Past vs. Current Dreams: Discerning Which To Chase and Which To Leave Behind

Grapple is a great word. It’s kind of like a simple hybrid for “Granny Smith Apple,” like the whole word was just smashed together. Grapple.

Recently I’ve been grappling with letting go of past dreams to make room for new dreams. I feel like a juggler who bought a new set of juggling balls, but who refuses to let go of the old ones. I am juggling more than I can handle.

I toss around old and new questions, circling in the air around me. I want nothing more than to just put a few of the balls down, but then what kind of juggler would I be? Letting go of old dreams feels like regression to me.

I’ve recently been strongly considering pursuing a Masters in Social Work. And yet my brain screams in caution about academic degrees, What about your Masters in Public Health you’ve always dreamed of? What about pursuing an English degree? Couldn’t you just be a nurse practitioner and maximize use of your degree?

And too – it screams about cities to live in: What about Seattle? What if you go your whole life without living in Washington state? Can you ever forgive yourself? 

And also – it screams about leaving: What if you leave Milwaukee and feel lost? What if you get so homesick you can’t function? And the worst of all – What if you leave Milwaukee and never move back?

My brain has figured out that if I never leave, I never need to worry about being homesick because I’ll never have left. The anxious mind craves safety. In the screaming storms of anxiety, I have been appealing to my brain’s desire. It wants to be safe.

My brain screams about the thing’s I’ll miss – What if you leave and something happens to Terese? Or you don’t see your family for years. Or you want to visit your mother’s grave and you can’t because you are plane rides away. Or what if you relationship crumbles because you’ve moved away?

My brain juggles the past dreams of International Aid. What if you never become a Peace Corps volunteer? What if you never live abroad? And in the next breath it screams the opposite, Do you you really even want to go live abroad? You could be unsafe. You’d have little to no community. Are you doing this because you genuinely want to or because the past version of you wanted to? Are you forcing yourself to do something unnatural for you? Are you throwing away the stability you’ve worked so hard to create?

Anxiety is a beast, and it rages in the midst of discernment. My discernment process feels like walking forward in the middle of a Sahara desert sandstorm. The wind is my anxiety, pushing against me, pushing me back. My journey is forward, yet anxiety makes it radically difficult.

I believe I am destined for something great, and yet, I am so scared to take a step. I am terrified for what this life has in store for me and yet, I fear deeply not becoming my best self.

I have made brave choices in the past – at age 22, I solo traveled for eight months living in strangers homes and working in the dirt. At age 25, I flew alone across the globe with a broken cell phone and throngs of foreign people. I have stood on a stage in front of thousands of people to deliver a university commencement address. I have chosen to dive deeply into my emotions by admitting that I needed professional therapy. At age 17, I chose to keep showing up to my life after I watched my mother die.

If I am brave, why am I so scared? Am I scared because this is the biggest decision I’ve yet to make? Am I scared of my own potential? Or am I more scared of loss? Both I think.

I am terrified. Something is changing, and I do not know where it will lead me or what I will do in the aftermath. I do not know who I will become, and I do not know what I will lose along the way in getting there. Do I want a life of extremity? Or do I want a life of satisfying comfort?

I do not know yet. And I am trying to be gentle with myself in the process. I idealize extremity – why be average when I could be remarkable? Why settle when I could have it all? Perfectionism is fuel and also, shackles. Perfectionism is a train on a track, not a car on an open road with freedom to swerve and turn.

Anxiety wants me to be a train. My soul wants me to be a car.

Thank you, reader, for getting this far. My brain is energized and lost. So, so very lost. Do you have advice? Any/all is welcome.

Another Mary Oliver reflection to close:

“I want to be improbable, beautiful, and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.”

 

Letting Go of Singularity: How to Redefine Our Thinking About Passion

Year is 2010. We are sitting in our high school auditorium. My friend Valerie, a brilliant violinist, sits on stage and plays the opening notes of a familiar wordless melody. Her seamless playing of every note draws a hush over the students. The violin’s melody serenades us, enveloping us in the crescendo of each note before it fades away. Moved, my heart swells. It whispers, This playing is perfect. Valerie is a master.

Valerie continues to play. Soon, though, another thought creeps in it:

What is the thing I want to perfect? 

Valerie stops. The song is over. As my concentration breaks, a disheartened thought enters, one that will linger for years:

What should I dedicate my life to? …and what if I choose wrong?

We think of career as if we have one shot. With so many options of what to be, of what to study, of what passions to dedicate time to, of jobs to work, how do we choose?

I find myself without a plan. I find myself spinning in the unknowingness constantly, do I move left or right? Up or down? Backwards or forwards? Through the constant questioning, I find myself standing in the same spot, day after day after day, and not due to lack of effort. I am trying. I am trying so, so hard.

Anxiety is historically uncharacteristic for me. Loneliness is too. As is Immobility. Frozenness. Quietness. Erraticism. Dullness. Trepidation. Reservation. All of them. But now, they govern me. My bright and life-loving former self ceded to a fear-based, risk-averse, stagnant, confused, timid version of me. It might not appear like it outside. It’s happening increasingly on the inside, like an unwanted dictator settling into the cushion on her new throne. I am governed by Fear.

I know it. And I hate it. My shoulders have never been so tensed for so long. My eyebrows are furled, and at the end of each day, I have a tremendous ache along my brow line. It aches as if I have spent the entire day exercising them, through really, they have just been squeezed in tension for hours.

This fear of making a wrong move has caused a temporary, nauseating paralysis in my life. I am too scared to take a new job, to move to a new city, to pursue a Masters Degree, to pick up a new hobby, to do anything new, because I am petrified that I will pick the wrong thing.

The fear has become this palpable and governing thing. It’s devastatingly real. I feel like an animal that’s been dead for so long that it’s muscles are now frozen into one particular position. I do not feel confident that I can move myself, change my shape, carry myself into a new career or a new place. I feel immobilized.

It is worsened by the deep knowing that this struggle is not some external force. The struggle is in my own brain. Knowing that the problem is inside of me makes me feel that I, innately, am broken too.

Today, a little sunlight shone in, giving me hope in a new perspective on career. For a long time, I upheld the idea of a singular profession – nurse or writer or psychotherapist or poet. Until today, when I discovered Emilie Wapnick’s community of people who believe the contrary – who believe that being a little good at a lot of things is a good thing. Emilie has named us “multipotentialites.” According to Emilie, multipotentialites are people who are not specialists at one particular field, but who are multi-interested in several fields. The intersection of those fields combined becomes our speciality, but it may not fit into one standard career path. It’s not only ok, but good! Really good.

The discovery has been quietly liberating, introducing me to the notion that maybe my own core belief about career is not so fixed. Instead of feeling like a failure at many roles, I am challenging myself to embrace the many roles. I am not a failure of a nurse, I tell myself. I am a nurse….AND ALSO, I am a nurse who fits more in a niche nursing role (travel medicine). AND ALSO – I am a writer. And I am not a failure of a writer, but I am a writer who does more than just write. AND ALSO – I am an artist, not the best artist in the world, but an artist who appreciates sketching and pottery and dance.

Emilie has created a community for people who feel similarly, who feel that defining themselves as a specialist is not the most effective implementation of their skills nor use of their personality type. Instead, they are people with many skills, skills that often are not associated with a particular career path.

I am a word-based person. I tend to believe that if there isn’t a word for it, it doesn’t exist. Emilie gave me a big gift today – by creating a word to explain what I am. A multipotentialite. This week, I am learning to embrace a new idea of identity, a new way to understand my many passions. I am learning to let go of the idea of a singular calling.

Instead of feeling lost, I am trying to feel grateful, grateful for the many vocations. What a gift it is to feel so many passions calling my name.

 

Homework:

Instead of asking ourselves “What is my career?” ask “What are my careers?”

Instead of “What is my passion?” ask “What are my passions?”

And check out Emilie’s community of other well-rounded people at puttylike.com!

Anxiety: Paying Attention to the Onset

Once a week, Little Winnowers, we are focusing on anxiety. It deserves a day entirely to itself because it is so powerful, so consuming. And unfortunately, it really is one of our biggest inhibitors to growth.

For we Winnowers, our focus is on letting go – on moving through our lives in the present moment without being crippled by anxiety over the future or clinging to a nostalgia for the past. We are learning to weed out the thought patterns that inhibit us, and to hold tightly to the core beliefs that make us who we are.

Over the past few years, my anxiety has blossomed into center view. On some level, the anxiety has always been there, pulling at my brain, leading my healthy thoughts down dark alleyways, like the rule-bending older neighbor you idolize until you realize they’ve gotten you into some serious trouble.

Anxiety really came to a head over the past two years, as I’ve struggled to define my identity as an adult. In trying to move forward in my life onto new endeavors and into new challenges, there is a voice in my brain that’s grown unfortunately colossal. Anxiety tells me: NO, you! Bad things will happen if you take that risk. Stay where you are safe. Anxiety makes me a control freak.  

My brain spirals with hyperbolic thoughts: your brother’s mental health could tank if you don’t check in on him. Family members might die, and you’ll never see them again. You’ll become so homesick for Milwaukee you’ll never be able to function in a new city. Your family will entirely fall apart, and you’ll feel forever guilty that things would have been different if you’d just have stayed. This is Anxiety. Anxiety is relentless.

Again and again, anxiety has caused me to operate out of fear instead of trust, out of a loss mentality instead of a growth mentality. Anxiety is crippling in its grip – and when I am unbalanced or haven’t slept, it’s led to major panic attacks. Sometimes, the panic attacks happen when I’m driving, and that is the scariest occurrence of all. Anxiety makes me feel out of control, and panic attacks ramp up the anxiety to a debilitating emotional and physical confluence of symptoms – acute feeling of lack of control, hyperventilation, dizziness, screaming, shaking, terror. They are horrible, and they happen when the anxiety comes to a head.

To help manage both the underlying anxiety and the panic attacks, I’ve been seeing a counselor. I’m a huge proponent of counseling and psychotherapy. I believe in systemic change to the anxiety, and I believe everyone – medicated or not – needs to incorporate talk therapies into their recovery from anxiety. Medication alone is not sufficient. Unless your friends and family are trained, licensed therapists, they do not count as therapist substitutes. I feel very strongly about this, because I think people use the “my therapy is a glass of wine” or “my friends are my therapists” as excuses not to address their own mental health with honesty and clarity. I also know that therapy can be a financial barrier for many; however, the investment in your own emotional health is paramount. And it is so not the same as saying your friends are your therapists. What your friends are is really, really good friends. And that’s wonderful! But they do not offer the same resources as a licensed therapist.

One of the most influential anxiety-reducing strategies my therapist Sue has taught me is about recognizing an anxious thought pattern when it begins. The baseline Anxiety 101 trip we need to remember is that anxiety is always about the future.  Anxiety spurs and spins and spirals when our brains takes a thought and begin to develop scripts for the worst-case scenarios. These scripts are loud. They are detailed. And often, we really, really believe this is the outcome that is going to occur. The first step in beginning to work through our anxiety then is to learn to step back and recognize what is happening – you are fixated on the future, not focused on the present.

Once we acknowledge that the anxiety is there, we begin to recognize the pattern. In that moment, you anxiety is that it is telling you a story about the future. When we develop the habit of recognizing and labeling anxiety, we are then able to learn the process of working through it to a more calm, clear life.

All my love, all the time,

Laura

Feeling Tangled? A Go-Getter’s Guide to Anxiety

Remember that L’Oréal hair detangler spray for little kids? That potent pear-smelling spray you’d spritz on tricky knots of hair, and work through with a comb until the hair is orderly again?  I want a grown-up detangler spray for my life. I would spray it all over my room, my car, my job, my relationships, and then douse myself in it.

I need an adult detangler. I need it to help me undo all these balled up, knotted emotions, these hardwired emotional responses that are buried so deep in my emotional core. In this intentional examination and rewiring of my core beliefs, I want a lubricant to help me slip and slide my way through the process.

Sometimes those emotions feel too deep to untangle on our own. When we are anxious, we need to do some subterranean uncombing, unraveling of those underlying emotions that are so hard to reach and work through. I know that the only way to make it better is to work through it…but an emotional detangler be SO much easier.

I wonder what the equivalent of an emotional detangler would be. Writing? Talking with friends? Going on a run? Taking a hot bath? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. You know what else though…? Those can also look avoidant.

The thing that I have to do – that I absolutely I do not want to do – is sit. I hate sitting quietly. Really. As an oldest-child, highly-motivated pitta & nurse, sitting is my least favorite activity. I don’t even like to sleep that much, because it stops me from moving.

I am very, very good at trying to force a solution. If I am unhappy at work, I will become a search engine queen, planning ten different future careers for myself in the process. If family relations are strained, I will pour energy into repairing & reworking them. If my romantic relationships are struggling, I assume the answer is talking things through over and over. I fix, fix, fix, always moving, moving, moving.

For we determined, solution-seeking go-getters, the solution is counterintuitive to what we believe. Whether we like it or not, we have a core belief that actively designing solutions is the key to change; this core belief can be detrimental, sometimes contributing to the anxiety instead of aiding it.

No matter how anxious I am, there is one solution that has always proven to be true: In order to begin to work through those super-speedy anxious thoughts, we first need to slow those thoughts down. We need to act less. We need to breathe, grounding ourselves in the present moment. Instead of pouring energy (lighter fluid) into those anxious thoughts, we need to sit quietly with them, simply observing the fire.

When we are anxious, we live in our heads. Anxiety is always about the future. To counter that then, we need to focus on the present.

When I am anxious, the most helpful solution is to find a quiet place and to focus on my body.  If you’re feeling anxious, I recommend setting aside just five minutes for a grounding exercise. Here’s my go-to guide to get out of your head and into the present moment:

Take three deep breaths. As you take a few deep breaths, place both feet on the floor. Wiggle your toes. Now begin to rotate your feet, pressing into the ground with the ball of your foot. Move your feet up and down – pushing into the floor as you pump your feet. Notice that your calves are moving to. Continue this pattern as you work your way up your body. Focus on your thighs, contract and release your glutes, contract and release your core. Twist your spine to the left, then the right. Roll your shoulder as you move your way up the body. Gently shake our your arms, working your way down to your fingertips. Stretch your next as you move your head in circles. Finally, with straight spine, inhale and exhale deeply, releasing the tension that you just unworked from your body. As you begin to feel the energy move throughout your body. Feel yourself here – in this physical world around you.

Feel a little better? Focusing on the present is not the end-all solution to anxiety. However, it is an extraordinarily helpful and go-to tool to use when you feel anxious. By focusing on your body, you focus on a central truth: You are present. You are here. As we continue our journey of working through the emotional untangling process, we begin here – grounded and centered.