For the past four days I’ve felt practically excellent! I ran farther and faster than I’m used to, my pain is tolerable, I feel nourished and well rested, and my anxiety is relatively quiet!
Today, someone asked me how I was doing. I excitedly said, “I’m good!”
They looked shocked. My typical response is “Okay [sigh]” or “I’m good, but tired.” So, they asked me, “What’s going on?” I replied that I’m just good and followed with, “it must be a surge”.
A surge for me is when everything falls into place. I am catapulted up just a bit higher than usual. My disposition is literally sunny and optimistic. I basically feel unstoppable, and I do ALL the things. I’m super productive, high energy, attentive, and efficient. I’m like a bolt of electricity [yep – I went there!].
I don’t usually wonder why a surge happens, – it could be the weather, a good conversation, a restful night’s sleep – but especially after a few days I always worry about when it’s going to end, and how hard the crash will be.
You see, if I ride a surge for too long, there are consequences.
Usually these consequences are the result of me pushing my body too far. When things feel good, I feel like I could literally burst through a brick wall without even a scrape or a bruise. I almost always challenge myself too much on good days. I almost always forget to respect my body’s limitations and needs. It always feels good in the moment – I like to feel invincible.
At certain turning point, usually at the climax and right before I start my descent toward an inevitable crash, the idea of how badly my actions are going to hurt comes into my cognitive awareness. A mental space once occupied by the joy of feeling light and energized turns to a cyclical sludge-like head fog. My anticipation of the “crash” [which sounds something like, “It’s going to be so bad I’m going to have to call out of work. Ugh. Whatever. It’s not going to be that bad; I’ll just power through and be “fine”. I’m always fine.” on a loop] is almost always an accurate prediction of how badly I’m actually going to feel. It usually feels like a Mac truck ran over me – twice. That’s how I often describe how much it hurts when I finally find the ground again.
After a while, my mind starts to play its own twisted version of self-sabotage. It plays a game of second guessing and trying to precisely identify when the tides will change and the calm will become the storm. During these moments, I think things like, “do I feel as good as I think I feel?”, “This is the peak; it’s all downhill from here.”, or even “I don’t deserve to feel this good.”
When you’re a spoonie, you have to simultaneously think, “how can something that feels so thrilling also be foreshadowing something so bad?”, “I can’t fully enjoy this because I’ll pay for it later”, and, “I can’t just sit around impatiently waiting for the pain to come back. I need to capitalize on this opportunity and do all the things because I feel so good!” Sometimes on a good day I don’t even remember those seemingly interminable stretches of pain – the ones I thought would never end. Other times, I’m sure the good day won’t last, but also I definitely don’t want to be miserable.
I’m not asking for my pain to come back! I’m just sure that it will.
How do I reconcile the ping-pong-like thoughts in my mind? It is literally mind boggling.
If left unaddressed, these thoughts can spark some anxiety. Anxiety sparks a need for control. A need for control sparks compulsions. Compulsions, right now, look like increased exercise and attention to food. Increased exercise and attention to food result in exhaustion and pain. Exhaustion and pain cause a need for more sleep. Sleeping while anxious and in pain is an incredible challenge. Which, ultimately means that I’ll be perpetually anxious and exhausted, and possibly risk a flare up until the next time I catch a surge. Which could be weeks or months, and that ambiguity, that yearning, causes me more anxiety.
But, in the meantime, I’m going to soar for as long as I can! Today I feel good! We’ll see what tomorrow brings!
At their core, people want to belong and feel purposeful. We crave connections with each other — to something larger than ourselves.
In the age of social media, Twitter and blogging often welcome that type of intimacy. I frequently find that my online friends “get it”. I don’t have to explain myself when I tweet about chronic pain or feeling like a Mac Truck ran over me. I don’t have to justify my spinning thoughts even though I feel crazed and like it’s not normal. Often, I recognize my values and my identities reflected in the topics other people are writing about or the pithy remarks they’re Tweeting. These connections exemplify for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. It makes me feel less alone and gives me some justification for how necessary my (and others’) writing is!
For the sake of connection, finding #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike was so important to me. I follow the creator, Sarah Fader, on Twitter, and for the better part of a year our lived experiences of chronic pain and anxiety have converged via the Twitter sphere. For me, reading these Tweets all weekend was incredibly empowering and also very overwhelming.
For the most part, talking about anxiety, real anxiety, is taboo. I often talk about my worries, and what causes me stress, but the real crippling everyday feelings that occupy my life and mind, such as the heavy feeling of ambiguity, the frenetic feeling associated with not having a plan, or my obsession with time that makes me fear being late, are almost always off limits. By not talking about these anxieties and my feelings, and consequently devoting painstaking effort to appear put together, I’m bolstering the facade and mindset that minimizes and stigmatizes mental illness. If we all devote more energy to talking about anxiety, we can find solace in the well-deserved feeling of relief we experience when we learn that we’re not alone in life’s expeditions.
The hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelslike took my Twitter by storm this weekend. It was second only, possibly, to the Grammys! While at first, the possibility of contributing to this hashtag felt crusting to me, after a while I found that even just reading the Tweets was really reassuring! I could relate to folks’ feelings of inferiority in relationships and accomplishments, the overwhelming uncertainty and dread about sending text messages and emails, the fear that I’m overreacting or imagining how bad something really is, and the constant sensation that my mind is playing tricks on me.
I didn’t tweet anything using the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike for several days. I wasn’t sure how to put my thoughts into 133 characters or less. Actually, the task itself gave me anxiety! At times, reading the posts made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Except I also felt moments of relief and sincere connection. The subsequent intimacy and connection to others that I gained by reading people’s responses and realizing that I’m not alone is no more dangerous than avoiding my feelings and experiencing my story in isolation.
I’m ready to write now; the words are spilling out of me!
This Is What My Anxiety Feels Like
It feels like the sense of invincibility that comes from attempting to do it all and simultaneously avoid whatever is actually pending and important. It feels like unstoppable energy, and confidence that accrues from the electric feeling in my fingers and toes when I’m fueled solely by caffeine and adrenaline — it’s like possibility and efficiency are bubbling out of me! It feels like yearning for the sense of pride that is practically palpable from beating the odds, or defying the expectations. It feels like feeling normal is temporary and maintaining that buzz requires believing I’m in control when I’m absolutely out of control. It feels like every time things feel actually fine, that feeling quickly diminishes and is replaced by intense, immobilizing sadness and isolation. It’s like in moments where I feel like I’ve “found me” I too quickly remind myself that this won’t last long. Usually this feeling lasts just about as long as it takes to take a deep, satisfying breath and recognize that for a moment I can breathe again. That realization makes even a glimpse seem like I’m watching someone else’s life from the sidelines. Anxiety makes me feel like an observer in my own life.
At its core, my anxiety is all about control. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm. Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.
My axiety makes me feel like I can’t stop. I keep myself busy to avoid attending to the spinning thoughts in my head. I’m always thinking so quickly, so often, so intensely. It’s hectic, more appropriately chaotic, It’s also exhausting. Mostly though, it’s really really really overwhelming.
Sometimes it feels like I’m in a room and the walls are all my thoughts. If I could find some way out, a way to break down the walls, a way to push past the barriers that are my thoughts, I’d escape into fresh, crisp air. I’d be able to breathe again.
I’m just thinking too much about everything! I spend too much time reconsidering a conversation with a friend, trying to decide when to send a text so it won’t interrupt people, rereading sent emails for typos and potential misinterpretations that cannot be rectified anyway, worrying that what I submit is barley good enough (that I can only fool people for so long – so therefore rereading and questioning myself until I make myself literally sick), observing and responding to my perceptions of social dynamics, I could go on and on (clearly)!
I want to slow down. I want to pull up on the breaks and tell my head “STOP”. I grapple constantly with this paradox, when I’m not working (and I’m doing something for me) my mind is spinning thinking about all the things I need to be doing. And then I start thinking faster, allocating every minute and attempting to convince myself it will be okay. It feels like a frenzy, like if I don’t harness my thoughts I won’t be able to turn off the anxiety. Conversely, when I start working I can’t even focus on what I’m working on because I’m thinking about a million, minimally important, other things.
I Need Air
My anxiety is like when you’re swimming. It’s like that precise moment right before you come up for air. The anticipation of a deep breath is quickly quenched by a satisfying inhale. However, if this action is repeated, for example if I were to quickly dart back under the water, then the repetition of anticipation and ascertainment may be associated with a feeling of never getting enough of what you need or incessant wanting. So, the gasp of air may be nearly enough to sustain your stroke and stamina but not to fully satisfy your desire.
My anxiety is fueled by an insatiable want for full, deep, satisfying breath of air! And, as I relentlessly seek out this feeling of serenity I’m coming up against tall, sturdy walls of abruptness and urgency instead
Life is full of messy, uncomfortable, painful moments. And most of the time, we’re totally unprepared for how “real” life is about to get. It sneaks up on us, and then avoidance becomes our best alibi. Most of us are more comfortable staying a safe distance away from ourselves and our feelings – it’s easier than doing the work of reuniting our actions, intentions, and feelings. However, in those difficult moments we must practice balancing the opposing feelings of being fully present and running away. That’s scary! Yet, those are the moments in which we grow. We grow when we lean in to moments of discomfort and vulnerability. The anticipation is bound to be terrifying and reason enough to avoid disclosure at all costs, but in the end it may be relieving.
Feeling so deeply, being present in a place of hurt or pain, and embracing your own truth can leave you breathless. It’s brave. You may even find solace in sharing your story and discovering the power of knowing you’re not alone!
Want to participate? Tweet using the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike or follow Sarah Fader on Twitter to see what others are saying!
Oh wow! The words are flying out from under my fingers faster than I can process them. Which, is kinda like how fast my brain was whirring during my spin class tonight. Honestly endorphins and anxiety can do some kickin’ things in my head!
So, here are 45 thoughts I had in a 45 minute spin class.
Okay play it cool. Just walk in and pick a bike – I got this.
How the heck does this thing work? [tugging, pulling, and pushing buttons and knobs to adjust the bike settings] Everyone is probably looking at me.
Instructor: “Is anyone new?”[timid hand raise] Me: Keep playing it cool. Just nod and say things like awesome and cool.
Instructor: “Be kind to yourself tonight” Me: Right on. Okay. This could be okay. I can handle a bit of self-care.
I love this music. Maybe I’ll add it to my running playlist.
This is gonna be such great cross training!
I definitely don’t belong here. What was I thinking?! I’m a huge impostor.
Am I even doing this right?
I look like a fool.
Why is this bike moving so fast? My legs feel out of control. Oh, my legs feel like Jello. I’m definitely doing this wrong.
[Looks around the room] WOAH all these girls are so skinny.
[Looks in the mirror] I’m probably the fattest girl in this class.
They probably all think I’m too fat to be here.
Everyone in Boston is so FIT. What’s with all these fit people? It must be a city thing.
Hey wait. I run half marathons. I can handle a 45 minute spin class.
This shirt is too big. It puffs in all the wrong places. It makes me look bigger than really I am.
Okay just don’t look in the mirror.
Wow why am I so conceded that I can’t stop looking at myself in the mirror?
Why aren’t other people sweating?
[Looks around the room – again] Oh there are people who are struggling WAY more than me.
I got this.
Just keep breathing.
This music is great. Okay, just focus on the music.
Is it weird that I’m singing along to Katy Perry Eye of the Tiger?
Why isn’t there a clock in this room? Where is the clock?!?! How many minutes has it been?
What the heck is a moderate hill anyway? My thighs hurt more or less – that’s my measure of resistance.
I cant believe all these people are so skinny.
I wonder if they think I shouldn’t be here.
I bet you they aren’t thinking about me at all.
Okay just count the beats. Be present.
How many calories am I burning?
Oh, these bikes don’t have any tracking devices! How many miles did I go? How am I supposed to track this in my app later?
Why are my thighs so huge?
I said, I wouldn’t look in the mirror!
Wow only three more songs left. That wasn’t so bad!
I totally got this.
Make this count. I’m skipping my run for this.
How is this song not over yet?
I wonder if Grey’s Anatomy is going to be good.
How did I not realize that whenever I lean forward the instructor can see down my entire shirt?!
At least I’m wearing a matching sports bra.
If I have a snack when I get home will I ruin my workout?
Almost there. Don’t give up. Power through.
Made it. Phew! That wasn’t so bad. I’d do that again!
Content Warning: disordered eating, excessive exercise, and self-harm
I’ve been working on this post since December 30, 2016. It’s time to share this aspect of my story even if it’s making me shake as I write. There will be more time to unpack and reorganize my thoughts later. The beauty is in the imperfections. The beauty is in naming my lived experience even if I’m scared. Thank you for reading.
2016 was a remarkable year – literally.
As I was reflecting, I realized that for someone who isn’t very good at math, I did a whole lot of mental gymnastics and complex calculations in 2016. I measured nearly everything – even when I didn’t realize I was doing it.
So, in that spirit, to reflect on 2016, I’m asking, “how do you measure a year?”
Really though, what’s going to make a difference when you look back? What matters for days, weeks, months later? What’s memorable enough? What’s quantifiable? What’s not quantifiable that’s still important?
I could measure 2016 by the number of Tweets I posted, the number of good things that happened, the number of bad things that happened, the number of times I didn’t feel guilty about the food I was eating, the number of amazing conversations I had, the number of trips to the ER, the number of friends I lost, the number of friends I gained, the number of pounds I lost, the number of miles I ran, the number of times I dropped everything because someone needed me, the number of dollars I spent on therapy, the number of hours I spent in therapy, the number of articles I wrote, the number of “accomplishments” I earned, the number of days I over-scheduled to occupy my mind for every single waking minute, the number of fights I had, the number of moments I actually felt present, the list could go on, and on, and on, and on.
The truth is, it’s a miracle I made it through this year, and I’m not sure how I did it. I was crazed and compulsive, and my brain NEVER shut off! I mean it. I woke up exhausted from how many ideas and conversations my brain entertained while I was “sleeping”.
In 2016 I was out of control; even though the one thing I felt like I could count on was control.
Control for me is the ultimate goal. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Striving for control manifested in a lot of ways for me in 2016. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm. Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.
I started measuring 2016 by counting calories and miles – obsessively [Thank you Under Armour You Vs Year Challenge] . I ended the year the same way. I ended 2016 weighing myself twice a day, working out 6 days a week, eating one full meal a day, and purging when I felt too full or overwhelmed. I spent 2016 calculating how many miles I’d need to track to erase every indulgence, and every slip of self-control. I ended 2016 feeling “okay” if I ate the same thing every day, and being both proud and fearful every time I lost more weight. It was never about weight, size, or body image; it was always about control. I ended 2016 convinced that these behaviors were typical and not disordered.
In 2016 my identity was contingent on my accomplishments; my identity was consumed by how far I could push myself [read: attempting to run a half marathon while being malnourished and completing an intensive one year Master’s degree while working four jobs]. I tracked my the miles I ran (see below), and if you ask me I can tell you how my mileage totals correlates directly with the chaos in my life. When I felt most out of control, I ran more. It was so simple.
Side note: Melissa A. Fabello suggest it’s bests to “Never, Ever Use Numbers” when talking about fitness on social media. While I tend to agree and realize it can be triggering, I’m using numbers right now. I’m using numbers to illustrate and own my experience. I’m using numbers as literal data to tell my story.
I once described my feelings about running like this,
“pounding the pavement, counting each step, each throbbing step. Endure, push through, don’t stop. Determination. Thud, pound, pound, breath, keep going, don’t stop, sigh, sigh…”
I’ve also described running like this,
“I started running because it was the most brutal, ruthless, clearest way, aside from being a competitive gymnast, I could think of to tell my chronic pain that it isn’t in charge. Running is how I’m reclaiming my body. When I’m running I’m in charge. I’m strong, powerful, and triumphant.“
I channeled my mileage into training for two half marathons. The first race, I ended up in the hospital. I said I didn’t care, but I cared a lot! I was convinced I could push through anything but, my body had a different reality. If I was healthier, stronger, and had better intentions, I would have finished.There was a disconnect between my mind and my body. [Side note: There still is.]
So, the second time I trained for a half marathon, I trained smarter. I decided to think about food as fuel. The second time, I did finish! That was an accomplishment in 2016! In 2016 I ran more than 1000K! I ran nearly the distance of 24 marathons, and with each crazed, obsessive step I gained clarity, pain, agony, energy, and strength – depending on the day.
I ended 2016 both in denial and with a plan to tackle these perfectionist driven behaviors, and dangerous habits. I ended 2016 with a plan to be stronger – both physically and mentally.
I should mention here that living with OCD and overcoming compulsions or obsessions is not a linear process. I’ve had several bouts of compulsions in my life, and even if I’ve resolved one, it’s likely another will reveal itself or I’ll relapse – this is super context dependent (I learned this in 2016). Acknowledging this is a really important step.
In 2016 I graduated with my Master’s degree. Now I have two degrees – count that! I am among the nearly 9-12% (depending on the source) of people in the U.S. who hold an advanced degree. That’s pretty cool.
I also got a job! I love my job, and I love getting to say that I’m a researcher! My team is an amazing group of nerdy, collaborative, intelligent people. Each day my strengths are recognized. I’m trusted and respected. Our work is important. I feel productive and valuable. I feel empowered and supported. I’m appropriately challenged, and I’m always learning new skills. I feel happy at my job every day (even when it’s stressful)- that’s a relief. I am so lucky!
Many people have asked me if I think that graduate school was worth it especially because I love my job and learned so much, and most often my response is overpowered by my own ambivalence. Usually I don’t even want to be entertaining such a question. However, if I’m being honest, I hated graduate school. I have been working through a lot of issues such as complex trauma, impostor syndrome, and anxiety because of it. I do not think that it was worth it. Merely surviving should never be the objective.Although, it’s always an accomplishment. As much as I try to convince myself it wasn’t “that bad” the more I listen to my friends and recall several of the worst nights of my life it’s tough to deny how severe it was. I wouldn’t say that struggling for a year, being suicidal at times, and acquiring an eating disorder as a result of my unrelenting OCD was worth it no matter how amazing my job is now. In 2016, I learned how academia doesn’t take mental health and self-care seriously, and that it’s too easy to pretend you’re “fine” even when you’re struggling immensely.
In 2016, I also found and joined feminist writing spaces. In first publication on Ravishly.com I came out as asexual. I recognized my values and my identities were reflected in the topics other people were writing about. These writers and activists exemplified for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. My queerness is not the most prominent aspect of my identity, but being queer and owning it afforded me both a sense of connection and exclusion. The connectedness was electrifying. The exclusion made me feel enraged and small. And so, I wrote!
I was enamored with the connection and the energy! I became addicted to saying things, and having them matter to someone. I wanted to be seen, and to belong. I wanted people to recognize my identities, relate to me, and engage with me! My feminism burst out of me once I gained knowledge and started writing, and allowed myself the privilege of being recognized for and confident about who I am, and how my life works. In 2016, I became a writer, and found my voice – which I still think is really cool!
Awareness, Acceptance, and Action – Next Steps
I measured 2016 in events, logistics, and numbers. I allowed my emotions to be in charge when they made sense and they were manageable. Otherwise I silenced them. I convinced myself most feelings were too big, and too intrusive. I learned to retreat instead of express myself. In 2016 I mostly felt complacent – which felt good. Conversely, I often felt out-of-control happy, out-of-control sad, out-of-control angry… and those feelings didn’t feel good. I learned that numbness can be an everyday, acceptable feeling, and that being numb can carry you for a really long time.
I’m still doing the work to recognize, respond to, and feel – literally – what emotions feel like. Sometimes that means getting on a soap box ranting about how frustrated I feel when women at my office complain about the actual, never-ending supply of candy, and the perpetual body shaming and food shaming. Sometimes that means saying when someone hurts me, and calling them out even if it’s uncomfortable. And sometimes that means, recognizing when I’m happy, and sharing that joy with others!
The point is, once I started allowing myself to feel, I allowed my opinions to be valid, and spent time cultivating self-awareness – including learning about myself and my opinions about feminism. I realized there were so many injustices that made me absolutely livid inside, and I charged toward advocating for justice and equity. I also gained some personal insight into what emotions mean for me – which is definitely a work in progress.
I rounded out 2016 by signing a lease for an apartment in Cambridge, MA. I found a wonderful, accepting community of social justice minded, Jewish, young professionals to share Shabbat with. I am in love with the intellectual capital and the culture of Cambridge. I’ve enjoyed sharing the camaraderie of running in this compact city! When I’m feeling really good, I’ll even admit there are a lot of incredible restaurants to try too! I’m excited for the opportunity to thrive in a new, invigorating space.
I could measure 2016 SO many ways. I did measure 2016 SO many ways. Now, in hindsight, I’m finding it most helpful and fulfilling to measure 2016 by recognizing all the opportunities for growth and all the potential for the coming years. I’m happy. Really. I’ve got a good thing going for me right now, and I have an incredible amount of hard, hard work ahead of me.
2017 will be about embracing being simultaneously a masterpiece and a work in progress! I’m ready!
I’m writing tonight because something great is happening here – people “get it”. Right now, that’s so necessary and meaningful. I’m inspired. Thank you!
I don’t cry. That was one of the first conversations I had with my new friend Sam. Today, Sam’s piece made me cry TWICE! This piece got to me. BIG TIME.
Where to start? Where to start? This is hard.
Okay, “What is control?”
When I Googled “control” I found about 3,020,000,000 results in 0.67 seconds. Control means to have power over something. It is when you restrain or direct influence over something/someone; regulate. It implies regulating to keep order (merriam-webster.com).
To me, control is ANYTHING that can make the chaos feel like it’s my fault. Control is what I can call on to mitigate the feeling that I can’t keep up with the chaos anymore. Control is making myself miserable because then at least I’d be responsible. I’d be in charge. Control is cultivating order at all costs. It’s doing whatever it takes to rescue the person I used to recognize as unstoppable. It’s the opposite of spinning – as in spiraling out of control.
Too often these days, there’s no clarity. It’s like everything is in a fog and I’m just barely present ever. It’s so loud and fast in my head most of the time I’m not even able to hear or focus in conversations or meetings – like I can’t listen. I can’t think! The truth is, I’m overwhelmed all the time (and angry too!). This type of persistent whirlwind is distracting and dangerous. It’s frightening and lonely. It’s my reality. I think the feeling that I can’t make it stop even if I wanted to and the fact that I’m getting used to it rather than trying to change it is what’s freaking me out.
Sam NAILED IT when he said, “I start to hate myself a little when I think about how restricting [and other forms of self-harm] like this can feel good – can feel really, really good – because it gives me this illusion that my feet are on the ground.” That’s what it is. It’s an illusion. It’s another attempt to keep up appearances and be “fine”. If I feel like I’m in control and I’m choosing it, then, to me, that makes it okay.
I’m no longer in control. That’s not okay. I’ve moved from portioning meals (let’s be real. apples, trail mix, and hard boiled eggs are snacks) so that I have enough to eat, to portioning food so I won’t over indulge. I need to control EVERYTHING that my body endures. Most days, my ENTIRE caloric intake for the day equates to less than a single meal or has, imperatively, been dissipated by an intensive cardio workout – a workout which eases my mind, boosts my mood, and puts ME back in control . That’s not control. For now, I’ll call it organized chaos.
The appearance of control is deceptive. It makes me SO feel good. It’s when I experience the kind of fast, logical, coherent, intentional thinking I crave – the mentality I miss. The good days mess with me! They make me think “it isn’t really that bad”. I can justify this; I can make it rational. If it’s rational, it’s alright. If the fury can be tamed it’s fine. I’m fine.
I think, you become an adult the moment you realize that most of the time NOBODY knows what they’re doing. Practically no one is an expert in anything except for pretending to be an expert at something and making it seem like they’ve got it all together. Keeping up appearances and “faking it” could be a full-time job. I guess there’s a turning point, it’s a paradox really, where once you realize how much you know (about your field, life, “the real world”) you realize how much you actually don’t know. The objective then becomes, “how can I convince as many people as possible I belong here and I’m as knowledgeable as they expect me to be?”
When that objective impedes the functioning of your life and begins to dictate your decisions that’s called Impostor Syndrome. It’s defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence (Caltech Counseling Center, 2015).
Impostor Syndrome is common among, although not exclusive to, academics and high achieving women. It’s been discussed in academic literature since 1978 when Clance and Imes coined the “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. They explain that “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persists in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample object evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief. ” Alrighty, enough literature…
Impostor Syndrome is real and by reducing it to “humility” and ignoring its consequences we’re perpetuating the silence around mental health and the pressure and culture of perfectionism.
For me, Impostor Syndrome started invading my thoughts when I decided to apply to Brown. Then more persistently, when I struggled through my personal statement for my graduate school applications. And, most viciously when I got accepted to Brown and decided to come. In many regards, I’m “over it”. I know, and I’m confident that, I’m “intellectual enough” to be in graduate school but still, sometimes, it creeps up on me unexpectedly. On a bad day, if I let it win, Impostor Syndrome prescribes me to stay in bed. It convinces me I shouldn’t even try because I’m simply not good enough. In my work Impostor Syndrome sounds like me telling myself “I can’t believe they’re letting/trusting me to do this task” – regardless of the rigor or importance. Then I spend hours scrutinizing over the smallest details to be sure to impress or meet their “delusional” expectations.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Impostor Syndrome as it relates to social media and the necessity to present as perfect and simultaneously have every accomplishment appear effortless. I’m sure many of us can relate to abruptly halting our lived experiences to snap the perfect photo (and another and another) and then later stressing about crafting the pithy caption to capture the moment that was already ruined once we decided to take a photo. Right? The anxiety social media perpetuates in terms of what/how/why we share about our successes and good news (and how we perceive others will respond) makes this compelling to explore.
Why is it that when someone posts about their successes on social media it’s always accompanied by a slight, yet extremely important, attribution to luck or “the amazing opportunity”? Yes, humility is important and often we aren’t doing it all on our own but, can you recall the last time you shared an accomplishment without being concerned someone would think you’re being conceited or think you’re only sharing it to boost your self-esteem and receive their praise? Why should you be nervous to call a friend or post online and share something exciting?
There’s this pervasive notion that you can’t actually be proud of what you’ve done. You have to be #blessed or #lucky to parade positivity online (listen to #blessed – Stuff Mom Never Told You for more on this – it’s spot on) because calling attention to your successes outright is, apparently, social media taboo. WHY? Why do women feel the need to downplay their success or appear effortlessly perfect?
There’s even an app now that helps women stop saying “just” and “sorry” in emails so they stop “inadvertently discredit[ing] their own opinions”. It’s troubling though because nobody is talking about the societal and institutional parameters that perpetuate these minimizing behaviors and render them acceptable. Why do women feel more comfortable making themselves small? In some ways, I think, it’s an attempt to build themselves up. We’re not talking about the protective features those asides provide to make women feel like it’s okay to share about their exciting news or even simply their opinion. These small, but important, choices we make assure we’re not experienced as “bossy” or “boasting”. We do it even when we know we’re right!
The New York Times, discusses this culture of appearing perfect and saving face well in one of their most popular articles from 2015: Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. They detail a phenomenon where students talked about how “They could say what they’d accomplished, but they couldn’t necessarily say who they were”. Such mind games! But it’s true and, it’s practically unbelievable that intelligent people can stare at their resumes and acceptance letters to Ivy League institutions (which if you “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment…what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation”) and see right past all the evidence that indicates they are deserving. They can easily convince themselves otherwise and may not even recognize themselves beyond the list of “things they’ve done”. Suddenly, their accomplishments stand in as the default measure that indicates who they are, their worth, and beyond the impressive list they’ve compiled they feel lost and misguided. It happens without consent and it’s positively crippling once it captures your mind.
The NY Times article also explains that “female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort.” These internal narratives are consistently challenged by loved ones’ encouragements, “you belong with those people”and “you’re meant to do this”. Where the words, “those people” throb like a pounding headache because they feels so separate, so elite, so much more than they could achieve; they hear “you’re meant to do this” as “you tricked them yet again” rather than the support these phrases are intended to provide. So their foundation must be rebuilt often due to the wrath – expressions of support and encouragement – of what seems like never ending wrecking balls whose only obligation is to create cracks in their concrete with their terms of endearment. They go through the motions working themselves into fits of sleeplessness and mind boggling anxiety trying to prove they can do this – it becomes their sole obligation. At the same time, they’re consumed by maintaining an online presence of apparent effortlessness and success – but not too successful of course.
Don’t be fooled. Underneath the encouragement from friends and family and the pristine social media presence, their mind is unraveling. It tells a story which is comprised of lists of achievements that amount to nothing special – cloaked in phrases like “it’s mediocre” or “just a thing I’ve done” – even when they’re spectacular! The list is glistening with expectations still to be met. We call these unmet items potential and as their list of accomplishments grows longer so too does the list of expectations. Somehow, as they become more “qualified”, and subsequently feel less qualified, little by little the consideration of the associated hard work they’ve done to reach these numerous accolades dissipates. At some point, perfection becomes a burdensome, heavy expectation that weighs them down and occupies their mind. Soon, the means by with they achieve are less important and to the outside world it looks like they can do it all – and so they do and then some – whatever the cost. The conceptions that they work hard and overcome challenges or adversity are not entertained. The final product becomes the only objective – nobody is concerned about the process or the progress. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope that ends in fear and pent up, insidious, persistent feelings of inadequacy which are kept separate from the persona they put on each day to face the world. It feels like they must make it seem absolutely effortless because otherwise, they’d have to actually recognize THEMSELVES rather than their resume. They end up feeling defeated simultaneously wondering how they can maintain the facade and how it was created in the first place. They experience all this utter nonsense, instead of owning their successes and being proud. Social media only makes it worse. It’s never ending and mostly they want it to stop – even if just for a moment – so they can gain some perspective.
The title of this post comes directly from a piece I wrote earlier this week: The Number Stares Back. I wrote that piece quickly because the words and anxieties felt like they were bubbling over much faster than I could really handle them. Consequently, that’s not an unfamiliar feeling these days. Things just happen so quickly. And I can’t make it stop. I’m thinking about everything and ruminating over small aspects of each day. So much thinking! I CANT MAKE IT STOP!
Ordinarily, this feeling of “doing too much” doesn’t faze me. I’m notorious for “doing all the things” and doing them well. I don’t settle. So, what’s been most indicative to me that this feeling is different is the notion that I actually feel overwhelmed. Like REALLY overwhelmed. And, I don’t know what to do. And, all this is conflated with immense feelings of loneliness, feelings, perceptions and fears of being burdensome to others, and serious negativity that’s often repositioned through anxious energy as enduring positivity and enthusiasm (I’m faking it!). Paradoxically, my attempts to mitigate the accompanying feelings of any of these conflations often end up exacerbating another. How difficult?!?!
How do I explain this? It’s like, imagine that you’re running a race and each time you’re just about to approach the finish line it appears to be further way. And, since this is a race, you have on your “game face”. Nothing will stop you and you’re compelled to keep running because, after all, it is a race. Amidst this notion of racing is the adrenaline and anxiety that accompanies the “big day”. This helps you maintain your pace and endurance. Actually, in the case of endorphins, this feeling increases throughout the ordeal. The metaphor here, life as a race, isn’t a new one; we all know the saying “life’s a marathon, not a sprint” and we’ve read countless similar mantras. The idea though is that it’s applicable here too and more so because I feel like the race never ends!
So, I’m going a slightly different direction with this. I’m attempting to illustrate what it feels like to be unable to stop. I’m attempting to explain the conundrum and relative consequence of thinking so quickly, so often, so intensely and how this hectic, more appropriately chaotic, state is both tiring and illuminating. Mostly though, it’s really really really overwhelming.
If I were swimming, this might be akin to that precise moment right before you come up for air. The anticipation of a deep breath is quickly quenched by a satisfying inhale. However, if this action is repeated, for example if I were to quickly dart back under the water, then the repetition of anticipation and ascertainment may be associated with a feeling of never getting enough of what you need or incessant wanting. So, the gasp of air may be nearly enough to sustain your stroke and stamina but not to fully satisfy your desire. I’m trying to make this analogy work! I just want a full, deep, satisfying breath of air!
So yes, there’s an inexplicably sensational appeal to finding order and calm. However, my best attempts at capturing those moments of order and calm are often met by many obstacles I can’t yet overcome. And, as I relentlessly seek out this feeling of serenity I’m coming up against tall, sturdy walls of abruptness and urgency instead.