An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Tag: growth

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?”

Breaking babies and organizing chaos

A conversation about the ways we surprise ourselves when we chose to try

I once told my coworkers that our job reminds me of working infant room a daycare. They laughed when I said this, but it’s true. When I worked infant room just out of high school, you were legally allowed to be with four babies by yourself.

Four babies is a lot of babies for one person. But it’s doable. The way you manage is to get everyone on a schedule—to plan out the day. Baby A eats at this time and then will be content to play while Baby B eats. About the time Baby B finishes eating, Baby C will be waking up from their nap, and so on. You get everyone on a schedule, you have a rough idea for how the day should go, and then, you’re dealing with babies so really, anything can happen. Someone won’t eat, and someone won’t sleep, and someone else decides to cry all day for no reason. It’s chaos but, because you started with a schedule, it’s organized.  

Well over 15 years since graduating high school, that’s still my job: managing organized chaos. I have a calendar, I make plans, I block off time for important tasks. And then, anything can happen. New meetings get scheduled last minute. Important meetings that need to take place get cancelled. Urgent Teams messages interrupt focused work. The project that was priority yesterday gets superseded by something else today. And hopefully, that schedule, that plan, I had at the start of the day helps keep the chaos somewhat organized.

I loved working infant room, and I love my job now. I enjoy the fact that unexpected things come my way. It gives me an opportunity to troubleshoot. To problem solve. It lets me try new challenges and build my resume. It gives me an opportunity to prove—both to myself and those around me—what I’m actually capable of.   

And what I’ve learned, really in all the jobs I’ve had, is that I’m capable of much more than I imagined. Much more than even the people around me believed I was capable of.

When I first started infant room, I didn’t want to do it. I’d done toddlers and preschoolers for years, but I was scared of babies. I thought I would break them. I’d had experiences where I couldn’t get a crying baby to stop, and I thought that would be all day in infant room. But when the opportunity arose, I did it anyway. I told myself I could do it, even though part of me didn’t believe it. I told myself I’d learn how to get a crying baby to stop, and I’d figure out how not to break them. And guess what? That’s exactly what happened.

I did a similar thing when I began my career and didn’t think that I had the capability of writing anything shorter than a 10-page essay. I took the skills I had and figured out how to apply them to write short articles and other copy.

When I started with my current company, they told me I’d need to hit the ground running and learn fast. The work they needed done was different from what I’d been doing for over six years. But I told myself I could do it. I committed to trying my hardest, applying the strengths I already knew I had, and learning everything I could. And here I am several years later, managing organized chaos for that team.   

Why am I sharing this? Maybe I’m sharing it because I needed to hear it. Right now, I have a whole new set of challenges at work. I’ve been handed new responsibilities, and I’m scared I might break a baby (metaphorically speaking, of course).  

I think I’m also sharing it because other people need to hear it too. Many of us have opportunities in front of us that look bigger than we can handle. And we all have more inside of us than we give ourselves credit for. We’re capable of things we won’t be aware of until we try. Those things we’re afraid of or tell ourselves we don’t have the capacity to accomplish, might just be our metaphorical infant room.

As we step into those things, we’ll realize we can rise to the occasion. We’ll discover things we love that maybe we didn’t even expect we’d like. And we’ll start to see how the things we’ve done in the past prepared us for where we are today—how they gave us skills and knowledge that we didn’t realize could be transferable. I never would have thought that feeding and rocking babies at 19 would prepare me to lead a team at 36. Yet here I am, applying some of those organization and management skills I learned to keep programs moving and help those who report to me be successful in their jobs.

The other reason I’m sharing this is because it doesn’t just apply to work situations—or even tangible skills and tasks. It applies to our interpersonal lives and mental health as well. In my personal life, just like my work life, I’ve done things that have surprised me. Things I didn’t think I was capable of. Setting boundaries, building healthy relationships, healing from intense trauma, finding good things and quality people I want to invest my time and energy in. If you’d asked me five years ago (even three years ago) if I could be where I’m at today, I would have told you there was no way. The person I see when I look in the mirror today isn’t one I even had the capacity to dream of back then.

Yet, I’m here. I’m here because I took steps to change and heal, even when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. I found a way to cut out toxic people when it felt nearly impossible. I sought out others who could relate to my experiences and learned from what they’d done to heal. When I didn’t have a roadmap for what to do, I went back to therapy and chose to be honest in ways I’d previously avoided. When I was afraid of the outcomes, I had hard conversations anyway.

Just like when I started working infant room or jumped into my current job, I didn’t let the fear, doubt, or naysayers stop me. I chose to believe I could do it. I drew on past experiences and realized there were things inside me that I wasn’t aware of.

You might not think this is true for you and your circumstances. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t’ have either. But the process of growth—personally or professionally—isn’t about knowing. It’s about trying. It’s about taking a step tomorrow that’s different than the one you took today. It’s about picking up the crying baby even if you have no idea what you’ll do to get them to stop.

You likely won’t see transformation overnight. Growth, I believe, is about time and process. And sometimes, it’s also like working infant room. You can put together a plan and establish a timeline. You can set a framework for how things should go and when you want to accomplish certain milestones. But it is life, so anything can happen. Circumstances and events you didn’t foresee will pop up. Factors out of your control will impact your progress. Some things will simply take longer than expected

And that’s okay. Be patient with yourself. It may feel chaotic, but ultimately, you’ll have that plan to fall back on. And if the baby won’t shut up, remember that sometimes, they cry all day for no reason. Your only job is to keep the chaos somewhat organized.

Shaking your fist at the sky

Responding to loss and disappointment without channeling your inner 2-year-old

When I turned 2, I received a shiny red trike for my birthday. As if the trike wasn’t an exciting enough gift for a small child, mine came with a giant mylar balloon of Bozo the Clown tied to it. I don’t know why Bozo, but it could have been of anything and I would have been just as thrilled. That balloon was bigger than my head. It was bright and colorful, and I had probably never been given—let alone seen—anything like it before. 

Now, imagine my little dimpled, curly headed face overwhelmed with birthday pleasure. Thrilled at the thought of her first trike, sure, but even more than that, enthralled by the giant clown face whose smile was bigger than hers. 

Barely old enough to know what a birthday is, I’m sure I was hyped up on some sort of sugar and the excitement of having so much attention directed at me. Even though it was August, it was gray and cloudy out, but clouds weren’t going to stop me from trying out my sporty new trike. So, we wheeled that baby out to the backyard, Bozo balloon and all. 

And that’s where it happened. The details are sketchy—it was 30 some years ago after all. I’m not really sure how long we were outside or what exactly happened to compromise the safety of my Bozo balloon. All I know is that one second, Bozo was chillin’, suspended above my new handlebars, and the next second, he was headed for the clouds, that big smile of his almost making it look as if he was laughing as he went. 

And I lost it. Maybe when you’re 3 you can handle these things with a little more grace and dignity, but at 2, the only thing you know is to let your pain and disappointment wash over you in a flood of tears. 

So that’s what I did. I cried. I cried for Bozo. Really, I cried for myself. For the loss of something that was mine for such a short, sweet amount of time. For the fact that an injustice had been done to me, on my birthday of all days. I don’t know how long the crying went on, but I can picture myself, 30 pounds of frustrated energy, shaking her tiny fist at the sky as tears run down her face. 

And it wasn’t the last time I would take that stance. Since then, life has taken a lot of Bozo balloons from me. It’s snatched up all kinds of stuff that I liked. Stuff that I thought I deserved. Stuff that brought me happiness. Stuff that I wanted to keep suspended above my life, if only just to look at and enjoy. 

I’d like to say that I’ve handled each loss better than that disappointment on my second birthday. But I’d be lying to say that I haven’t thrown tantrums, screamed, asked why, and gotten angry. I’m not 2 anymore, and my emotional intelligence has gotten stronger, but so have the blows that life has dealt me. 

When I look at life, including loss, disappointment, and my reactions, I’m reminded of my second birthday for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason is that I don’t remember this birthday as the birthday where I received my first trike. Instead, I remember it as the birthday when I lost my Bozo balloon. If my mom called me today and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking through old pictures. Remember your second birthday when we got you a trike?” I’m certain my automatic reply would be, “You mean the birthday when my balloon floated away?”

The loss, injustice, and pain are the main thing I remember. All the excitement of a 2-year-old birthday celebration and the ensuing moments of fun and enjoyment with a new trike, and I choose to remember the few seconds I spent crying over a balloon. 

I do that in life too. I look at the things I’ve lost and re-frame stories based on what was taken from me or how I was hurt. It’s easy to do this. When life deals us true injustices, it’s natural and sometimes even necessary to look at what we’ve lost—to grieve the things that were taken from us.

The question is, how long will we stare up at the place in the sky where something just floated away? When we’re looking up at a fading dot among the clouds, it’s hard to see the trike sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for us to ride it. 

The second reason this birthday reminds me of life is that my memories of it are formed by stories and pictures shown to me by others. I know I recounted this story in seemingly vivid detail, but in full disclosure, I don’t actually remember it. After all, I was 2 when it happened.

But the story has been recounted to me many times since. I’ve seen pictures of the Bozo balloon and of myself, smiling and testing out my trike before the fateful moment came. 

My parents have told me all about my disappointment and the pain they felt watching a 2-year-old “suffer” on her birthday. And I’ve taken on that pain with them. Even when I was 10 and 13 and they would tell me this story, I would frown and say, “I feel so bad for my poor 2-year-old self.” And that became the narrative of my second birthday. 

I let the stories and memories of others inform my own. And my second birthday isn’t the only time I’ve done that. At times, I’ve rehearsed the negative in my life. I’ve listened to the narratives of others who validate a victim mentality, who say it’s justified to feel bad for myself when I’ve lost something—or had something taken from me.

It’s easy to listen to those voices. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we do have legitimate reasons to be sad—or even to feel bad for ourselves. Sometimes it’s validating to hear someone else say, “It sucks that your balloon floated away on your birthday.”

I’ve had therapy sessions where that’s basically the conversation. Me saying, “This sucks, and I don’t like it,” and my therapist agreeing: “You’re right, it does.”

She’ll let me sit there if I need to, but she won’t let me stay there. That’s why I keep going back to her. She doesn’t spend her time telling me how messed up my life is or how bad I have it. She spends it helping find new ways to look at the things I’ve experienced. Gifts I’ve been given. Moments of joy. Things I can change.

I have a few round-table friends who do this too. And those are the friends I want in my life. The ones who will not just sit with me and cry, but also remind me that I’ve been given a new trike to ride. The ones who help me find fresh narratives, rather than just validating a “poor you,” mindset.

If we want the “poor you” mindset validated, we can always find those voices. There are plenty of people who would be willing to tell us how bad we have it. But if I listen only to the voices of those telling me what a raw deal I got, I’m allowing myself to become a victim. By agreeing with them, I freeze myself as a 2-year-old shaking her fist at the sky, staring at the space where the balloon just disappeared, while there’s a shiny red trike just waiting for me to hop on. 

It’s natural to be angry, and upset, and frustrated when we lose something. It’s normal to feel violated when something it taken from us. Those are feelings we need to acknowledge and find healthy ways to express. Once we’ve done so, the question becomes: Will I allow that anger and violation to define my perspective? Will I listen to those who tell me I have a right to be a victim, or will I choose to be intentional about how I respond?

Will I surround myself with people who acknowledge the reality of my pain without letting me wallow in it? Will I chose to ride the bike, even if it reminds me of the balloon that was taken away?

I get that it’s not easy. Trust me. I have nearly daily reminders of reasons I could choose to be angry—reasons I could cry and shake my fist at the sky. In the time I’ve spent doing that, I’ve learned that focusing on my pain only breeds more pain. However, when I’ve chosen to look away from the pain, I’ve learned that there’s always something better to focus on, even in the midst of legitimate suffering.

I hope I’ve made it clear by now that I’m not saying to ignore pain in some sort of Pollyanna move where you pretend that everything is good when you’re hurting inside. I’ve done that too, and while that’s a topic for another day, I’ll say here that this is not beneficial either. 

What I am talking about is acknowledging your pain and then choosing not to give it attention or power. I’m talking about letting yourself have a good cry and then looking away from the sky and down at the trike. I’m talking about finding a new perspective or something good you can focus on when life, or people, or simple memories send reminders of injustices.

It’s not a one-time thing. Like I said, it’s sometimes a daily choice for me to not shake my fist at the sky. But the more I surround myself with people who help me focus on what’s good, the less I want to stare up at the balloon getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.  

Jerking the Steering Wheel

On occasion, I hang up from my weekly Zoom call with my therapist and wonder if I’m her most annoying patient. Some days I’ve analyzed myself so much before our session event starts that it probably feels like I’m trying to do her job for her. Other days, I’ve been running so fast I that I’ve fallen out of sync with myself, barely know what I’m feeling, and have a million different things racing through my head. On those days, I basically just throw up all over her.

Recently, we had one of those days. I was out of sync, and what came out in therapy was a list of things I’m frustrated about, including, “It feels like I’m going to be stuck here forever.” Like any good therapist, she promptly asked me why it felt that way.

I’ve stayed stuck before. I’ve put up with situations and relationships that weren’t good for me. I’ve hesitated to have hard conversations because I don’t know what will happen when they’re over. I get used to the status quo and then don’t question it. Even when we’re not fully satisfied with our lives, there’s something about familiarity that’s comforting.

In the past, I’ve also let fear control my decisions, and it’s cost me time. I don’t want to lose more. “It feels like if I don’t jerk the steering wheel, I’m going to be driving down this same road forever,” I told her.  

Funny thing is, I’m finally on road I’m happy with. Not that long ago, I was careening down a road lined with one nightmare after the other, seemingly headed toward the forest of no return. It’s a long story that I won’t go into now, but I got off that road.

And now, I’m puttering down a road of recovery. Like I said, it’s a good road, and I’m happy here. I’m making friends, building perspective, and letting go of things that were holding me back. I’m gaining things as I travel down this road, and the nightmares that are now in my rearview mirror remind me how much I have to be grateful for. But did I mention, I’m puttering? Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

Cue me telling my therapist that I worry if I don’t’ jerk the steering wheel, this road will be the rest of my life. Ten years from now I’ll still be “working toward” fixing relationships or “finding” the courage to tell my story. Or worse, I’ll be realizing that it’s too late to have hard conversations because the people I need to talk to aren’t around anymore.

I’ve only been seeing my therapist for a few months, but that’s long enough for her to have learned that I’m impatient—at least with myself (honestly, she probably had that one nailed in our first two sessions). I’ll give you all the grace and patience you need, but when it comes to looking in the mirror, I expect myself to have things figured out, fixed, and accomplished yesterday, or more likely, months ago. The fact that I’ve been on this road for longer than a month must clearly mean that I’m not doing enough.

It sounds silly when I spell it all out like this, but that’s the benefit of hindsight. In my throw-up-my-frustrations therapy session, my fear of going too slowly or of being stuck here forever felt very real. And somedays, even with perspective, it still does. On those days, I remember what my therapist told me: “Small adjustments to the steering wheel still move the car.”

I knew when I said it that jerking the steering wheel would cause a crash. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve actually picked up the debris caused by others jerking the wheel in their lives. I’ve been collateral damage in their crashes. But to someone who feels like they need to take action, to fix things, to figure it all out, small movements don’t feel like enough.  

So, I’m learning to be patient with the process. When I feel like I haven’t done enough, I remind myself of all the “little” things I’m discounting. Going back to therapy. Connecting with women from church, even though I originally didn’t want to. Ending my involvement with toxic people. Writing, if even in limited amounts, about my experiences. Identifying my weaknesses and recognizing when they’re driving my decisions or dictating my emotional state.

To me, these feel like small things. But my therapist is right*. They’re changing the trajectory of my life. I’m becoming a different person—it’s just not happening overnight. Because it’s not supposed to.

So, wherever you’re at in your life, I invite you to join me in being patient with the process. Extend to yourself the same patience and grace that you would a child or good friend. When you look in the mirror and are tempted to criticize yourself for not having done enough fast enough, consider the things you have done. Write them on your mirror if you need to so you’ll see them every day.

Even if it’s one thing, that one thing can lead to movement. And for where you’re at right now, one thing may be enough. No one is keeping score. You’re not on anyone’s clock but your own. Just keep puttering on down the road, make small adjustments when you need, and whatever you do, don’t jerk the freakin’ steering wheel.

*My therapist told me that when I eventually write a book, she wants a commission. For now, thank you will have to do: Thank you S.B.

Photo by emrecan arık on Unsplash

  1. Thank you Jessie, makes me think what defines us. Sometimes we get stuck in pain. Very encouraging blog.

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