Saturday, March 13, 2021

Stop "Awfulizing"

I tend to think I’m responsible for other people’s moods and reactions. I know this is a sign of insecurity, so I’m embarrassed to admit it. But it’s true. Following are two examples with the names changed to protect the innocent.

In the corridor of a school where I once worked, a fellow teacher walked toward me. She and I had always enjoyed a congenial relationship, but as she drew closer, I saw that her face wore a scowl with deep lines etched in her forehead. I smiled and said, “Hi, Martha. How are you?” She blew past me without a word, her frown set in concrete. Immediately, I decided I must have done something to offend her, but what? I wracked my brain, but came up with nothing. That night I couldn’t sleep as my imagination recreated scenarios in which I might have slighted or insulted Martha. What must she be thinking of me? How will I ever repair this broken relationship?

Ginny and I always called each other on our birthdays. One year I called twice and left messages then tried again the next day. This time I said, “Please call me back.” No response. So, I texted, “What’s wrong? I haven’t heard from you.” But I was thinking, “Why are you ignoring me? Why are you mad at me? What have I done to you? Will we ever be friends again?” Another sleepless night followed. 

As it turned out, Martha was suffering from a migraine the day I met her in the corridor. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t function. A few days later, when we talked in the teacher’s lounge, she was her friendly, gregarious self who didn’t even recall passing me in the hallway. In her desperation to get home, take her meds and find a dark place to rest, she hadn’t even noticed me. And the friend who ignored my calls and texts? She had lost her phone for a few days. Upon recovering it, she called to thank me for my birthday wishes. 

There is enough drama in life that I don’t need to manufacture it. Yet, I used to indulge in self-defeating thought patterns regularly. Jack Singer, author of The Teacher’s Ultimate Stress Mastery Guide, calls this negative thinking “awfulizing.” Unfortunately, awfulizing is a deeply ingrained habit from my childhood when my anxiety caused me to turn every emotion into a catastrophe. I carried this stress-inducing pattern into young adulthood and still find myself slipping from time to time.

I can’t say I am cured of awfulizing, but I do catch myself more quickly than I once did, and I have developed strategies to stop the craziness. First, I say affirmations to myself such as, “How does this problem stack up in terms of eternal significance?” Or “Every problem has a solution, and I am intelligent enough/mature enough to find it.” Then I breathe deeply, utter a quick prayer for calm, and either table the problem until I have time to deal with it or jot down the negative emotions that have upset me: “I’m feeling worried, or sad, or defeated, or angry.” Finally, when the time is right, I sit with God, who helps me identify the incident or comment that triggered my emotion. Together we evaluate the consequences, and form a plan to address the issue. 

Usually I’m able to come up with one of two healthy responses: 1. Tomorrow, I will do or say such-and-such toward fixing the problem; or 2. His/her comment/behavior is not about me. Controlling other people’s emotions, words, and actions is not my responsibility. 

This year I will turn seventy-two. Someday I hope to be an adult who doesn’t resort to awfulizing whenever I’m faced with a challenge.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Because I Must

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My writing career emerged so late in life that I have felt an urgency to accomplish its goals and fulfill my dreams as an author. A belly-fire compels me to leave for posterity a meaningful body of work, a body of words, if you will. This aspiration has little to do with acquiring fame or fortune. Rather, it comes from a lifelong preoccupation with words--their beauty and their potential to influence for good--and for God. 

I’m convinced that words have power--the power to hurt and the power to heal. In my latest book, After Rain, I refer to a fifteen-year period in my life when I was chronically ill and, consequently, deeply depressed. Often, my utterances spewed forth as hurtful barbs and unwelcome criticisms. Yet, it was never my intention to harm people, especially the people I loved the most. I was so angry, helpless and hopeless that I needed to lash out. I couldn’t seem to control the outrageous alter ego that consumed me. 

It was difficult to write about that dark period; it’s difficult, even now. But since 2010, when I started writing in earnest, I’ve learned that writing is therapeutic. More importantly, I’ve learned that authentic words can be helpful to others, especially those who are going through painful experiences. 

Giving yourself, as a writer, permission to be vulnerable is not easy; but holding prisoner the ugly recesses of one’s mind does not benefit readers who may be searching for truth or hope or lasting peace.   

Lately, I have been watching documentaries created by Yad Vashem, an organization committed to commemorating the few living survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. The accounts are heart-wrenching, the atrocities oh-so-ugly. Sometimes I must pause, take a breath and shed tears, but I continue watching because the words of these courageous individuals are important. Remembering the history, along with its horror, is important “lest we repeat it.” 

Without exception, the one thing all these survivors mention is that they could not speak about their experiences for twenty-five to thirty years after the war ended. Telling their stories was too painful. Recalling the horrors they and their loved ones suffered was too traumatic. It wasn’t until they realized the world might forget unless they spoke out, that they were able to summon the courage. 

Authentic words, whether written or spoken, are important.

What is my dream as an author? What is it that I want to leave behind after I’m gone from this earthly existence? Aside from my cherished children and grandchildren, I want to leave a body of writing that makes a positive contribution to the world. I want my words to inspire hope and provide comfort.  

Most creative writers will tell you they write because they must. They write because without written expression, they are not whole. Yes, I write because I must, but the more I write, the more conscious I am of the power of authenticity. It’s a responsibility I do not take lightly.   

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