Tag Archives: Self-awareness

When You Can’t Get a Do-over and You Can’t Get Over It

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Turning disappointment into the story you’ll want to live

When a toddler squeals, Do it again!, she’s joyfully learning through repetition. When she’s six years old and yells, Do-over!, she either wants to prove that she can do what she wasn’t able to demonstrate moments before, or to argue that the situation was unfair.

Within a few short years, she’ll understand that adults get very few do-overs. Especially with big decisions.

This fact feeds our need for fiction, to create stories that allow us to travel through time and set wrongs right. I regularly crave movies like Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, and 13 Going on 30, among many others that scratch the do-over itch. There’s comfort in witnessing redemptive do-overs, even when they’re pretend.

What if I had? What if I hadn’t?

Our highly evolved brains are capable of second-guessing what might have happened if we’d chosen differently — especially when we believe we have suffered or could have prevented it.

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When my second husband left quite suddenly (on a Christmas Day), you might imagine how many what-if scenarios went through my badly wounded ego which was in serious cahoots with my emotional mind.

What if I had listened to my friend Pamela’s words of caution? What if I hadn’t lost that first baby? Then, the sobering thought: I wouldn’t have given birth to my youngest daughter. And her sons wouldn’t be here, either.

I recently went through the same second-guessing game when I quit my job last year, one I’d excitedly moved hundreds of miles for in 2015. Why did I believe that teaching at my alma mater would be my dream job? What if I had asked better questions or been bolder about what I wanted during the interviews? What if I hadn’t quit the corporate job that paid 2.5 times more?

How Addiction Recovery Can Help

Thirty years ago the notion of accepting what I couldn’t control seemed like Total Defeat to my young-adult self. Introduced to a 12-step program that I desperately needed, I worked the program for three years with moderate success.

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Until I realized the difference between acceptance and giving up agency (which I’d confused with control), I felt disempowered — something my high-achieving, high locus of control self couldn’t handle.

Yet, I began to see the nuances. If getting older has taught me nothing else, it’s that shit happens and I have to let most of it go or lose the saner, kinder parts of myself.

When I started to let go and accept what I couldn’t change (still in progress), I found opportunities to apply this first recovery step to my own and others’ addictions, neuroses, and unexplainable actions:

“We admitted we were powerless over _____, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

The powerlessness doesn’t mean we are not powerful. It means that we can’t control everything (or the actions of those we care about). My own imaginary super-power-agency needed to change before I could ease my pain and the pain I was causing others.

Buddhism and Stoicism — Misunderstood but Mighty Helpful

For a good, short article on Buddhism, PhD Confidential gets it right: that the Buddhist ideas of suffering (dukkha) and acceptance are commonly misconstrued and reduced to “life is suffering, just accept it”.

But this reduction isn’t accurate. Instead, “Everything in life is temporary, arising and falling away.” Buddhism proposes a model of reality as a stream of events rather than a thing. It’s the clinging to these temporary states that causes pain, clinging to a future that’s different than what we envision or desire.

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Stoicism overlaps with Buddhism pretty nicely. Ancient stoics taught the development of self-control and fortitude as a way to overcome destructive emotions (and no doubt, ruminating over everything). Clearer, unbiased thinking allows us to understand the universal reason (logos), expressed by Nature.

Stoicism is a way to improve our ethical and moral well-being: Virtue is simply another way of saying that a person’s will is in agreement with Nature. Stoicism also helps with interpersonal relationships: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” because we are all part of Nature.

Whether we believe that our life is in the hands of God or Nature/universal logos or nothing, we don’t like to hurt, to do what is right only to be disappointed, or to be treated unfairly. To lose someone. To work hard without reward. To be wronged.

Any person capable of angering you becomes your master — Epictetus

Stoicism doesn’t mean giving in and crumbling. Virtue means remaining strong without the emotional attachment to the bad, the good and everything in between.

Now What? Just Accept It Sucks and Get Over It?

Not really. Acceptance is like the first step you take in physical therapy after weeks in a cast. Its payoffs are much greater than “getting over it”.

Acceptance isn’t accessible or experienced in the same way for everyone. For instance, I’m not so good at self-awareness. I don’t think to stop and take my emotional temperature when it’s so much easier for me to gauge others’ emotional temps. I now try to track how often I return to thoughts of regret, annoyance, resentment, anger.

If I’d asked myself these questions instead of resisting that first step, I might have moved past “what if I’d?” months before I was finally able to do so:

  • What is the loss beneath the loss? What will I have to leave behind?

Both losses meant that I wasn’t as in control as I’d thought and that scared me. I’d imagined that me, myself, and I could successfully make a work role or a spouse role fit. I had to leave my control fantasy behind. Again!

My imaginary control helped keep my marriage and job unhappiness to a low simmer. A state I told myself was normal. I also needed to admit that I had erred by ignoring or minimizing ongoing issues. That was uncomfortable. But I sat with it and realized my culpability. The discomfort lifted.

  • What good has come out of this? What can I accept with gratitude?

This isn’t a fluff, feel-good question. It was important to get to a point where I didn’t look at either situation as unrecoverable or life-defining. Only then, could I see options that weren’t possible if I’d stayed in that job or remained with my ex.

The first gratitude I remember acknowledging with each was identical: I have the opportunity to be more of myself.

One year (and a week) after my ex left, my now-husband moved from Atlanta to my town. We had dated for two years a decade earlier, ending it when he moved to London. We’d miraculously gotten a do-over that we waited to celebrate publicly when my youngest daughter helped him plan our wedding — four years later.

  • What story or scene can I craft that helps balance the bad with the good?
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I find comfort in comedy. While I couldn’t see it through my rage at the time, beating the side of the garage, screaming at an aluminum mop handle until the poor thing contorted to a pile of twisted pipes had to be hilarious. (The kids weren’t home to witness, but now I hope the neighbors had a laugh.)

  • What if that bad thing hadn’t happened? If I could go back and have a do-over, would I?

This is always a tricky question. To mess with history could mean The Man in the High Castle or a bully like Biff getting his comeuppance. Or it could mean an infinite number of less dramatic, funny, strange, boring outcomes.

When I got to the realization that neither my ex nor my job was all bad — that a lot of good things happened when I was in those roles — I focused less on wishing for a do-over and more on getting to work on doing something meaningful: becoming more me.

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Looking Back to a Kinder Future

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Vonnegut gave us more than an anti-war book; he gave us safe passage to our former selves

It didn’t work out well for Lot’s wife. As you might recall, she was warned not to look back at the Almighty’s wrath. “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

And I love Vonnegut all the more for writing this line. A timeless vulnerability.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s best known book, both time and seeing (what we’re able to see) are tightly woven themes. Vonnegut finished Slaughterhouse-Five two decades after witnessing the horrors of World War II. Maybe that time enabled him to find humor in the absurdity of violence, chaos, power, and death. So it goes.

In my worn 1969 copy, flags and folded pages help me locate dozens of jewels. But it’s a smaller, less shiny line, early on in the book when he’s speaking directly to the reader, that intrigues me the most:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

Vonnegut does find a way to look back by creating Billy Pilgrim. Through Billy we can time travel to witness Billy’s past, present and future moments. In order for Vonnegut to tell his story (including the obliteration of Dresden), he needed a character who was both clueless and without choice. One that became unstuck in time, ping-ponging around from his death to his birth.

It’s a genius device, still, 50 years later. Slaughterhouse-Five is also the book I’ve found to be helpful, even therapeutic, in accepting the less-than-book-worthy stories I’ve told myself about my life.

Sometimes the war is within

Let me be clear: I’m not comparing a soldier’s war experiences with my own civilian, privileged life. I do suggest that Vonnegut’s approach to revisiting the horrors of what he experienced could be a useful way to make peace with the past.

If the looking back is painful or keeps you stuck, create a character you can empathize with.

Consider your younger self as a character in a chapter of your life’s book. I had an opportunity to try this on during my recent trip home to the Midwest. Before I left for the airport, I got in my head about letting my close high school friends know I was coming. I felt guilty for two years going by and I didn’t want to come across as ‘Hey! I’m on my way back! Drop everything!

So I tried to imagine a young girl (me) 40 years ago — as clueless as Billy Pilgrim. Not stupid, just ignorant about who she could become and all the possibilities her future might offer. As my compassion grew for her, so did my desire to see my friends.

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In fact, they were incredibly kind. Debbie came over to my parents’ house after she’d worked a full day and helped care for her friend’s aged father. Steve bought me a drink the day he was struggling with news of his sister’s cancer diagnosis and getting through the anniversary of his partner’s death. Teri treated me to breakfast, then later dropped off a gift bag with my favorite things. Signe rearranged her hospital schedule so that we could meet.

The day before we left my hometown, my husband looked at the sun setting on a 180-degree horizon. “I could see myself living here,” he said. And, while I knew he wasn’t asking to move, I didn’t roll my eyes or laugh at the idea. Instead, I remembered what Alain De Botton said,

“[It’s] Never too late to learn some embarrassingly basic, stupidly obvious things about oneself.”

Here they are:

When I moved away, I was not running from home; I was running from me.

Of course, I had a bunch of good reasons for venturing out into the world after high school. Like college and starting a career with a global company that liked to transfer employees, and going back to grad school. Each of my children were born in different states and life on the whole has been a great adventure.

Moving makes a great case for self-development, back in the day what we called “finding yourself.” But the truth is, I’m not lost. Yet, I don’t go home often. And when I do, I get anxious, feel a bit displaced.

What became apparent on this last trip home was this:

I desperately didn’t want to be who I thought I was or who I thought other people thought I was — all those years ago.

As sociologist Charles Cooley pointed out over a century ago, what I think about myself and what I believe other people think about me tend to be the same thing:

I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.

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I probably wasn’t that different than most of my peers. But it’s hard, even now, to see who I was beyond my neediness. My insecurities. My constant worries over being good/nice/popular/smart/pretty enough.

In fact, in seventh grade I ended up in the ER a few days after the most popular girl in our school screamed obscenities at me with her circle of sycophants gawking at my verbal beatdown. I learned I had ulcers.

Someone told me later that Miss Popular made up the accusations just to mess with me. She wasn’t to blame for the ulcers (I’m sure my worries were eating my stomach lining since elementary school), nor was she the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had a pretty good life then and now.

But my small character didn’t know how to handle conflict.

She didn’t know that conflict is not just okay, it’s inevitable and necessary for social and emotional growth. Instead of avoiding conflict (how I handled the seventh-grade incident and throughout high school) I needed to address it. I needed to save apologies for when I had wronged someone. I needed to stand up for myself, even if I stood alone.

I didn’t know what I needed, because approval was paramount.

Second-wave feminism was happening somewhere, but it was not happening in rural Illinois. Not only were other girls’ judgments of me potential powder kegs, I continued to harm myself by acting how I thought boys needed me to behave.

By conflating a location (home) with a fixed identity, I missed opportunities for character development.

Not only my own character development, but those of my friends and family members. I’d been short-sighted and unfair, somehow assuming that friends and especially my parents would be virtually the same people they were (and only as I saw them) decades ago. So I assumed they continued to see me as I was.

My own stuck perceptions were the problem.

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A steel helmet, a pipe, and a one-way train

If the former you as a sympathetic character doesn’t work, Vonnegut provides another theme: how little each of us is able to see.

Thanks to Billy’s abductors — four-dimensional beings who see all events in time simultaneously — we’re given this Earthling metaphor: Billy is strapped to a flat slab on a railway, his neck immobile, a long narrow pipe attached to one eye.

Every human perspective is all of a stationary pinprick. And the train we’re attached to is moving in a single direction.

“Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’”

But aren’t I different? What about that free will thing?

I’d like to believe that I can see more than a pinprick. But I think the metaphor works. I may have added detail to my tiny aperture when I moved from place to place, but I don’t have a wider perspective than anyone else.

It literally took going home after recently rereading Slaughterhouse-Five to see that I have been unnecessarily stuck in the past.

More than anything, I want to believe I have choice. To change, to love, to learn — even if it means finding out more embarrassingly stupid things about myself.

But those rascally abductors, the Tralfamadores, tell Billy, “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Whether free will exists doesn’t really matter.

I found a way to get unstuck. I’m giving the credit to Mr. Vonnegut.

There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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