Monday, July 29, 2013
This week is a Valentine's Day to oneself challenge and I have not done well at it. I don't even do Valentine's Day well for other people. Although I am very good at loving spontaneously, I am terrible at loving well on command. (I am also bad about birthdays and anniversaries. Two years ago I begged my mother and husband to let me spoil them with adventures rather than presents and it has been a wonderful change for all three of us.)
This week we are supposed to look in the mirror and say I love you to ourselves and state all the reasons why. I know I am supposed to be a team player, but in this case, I have scored us zero points. I don't even WANT to do this. I would rather catch a reflection of myself and be pleased if my clothes fit better or catch myself doing something nice and be pleased because I am doing something nice.
However, I am quite willing to do the blog portion of the assignment. I think it may be helpful for me to review my situation and also that someone reading it may find something to think about for their own - or maybe for a loved one's - life. I wish I had talked this over with my daughter more before she moved. Maybe I shall package it up into a nice email and send it to her.
Learning to love myself is very much a process, which includes setting goals, meeting them and setting new ones. Love can be unconditional and include failures and unmet goals, but it is not stagnant. I was not proud of my former life, but I forgive it and I heartily approve of my progress and am pleased with the prospects for a brighter future.
Have you ever met someone who seems to be struggling against a string of bad jobs, marriages and only bad luck? I have never been drunk but somehow I married drunks. I have always worked hard and honestly but somehow my bosses cheated me. I did not understand that I was setting these things up to happen to me, that it wasn't just bad luck or bad choices or G-d being angry at me. The truth was that at that point in my life, I did not have the courage or the communication skills to chose wisely in the first place, or to alter courses once they went astray, so when things really got unbearable, all I could do was pack my bags and leave.
In 2009 health, family and financial crises collided and I was forced to take stock suddenly. I'd been making inch-worm improvements since 1995, but they had not been dramatic enough - as evidenced by the situation in which I found myself. So I set out on an plan to improve myself.
The changes that I made overall were huge, resulting in a me who is hard to recognize against the me who at my worst was so overwhelmed with physical pain and mental exhaustion I went to work, came home and went to bed. However, my changes were made up of literally hundreds of tiny changes, and I am still making them.
Since the overarching problems were so huge and unsolvable, I began by pondering many comments about myself I have heard and am still hearing, sometimes in reactions to blogs (and I am sorry I have not been responding often and well... I will catch up once BLC and school let up). Most of the criticisms I have heard had to do with my own lack of ability to communicate with others. This is no surprise considering my upbringing in a non-demonstrative family. My father's face was a stone, with only two clear expressions at either extreme: hilarity and anger. All others were impossible. I heard often that I was just like him. The first hug I remember was when I gave birth to my son. No one said "I love you" ever. We were silent or talked about science or politics.
I went to synagogue for the first time in 25 years. I had stayed away because someone had made an unpleasant comment to me in a synagogue in Rockville, Maryland. I could not now justify staying away from one on the West Coast, could I? I was frightened, because the only one around (that I knew of) was large and I at this point felt I knew nothing - I'd read extensively of Talmud and Torah, but in English, not in Hebrew. I drove up to the parking lot several times, sat in it, watched people walk inside and did not go in. Finally, I went in and joined Torah study and Saturday services, which were both smaller. (I had a similar reaction to attending college. I am uncomfortable in crowds. But eventually, it seems silly to stay in the car.) It turns out I should have given myself more credit for my reading. I more than held my own, even on my first day - and for that, I deserve to give myself a pat on the back. I was terrified to go back to college, too. I was considered stupid until 9th grade, when all of the sudden I was brilliant and was shoved into college-level classes. I was not emotionally ready, so I either blurted out things inappropriately, slept or hid. However, after my first day in each class (when I am always nervous), I do exceptionally well. Math is my only difficult subject; otherwise I do work harder than perhaps others do because I have trouble with mixing words up still and you just can't do that in science, even if the words sound very similar. Might give the patient the wrong pill or mix up the wrong chemical. But I have A+ grades from every teacher who gives A+s. (Some don't. My school is not consistent, so I have 99s in some classes and have an A, and 97s in others and have an A+.) Eleanor Roosevelt urged people to do something every day that terrifies them. I do. I am frightened. But I do it anyway. Is this loveable? I think maybe it is.
I also needed to change my health. I was having severe angina and could not walk two blocks without pain. My hips and knees hurt so badly I'd awaken in a sweat from dreams of telling surgeons to amputate everything below the waist. I was using my inhaler too often. I was getting so sedentary my farm girl muscles were a distant memory, replaced by odd pouches of lumpy fat.
From the hundreds of small changes, four stand out as ones almost anyone reading this blog can adopt to their own lives. These changes had almost immediate results, helping me with everything from making friends to improving my fitness:
1. Say anything good I had to say as soon as I thought it
2. Do any good deed I could do before I had the chance to be too scared to do it (this includes apologizing for things that may only be partially my fault)
3. Push my own physical envelope as long as it led in the general direction of physical fitness - even if it was just one more block or one flight of stairs.
4. Study the faces and body language of people who were important to me
The first three have benefits that are obvious. People began to know me as a nice person. I always had nice thoughts, but because I was stifled by second and third and fourth guessing myself when I wanted to compliment someone or do something, I ended up not doing or saying anything. When I did say something, it tended to be something that was either neutral (so who would remember it - or me, the speaker) or something I'd bottled up (so I'd stutter and be red faced and look like someone who could barely control myself when I uttered it). Obviously, saying nice things more often helped my reputation. I worked on other communication skills so I was less likely to bottle things up and be a nervous wreck when I addressed them.
I also gradually began to exercise more and improve my health. The first two years the improvement was not steady; I'd improve my weight and fitness, then backslide a little, then improve a little and backslide a little. Although I'd made progress overall, it was not good enough until I joined Spark People and had to record my activity regularly. Now, I actually WANT to exercise, and think I would regardless of my body shape or physical fitness level.
The fourth change, I think is less obvious. At first I thought it was something that only people with Asperger's needed to do. I thought everyone else grew up knowing how to read body language and looking in other people's eyes. They understood sarcasm and exaggeration and weren't terrified when people said "I want to kick her ass" or "I want to kill him". They understood that people often do not say what they mean. They had friends and moved easily socially and weren't easily confused or hurt by the words of others. Some of this turns out to be generally true... the rest, perhaps not so true.
It is definitely not true that most people look at others enough during conversation - that's only in movies. They think they do. People rarely look at faces in a typical day unless they are having a leisurely conversation, an interview or are really fascinated. People think liars don't look people in the eye - but habitual liars very often look people in they eye. People who are uninterested or distracted or have Asperger's or depressed or frightened or have dementia or don't know what to do about the fact that the other person reminds them of someone else (or they have a big wad of crust one eye or runny mascara or their eyes are too close to their nose hair or their spinach in their teeth)... many, many people do not look others in the eye. And the other person in conversation is SO ACCUSTOMED to not being looked at that when someone really looks at them, they suddenly feel flattered by an interested audience.
Look around you today. What can you see in the way your coworkers hold their shoulders? Have you noticed the way they walk? Do they hold both feet the same way? Does one drag a little? How do they sit? Do they move differently at different times of day? How about two hours after lunch? Can you see their postprandial syndrome slump? Watch their eyes when they talk about something that excites them personally versus a work challenge versus something that angers them at work. Compare their expressions over personal disappointments and work disappointments. Look at their hands. If the hands belong to a woman, how do the hands figure in the bank account? Do their expenses displace a decent meal now and then? Or are these the hands of someone who has money but works in the garden and does not clean her fingernails well? Are they expressive? Are they unnaturally still, painful and stiff? Is there a story, like a brother who damaged a finger somehow when they were little children? What about the teeth and their attitudes towards showing them?
Since 2009 my skills of observation have become really, really good. I now see things a lot of people do not see and I am proud of that. It has helped me tremendously in my work and in my relationships. My husband showed me a new Sherlock Holmes miniseries, in which the lead clearly has Asperger's, but he's an egotistical ass. His powers of observation are much keener than mine regarding other people's clothing, for instance, but he uses it not only for his detective work, but also to hurt people and show off. I use it to help people be comfortable in their final months of life. I use it to improve my marriage. I hope to be a better friend and daughter.
Would it be fair to say that those four skills alone have helped me forgive myself for a less than stellar past? It would. Would it be fair to say that they have helped me love myself? Also, yes. Every time I practice any of those four, I give myself a positive memory. And every positive memory tips the balance of who I am to making me a better, more loveable person.