Thursday, January 24, 2013

Leaning into the discomfort of happiness

This, I think, is the name for the work I have to do this year. I need to learn to lean into happiness even though it makes me very uncomfortable. 

I have been learning and re-learning many things over the past year. I stepped up my exercise habits and have been re-learning many new things about breathing and form and pacing. I learned a few things about teaching when I taught my first class and I learned a bit about book indexing when I indexed a book for the first time. I learned more about how to edit electronically when I took the last class I needed for a certificate in copyediting. I have learned, finally, (I think!) what it is my dissertation can do, and I am in the process of finding out how much of what I currently have written I must release in order to craft a single, elegant argument. 

I have been learning about the effects of stress and anxiety and worry and negativity on my eating habits, on my digestive health, and on my voice. 

For many of the things about which I have been learning, I have relied on sources pretty far removed from myself. I have a nice little library of workout videos, for example. I learned how to index by reading about it and then just by doing it. When I taught, I tried to follow the examples set for me by the excellent teachers I have had, but otherwise I learned by paying attention to what I did and the results I got. As I've been learning to calm my anxiety, I've been seeking out online articles and self-help books about meditation, digestive health, and letting go of perfectionism.

For my voice, however, I have found a teacher. I need a teacher. I need there to be someone who does not live inside my head who will push me to do things I find uncomfortable. Although Jillian Michaels tells me to "dig, dig, dig, dig, DIG!" in her fitness video, she can't see my response. Sometimes I dig and I push harder; sometimes, at that point, I'm shaking my head at her and drinking water. She has no clue, and that helps me to feel safe. It is much the same with all the lessons I seek online and in books: I can retreat into self-congratulatory smugness and no one will push me to see it. I can pick and choose what I want to take from those lessons and there is no accountability.

I know that what I need to do in order to improve--in order to learn--is to be teachable. In order to be teachable, I have to be soft and flexible. I have to be sufficiently and appropriately vulnerable. In order to do that, I have to stop hiding behind the cynicism, skepticism, defensiveness, negativity, and weakness I've been using as a shield to protect me from feeling so vulnerable not only around other people, but inside myself: I am so worried about having to feel happiness, joy, excitement, wonder, awe, pride--all these pleasant emotions terrify me. Learning brings up all of these emotions. Being able to do something I couldn't do, understanding something I didn't understand--these are very, very good things. 

I am so ashamed of showing how pleased I am about something that I lacquer over the pleasure with negativity, as though that will protect me and my feelings of pleasure. Sometimes, however, before I feel the feeling before I've had a chance to coat it. Usually this happens with some kind of art: poetry, music, painting; sometimes it happens with a story about some bit of human interaction. When I allow myself to be moved, to feel the uncoated feeling, usually I cry. Often the tears are not polite, company tears, either. I don't want to do this around other people. If I let myself stay soft around others, I risk cracking open and that seems manipulative and inappropriate.

This is what I worry about as I try to shift from a default response of negativity toward openness, positivity, hopefulness, and trust. I am afraid that as I lean into the discomfort of happiness, I will break open and that others will have to witness the breaking. I am afraid that I will be laughed at and scorned as I begin these steps toward openness and trust and joy. I already feel guilty about the discomfort I will cause others as I aim for discomfort myself.