Self-Improvement through Self-Awareness

29 June, 2014 - Leave a Response

I can be perhaps too willing to take a beating. I am also susceptible to worrying. So it comes as no surprise that I am anxious that I take damage unnecessarily.

Around my twelfth summer, I spent a few weeks with my cousins at their hot, dry place in the desert. One day the neighbor kids mounted a watery attack on us. We counterattacked, of course, but they had us outgunned. The neighbors’ crew-served weapon (garden hose) had us pinned down behind a car. Our supply of grenades (water balloons) was perilously low. While my cousins debated strategy, I did what I figured any good Marine would do: I charged the enemy. Alas, the ferocity of my attack did not carry the day.

During the debriefing (lunch) my older cousin inquired into what particular mental handicap made me think charging their fortifications was a good idea. As I saw it, we were pinned down with no way out. Someone had to do something and, if not me, then who? (My therapist says that it is common for survivors of trauma to think that way.) The enemy had an unlimited supply of ammo and someone needed to change the equation for us to have a chance. (Of course, it would have worked a lot better if I had thought to coordinate with my cousins for them to attack while I drew the fire…)

Now that a few fortnights have passed since I left a particularly unhealthy situation, I naturally turn in the spirit of hansei to assessing what went wrong. In particular, I worry that I contributed to my own mistreatment. Others familiar with the situation insist that I in no way contributed and I am willing to forgo blaming myself. But I do see how certain traits of who I am came into play throughout the duration.

I suppose I must admit that I am willing to take damage to accomplish a goal, to trade hard work for achievement, and to sacrifice myself to defend others. Whether those character traits are strengths or weaknesses depends on the situation. Only by maintaining an awareness of them can I hope to maneuver around the situations where they are weaknesses.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

26 May, 2014 - Leave a Response

The concept of loving yourself is like a Möbius strip to me. I understand how the trick works but it is still just a trick. It is an artificial construct that has value in considering certain properties of reality. But it does not arise spontaneously.

I see the benefit to a person being their own biggest fan. I also see the benefit to a person believing that they can fly but there are also certain costs associated with that belief. Given that people are nowhere near that big of a fan of me, and spend quite a bit of time telling me what I am doing wrong, it seems the height of arrogance to discount everyone else’s assessments.

I can get into a place where I bear more than a passing resemblance to the Col. Jessup character. I think that is in large part due to spending decades feeling like I was alone in hostile territory. When the stakes are high, you simply can not afford to take your performance lightly. Anything less than perfection can result in death.

I am not perfect. I never have been and never will be. All that I can do is continue to work on getting better.

Be Nice Until It’s Time To Not Be Nice

13 April, 2014 - Leave a Response

Unsurprisingly given the combat zone of my childhood, I have a strong aversion to conflict. Being an unarmed child around an adult who flies into a murderous rage over the smallest thing trains you to avoid all confrontation. It is literally a survival skill.

But I think that there are strong reasons for people to avoid conflict most of the time. We all live in a world of finite resources, time being the most precious, and perhaps most finite, of all. The mathematics just works out that conflict will eventually arise. One way to avoid the conflict is to increase the resource in question, either by becoming more efficient in its use or by producing more of it.

Another way to avoid conflict is to simply yield to the other person. A fellow with whom I once worked says that the key to a successful marriage is two words: “Yes, dear.” His philosophy is that there is very little that is worth a fight with your partner. Two decades of marriage has borne out his thinking.

I can certainly take that too far and not protect my own interests as much as I ought. It has been a lifelong struggle to speak up sooner and not let it get to the point where I explode. But each and every time I have to enforce my own boundaries, to ensure that I get what I deserve, I am smothered with anxiety.

I literally have no idea how the other person will take it. Normal people have a good (although never perfect) prediction for how the other side in the conflict will respond. I, on the other hand, am surprised every time someone does not fly into a murderous rage.

Hugs, Not Thugs

22 March, 2014 - Leave a Response

A friend of mine heckled me the other day for stating that I am not a hugger. Perhaps the fact that he is a hugger affects his assessment of others. My birth mother has complained that as a child I suddenly stopped wanting any sort of physical affection. (Although she stops short of admitting why that happened.) I hug my spouse, my children, my grandmother, my cousin, and my dog but that is about it.

Fundamentally the reason is that all hugging feels like grappling to me. I interpret hugs in terms of underhooks and overhooks. I am conscious of where my hips and center-of-mass are. I am aware of the placement of my feet relative to a trip. I recognize that none of this is even remotely normal. But that is my experience.

At university there was a student from Britain who was noteworthy for his above-average and firmly-preserved personal space. The other students assumed that it was because he was British. Whilst I have heard that Scots have one of the largest personal spaces, I wonder if it was more than just his nationality.

As I have said, it is not that I am comfortable with fighting, rather that I became accustomed to it. I was too young to remember but I am sure that my transition from cuddle to skedaddle occurred when I was involuntarily dropped into combat. I learned to stay out of arm’s reach. (I wonder if I would have an even greater personal space if I had been around a kicker.) No place was safe but at least that much distance gave me a head start.

For me a brofist is about as affectionate as I get.

Crash

1 March, 2014 - Leave a Response

A fortnight past I encountered the aftermath of a bad wreck. An ambulance passed me and then I encountered the stopped traffic. A tow truck arrived and dragged what remained of the vehicle across the road and out of the way. The front of the SUV was missing, just gone.

The similarities between this wreck and the one that took my dad triggered me. I knew it immediately but did not realize the magnitude until later. In session a few days later, an image from decades past came to me. I would not call it a memory per se because it was just a flash, an instant of experience. After we had been released from hospital, we must have gone to retrieve what could be salvaged from the wrecked truck and camper. I have this sense of being in a garage, standing next to the wreckage. (Even as I type this the emotion is almost overwhelming.) The phrase that popped into my mind and stuck is “Now what do I do?”

Whilst processing the past and present wrecks, I made a surprising discovery: a strong feeling of abandonment. I would never have said I have an issue with abandonment but, in retrospect, it is should not be surprising given my childhood. Things like being left in a two-by-four-and-chicken-wire pen. Or getting separated from the group and lost amongst the buses at a stadium. Or being ditched at Disneyland by my family of origin.

My traumatic childhood left a steaming pile of anxiety for me and I have always known about my trust issues. Perhaps everyone else knew about the matter of abandonment. (My therapist congratulated me on coming out of the closet on my abandonment issues.) I think it got mixed and confused with the anxiety and mistrust. But it makes sense that it would be of significance to me since a pack means no one gets left behind or forgotten.

Overachiever

26 January, 2014 - Leave a Response

I can be a wee bit of an overachiever. While this may appear like competitiveness to some, I am trying to reach a standard rather than beat an opponent. It is all about my performance, not anyone else’s. (I guess I am a wee bit of a solipsist, too.) While I certainly take some pride in achievement, the driving factor for me is earning my place on the lifeboat.

By the quirks of youthful social structure, the most popular kid in school during my pre-teen years was the principal’s son. He had a next-door neighbor the same age (who attended the public school) with whom we spent a lot of time. By the quirks of pop culture, roller skating rinks were all the rage at that time. The local rink was Skate Junction, originally conceived during the urban cowboy phase but soon redressed with just brown shag carpet. One weekend the neighbor invited some of us kids for an afternoon at the roller rink.

I was never much of a roller skater. As a nine-year-old I remember a teacher heckling my strange style of resting my weight on my left leg and pushing with my right leg. While it did work well with the convention of turning widdershins, I suppose they considered its asymmetry unorthodox. (I would use that style to great effect in a few years when I started skateboarding.) Of course the reason for this strange style was that my left leg was already noticeably shorter than my right leg.

The most dreaded part of any trip to the roller rink was when the DJ would turn down the lights and replace the disco with a ballad for the Couples Skate. As being short, round, and smart is not a recipe for romantic success, I knew my place when he announced the couples skate. I pushed my way off the rink and found a corner in which to hide my ignominy.

The next door neighbor had brought his sister, Margie. The combination of being a few years older,  Nordic heritage, and fortuitous genetics produced a curvy, ginger, “older” woman, a combination for which I have a particular weakness. I am sure it was obvious to everyone but me that I was quite charmed by her. I can only hope that I kept the bug eyes and drooling to a decorous minimum.

Imagine my surprise when, while I am holding up a carpeted half-wall, Margie leaves her group of friends and skates up to us. I assume that she wants to speak with her brother but, to my utter surprise, she talks to me! With a sweet smile, she asks if I would like to skate. One would think that I would have jumped at the chance, told her that it was a dream come true, and skated off into the sunset. (Metaphorically as I presume Skate Junction would want their skates back.) There was a part of me that screamed for it but I said no.

I thought she was making fun of me.

I felt like I had not achieved that level of acceptance. If I could not even be good enough to not be abused, why could I think that I was good enough to merit the attention of a dream girl like Margie? I overachieve not because I am trying to beat out someone else. I overachieve because I am still trying to earn my place in the family.

Crafty

22 December, 2013 - Leave a Response

Most people have heard the adage to tell people how you feel because you never know when you will no longer have the chance. Perhaps this is one of those things that requires personal experience to convert from an intellectual fact to an internalized truth. One particular regret shows that in stark highlight.

Years ago I was working at one of the fly-by-night companies that pepper my curriculum vitae. Perhaps it was the shared misery but the best parts of these places were the people I met. One of these hidden gems was J. Crafton Timmerman III, or Crafty as one of our friends called him. My spouse and I loved him the moment we met him. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the challenges of his earlier years, he had a positive energy and wry outlook that resonated with us.

We stayed in contact after we left that company but eventually we moved north and he moved east. It became harder to remain in touch but we tried. I remember his Christmas card one year was made out of a photo he had taken of a stained glass window. (As an aside, I think that was the genesis of our cards made with my photos.) We even talked on the phone a few times back in the day when long distance calls were not free.

I was so depressed, in such a bad place, the last time that he called. Of course, I had no idea that it was the last time we would talk. I certainly had good reason to be struggling but I had not yet learned the skills to identify and process it. I know that he would have been sympathetic but I was too caught in my own spiral to even recognize it. So that conversation was awkward and polluted with my darkness.

A few years ago I googled him to reconnect and found his obituary. It saddens me to even write this now. I miss Crafty and wish I could talk with him again, even if it was just one more time.

Independency

6 December, 2013 - One Response

In my experience, the people who loudly proclaim that they are an independent person are just establishing an excuse for their upcoming rudeness. I expect most people would like to avoid being entirely dependent on someone else. As a parent and a pack animal, I understand and am comfortable with others depending on me.

It came as something of a surprise to me when a friend commented that I was an independent person. Over the last two years, I have noticed quite a few cases where my image of myself differs from everyone else’s image of me. In those cases I have been forced to reevaluate myself and change my thinking. So when my friend called me independent, I had no choice but to introspect and determine to what degree that is true.

While never stated explicitly, I learned in my childhood that the best I could expect was indifference; any interest taken in me was rarely benevolent. So it stands to reason that I would have become rather independent: I knew that I was on my own. Of course, as a child I had limited resources and that independence grew in a warped way.

I think that factors into a lot of aspects of who I am. I rarely ask for help not because I arrogantly think I need no help but rather because I am surprised when someone helps me when I ask. My first instinct is to not share what I am feeling because no one else but me cared what I felt. The experience of being an outcast manifests as paranoia and defensiveness. I strive to be strong and capable so that I can control my own destiny.

I have worked hard for decades to create a new family, a new pack, that can depend on me. I am not sure how that reconciles with my newly-discovered independence. I hope to remain polite, though.

Semper Vigilo

20 October, 2013 - Leave a Response

Last weekend my spouse took the kids and the dog for a walk in a local park. Even though still recovering from illness, I decided to accompany them. But rather than take the dog for a walk, I took my camera and went off on my own.

Being alone in the park was nice. Having my camera made me even more comfortable. Walking quietly through the trees, scanning around me, holding a tool with some heft that would shoot when I pressed a trigger, it felt more than a little like patrolling.

I fear I am deeply abnormal.

Smile When You Say That

2 September, 2013 - Leave a Response

A friend of mine recently described me to someone else as happy, not as a temporary reaction to a specific event but as a continual state. I am not sure whether such a description makes me unhappy. But I have reservations about its accuracy.

Another friend of mine once said that I work very hard at being happy. I would certainly own that assessment. I have no memories before my dad’s death but the twenty years after it had very little happiness indeed. Sadness was the dominant emotion of the first quarter-century of my life. Since I do not especially enjoy being sad, I definitely work hard at being happy. Even simple decisions like routes to commute or movies to watch are driven in part by trying to be as happy as possible.

Humor has always been my primary coping mechanism. (I am learning that it need not be my sole coping mechanism.) Given the amount of loss and terror in my younger years, it is unsurprising that my humor can be somewhat black at times. Maybe this is too fine a distinction but my humor at the darkness seeks not to celebrate it but to drive it back. I would love to live in a world without loss and sadness and terror. But until that happens I continue to try to improve the little bit right around me.

Even though it contradicts my belief about myself, I have to accept others’ perceptions of me. Maybe being a happy person is not what you are but what you do. Perhaps the fact that I work so hard at being happy is why I qualify as a happy person.

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