Apparently, I have an existence problem.
I wrote those words just now and thought to myself, "That sounds like there is a mathematics joke to be made here," so I Googled "existence problem" and found this, at Wolfram MathWorld:
The question of whether a solution to a given problem exists. The existence problem can be solved in the affirmative without actually finding a solution to the original problem. Such a demonstration is said to be nonconstructive, and is called a nonconstructive proof or an existence proof.
I don't know if I am any closer to getting this blog post started, but I feel slightly more satisfied having gone down that rabbit trail.
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I operate all the time with a kind of compulsion to be doing something.
Not, like, always the same thing. I don't have to count traffic lights or rearrange the furniture or clean. But I'm always restless. Endlessly I tick off items on an invisible to-do list in my head; endlessly I scribe more items to its bottom. Not only that, but at any particular moment, my mind is never (or rarely) fully on the activity that I am engaged in. I am thinking of the next thing I have to do, and the next; if I am not sure exactly what the next thing will be, I am scanning for something undone that will do.
If I get all the chores done, with a few hours till dinnertime, then I think: "I could stop now. On the other hand, there is this other thing I have to do tomorrow. If I could get that thing out of the way, then I could really relax. Or at least I can get a head start on it. After all, I have a few hours until dinnertime!" And off I go. If I do get that thing out of the way, there is always another thing that I could get a head start on. And if I finish that thing, there is still another waiting behind it.
It doesn't really end.
You would think that having this type of a personality would mean that I polish off lots of tasks, am super organized, and am always on top of everything. After all, I never rest! But there is a catch. Actually, there are at least two.
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The first catch is that in fact, NO ONE can keep going and going and going and never resting, and continue to produce good output. And my body knows this even if my conscious mind will not admit it.
Periodically, therefore, a sort of temporary insanity befalls me. Most mornings upon waking, the internal urge to keep getting something done inspires me to down a couple of cups of coffee and briskly do All The Things; but on these occasional mornings, instead, I flee. I find myself sitting in my pajamas in front of the computer screen, desperately clicking through progressively less thought-provoking links on Facebook or Twitter, having "just one more" cup of coffee over and over again before waking up the children, until lunchtime rolls around and I start to feel as if I am Really Behind.
I have learned to compensate, to pivot midday. Often after lunch I shower and dress and scrape control back together and make the best of it; but sometimes it turns into several days of deep procrastination. I become afraid to check my email for fear that someone will assign me a task. It usually takes me a week or two to dig myself out of the hole that this creates. And I feel terrible about it afterwards, because it clashes horribly with my self-image as Somebody Who Always Has Her Shit Together.
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The second catch is that some of the most important responsibilities of my "job" as mother to a family involve a more receptive and responsive and fluid and repetitive and slow-change kind of activity.
Holding a child quietly on my lap. Listening to teenagers talk. Helping them practice something over and over again. Enjoying leisure time in each other's presence.
I have a lot of trouble doing this because sometimes -- even though I know better -- it feels like wasted time. The to-do list hangs inside my head, accusingly, distracting me. I am always thinking: I should take care of such-and-such first, then I can sit down and really focus on this child. And if that feeling came to me just once in a while, perhaps, it would be the right thing to do: "I'll spend time with you as soon as I finish that email, run that errand, put away a load of laundry."
But when the feeling never goes away, I can't be a slave to it. And yet the compulsion is always there.
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Back to my existence problem.
About eleven months ago I sought the services of a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) It probably sounds like I'm about to issue a tell-all about Mark and me, because MARRIAGE THERAPY!, but, no. I thought an LMFT could help me understand better some of the dynamics in my family of origin. I narrowed my search to someone who advertised experience with certain pathologies that I suspect are involved there. I wanted to understand how those patterns are continuing to play out today, and how I might move past them.
The timing is good for me to take this on now. My oldest can be left in charge. I have appointments about every two weeks, in a nearby residential neighborhood, at midday -- between "morning school" and "afternoon school."
The first few appointments were spent, to put it in psychobabble terms, validating my experience. (It turns out that I'm not imagining the pathologies.)
The next few appointments were spent helping me work through strategies for speaking and relating to people whom I care about deeply but who are enmeshed in bad situations -- situations I can't rescue them from, or comfort them much while they are in them, because I'm keeping out of there for my own safety and well-being.
So, having moved on from the background material that led me to seek therapy in the first place, I am working now on my personal problem with that metaphorical background noise.
Noise that I am starting to understand and decipher.
It means: Your worth is in your accomplishments.
Nipping at my heels, always:
You -- you -- are not enough.
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A great many people experience impostor syndrome at least once in their lives. It's common among graduate students, or young people in their first professional job, or first-time managers of other employees.
They'll see through my act -- they'll realize that I don't belong here! How can I fake it more convincingly?
I had it in graduate school for sure. That wasn't surprising. Lots of people did. We used to go out for coffee and talk about it, laugh at ourselves, tell stories about how we were coping with it. It was a disorienting feeling for someone who had always been near the top of the class, but at least I could read about it and hear others discuss it and know it was a fairly normal experience. A lot of sources mention it as if it is an especial problem for women in STEM fields, but that isn't quite true; it can affect anyone.
So that was a normal kind of incorrect sense of unbelonging.
But I've come to realize that I have always unconsciously felt like an impostor, not as part of a job or in a role, but as -- there really is no other way to put this -- as an adequate human being.
And the breakneck pace I feel compelled to keep up with?
That's all part of faking it.
I'm faking it just as fast as I can, and maybe someday I'll actually feel like I'm making it, and then maybe I can quiet the chatter that urges me on.
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The thing is, I don't believe any of this unbelonging, this worth-testing, is true, not with my conscious mind, not with my fundamental grounding philosophy and values.
I affirm that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth, no matter whether they are of any "use" to anyone or not, no matter whether they are successful by the world's standards; even if they do evil and fail to do good, they have dignity and worth, simply because they are human beings.
I reject the notion that there can be, or ever has been, a worthless human being.
I believe the quotation from Elisabeth Leseur highlighted in the upper right corner of my blog:
Every person is an incalculable force, bearing within her a little of the future.
I believe, with St. John Paul II, that a person is an entity to which the only acceptable response is love.
Logically, I should think of myself the same way.
But it's very hard for me.
And none of that helps to shut up the chatter in the back of my brain, the "what must I make happen next? and then? and then? and then?"
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So, anyway, oddly enough, at least according to my LMFT therapist, none of what I've described rises to the level of any sort of DSM-worthy diagnosis.
I don't exhibit the necessary symptoms at the necessary frequency to count as exhibiting, say, generalized anxiety disorder, or an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
(Not even an eating disorder or some kind of body image dysmorphic disorder. I did ask to be evaluated for that, too. Nope.)
This was a little bit disappointing to me at first, because I was looking for answers. I was perfectly prepared to be told that I had A Diagnosis of some kind, a personality disorder or a mental illness. I expected it. I might even have been hoping for it. But it turns out that I am not sick in any way.
Maybe wounded, a bit.
I don't get to be a member of the community of People With A Diagnosis.
It turns out that I just have a sort of compulsive-flavored personality: if I had a job, I'd probably be a bit of a workaholic; I exhibit what is called in a certain jargon, "perfectionistic self-presentation."
Dahhhhling, it is always better to look good than to feel good.
I think there are more reasons than I realized at first, that I chose to see a marriage and family therapist.
The job of a marriage and family therapist is often to help people who are not necessarily mentally ill, or disturbed, or disordered, navigate the ups and downs of their relationships.
Sometimes relationships hit rough spots, places that are hard to navigate, not because the humans in them are terribly impaired, but just because they are humans.
Well, I have trouble navigating a relationship with the person I see in the mirror.
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The current strategy is to try to quiet the chatter in my head, through practice deliberate calming, breathing, focusing.
I am trying to think of the prescribed exercises as "mindfulness training" or "focusing practice."
The common term for what the therapist wants me to try is "meditation," but using that term bugged me, and I had to think about it for a while to figure out the source of my resistance. I finally decided that the problem was that the meaning-slot for that word is already taken, by something else. In my personal lexicon, meditation means a different kind of practice, for a different kind of purpose.
When I meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary or meditate on the meaning of a passage of Scripture, or even meditate on what I am thinking of having for lunch, it is a very active and busy, if receptive, kind of thinking. I am usually hoping that thoughts will come to me and that they will be interesting and insightful.
Also, the purpose of these practices (well, except for the lunch one) is to increase religious devotion.
But the purpose of the therapist's suggestion is to take some control back from the panicky, chattering noise in the back of the mind, to learn how to choose what thoughts will occupy your attention and which won't.
In my very specific case, I am to try to learn how to think about what I am doing now and let go of thoughts of what I ought to do later.
And it is not an active and busy kind of thinking; it's an effort to think about, or notice, only one thing at a time, and to keep bringing myself back to that one thing I've chosen to notice.
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I will probably write some more about the mindfulness thing, because it is giving me a lot to think about, which is almost too meta for me to take. Meanwhile, from day to day I have been trying to let go of the endless to-do list in my head, and just do one thing at a time, and not think about the next thing until it is time to begin it. This is very difficult, not least because apparently I have been relying on that habit to stay organized, and I am not sure how to be any other way without, well, screwing up. Or at least disappointing someone.
(No, really! There are people who need things from me! Not just my kids! I have promised to do tasks for people and organizations! I can't just.... stop doing those things! At least I have to clear my existing to-do list first! Don't I?)
Well, maybe. Maybe not. I guess I will try to find out if I can be enough without worrying about being enough. One day at a time, maybe. One hour at a time. Twenty minutes, maybe, just breathing.