How do I overcome the inertia?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column TUESDAY, MAR 21, 2006

I have so much potential I can’t decide what to do!


Dear Cary,

I’m 23 and panicking.

I’ve been working at a fairly small company in New York for about two years now. Immersed in my studies during my senior year at college, I hadn’t looked very hard for employment and landed this job a few weeks after graduation almost by accident. It has been good for me in some ways; I’ve learned new skills and improved others (both professional and social), and with the luxury of never having to take work home, I’ve been able to spend my limited free time pursuing numerous hobbies and projects. The pay could be better, but I’m living at home with minimal rent and other expenses and the salary is enough that I can afford to feed my book and movie habits and to travel when I can get the time off. However, I’ve long since hit the top of the learning curve here, there’s no opportunity for advancement, the hours are long, the work endless and repetitive with ever-decreasing time to do what I was hired for (writing) — and I’m restless to the point of desperation. I frequently feel burnt out but don’t want to stop what I do outside of work because that’s what really makes me feel alive.

My family, friends and even some co-workers are trying to convince me to quit. I know that’s the right thing to do. If any of them were in my position, I’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on. But I can’t seem to do it, despite feeling overqualified and stagnating in my current position, if not decaying. I’ve started filling out grad school applications only to leave them half-finished. I’ve idly looked for jobs online, but the activities I do after hours to keep me sane (writing/presenting papers for conferences, for instance, and running a Web site) are convenient excuses preventing me from conducting an intensive search.

Part of the trouble of being stuck in this job (or seeming to be stuck, or self-defeatingly sticking) is that the number of possibilities once I leave are daunting. Although I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember and know that I will be writing for the rest of my life no matter what else I end up doing, I’m an intelligent young woman with varied interests and the potential to succeed in just about any field I choose. I was an excellent student (straight A’s, double major, Phi Beta Kappa, the works) with one of those ludicrous laundry lists of extracurricular activities, an itch to stay busy and intellectually stimulated that hasn’t left me (hence the aforementioned projects and hobbies). I can think of a dozen careers and academic disciplines that I might enjoy. So I ask myself: Should I apply to grad school? In what subject? Move somewhere new? Take a new job? What kind? Where? Quit for a set period of time and write? Travel? And so forth. For months I’ve been caught in circular thinking patterns and a paradox of atheistic mortality: I only have one life and want to choose carefully, so I’m putting (too much) thought into the next step — yet it’s only one life, so why am I wasting time at a job that has nothing left to offer me? I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?

It also doesn’t help that I feel under a good deal of pressure to achieve something significant. Like anyone, I want to make a difference, create something I’m proud of (a book, I’ve always assumed), leave a legacy. At school I was part of a community where expectations for our futures were discussed on national or even global scales. Such ambition is pretty new for me, and it’s very stressful to be fueled by this desire to achieve without knowing where to direct it.

Almost everyone I’ve asked for advice has said I should “just choose,” “just take action,” that things will work themselves out, that I’m young and have lots of time, that people go through multiple career changes nowadays and you never know where you’ll end up. One perceptive friend pointed out that I don’t have as many choices as I might like to think, and that by the time I narrow down all these possibilities to realistic opportunities (e.g., getting accepted to particular programs or landing specific job offers), the choice among them will be easy. I know there isn’t one “right” path and that a job or degree doesn’t define me as a person. I just don’t know where or how to start. How do I overcome the inertia?

Paralyzed by Potential

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Paralyzed,

I could give you a to-do list and some deadlines. Would you like that? OK. Sketch out three possible book ideas — one or two paragraphs for each book idea — and send them to me by April 1.

Identify five graduate programs you are interested in and rank them, with explanations. Send that to me by April 15.

Also, on the work front: First, back up your contention that there is no upward mobility at your present company by explaining why that is. Are you sure that your company isn’t going to expand in some way that might accommodate you? Then identify five other jobs you might get. Send that to me by April 30.

There. That should justify your existence to God for six weeks or so. Oh, but you don’t believe in God. Well, I kind of don’t either. It’s complicated, no? But we’ll get to that.

I’m serious, by the way. I mean to see if this works. If it does, I can say to readers, here is something you can do with your own friends: Give each other deadlines. Help each other when you are stuck! This is the action approach — the part of the action approach that is crucial. It is not enough to simply say, do something! One has to find out a way to make something happen.

People who say, “Relax, just pick one, you’ve got plenty of time,” may not remember 23 — may not remember just how important the world is at 23, how limitless is the horizon, how fresh is the air, how ready the mind, how spirited the walk, how eager one is to begin. At 23 I rode the hippie bus from Manhattan to San Francisco and ended up in a falling-down Victorian on Fulton and Baker one floor up from a deadhead with bad teeth named Sunshine.

I thought I had it made.

I note with interest this sentence: “I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?” If you think about it for a minute, you will realize the limited effectiveness of such insight. Recognizing you have a broken leg doesn’t cure it. It’s just the beginning of a process of understanding.

But my guess is it’s not really mortality that terrifies you. At 23, I thought I was terrified by death, but the actual things that terrified me were less impressive: failure, weakness, shame, appearing to be mediocre. I romanticized my fears. What I actually feared was not death, but the risks one takes in living.

It was fear of failure, and fear of being judged. It was fear of being mediocre, of joining the human race and being a worker among workers, of not being special, of turning out to have all the same problems and limitations as everyone else. To avoid facing those things, I avoided doing many things. I chickened out. I walked off the ice (I am still lacing up my skates on the sidelines, slowly watching the action out of the corner of my eye.)

So, using my experience as a guide (even though we are different in many ways), I would try to locate some fears closer to home. These actual fears may be harder to accept, though they sound less powerful: fear of choosing the wrong occupation, fear of not living up to your “potential,” fear of wasting these precious years, fear of not being as happy as you are right now.

I did have one thing at 23: I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. So, it seems, do you.

So why not just write the book? Wouldn’t that be enough right there?

That brings to mind another danger of believing the whole “You’ve got so much potential” thing: Actual accomplishments are much harder than they look. Not only does the world itself seem to resist our efforts to accomplish even the smallest objectives, but you will resist yourself; right now, theoretically, you could do a million things. But in reality you can’t even quit your job. That’s what I mean. Even easy things are hard to do.

So send me your assignments. And if this works, I will recommend that readers do this with each other. I already know that it works in many settings where one gets stuck. I hope it will work here.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m so anxious I can’t think straight

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007

 

I know what the issues are, but I can’t really deal with them.


Dear Cary,

Lately I’ve been very anxious about my father. I’ve been anxious about mortality and life goals, or how to live in general, but particularly as it concerns my father.

I’ll back up. I’m 31. For the first time in my life, I have a good relationship with a man I really love. It’s a lot of fun, and such a relief, and I think maybe not having relationship anxiety has cleared the way for some older and possibly greater anxieties. For the first time in years, I’ve been having the mortal terrors again at night. I contemplate death and scream out loud. (When my man is around for that he tries to comfort me, and it does help a little.)

I assume most other people don’t feel the way I do. I never hear them screaming. But how could they fail to? In particular I worry about my father. He’s in his 60s. We get cancer in my family. I have this worry. I don’t know how I’ll cope. And: I’ve been having some low-level longings for a baby, these past years, and when it occurs to me that my father might not get to be a grandfather to my child, it breaks my heart.

If I were a shrink I might wonder if that’s a transposed longing to do my childhood over again. Maybe so. I think my childhood was actually wonderful (and it was a time when I was much closer to my father). My young adulthood was more a series of lost years from which I am only now emerging. So some of this might not be about mortality so much as it is just about my relationship with my father, of course. I feel that I have special things expected of me. I am the one who takes after him; I am cerebral and stonewalling, while my brother is affable and socially gifted. But we have ways of interacting, my father and I, that are not really interacting. He retells something he read and I listen. I tell a story from my life, but I end up addressing the other people in the room more. I don’t know why, but he’s hard to talk to. Or I have a hard time of it. We are rarely somewhere talking, just the two of us. Lately, though, he seems a little to be reaching out to me.

I am scared to talk about all this with him because it is much more than I ever talk about with him — and because I feel that all my worries are rooted in my fear of mortality, which I don’t want to mention to him, as a way of protecting him from it. I don’t know if that’s silly or not. A couple of his friends have died lately and I think it’s been hard. At some level I guess I am really scared that he is as helpless as I am. And I guess he is?

I feel that he has been having a hard time. Maybe reaching out to me has nothing to do with it or maybe it does. Alcohol has been brought up as an issue too. I’m worried he needs a refuge, and if I talked to him I’d have to know of one. I drink most every day myself. If I didn’t (incidentally), would all these feelings be stronger?

I am pretty sure the right answer is: Go to him. Learn to talk to him. But I don’t know how and where to start. Other things are easier. Other patterns are in the way, including the pattern of aimless anxiety and the pattern of talking to my mother instead. I’m worried I won’t do it. I’m worried I’ll fail. I’m worried I’ll try and it’ll be banal, or not enough, or that everything I say will come out wrong. I don’t know what I have to say. I don’t know how to invent a new way of relating. I don’t know where I’m feeling responsibilities that aren’t mine and where I’m recognizing what is truly and only mine. I’m even scared of the prospect of raising a child who takes after me and yet ends up distant from me.

Cary, can you tell me what you think?

Daughter

TuscanAd_09122015

Dear Daughter,

Yes, I can tell you what I think. But there are far too many phenomena occurring in your thought-sphere, and they are occurring too quickly, for me to take any one of them and unravel it, to say, “Voilà!”

But I can pass on to you something that has helped me, at times, to stop the whirlwind of anxious thoughts that sometimes starts up and will not stop: Try thinking of the anxiety not as the product, or result, of some other thought process, but as a strategy, a method, that you are using to avoid feeling these other things. I found this insight useful in my own life — that anxiety is a form of emotional avoidance. So then when I am anxious I think to myself, what am I avoiding? What I am usually avoiding, being the way I am, is feelings. There are some feelings about, say, my father, that I do not want to feel. So instead I flit about the house, anxious, nervous, unable to settle into my work, unable to complete a task.

Unfortunately, at that time, it is necessary to simply have the feeling. I do not like some of these feelings. They are dark, somber, helpless feelings; they are old feelings, some of them, old feelings full of regret and longing. But they are shot throughout, also, with bright, sunny memories of childhood innocence: the Sunday morning I must have been 6, walking down the clay driveway hill at our house in Tallahassee, Fla., him carrying a shovel to clear the drainage ditches at the sides of the drive, his hand on my shoulder. He called me “old-timer.” He said, “Good job, old-timer.” I did not know what an old-timer was. I knew he had a timer that he used in his darkroom when developing black-and-white prints. It was a black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer. And I was not old. An “old-timer,” I thought. I liked it but I did not know what it was. It simply opened up into the mystery of words.

So when I am feeling things about my father, now and then something happy will come back — but tinged, of course, with the knowledge that the hill is gone, the clay driveway is gone, the strong hand on the shoulder of the child is gone. (I wonder if somewhere among his things that black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer might still be ticking.)

So you see where this goes — it goes into time, and sadness, and loss. But it goes to the feeling of those things, not to our ideas about them, or our brittle attempts at separation from them.

Once one stops using the anxiety to avoid these things and instead begins to feel these things in their full richness and power, it is not so important to figure out whether our thinking is right or not, whether we are hiding this or that. We are simply feeling things of great heaviness and age. They come of their own accord, and sometimes they delight us, and sometimes they level us with their somber weight, but we are not charged with thinking our way through it. It is just the stuff of life: you and your father, facing together mortality and fate.

I get the feeling you are fully capable of this. You are holding these things at bay but you know what they are. So here is something to consider: This route is not the smart route. That is, it is not a thinking route. It is not clever, or revelatory. It is more something in the chest, a deep, heavy thing you carry around for a while. For this reason, I do not know why we do it or why it is important or what its evolutionary advantage is, this simply feeling the heaviness of age. Here is a thought: Maybe it slows us down so we can be around the old folks, so we can stop flitting about so much. But that is pure childish speculation. I do not know why this is so.

Here is something else: When the anxiety machine really gets running, it can be self-perpetuating. You have to stop it somehow: You have to stop it in order to stop it, which sounds circular. So you have to stop it by changing externalities. The drinking, for instance. The drinking allows you to continue with your anxiety, your anxious avoidance. So … oh, let me find the paragraph where I went into that (I actually tried to answer this letter a few weeks ago but got sidetracked, and then came back and liked part of what I wrote). Ah, here, this is it:

You have a lot of different things going on in your head at once. Too many things, in fact. So how does one slow down? What is the drinking part of it? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so if you are using it every day, your nervous system is depressed for that portion of the day. So it may be a little out of whack. Think of your daily psychic and emotional economy. Say you have X amount of psychic and emotional stuff to process, and you have X processing power. Say that’s pretty much in balance, all other things being equal. But say then you eliminate four hours of processing time because the central nervous system depressant has put you on standby for those hours. You’re not processing. So what is happening? Stuff is building up. Little questions aren’t getting answered and they’re turning into bigger questions. Things that need to be felt aren’t being felt. You’re not doing the necessary daily work. You’re not cleaning house and assessing your needs and practicing, practicing, practicing. Things will pile up. You need to deal with this stuff every day.

So I think you are probably out of whack with all these emotional issues competing for your time. How do you get back in whack? That is where the “externalities” come in. Maybe, if you can find a very wise person to advise you, you get into some form of therapy. But that may not be necessary. Try some things first and see if the night terrors recede. Undertake some life changes to calm the nervous system. Just do simple things, like on the weekend clear the entire weekend and just do the things you need to do around the house. This will be grounding. Just take care of simple things. Take a bath, do the dishes, don’t answer the phone. And for a few days don’t drink. Sleep a lot. Take naps. Get lots of rest and exercise. And pay attention to what you are feeling about your father. Don’t run from it. You see what happens when you run from it. You can’t settle. You are like a nervous bird. You need to settle and accept what it is. It won’t happen overnight. It is a long process. But slowly you may begin to see these things not as complex riddles to solve but simply as situations, emotional situations, feelings, the stuff of life, simply to be felt and honored. If that does not work, you may need some extra help, a therapist to guide you through some of it. But give it a chance, first, to work on its own.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I don’t want my husband at my high school reunion

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2006

I’m not ashamed of him, but I think he’ll be bored and make me nervous.


Dear Cary,

Am I a horrible person for hoping my husband doesn’t go with me to my 10-year high school reunion next month?

Since it was first mentioned, he automatically assumed he’s going, and having never been to one of those things, I’m not sure about the protocol. But last night, I was thinking about it and dreading it. I’m not the awkward little girl I was when I started high school, or the insecure young adult I was when I graduated. I was never popular, but I had lots of friends and interests. I earned my degree. I’m in great shape. I write for a newspaper. My husband is wonderfully fun and handsome and interesting. He’s successful, too; he’s a lawyer.

I guess I’m hoping for the satisfying closure you always see in the movies and books about reunions, where classmates finally accept the main character, where she reconciles with the friends she’s wronged and hasn’t spoken to in a decade, where all unrequited loves admit how blind they were never to have seen how amazing she is. I’m living in a fantasy world, I know. But I fear there’s no chance of anything happening with my husband hovering nearby.

Maybe I am still the insecure little girl that I was then, if all that affirmation is so important to me after all these years.

I’m also worried that he’ll be bored while we hang out with my friends the entire weekend in my hometown. Everything will be an inside joke. Or worse, he’ll think we’re lame, or he’ll hear about ex-boyfriends or other unpleasantness in my past that I’d rather avoid. I can’t tell him not to come. No matter what I say, he’ll think I’m ashamed of him, when it’s not that at all.

The reunion is having a strange effect on my entire group of friends. My best friend is refusing to go, and when her husband (another classmate) brings it up, she cries. She has achieved success in the career she always predicted she was going to have. She’s smart and friendly and interesting. She married her high school sweetheart, and she looks great. She had serious issues with weight for a while, but she’s conquered them.

Another friend of mine who moved overseas shortly after college graduation has been planning for two years, before the event was even annoounced, to fly in for it. It’s all she’s been talking about. She was bullied all the way through middle school and she wasn’t well accepted in high school, but she is sure that everyone will be so much more mature and friendly and accepting. I’m afraid that it will be a huge letdown to her. She just went through a divorce. I guess the root of this is: Why are we all making this reunion the end-all, be-all of everything? What can we do to get past all this insanity?

Reuniting and It Feels No Good

TuscanAd2016_earlybird

Dear Reuniting,

I think you are making the reunion a big deal because high school was a big deal and there are many powerful emotions still cooking after all those years.

What you can do to get past the insanity is recognize ahead of time what it will actually be like and plan for that.

Make some rules for your husband. Tell him you will want to be just with your old friends for some of the time. But also include him in some big dinner or something. And make some plans ahead of time with the people you really want to see.

What happens when you put a society of adolescents together for a few years, bond them intensely and then suddenly loose them on the world? All those relationships go into the freezer. They don’t keep well. You take them out a decade later and they’ve decayed. It’s not that the people have decayed, but the relationships, which are fed by contact and interaction, have decayed. There are no functioning relationships between these people. So naturally at high school reunions many people feel confusion and sometimes disappointment or sharp letdown. It’s a bunch of strangers who used to know each other. You’re not going to feel the way you used to feel, nor are you going to heal the past. You’re going to be you, today’s you, encountering people that you used to know but don’t really know anymore.

So be prepared for unexpected melancholy. It may help beforehand to take stock of yourself honestly, to admit that a part of you is still only 15 but so is everyone else and admit that you are still afraid of the popular girls but so is everyone else and admit you really dread going to this but so does everyone else and admit that even though it’s going to be scary and awkward you have to go anyway just like they do — because you just have to find out. You have to find out what happened to all these people. That’s all. You just have to find out.

And then you’ll know.

Be prepared for people to be weird and nasty and strange and drunk. Be prepared for people you thought were nice to be mean and people you thought were mean to be nice.

Be prepared to find idiots prospering and geniuses failing, the best and the brightest tarnished and fallen, the mediocre shining and thriving, those you thought you loved and admired suddenly shallow and dull, those you never noticed suddenly effervescent and gleaming and irresistible.

Be prepared for some really bad hair. Be prepared for premature sweater vests and unimaginable slacks.

Be prepared for the spectacle of incompleteness, of a swarm halfway there, no longer brimming with potential yet not accomplished either, beginning again only beginning bigger this time, and a bit clumsy as all beginners are.

Be prepared for the deep-voiced pomposity of the formerly shy in full boorish bloom, the new engineering sales manager heading his division, exceeding his targets. Be prepared for the nervous too-wide smile and the wallet full of pictures: wives standing on beaches and wives pushing baby carriages and wives in uniform. Be prepared for bad breath and insensitive questions.

Be prepared to feel an overwhelming desire to run away.

When necessary, detach. Think of work and what needs doing at home, and how much better you like your new life than your old life.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

People think I’m fine but I’m not

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 14, 2011

I may seem like I’m OK, but I’m hiding in my dorm room crying


Dear Cary,

I have been wanting to write to you for a while, but I always put it off because I think I can fix it myself or that the feeling will pass. As time wears on, I no longer believe that I can.

I am soon to graduate from a big, expensive university with a middling GPA. As I slog my way through this semester, I find myself feeling ever more hopeless and withdrawn. Upon arriving on campus freshman year, I promptly had a complete nervous breakdown. I was a thousand miles away from home, surrounded by all these golden children of Westchester and Greenwich, and I couldn’t handle it. I begged my parents to withdraw me from school, but they couldn’t comprehend why I would react in such a way. I stuck it out through freshman, sophomore and junior year at the same school. I was miserable each and every single day the entire time.

I have hardly made any friends during my time here (and I imagine that I must be the only person at this entire university with such an accomplishment). I never have any weekend plans and I stay in my dorm room most of the time. I don’t have such great grades, and particularly this semester, I find it increasingly hard to even make it to class or hand in assignments.

Why didn’t I transfer? It’s hard to say. I have this knack for appearing exceptionally functional. I can act peppy and upbeat all day long, but I will absolutely collapse in my bed sobbing every night. I imagine that the only event that can possibly remove me from this blanket of anxiety and fear would be total unconsciousness. A while back, I saw a therapist at my university for a few sessions. I couldn’t articulate any of my feelings to her. All that happened was that she commended me for being a “mature young woman.” That’s what I must seem like on the outside, I guess.

I’m submitting my résumé to various jobs now, and my application often gets denied with nary a first-round interview offer. I imagine how things will be post-graduation. I have no great hopes of being a high-powered executive or a successful writer. I have no dreams about white picket fences, 2.5 children and a loving husband. I desire absolutely nothing, except to live comfortably without anxiety.

While I don’t want to hurt myself, I find it just so difficult to make it through each day. I feel positively alone and exposed. I just don’t know what to do with myself except lie in my bed, browsing the Internet for hours upon hours until I fall asleep. While I know that if I just continue to eat, sleep and breath, this semester will be over and I will finally graduate, I worry that the future will only hold much of the same. I don’t remember ever feeling truly “happy” outside of fleeting moments of fun and laughter. How can I stop being so alone and miserable?

A Pretender

SoldOut_Jun13-22_2015Dear Pretender,

I would say the best way to stop being so alone and miserable is to begin an unflinching and courageous study of yourself. Through this you will learn what is happening to make you feel and behave the way you do and how to change.

It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that. Its results can be instantaneous and also can take a lifetime. It is the true calling of humankind: to know ourselves.

It is unfortunate that universities do not concentrate on this essential task as much as they might; many universities are little more than vocational training grounds for the elite vocations of leisure and power. They are not the sanctuaries for personal growth and learning that they might be in a more enlightened society. It sounds as though you have gone to such a university and it has been pretty much nonstop torture.

It is time for the torture to end. It is time for you to begin your true course of learning.

I can make some guesses, but I am just a guy who set out to be a writer and ended up answering people’s letters for a living. I’m not trained in clinical psychology or philosophy.

Still, I can notice a few things. To me, it sounds like you have a lot of anxiety.

So, the short answer would be, to accelerate your study of yourself, that you begin learning as much as you can about this thing called anxiety: what it comes from, how it is treated, what steps you can take to lessen its impact on your life. Not all therapists are equally skilled. The one you consulted apparently did not identify your problem. No doubt you are skilled in masking your problems, but the job of a good therapist is to gently, skillfully, firmly, with compassion, help us take off the mask. Many therapists  would more or less instantly grasp your situation and guide you through this difficult time.

You can help, of course, by learning about your condition.

This does not have to be a sad and frightening time. It is a time for discovery. You have nothing to fear. Once you begin to grasp your true nature, you will find an abundance of joy and pleasure in life. You are not far from the prize. You are just beginning.

I am not going to try to tell you very much. I am just trying to give you a gentle shove in the right direction. But I can tell you this, which may give you some hope: I have learned some techniques for dealing with anxiety. You can learn those techniques, too. I did get counseling and therapy, and you can get that as well.

One of the most important things I learned about anxiety was something a therapist said to me more-or-less offhandedly. He said, Well, you know, anxiety is often a method of warding off feelings. I thought, wow, that’s odd. I had never thought of anxiety as an active strategy, a creative act. But when I saw myself using anxiety to ward off feelings, I found I could direct my attention to the world, and what was going on, and to what feelings those might be that I was warding off, and I could see that my head would not explode if I just let those feelings come, and that things were basically OK minute to minute in spite of whatever feelings were washing over me.

Here is an interesting page to look at. I was searching for “therapeutic methods for dealing with anxiety” and I found this page. Its heading says, “Coping Skills for Trauma,” but it’s a really rich page full of suggestions for people who may be having anxiety and would like to get back into the present moment. What a wonderful set of suggestions!

In fact, I just did one of the exercises suggested on that website, and it was pretty calming. I looked around the room and saw an abstract expressionist painting by Judith Lindbloom, framed by my sister Melinda in her shop in Lynchburg, Va.; a table lamp bought at Target; a box of thumbtacks used to post fliers on billboards; a pair of reading glasses bought at Walgreen’s; a pass to the Litquake after-party. Those are five things just sitting here within easy view. Looking at them reminded me of my connection to the world, to my sister and my friend Judith, to our enterprise of doing workshops and posting fliers about them; to our shopping trips to Target; to my eyesight; to my participation in Litquake. It quickly grounded me. It brought me back into my life, the life that I’m living — the only life I’m living.

FranceAd2015

So these techniques can quickly bring us back into the life we are actually living. And when you think about it, it’s amazing how little attention we may be paying to the life we are actually living. And it’s often surprising how rich our lives are, when we stop to inventory what is in our lives. Your life, I feel sure, is very rich, too. Your problem is that you cannot experience it because you are warding it off. But this can change.

So, let’s just be honest. I’m a champion at warding off feelings. It may be because as a kid I was the kid who always was having too many of them — too many feelings about too many things; and feelings that were not simple, either, but required explanation and analysis, or simply needed to be said. That wasn’t working too well in my family, I found at an early age. Being the kid with feelings was not really the way to go. So I don’t know exactly what I did, because I wasn’t there. Or I can’t be there now. I can’t remember exactly what I did, what I decided to do. But I do know I learned to act quite analytical about my feelings, as though they belonged to someone else. And I learned not to say what I was feeling but to say something else — that the president is a numbskull or that certain chemicals are fascinating, that there will be a full moon tonight or Did you know…

You get what I’m saying? And I connect these two things: I connect learning at an early age that direct communication about my feelings was not welcome or appreciated, and also that by side-stepping that, and stating factoids, or stating opinions about politics, or the weather, I could avoid the scorn, derision or sheer incomprehension that would appear on the faces of the people around me.

Meanwhile I was bursting inside! Meanwhile I had all these secret longings and fears! Meanwhile I lived an inner life of strange abundance and richness. Meanwhile I was the kid wandering around wondering about God, about plants, about the sun, about evolution, about raindrops and fusion energy and girls. In a nutshell, I guess … I was full of feelings and that made it hard. So anxiety became a way of of freezing the moment and directing attention away from the flow of feeling.

So now it has become important to find ways to get back in the flow of feeling even when those around me are not receptive. So I have a rich inner life and I am often consumed with my own thoughts and feelings. Anxiety is just one way of responding to the flow of consciousness and feeling.

So that is just a little bit about anxiety. For you, what I can say is that if you begin a study of your own nature and history, and find what characteristics you have, and then find a therapist or psychologist who can become your partner in helping you understand your own nature and your own history, and you continue this study on your own, unflinchingly, courageously, then you are well on your way to becoming a happy and fulfilled person. It isn’t easy or magical, but it is the way to a meaningful and happy human life.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Homeless, with diamonds

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from Friday, Feb 6, 2004

I’m married to a wonderful man, but he doesn’t seem to share my fear of financial humiliation.


Dear Cary,

I have been spoiled with a very happy life. I am 26, married to a wonderful 34-year-old man whom I love more than anyone in the world. He is strong, supportive, smart, funny and affectionate. We are happy together. We are healthy. We live in a nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood of an exciting city. We are overeducated. We are both from well-off families who funded our very expensive educations so we didn’t have to go into debt. We want to have lots of babies and live happily ever after.

That hasn’t been easy for us, so we are seeing lots of doctors who hopefully will be able to help us make that dream come true. Even our brush with infertility, while upsetting, has been something we are working through together.

I am writing because I am afraid, terrified, petrified really, that we are falling, diving, into a cycle of failure and debt. I am unemployed. Two years ago, we moved back to my husband’s hometown. I still don’t speak the language here very well, although I am taking classes and improving rapidly. While I am generally happy here — I’ve managed to make friends, find activities to keep busy — I have not found a job. I am a clinical social worker, so language is obviously important and jobs are very scarce here. My husband started his own business when we moved. I feel guilty even writing this, but it is a total failure. His income doesn’t come close to covering our rent, and forget our lifestyle. Our savings are gone. The project my husband spent the last six months working day and night on just went to another firm. For the last year, my husband has been looking for a job at the same time as running his ailing business but nothing has come through.

The worst thing is that my husband doesn’t seem to recognize the reality of any of this. Although he is very discouraged by his business venture, he is in total denial about the fact that we won’t be able to pay our rent next month. He just bought me a diamond anniversary band. He wants to keep trying to make the business work. Maybe he isn’t worried because in his heart, he believes his family will give us money. Maybe they will. In fact, they probably will, and so my fears of being thrown on the street are probably unfounded. I see being bailed out by his family as totally humiliating. I don’t know if he would mind.

I’m not sure what to do, or what I really expect my husband to do. Part of me blames him for his failing business, even though I know how hard he is working. Part of me is asking what is wrong with him, that he just can’t make it happen. The other part of me hates myself because I know that he wants his business to work even more than I do and, in reality, I am just as much of a failure in my work life as he is.

Should I encourage him to keep working at his business, to make his dream come true, and just suck it up and consider myself lucky if the in-laws are willing to pay the bills? Should I tell him to find a job, any job, and by the same standard, forget my own failed career goals and take whatever job is out there (McDonald’s if need be)?

Should I just be happy with what we have and not worry if we drift through our lives never reaching some mythical point of career fulfillment?

Spoiled Girl Looking for Direction

TuscanAd_Jan2015

Dear Spoiled,

I suggest that you turn to your family for help. Don’t ask for money. Ask for expertise. You need an outside opinion. If your family is successful and well-off, there must be people in it who are knowledgeable about business, no? Or are you royalty? Don’t tell me your family is the kind that just spends money and doesn’t earn it.

You need a sober assessment of your husband’s business plan, so you can form a clear picture of his chances for success. Only then can you decide if the struggle makes sense. Even if your family is royalty, they must have somebody on retainer to balance the books. You need a person like that.

If you went directly to your husband and said you wanted to have an expert look over his business plan, he might feel that you don’t have much faith in his business ability and that you are trying to meddle. Which would be true. So you can try to arrange an assessment on the up-and-up. But you might have to arrange for someone to approach your husband as a potential investor. He could assess the cash flow potential, the competition (who was it who ate his lunch on that last big deal?), and so forth. If he becomes satisfied that your husband has a good business model, he might go ahead and invest. If not, you might want to start looking for a job.

Look, I too have been on the brink of financial disaster, and I know how humiliating it is, and how fear of the future can weigh on you, how you just want to lash out at anyone, find a victim, find a cause, find something you can pinpoint as the source of your anxiety. So I know what that’s like. I also know it doesn’t last. Usually — especially if, as you say, you have resources and an education — you find a way out of it. It might mean taking a stupid job for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the humble regularity of a stupid job can be strangely liberating.

The subterfuge of having your husband’s business analyzed by an outsider may bother you. For all I know, it may be ethically wrong. But I don’t think so. I think you are at a disadvantage because you have no facts; you are vulnerable; there is a lot at stake here, and you need to take steps to protect yourself. If you’re able to figure out what the problem is with the business, you will be protecting your husband as well. He truly may not know what he’s doing. If he’s not a good businessman, the sooner he learns that, the sooner he can get out of business.

The truth is, you’ll probably be fine. One way or another, you’ll get through this. You’ll find a job in your field, your families may help you over the hump, things will work out. But business is not about dreams. It’s about columns of numbers. The sooner your husband realizes that, the better.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m a Harvard grad who can’t hold a fast-food job

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 6, 2009

I have a history of depression and I’m back at my parents’ — but I have an Ivy League film degree!


Dear Cary,

I am a week shy of my 25th birthday, and I am back living in my parents’ home. I have a degree from Harvard and a year of grad school under my belt, but lifelong depression and social phobia have crippled me such that I can’t capitalize on my achievements. There’s never been a problem getting good grades, but I’ve never been good at setting my own goals and following through with them. Only too late have I realized that one has to get good at something (besides passing tests) to be able to make a living. Everybody just assumed that because I was book-smart, I would be life-smart, and nobody pressured me to plan out what I wanted to do with my life.

I’ve also been so sheltered that I can’t give directions to my own home, nor do I keep track of how much money there is in my bank account. Basically, I haven’t had to learn the ins and outs of daily independent living and it’s driving me insane, because I am 25 AND I HAVE A HARVARD DEGREE!

Since I’ve dropped out of graduate school I’ve made some attempts to get a job, but not wholeheartedly. I was fired from a fast-food job a couple of months ago, which has shot my confidence for getting a higher-paying, higher-status job. I’m scared to death of getting one, because I don’t think I’ll put in the effort to do well. I don’t have to worry about paying the bills (my parents take care of it all) so there’s no external motivation to get serious.

Besides my lack of ambition, I have trouble maintaining relationships. Never dated. Friends come in and out of my life, and I either get bored with them or I get so annoyed that they have ambitions and passions that I feel uncomfortable sticking it out. I have no loyalty to anyone and even my family says that I am duplicitous and hard to read.

I spend most of my days sleeping or surfing the Net, away from people, tuned out from the world. Whenever I try to tune back in, I feel self-conscious due to all that I’ve missed out on. This again makes it hard to connect with others — what the hell can I talk about?

I know I’m smart, but I’m lazy, and am nowhere near to approaching my potential. The separation between my ability and my actions is driving me crazy and has brought on suicidal thoughts.

I wouldn’t mind being isolated or having a low-status job if I were independent (not relying on parents). But “settling” for a “McJob” while under their roof seems to be the very example of slacking off because there’s no pressure to do better, and I feel embarrassed doing that.

I know there’s a way out of this — maybe finding a different set of friends; a mentor; making a plan and not caring what other people think of it — but getting out of bed to do it is the trick. I’ve even thought of running away to California (I studied film) but I don’t know how the hell I’d survive.

Thanks for reading.

Stalled

TuscanAd_Voice2015

Dear Stalled,

Now, I know that mental illness can cripple the smartest among us. But I also know that this can be dealt with in many ways. See a doctor or a therapist. It may be that you are one of those people who has what is called Asperger syndrome. If it’s Asperger, there are ways to manage it. If it’s depression, try cognitive therapy. Try anything. You have somehow been managing this all your life, functioning well enough to excel in high school, acquire a Harvard degree and do a year of graduate school. If you are experiencing a particularly difficult bout of it now, then with the help of a doctor or therapist attack it with fearless vigor. Fight these thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness with the facts: If you can graduate from Harvard, you can fill out an application for employment at Lion’s Gate. And if you need certain things in order to function — order, quiet, exercise, diet, then you have the resources to get those things.

Among those resources is courage. If you have come this far, you obviously have courage. Call upon it now.

And know this: It’s as hard to escape your own privilege as it is to escape your own deprivation. Hell, if you hitchhike to California, they’ll probably put a tracking device on you for insurance purposes. So at the risk of consigning you to the kind of chaos and uncertainty that I lived through in my 20s and early 30s, I say, what are you afraid of?

Unless you lack sufficient whiteness, you can hitchhike to California drenched in blood like a serial killer and some nice young person from Brown will give you a film job.

If you lack whiteness, it’s going to be harder. You’ll have to show your Harvard diploma.

When I set out in my 20s I understood very little but I understood this much: Any educated white person in America is privileged, and no one is going to allow us to starve. We can’t even starve if we want to. People keep inviting us to dinner to talk about Robert Lowell.

We can try to starve ourselves but other white people will force-feed us like foie-gras geese. We can’t escape out whiteness even in Tenderloin hotel rooms.

They send their gardeners looking for us.

We’ll be smoking crack on the third floor and hear Spanish in the lobby. “Is that the voice of my mom’s gardener?”

It’s too much for their delicate constitutions to see their educated white children starving. It breaks their hearts. They must control us. They’re like missionaries.

So don’t worry about it. Your parents would rather pay all your bills and have you live at home and stay in your room than see you miss a meal or direct a grade-B zombie flick. Even if you come out here they’ll send you money.

A note to parents: If you have a 25-year-old college graduate living at home, do that person a favor: Next time he or she leaves the house to “meet up with friends,” gather up all his or her stuff, put it in the car with a $100 bill and have a locksmith change the locks on the house. (Chances are you don’t know how to change a lock yourself, right?)

And if you’re 25 and sitting in the bedroom of your parents’ house, hear this: We need you! The planet is melting down. Get out of your goddamned houses and change the world. There’s work to be done.

If you must fear something, fear dying without living.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

TuscanAd_2015

Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m not sure I trust him. Is he lying to me?

 

Write for Advice

 

Hi Cary,

I have a problem, and I don’t know whether it’s with myself or my partner. You have an exceptional understanding of the human mind and soul, so I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me out. 

We’ve been doing distance this past year with the intention of telling our parents that we want to marry soon. The stakes are high because we’re from polar opposite backgrounds, and we both have to go out of our way to placate our families if we want their blessings. I’ve told my siblings, and was all set to tell my parents tomorrow (time constraints: there’s a small window for him to meet my dad. They’ll both be in the same state for a short time very soon) until something funny happened. 

He’s been busy this past week (he is a med school student), so we haven’t been able to talk much. This doesn’t happen often: we Skype/call/chat almost everyday. He also left Friday evening for a road trip with one of his college friends. He was supposed to call me when he got in to their hotel (we’re 12 hours apart). He’s usually good with his promises, but this time he didn’t call. When I texted to tell him I was starting my day and would be busy for the next few hours, he replied that he was sorry and would reach his hotel in an hour. He called in an hour but I was away from my phone attending to the work I had to do. I am boring you with the details because somewhere during this time, I suspected he was lying to me. I have absolutely no proof that he was, and rationally it makes perfect sense to me that he had arrived late. But he has a history of concealing things from me, and I realized some time during these last 12 hours or so that when it comes down to it, I do not entirely trust him. Rationally, I think I do for the most part, but instinctually when he doesn’t answer his phone or something goes awry, I tend to think the worst. For instance, this morning (the day after) I saw that he was online at 11 am his time, but he texted at 12.30 saying that they had just gotten up. There could be a number of explanations for this (like he came online for a second and fell back asleep, he defines ‘just’ very broadly, etc), but my instinct is to explain inconsistencies with dishonesty.

This history in brief: a while after we started dating, he asked for a break. He was graduating from college and didn’t know if our relationship was right given our radically different backgrounds. This upset me. I told him he could have all the space he wanted, but I wasn’t comfortable with us seeing other people while we were away, and if he wanted that we would have to break up. He agreed to the terms, but didn’t tell me when we got back together that he’d kissed a girl while I was away. He told me this a few months after we reunited, when I just found out that he’d also hung out with his ex-girlfriend once when we were dating. Nothing happened, he said, they just went to grab coffee because she insisted. But he hid it from me because ‘(he) knew (I) wouldn’t like it.’ This seemed silly: I wouldn’t have cared that he had coffee with her if he had just told me. The fact that he hid it from me made me suspicious of him, and hurt me deeply. He insisted that the incident with the girl was the only other thing he was hiding from me. 

I was very upset (truthfully, thinking about this still upsets me and I wonder all the time if he was entirely truthful), but we recovered from it okay. Somewhere along the way, we swapped Facebook passwords. I didn’t surveil him but one day while I was on his profile, I saw he received a message from an old flame. It was completely friendly, but I noticed he was curious about her. They replied back and forth once or twice. This unnerved me, and when I obliquely brought up the subject of old flames and openness, he said there was nothing he had to tell me. I asked him if he was absolutely sure there was nothing I’d want to know, and he insisted that there wasn’t. This was after he last admitted to covering things up. This was also while he was messaging her. It felt shady to question him like this, but I also felt shattered and furious. I told him what I knew, and he apologized and said he didn’t know why he had lied. Later, he denied any wrong doing, said that he hadn’t been hiding anything, that he insisted there was nothing to tell me because it hadn’t occurred to him that I might want to know about the messages. I find this hard to believe. I am completely open with him about everything. He isn’t the jealous sort, and doesn’t feel at all bothered by my wishing my ex boyfriend a happy birthday. And while I am clearly insecure about our relationship, I don’t think I’ve ever been irrational or unfair about his past girlfriends or female friends either.

Now I know none of these things constitutes cheating (we were on a break the first time, coffee with an old girlfriend isn’t a big deal in itself, and an innocent Facebook exchange is hardly tantamount to an affair), but he has a slight habit of hiding things. Things that are not inconsequential to me, either. This much I know I can fault him for: the fact that I wouldn’t like his meeting a girl is no excuse not to tell me. In fact, it’s more of a reason to tell me. What I don’t know is whether my suspicions of his faithfulness are fair. Am I being unreasonable for doubting him the way I did earlier today? 

It’s clear at any rate that there is a problem here. While we’re very communicative and generally happy, as soon as communication lapses a little, I get restless and nervous. I don’t know how to address it with him because 1) I’m not sure if this a problem with myself and 2) if not, I don’t know how to get an honest answer from him. If he’s hidden things from me before, what are the odds that he’ll open up to me about any indiscretions right before we talk to our parents? I know he loves and misses me, and wants this to work very much, and he will not want to jeopardize that if he is hiding anything. Is the distance making me paranoid, do I have reason to be this way, or am I a distrusting person? I’m not sure if I can tell my parents about him if I have a serious problem on my hands. 

Please help. 

Sincerely,

Frazzled

TuscanAd_2015

Dear Frazzled,

You know, some of us more or less take it for granted that whenever we are out of sorts, whenever we have a problem with somebody else, the problem, ultimately, is with us. We know that the only way we can live in peace in the world is by accepting the world as it is, and accepting everyone in the world as they are. We recognize that our main problem is not other people, and the state of the world, but our lack of acceptance. Our problem is us. Our problem is our belief that we can and should work to make other people conform to our expectations.

This is huge! Surveilling other people, gauging their behavior, comparing it to our set of expectations and taking action when it threatens to deviate is the dominant mode of interpersonal relationships for many, many couples and families in the United States. And yet it is a recipe for relationship disaster.

This is an opportunity to talk about an alternative.

It’s a radical idea, actually, that when somebody is doing something we don’t like, the problem is with us. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. What we’ve been taught in school and family is that there are standards to uphold, that there are right ways and wrong ways to behave, that there’s a consensus. In this way of thinking, you’re either with the consensus or not with it. If you’re with the consensus, then you have the right — nay, dare I say, the duty! — to place blame on the other person who is not with the consensus; and if you’re not with the consensus, then you have to shape up.

In place of this insistence upon other people conforming to our expectations, I submit that what we need is a deep and abiding reverence for each and every human being.

What we need is reverence for the person. We need that not just as an abstract idea to kick around on blogs and on TV but in our daily lives, with our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our employers and employees, strangers we meet on the streets. We need a little bit of holy wonder. A bit of awe. A bit of awe that you are even in this relationship. A bit of awe that this guy likes you and is interested in spending his life with you.

Now, he could be the wrong guy for you. That’s something you need to decide. You need to weigh your possible future heartache against your tangible present pleasure.

But to get out of this debilitating cycle of worry, try a little experiment.

Try having no expectations of him at all. Just watch what he does. Do this for one week. Take notes.

Observe him in the wild. What do you see? How do you feel about what you see?

Ah, but here’s the rub! You can’t see him because he’s not there! You’re not in the same location! You’re many time zones removed! You’re “doing distance.” You’re in a “long-distance relationship.”

A “long-distance relationship” is not really a relationship. It’s a technological holding cell. It’s a container for a plan. All over the world people are conducting these things they call “long-distance relationships” but they’re not really relationships between humans. They are relationships between machines. The machines are having a relationship with each other, and you’re pushing buttons and footing the bill.

You get nervous when the intervals and rhythms of communication change. Of course you do! Because that’s the only indication you have that this person even exists! That’s not enough! You need him with you. Your body needs him. All your body gets now is the cool glossy feel of a smartphone screen. That’s not enough. You need him to physically be with you.

But aside from all that, for the sake of exploration, let’s say that you are together, and you are still uneasy, and let’s ask: What if you knew that no matter what your boyfriend does, you would be fine? Could you live that way? Could you live knowing that if this relationship works out, great, you and he can be happy together, but if it doesn’t, fine, you are free to make your own life?

What if, in personal relationships, we didn’t care if people live up to our standards at all? What if it didn’t matter? What would happen? What if you didn’t care what he did? What if you just hung out with him because you liked him?

This is a philosophical question based on the premise that in personal relationships, interpersonal harmony is more important than either party’s individual performance against a set of abstract metrics.

In this scenario, love means granting freedom to another person — freedom to be who they are. It means acceptance, not interpersonal policing.

These are the things I think about: How can we increase harmony and decrease conflict? Why do we know so little about each other? Why are our expectations so out of line with what people are really capable of? How can we increase human understanding and decrease conflict? If high ideals and expectations in personal conduct increase conflict, then is the conflict worth it? Is it the kind of conflict that is likely to persist and never be resolved?

There is something to be said, I suppose, in sports and business, for having expectations that are nearly impossible to meet, to force people to strive. But in personal relationships, it is not performance against a set of numerical standards that is important; it is the harmony within the relationship itself. So it would be better for expectations to be in line with performance capabilities. It would be rational for you to reduce your expectations so he can meet them.

But now we’re getting a bit far afield.

Here’s the bottom line.

I see that I just typed, “Here’s the bottom line.” But is there a bottom line? Or is that just another habit of mental laziness, the assumption that, after we have thought about this and that and expressed ourselves and played around with possibilities, that there is some tidy bundle of words that will sum it up?

If that were the case, why not just deliver the tidy bundle of words and ignore the rest?

Because the complicated stuff is what’s interesting!

I’m not going to sum it up.

I sit in my room, thinking these thoughts. They don’t amount to a hill of beans, really, but they have been my thoughts, and now they are yours.
Write for Advice

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

 

I do everything last-minute. Does that make me a bad person?

 

Write for Advice

 

Hi Cary,
 
I’ve had a problem for most of my life of being a procrastinator.  When I was younger, I just thought that’s how it was.  I did well in school but I’d usually wait until the last minute to do my assignments.  When I got into college, I was intimidated and sometimes started earlier and worked harder.  Then, when I made good grades, I slipped back into doing things last-minute.  Sometimes these things turned out well and sometimes not so well, but I graduated with mostly good grades.
 
When I got out into the working world, I followed much the same pattern.  I would talk about work and worry about work and procrastinate around work, but I still wouldn’t really work until I had to.  So my work has never been as good as it could be.  I went to counselors about it.  One gave me the typical time management advice to break projects down into small pieces, work for short periods of time, and so forth.  Another counselor told me I was bored and should do something more stimulating.  But I didn’t know what might be more stimulating and I needed a paycheck, so I stayed where I was.
 
I liked writing and wrote fiction part time, but I would never totally complete something.  I get close and then lose interest.
 
A few years ago I got to retire early because the place I worked was offering buyouts.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but my husband had already retired and between us we had a good income.  I got involved with some hobbies and volunteer activities, but I still have the same problem.  There are things I need to do, that I realize it would be to my benefit to do, but on some level I don’t want to do them and I can’t make myself.  Such items might be turning in volunteer paperwork or keeping an area of my home tidy that drives me crazy because it’s such a mess.  I try making plans and schedules, setting a timer and working for just 20 minutes, and so on, but nothing really works.  If there’s no hard deadline, I won’t do the task, and more and more, I won’t do the task even if there is a hard deadline.  It’s very frustrating when I feel at odds with myself.  Part of me sees the benefits of doing the task but another part says, “You can’t make me.”  I’m tired of this issue.  What am I, five years old?  I’m retired for god’s sake!
 
Any thoughts?
 
Kathy

France_Ad_062314

Dear Kathy,

What would happen if you just let it go? Would the whole world fall apart? Why not find out? Why not start by telling people about your limitations?

I’ve done this before. I’ve said to people, you know, I know myself pretty well, and I’m probably not going to fill out that form and send it in, so really, you might want to just not give it to me.

You might get some guff, of course, and some funny looks, and some things might not get done. But lots of things aren’t getting done anyway. They’re not getting done, plus you’re torturing yourself.

OK, lets do this but with a safety net. Write down the few absolute necessary paperwork things. Pay medical insurance? Pay DMV fees? Pay bills? Who pays the bills, you or your husband? If he pays the bills, then you are probably not in danger of screwing up anything major if you just heave a big sigh of self-acceptance and start not doing stuff. If you are responsible, though, for life-giving chores like paying medical insurance or the mortgage, then just list those few things. Then, if you can manage that, or if you’re already doing that OK, then just do that. If not, have somebody else do them. Like your husband.

And let the rest of it go!

Isn’t that better than torturing yourself? Let it go. Lower your expectations. You’re retired.

I think it’s funny that the time-management people told you to break things down into small chunks and it didn’t work. That’s what I would have said, too. Obviously that doesn’t work for everybody. Maybe you genuinely don’t want to do this stuff. Had you considered that?

Maybe you have been doing stuff you really don’t want to do and what this is telling you is that you have to actually change your life. Getting better at filling out forms is not going to help. You need to change your life. The conversation you have in your head is a big clue. The side of you who says, “You can’t make me” has a grievance. You need to listen to her. I’ll bet she has been belittled all her life and made fun of because she’s not super organized and efficient. Well, she needs some loving care. She needs to be cut some slack. She has value, too. She’s the one who writes your stories and walks around in the woods. She’s also the one who looks at the way we live and work today and says, “Phooey. Who needs it?”

She’s got a point. So cut her some slack. Next time you have this inner conversation, let her speak. Let her say more than just “You can’t make me.” Hear her out. She’s put up with bullshit for a long time but now she’s in rebellion. I say let her rebel. Listen to her. She has wisdom. She’s a neglected part of yourself.

Perhaps she is spontaneous and every time you make plans a little part of her dies. It’s OK to not like to make plans. Maybe you don’t want really want to be a volunteer. Being a volunteer and making plans and sticking to the program may be killing a vital part of you that needs to be heard.

So stop trying to change yourself. Instead, try to be yourself. Hear yourself. Honor yourself. You will be OK. Some things may fall apart. That’s OK. Let them. It’s not the end of the world.

Be yourself. Enjoy retirement. Let it go.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Overwhelmed!!!

 

Write for Advice

 

Hi Cary,

I love your column. I hope you can help me. I have a multitude of problems all happening at the same time in my life.

Well, some started years ago, but as long as they happened one at a time, I managed to get through them. Right now they seem to be taking place simultaneously. Without going into too much detail, I’ll tell you that my family members have or are suffering from blindness, degenerative disease, cancer, serious emotional problems, and alcoholism. I have a care-taking personality, and am physically healthy, so I take care of (constantly worry about) all of my loved ones. I am one of those “HSPs” (Highly Sensitive People) so all of these things make me suffer greatly. I feel like my heart is perpetually breaking. I feel that I can’t be happy unless all of my loved ones are fixed and happy themselves.

I work in an office with a lot of people and marvel at how easy their lives seem, and how they react after the death of a parent, for example. Some of them are back at work in a couple of days, laughing by the water cooler with their coworkers.

I guess what I’m asking is: Do I have a problem with how I perceive life, or is my family really cursed and am I reacting normally to horrible situations?

Overwhelmed

France_Ad_border_062314

Dear Overwhelmed,

Please realize that for right now, you are OK. You are safe and protected. Things may be a little crazy around you. You are in a situation with a lot of emotionally volatile, draining people and challenging problems. But at this moment, as far as I can tell, you yourself are OK.

So, right now, wherever you are, take stock of your location and what is going on in your physical environment, in your own body. That is the first step to feeling better and getting out of this feeling of overwhelm. Take a look around you. Are you in danger, physical danger? Probably not. Do you have enough to eat today? Do you have shelter and clothing and a safe place to sleep? Seriously. I want you to orient yourself in your physical environment as a first step to feeling better.

It is possible that your mind is playing over and over certain scenarios: What if this happens? What if that happens? My mind does that, too. It’s just my mind going on and on. So focus on where you are and what is going on around you. If you know how to meditate, do some meditation.

After you take stock of where you are and what is happening around you, take out some paper and pen or use your computer or however you write, and just make a list of all the things you can be grateful for in this moment. Do you like the sky? It’s not too crazy or trivial to mention the sky as a gift. What if you were in solitary confinement in a prison? You would not have the sky. You have the sky. It is like a gift to you. You can walk out and look at it now, or any time you want to. And you have your family. Members of your family may have challenges but they are alive and in your life. So you are not alone. That is a good thing. Put that down on your list. And I think it’s safe to say you are not in great physical pain right now. You could put that down on your list. As you do this, you may find you feel a little calmer.  That’s good.

Just concentrate on how you feel now, in the moment. You can draw a good, deep breath. You could go for a walk if you like. You could get into the rhythm of walking for a while and forget whatever is tormenting your mind. Just take some time to let these things sink in. These things can help you get out of the overwhelm.

Next, make a list of all the places you know you can go where you will feel safe and protected. You might have friends’ houses, a cafe, a park, your car, a classroom. Just make a list of all the places where you know you can go to feel safe and protected.

Then pick one of those places, and set a time today to go there. Or if not today, then tomorrow.

Also make a list of the people you know that make you feel good. Pick one of those people and call that person, or get in touch somehow. Go see that person. Spend some time with him or her. Make eye contact. Enjoy some laughs. These are things you can do right now to get out of that antsy feeling of overwhelm.

Long term, you will want to make some plans for how to structure a life that suits your sensitivities. If you haven’t already, you might read Elain Aron’s book on highly sensitive people, too. But for right now, you need to be able to cope with a difficult situation by lessening the effect of your own panicky feelings of overwhelm.

Life is long.Things change. Situations come and go. You can handle this. For now, pay attention to where you are physically, and how you are breathing, and this will help. Long term, you will need to make some plans. But you can’t plan when you’re panicked and feeling overwhelmed. So don’t worry about the future now. Just take a few weeks doing these simple things and then, when you’re ready, start making some plans.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up