Patterns

Yesterday, I came out of a meeting and remarked to my husband, “I think I just very gently got my head handed to me.”

The meeting had not been bad. I had not been called on the carpet. Everyone in the meeting was friendly and polite. I had not been accused of anything or blamed for anything. In fact, the meeting was productive, looking at opportunities to improve processes that a larger team is responsible for. I had remained calm, welcoming feedback and ideas for improvement, and had gotten some good ideas.

So what brought up this feeling that I had been put under the microscope and found wanting?

Who knows. It’s something my sisters and I all do – and all respond differently to – so there may be a nurture aspect to it; but I don’t remember my parents ever overtly telling us that we had to be perfect. Although, as soon as I wrote that, a picture flashed through my mind of a certain twist of my mother’s mouth, a micro-expression of something she wasn’t saying aloud, when I did something she disapproved of. Since my parents are both so shy, I do read a lot into people’s facial expressions; so perhaps that’s it.

In any case, this feeling stayed with me. It stayed with me even later, when meeting in a smaller group with someone from that meeting, that person praised us for remaining open to feedback, willing to examine our work in a neutral way, identify opportunities for improvement, and talk about them openly, without blame. It’s a quality we’re attempting to build in the organization, which says volumes about why I chose to join this organization. How often do organizations seek to create a culture where problems are looked at objectively, and people are held accountable, yet without seeking to blame?

So, here I was being praised for a behavior that I demonstrated on the surface while, inside, I was roiling with anxiety that I was being blamed. Where did that sense of feeling blame come from? It came from inside me, from my story.

The story that I don’t make mistakes. That my work must be flawless. The story that, when my work is not flawless, people have “found me out” and will think less of me.

Looked at objectively, that story is very silly. Human beings make mistakes. No one’s work is flawless. And this is a team effort, composed of many human beings, all learning new processes together. To expect that a group of human beings won’t have flaws somewhere is unrealistic. So that’s the story. What if let go of that story?

The feeling still remains. Now, stripped of my inner narrative, stripped of the little voice in my head whispering, “They caught you – you’re not perfect”, I am just left with the physical emotion of dread.

When you meditate, sometimes there are distractions. An itch, a headache, tension in a part of your body. Rather than trying to get rid of these things, one can, as Jack Kornfield says, “Hold them in a sea of human kindness.” Feel them, very gently, and accept that they’re there. Celia Roberts, in her work on headaches, talks about leaning gently into the pain, feeling it very carefully, rather than fighting it. Sometimes this works so well that it almost feels like a miracle.

So now I lean into that feeling of dread, without thinking about the story, just the emotion, the physical feeling, and just like that! It fades away.

It strikes me how ironic this is – I am so afraid of not being found perfect, that I pretend to accept that I am imperfect, and fake it so well that I am praised for being open to having flaws pointed out – and then my inner thought is, “Dang, I have to hide that I don’t like this because ‘not liking it’ is an imperfection in itself.”

When I think about it that way, I have to laugh.

Yesterday, I thought I had lost my wedding ring. I am so afraid of damaging or losing it, that my practice is to take it off as soon as I get home. Since we have been safe-at-homing, I haven’t been wearing rings much. But last week something shifted – one more little acceptance that things are going to be this way for a while and I need to adjust to a new normal – and I started wearing rings again. It felt funny to wear rings on my right hand without putting the rings on my left hand, so I started wearing my wedding ring again. Then I was doing dishes and took them off and put them beside the kitchen sink. I remember thinking, “That’s not a good place for them.” Then I didn’t wear rings all weekend and on Monday I forgot jewelry altogether. Yesterday, I put on my other jewelry and opened the box where my wedding ring lives, and the box was empty.

Shit, I was going to be in the doghouse if I lost the ring. I started looking, forcing myself to remain calm. Had I gotten distracted when I took off my other rings and put it in my jewelry box? I took everything out of that box – not there. Had I put it in my pocket? I checked the pocket of the down vest I’ve been wearing in my office – no. I checked the pocket of the warm-up jacket I wear in the living room – no. I checked the pocket of the other down vest, the jacket, the jeans I wore outside this week – no. I checked the pockets of the jeans I had worn last week and washed on Saturday. I checked the pockets of the only other pair of pants I own with pockets, although I haven’t worn them in weeks. I moved everything on the kitchen counters and the sideboard, looked underneath things, went through the junk tagine where things collect. All with an air of “nothing going on here.”

I began to make up stories about my husband moving it, putting it someplace safe, knowing that if I asked him and he hadn’t moved the ring, he would panic. Panic is the enemy of good. Desk drawers – no. Beside my meditation spot – no. I checked the little box where the ring lives over and over, as if it could magically appear there between looks. All day this distracted me, began looming larger and larger; while, on the inside, the objective part of my brain told me that it had to be here somewhere and I would find it someplace stupid.

Finally, at the end of the day, I put on my work down vest and slipped my fingers into the pockets – no – and took it off. I put on my outdoor down vest and again slipped my fingers into the pockets – no – and took it off. I put on my warm-up jacket and slipped my fingers into the pockets – and there it was. I started to put it on, then changed my mind and secured it in the box where it lives.

I don’t know how I missed it the first time. That’s not the point.

The point is all the stories I was making up in my head, about how I had lost it through my carelessness and didn’t deserve to have such nice things; about my husband, his reaction, how he might be playing games with me. Made up stories running in an undercurrent beneath a general feeling of, “I’m confident it’s here somewhere and I’ll find it because I am a finder of lost or misplaced things. I just need time.”

And I was right. The other stories were just manifestations of my fears.

The trick is to get beneath the stories, to the emotion below them, and feel it very carefully.

And see what happens.

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