Fight or flight?

I avoid feeling afraid, it’s what drives my anxiety, always has. As a kid, I had a lot of things to be afraid of but had no way of managing them. I had no outlet, I just shoved them as far down as I possibly could. And now my older daughter is the age I was when my fear and anxiety were probably their worst. It’s triggering a lot of difficult feelings for me and I’m not sure I’m managing them all that well.

I fear her fear. I fear her inability to cope with her fear. It triggers way too many feelings of insecurity and being out of control. I rarely do things that make me feel afraid, it’s an emotion that really stirs up very painful memories. And now that she is that age and struggling with her own transition from being a little girl to a pre-teen where independence is king, I feel for her so much. And yet, at the same time, I struggle with finding the empathy that’s required to get to patience.

I think this is where an inability to understand fear really damages us, both as children and as adults. Fear is the body’s response to external stimuli – fight or flight. It’s biological, instinctual, where the body reacts because we used to be chase by lions. But in 2019, fear can cripple. It can turn inwards, becoming anxiety or depression. If left unchecked, the inability to manage fear can turn into a lifetime of running from challenging situations. I lack some pretty fundamental skills for helping my daughter – I don’t understand how most people manage their fears, and by extension, help their children manage theirs.

This is something that’s going to require extra attention. Her fear makes me angry, upset, impatient. Some people pray on problems, others meditate. Some drink their fear, shop their fear, lash out, make excuses. I talk mine out. How do you manage fear? How do you help your children with theirs? xo Janet

Is there a higher power?

I had a really interesting conversation recently with someone who told me that they had found their spirituality through recovery. I admire the resolve, the belief that there are higher powers. I’m not a believer in a higher power, never have been. I just don’t get it. It’s a difficult thing to admit but I’ve been agnostic for so long that I’m not even sure what I believe anymore. Sometimes I think believing in a higher power would be helpful, particularly in the difficult times. But I just can’t get there, I’m not even sure if I’m motivated to.

I know people who have gone through recovery and found a higher power, a deeper meaning of life. I feel like this is a real challenge for me, a mystery. I wasn’t raised in a religious household and frankly for this, I’m grateful. I know that if I had been coming out would have been so much harder. I think being a spiritual person is a real gift for so many and I’m certainly envious. Maybe I’ll get there eventually; I’m more concerned with the here and now – my children, my family, my work.

I don’t dispute the faith of others, I don’t underestimate the value that belief in a higher power can have in their lives. I’ve just never had any reason to suspend my brain long enough to have a spiritual experience. Growing up, on Sunday, my family went to the church of the NFL and that was fine with me.

Maybe this is the point of meditation. But even in that I use it as a way of slowing down my thoughts, quieting the anxiousness I feel most days. I haven’t meditated in awhile, maybe it’s time to start again. xo Janet

Pushing buttons

Being a parent means having a lot of your buttons pushed, unless of course you had a super amazing childhood and your parents were perfect and nothing bothers you. So, basically not me. My children are the loves of my life, I adore them. But they push almost every button I have. When my anxiety is high, when I’m stressed, when I’m overwhelmed, the irritants become many and my temptation is to tell them exactly how they’re being annoying.

What is really hard for me, and maybe for others too, is checking my own emotional response before I take my anxiety or stress out on them. I have a hard time disengaging, walking away when my buttons are being pushed. In any circumstances really, at work, at home, with my family members. I normally get sucked in. I normally take the bait, I can barely help myself.

I think this is what growth might look like for me. Not taking the bait, not always trying to win the argument or be right. Checking my emotional response before before I open my mouth or say something I’m going to regret. Or sound unhinged, which is the look our older daughter gives me when I’m giving her a hard time about the tv being too loud. She gives me this look like, “what is your problem”? And honestly I don’t know what my problem is.

Our oldest is almost nine and this is a tricky age: bossy, bold, strident, opinionated, sassy. So basically my doppelganger. The problem is, as a kid, I was never allowed to be any of these things. I could be sassy for entertainment, like a trained monkey, but not for real. Not to stand up for myself, not to be myself. I wasn’t allowed to talk back or shout or be rude. I wasn’t allowed to be bossy or strident or weak. I wasn’t allowed to express myself in any way that wasn’t completely and totally unobtrusive. So when Finley is sassy and rude, I take the bait. Every time. There is something deep inside my psyche that is yelling at me, don’t let her get away with it, she’ll turn into a monster! And then I take the bait. There’s a fine line between teaching her to be a polite, civilized person living in the world and being a total control freak about everything she says.

I have a lot of buttons to push and they’re not that far from the surface. I want my girls to know that having buttons is normal to push. That it’s not unreasonable to feel irritation, annoyance, anger, frustration and sadness. But what I’m really hoping to learn, and to teach them, is how not to take their shit out on other people. xo Janet

Being shamed for emotional reactions is a powerful motivator

Credit: @frizzkidart

Kids grow up with a view of the how emotional responses are suppose to work just by watching their parent or parents or primary caregiver(s) respond to the world around them. They also understand how to emotional responses are supposed to work by how their caregivers respond to them. Children want to know if their emotional responses are a) acceptable and b) normal. Being shamed for having emotional responses as a kid is a sure fire way to teach children not to: show emotions, connect with their emotions, and/or that they are a freak for having a normal emotional response to something stressful, sad or upsetting.

So, if we take this logic into adulthood, what do we get? Disconnection, lack of empathy for self and others, a fundamental belief that we are somehow different or inherently flawed/unfixable. We suppress or repress our emotion, we bury them in food or alcohol or other quick hits, we have difficulty being vulnerable or connected to others, even those we love the most. It’s a shame cycle that isn’t pretty – I have difficulty expressing my emotions because I have an built-in shame response about doing this, people view me as lacking the ability to connect or be vulnerable, I feel more shame for being defective or broken in some way. Rinse and repeat.

What do we do then as adults when this is happening? Can I think my way out of this? Yes and no in my experience. The first thing I did was learn about the range of human emotions and that these are totally normal for me to express. Sounds weird but it’s true. Second, I learned from my therapist that we’re all flawed and fallible, that’s being human, and that this is, also, totally normal and ok. Third, I learned that when I default to an emotional response that isn’t functional or rationale (extreme worry, anger, frustration, etc), that I can write down the story I have in my head about what is going on and work it through. What does that mean? In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists use things called “thought records”. It sounds weird at first but once you do them on paper a couple of times it gets pretty easy to start doing it in your head. I do these in my head a lot when I have anxiety or when I’m really frustrated by something. I’m not an expert on CBT, a therapist or a source of advice on thought records but if you want to learn more, go here.

I have found that there are tools and resources that help me when I’m in a shame spiral, particularly when it comes to feeling guilty, anxious or getting angry/frustrated about something. Shame is something we learn as a kid in so many different ways and all of it comes with trauma. But we can unlearn the shame we feel and respond differently. We can work through the trauma and the thoughts or mental scaffolding we have built up around it. This is a way through, not away from, tough stuff emotionally. Keep leaning into the fear of being emotional exposed and you’ll find it’s not so scary after all. xo Janet

enforcing my boundaries is a pain in the ass

Credit: Amy Wright Glenn

Meg posted this on Facebook a little while ago and even though I don’t know who Amy Wright Glenn is, I really loved this. Then I started to think about what it actually means for me to be able to do this and I got very uncomfortable. Boundaries are hard for me. I have only a few I know how to clearly enforce and the ones I do have I protect liked a possessed zealot. Boundaries are my achilles heel, the bane of my existence. Bane comes from the Old English, “destroyer or murderer”. Boundaries, or lack thereof in my case, are the destroyer of my mental health, my sanity, my wellbeing.

How many of you have good, clear boundaries? How did you learn this? Did your parents teach you to have good boundaries? Mine certainly didn’t. In our house, you did what you were told, nothing less. You did not fight or talk back, you didn’t stand up for yourself, you didn’t protest. You just did what was expected of you with military precision. Unfortunately for my parents they had a daughter who never quite got the memo. I did what I was told, sure, I was terrified of disappointing or angering. But, I often spoke up, I often protested, especially as I got older. This didn’t go over very well and it caused a lot of chaos in the system.

I learned to fight, that was it. I learned I could cause conflict through anger and outrage because that was the only way to get anyone to pay attention to what I was saying. Even then they didn’t take me seriously. So I learned that to get anyone to take you seriously you have to get angry. I’m learning that in fact, this isn’t what healthy people do when they communicate with one another. Isn’t that amazing to have to learn that at 42? I am learning that I can enforce my boundaries without melting down. I am learning that I do know how to communicate appropriately and still get my point across. We tell our girls to use their words all the time and yet this skill fails me when I’m really upset. I just get angry or, if things are really going badly, I shut down completely.

So remember folks, if you have issues with enforcing your boundaries in a healthy, productive, respectful way like me, you can unlearn these habits. You can learn new communication skills. You can learn to express your needs in a way that doesn’t make the other person upset or defensive or angry themselves. If it’s possible for this middle age lady with serious boundaries issues to do it, you can too. xo Janet

we still need people to call our own

We used to live in tribes, even in Europe, where my people are from. My family is from England and Wales and even there, several hundreds of years ago, people lived in tribes with their children and other families. Tribes, in North America, are typically thought of as Indigenous, and this is still true today. A tribe is, ” a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader”. We don’t call them tribes in Canada, we say a community or a First Nation. But they are a tribe, a group of families linked by social, economic or blood ties with a common culture and perhaps, even if they are still lucky enough to have elders who speak their traditional language, a common dialect.

I am what many refer to as a WASP – white, anglo-saxon protestant. WASPs invaded North America in the 1770s, those were my people. They came on boats as Loyalist soldiers, ready to fight those nasty colonialists who were trying to tell Mother Britain to kiss their non-tax paying asses. This is how my people got to the Ottawa Valley – they fled north after they lost with the promise, from the the Crown, of “free land” in Upper and Lower Canada. The problem was, at the time, that land was neither free nor unoccupied. But I digress.

So, three hundred years later, here I am, still a WASP. My people, i.e. the ones I am related to by blood and not marriage, aren’t mine anymore for a variety reasons. I don’t have a mom I can call and ask to babysit our kids or help me with groceries or run an errand for me when I’ve had back surgery and can’t move. I don’t have parents who do that. Meg does, and bless them for it. I love and am so grateful for my in laws. But I don’t have a group of families that I’m bound to by blood or other social, economic or linguistic ties in the same way my ancestors were, and that’s hard. It’s really hard, especially on women. Especially when our kids are young and we’re drowning in obligation and exhaustion.

In Canada today, we typically aren’t bound at least by the same sense of neighbourhood identity or community or culture. Some people are, and they are fortunate. They are blessed with the social ties that many of us WASPs don’t have. And frankly, I’m green with envy. I wish I had those ties, those bonds. I want to take my neighbours food when they’re sick or babysit their kids if they need to get out for the night. I want to do that because it makes me feel connected to the people I care about. But we don’t tend to reach out in North America and ask, we hide in our little ticky box houses and save the pain of disconnection for our spouses or parents or, more often than not, we keep it to ourselves.

What binds you to your community, your people? Where do you find your support? Where do those ties reside? If they’re with your parents, and that works, awesome. If it doesn’t? Yeah, I get it. Also, what about our friends and neighbours? How can we support each other more? How can we show we care in a way that isn’t just a pleasantry in the morning or small talk about the weather? Next time I see you, I’m going to give you a hug if that’s ok with your boundaries. If it’s not, that’s cool too. xo Janet

new year’s eve 1985ish

There’s a story in my family that my dad loves to tell about me when I was 6 or 7 years old. It happened on New Year’s Eve when my parents had a huge party. My parents loved to entertain, we had a great house for it. My job at my parents’ parties was two-fold: coat check and bartender. I could make a mean scotch and water at 6 years old. The trick is to measure the scotch with two fingers. I was mixing drinks before I was old enough to reach the scotch on my own. I just used the stool that was in our family room.

So new year’s eve 1984 or ’85 rolls around and my parents are throwing a huge party, a rager really. I had been on bartending duty and then I guess one of my parents, probably my mom, told me to go to bed at some point. My bedroom was right above the living room where the party was going strong at midnight. I wasn’t able to sleep and I was pissed off. Then, I heard it. Music blasting from downstairs. And not just any music, my brand new Tina Turner Private Dancer record. My parents had a record player in our family room but there was a huge speaker in the living room. I was so mad that a) my parents were partying and I couldn’t sleep and 2) they were playing my record without having asked my permission first. This was unforgivable to me and I remember so clearly being mad about it. So I decided I was going to do something about it. I put on my house coat and slippers ( remember house coats?!) and I went downstairs to the entrance of the living room. There were all of these people, completely drunk, partying in the living room. The music was blaring. All of a sudden, my dad notices me just standing there looking at them and says, what’s going on? I put my hands on my little hips and said loudly, “turn that music off and get these people out of my house!” Immediately, my dad started laughing. Then the whole room was laughing. He then told me to go back to bed. I didn’t understand why they weren’t taking me seriously.

That was an early, and very vivid lesson about how my parents would respond to what I needed, especially when they were drinking or drunk. When you’re a kid growing up in a family run by alcoholics, what you want really doesn’t register as important. That new year’s eve was the first lesson in that, my sleep, my things, didn’t matter. My feelings didn’t matter. What I wanted didn’t matter. That’s what I learned that night. That story is a bit of lore in my family, my dad still tells it and laughs. It burns me to hear him tell it, I can feel the anger in my throat every time. But telling these stories here makes them mine and I feel a little less like a raging mad six year old when I do. xo Janet