A basic self-improvement meme that's nonetheless pertinent:
I don't know what to do with this one. I listen to and read self-improvement content, I've finished a Master's in Leadership, and I still don't know what to do. I'm 37 and filled with the same angst that I sustained in my early 20s. What to do?
I've lived in fear for a lot of my life: I was afraid to take time off from school to try to make music because I was afraid that I couldn't find a job; it took me until I was 28 years old or so to finally let go of the religious faith that held me in fear for years and years; I never pursued music because I was afraid that nobody wanted to hear it and that I'd humiliate myself; I let fear of hurting people get in the way of different relationships and experiences that most people in those early 20s do; I let a fear of being taken advantage of keep me from entrepreneurship and setting off on my own; I let a fear of failure keep me from teaching ESL overseas; I let a fear of being alone lead me to choose to get married before I felt ready; I let a fear of divorce and whatnot hold me in the relationship when I probably-maybe should have just realized it was done. Essentially, I've let fear keep me in my comfort zone for practically every major decision I've made so far.
I have numerous classic fears: I fear losing my friendships or good standing with people; I fear disappointing my kids and parents; I fear breaking out of being an employee; I fear that I will lose my relationships with my kids; I fear that if I try something new I will lose my means of sustenance; I fear that I will humiliate myself in front of people and make my life even more isolated than it already is.
I have done things in the past in order to get out of my comfort zone: I took time off from university in order to go on Katimavik back in 2000; I moved to Hope BC for my first teaching job, which was still way out of my comfort zone, even if it was also a natural progression; I married a woman who was distinctly out of my comfort zone because I loved her and because I enjoyed how she pushed me out of my comfort zone; I moved out of the comfy house in Hope for a few years of transience with my family, which even included a year in Egypt; I tried out alternative relationships and activities within my marriage, even when I wasn't comfortable with them. So it's not like I have always stayed in my comfort zone. It's just that, right now, despite those decisions and steps out of my comfort zone, I feel like I have nothing to show for it for me. My kids seem happy, and that should be all that matters, but I'm still unsatisfied.
Right now, I'm rather reluctantly living in my comfort zone. I'm still in the midst of the divorce-separation process, so I can't really fiddle with things that would mess with my finances. But the angst is getting stronger and stronger. The comfort zone is getting less and less comfortable.
But I don't have a goal to get out of the comfort zone. I don't know which way to step. I don't know what to do next. And I'm afraid to take any chances to do it.
Let's take things on a small scale: last Saturday night, after my gig, I took Rosita for a walk in Harrison. I passed by some women heading to the only bar-ish thing in town. I thought, I could get out of my comfort zone and practice all these self-improvement things I've been told to do, I could actually go try to engage with new people, as if I'm worth something and as if people might think I'm worth engaging with. I am enough. I thought so much about it that I didn't go. I went to bed instead.
There's a degree of self-training that's led to this sort of thing, a degree of comfort with cognitive dissonance that I had to acquire in order to hold on to my religious faith for so long when I had so much trouble really believing it. When I was faced with a reality that didn't mesh with my faith, I always found a workaround. University's social program exacerbated that ability to achieve cognitive dissonance: if I was told something that didn't seem to match the reality I perceived around me, I'd find ways to justify it despite everything. I became a master of bending ideas and reality to make them fit... until I couldn't see myself at all. It was like being wrapped in cellophane, layer by layer, until the clear image beneath was just a silver-grey cocoon. And I felt kind-of safe in that cocoon.
Partly, it was a matter of misplaced persistence, motivated by trying to stay in my comfort zone. In Alfie Kohn's The Myth of the Spoiled Child, Kohn derides the way we can misplace our persistence in relation to the popularization of "Grit" in parenting and education. Kohn writes,
Just as the effects of displaying unqualified grit may not always be optimal, the motives for doing so raise important psychological questions. What matters isn't just how long one persists, or at what, but why one does so. Do I remain at a soul-sucking job because of a realistic concern that I won't be hired anywhere else? Or is it because I'm loath to admit defeat or afraid of being thought a failure? Do I continue trying to master French cooking or golf (in the absence of evidence that I have any gift for it) because I have a passion for the activity? Or does my persistence reflect an inability to change course, a compulsive conviction that one must always finish anything one starts? (The fear that I'd be labeled a quitter may not be unrealistic if a strong social norm supports persisting no matter what). An accumulation of declarations that "grit is good" may help to create and reinforce just such a norm, thereby contributing to unhealthy reasons for persisting.
I felt that if I "persisted no matter what" in marriage, schooling, and religion, that I 'd find the satisfaction I sought. But it never happened. Because that's just not me.
I think my parents really struggled to deal with me as a kid and teenager. I wasn't fitting in much of a mould. They encouraged my brothers to go into engineering because they had a mathematical aptitude. I, on the other hand, had none. And I had no real ambition or self-confidence. As a result, anything I achieved seemed like a success, even if it didn't really make me happy or if it meshed with my character. I became a teacher, for example, and that was a success because it was something. But it's not something I've ever really connected to. And it's something that seems to be zapping my creativity on a more and more consistent basis.
And there are plenty of coulda-shoulda-wouldas in everything. I kind-of wish I put off the Master's degree, for example, and just stayed in Egypt for a while. Perhaps I could have a achieved some better success over there. Perhaps my ex would have found a place where she could succeed as well if we'd stayed there longer. But since then, despite finishing the Master's, despite all the ways we tried to work through our issues, I've been decidedly unsatisfied. The only thing I take comfort in is that my kids seem happy and kind and capable. I believe in them and believe that they will find their place. And I feel like my ex is finding her place.
But I don't feel like I am. I feel utterly... misplaced. And I want to break out of my comfort zone, but I don't know which way to go.
In this rambling entry, I've kept going back to music over and over again. Perhaps that's what I need to do. Perhaps I need to just light a fire under my musical butt and get doing what I should have done a decade or two ago, before my looks really start to fade, before the youth of my music seems incongruent with the person who's delivering it.
When I was 12 years old, Steve Taylor released Squint, a disjointed solo album that I really enjoyed. The songs were a little uneven, but as a whole I enjoyed them. I was particularly fond of "Smug" and "Sock Heaven," and the opening track "The Lament of..." is a pretty awesome rock track as well.
I was never quite a fan of one of the hits, "Jesus is for Losers," but I accepted the message. The concept of the song is essentially "We're all broken, sinful losers and Jesus came to save us." Taylor was trying to send a classic evangelical message by turning it on its head.
I internalized that kind of messaging hard. I, Jeffrey Nordstrom, was a born horrible and unacceptable, such a horrible being that God had to send his son and kill him in order to make me acceptable.
The issue was, though, that I took it further. When I felt shameful, I assumed it was because I was intrinsically a shame; when people constructively criticized me, I assumed it was due to my sinful, broken nature; when I felt like crap, I felt like I deserved it; when people complimented me or praised me, I talked myself down in order to remind myself of mine and the world's sin of pride. Although I always knew I was an OK person, any time I even slightly felt negative about myself, I had an all-encompassing, supernatural reason to confirm my bias of wretchedness.
In the end, I never stood up for myself. Standing up for myself was evidence of pride. When I'd get yelled at or criticized or told-off, I just thought I deserved it. Sometimes I'd stand up for myself once, but after repeated attacks I'd assume the problem was with me. When I got called names, I'd think "There must be truth to this" and try to own it. It got me nowhere.
It didn't help that this brokenness seemed so virtuous in the religious circles I worked in. I heard so many sermons from so many different pulpits that seemed to back up this message, that I was horrible and only "worthy" if Jesus covered my sins. Being a "slave to Christ" was an ideal that I heard many times, and "turning the other cheek" was seen as a prime directive. Although I've moved on from those beliefs, they still sting in the back of my head every time I see someone act more patient, more generous, more thoughtfully than myself. These beliefs sit deep in my consciousness.
For the last few months, I feel like I've been redeveloping a bit of a sense of self. I'm a little more at peace with myself more than I have for a while. For the last few years, with therapy, counselling, reading, and vulnerable openness with friends, I feel like I've been developing a bit of a... me. I've been learning to accept that I'm allowed to have needs, to set boundaries, and to do things for myself now and then.
But then I realize just how far I have to go. I catch myself cursing myself, calling myself names, the same things I was called through all those years of supplicance. This will likely be a lifetime of deprogramming and trying to learn new systems. I need to set up better routines in my life and need to learn how to use my time more wisely, to motivate myself to do the things that make me happy. I think these things and then I curse myself again and it all starts all over again.
That's all. I have a long way to go because I started at a really low place. But I'm taking steps forward every day. So it'll be alright.
A few months ago I wrote a little bit about trying to "get out there" and make friends. This is an enduring process and I can't say I've done much good at it so far. I've started being able to talk more to some people at karaoke; I'm still connected to some people from the play. This is all good. As the New York Times editorial says (embedded above), I find I "'take an extremely efficient approach and seek out like-minded folks to fill very specific needs.'" And I'd like to think that's OK.
For example, I find myself seeking musicians to play with. When I was younger, I basically gravitated towards other musicians and they gravitated towards me. It was astoundingly easy to find other musicians to play with. Today, however, i find myself far more picky; I play with musicians with high hopes, but don't seem to have the patience I once had with musicians who might not blend so well with me. But here I go, still seeking out some people to fill the "musician need" in my life.
Out of all this, I've grown far more aware of the importance of old friends, of those friendships I developed long before I got so picky. I've found myself reconnecting with them in the old ways: by telephone, by dropping in when I'm in the area. This has been good. I've been grateful for this because these people who've known me for the longest amount of time tend to know me best, because they can saw the good in me before I may have jaded them.
I still maintain connections with plenty of people I knew from University, church, summer camp, and high school. Facebook has helped me keep in touch with a few of them, even though I don't see them often. This is good too, I guess. I used to be cynical about the way Facebook seemed such a shallow gathering place, and I still am, but more importantly I use Messenger to say "Hello" to people when I'm in the area, when I feel like I might have the opportunity to drop by. This is good.
There's an irony in this: I used to feel pretty critical about how my parents seemed to maintain their friendships. Most of their friendships were based around church or my dad's old car club. However, now I find that I'm in the same boat, even though my activities are different. The greatest joy of doing those community theatre productions was their church-like atmosphere, the way adults from different corners of the community came together to put on a project that mattered to them. My parents' friendships, which seemed oft-fleeting and organization-based, are now part of my normal everyday interactions.
I'd still love to meet a really good friend nearby, but I feel like at this point they might not be close to my age. They might be a decade older or younger than me, 'cuz adults don't need those delineations.
And it's crazy how work can get in the way. This term, all of my socializing centred on the play. Beyond that, I simply didn't have the time to do anything but try to rest and get things done at home. When the semester turns over in a couple weeks, I hope to feel like I can hang out with people in the evenings again.
Adult friendships are hard. But I'd like to think I'm getting used to it.
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