Big-Brained and Beautiful

For anyone that experienced the same hateful school trauma that I did, raising your hand to answer a question equated to volunteering to stand in front of a firing squad. Not because you didn’t know the answer (only an idiot raises their hand when they don’t know the answer), but because you admitted you DID understand the posed question. QED: you were announcing to the world that you held a glimmer of intelligence.

Big mistake.

Even in my advanced classes, volunteering knowledge and smarts meant setting yourself up for failure. Not in the class (teachers adore a smart kid), but in the jungle that was your peers. It made no sense to me then, and it still doesn’t add up to me now. After all, the stereotypical image is that intelligence is something to be admired and respected. (Okay, maybe not at this moment in this country – in general, though) Posters decorated the hallways proclaiming a need to study, to better yourself, to stand up and nourish your brain cells.

Meanwhile, every time you showed the slightest glimpse of those smarts, your classmates took it upon themselves to beat you into the ground (sometimes literally). Smart wasn’t cool, wasn’t acceptable, and wasn’t tolerated. Again, even the advanced classes had a tolerance threshold, and woe betide you if you dared to cross that line. It was a lesson I learned EARLY:

Never let on how smart you really are.

I intentionally failed tests – including the entrance test for the advanced program. (When you know the correct answers, it isn’t hard to pick the wrong ones. It’s also easy to gauge the rough percentage you need to get wrong to not come off as a complete idiot and arouse suspicions) Of course, I made the mistake of bragging about that particular exploit and got a lecture from my parents (and ended up repeating the test a few years later – without knowing what the test was for. Wonder of wonders, I passed with a startlingly high score). I always made sure I got just enough answers wrong on tests to keep my “A” average but not get 100s all the time.

Except…people still hated me. Because I was still smart. My need to keep my parents happy with straight “A” report cards alienated me from my peers. And when you like the teacher who calls on you? You can’t lie or fumble an answer. (They KNOW you know – it sucks) All of my attempts to hide my brain resulted in an epic fail, and I found myself shunted to the fringes.

Smart people get tarred with a brush of humiliation. Despite the fact that people run around demanding answers all the time, they’d rather listen to YouTube videos or podcasters than those with backgrounds in the topic they’re asking about. Intelligence gets ridiculed, even as they cower in the counter and wonder over the end of the world. It’s the biggest catch-22 in the world, and it’s damaging to those of us with beautiful brains.

You develop this reluctance to speak up. It doesn’t matter that you have the answer or know the solution to a problem. Your entire body seizes up, and you stay silent out a sense of preservation. If you don’t say anything, no one will make fun of you later. (Never mind that they’ll also figure out what’s going wrong; that never seems to occur to them) It’s like existing in a real-life zombie movie where you watch everyone else get picked off, one by one, while you sit there, holding the antidote.

Madness, right?!

For me, college was a breath of fresh air. I had four years where being smart received praise and awe. The people around me shared the same mindset, applauding those who raised their hands and volunteered information. You surged around intelligence and hoped it rubbed off on you – because I wasn’t the smartest kid there. I breathed easy for the first time. And I foolishly thought that enlightened state of mind would carry through to my adult life.

And then my first job introduced me to the Good Old Boys Network. It didn’t matter if I had a better way of doing things; I was a girl trying to step out of bounds and act intelligent. Could I go back to my cube and just do what I was told? No one wanted my opinion. And I definitely wasn’t deemed smart enough to venture changes or improvements. I was a mindless gopher, following instructions. It was a soul-sucking environment.

And leaving Cube Land didn’t make things better. People don’t like it if you try to offer ideas that are smarter than theirs. You get frowns, ridicule, or just steamrolling. “Work smarter, not harder?” Yeah, that phrase has no meaning in the real world. If you attempt to show someone a more reasonable way of doing things, they flounce away as if you’ve insulted their ancestors. And then you find yourself getting shut out by everyone else. It’s school all over again.

And it’s WRONG!

No matter where you are – school, college, work – you have the right to be intelligent. If you’re smart, then SHOW it! I know it won’t gain you any friends (well, except for the rest of us nerds), but trying to cram yourself into that idiot box? First of all, it’s full of insipid morons. They’re lousy company. Second, there’s no room in the damn box because they aren’t smart enough to get in there in a logical manner. So now you’re wedged into an uncomfortable position with a bunch of mouth-breathers? Come on – you deserve better than that.

I hid my brain for a long time, squashing it into a tiny box. I was embarrassed that I was smart. I stopped using some of my vocabulary, shrank into the back of the room, and hunched my shoulders. I let the outside world dictate who I got to be. It took a supreme effort of will to stand up and admit I was SMART. To defend my choice of words in documents. To point out that my way of doing things made more sense than twelve extra steps that accomplished nothing. To accept that I couldn’t tolerate stupid activities – even if it meant losing friends. (That was the biggest kicker, by the way)

Your brain is a gift. I’m not an advocate of reading the news, but if you need proof of how important your intelligence is, skim the headlines some time (especially a paper from Florida). You’ll see how lucky you are NOT to be one of those people. If the rest of the world wants to sneer, let them. When things go to shit (and the way 2020 is going, that’s shaping up as a real possibility), they’ll be the first to go. Your smarts will keep you alive and kicking, figuring things out.

So raise your hand. Speak up with an idea. Ignore the smirks and rolled eyes. Those detractors are zombie-fodder. There’s nothing, NOTHING wrong with being five steps ahead. Don’t let the world dull the shine of your thoughts. Smart is beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

For Shame

Photo by Ian on Unsplash

As a kid, I spent my formative years receiving a Catholic upbringing. Every Sunday, we trooped down to church. (So, yes, I’m a familiar with the routine of kneeling and sitting and standing) I even spent a few years at a Catholic school, complete with a uniform and the overriding fear of Mother Superior swooping in on the classroom. I didn’t make my break with organized religion until after college. Which means a hefty indoctrination of healthy Catholic guilt.

And Catholics INVENTED guilt.

While I’ve successfully shrugged off most of the teachings jammed into my head during those early years, breaking that guilt chain hasn’t been so successful. And it’s tempting to blame the religion, but the world, in general, likes to beat you with guilt – especially when they know you’re susceptible to it. It’s like sharks scenting blood in the water. They see you twitch, watch the light in your eyes dim, and they know you’re a prime target for well-placed words or a specific tone of voice. Suddenly, you’re shouldering the blame for things that you barely glanced at. You’re carrying the weight of embarrassment and shame for something blown out of proportion. All for the glee and enjoyment of others.

Guilt serves a purpose. It’s the niggling voice of your conscience reminding you when you’ve screwed up. (And, according to Catholics – you’re always screwing up. Fun times) You SHOULD feel guilty when you fuck up, and you need to make reparations where you can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with guilt, when you think about it. But society has embraced the concept in order to torture people. And some of us are prime targets. We’ll feel regret over ANYTHING.

Bump someone’s coffee mug and cause it to spill? That’s worth a week of apologies and a gift card. (When, in reality, a simple apology and cleaning the mess is all the accident is worth)

Knock over a stack of folders on a desk when you trip? Clearly, you need to devote yourself to that person for the remainder of the month. (Never mind that accidents happen. And, honestly, who balances folders on the edge of a desk like that?)

Forget someone’s name? Oh, that’s the end of the world. You’d better order a bouquet of flowers and grovel for forgiveness. (Because that’s never happened in the entire history of the planet)

People see the shame on your face and seize control.

I speak from experience. I’ve turned myself inside out for every mistake I’ve ever made. I damn-near tack myself up for crucifixion! (To be fair, the Catholics don’t require that anymore) Every single slip-up is nuclear, and I crawl over coals and broken glass. And very few people stop me from doing so. Most add additional obstacles for the glee of the entertainment. They know I feel a bottomless, horrible shame, and they milk every second out of it. Notice a glimpse that I may feel better? Oh, no – time to mutter some choice phrases and knock my anxiety back into the stratosphere where it belongs.

And, ironically, those people feel no guilt over their actions. They consider it justification for the mistake, regardless of how minimal it may have been. It feeds into a loop that wasn’t healthy in the first place. Which makes breaking the cycle difficult, if not impossible. How do you stop feeling like a monster when people treat you like you’re an inch tall because you mispronounced a word?

It’s a wretched sickness.

I have to catch myself now. “Is their reaction appropriate to what I did?” The majority of the time (surprisingly), the answer’s coming up a resounding, “NO!” For my own mental health, I have to learn to apologize and walk away, leaving them and their nasty remarks in the rearview mirror. (Shaking apart the entire time because it’s still not easy to accomplish) I can’t let my guilt swamp up and choke me anymore. Of course, breathing through that gut reaction takes more effort than it should.

Some of us are programmed to accept a heavier burden of shame and embarrassment than others. It’s easier than standing up to someone else and point out their overreaction. When you already believe the worst of yourself, it’s easy. So people take advantage of it. And the loop tightens up – usually around our necks.

But most of those hiccups in the day? They’re nothing. They happen to everyone – including the people dragging out our torture (and you won’t see them groveling). We don’t need to balance a giant block of stone on our shoulders in response. If we stop to think for half a second, we’d realize that. Apologize (feel bad, because it’s an ingrained response), and move on. Don’t let the assholes get to you.

Known and Unknown

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

When Pixar created the character Fear in Inside Out, I felt an immediate connection. The heightened awareness of everything going on around him. The jittery nerves (with or without coffee – though they clearly made him a caffeine addict). And the mile-high reports on every conceivable outcome for the situations being presented. Even the disbelieving stares of those around him at the more “outlandish” possibilities he listed in the reports. It was anxiety personified, but given a label of “fear” to appeal to every age group.

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

Fear resides in the heart of anxiety. The tightening spirals we spin down develop out of fears. Ironically, the deeper we get into our whirlpools, the greater those fears become. We start on the fringe with “rational” concerns for every situation we encounter. Then we start to branch out into those possibilities the people around us start laughing at. The kind of things everyone assumes impossible and irrational. (Of course, the way 2020’s been going, I’m not sure how many people are still laughing at us)

It’s hard to interrupt those spirals. People with anxiety are always aware of them. We know when we’re generating our tornadoes. But stopping the process, putting on the brakes and forcing ourselves to breathe…it’s damn near impossible. Trying to do so is like – well, it’s like trying to stop a tornado. What if we overlook something? What if we forget to plan for an eventuality?

Pulses spike, our lungs take in less air, the brain clamps down in the skull, and our body starts shrieking a warning. (We forget to include that possibility. Ironic, right?) Now we’re lying on the floor with people standing over us, staring in shock. And the odds are the situation was minor.

One more time when the spiral won.

I panic over EVERYTHING. I have a 100% satisfaction rating and constant five-star ratings for my writing. Yet each time I turn in an assignment for a new client, I freak out until they respond. And if it’s more than a day, my brain twists in my skull. This is the time my words failed me. The assignment flopped. This client will hate my work and break my streak. I had an off day. I missed an edit that killed the entire article. I’m a complete hack. I’m an utter failure who can’t string one sentence together. It goes on and on until drinking water makes me nauseous. Suddenly, they’re reaching out to my other clients questioning why they’ve hired me.

And then they tell me it’s wonderful, and they’re pleased with my work.

And I repeat the spiral with the next new client. My track record means nothing to my anxiety-fueled brain. Hell, I conjure fifty horrible possibilites for why someone rings the doorbell in the space of walking from my desk to the front door! (It’s usually the postman) And don’t get me started on the phone ringing. I know the gut-check reaction isn’t rational, but trying to stop the flow of concocted possibilites is almost impossible.

While I’m aware elevated cortisol levels aren’t doing my body any favors, I’m pretty sure my system’s adapted to them by now. Let them drop, and I think I’ll crash. (See? The spiral really never stops) However, that cursed way of thinking comes in handy now and then. Thinking of everything means I PLAN for everything. I have a contingency for the bulk of my concerns. (I have no plans for aliens – not yet, anyway) Most people with anxiety work the same way, once they learn their thought patterns. It’s a pseudo-coping method that works with their brain chemistry.

“Okay, we’re going to overreact, but we’re also going to over-respond.”

I rationalize through the fear. It calms the racing pulse, and it keeps my brain from spasming. And it makes me a valuable person to bounce ideas off of. Maybe I come up with situations that aren’t always rational (odds are computers won’t gain awareness and seize control of your company), but most of the contingencies WILL. I can play Devil’s Advocate with the best of them, forcing you to think through things you normally won’t when you’re riding high on a dream. It’s one of the reasons I honestly believe I’ve been so successful in MY dream.

I sat down and wrote through every pitfall. (And at least a dozen that weren’t very likely) With them staring me in the face, I had a chance to think around them. It made stepping off the cliff’s edge easier. It also lessened the tension in my shoulders, around my skull. The practice drives my fiance’ crazy at times, but it gets him thinking. And it’s even made him pause a time or two when I’ve voiced a (real) possibility he didn’t consider. It’s a secret superpower those of us with anxiety have tucked away.

Yes, we’re frustrating. When we tell you we’re concerned about getting mauled by a bear on the subway, we drive you up the wall. But if you take a second to breathe and ask us to think through that statement (and what we can do to avoid it), you’ll steer us AWAY from a deepening spiral. We know the idea’s absurd (we honestly do). We just need help switching tracks in our brain. Figuring out a solution helps. And USING our gift of seeing possible problems when you need to plan – that makes us feel useful.

The spirals are always there. They don’t go away. We see them EVERYWHERE. We just need people to understand them.