So, I Threw A Spatula…

Just last week, in a fit of quiet rage and a heightened sense of perceived injustice, I hurled a spatula across my kitchen.

IMG_2622

I cannot convey to you, by the way, how hard that sentence was to admit, write and publish.

Anger’s not cute

Anger is not cute. Rage…even less so. It’s not an emotion many people, women specifically, proudly tout. Lack of control, specifically expressions of anger, seems to run counter to the current culture of mindfulness and increased emotional intelligence.

I admit, I’m not proud of throwing that spatula in fury. However, I choose to share my embarrassing outburst on social media because despite being one of the least favourite emotions, anger is a human one. It’s part of the colourful rainbow of sentiments that contributes to the privilege of being human. No one is exempt or immune. Nor, should we strive to be.

Nevertheless, we rarely see examples of healthy, thriving women in their anger. Somehow, anger doesn’t fall into the parameters of what society believes a woman should exude.

As Soman Chainani, acclaimed author and filmmaker, asserts, “Social media has made it so that we are constantly judging ourselves and others. If we’re not careful, our social media feeds become a torture device, an assault of beauty and perfection designed to make you feel inadequate. It makes you intolerant of other people’s real imperfections, and it makes you start to despise the weight of real life, and invest in shallow, flimsy, two dimensional mirrors of it.”

Our growing understanding of emotional expression has somehow coincided with raised and often unrealistic expectations of how our emotions should manifest themselves, which can result in feelings of shame in moments we don’t present as calm, cool, and controlled. We can even tell ourselves the story that we’re somehow ‘defective.’

A bit of background…

I should mention, for the record, that I didn’t throw the spatula at anyone. I was standing alone in the kitchen, ruminating.

The rage had been fuelled by a recent article in Maclean’s magazine, titled I Regret Having Children. The article reported that an increased number of women across North America were expressing regret for having had children, a fact I vehemently DO NOT personally agree with.

Reading it made me angry for three reasons:

  1. Mental Load: Most mothers these days share a profound first-hand understanding of the day-to-day inner conflicts one experiences when trying to meet insatiable, constant, 24-hour needs of our little people, balance and manage a household, nurture a flourishing relationship, nail it in our ambitious careers, all the while attempting to maintain a stronghold on one’s own identity and wellness. Just look at popular posts like the recent work by cartoonist Emma, You Should Have Asked, which depicts the pressures of ‘mental load’ in a hilarious and all-too-familiar manner. It resonates. However, it doesn’t mean I REGRET the choice to have children. It breaks my heart that for a rising number of women, the only relief comes from wishing they never had children. I HATE that women feel like they need to choose some binary definition and experience of motherhood. And that a surprising number feel like they chose wrong.IMG_2650
  2. I felt set up: After finishing the article, I couldn’t help myself. I continued scrolling down to the comments section, anticipating the onslaught of inevitable traditionalist commentators. Sure enough, comments judging the “regretters” harshly, each one echoing the other, affirmed that our current cultural and family denigration is owed to women forgetting their place. Blaming and shaming women for being selfish in their pursuits. Declaring that they should only find fulfillment by filling their pre-determined roles. Where is the village? The lack of support, the sometimes-lonely nature of parenting, and the expectations of living up to some ideal make it difficult to be a mother. It’s unjust and unfair…and heartbreaking. The underlying cultural viewpoint that this is somehow a mother’s issue is infuriating. Really, this comes down to perpetuated societal injustices. This is everyone’s problem!
  3. A building sense of injustice: So, there I stood, staring at the piled-up dishes taunting me from the sink, the next day’s awaiting lunch Tupperware practically begging to be filled from the messy counter, and imagined the wet laundry impatiently admonishing me for my turtle’s pace…empathy, solidarity, heartbreak mounting. I just couldn’t help myself…

So, I threw the spatula…

We feel we should know better

As soon as it clattered against the squared edges of the basin, the heat of shame quickly replaced the rage. Shocked, I realized that in spite of regular journaling, meditation, gratitude practice, and exercise, I had experienced an uncontrolled, reactionary outburst.

At the time, I thought, I know better! What is wrong with me? What had made me react like that? More importantly, I wanted to know how could I stop it from happening again.

I believe some people turn to mindfulness as an inoculation against uncomfortable human emotions like grief, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and anger. That somehow, there’s a perception that meditation is the answer to ridding us of these feelings.

Our current mindset seems to be that the more we know, the more we should be able to control ourselves. Ironically, I have heard friends mention that mindfulness just doesn’t “work” for them, dejected in their inability to get ahead of their unwanted emotions and the humiliating ways these feelings can sometimes express themselves. Or, some teachers impatiently lament that reflection and meditation in school doesn’t immediately cause tangible changes in behaviour. But, maybe, we’re all missing the point?

What is authentic mindfulness?

Here’s the thing, resisting negative emotions only exaggerates them. Genuine mindfulness comes from acceptance and deep observation. Observing all emotions, accepting their existence, and dropping the expectation that we should somehow be immune to negative feelings. Only through that acceptance, can we alter our, possibly inappropriate, reactions.

Simple concept, challenging to execute

As Shawn Achor, Harvard-trained happiness expert and author asserts, “common sense is not common action.” What he means is that even if we know what to do, actually doing it comes down to more than just our willpower or intellectual knowledge. That’s why experts in the field refer to mindfulness and meditation as a practice. Much like going to the gym, we can’t simply attend for a week and expect to reap it’s benefits for the rest of our lives. It’s an on-going labour of love. We win some, we lose some, and the overall trend keeps us headed in a positive, self-aware direction.

What happened on the brain-level?

IMG_2649

(Pic credit www.greenlightheidi.com)

In order to explain what happened, we need to talk about the two parts of our brain that duel for supremacy.

First, we have the emotional, limbic, reptilian part of the brain (amygdala). When we’re threatened, cortisol and adrenaline (neuro-chemicals) course through our veins throwing this ancient part of our brain into fight, flight or freeze. This reaction can prove tremendously helpful in protecting us from the perils of huge predators; however, it is not of particular use when employed in day-to-day stressors. Cortisol shuts down the body on a fundamental level and is only meant to be present in our bodies for short bursts. The problem is, every single time we get stressed, cortisol is released. The compounding effects of stress on the body has been linked to decreases in effectiveness of the immune system, cardio-vascular functioning, digestion, cellular growth, empathy, and increases in depression and anxiety. It’s toxic stuff!

The other part of the brain, the logical prefrontal cortex, is responsible for rational thinking. It takes into account a myriad of factors about a situation, risk-assessing as it goes along, before advising you on how to react.

It’s fair to say that after reading that article, my limbic brain hijacked my rational brain, and consequently, I jumped into fight mode.

And so, I propose, maybe it would be more useful to be calculating success in terms of our Recovery Time, as opposed to some unattainable obliteration of negative thoughts. Recovery time meaning, how quickly are we able to get to a place of authentic, self-forgiving, ego-free reflection after an emotional breakdown?  How long does it take for the rational brain to regain control?

What Now? How do we increase our recovery time after an emotional outburst, anyway?

The key is letting go of the ego-which says that if you’re not winning, you’re losing. Compromise and self-reflection are not the ego’s favourite thing to do. We have to have more patience of ourselves and others in the process, so we can move on and bounce forward. Mindfulness plays a big role in recovery time.

And, a little bit of reflection also goes a long way…

Five things you can do to increase your recovery time:

  1. Your story: Ask yourself, What story am I telling myself right now?
  2. Let it out: Find a way to express your voice through journaling or talking. Sometimes, those big feelings just need validation.
  3. List it up: Create a mental or written list of what’s inside your control and what’s outside of it.
  4. Small Steps: Create a small goal you know you can accomplish. Doing that has a way to building your confidence. The all or nothing mindset serves nothing. Small steps lead to big changes!
  5. Celebrate: Holding yourself to an unrealistic ideal, when it comes to any behavioural change is a recipe for disaster and failure. Celebrate small triumphs!

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Detour That Landed Me Exactly Where I Was Supposed to Be

IMG_0257

Last week, I experienced an unbelievable moment that will stay in my heart forever.

Dampness permeated the air that morning.  As I hurried out the front door of my house and onto the driveway, I felt the impact of a big, fat raindrop on my forehead. The cold licked at the back of my throat and confirmed the conclusion of summer. I slammed the door to my car just as the clouds cracked open. A barrage of raindrops struck my windshield and roof.

I was all set to do a follow-up lesson for the 21-Day Challenge in my friend’s Grade One class downtown. The traffic from my house to the city centre can be unpredictable at best and excruciatingly slow at worst, so I planned ahead and left with plenty of time.

When I arrived downtown thirty minutes early, I was pleasantly surprised. I had brought a book to read and could have revisited the lesson to pass the time as I had done before previous school visits.

But, for some unexplained reason, I felt compelled that morning to do something different.

Instead of taking the more direct route to school, the one I had taken a million times over, something guided my car to the entrance of nearby Beacon Hill Park.

Crisp autumn leaves swirled, a dancing rainbow against the backdrop of the lifeless cracked pavement. Darkened bodies, shadows, emerged from the dew-covered foliage to my left and right as I continued along the route, to the heart of the park. One man, a statue, perched motionless on a bench gripped his shopping cart, which overflowed with accumulated treasures. My eyes settled on a woman shuffling along the adjacent grassy path, two enormous black garbage bags torn and cobbled together to serve as protection from the rain that had been pelting my car just minutes earlier.

Today, someone needs you.

Before I knew it, I found myself parking at a grocery store nearby. Arriving inside, I raced up and down the aisles, filling my arms with packages of English muffins, a jar of my favourite classic chunky peanut butter, some delicious raspberry jam, a bunch of perfectly-ripe bananas, and a bundle of plastic knives.

Heaving the substantial white bag onto the passenger seat, I hopped into the driver’s side and drove back to the entrance to begin my second tour through Beacon Hill.

The park was eerily deserted, now. Where people had stood just minutes earlier, there was nobody.

“Where could they have gone?” Perplexed, I drove further and further down the street, my eyes scanning for somebody. Anybody.

My face flushed and my stomach did a flip. Suddenly, I felt ridiculous. What was I doing? I didn’t have a plan. Who the heck did I think I was?

Ready to give up, I reached the edge of the park and heard it again:

Someone needs you.

Determined, I double-backed and set off for a yet another loop of the park.

That’s when I saw him.

A navy toque covered his curly sandy blond hair, as he rolled his soggy, limp sleeping bag with meticulous care. Two police officers, having just visited his encampment, were making their way up the crest of a small bluff to complete more wake-up calls.

Where does one move along to? Where does one find belonging here?

Once again, I parked the car and waited for the traffic to clear. I crossed the street. The white grocery bag swayed in my hand as I approached him, my heart pounding out of my chest.

Uncertainty barrelled into my thoughts. How would he react? No matter how disadvantaged we find ourselves, we all seek and deserve to conserve our dignity. My intent was pure, but I was fearful of offending him.

“How are you doing? Would you like something to eat?” I offered, tentatively.

“Please…yes. I am so hungry.” His eyes lingered on the contents in the bag and warmth spread across his face.

Relief washed over me, as I was struck with the realization that there something familiar about him.

I asked if he would be willing to share the food with others who might need it, too. Nodding his head, he stood up and motioned to a nearby escarpment behind us. “I have a few friends up there who would appreciate something to fill their bellies this morning.”

Handing him the bag with smile, I turned in the direction of my car. Just as my fingers gripped the coolness of the door’s handle, it hit me.

Indeed, we had met before.

Years ago, he and I had attended the same classes, in the same high-school.

Giving Thanks for An Unexpected Encounter

sad_depressed_depression_sadness_young_person_stress_girl-778474.jpg!d

“What beautiful blue eyes!” her voice broke through my thoughts as I waited, admittedly impatient for the sign to invite us to cross the busy road. It was the Saturday of a hectic Thanksgiving weekend, we were set to catch the next ferry to our favourite gulf island, and I had just raced into a nearby pharmacy to buy some necessary supplies to ward off the beginnings of flu season, my blue-eyed-one-year-old strapped to my body.

I had noticed her.  A flat brown mop of hair, swaying slightly, speaking to everyone and no one, gaping darkness where teeth once stood, assaulting the big yellow button repeatedly as she urged the lights to change, so she too, could cross the street.

I had noticed her, but I hadn’t really seen her.

Until she spoke to me.

There exists a distance so expansive between truly seeing people, as they intend to be seen, and accepting the representatives they send forth into the world. First impressions seem easier to comprehend. We allow ambivalence to bubble up somewhere deep inside of us, born from the lack empathic connection. Ambivalence often leads to dehumanization. When we dehumanize people, scary things can happen: incidents of road rage, hateful anonymous comments on the internet, violence, and general indifference to human suffering. We tell ourselves the story that we are not responsible for others, that they have made choices to wind up where they are, that we are powerless to create positive change, and we shrug our collective shoulders, overwhelmed by our own lives, and let ourselves off the hook.

It’s easy to become protectionist, to turn away from that we don’t understand, to write people off based on our assumptions of who they are.

But, when we choose to be witness to the humanity in people, to see people’s truth, to will ourselves to see beyond the confines of their label, beautiful moments abound.

I could have ignored the homeless woman, who took a risk to tell ME how lovely my baby was. The woman who had nothing to give, but gifted me her kindness. On a weekend meant for giving thanks for the abundances we enjoy, I could have refused to speak to her out of fear.

But, I didn’t.

I chose to see her humanity. To hear the kindness in her words. To feel her need for genuine human connection.

I turned to her, looked into her eyes, acknowledged and thanked her authentically, as I would a friend. Her eyes widened, then her face broke out into a smile. I asked how her day was going and listened attentively as she told me.

As the sign turned, indicating that it was finally our turn cross the street, I wished her a heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving.

“Bless you,” she said and grinned before turning and walking away.

The funny thing is, I felt luckier for having met her.

As I walked toward my vehicle, I wrapped my arms around my baby boy, reminded of how incredibly blessed I am.