you say to yourself and ask yourself if you’d say those things to someone you actually like and would want to be on your side. Trade in cruelty and condemnation for curiosity and compassion. It’s fine to make mistakes, it’s fine to screw up – just be creative in the way you respond to yourself afterwards. See how you can try to soothe and learn, rather than criticise and condemn. Also, call a mate out for being unkind to themselves, help them see how they might reframe that into something fuelled by kindness and self-respect.
    .
  2. Seek out stillness.
    If you want to hear what your inner self wants and needs out of life, you need to make space to listen. That means taking time out to  go inward. Practices like meditation, yoga, deep breathing and intentional listening are great to give your mind and body some space from the demands of the world and let your inner connection flourish.
    .
  3. Walk away from toxic people & places.
    If there are outer relationships or environments that make you feel really shitty, it’s time to move on from them. The longer you resist, the longer you tell your inner self that this is what you deserve. Try to surround yourself with people who have your back and lift you up, and immerse yourself in places that leave you feeling creative, connected, recharged and purposeful. 

It can be a tough time reinventing your inward relationship but there really is no rush. Baby steps are better than no steps. And you can be guaranteed that once you foster a better relationship with yourself you will begin to see your external relationships improve, and your relationship blossom of external experiences and opportunities. Best of luck showing yourself some love this year, you bloody deserve it.

A revised list on what to do before getting pregnant

What my miscarriage taught me about second chances.

This month I had a miscarriage. It was the first time I had ever been pregnant and the pain of the loss was incredibly visceral and real. Over the space of three months I was swept away in the idea that in a few months more, my world would be radically different. My life would not be solely my own responsibility anymore. I would be blessed with an experience unlike any other and my life would cop an entire overhaul. I felt nervous, excited and began readying myself. And then, one moment, laying beneath the cool jelly of the sonographer’s wand, it was all over. There was no heartbeat. No growth. There would be no baby.

It’s an odd feeling. Losing something that you never had, but that you so vividly imagined was already yours. The grief hit hard at first and then came in waves. While being in the midst of the loss, it was hard to see beyond the immediate pangs of my own sadness. I knew, deep down that there could be some lesson in this experience, some solace that, in time, I could grow within (despite the physical absence of such realities). I let my emotions play out. I listened to sad songs, wrote in my journal, sobbed in meditation and shared my journey with close friends and loved ones. As the acute pangs of grief subsided, I realised that there was indeed a gift that I could take from this tragedy. That gift was a second chance at a life without a baby, with space to allow myself to grow into a greater wife, friend and future-mother. I started asking myself what this second chance afforded me, and what I could discover and indulge in before my partner and I took the leap into the family-fray once more.

There are plenty of lists online about “what to do before falling pregnant” but they’re all about quitting smoking or taking vitamins or budgeting for nappies. But what about real, genuine learnings and experiences that would be useful (or at least much more convenient) before facing the impossible task of raising children? I asked a few of my friends who have kids. I thought about the limitations I felt I faced in my few months of pregnancy. I honed in on the things that overwhelmed and scared me most about the prospect of mothering. And I came up with this list…

Take Control of Your Thoughts & Manage Your Emotions

This one is not reserved for the parents-to-be, but is the responsibility of all of us. If you’re not behind the driver’s seat when it comes to your thoughts and emotions, they will well-and-truly run the show. Not to mention that, being unaware of how to deal with them effectively means it will be impossible for you to help teach your kids how to do the same. Learning to spot thought patterns that are destructive, limiting and unhelpful and becoming adept at replacing them with more cognitively nutritious ways of thinking is an incredible life-skill. As is learning to identify and sit with uncomfortable emotions, and not becoming obsessed with getting rid of them or changing them. This is something I’ve been working on over the past few years with regular mindfulness meditation, journaling and thought disruption practices, and it has been truly life changing.

Do Stuff that is Reckless and Indulgent

There is a LOT of fun stuff that they tell you not to do when you’re pregnant – beyond the whole no-drinking, no-oysters and lay off the soft, unpasteurised cheeses thing (hell, they even tell you you shouldn’t go in a spa bath). When I found out I was pregnant, I found myself wondering when is the next time I could ride a rollercoaster, or go on a horse trail ride? What about bungee jumping or trapeze? I know that life and fun doesn’t stop when you have kids, but it sure does get harder to drop everything one weekend and do something silly, lazy or possibly dangerous. When you have other little people whose lives depend on you, you need to get responsible. Which means that, post-kids, letting off fireworks out in a field somewhere, on mushrooms, might not seem like the best idea. But it doesn’t make it any less fun. So why not indulge now, when you have the freedom?

Get Comfortable Being Out of Control

As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I did all I could to ensure I was being a stand-up gestational goddess. I made sure I was drinking the right teas, taking the right vitamins. I stayed away from people with flu, I moved my body mindfully and tried to limit stress and manage my anxiety. And guess what? I miscarried anyway. I think there is this real idea that mothering provides you with the opportunity of total control – you grow baby, you raise baby. You are calling all the shots. When in reality, I think that it couldn’t be further from the truth. Before and even while you give birth, there is so much that can happen that really has little to nothing to do with you. Then, when you are raising a child, I’m sure you discover that they are a whole entire little person with obscure needs and desires that you cannot always intuit or control completely. You can’t take the reins of life and lead it in your preferred direction one hundred percent of the time. Realising that sometimes whatever happens is going to happen, despite how much you micro-manage or over prepare for alternate outcomes, is beautiful permission to let go and roll with it.

Cherish Your Body

I have to admit that being pregnant was the first time in a very long time that I was able to look at my body in a mirror and not greet it with the superficial desire that it should be different. That my waist should be smaller. My thighs should be slimmer. That my shoulders were too broad and ugly and my teeth were the wrong size. After discovering I was pregnant, I kinda said “fuck that! I’m growing a person in here.” And figured that was enough. And of course, it was. But I also stopped and wondered to myself “Hey…I’ve always been growing a person in here. Not, physically another person, but me.” I wondered why it took me gestating a foetus to pause and marvel at the gifts of the human body and all the wonderful experiences and opportunities it affords me. How it houses me and protects me and does so much intricate and incredible stuff to keep me alive without me even thinking about it. If I ever have kids, I’d love for them to learn that too.

Learn Gratitude for the Phases of Your Life

In our society, it’s easy to think that we live life in a linear fashion. One thing follows another thing. We grow up, we get a job, we find a partner, we have kids, etc. and we die (hopefully at the end) and that’s it, the story’s over. However, the more I learn from the lives of those around me and from the very essence and fluidity of nature is that life runs in cycles. Sometimes we can find ourselves back to feeling the same sort of vulnerability and confusion like we did as children lost in a shopping mall.  Or drunk on power and control like we did as the older sibling lauding over our familial minions. Transitioning into parenthood is not necessarily a step forward in life, but could be one of going back. Revisiting past challenges and rekindling past kinds of love in new and different ways. There is something to be commiserated in every phase of life, just as there is something to be celebrated. As I languidly woke alongside my husband this morning, on an overcast Sunday at 9:30am to the sound of birds chirping, and faced a day with little in the way of commitments or responsibilities – I figured it was something to be grateful for. As, with the future prospect of child-rearing, this phase may be one that will not be ours forever and one that we will not revisit for a good, long while.

Breathe into Your Future

Something that surprised me most about being pregnant was how real and vividly something became in my mind and heart before it existed tangibly in my life. It was as if the physical proof of the first ultrasound scan gave me licence to believe this was something meant for me in my life. It made me wonder why I am so reluctant to believe so richly and fully in other parts of my own future this way. Sure, there’s no “career prosperity” ultrasound scan that you can get, and hey, even if you could – it’s no hard proof that that’s what you can expect with one hundred percent certainty. But hope is a beautiful thing. And it did feel powerful to hold onto it as I did, despite this time, with it coming to nothing. I’d like to learn to bring more of this faith into my daily life. Give myself permission to look forward and fully own that vision of what I want my life to become – with babies and beyond.

The selfish side of empathy

Empathy gets a good rap – and so it should. It enables us to connect with one another on an emotional level, and feel alongside others, particularly those who may be suffering.

I’ve always considered myself a rather empathetic person. I’m a good reader of other people’s emotional states. I’m quick to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. I cry during every Queer Eye episode. etc.

I remember times growing up when my mum was depressed and I felt her mood encompass me. While she was sad I felt unable to feel anything else but sad. I felt so attuned to her emotionally but also made it my duty to suffer alongside her – it felt only fair.

After all, isn’t one being emotionally tone deaf to carry along on one’s merry way when someone you love is feeling such pain?

Now that I’m older, my empathy presents in the same way, however, I’m becoming increasingly sceptical if this emotional mirroring is really a helpful asset. In fact, it may be a feature that places a weighty responsibility on the other person, making them feel culpable for my responsive feelings of sadness (e.g. “if I wasn’t feeling so sad, you wouldn’t be upset). Not only that, but it may have the effect of disallowing the other to accept and experience their own emotions, faced with the added burden of having to comfort me in my allegiant gloom. 

As I become more in tune, less reactive and slightly more curious about my own emotional responses, I’ve begun questioning my automatic empathetic response. In light of much I’ve been learning about holding space for others, listening with intent to understand and allowing others to have their own emotional experiences without judgment or reparation – I wonder how this empathy might be harnessed in a more helpful way. 

I am inspired by my partner – someone with a remarkably high emotional IQ (who hasn’t needed to learn it via a swathe of mental health journals and psychology books, ala me). When he meets me in my moments of suffering and sadness, he doesn’t try to force it out of me, nor does he wilt and wallow in a similar state alongside. He recognises what I’m going through. He lets me feel it without judgment. And while he might extend to me a little more added compassion & sensitivity, he meets me from where he is. If his mood is one of contentment, he doesn’t extinguish this. And having him there, feeling full, is a comfort to me on my darker days. It’s a little reminder of what’s possible. And it makes a part of me happy to know he is happy.

Learning to respond from such a place of strength won’t come naturally to me. My regular programming is firmly engrained and I’m going to have to remain well aware of my emotional responses in the event of the suffering of those close to me, so as not to automatically react with more of the same.

Empathy is a weird thing. But with all the good that it can do (and does), I’ll just have to keep practicing and strive to do it justice.