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.
I can't find it, but I've talked about Imposter Syndrome on this blog before. I deal with it constantly. I feel, at almost all times of day, that I'm a fraud, that somebody's going to call me on it, and that I'll end up living up to the negative things I say to myself. And I know intellectually that I don't need to do this, but it's still hard.
This summer's been particularly bad for it. I've had a lot of time to myself. A day after my last entry, my car's motor gave in on me and I had to replace it—with my parents' gracious help. I've spent pretty-much the rest of the summer at home, or occasionally taking trips down to Vancouver, just to save money so I can get by for the summer and hopefully pay them back at some point. I don't know if I got a good replacement vehicle, but I tried. And I've spent a lot of time at home as a result of this change.
I've tried filling my time with activities: learning Hindi script, trying to write some more songs, trying to learn to read music, reading a couple books, and whatnot. But still, it's been way more time to myself than I expected. I've had way too much time to talk to myself, ruminate on the past, and ream myself out for my numerous mistakes over the last 20 years. It's been tough.
And now I see myself anticipating a new school year and I feel like more of a fraud than ever. I have no idea how to make this curriculum work. I used to be able to get the steam going, but the last two summers, nu-uh, and this summer's no better.
This leads me to the real core of all of this. I think it's safe to say that I'm a creative person. I love creating things. I love creating music, lessons, photographs, etc., but I'm just not feeling it. I can take artsy-fartsy photographs like I have this summer, but I can't really say my heart's in it. I'm going through motions, but with weak results. Same thing with songwriting... of all the songs I've written this year, they're OK, but geez they're just not enough. I'm going through the motions of a creative person while not really being creative.
*Imposter Syndrome kicking in hard there.*
I set high standards for myself. I expect to bring meaningful curriculum to my students, music to my listeners, photos to my viewers, and parenting to my children, but right now I just don't feel like I'm living up to any of them. I'm a fraud. I want to believe I'm good with money, but then how come I needed help to replace the car? I want to believe I'm good with relationships, but then why did I spend so much of my summer alone? I want to believe I'm an adequate teacher, but then why did I end the year feeling like my students learned nothing from me? I want to believe I'm a good songwriter, but then why don't I seem to want to share my songs? Because I'm a fraud, nobody cares, and...
... fricking Imposter Syndrome.
I don't know where it stems from. I'm old enough and professional enough that I shouldn't be stressing about authority figures coming through the door and yelling at me. But between the constant "You are nothing" messages I got from religion, and the "We don't really know what to do with you" messages I got from childhood, and the messages that I embraced from my marriage that lead to its demise, it's tough to break out. I keep doing the things I'm supposed to do to keep the Imposter Syndrome at bay, but it keeps coming back. And I know it shouldn't, but it keeps sneaking up on me.
That's all. I know it's stupid. And this isn't a reaching-out-to-the-void thing. I know I'm a competent, creative person. I know people care about me. I know my kids love me and that I'm not the world's worst person. I know I'm not a fraud. But deep-seated beliefs are tough to shake. And I'm getting tired of fighting a mindset that's so childish.
Enough. Here's to hoping I can get that creativity bug before the school year starts.
Although I'm not out there playing the dating game at all, I keep Tinder on my phone largely just to maintain my URL and swipe right or left now and then. Lately I've been a little stunned at just how many people simply love camping. I mean, I like camping, but I don't love it. I'm not likely to do it without good company. I will choose music and culture over camping pretty-much every time. If I could live the "aspirational lifestyle," it's unlikely that I'd spend too much of it camping.
After getting kinda' disillusioned by all these supercamper profiles, this article in McSweeney's made me laugh out loud numerous times.
The satire is dead-on.
My intricately braided hair looks perfect even though I haven’t washed it in three days, and although I’ll tell you I love getting dirty, you will never actually see dirt on my person, unless it is artfully and strategically placed in a cute spot like highlighting my perfect cheekbones. I live in yoga pants and my activewear fits as though it’s been tailored because I did, in fact, get it tailored. I don’t dress like this because it attracts every amateur rock climber, mountain biking van lifer, kayak-wielding weekend warrior, and sentient pair of Chacos in a 15-mile radius. That’s just an unintended side effect that I happen to enjoy. I also love wolf dogs and being in the woods because no one can hear you scream.
I understand that people love the outdoors and some people really, really live for it. But the sheer prevalence of outdoorsy profiles makes me feel like getting to spend time outdoors is a matter of status, much like the ability to travel is, or perhaps one's gorgeously sculpted body, or perhaps their app-driven meditation routine, or perhaps their tanned skin, or the way their children are in clubs or on teams for every moment of the waking day.
There's something that discomforts me about filling so much time with deliberate activity. It's as if we've taken the way we've lost our ability to be bored and replaced that boredom with the image of personal completeness. As long as I can fill my time with being outside, I will be happy. And I can post this to my Instagram feed or to my dating profile and I will be happy. I can't quite put it into words, but it's a tone that feels... just a little dishonest.
Or I'm just a dick because I don't live that lifestyle. I mean, I guess I kinda' could: I could find venues where I could play music every night, for example, and finally get my songs recorded and presentable. That would likely be what my own aspirations would look like.
And perhaps then... I would pummel my own feeds and dating profiles with my life goals.
Susanna Emerson, in her article about the Aspirational Lifestyle, which may have been the first place where I jived with the term, writes,
Political implications aside, featuring “the aspirational lifestyle” on an Instagram feed isn’t about sharing joy. Authenticity is missing. It’s not a case of, “I’m having so much fun, and want you to be able to join me in my glee” or even “I just got a Vespa and it’s the best thing to happen to me!” It’s more like: “Admire me for the things I have.” Or better yet, “jealous, aren’t you?” There’s a sinister undertone to the story the aspirational character is telling, and it’s is the same one underneath most advertising campaigns: “Just in case you hadn’t realized, you’re not good enough.” In ad campaigns, a product swoops in to solve your problems and make you good enough. On Instagram, there’s usually not always option for immediate relief, but aspirational posts sure do beget copycats (hence the ubiquity of yacht shots and acai bowls).
When I see all these dating profiles that just say "camping, camping, camping," I can't help but feel a little bit of that jealousy—for a lifestyle wherein one has enough time to go camping regularly—and I long, just a little bit, for that sort of freedom with my time.
And that time may come. I recently finally invested in a tent and sleeping bag for myself, so I'm on my way there. I'm on my way to being able to say "yes" to camping.
As for choosing to go out on my own... I'll still choose a good gig.
Lately I've been looking a little at furnishings. I've found myself at home and felt decidedly uncomfortable. I've tried to do a couple things to improve this over the last few months—most notably, I picked up two CD towers so I can start to listen to CDs again—but my apartment still feels rather unhomelike: my computer desk doesn't seem to fit the work I need to do; my chairs aren't really comfortable to sit in; there's no place to invite a guest to sit and be comfortable. It's a place where I live, but not much of a home, even for someone who's moved around as much as I have.
Last week, the School of Life uploaded this video:
In the written summary of the video, they say,
Creating a home is frequently such a demanding process because it requires us to find our way to objects that can correctly convey our identities. We may have to go to enormous efforts to track down what we deem to be the ‘right’ objects for particular functions, rejecting hundreds of alternatives that would – in a material sense – have been perfectly serviceable, in the name of those we believe can faithfully communicate the right message about who we are.
But right now, what does my home say about me?
My one-bedroom apartment
When we lived in Hope, I liked the hand-me-down aesthetic we had as a family. We had grandma's couches, a different gandma's table, and the rest of the furnishings were typical young-family Ikea fare. I felt pretty comfortable with that aesthetic. We didn't own much furniture, but that was more than OK with me.
However, when it came time to replace the sofa, I discovered that I'm a far more picky person than I ever expected. No matter what sofa I looked at with my wife, I didn't like it. I saw problems with all of them. This was extremely discouraging for both of us. And although we replaced that couch eventually, we never really had one I was happy with.
I still haven't bought a couch. Last summer, I bought a cheap leather loveseat off of Craigslist and put it beneath one of my kids' loft beds, but I don't really have a living area that's couch-worthy, that has room for anything. See the photo I posted a couple weeks ago below: my bed's in the living room; there's an enormous plastic folding table, and quite simply not the room for a couch.
So what does my home say about me? Here are my suggestions:
So I'll keep an eye out for a good couch. And I'll have to get a smaller table one of these days.
Until then, I'll keep the place clean enough for... me.
In October of 2016, I voluntarily took a psychological exam. I wanted to see if my perception was all wrong, if I was looking at the world through a decidedly selfish, narcissistic lens. After bouts of therapy and counselling, the dissolution of my marriage, and loads of reading, I felt confused and frustrated. I wanted to see if I was as horrible as I sort-of felt I was. Maybe I just wanted to talk. For whatever reason, I took this exam-thing,
I can't find the online reference I made to it; I wrote a summary post on Tumblr, but perhaps I deleted it. The main thing I remember the psychologist saying, though, was "You seem to be of sound mind, but your values are all over the map." Essentially, I let myself be pulled around and don't really run with anything. Which is likely true.
I still find myself being pulled around this way. I still battle with trusting my gut enough to stand up for anything. When I do stand up for my values and what I believe is a good thing to do, I'm usually wracked with self-doubt. I'd say I'm doing better than I did a year ago, but I still find it hard to really stand up for anything. If someone suggests they have a better way of doing something, I tend to just go along with it. It takes deliberate, mind-wrenching effort to say, "I'd like to do this... this way... and I will follow that through."
I'm sure there's plenty of nature-nurture stuff to attribute this mindset to. Growing up in Baptist churches, I was frequently told told that I was a sinful wretch who didn't deserve anything without God's help, that Christianity was the only lens through which to see the world. My parents wanted me to follow the faith, but I don't think they intended for me to internalize as much of that type of negative teaching. When you have one authority figure after another telling you that you're horrible and incapable of navigating the world, and you really identify with that thinking, it's easy to let others abscond with your sense of perception; when shame and guilt are virtuous feelings to have to back up your wretchedness, and you're prone to shame and guilt, it ices the don't-trust-yourself cake. In my case, I believe it primed me for doubting my perception.
My counsellor suggested that I listen to Brené Brown's "Men, Women, and Worthiness," so I need to order that. I've read one of Brown's books before, but maybe it's time for me to return to her work again. Perhaps I'm a little more in touch with my shame than I used to be, and I might be able to take it on from a new angle.
I'd like to think I'm learning a little more about how it's OK to have values, boundaries, and needs, and that I'm allowed to try to be happy in my goals to be a good dad and good person. But I have a long way to go before I can feel confident in my own perception, confident that I won't hide behind tinted shame-glasses.
One step at a time.
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