Updated: Mar 30, 2022
I've been feeling 'bleh' on and off for what feels like too long. It can be hard for me to concentrate, I spend too much time on social media (which leads me scolding myself for wasting time), and I struggle to feel like I'm meaningfully connecting with others. It's hard to attribute it to particular cause, until I step back and remember that a lot has been going on for over two years: A global pandemic; constant attacks on Black lives, LGBTQIA+ lives, Trans kids' lives; deep and widespread political and idealogical divides; a mass deterioration of relationships between conservative and liberal family members and friends; and the war in Ukraine, to name a few recent events. In addition to all these big things going on around me, there have been big changes in my personal life as well. In the course of the day to day, it's easy to discount these things, to discount their impact. But I'm realizing that I have to give them the space they demand.
I think I also have to recognize that I have characteristics of a hyper-empathetic (see also toxic empathy) person. Only through years of therapy have I learned that I cannot afford to physically take on other peoples' pain, because over time, it wears on my physical and mental health. When not reigned in, I succumb to fully taking on others' stress as if it were my own. It renders me unable to meaningfully connect with people because I become stressed and anxious for them. I'm finding it hard to explain here. It might sound noble, being so porous to the pain of others, but it's really just unhelpful at best. A friend would share their struggle with me, and I would literally need a nap to recover because the weight of their pain exhausted me.
This hyper-empathy translates to larger issues, too. So, lately, when LGBTQIA+ kids are being verbally and legislatively attacked by insecure adults who feel personally threatened by someone living life as their truest self, I feel the frustration in my bones. The hate and ugliness in the world zaps me of my joy; it begins to loom so large that it blocks out the goodness in the world. And I begin to feel like - who am I to feel joy when children are being attacked just for being who they are? The result is that I'm exhausted, lacking joy, and feeling quite isolated.
Today I listened to Brene Brown's podcast episode with Karen Walrond, author of The Lightmaker's Manifesto: How to Work for Change Without Losing Your Joy, on Accessing Joy and Finding Connection in the Midst of Struggle. As usual, Brene's insights were what I needed to pull myself out of the slump I was starting to slide down. Helping me to even feel confident enough to share about my continued state of 'bleh' is the fact that Brene opened the episode by sharing that she is struggling to access any joy. Camaraderie breeds confidence.
Our lives ebb and flow
The nugget from the podcast episode that spoke most to me was the idea that our lives ebb and flow. As Karen Walrond put it, "There's an ebb and there's a flow (to life). That is the natural order of things. It's the reason we have ebbing and flowing tides, we have waxing and waning moons, we have seasons." What she was getting at is that it's natural for us, as people, to feel our own ebbing and flowing - of ideas, of energy, of inspiration, of burnout, of fatigue, of needing rest. But we tend to fight that natural ebb and flow, convincing ourselves we must always be flowing, for we don't have time to ebb. We convince ourselves we don't have time for burnout, fatigue, for needing rest.
This resonated so deeply with me. As much as I know that I can't always be in a mode of productivity, of being helpful, I want desperately to be. It seems that everyone else is... Where is everyone else's ebb? For I see only my ebbing, my failure, my lack of drive. It seems like everyone else is in a constant state of flowing while I'm in an constant state of ebbing.
Brene and Karen's conversation was focused particularly on our ebbs and flows in the face of personal and global disaster, and our ability to bounce back and to be helpful to the causes that need our activism. Karen's book is also aimed at activists, but I think it also applies to people who don't necessarily consider themselves activists, like me. Perhaps, when examined, I am an activist, but I don't think of myself that way. I volunteer my time and give my money to causes I care about, and I feel very emotionally affected by many of the issues of the times we're living in. And that is where I think Brene and Karen's work, and this podcast in particular, come into play for me and other 'regular' people. Though I'm not 'the boots on the ground' for humanitarian or civil rights efforts, I'm still taking in a steady diet of the world's problems, and that can get emotionally exhausting, leading to the zapping of my joy and the feeling of wanting to part of the flowing tide when I really need to let myself surrender to the ebbing tide.
I often feel guilty for finding joy in moments where so many people in the world are suffering. But, as Karen put it, we must continue to feel joy, even in the hard times, for that is ultimately what we want for all people. We can't fight for that for others if we can't even feel it ourselves.
How can I feel healthy, connected, and purposeful today?
Karen proposes we ask ourselves the following question - How can I feel healthy, connected, and purposeful today? - as a daily practice in gratitude, in finding the beauty. She says she's been doing this for 3 decades, and it's the only way she's gotten through some of the hardest times in her life, including when Hurricane Harvey destroyed her home. It's a question we should ask ourselves no matter where we're at in the ebb and flow of living - for when things are bad, we will have needed to have built the 'muscle' of practicing gratitude, and asking these questions lead to feeling grateful for the ways in which we can feel like we're contributing to the world, even on the hard days. When we're ebbing, we'll need to find gratitude to pull us through to finding our flow again.
I loved this quote of Karen's: "We often think of being able to tap into joy, or self care or self compassion, as something we do when we're spent. And I think honestly, if we do that when we're spent, it might be a little too late." Asking ourselves how we can feel healthy, connected, and purposeful is a form of self care, a way to find joy -- and we must do it before we're spent so that it's simply a matter of reflex when we are spent.
How can I feel healthy today?
Yesterday, I did not want to exercise. In fact, I decided the night before that I would go back to bed as soon as I had a break in my work day, and hide under the covers. Instead, I scheduled an Orange Theory class for first thing Monday morning, knowing if I'd paid and scheduled a class that I wouldn't miss it. I felt healthy on Monday for choosing exercise over hiding from the world.
How can I feel connected today?
Today, I'm going for a walk with a friend this afternoon - one that we both really need. She's going through some family stuff and has been hiding away for several days, working and sleeping. I slept only a few hours last night because both the kids were awake and upset most of the night, so it's very tempting to go back to bed instead of leaving the house. But I know that meeting with my friend will make me feel more connected, while staying home will contribute to my feelings of isolation.
How can I feel purposeful today?
I remind myself that I have purpose every day as my children's mother. A big part of my life's purpose is to raise happy, healthy, compassionate humans, and every day that I show up for my kids, I'm working toward that larger purpose. Writing this also makes me feel purposeful. I do think that writing is one of my reasons for being.
I feel grateful for my ability to exercise, for my friendships, and for the honor of being a mother and the joy of being able to write. There are lots of things I'm grateful for, but today those things, which make me feel healthy, connected, and purposeful, are what I'm feeling gratitude for.
So, put this into practice now and make it a habit, so when the bad times come, when life seems to ebb more than it flows, you have a safety net to fall back on. You have gratitude to catch you, and the ability to find the beauty to comfort and propel you forward even in the most challenging times.