A Different Kind of Ceiling

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

~Malcolm X

Storytime! At my high school, the end of the English year meant term paper time. Everyone knew and expected it. You’d get a general topic, and you had a few weeks to turn in at least five pages of double-spaced work, complete with citations and references. It was pretty standard for an Honors class, and everyone knew the drill. So when Junior year rolled around and the teacher gave us the option of writing about any author we wanted, it felt like a jackpot. I’d just finished reading Les Miserables, and my brain was surging with joy for Victor Hugo and his way with words. I dove into the library (yes, library – we didn’t have Google back then) with a giant stack of notecards.

And then things started to unravel.

For some of my classmates, that year was their first experience in an Honors class. And they weren’t prepared or – if I’m being honest – qualified. They complained about EVERYTHING. Quizzes ended up open book to accommodate the fact they hadn’t read the material or studied. She offered Pygmalion as a substitute when they whined that Waiting for Godot was too hard to understand. (I read both – mostly because I loved My Fair Lady) And the term paper? They threw a fit. Within a week, the teacher cut the pages down to three. Three, double-spaced? That was nothing! I protested. I sat down and wrote a long letter to the teacher, outlining every way she’d let down the advanced students. It was the first time I dared to stand up to any adult, much less an authority figure. (And, really, one of the first times I took a chance on standing up for MYSELF)

She ratted me out.

If you aren’t a female and didn’t attend a public school, allow me to clarify things for you. Girls? They’re EVIL. Mean Girls gets it right. The teacher stood in front of my desk, looked straight at me, and announced that “someone” (she didn’t use my name – I’ll give her that much) was unhappy, so the term paper limit was reinstated. I didn’t have the best school life prior to that point, but it went to rock bottom from that point on. Everyone knew who she was referring to. (Why couldn’t she have stood behind her desk to make the announcement?)

I tried to make the best of things. After all, I was already used to threats of being shoved down the stairs. People already slammed my locker shut, narrowly missing my fingers. I got tripped in the hall on a routine basis. And I learned by Sophomore year to wear my hair in a bun to prevent things from getting put in it. (Sometimes I wonder if that trauma is why I’ve chopped it ruthlessly short now) I threw myself into writing one of the best papers of my school career. I was incredibly proud of it. And despite my teacher’s behavior, I expected professionalism from her.

I received my first harsh lesson in learned helplessness.

When our graded papers came back, I flipped to the last page. There was a red “A” written there. I was happy, of course. Until I started to go back through the rest of the paper. Nothing. No marks whatsoever. No notes, no edits, NOTHING. She never read it. Because I know for a fact it wasn’t a perfect paper (no one writes THAT well) I made it to the restroom before I started crying. And I tore the paper to shreds.

As I got older, others reinforced the lesson. I’d attempt something I thought was amazing or noteworthy, and they’d shrug. I’d hold out my accomplishment with a smile, and they’d snatch the rug out from under me. It built up a sense that nothing was ever good enough. Everything I did was actually a failure. I was a dog chasing her tail – never catching it, and with zero chance of doing so. Slowly, the lesson set in: that bar was always going to be out of reach. So why bother trying?

And this happens to people all the time!

It’s a subtle, sinister form of bullying that often goes without notice. Why people do this I have no idea. I don’t know why that teacher behaved as she did. I didn’t go to the Principal with my complaint. I didn’t report her to anyone else, or even threaten to do so. I was a student going to the source. While I understand she probably felt called out, was it worth squashing a person under her heel and leaving her to the mercy of the student body? (And if you want me to believe a teacher doesn’t know what happens in a school environment, you’re crazy) She knew exactly what she’d done. She watched me flip through my paper, looking for a critique that didn’t exist. It was more damaging than if she’d cut it apart and failed the assignment – and she knew it. After all, she was aware of the intelligence level of who she was dealing with.

You can’t hold a carrot out for someone and then tell them you ate it. It’s cruel. People are PROUD of their accomplishments. When they come to you, delighted that they managed to overcome something, and you YAWN?! You might as well stab them; it’d be cleaner. It’s a sadistic practice. But it slides under the radar. People enforce a learned helplessness every day. And the victims sink further and further into depression. They get anxious over attempting anything new. They stop trying.

And maybe that’s the point.

If you’re afraid, if you stop trying, you won’t accomplish anything anymore. Which means you stop running the risk of making them look bad. I crawled into the shadows after that paper. I dropped my head and closed my mouth. I continued to turn in my assignments, of course, but I never said another word when she adjusted the curriculum to suit the class. My acts of rebellion were miniscule. (When our idiot Teaching Assistant decided we needed to play “Head’s Up 7-Up – which I hadn’t done since elementary school – I read and stared her down when she encouraged me to participate) Whatever spark of determination I might have had fizzled and died. She won.

And other people won – over and over. I kept dropping my head and crawling away in shame. I stayed out of the way. The fire grew so cold I’m amazed I ever got it warm again. Because I refuse to let that helplessness rule my life anymore. And it’s a HEAVY blanket to burn away – believe me. I cringe when I hold out something special, expecting the same “meh.” It takes every drop of confidence I’ve scraped together to stand there and say, “Look, I did this!” And if someone DOES shrug, I have to shrug in response and find someone who won’t.

There are different glass ceilings out there no one talks about. The invisible barriers people concoct when they teach you to feel like a failure. They make you ashamed and helpless – for no good reason. And, yeah, it takes hindsight to look back and realize what an amazing badass you were the entire time. Hell, I stood up to a teacher! When no one else would point out her errors, I did. (And I had ZERO confidence back then – believe me) I demanded the education I deserved. How freaking awesome was I?

And how disappointing was she to take that moment away from me? I can’t rewrite history. The years of pulling shadows over my head so no one would see my embarrassment and “failure” aren’t going to suddenly vanish in this new enlightenment. But I CAN break the cycle moving forward. I CAN hold every single thing I do right close and put it up on a shelf to admire it. And I have people who’ll stand beside me and “ooh” and “ahh.” That’s how I move on and burn the damn misery out of the way. And you can do the same thing.

Building a Wall

Brick wall of self-sabotage
Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

All of us have multiple checklists in the back of our minds. There’s the daily To Do List, consisting of average tasks you go through on a regular basis. The outside world may think nothing of that list, but if you battle any mental illness, the To Do List is critical. It gets you out of bed and through the day. Then you have checklists for the various goals you want to accomplish. You have small, immediate goals all the way up to your major dreams. And as you get over each individual hurdle, you check off those lists. It feels good (accomplishment always does).

You’re cruising along, moving down the path. Maybe you stumble over an obstacle or two, but you DO get past them. (No one’s watching or judging, anyway) You’re spirit’s soaring, and you start feeling good about yourself. Maybe you even shake off some of the anxiety you felt towards those goals. There’s a renewed sense of belief in yourself. You might reach the finish line.

Until you smack into a wall.

You back up and stare in disbelief at this hulking wall that showed up out of nowhere. It wasn’t there a second ago. Maybe you weren’t exactly watching the road up ahead, but you’re pretty sure you would have noticed an obstacle this substantial. All of your positivity starts to drain away. Hurdles are one thing, but this is a WALL. It blocks everything, and there’s no way of climbing over it that you can see. Everything in your mind comes to a screeching halt. It’s so unfair. How could the universe throw down something so impossible? Because, of course, that wall came from somewhere else.

Nope.

Unfortunately, the wall snuck in from YOUR mind. It’s the result of the anxiety and depression you thought you conquered. The two combined into self-sabotage. And we’ve all done it. We get in the way of our success and triumphs ALL the time. Because we’re afraid of that finish line. Doubt creeps in, and we question our ability to take the final step. The wall becomes a safety blanket to hide behind. If we can’t get around it, we don’t have to face the consequences of stepping over the finish line. So while we’re staring at the wall, wondering where it came from and cursing whatever universe came up with the idea, we brought it with us the entire time.

Most of the time, you’re the only thing standing in your way. Actually, I shouldn’t say “most of the time.” ALL of the time. No one can prevent you from success except yourself. You make the decisions regarding your life – or you don’t. You set that wall in your path. And you CAN take it down. Even if it looks impossible to shift. After all, it’s a construct of your mind. That means you can decide what the wall’s made of. Maybe it’s an illusion. Or perhaps it’s constructed of gelatin, and you can push through it. What if it crumbles as soon as you touch it? Or, hell, conjure a sledgehammer and SMASH your way to the other side!

I’m a master of self-sabotage. I make excuses for not taking that next step:

  • “Maybe they won’t like my proposal.”
  • “The story isn’t good enough for that market.”
  • “I don’t have enough experience to compete with other professionals for that job.”
  • “My style’s too off-beat for them.”

Sometimes, I spent so much time behind the wall, the opportunity slipped away. A few times, I shattered the wall in time to succeed. But even those successes haven’t stopped me from putting up walls and doubting myself. The underlying lack of self-confidence holds me back. Which is crazy! Is there a guarantee I’m always going to succeed? Of course not. But if I NEVER take the chance, I fail 100% of the time!

The wall’s comfortable; I won’t deny that. It’s a safe refuge where nothing happens. But that’s just it – NOTHING happens. No forward momentum. Everything exists on the other side. And I’m stuck pacing around with my anxiety and depression. Why? I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and I’m going to stop so close to my goals?

Sounds silly when I think of it that way.

It’s easier to blame the wall on an outside force. And it’s definitely easier to engage in self-sabotage. We won’t fail. And no one likes failure. But staring at a wall for eternity? Who wants to do that? Pick up your sledgehammer and get to the other side. And do it sooner rather than later. Too many opportunities come with expirations. The last thing you want to do is kick yourself for missing out on them.

An Endless Cycle

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

~Tim Burton

Even on good days, people with anxiety undergo complicated thought processes. They look around at the world and see a million different possibilities. Not all of them are negative, either. (Something critics overlook) Each action comes with a seemingly endless list of reactions. And that’s a lot for one fragile brain to cope with.

So it shifts some of the energy.

Have you ever seen someone break or pick at their fingernails? How about a person pulling out their eyelashes or eyebrows? (And I don’t mean people that choose to pluck their eyebrows for whatever fashion trend happens to flood social media) Some run the edge of their fingernail along another finger, occasionally breaking the skin. Others pull on their joints, almost unconsciously. (Not cracking knuckles – that’s different…and highly annoying, I might add) I could go on and on, listing more destructive habits. Tiny acts of self-mutilation that don’t gain attention because they slide under the radar.

And then there are even more sinister habits.

Things people do that those around them never know of or even suspect. Desperate acts that grow worse and worse with mounting anxiety. Because the brain gets overwhelmed and needs to push the frenetic excess SOMEWHERE. Into a quasi-OCD. Me? I write out words on my fingertips. Except there’s a strict rule: I can only go two letters at a time. And if the word comes out uneven? Yeah, my anxiety goes up. So then I search through the sentence and add more words…or punctuation. Anything to hit an even number. Feeding my anxiety what it craves – and distracting my addled brain from the whirlpool it was already stuck in.

And not one person around me has a clue.

The nails? The pulling of my fingers? The eyelashes? Yeah, people have noticed those. My husband watches for when I start twisting my fingers together. And I don’t even know I’m doing it at times. Panic sets in, and it’s an unconscious reaction. He’ll reach over and pry my hands apart. And other people would comment on the state of my fingernails or say it was disgusting I was pulling out eyelashes. It took FOREVER to break those habits. They never asked WHY, simply felt the actions were repulsive.

Are they elements of self-harm? Of course they are. Are they intentional? No. That’s the difference. It’s a spontaneous response of the body to the emotion built up beneath the surface. So’s my spelling obsession. I don’t exhibit OCD tendencies anywhere else. But when my anxiety hits it’s limit, I start writing words out on my fingertips. It’s my signal of, “Holy shit, we’re in trouble!” And trying to STOP? I’d have better luck stopping a train at top speed.

Anxiety comes with consequences people NEVER realize.

Figuring out the link between the two took me YEARS. And I don’t know why the spelling started in the first place. (I LOATHED spelling bees in school) Nor do I know why I pull on my fingers. It HURTS, and I’m not really a fan of pain. But the signals eventually DO get through. It’s a desperate plea from the brain that I’ve failed to cut off the anxiety flow.

Everyone has coping mechanisms their body develops. And they’re not always healthy. You start to puzzle them out. And then you have to figure out how to break them. The spelling may not cause any damage physically, but it drives me NUTS. I’ll spend HOURS writing out every sentence I hear! WHILE telling myself the exercise is insane. But getting my fingers to stop moving feels impossible. I trade one anxiety for another. Not the healthiest practice in the world.

But, as the say, acknowledging the problem is the first step. And while I may spend A LOT of time screaming in my head (or laughing at myself), I’m at least aware of the issue. The distraction shakes things up – and it gives my poor thoughts a break of SOME kind. And at least the spelling is a safer coping skill than the self-mutilation my body picked out before.

There IS a Try

"I Tried" in cement
Photo by Umit Y Buz on Unsplash

By now, most of the populace is falling off their resolution wagon. Excuses are cropping up everywhere. All of the new gym equipment is finding its way into closets and basements. (Thank you so much, you inconsistent twits. I really needed to go up to 15 pounds on my dumbbells, but can you find them anywhere? NO!) Junk food is climbing into grocery carts, allowing you to find rice cakes and peanut butter on the shelves again. (Why? Why do people always take the crunchy peanut butter? Some of us need crunchy peanut butter to live) And we won’t discuss the alcohol situation.

Resolutions are stupid and pointless.

However, there’s a different option for the year that I DO embrace: a word. Every year, I settle on a single word that I hold onto throughout the months. Sometimes it relates to goals (“write” has come up in the past when I wanted to focus on my short stories and novels). Other times, its something deeper and more personal (last year, it was “explore” – and sort of an epic failure, courtesy of the pandemic). But I sit down, sort through the dictionary in my brain and decide what word I want to tack to the front of my mind. As the weeks and months progress, I remember my word choice. It’s a grounding exercise – and more effective than a resolution. (When lockdown doesn’t prevent every travel plan you’d originally laid out)

For 2021, I settled on “Try.”

I took a lot of risks last year. Hell, I jumped into my dream job with both feet! But I also hemmed and hawed for close to four months before I did so. And I bit my lip and hesitated on the keyboard over a lot of decisions. Fear of the unknown, of making a mistake, of failure held me back A LOT. (In case you’re unaware, that comes with depression and anxiety. They’re nice little side effects) Not everything worked out, but most of my decisions DID. And I need that “try” to keep pushing me forward – without the fear.

It’s my reminder to move forward. Maybe the chance pays off, maybe it doesn’t. If I don’t try, though, I won’t know. A tiny little flicker of rebellion against those dissenting voices in the back of my head that insist on beating me down.

Does it correlate with my goals – professionally and personally? Sure. I want to try to continue to grow my writing presence. I’d like to try to land a newspaper or magazine article. And I’m always trying to sell my short stories. But you can’t resolve to do those things. They’re based on chance. If I made them a resolution, I’d disappoint myself. Building them around a single word makes more sense. I feel more empowered and determined chasing after that word “try” than assigning a specific goal. (See how it works?)

But there’s more to this word thing.

I want to try to take our delayed honeymoon (stupid COVID-19). At the moment, trying to find new bookcases for the house is proving a challenge. I missed my reading goal for last year by TWO books, so I want to try to smash the goal this year. I was going to try to avoid a major health issue, but I’ll be facing surgery later this month, so I kind of missed that one (and I think adding any hopes after that might tempt the Universe).

There’s so much I can do with the word “try.” It opens so many doors for me – in every possible area. Without the disappointment of a resolution. Trying something doesn’t carry the risk of disappointment. You MIGHT fail, but you gave it a go in the first place. THAT’S the important part. It’s energized me for the year and given me hope.

Ditch the resolution (if you haven’t already) and find a word, instead. You have an entire massive dictionary to choose from. You’ll be happier, in the long run.