An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Category: Emotions

Looking down your inner ear

A conversation about what happens when we lose outside perspective

Awhile back, I woke up one morning, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, set my earplugs on the nightstand, and immediately thought, “It feels like my ear needs to pop.” The feeling was reminiscent of having recently gotten off an airplane, but it had been months since I’d flown.

I’d gone to bed late the night before, so I decided I must just be extra tired. Whatever was going on would clear itself up as I got caffeine in my system and woke up. But it didn’t. Throughout the day, there was this small niggly feeling that my ear was plugged.

The feeling was there through meetings, during a conversation with my parents, and while I ate dinner. It persisted as I got ready for bed, and that’s when I picked up my earplugs and noticed something odd. One of them was missing the very tip piece. There’s no way something that size is lodged in my ear, I thought. The piece was small but compared to my inner ear, it was sizable.

I checked in the mirror as best I could, and there was nothing I could see—at least with the angle I could get at. I poked at it a bit and couldn’t feel anything in there. I would know, I decided. If an earplug tip was stuck in my ear, I’d be in much more pain than I am. I did a quick hearing test on myself. I can hear way too well to have anything lodged in there. I convinced myself that my ear was clear of obstructions and I would feel better in the morning.

After I woke up, it still felt off. And when a coworker started talking to me in the parking lot, I had to admit that my hearing was affected to some degree. I spent the morning debating as to whether I should leave work early and head to urgent care. Maybe I was coming down with something. When I told my manager, she offered to take a look. While it was a bit awkward to have my boss looking down my ear, it beat the alternative of heading to urgent care or waiting until later that night when someone else could take a peek.  

Sure enough, there was a small, gray, rubbery earplug piece sitting right inside my ear, just deep enough that I couldn’t see it or feel it with my finger, but not so deep that my manager couldn’t carefully retrieve it with tweezers. Looking at it once it was out, I was shocked that it hadn’t caused me more pain. As my ear got used to being clear again, I realized just how much my hearing had been plugged and how much discomfort this tiny piece of rubber had actually caused.

I share this story partly because I think it’s funny that I walked around for a full day and a half with part of an ear plug in my ear, but also because this is similar to what we often do in life. We walk around with pain, discomfort, disturbances and call them normal. We ignore clear signs of what might have caused our issues and say there’s no way they’re the root of the problem. We get used to the fact that we can’t hear and tell ourselves that our senses aren’t dulled.

I know I’ve done this before. I lost myself in an unhealthy relationship and worked to convince myself I was happy. When there was pain or discomfort, I told myself it couldn’t actually be caused by my relationship. If what I suspected was true, surely I would be in more pain. Surely things would be worse.

Metaphorically speaking, I let my hearing become so plugged that I couldn’t perceive sound advice. I got so used to the pain that I didn’t think it was actually that bad. I labeled large problems as small irritants that I was destined to live with. I continually told myself, it will be better tomorrow; it will clear itself up; maybe I’m imagining things. And I went on like that for years—walking around like things were normal, all the while carrying around broken pieces that needed to be removed.

With my earplug, I needed an outsider to tell me what was really going on. In life, we often need the same thing. We need someone with a different perspective who can see things we can’t. Even if it’s awkward or uncomfortable, we need to give them the space to take a good long look at us and say, “hey, you have something lodged in your ear.”

This can happen in many different ways. For me, the first outsider to get through was a stranger on YouTube who, having never seen my relationship, had all kinds of insight that spoke directly to my experiences. Their perspective and outsider knowledge allowed me to finally admit, “Something is wrong here.”

Later, a good therapist and a close friend who could look at my life without the blockers I had, helped me identify some of the other broken pieces I was walking around with. They helped me clear out some of the things plugging my hearing and get rid of leftover fragments that were causing me harm.  

For someone who can be fiercely independent, my earplug story serves as an important reminder. A reminder of why other people matter, of why I can’t do everything on my own, of why I need outside perspectives (from trusted sources).

There is a day when I would have likely tried to deal with the plugged ear situation on my own. Out of embarrassment or hesitation to ask for help, I would have continued to ignore signs that something was wrong. I might have gone another few days, inadvertently shoved the earplug piece in further trying to get it out myself, or wasted time and money at urgent care.

Accepting help not only saved me saved me a headache (or earache), it also allowed me to recognize what was really going on much sooner than I would have otherwise. And that’s why we have people in our lives—people we can trust. People whose perspective we value and whose insight we can rely on.

I wouldn’t have trusted just anyone to inspect my ear. I know my manager has good eyesight. I know she’s and cautious and wouldn’t poke around unnecessarily. Similarly, I don’t need outside perspectives and opinions from everyone who’s offering insight. Some people have their own blockers that may skew their viewpoint on my life. Some people won’t be respectful and will poke around in areas I haven’t invited them into.

That’s why it’s important to be selective in where we get out outside opinions from. When I was in that unhealthy relationship, listening to advice from the wrong people reinforced my own misguided outlooks and allowed me to continue ignoring real pain, real problems.

If you don’t have people in your life whose opinions you respect, whose perspective you value, work to build trusted relationships. Even if it to start it’s just with a therapist (or even a trusted YouTube stranger), look for healthy people who can see things you can’t. Then, as you learn who you can trust, grant those people access to peer down your inner ear and ask them occasionally, “do I have an earplug tip down there?”

Unboxing fear

Several months ago, after a long day at work, I opened my door to pick up a DoorDash order and discovered, underneath my freshly delivered dinner, a package that had likely been sitting there for hours.

It was a sizable box, stamped with Home Depot branding. Typically, I enjoy receiving packages, but I wasn’t expecting a delivery, and I hadn’t ordered anything from Home Depot. This must have been a mistake. Perhaps the delivery person got the wrong floor in my apartment building or the wrong building altogether. It’s happened before.

But when I leaned over and took a look, it clearly had my name on it. I read it twice just to be sure, but there it was: my name, followed by my exact apartment building and number. It appeared that nothing about this was an error.

Confused, I took the package inside and stared at it. I’m sure some people would have opened it right away, but I was suspicious. Either this was shipped to me through some bizarre accident, or it was sent to me by someone who knows where I live. Before I opened it, I wanted to know where it came from.

So I jumped into sleuthing mode, examining the package for clues. Up near my address, I found a phone number that wasn’t mine. Surely this number must be associated with the order or the person who had placed it. I wasn’t familiar with the area code, so I typed it into Google. And that is when things took a turn. That’s when my overthinking kicked into full gear.

The area code was LA. In theory, I don’t know anyone in LA who would ship me anything, and the few people I do know don’t have my address. But when I saw my Google search return Los Angeles, I started to panic. I panicked because there is one person I wouldn’t be shocked to learn had moved to LA since we last spoke. A person who would have undoubtedly changed their phone number to an LA area code to ensure they looked local for business dealings. It’s a person I hadn’t talked to in nearly two years, didn’t want to receive packages from, and most importantly, didn’t want knowing where I lived.

As I recount my line of thinking now, it sounds a bit ridiculous, even to me. But as I mentioned, it had been a long day, and I was tired. When I’m tired, I’m more prone to overthink. More prone to worry. The thought of this person having my address caused a pit in my stomach that I can’t really describe. In the past two years since moving into my apartment, I’d often comforted and prided myself in the knowledge that they didn’t have my address. The idea that they would have gone to the effort to find it and then ship me something was unnerving.

I knew it sounded farfetched, but I couldn’t find a better explanation. So, I put the package out on my patio (I didn’t even want it in my house) and somehow found enough peace to be able to sleep that night.

The next day, slightly more rested, I felt a little less creeped out by the whole thing. But it was confusing and there was still the chance that my worst fears would be realized. So, one of my best friends offered to come and open the package with me.

As soon as we opened it, I started laughing. Mostly from embarrassment, but also because it was genuinely funny. Inside of the box from Home Depot was a Swiffer I’d ordered off Amazon weeks earlier. It had been backordered, and I hadn’t realized it was finally set to deliver that week. I’d never received an Amazon delivery in anything other than an Amazon box. So, instead of jumping to the logical conclusion that this must be something I ordered, I allowed my imagination to run to frightening places.

I tell this story now because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the Swiffer isn’t the only thing I’ve done this with. It’s not the only time I’ve believed something that wasn’t true or worried about a threat that wasn’t real.

If we’re honest, I think we’ve all done it at times. Things come in packages we don’t recognize. They show up at times we don’t expect them to. They leave clues that can lead us astray. A job offer takes longer than expected, a loved one responds cryptically to a message you sent, or you wake up one day with a headache that won’t’ go away.

When these things happen, we have a choice about the stories we tell ourselves. We have a choice about how we respond. We can choose to look at things through a lens of fear and worry; we can choose to focus on the worst-case scenario, or we can look for hope and seek understanding.

We can decide that the job offer is taking so long because they’ve gone in another direction. Or, we can remind ourselves that it’s also possible they’re just weeding out other candidates or deciding how much they should offer. We can tell ourselves that our loved one is pissed off and offended, or we can remind ourselves that they had a busy day and maybe didn’t have time for a longer response. We can Google our symptoms and decide our headache is a tumor, or we can recognize that it’s possible we didn’t drink enough water the day before and we might be dehydrated.

Am I saying to always look through rose-colored glasses and ignore indicators of bad news? Please don’t hear that. We need to deal with reality. When things go poorly (and at some point, they will), we need to respond accordingly. But we don’t need to decide that things have gone poorly before we actually have hard evidence and facts.

If the headache doesn’t go away, go see a doctor. If the job offer doesn’t come, follow up or move on. If the loved one continues to respond cryptically, have a real conversation and ask what’s going on. But don’t decide early on that you’re dying, doomed to be unemployed, or about to lose an important relationship. All you’re doing in that scenario is allowing the thing you’re focused on to steal your peace and joy.

That night I received the package? I didn’t enjoy my DoorDash order, and my evening was shot. I spent dinner Googling phone numbers to try to prove my crazy theory wrong. Once I moved on from that, I was still churning over in my head what could possibly be in that package and whether or not I should leave it in my house.

What would have been a better response? I could have called my friend that night and asked her to talk some sense into me. I could have admitted to myself that I overthink when I’m tired. I could have decided to just open the package. I could have reminded myself that even if this was the worst-case scenario—that it was from someone I didn’t want to hear from—I would ultimately be fine. I’m in a safe neighborhood and have a strong support system. Them learning my address would not be the end of the world. Through much worse, God has cared for and protected me.

Sometimes, we spend so much time worrying about what’s behind a door (or inside of a package) that we allow that fear to keep us from moving forward. Often, the things we imagine are worse than the reality. We think that if we have that conversation, if we open the box, we’ll find our worst nightmare staring back at us. And the truth is that we could. We could discover that the person we don’t want contact from has our address—that the delivery we’ve received is far from desirable. But more likely, when we open that box, we’ll find a Swiffer staring back at us.

Photo by Brandable Box on Unsplash

Playing games with the future

What to do when “what ifs” come knocking

The game of “What if” is one we all learn to play as children. I don’t think it’s taught to us so much as picked up, but if you spend enough time around a kid, you will inevitably hear them turning over possibilities in their heads—imagining what their life would be like, if … fill in the blank.

This game is fun when we are young because the options are endless. We focus our “what if’s” on the future—a future that is wide open and largely unhindered by negative experiences, fear of failure, or doubt in our own abilities.

What if become a teacher? An astronaut? A writer? A dolphin trainer?  What if I move to another state –or country? Maybe I’ll live on a farm and own horses. Or, I’ll discover that I have a hidden talent for singing and dancing and then, I’ll become famous!  

One of the best things about the childhood “what if” game is that it’s malleable. If I wake up tomorrow and no longer want to live on a farm with horses, all I need to do is pick a new “what if.”

I think imaginative games like this are not just part of growing up, but they are key to understanding who we are and deciding what we want to be in the world.  As kids, and even young adults, the game of “What if” helps us explore our options and chart a course for ourselves.

Then, as we get older, an interesting thing happens: Often, our games of “What if” stop being about a future full of possibility. Unknowingly, we keep playing “What If,” but instead of asking “what could happen?” we often ask, “what could have happened?” In other words, we start focusing on the past.

What if I had traveled after graduating? What if I’d had more courage in high school? Or been less afraid of failure in college? What if I hadn’t met that person whose influence negatively impacted the course of my life? What if I’d set better boundaries in my early relationships? What if I’d made different choices with money in my twenties or thirties? What COVID had never caused global shutdowns ?

Similar to the game we played as kids, the questions—the “what if” scenarios—for this adult version of a timeless game are innumerable.

Quite awhile back, I caught myself playing a game “what if” with my past. I was sitting by the window on a quiet Saturday trying to read a book, but I couldn’t focus. Instead, I kept thinking about relationships. I thought about friends and family and other acquaintances. Basically, interactions with humanity in general, and all the ways I feel I’ve really messed up the important ones.

There are a lot of “what if’s” for my mind to play with here. Both things I wish I’d done, and things I wish I’d avoided. People I wish I’d held onto and some I wish I’d let go much more quickly.

On this day though, my mind was preoccupied with one person in particular. One person who, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I can’t seem to shake from my psyche. So naturally, I started wondering, “what if?” What if things had gone differently? What if I’d been more confident; more in tune; more capable of asking the right questions? Who would I be? Would anything be different? Would my life somehow be better?

I caught myself pretty fast because this is a dangerous game. The scenarios we come up with when playing “what if” with our past are almost always hyper positive. Things go well—exactly how we would want them to—and it results in a better imagined present than the one we see in front of us when the game ends.

Here’s the other thing that makes this game dangerous: shame and regret will join you every time, and trust me, they’ll keep you playing much longer than you want to.

That said, if your past comes knocking and asks you to play this game, I’m not suggesting you ignore it entirely. There’s a reason it came knocking. It’s trying to tell you something. Even better, it’s giving you an opportunity.

For me, when I start hearing “what ifs” like the ones that came to me on that quiet Saturday, I know my subconscious is trying to process something in my present. Something that I wish were different or haven’t yet come to terms with.

To be upset with myself for decisions that I can’t change isn’t helpful. Nor is it an effective way to practice loving myself. What can be helpful though, is using what my past is telling me to play an imaginative game of “what if” with my future.

Here’s what I mean: the games of imaginative possibilities that we learned as children don’t need to stop once we’ve grown up. Rather, they can become more refined—more specific. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I don’t have an undiscovered talent for singing or dancing. And that I would hate being an astronaut. I can still entertain big, bold “what if’s” for myself, but I know enough to keep those specific ones off the table.

My past comes knocking to give me clues for what to imagine for my future. In the instance I shared here, it was telling me that I was lonely. It was reminding me of how much I’ve learned about relationships—even if I learned some of those things through failure. And it was very subtly giving me an opportunity to change things. 

It’s so subtle that if I’m not careful, I’ll miss it. I’ll focus on the past so much that it robs me of my future. I mentioned earlier that shame and regret come to play these games with us. Their goal is to keep us stuck. To keep us spiraling with thoughts of what could have been so that we never ask, “what can be?”

The truth is that no matter how old you are, you can shift your reality. You can change whatever is left of your future. It starts with imagination. If we want something different for our lives, we first need to be able and willing to imagine it—very much like we did when we were five, eight, ten-years old, just a little more refined and specific to who we know we are*.

Since that Saturday quite awhile back, I’ve working to pursue new friendships. And because I’ve learned things about myself in past 30 plus years, I’m able to take an approach that makes sense for who I am. Even more, I’m able to draw from my past and better define what I want my relationships to be—and what I want them not to be.

In relationships, and several other areas, I’m using my imagination to ask, “what if?” And I’m using those “what if’s” to build something new. I’m listening to the past as it comes knocking. I’m looking at the friendship that my psyche can’t shake in order to ask what was so good about it—to imagine myself building something with those good qualities again, while refining what went wrong to not repeat the same mistakes.

It sounds simple in writing and yet, I think we often forget. We forget that our past is here to teach us, and that regret can become an ally.

If you’re having hard time with this idea; if it’s difficult to imagine any future at all or you feel like your imagination is dead, please read the note below about survival mode. It’s important that we are kind and patient with ourselves in this process.

To all of us: As we enter a new year, may we not be too old to ask ourselves, “what if?” And may we begin to define our dreams and then work to see them become reality.

*Keep in mind that understanding our limitations does not mean that we stop dreaming big dreams. Often, what we call limitations are really things we’ve self-imposed out of fear or things that have been projected onto us by the limiting beliefs of others. When playing games of “What If,” it’s important to understand the difference between real and perceived limitations.

Survival mode

For reasons I won’t go into here, I spent the better part of the past decade in survival mode, sometimes only capable of taking life literally one minute at a time. And here’s the thing about survival mode: It can diminish our capacity to look at the future, and sometimes, even the past. When we are in survival mode, we can often only focus on the present, and questions of “what if” are replaced by “how?”

How will I get through today? How can I avoid a breakdown? How should I respond if X happens? How can I minimize the impact of Y? (Insert your own “how” here; survival questions are usually very personal and specific.)

Because I spent so long in survival mode, I wanted to share something with anyone reading this who may be there right now, for any reason: Be kind to yourself. If you can’t look past today, it’s okay. It if was work just to get up and believe you’d make through today, it’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s right where you need to be.

You are making progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it. If the idea of imagining a better future feels out of reach, or it seems like your imagination has completely dried up, please hear me when I say that survival takes imagination. You’re using it everyday. If you’re surviving, then for today, your imaginative energy was focused right where it needed to be. It might sound cheesy, but I’d encourage you to look in the mirror at the end of each day and thank yourself for this. Thank yourself for getting through the day; thank your imagination for showing up for you in exactly the places you needed it to.

And if you can find even one small, positive, future-focused “what if” that’s in reach, grab it and hold on tight. Even if it feels tiny or insignificant, it’s those little “what if’s,” those small promises, that can help you bust—or even crawl—out of survival mode.

Also, I would encourage you to not focus on the past right now. While we can learn from our past, and it is there to helps us, I believe that looking at it while we are in survival mode should only be done with a therapist or healthy support system. Shame and regret love survival mode and they’d love to keep you stuck there.

You won’t be in survival mode forever. The fact that you’ve read this far, demonstrates that you’ve a desire for more. That alone may be your “what if” to hold onto.

If you want to talk with someone whose been in survival mode—someone who thought they’d be there forever, please feel free to message me. I haven’t figured it all out by any means. Some days still, it’s all I can do to avoid a breakdown. If I have learned one thing though, it’s that we shouldn’t do this alone. So, if you need someone to listen, I’m here. Know I‘m rooting for you and there’s someone in your corner. 

   Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Getting new sneakers

When uncomfortable emotions throw off your stride

My therapist loves to drop witty little statements that, taken out of context, would probably make listeners think she’s horrible at her job. Recently, I got hit with this one: “You’re the healthiest basket case I’ve seen all week.”

If you’ve never gone to therapy, don’t let this scare you away. Most therapists don’t call patients a basket case. At least not to their face. But I’d kind of asked for this. I was the one who brought up the term “basket case.” She’d complimented me on managing my emotions well, and I couldn’t let her end our session thinking I was more together than I felt.

Here’s what’s interesting though: we were both right. It’s a little paradoxical, but as we unpacked it, I realized that the reason I felt like a basket case was actually because I’m getting healthier. And right now, that’s foreign and uncomfortable.

If you’ve ever had a worn-down but well-loved pair of sneakers, you might know what I’m talking about. Those puppies are formed to your feet, and your feet are formed to them. They’ve gone everywhere and been through all kinds of things with you. They’ve probably even protected you from potential injuries. They’re comfortable. But being so worn down, they’re also not great for your body. Maybe your feet are wrapped in comfort, but your back hurts or your arches are flattening. The comfortable shoes are taking a toll.

The same is true with emotions. If we spend enough time with an emotion, it will form to us and us to it. Even if it’s a less than desirable emotion, it will become not just familiar, but comfortable. It will sit with us in our hardest seasons and maybe even serve to protect us. But that doesn’t mean we should let it stay. Just because it helped us for a season, doesn’t mean it needs to stick around forever. Emotions like anger, fear, and sadness can serve us, but if we wear them past their expiration date, they’ll start to wreak havoc on our body.

Now, if you’ve had that well-worn pair of sneakers and finally replaced them with new shoes, complete with arch support and all kinds of fancy features to protect your back, how did it feel when you slipped them on? Not so great? Did they feel too big or too tight? Did you worry they’d throw off your stride and cause you to trip? They’re better for you though, right? Shouldn’t they feel amazing?

That’s what was happening to me when I met with my therapist that day. Metaphorically speaking, I was trying on my new shoes. And it felt off.

I’ve spent years befriending emotions like loneliness, fear, worry, and anger. They weren’t upbeat or comforting emotions, but they were comfortable. I knew what to expect from them. I knew how to respond to them. Honestly, we’d been through a lot together and they’d protected me. They’d served to wrap me in comfort while I ran through mud and stumbled over rocks.  

But as I get healthier, I’m experiencing new emotions. And it’s good, but like the new pair of shoes, it’s not comfortable. I don’t know what to do with the feeling of being connected to people. I’m not sure where to put excitement or how to handle hope. These emotions feel too big for me. Or maybe too suffocating. I’m afraid they’re going to cause me to trip and fall.

I don’t know how to respond to these feelings, but I’m determined to learn. Just like a new pair of sneakers, I’m putting them on and taking them for a walk around the block. It might be awkward. I might limp for awhile, but I’m convinced that someday, they’ll start to feel more natural on my feet.

I share this because I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s limping along, trying to get used to new emotions. Maybe you’re readjusting to social interaction after a year of quarantine. Maybe you’re opening yourself up to new relationships after facing a series of rejections. Maybe you’re finding yourself laughing after a season of mourning. The discomfort these things bring can be scary. It can make us feel like we’re off course. Like maybe we’re taking the wrong actions instead of the right ones.

Discomfort, however, is not always bad. Sometimes, it signals growth. Sometimes the fact that you feel like a basket case actually means you’re taking the right actions. You’re leaning in when you want to run away. You’re sticking with the arch-support sneakers when the worn-out ones are calling to you from the corner of the closet.

If you’re still wearing your old sneakers, that’s okay too. Don’t force yourself to get rid of them before you’re ready. There are some emotions that we have to walk all the way through. That we have to sit with for awhile in order to process and recover.

Just don’t forget that there’s a whole shoe store out there filled with new emotions for you to try on. Maybe walk the isles and window shop. Try to picture yourself in the new kicks. If you put yourself around it enough, maybe one day you’ll start to feel like a basket case and realize you’re actually getting healthy.  

Photo by Jia Ye on Unsplash

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