Saturday, December 31, 2016

Toasty Warm Toes

Some years we are eager to be done with, metaphorically slamming the door on the struggles, losses, and disappointments we endured. Sometimes starting a new year feels like the perfect time to take stock, and refocus our priorities for having a more fulfilling life. And sometimes a particular year offers up deeper understandings of our old patterns and provides insights into new ways of treading old ground.

For as long as I can remember, I have put people on pedestals: people I have crushes on, close friends, or family members I look up to. In my eyes this person can do no wrong. I excuse behavior in them that I would not in others. And despite any contrary evidence, my rosy image of them goes unchallenged and untarnished.

If they complain about a work expectation that I actually find reasonable, I validate them even so. If they share about being unnecessarily rude, I laugh with them. If they are in an intimate relationship, I always take their side if they talk about disagreements. I always reassure them that they are right no matter what, stroking their egos, praising and validating their most questionable behaviors. There is rarely friction between us, because I acquiesce – in innumerable ways, automatically and subconsciously. 

Idolizing them, having them on a pedestal, can last for weeks or as long as decades. But all of that changed when I got PTSD. Very few of my close friendships have survived me with PTSD. I wasn’t actually relying more on my friends, although I was giving less. I no longer had the energy to nurture and sustain my friendships in any consistent way, let alone validate my friends' every action and stroke their egos the way I used to. And with this core foundation of our relationship gone, the rest simply crumbled.

After the friendships would end, and my sense of betrayal and bitterness started to subside, I reviewed each friendship trying to figure out what had gone wrong - and if the problem started with my PTSD or much earlier. Each friend definitely gave something important to the friendship, and there were valid reasons that I valued their company. Still I found some startling commonalities among my close friends: where I validated, they criticized; where I acquiesced, they presumed; and where I chose my words with great care, they were flippant and harsh.

Because I had them on a pedestal, this arrangement did nothing to tarnish their shine. I neither expected nor asked friends to treat me with the care that I treated them. I neither expected nor asked friends to give my opinions, wants and needs equal weight. It has taken both my PTSD, and the loss of friendships, for me to realize that I have very poor skills at choosing friends and developing equitable friendships.

Learning to develop more balanced, intentional friendships will take time and practice. But what I leave behind in 2016 is this tendency to treat friends as idols, not as equals.

Another significant issue I can finally lay to rest regards my role as employee. I see myself as a “good employee:” I work hard, I am accountable, I take initiative, I learn quickly, and I’m comfortable working within a hierarchy. But it has long vexed me that while I am often appreciated and acknowledged in jobs for my contributions, in some jobs I am treated as though I’m a “bad employee.” In the latter situation I feel unfairly criticized, misunderstood, and targeted; and my work environment becomes uncomfortable enough that I leave the job as quickly as possible. Being treated as a “bad employee” has hurt and baffled me, and made me incredibly defensive. Mixed in with the sense of indignation are feelings of unworthiness and shame; even though I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong, surely somehow it must be my fault. The jumble of emotions I feel after ending such jobs lingers for years.

It is my work in social justice that has expanded my understanding of the culture of capitalism, and some of its more destructive aspects. The driving force behind capitalism is greed: the desire to acquire money and/or power. And workers are there to be exploited to achieve maximum profit. 

Absolutely, a job is an agreement between the employer and the employee. But within that contract, the employer holds far more power than does the employee. Ultimately, the employer holds the power of taking away someone’s livelihood – which is very nearly a matter of life and death. The employer has the power of giving an employee a bad reference. And whether they fire you or force you out by making your job untenable, that shapes your marketability by affecting how long you stay at jobs. All of these ultimately can impact a person’s ability to earn a living, and we employees know it. 

Every time I had a boss who decided I was a “bad employee,” I tried a different approach for resolving it. Alongside my sense of being misunderstood was a sense of guilt and shame. Because that’s what we’re taught – it’s our fault, and our responsibility, to make things right. Despite trying many approaches, the result never changed: once a boss labeled me negatively, nothing I did changed that. 

Only recently have I discovered the missing puzzle piece through a better understanding of the culture of capitalism. Within a capitalist culture (and companies that embody such), a “good employee” is not defined as someone who is hard working, takes initiative, and learns quickly. A “good employee” is someone who takes abuse and mismanagement without complaining; does not call out a manager for behaving inappropriately; and considers it a personal failing if too much is asked of them. Within a capitalist culture it is far more important to go along with the herd than it is to do excellent work. Within capitalism, employees are to be exploited and are imminently replaceable.

In the places where I have excelled, I have been fortunate enough to work for a boss and/or an organization that nurtured a more holistic culture. In the places where I was targeted, it was because squirming under mistreatment and refusing to internalize corporate failings as my own did not fit within a capitalist culture. My contributions were irrelevant if I did not go along and keep quiet.

It took me far too many years, far too many tears and too much angst, to figure this one out. But finally I am ready to leave the confusion behind. I am an excellent employee, and I know what I bring to a job. And now I know that there are distinctly different company cultures: one in which I thrive, and one where I simply cannot survive. I am enormously grateful to have a job I love where I can thrive and grow, so what I take into 2017 is the peace of mind of having solved this puzzle at long last.

Just a couple weeks ago I discovered something else that was vitally important to my well-being. I spend a lot of time on Facebook. Over the years I have cultivated an amazing group of friends, many of whom are social justice warriors. Through them I continually have my thoughts challenged and perceptions stretched; I am introduced to new resources; and my awareness of institutional and systemic systems of oppression continues to expand. I am grateful for all of this.

But there is a flip side. Social justice folks are tuned into the horrific events that are happening in our country and across the world, and they share them prolifically on Facebook. And many of these stories are shared over and over again by different friends. So every time I’m on Facebook I am besieged by images and words of the horrible things that humans do to other humans, or the ways that some humans abandon other humans in need. I have tried to manage the influx of the horribleness by unfollowing friends whose posts contain graphic and violent photos, for example, and by filtering out keywords with

A couple weeks ago, one of my friends shared a harrowing story. Her story, which started out mundane, took a dramatic and violent turn. Parts of it were confusing, but I rushed through it in concern and dread. My heart was racing. And then she ended the story by disclosing that it had been a nightmare. I burst into tears.

I was so upset, I immediately shut down Facebook. I allowed my feelings to run through me, then sat quietly taking deep breaths. I felt completely drained.

This was a wake-up call for me. While my friend’s story brought out an extreme (and it turns out, entirely unnecessary) reaction from me, the truth is that every time I’m on Facebook the stories in my feed do the exact same thing in smaller, but sustained doses. Hearing of natural disasters, human tragedies, human cruelty, reading about friends enduring racial microaggressions, or arguing with vitriol-spewing racists, can make my heart race, give me a surge of adrenaline, agitate me, aggrieve me, enrage me, and often leave me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

When I first started learning how to live with PTSD, one of the most important steps was learning how to avoid unnecessary triggers. And for me, using Facebook to stay current means I’m being triggered in small ways, all the time.

Since then I’ve dramatically curtailed my time on Facebook. Most importantly, I’ve realized I need to get my news a different way. I’m pretty much done with mainstream media: even Rachel Maddow and NPR disappointed me with their biased and inadequate coverage of Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Sites that gather together news stories for us on our computers or smart phones – like Yahoo News, Google Now or the news app on Windows 10 – only allow us to customize within parameters they’ve set. I’m not fooled, ultimately they are still controlling the narrative I get.

PC Magazine has rated RSS feed readers, which allow you to pick and choose websites (could be news sites, blogs, even videos) to feed into one place. I’m trying out several, both on my computer and smart phone. My feeds include independent news sources as well as the websites and blog sites of people whose perspectives are as essential as they are absent from mainstream news. When social justice women of color like Michelle Alexander, Patrisse Cullors, Ijeoma Oluo, or Awesomely Luvvie write, I know about it. (I believe it is precisely the intersections of oppression that enable women of color to see all around the events of the day and analyze them with an intersection of awareness, empathy, and cohesiveness.)

I take into 2017 far greater insights and intentionality about the ways that I use Facebook, as well as taking steps to ensure that I am not spoon fed the narrative manufactured by mainstream media.

What more could I want, with such enormous insights to guide me into the new year? Heated slippers. I have one pair that plugs into my computer and keeps my feet toasty warm, all the way down to my toes, when I’m sitting at my computer. A second pair is very soft; the bottoms are filled with grains that warm up in the microwave. This pair is heated at bedtime and sends me off to slumber with warm feet.

I have no idea why it took me so many years to pay attention to my frigid toes, or to decide to do something about it. But for anyone who has endured cold feet stoically, the sense of overall contentment that comes from feet warmed through is indescribable and life changing. You all, like me, should head into 2017 with heated slippers – or something that is your equivalent.

The insights I gained in 2016 will enable me to make peace with some very old struggles. I am learning to tune into myself, what I need, and what I deserve –from my heart, down to the tips of my toes. And I feel confident that I will not repeat any of the old patterns that I have figured out and lay to rest here in 2016.

I am bringing into 2017 a new awareness of the people, places and things that wear me down emotionally and physically, and with strategies for choosing where and with whom I put my time and attention. And no less important, I am bringing into 2017 ten toasty warm toes.