An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Tag: recovery

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?”

The year we misunderstood narcissism

A conversation about acknowledging the real meaning behind the labels we use  

Recently, Politico published an opinion piece titled, 2022 is The Year We All Finally Got Tired of Narcissists*, and I had to read it because I too, have opinions on this topic.

Narcissism is a topic I’ve studied a bit over the past few years, and I think the term “narcissist” is one that is often misunderstood and overused. I get frustrated when I see it thrown around flippantly because calling anyone who has a shred of arrogance a narcissist minimizes what is a real and truly harmful mental disorder.

One thing the Politico article does well is to acknowledge that Narcissism is a spectrum and that we can all have narcissistic tendencies to varying degrees. It’s something I’ve believed for years but rarely heard talked about.

The other thing the article acknowledges is that narcissism can be a clinical diagnosis. And that’s where I deviate slightly from the author. I believe that the label of narcissist not just can, but should, be a clinical diagnosis. In other words, we need to leave the official label to professionals and stop throwing it around like we actually know what we’re talking about.

Since I’m not a therapist or psychologist, it’s not my place to diagnose someone with depression, bipolar, or any other form of mental disorder. So why would I think it’s okay for me to label someone as a narcissist?

Once we’ve studied the actual traits and behaviors associated with narcissism, I do believe that it’s okay for us to say someone is high on the narcissistic spectrum. In fact, it’s not just okay. It’s important. It’s important because narcissism is much more than suggested in the Politico article. It doesn’t just affect celebrities and high-profile figures, and it’s much more complex than wanting attention.

Being able to spot narcissistic traits is not about writing off people we don’t like or finding an excuse to label others as bad. Honestly, it’s about protecting ourselves and using wisdom when we engage with others.

And that’s where I disagree with the Politico author a bit more. I get that this is a short opinion piece, and they can’t cover everything, but I think they’ve left out some important aspects of the conversation.  

The article talks about the narcissist’s constant quest for eyeballs and acclaim, and it points to examples like Harry and Megan, Elon Musk, and Ye. Are these people narcissist? Maybe. Again, it’s not my place to diagnose. Several of the people listed in the article are certainly high on the spectrum. There’s a reason their names are brought up in the conversation.

What bothers me is that the article seems to focus primarily on a desire for attention and public recognition, as if only those who thrust themselves into the spotlight can be narcissists. There’s also an implication here that the reason we’ve gotten sick of them is because we’re tired of the spectacle these people make in the media.

Take for example, this quote: “For the worst of it, see Ye, whose perennial need for attention has evolved from outbursts at awards shows to wearing ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirts and making antisemitic comments on podcasts.” What Ye did was undoubtedly inexcusable, but to call that the “worst of it” and then hold up Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried as simple “cautionary tales” is to misunderstand the true danger of narcissism.

The true danger of narcissism, in my personal experience, is not simply the self-grandiose thinking and need for attention that could lead someone to make harmful and abusive statements (thought that’s part of it). The true danger is the ability and willingness to lie, manipulate, gaslight, and deceive. That’s what we see with Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried.

Again, I’m not here to call them narcissists, but since the Politico article brought them into the conversation, I will agree that that they exhibit narcissistic traits. In my opinion, they exhibit some of the most dangerous narcissistic traits in their ability to deceive and manipulate on a grand scale and still not fully recognize or acknowledge what they did wrong.

The article also uses a great deal of real estate to talk about Harry and Megan, and it’s clear the author is bothered by the way they seek the spotlight. I’ll be honest that I don’t follow them enough to have a strong, educated opinion, but I was surprised to see them on this list. With some people who are in the spotlight, I believe there is more going on than what we see.

Seeking (and seemingly loving attention) might place someone on the spectrum, but it doesn’t necessarily make them a narcissist. For Harry and Megan, capturing their private moments or asking for millions of dollars for a book deal could be simple business savvy, as opposed to narcissism. Not to mention, Harry was born into the spotlight. While he’s left the royal family, there is a degree to which the spotlight will always chase him. The things he and Megan are doing could simply be an attempt to ensure the spotlight thrust on their family is as accurate as possible.

I mention this because it’s another reminder that we must be careful when and how we use the term. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge not everyone who seeks the public eye is a full-blown narcissist. Similarly, not all narcissists are in the public eye.

That last piece is critical for us to acknowledge. While we’ve seen the damage that can be done by individuals like Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried, what we really need to look out for is people in our personal sphere who exhibit strong narcissistic tendencies.  

That sentence may sound ominous or fearmongering. That’s not my goal. My goal is that we acknowledge the fact that narcissism is a spectrum, and we could come across people in our personal lives who are high on that spectrum. At best, those people will be annoying and obnoxious. At worst, they’ll be manipulative, deceptive, and ultimately, dangerous.

That’s why this conversation is important. Having this conversation can help us protect ourselves and our children. It can help us spot individuals in our families, workplaces, and social circles with whom we might need to set boundaries (or possibly disengage completely).  

But first, we must understand what narcissism looks like. Again, the “narcissistic” label should never be used simply to write off people we don’t like or would rather not deal with. While I’ve studied narcissism for personal reasons, I am by no means an expert, so I’m not going to attempt to cover the characteristics in detail here today. Instead, I’d rather point you to a few of the professionals whose knowledge I found helpful.

If you truly want to understand what narcissism looks like, I’d encourage you to take a peek at these or similar resources that unpack how these traits actually play out. Simply Googling something like “top 10 traits of narcissists” will get you a nice, tidy list that barely scratches the surface. While moderately helpful, these lists miss some of the manipulative techniques used by those who are high on the spectrum and, in my experience, can lead us to think people we’re engaging with couldn’t actually be narcissistic.  

I think it’s important to include a note that we must always remember grace in these conversations, because none of us are perfect. If our goal in labeling someone narcissistic is anything other than calling a spade a spade and protecting ourselves and our loved ones, then we need to check our motives.

There is grace for even the clinically diagnosed narcissist who has caused personal or large-scale harm. But extending grace does not mean that we don’t set boundaries. It doesn’t mean that we don’t protect ourselves. (For more on that topic, read this 2021 post, Using Someone Else’s Shower.) I will always champion and encourage healthy boundaries and self-protection. Recognizing narcissistic traits can help us identify when we need to set those boundaries and understand the best ways to protect ourselves.

*If you’re curious, here is the Politico article. Read it with a grain of salt. It’s not wrong, but it is an opinion piece that, in my estimation, misses important parts of the conversation and attempts to diminish narcissism to a simple desire for attention and fame.

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

Using someone else’s shower

Earlier this year, I got kicked out of my own shower. It started when a minor leak was discovered in the half-wall between my shower and bathtub. To fix it, the maintenance crew needed to get into the wall. This meant not only tearing apart my shower, but leaving it torn apart for what ended up being two weeks so everything could dry out.

“That’s a long time without a shower,” I told them. I get that not having a shower for a short period of time is a first world problem. That said, hygiene matters, even when you live alone, and washing this much hair in the sink for too long might drive me to shave it all off.

Lucky, for the sake of my own nose and anyone who would have to look at my bald head, they kindly gave me access to a vacant apartment one floor above me so I could use the shower. “It’s one of my favorite units. You’re going to want to move in there,” the maintenance guy told me.

And when I accessed it, I could see what he meant. I don’t want to move, and I don’t need two bedrooms, but it was a nice unit. The two weeks I spent showering there, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd it was to have basically a whole house, with two showers, and two bedrooms, and a fridge, and a stove, and laundry, all just sitting there unused. It was completely ready for people to move in, yet other than when I was showering, it just sat there.

It might seem like an odd place for a mind to leap to, but it got me thinking about the unused rooms in our lives—in our minds, our emotions. As humans, we all own real estate that can be shared with, rented out to, or even squatted in by others. Basically, your life is like an apartment, and anyone who comes in contact with you is visiting.

I think that’s part of the appeal of friendship—we get to share our rooms. When other people come into our real estate, it feels less empty. In much the same way that my presence gave some meaning and purpose to that shower for two weeks, people can bring meaning and purpose to the otherwise empty and unused rooms of our lives.

Once we’ve started to think of our life as an apartment with rooms, and space, and showers, and kitchens to share, the question then becomes, who gets access to that space?

Some people may not make it past the welcome mat—they’ll just talk to you through the peephole or say hi while you stand there with the door barely cracked. Others get into the entryway or maybe make their way into the kitchen for drinks. Then, there are some who get into your more private rooms. They get to see what you keep on the desk in your office, which pictures you have framed above your bed, and whether you hang your toilet paper roll over or under.  

The question of who gets what access is, I believe, one of the most important and challenging questions of relationships. How do we know if we should open the front door for someone? When is it okay to invite them to use our shower? What do we do if we discover they’re squatting in our space?

I think that the experience I had when I got “kicked out” of my shower can provide some insight. First, the maintenance folks at my complex aren’t giving out apartment keys to just anyone. They gave me access to a vacant unit because they knew they could trust me. I’ve been vetted. Before I rented an apartment here, the management company checked me out. Since I started renting from them, I’ve paid on time. I haven’t caused a disturbance. I’ve taken care of my unit.

They knew they could trust me with a unit that’s not mine because I’ve demonstrated trustworthiness. I didn’t just walk in off the street and demand that they give me access to a shower.

The same should be true in our lives. We don’t want to open the front door for just anyone. And even once we’ve let someone inside for a drink, that doesn’t mean we need to invite them to use our shower or hang out in our bedroom.

The idea might sound a bit outrageous when we talk about it in those terms, but it happens. Sometimes, people come in and demand access to our personal, private rooms without first taking the time to build trust. And sometimes, we give away that access without properly vetting them.

I know I’ve done it. And I think that sometimes, in certain circles, we feel like it’s not okay to vet people. We think that because they’re a leader, or a colleague, or a fellow Christian, or even a family member, we should trust them right away. Maybe we see other people trusting them and we feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t join in.

But here’s the secret that can save us a lot of trouble: It is always okay to ask people to first earn our trust. It’s okay to keep them outside of our front door or drinking water in our kitchen until they’ve proven that they can respect that boundary*. It’s okay to say, “you can’t use my shower” or, “I don’t want you looking in that drawer” without explaining or excusing our decision.

And it’s also okay to not invite them in at all, ever. Some people you just say hello to at the mailbox or chat with in the office breakroom (whenever those open back up). You don’t invite them over for coffee. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad Christian. It makes you a person with boundaries.

While we’re on that topic, let’s talk a little bit about boundaries. The people who deserve to be in our metaphorical apartments are the ones who respect our boundaries.

When I used the apartment upstairs, I had access to all the rooms. Technically speaking, I could have cooked a meal in the kitchen or thrown a party in the living room. But I only used the shower. That was it. That is what I’d been invited there for. To do anything more would have been to take advantage of the access I’d been granted.

This is something for us to watch for with the people in our lives. If you invite someone in for coffee and find them in your closet, trying on your clothes, they aren’t respecting your invitation. They’re demonstrating that they likely don’t deserve the access you’ve granted them.

Honestly, I feel like I’m the last person who has a right to be talking about boundaries. In the past, I’ve failed to set them, failed to enforce them, and watched other people dance all over parts of my metaphorical apartment I didn’t want them in. While I can’t say that I have boundaries figured out yet, the mistakes I’ve made have taught me a few things.

Here’s what I know: First, some boundaries should go without saying. When I used the shower upstairs, no one had to tell me not to throw a party in the unit or track mud through the freshly cleaned carpet. If I’d done these things, the management company would have had every right to take action—and I’m sure they would be less likely to trust me with another unit should I need it again in the future.

In our lives, with our metaphorical apartments, there are similar boundaries—those that we don’t state out lout to every person we meet but we can still expect them to uphold. Things like, “respect my personal space” or, “don’t lie to me.”

But here’s the other thing I’ve learned: Sometimes, for some people, those boundaries that should go without saying need to be said. There are people who have to be told not to throw a party in the vacant apartment. People who are just so oblivious that they don’t even realize they’ve brought in mud on the bottom of their shoes.

I think (and hope) that identifying those people gets easier the more in tune we become with our own boundaries and the more we value our real estate.

Sometimes, I’ve let people squat in my “apartment” because I didn’t actually believe it was valuable enough to protect—or because I was convinced that anyone who could pass a rigid screening process wouldn’t want to spend time there. Other times, I’ve let people in simply because I placed more value on their needs than my own. They needed to use a shower or take a nap, and I wasn’t in tune enough with my own boundaries to say, “I don’t want you doing that in my space.”

All this takes time and practice, but ultimately, I think one of the keys is knowing our boundaries up front. If you’re going to let someone into your apartment, it’s important you know what rooms they’ve been invited to, what they’re there for, and how long you want them to stay. This makes it easier to recognize when one of your boundaries have been violated.

And what do you do if it has? This is one of the places where I’m still learning. Sometimes, boundary violations are so subtle that I don’t recognize them until after the fact. Until it feels too late.

One thing I do have resolve on though, is that people who consistently violate boundaries don’t belong in our real estate. If someone keeps tracking mud in your apartment even after you’ve asked them not to, you might want to consider not inviting them back—or even kicking them out if that’s what it takes.

As soon as my shower was fixed, I stopped using the apartment upstairs. I made sure the shower looked clean and turned the access back over. If I’d kept acting like I had a right to be there, the management company would have needed to take action.

If you’re like me and sometimes struggle with setting boundaries, perhaps it will help to think about your life like an apartment and yourself as the management company. You have not just a right, but a responsibility, to decide who comes in. To vet those who will be in your space. To ensure they earn—and keep—your trust. To require they show you respect.

What’s more, and what I don’t think is said enough, is that you have the right to say no. You have the right to decide that someone won’t get past your front porch—or your mailbox. Just because someone desperately needs a shower, doesn’t mean they have to use yours.

*One quick note about what this isn’t saying: This isn’t saying that it’s okay to keep everyone outside the front door forever, though I definitely understand the desire to do so and the fear of letting anyone get close. But taking time to build trust isn’t an excuse to never let anyone in. It’s a longer conversation we can have another day, but we do need people who we trust, and we’ll benefit from the vulnerability of letting those people into our more personal spaces.

Photo by Skyler King on Unsplash

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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