Thursday, October 6, 2016

Unplugging the pressure cooker.

This past month has been stressful. This past week has been stressful. Heck, even my last counseling appointment was pretty stressful.

Even though my schoolwork is pretty manageable, just the fact that I am back in school full-time is enough to make me feel constantly overwhelmed. There doesn’t seem to be a break. I feel burnt out even though it’s only been a month. I know I’ll get all the work done, but it seems to be constantly hanging over my head. No study break is enough…I feel like I need a vacation, but there’s no time to take one.

This general sense of stress makes me feel restless. I think my anxiety and stress levels must just be in a permanently heightened state and it’s been affecting my sleep. When I start feeling stressed, I get insomnia. I raised my dose of panic medication so I stopped having nighttime panic attacks, but I’m still having trouble sleeping. And, of course, the lack of sleep makes it harder to manage my emotions, making it easier to get stressed and depressed.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been under a lot of emotional pressure too. The ironic thing is that this pressure is pretty much all internal; I’ve been making everything worse by constantly pushing myself to meet certain goals and then beating myself up for not living up to those unrealistic expectations. I have been feeling lonely and wanting to make friends on campus (and find a boyfriend, if I’m honest), but I’m terrified of striking up conversation with people I don’t know. I feel like a skiddish rodent every time I see an opportunity come up to interact with another human. One part of me screams, “TAKE THE CHANCE AND SAY SOMETHING DON’T BLOW THIS, YOU SCAREDY CAT” while another part of me wants to scurry up the nearest tree and curl up in my fluffy tail, safe albeit insular and alone.

I’ve mostly given into the temptation to duck my head and stay silent. Last week I had the perfect opportunity to talk to this guy in one of my classes who I’m interested in; we were walking right next to each other in the hallway and I was desperately scrambling for something, anything to say to break down the wall of isolation between us, but I found myself second guessing everything in typically socially-anxious fashion. “No that’s too stupid…that’s too weird…that’s too random…” – I objected to everything and then the moment was lost. The reality is that most conversations start with stupid questions, like “How are you?” or “How about the chemistry homework?” I’m probably in a worse place overthinking things and saying nothing than saying something that seems stupid and actually getting a conversation going with a person.

I realized last week though that because of this pressure I’ve been putting on myself to make friends, talk to people, and be “normal”, I’ve been leaving school almost every day feeling like a failure because I didn’t talk to anyone, which isn’t really healthy. Berating yourself only makes the social anxiety and negative energy within yourself grow, bringing you down instead of lifting you up and empowering yourself.

It’s interesting how difficult it is for me – and I would venture to say most people have the same problem – to give ourselves credit for our accomplishments, to acknowledge our strengths, to express optimism for the future. I think over the course of my life I’ve fallen into the bad habit of beating up on myself in the hope that someone else will say the things I want to hear about myself. Since it’s considered egotistical to ask people for affirmation about ourselves, we sometimes say negative things about ourselves in order to spur other people to deny them, thus getting the praise that we crave.

Once, when I was in elementary school, I was doing a painting with a group of other girls. I started saying how ugly my part of the painting was because I knew that people would then tell me it was good. Sure enough, it worked, and I kept berating my work so I could get them to praise me. I cringe in embarrassment because I know this is a quick way to get people completely exasperated with you, not to mention a generally pretty shallow move. But I also have to have a little bit of pity for my younger self because I know I must have felt isolated and low on self-confidence if I was desperate enough to speak up to people I didn’t know very well like that.

Over the past year, I’ve been realizing how entrenched I am in this mindset of seeking external validation to feel positive about myself, to feel like I’m valid, appreciated, and have a right to be here. The problem is, it doesn’t make me feel positive about myself. It’s never enough. The more external validation you receive, the more you need. The less each compliment or social media like means because you focus more and more on how many more “likes” other people are getting. Then you stop enjoying the things you do, or even give up doing them entirely, because you aren’t receiving the amount of affirmation you want. The reality is that people are lame or feel awkward and often don’t express to people how much they appreciate something. So if you base whether or not you do things on other people’s approval, you end up disappointed and the activities you enjoyed lose their appeal.

I think that it’s for me to realize because there are a lot of areas of my life where I have become driven my external validation instead of doing things just because I’m passionate about them or I want to help others. But this realization of yet another shortcoming that I can’t seem to change is also frustrating and seems to reiterate my underlying feeling that I’m not good enough even though the whole concept I’m working on with my counselor is that I am enough. I guess I’m having trouble seeing how to reconcile the concept of accepting myself as I am with the process of recognizing my shortcomings and trying to change myself. I’m starting to miss my former counselor, who I felt more comfortable with and who didn’t push me as much. I am learning a lot from my new counselor but I also sometimes leave feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of the task of altering thought processes deeply ingrained in me. And I feel a sense of failure because I can’t seem to change them…and because there are parts of me that need to be changed.

The reality is, this all takes time. And I have to give myself credit for even trying to make the changes. And for being vulnerable enough to admit that I am not perfect and I need to improve. I guess it’s hard when you only have forty-five minutes to explain and issue and therapists can misunderstand you and vice versa just like in any other type of conversation, but you might not realize it until after you walked out the door. I mean, I have to admit that the things I wrote about in this post and the things I talked about in therapy today make me afraid that people (including my therapist) will think I'm egotistical and self-absorbed, but I guess we all are.

I guess my goal this week will be to acknowledge my own accomplishments each day and not let my fears about the judgments others might have about me get in the way of my joy. 

And who knows, maybe I'll even try and talk to that cute guy in history class...

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