Sunday, December 13, 2015

"How do I measure up in comparison?"

One of the sweetest young men I know asked me this question the other day:
"Sometimes I feel bad and critical of myself because I haven't gone on a mission (yet..?) while my brothers, dad, mom, sister, uncles, cousins, great-grandpa and whoever else has. Is that normal?"
And of course, it is normal. It is universally normal. 

We all tend to measure ourselves against those around us; using others as a "yardstick" to determine our own stature by comparison, value by correlation, typicality by juxtaposition is human nature. 

Generally, however it is not helpful or beneficial to do this. The very definition of "comparison" is "the quality of being similar or equivalent" which NONE OF US are. Not just because of the dramatic ways that our individual DNA has turned us out the way we are, or how our childhoods, experiences, and effects of societal conditioning have shaped us -- but because by the very design of God, we are different:
1 Corinthians 12:18-22
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary
In other words, God has established, in his wisdom and love, that we are all distinct members of a single body, his family. Through our differences we have dissimilar abilities, dissimilar purposes, and dissimilar substance. We are not similar or equivalent, i.e. "equal another in value, amount, function, meaning, etc." Yet we are all necessary, we all belong, and we are all equally loved.

How would it be for an eye to measure its value or ability to function by comparing itself to a hand when they are so different? How would either the hand or the eye gain a real understanding of their individual meaning by contrasting and measuring themselves to something that is, does, and means something totally different?

This is purposeful on God's part because this life is about learning to let go of comparing and instead to gauge your substance, your worth, and your path via your own spiritually guided sense of self and what you learn is God's will for you.

It isn't easy though.

Essentially human beings make sense of the world by comparing. We take something and examine how it is similar and different to everything else in order to understand it. This is sometimes referred to as "meaning cues" or what we have learned from life experiences. For example, "meaning is held in memories," in what children have seen, heard, lived thus far, therefore new learning "should make sense in comparison to what they know, or understand, about their world" (source). I think that's why we do this same comparison to our "selves" too. We are trying to make sense of the world by seeing what others are/do and then taking from that a definition of right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure etc.

In responding to that initial question at the beginning of this post, I told him that I believe missions can be great for people. I am glad I went because of how it changed me and made me better. But, it also hurt me in some ways. (Just last night I had a mission PTSD dream! I woke up anxious and it lasted most of the morning.)

Despite this, and other drawbacks, for me the pros outweigh the cons. I don't think that is true for everyone who goes... For this reason, I often feel that it is unfortunate that our culture puts so much pressure on young people to go on missions, and especially to go on missions right away. I don't think that a mission is the "right thing" for everyone, even with all the good it offers, and I especially don't think it is the right thing for everyone at the VERY YOUNG age of 18 or 19. 

Some people NEED to wait. (My dad did! But there was less pressure and it was less of a big deal to wait back then.) And, while I could get in some trouble for saying this, some people are better off not going at all (though I think that should be a decision made as a result of a lot of soul searching and guidance from God). 

But, back to comparisons: No matter what someone decides on this issue, to go on a mission or to not go, they will inevitably face societal judgements and pressures -- as well as inner doubt, fear, and inadequacy. (I have all kinds of stories on this topic...) And dealing with those types of situations and feelings are just part of making ANY big life decision because they all bring the seemingly inevitable comparisons.

I've noticed that in my own life, having a strong spiritual confirmation is often the only thing I have to hold onto in the face of great inner uncertainty and the pressure of outer expectations. So I rely on the experience of having the spirit confirm to me a choice.

...And sometimes there isn't even that...and I just have to step out into "the dark" and trust that no matter what happens God will make good out of my choice.

I believe most of our life choices (to go on missions, to go to college, to move here or there, to have kids, to take a certain job, etc etc) are NOT a matter of right and wrong. God can and will make good out of whatever we use our agency to choose, because he loves us. I think this is a big part of what the Atonement is.

Obviously certain choices lead to certain consequences (and consequences can make the choice seem "good" or seem "bad") but consequences are just the result of living in a world where there is cause and effect and anyway, this is how we learn! Experience and understanding, whether it is hard or happy or whatever is GOOD (It's the purpose of life!) 

Learning how to let go of comparing is the best step to self-worth and peace, but it is a lifelong lesson. 

First is learning to keep our eye set on God. That means not looking side to side at each other, but letting our "eye be single to [God's] glory, [that our] whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in [us]; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things" -- including our own individual worth and path (D&C 88:67). 

Second is remembering that in this life we "see through a glass, darkly" but there will come a time when we wont just "know in part" but will "know even as also [we are] known" (1 Corin. 13:12). God will reveal to us, line upon line, who we truly are and the our worth as individual members -- and we will see our selves as he sees us: without any type of comparison and uniquely precious and uniquely enough.

We "measure up" not because of how we are "similar or equivalent" to others, but because we are unique and because God loves us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

emotional health and power

It's been a long time since I posted anything here.

Not because I haven't thought of things to write about -- because I have thought of a million things! I've read so many words that resonated and so much has happened! But... I was lazy.

I actually deeply regret that I didn't write about those million things, because it seems my thoughts, feelings, and insights, when left unrecorded or unprocessed through writing, seem to fade into faint recollections much faster and more irretrievably than I previously realized.


Today I decided I want to try and leave (cold-turkey!) that lazy fog that's hung around me the last few months. It helps that I have something extra intimate and heavy with personal vulnerability to work through, and this is my best venue. ;)

I've written in the past about feelings and my own struggles to understand my emotional life, and how to push it and myself towards deeper maturation. It's been an ongoing quest. Fortunately, I've had good friends to talk to, spiritual resources that lend insight, and a wealth of experiences in the last few years that have brought a lot of emotional growth via new comprehension and appreciation for the times when I feel all the feels.

One particular resource that, in combination with a few different experience that I will relate momentarily, really had a profound impact was an article from the NY Times entitled "Medicating Women's Feelings" that berated modern society for conditioning women to think that having feelings or being "moody" is undesirable and disabling -- and should be medicated away so that we can achieve the "new normal" of a life that is completely even-keeled. 
"...we are under constant pressure to restrain our emotional lives. We have been taught to apologize for our tears, to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical."
Reading the author's argument for the natural and real place in our lives for emotion was liberating and empowering. The idea of embracing emotions which are so often termed as negative as just part of having a whole and complete emotional life i.e. "a healthy, adaptive part of our biology" resonated deeply with me, as did this compelling line that: "Women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease; it is a source of power."

After reading the article, I could't stop thinking about it, especially these parts: 
"In the days leading up to menstruation, when emotional sensitivity is heightened, women may feel less insulated, more irritable or dissatisfied. I tell my patients that the thoughts and feelings that come up during this phase are genuine, and perhaps it’s best to re-evaluate what they put up with the rest of the month, when their hormone and neurotransmitter levels are more likely programmed to prompt them to be accommodating to others’ demands and needs."
"Crying isn’t just about sadness. When we are scared, or frustrated, when we see injustice, when we are deeply touched by the poignancy of humanity, we cry. And some women cry more easily than others. It doesn’t mean we’re weak or out of control. At higher doses, S.S.R.I.s [medications] make it difficult to cry. They can also promote apathy and indifference. Change comes from the discomfort and awareness that something is wrong; we know what’s right only when we feel it. If medicated means complacent, it helps no one."

The way that I understand this is that while biologically our hormones/emotions often lead us to focus on others' needs most of the time, when those levels shift (due to natural conditions such as PMS) and we are more sensitive, it becomes an opportunity to focus on oneself and learn where we can make changes to improve our overall emotional life. 

For example, it is like how most of the time you don't mind a passive-agressive friend, except when you're sensitive because of circumstance X and then they really get to you. So, you revaluate your friendship with that person -- and perhaps make changes. When we are normally exposed to condition X (an environment, a person, even a TV show) we deal with it, but when we're especially sensitive and it finally gets to to us, it is an opportunity to say: "enough is enough." It's the push to stop exposing ourselves to that subtle wear and tear.

When we feel deep emotions in these sensitive times, it is because we have a special awareness and responsiveness that can serve as a tool for recognizing meaningful experiences, new insight, and opportunities for change and growth. 

This is something I had begun to subtly understand in my own life, but since reading this article has burst open and given me a whole new perspective on my emotional self. For many years, as a teenager and in my early college years, I thought that something was wrong with me. I felt I would go from fine and normal to violently sensitive and without any control of my feelings. I finally identified it as being PMS (and then later as PMDD) and from there was able to begin telling/reminding myself that these mood shifts were the result of hormones and not that something in me was broken and needed fixing. 

This resulted in a lot of emotional development and great degree of stability and peace in my life. However, the monthly experience was still primarily negative until I began noticing that if I controlled what I was exposed to during this time it was significantly less negative. If I watched a good sad movie I could FEEL and CRY and get it all out, and not actually feel "bad." I could purposefully expose myself to touching media and wallow around it all the feelings (often sentimentality) it evoked versus being set-off by unexpected emotional punches. I could have some control!

This is about when I read the above article and finally realized it wasn't just about trying to control how I was going to feel those feels every month. The truth was, those few terrible/wonderful days every month were an opportunity to choose how and what I would feel more deeply than everyday life typically entailed, and glean new insight about those feelings and myself. 

It wasn't just about trying to avoid what could cause downward spiral but learning to identify things in my life that were having a stronger effect on me (even if most of the month I handled them fine) and making adjustments. It wasn't just about avoiding the influence of condition X a few days of the month but recognizing and then managing the influence every day of the month.

I finally realized the experience of my emotions is more than just feels -- and what was once a monthly terror became a regular opportunity to better understand my fears, frustrations, passions, and dreams.

It has also become a chance to choose to take advantage of how deeply and comprehensively I feel things during those days -- and expose myself to conditions and experiences where drinking deeply of those emotions breaks my heart open in new and beautiful ways. As corny as it sounds, for me this means listening to touching and inspiring music, reading poignant and illuminating stories, writing letters to family and friends telling them how much I love them, etc. etc. -- and really thoroughly FEELING all of that. I watch commercials with babies and puppies and I cry. I look at photos from the day I married my husband and I cry. I write blog posts, sorting through insights about my self, and my life and I cry. I cry and it isn't about sadness. 

And while I still experience times when I painfully feel TOO MUCH and it spirals out of control, I do eventually come back to myself and I look back with a newfound ability to learn from those difficult heart-wrenching swings. It helps that as more time passes the balance continues to shift and those times are less and less frequent.

But whatever comes, I get to choose to embrace what I feel and learn knowing that my "emotionality is a sign of health, not disease; it is a source of power."