The Myth of Expectations

Blergh, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Rants, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I recently read a post from one of those “mindful” dating sites.  The author was writing about the “myth” of dating difficulties for people over 40.  She abruptly found herself dating at 45 and, despite all her friends’ dire predictions, was having an absolute BLAST! And you know what she claims is wrong with her friends?  They just have the wrong expectations!  If they would clean up their emotional bullshit and change their expectations, all the chum they’d been attracting would disappear and they’d suddenly have their pick of ridiculously awesome people.

I’m here to call bullshit on that entire perspective, and the implication that I’m just not doing my personal work well enough, that I continue to attract bad things to myself because I’m not working fast enough to unload my baggage.  This effectively makes every sh*tty thing that happens MY FAULT.  Because I’m not doing a good enough job being better.

Seriously?  I’m not doing good enough AT BEING BETTER?

Despite years of messaging about “creating my reality,” I have come to understand that most things that happen that are out of my control.  I get to control my responses and reaction and choices, but I’m not responsible for the fact that so many people in their 30s and 40s are hot messes.  Or that I get coffee with them.  Or that I lose my job, fight with a friend, or face ageism, or racism, or misogyny, or all that other crap that REALLY TRULY EXISTS.  Simply putting on my ruby slippers, clicking my heels, and breathlessly exclaiming “everything is wonderful, everything is wonderful, everything is wonderful” DOESN’T MAKE EVERYTHING WONDERFUL.

One of the hardest things to learn is that there are many, many things I HAVE NO CONTROL OVER, regardless of how much work I do on myself.  I still have to deal with bad dates, difficult co-workers, aggravating family, and a world that seems like it’s going to somewhere bad, really fast.  It’s not helpful to keep blaming me because bad things happen to me, in my life, and in the world.  In fact, it’s that message – that I can somehow magically control everything in my life that has led to bouts with anxiety, depression, and shame and guilt, all things that add to the already heavy burden of being human.

It’s true – I do need to do my work, address my issues, and be the best person I can be.  It’s true that I do need to check in on my expectations, ask for feedback from friends  and professionals, and realize that sometimes I do make bad choices.  But sometimes, a bad coffee date or fight with a friend is just that, and blaming me for somehow creating the situation because I’m not an evolved enough person is truly, truly unhelpful.

unhelpful

Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.

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I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.

The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class.  All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.

By far, the biggest source of stress is the students.  By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months.  They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase.  There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished.  There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers.  They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.

I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand.  They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills.  Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get.  But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.

For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment.  Ever.

You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort.  Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success.  Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work.  The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.

Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind.  This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid.  None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves.  We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.

But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level.  Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans.  They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.

Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price.  Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment.  “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask.  Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.

I don’t hold judgment on these families.  While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm.  While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price.  It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.

I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program.  She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success.  How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?

The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.

In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap.  They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows.  But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.

They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives.  They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.

Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.

And that’s the ultimate fear:  that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self.  It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it?  What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity?  What if all they are is what they’ve always heard?  What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?

None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population.  These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking.  “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of?  Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”

That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change.  If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope.  It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.

It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.

But, it’s so GOOD for you!

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I learned about meditation, over a dozen years ago and kind of practiced regularly for a couple of years.  When I started grad school in 2004, I practiced occasionally and didn’t entirely stop until four or five years after that.  And then I stopped completely, and couldn’t bring myself to continue.  It didn’t matter that I knew it was beneficial, that it would help me feel better and bring peace of mind.  None of those logical things mattered.  My aversion to meditation, or any type of meditative practice was irrational.

I think now that I simply couldn’t (and still can’t, really) bear to be fully present.  I was, and remain, too frightened of the feelings I’ll face.  I’m terrified of all the sadness, exhaustion, depression, anger, grief, disappointment, and bewilderment I know are lying in wait.  I can’t face them more than I already do and have.  Note – please don’t tell me about your “amazing” experience with meditation, how you had the same fears, etc, and how relieved you were that it wasn’t really like that – I don’t want to hear it.  I know my fears are irrational and illogical, but they’re mine and they’re real for me right now.

I’m not sure what my expectations were about what kind of life I would live, but I’m pretty sure I’m not meeting them.  How do I know that?  Because I feel [insert above list of emotions here] all the time.  Those emotions, according to so much of of what I see and hear, are not the indicators of an expectation-meeting life.  Those emotions are giant indicators that you’ve screwed up somehow.

Even though my logical mind knows that thought for the bullshit it is, I can’t stop myself from thinking it.  Even though my life is meaningful and fairly rich, there are still layers of unconscious, unknown expectations I feel like I’m not meeting.  Even writing about it feels ludicrous.  What would I say to someone who came to me with these feelings?  I would say “I hear you and I have many of those same feelings myself.  Would you like to talk?”