Musings: Waiting

Waiting

If you want to know what it means to wait, talk to an insomniac.  They’re experts on the subject.

They’ve mapped the trajectory of the sun creeping up the curtains.  They’ve watched it flood over that one crack in the wall, a timeless marker, signaling they’re free to get out of bed now.  They take comfort in the sun’s power to liberate them from the pretense of sleep.  It means they can finally get on with their day–a day that secretly started hours ago.

If you want to know the discomfort of waiting, talk to an insomniac.

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The discomfort of waiting hits our bodies with the utterance of one word: Helplessness.

Think, for a moment, about how you hate being stuck in the slow lane at the grocery store.  Why?  You can’t do anything about it.  You have no control over the pace.  You stand there all jittery with impatience, flipping through a magazine to distract yourself from what you can’t change, from the way your plans are being disrupted in real time by the treachery of an over-populated line.

Most of us are really bad at waiting, because most of us hate feeling helpless.  Okay, so “most of us” is an understatement.

Even when we’ve decided something’s worth waiting for, it’s still uncomfortable.  While we’re waiting we summon a million anxious thoughts.  We mull over the “what ifs” and play out a variety of catastrophic scenarios, often ending with death, or destruction, or man-eating alligators.

As if helplessness isn’t enough, we feel something else that’s equally dreadful: we feel unresolved.  Maybe you’re waiting for THE phone call, or to find out if your loved one made it home safely; maybe you’re anxious for those MRI results, or maybe you need your house to sell, yesterday.  What marks the capstone events that follow these waiting periods is resolution.  Our humanity is crazy in love with resolution.  Only we want good resolution, of course.

But if we live for resolution, we disrespect all the moments in between.

I’ve learned far more from waiting than doing.  But that was only when I chose to view waiting as a discipline.  A discipline is a process of cultivating self-control and focused attention around a particular theme.  A discipline has intrinsic value when it moves us towards a meaningful goal.

When we dig in, we discover a savory truth.  The truth is we’re always waiting.  We’re always anticipating and dreading something.  Embrace it.  Waiting is omnipresent.

Pregnancy is a laborious act of waiting.  But those nine months are as necessary for mom as they are for baby.  If a woman denies she’s pregnant for the first eight months, she’ll panic at the end.  Overwhelmed by the unfinished work of the pregnancy, she can’t appreciate the miraculous outcome.  And after her baby is born she’ll be confronted with a whole new and indescribably transcendent experience of waiting.  If she tries to avoid that, she’ll miss the miracles that continue to trail behind.

We dislike waiting because we feel helpless to change what’s unresolved and we’re crazy about resolution.  The answer is to embrace discipline rather than avoidance.  If we’re always waiting, we might as well honor what we’re waiting for by anticipating it with forethought and appreciation.  When we do that, we no longer feel so helpless.  When we honor the wait, resolution does eventually come and in delightfully unexpected ways.

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Even the whitewashed photograph waits.  The sun is relegated to the background, hugging a corner of the frame, poised to illuminate brick and mortar.  The bikes are idly resting on the post, an homage to the arrested development of their octagonal friend.  Evans’ sign waits to be either celebrated or torn down; the people will decide the fate of his slogan in hashtags.  Even the parking sign is waiting for a passerby to adjust it back to symmetry.

Nature waits.  Architecture waits.  People wait.

 

Beyond the Cave

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It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

― Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings

  In my last post I talked about how we hide in our caves to avoid the dangerous world.  Our world is not safe, so when we don’t find the security we’re craving, we retreat inward.

That cave of safety is a barrier.  It insulates us from healthy risks, new adventures, and new relationships.  The cave enables us to avoid expansion.

You see the secret is this: anxiety grows us.  When we embrace our fear, when we wrap our arms around it and draw it close, we are transformed by that embrace.

If you want to change, you have to embrace your fear, and if you want to embrace your fear, you have to listen to it.  Become a really good soul listener.

Stop creating busyness to distract you from the anxiety.  Pay attention to what the fear is saying, about you, and how you view yourself, about others, and how you’re afraid they view you.  Ask yourself, “What am I really afraid of?”  “What’s the worst that could happen if I emerge from my cave?”

The beautiful reality is this, when we embrace the anxiety it diminishes.  When we lean into the tension, it fades.  We may even hear ourselves saying, “That wasn’t so bad.”  “I’m so glad I took that risk.”

As you peer out of Chicken Little’s cave, instead of witnessing falling skies, you may see a bountiful crop of acorns blanketing the ground.  Where destruction is expected, there’s provision instead.

Go then, friends.  Emerge from your cave with courage and embrace your fear.  Listen to it—and as you listen may you also hear the voices of freedom, creativity, resilience, and joy.

Chicken Little’s Cave

Chicken little 2A few months ago, I shared a talk on how anxiety robs us of our freedom.

Remember Chicken Little?  That’s where this story begins.

Chicken Little is the one who was scampering about one day until an acorn fell on her head.  After being hit, she became hysterical and started yelling, “The sky is falling!” immediately mobilizing to warn her friends of the imminent danger.  The story has a variety of endings, one of which has her retreating into a cave.  In her quest for safety, she is lured there by a wily fox, and in a tragic turn of events the cave of safety is where she meets her end.

Anxiety is universally experienced.  Even when it’s covered in anger, masked by sadness, or cloaked in skepticism: We. Are. All. Anxious.

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What’s the falling sky in your world?

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What’s the cave you’re retreating to for shelter?

Think about that for a moment.  Is it food?  Work?  People?  Exercise?

Or, maybe it’s cloaked in existential terms: Achievement?  Belonging?  Success?  Independence?

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The cave is a great metaphor for three possible ways we try to manage our anxiety: 1. We hunker down in the cave to control it (unsuccessfully).  2. We flee to the cave to avoid it.  3.  We sink into the cave, feeling paralyzed and imprisoned by it.  Initiate surrender.

The problem is, when we retreat into the cave looking for safety, in our own ironic way, we end up becoming consumed by our anxiety.  It swallows us up, like the deep caverns of a cave.

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Anxiety limits our freedom in several ways:

Disrupting connection:  When we retreat to the cave, it keeps us from relationships.  We’re so preoccupied with our fears that we push away genuine connections to focus on managing those fears.  Or, we pull our favorite people into our caves and depend on them to “fix” our fears so that our demands keep us from genuinely loving them.

Flooding:  We allow those shadows to loom so large on the walls of our cave that we become self-absorbed and lose sight of everything else.  They become all-consuming.  Perspective is lost.  Our story gets dialed down to our anxieties and nothing more.

Increasing Guilt/Shame:  When anxiety is viewed as a disorder, we tend to feel guilty and ashamed of it, which only serves to increase our worry.

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Our culture sets us up to be more anxious.

 

As a culture, we pathologize anxiety.  We have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which has 12 anxiety-related disorders, and hundreds of variations within.  There are about 50 types of anxiety medications, not including generic forms.  There’s also a common language that we use in every day conversation about stress, worry, nerves, anxiety, and fear.

Cultural education about anxiety can be helpful, but it can also lead to over-concern about our symptoms, as abnormal and disordered.

Now, add to this cultural landscape the idolization of safety, and you have the perfect storm.

When I gave this talk, it was right after the Super Bowl, and the Hyundai Genesis commercial captured it well.  It’s the one where the dad follows his son around as a portable safety net, there to catch him any time he’s about to fall.  The commercial touts that Dad’s ability to predict and prevent accidents for his son is his “Sixth Sense”.  You can also look at any insurance commercial to find that safety and prevention is priority one.  There’s a problem with this.

Our world isn’t safe.

There are dangers all around us, and we experience pain and suffering all the time.

When culture preaches safety while we are, simultaneously experiencing danger, it increases our anxiety.  Then, when anxiety is also viewed as unsafe by our culture, it creates more anxiety.

It’s the perfect storm to leave us ducking into caves for shelter.

The good news is we don’t need safety the way we think we do.  When we huddle in our caves, we miss out on the freedom of being truly alive.

 

How do we face anxiety with courage?  Stay tuned….

 

In the meantime, consider your own falling skies, and consider the caves you retreat to.  How do they block you from the people and the things that truly matter?

 

 

When Attachment Hurts

I recently wrote an article for an adoption blog on attachment issues.  While this article was meant for those who have children with complex trauma backgrounds, the theory of attachment is applicable to all.

Our underlying view of attachments will shape the way we experience others and relate to them.  I hope you find this article useful on your journey towards greater self-awareness.  

When Attachment Hurts

The buzzword in the adoptive community is, unequivocally, attachment.  For those who have never adopted or fostered, this word may have vague associations with dusty textbooks and archaic research studies.  But for those of you who have chosen the joyous and painful journey, this word has flesh and bones to it, in the form of your child.

The historical, prevailing wisdom dissected attachment into four categories.  These categories had a variety of names, all with similar, delineative meanings: Secure/Balanced; Anxious/Enmeshed; Avoidant/Detached; and Anxious-Avoidant/Ambivalent.

From my perspective, this view of attachment anaesthetizes the true complexity of it, and by doing so, diminishes how adoptive parents experience it in real time.  It also leaves these parents with an incomplete framework for understanding the rapid-fire emotional changes they witness in their traumatized child, and it gives little insight into managing those changes.  An example?

Cheerio Confusion:

One moment your child is clinging to you at breakfast, with loving arms encircling your neck.  The next moment she screams and smashes the cereal bowl following a simple request to wipe Cheerios off the table.  That same child, who was just doting on you, is now reminding you that you’re the worst parent ever, there’s never been anyone more horrible than you, and she wants to hurt you.  You’re bewildered.  You ask yourself why this is happening when the same request the day before yielded swift compliance—a completely different response.

Does reading this bring validation, intense emotions, or your own physical reaction?  If you said yes to any of these, then chances are you’ve experienced this, first-hand.  This attachment pattern is the most confusing and troublesome for adoptive and foster families.

Now bear with me while I get theoretical.  It’s important to have a framework that demystifies this experience.

While a traditional attachment view would say that the girl in our story has an ambivalent attachment, confining her to that box misses the fact that this style is a combination of two other attachment patterns.

Rather than compartmentalizing attachment styles as  secure, insecure, enmeshed, and ambivalent, I prefer to view attachment along a spectrum.  Take a look at the picture.  Think of it as a fulcrum, where the closer you are to a secure attachment, the more balanced the scale.  When you move along the fulcrum to one side or the other, it tips.  So the middle represents an emotionally balanced connection.

AttachmentSpectrum

On one side of the spectrum is enmeshed (clingy), the opposite of this is detached (avoidant or hostile), both are equally insecure attachments.  The fourth style, ambivalent, is demonstrated at the bottom of the diagram as a patterened response of moving between one end of the fulcrum and the other—between detachment and enmeshment.  The more extreme the attachment disorder, the more likely we are to live between the two ends of the scale, rapidly pinging back and forth.  For those exhibiting an ambivalent attachment, the imbalance is dramatic and polarizing.  The point, here, is that this type of imbalance quickly creates chaos.   

Unlike a compartmentalized view of attachment, this spectrum view presumes that all of us have dynamic attachment patterns.  We all move along the spectrum and the frequency and severity of that movement depends on the amount of stress we’re under.  This means that I’m not defined by being anxious, or avoidant, or insecure in my relationships, I will move between those descriptors, along the fulcrum, depending on my level of stress.

So why does this matter to you?

The more ambivalent your child’s attachment pattern, the more easily they kick up your own stress.  How many of you feel like, during crisis moments, your internal, emotional state reflects that of your child?  How many of you feel guilty when the same angry insults they are hurling at you are rising up in your mind regarding them?  Don’t.  You’re being triggered.  Rather than judging yourself, know that you’re under tremendous stress, and the chaotic emotions you feel mirror what they’re feeling too.

The good news?  They can move from the edges of the spectrum closer to the middle.   The other good news?  So can you.

Rather than trying to move your child from one attachment “category” to another, you can think in terms of lessening the frequency and duration of their polar responses between enmeshed and detached.

If we’re aware of how these traumatized children are moving across the spectrum of attachment, we can better understand how to tailor our responses.  De-mystifying this experience is the conquered first step.

Once you understand this, the next step is to consider how to calm yourself down when their shocking responses are programmed to suck you in to their emotional vortex.  If you’re drawn in to the chaos, the likelihood of the two of you overreacting is high.

Now, let me make this very clear:  This. Is. Not. Easy.

I have tremendous respect for those who have made the decision to foster or adopt.  And working with a child who exhibits this ambivalence on a regular basis is very difficult.  So any suggestions I make or insight I offer I do with the understanding that this is painful and exhausting.

It’s for this very reason that it is essential to find a supportive community that understands adoption, to provide support and resources during crisis.

There are two traps I see parents fall into.  And the first trap initiates the second.  First, they view the attachment as overly fragile.  Because many parents have been indoctrinated with the importance of healthy attachment for their child’s healing, they often believe they have to tiptoe around the child with the utmost sensitivity, which ends up being burdensome, exhausting, and can lead to increased triggered responses on the parent’s part, as well as tension and anxiety for the child, who is attuned to your responses.

The second trap is that because of this fragile view of attachment, parents are so concerned with maintaining the connection in order to generate healing that they end up living in enmeshment while believing they’re creating a healthy attachment.

What does this look like in real time? 

Long, drawn out conversations about emotions and copious amounts of time spent trying to engage your child to facilitate the connection (the belief being that time spent correlates with attachment security).  In reality, spending too much time in emotional conversations with your child increases the likelihood that you both become stressed and you both overreact.

Parents’ hypersensitivity to their child’s emotional cues will likely increase their child’s hyper-vigilance.  And if the parents view the attachment as fragile, this will increase their sensitivity to the child’s cues.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The number one way to combat this is through awareness.  You need a clear understanding of the landscape to know how to respond.  Picture the attachment spectrum in your head; consider where you fall on that spectrum during moments when you’re most upset.  Do you tend towards anxiety? Avoidance? Or toggle between both?

Now, what do you notice about your child?  Can you pinpoint where they are on that spectrum during times when they’re upset?  What would it look like to view them as more resilient?  What would it look like to stay calm while they are in crisis?  What do you need to remember from what you’ve learned, here, to be able to do that?

For traumatized children, we can respect the nature of their attachment to us without being overwhelmed by its fragility.  Putting language to the interaction patterns with them will allow us to better understand their actions and our reactions, moment by moment.  As we begin to understand those and get perspective on the obstacles we’ll face, we open the doorway to incorporating interventions and experiencing them, and ourselves, with greater resiliency.

Buried beneath their stressed responses are the personalities of some really awesome kids, full of vibrancy, curiosity, and creativity.  And buried beneath your stressed responses, you’ll find the reflection of your former self, the pre-adoption part of you that was also more vibrant and more curious.  I bet you’re longing to see that.

Resourceful Anxiety

I’m often impressed when I watch friends, colleagues, or clients, come up against deadlines and effortlessly push their way through all of the last minute details with clarity, ease, and accuracy.  I can see the energy and excitement surging as they put the finishing touches on a paper, meet a work deadline, or compile a presentation, spurred on by the threat of the looming deadline.

My brain doesn’t work quite the same way; I’m not motivated by fast-approaching deadlines and I don’t like to come in “under the wire”.  I’m a planner and enjoy the opportunity to entertain a well-crafted, thoughtful response versus coming up with something on the fly. (I’m very impressed by those who can craft immediate, thoughtful responses.)  But when I’m forced to face a deadline change, and there’s no time for calculated reactions, something remarkable and curious happens.

There’s a thin place between comfort and panic, a place where we are pushed outside of our comfort zones, and face fear, with little time to allow it to escalate to the point of panic.  Without that opportunity to process perceived dangers, fears of exposure or vulnerability, and without the option of intellectualizing a plan to protect ourselves from any dangers, we are left to face something deeply intuitive, energized by a healthy fear, and exposed by the inability to control that space.

That thin place is where I reside when I’m in my office.  With the dynamic and evolving process of counseling, there is no way to plan or intellectualize myself out of the curve balls that come.  As that anxiety and excitement surge, I’m left to wrestle my way through an intuitive road map, significantly less comfortable than my intellectual road map, but much more authentic.  This is a resource that I didn’t tap into very well until I faced this unnerving experience day after day in counseling.

For those of you who struggle with anxiety, consider times when the heightened fear led to an emerging resource.  What did that anxiety accomplish for you?  What did you tap into when your usual resources weren’t an option?  How did that emerging character trait influence your sense of self?  What experiences are you avoiding for fear of staying in that thin place?   I’d love to hear your comments, questions, or thoughts about your own resourceful anxiety.

The thin place between comfort and panic is a difficult place to stay.  It’s not easy to navigate that emotional spectrum while under pressure, without tipping into panic.  If you’d like to learn more about how to stay in that thin place, that’s a valuable part of the counseling process.   As someone who manages that tension daily, I’d love to dialogue about that.  What I love about my job is seeing the remarkable and curious resources that emerge from others as they bravely enter the thin places of life.  I’m humbled to see brilliance and vibrancy as a client or friend manages the tension and experiences their untapped resources.  I’d invite you to consider this possibility in your own life.  It’s a beautiful thing.