Know thyself

Every now and then, I feel either forced or compelled to take a look at myself and do something that is akin to taking an inventory of my life so far–not so much an inventory of accomplishments versus setbacks, but moreso an inventory of my feelings and how they have shifted over time, and considering what that leaves me to work with in the present. A sort of “Who am I now?” type of thing. Major life changes and events almost always spur these periods of reflection, but because a lot of them are invisible to other people, I rely on my own, often flawed ability to engage in introspection (which hopefully improves over time, but which I suspect just gets more confused or complicated as time goes on).

After my first boyfriend broke up with me, I had a rough time for a while. I was prescribed medication to help me deal with an anxiety disorder that I didn’t realize was a problem I perhaps had been experiencing for a long time. If I had taken an “inventory” of my life at that time, which I’m sure I did in some kind of sick, desperate way, it would have involved me accepting this new information about myself and trying to figure out how it fits into my life overall. New information gained can sometimes lead to one reframing one’s past experiences and developing a deeper understanding of Why this person came to arrive at this point in the present time.

To put it simply, a psychiatrist told me I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I realized that beginning in childhood I’d often made myself physically ill (always stomach aches) from worry and manufactured distress over any possible thing I could think to worry about. So while I was addressing my anxiety problem in the present, I was also reflecting on the innumerable sources of my anxiety throughout my entire past. Being able to put a name to a problem can give one a sense of power over it–the first step to addressing a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. But I began to hate that part of myself once the novelty of learning this new thing wore off. I also think time and age played a role in lessening its impact on my life.

The faculties I had at the time for dealing with the sources of my anxiety were underdeveloped to begin with. Seemingly small things looked like potential catastrophes because I always anticipated the worst possible outcome in any difficult situation. Further experience has shown me that each of these “catastrophes” would have required additional disastrous elements to come into play in order to develop into the life-destroying force I was imagining prematurely.

These days, it’s often difficult to put myself back into the frame of mind I had at times when I incorrectly thought my life was falling apart. It’s not that I don’t “recognize” my past self, because I can still imagine the emotional pain and what it was like to go through it. The difference is that I see that pain as self-inflicted rather than as a manifestation of my outward problems (with my boyfriend, school, work, etc). I caused my own pain most of the time. I only had to use my own bad thoughts to magnify any real pain a hundredfold and turn it into pain that was too big to comprehend and deal with effectively.

Pause for a second. I’ve already gotten off track. The text above is only included because I required an example from my real life in order to gracefully approach the subject of my efforts to understand myself better.

I understand that I do not understand myself. I have lost a lot of the clarity of mind that I had as a younger person. I understood what I liked, I understood my goals, and I did not question as much my relationship to other people and the world. Even though I was a weird kid and struggled socially at times, I still had a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities. I would dream without limits. I had massive, unreasonable expectations for my future.

Now I’m 31, and with three additional zeroes you get somewhere close to my annual pay (before taxes) at a job in a field that I either detest or tolerate, depending on my mood.

I bring up my pay only because I think I’ve internalized this number to the point where I do consider it my true worth. I applied for a few jobs recently, and nothing came of it. I always look for jobs in the $30,000 range because I’m unskilled and that’s what I make currently. The thought of applying to a job that pays $40,000 annually and getting it has become more and more unbelievable as the years go by, and I can’t remember the last time I applied for a job that would actually increase my earnings rather than simply maintain them.

Out of the blue, the business that I was working for in an on-call capacity contacted me to ask if I would be interested in submitting my application for a full-time position. I had two interviews this time around. I thought both went pretty well, especially compared to others, at other places, that upon reflection make me want to die of embarrassment. At the end of the second interview, I made a big personal leap for myself (in regard to assertiveness) by asking about the details of their benefits package and healthcare plan. I did not receive the response I was hoping for, because after mentally crunching the numbers, I realized I would be shorting myself about $3,000 annually at the absolute least due to the monthly cost of the premiums offered.

To put it simply, my current job that I felt like I had to desperately escape from or risk dying of disappointment in myself actually has really great healthcare coverage and is as cheap as you can imagine if you participate in the company’s Wellness program. I knew all of this, but I didn’t know just how bad it could be at other jobs, so I had nothing to compare it to in my own experience.

A lot of folks stay working here because of the healthcare.

That is not the worst reason ever to stay in a job.

I also tried reminding myself of all the people I would miss if I left. I was being very cavalier about the possibility of leaving a job in which I get to work with my own fiancĂ© on a regular basis. And that part is so great that I wonder how I could ever have been considering leaving just because a few people here are very hard to deal with. I should leave if I find a better job, yes. I haven’t found that job yet, and that’s okay for now, because the alternative I have found is astoundingly bad.

I’m not about to dive into a stream of inspirational B.S. in which I tell myself that where I am in life is Totally Okay. I’m not okay with it, and I don’t think that’s just the depression talking. I’m not okay with it because I’ve known for a while that the “career” aspect of my life went off the rails somewhere along the way and I’ve never been able to correct it. I’ve always felt tremendous pressure to excel in that aspect of life. My sense of identity is tied up tightly with what I’m doing in my life at a given time. As a student, my identity and sense of purpose was clear. I knew how to perform well and how to produce good work. My confidence reached its peak in college, and has gradually decreased in the years since. Looking back, I find it funny that my sense of self-worth could ever have been that high at a time when I was so stupid–so mentally and emotionally stupid.

I think it was at some point in my later teenaged years that my brother wanted all of us siblings to take the Myers-Briggs test and compare results. We were on vacation at the time and someone had brought a laptop along–we had a lot of fun because like many siblings, our differences and similarities have always been an intriguing subject (one of course that is patently uninteresting to anyone not directly involved). I remember my result because it’s the most absurd example of wishful thinking I have from that time: INTJ, “The Mastermind.”

Now, my brother–the one who initiated the test-taking–is a much more likely candidate for the INTJ label (though I feel like he very easily vacillates between introversion and extroversion and would be a difficult person to “type” correctly). Me ending up with that result is more a result of delusion than good-faith test-taking. It rang true enough for the time, though, and more importantly, it sounded like what I wanted to be. I guess it made some sort of impact on me, because I remembered the result for quite some time afterward despite never being fully indoctrinated into the MBTI cult (and I say that with affection!) and not really understanding the meaning of any of the letters following “I.” I can’t look past I–how apt.

Years later, at a now-former job, a conversation about the MBTI came up (the first time ever since my initial test-taking) and I was shocked when a person who I always felt a deep disconnection with (by that I mean: their behaviors and ways of thinking were so incompatible with my own that I found them to be disturbing) told us that she typed as an INTJ. I did not immediately go back and retake the test. I just figured there must be quite a difference even among folks of matching MBTI types, and went on my merry way.

Then I think another few years passed, and I must have been reading something about INTJs when it clicked that I wasn’t finding any true reflection of myself in the description I was reading. I retook the test. INFJ. And damn did I spiral downward for a bit because it can be very uncomfortable for me when I’m faced with a reflection of myself that isn’t just the wishful-thinking version of who I am. I was never so deluded as to think I could ever type as an E rather than an I, so the INTJ mistype was a sufficient substitute and further reinforced my shameful desire to see my specialness (such a rare type for a woman!) and difference (look at all these geniuses who are INTJs!) codified in some way.

Now that I want nothing to do with the World of Men, losing the INTJ label didn’t hit as hard as it might have had I typed differently much earlier. Gaining the INFJ label was more of a struggle. One can only be confronted so many times with detailed explanations of one’s most deeply-guarded vulnerabilities and poorly-concealed flaws before one feels that one may go insane. But on occasion I would find something that was actually comforting in its precise portraiture of the INFJ type. The first of these was this list found at Introvert, Dear (and penned by its founder, Jenn Granneman). By the end of it, I thought maybe at some point I had blacked out and written it myself in an act of hyper-focused introspection resulting in a true understanding of myself for once in my life.

The list attempts and thoroughly succeeds at detailing twelve distinct things that an INFJ type needs in order to be happy, and in a moment of remarkable insight, the author has chosen to place in the #1 spot the very thing whose noted absence in my life is the surest sign that I’m currently (current to the time) struggling inwardly: “A sense of purpose.”

Now that I’ve reached this point in my post, I’m going to finish up and return to the MBTI subject in a different post. Even though I don’t mind writing lengthy posts, I feel like people mind reading them, and therefore choose not to continue when faced with too many words and not enough pictures. There have been times when I’ve thought, “Maybe I should add a funny image right here to break up this wall of text,” but in an effort to follow my heart I usually choose not to add images unless they express what I cannot. I don’t need to apologize or make concessions for a long post. I also absolutely, positively loathe the trend of inserting images and animated gifs into a text just to keep some imaginary reader’s attention. This is why I avoid the review platform on Goodreads–it’s abhorrent to me and I feel like it discourages thoughtful reflection and analysis in favor of a Buzzfeed-style “hot take” of stupid quips and reactions culled only from media that has been given the stamp of approval from the culture-averse philistine. And already I’m thinking, “Wow, too harsh, tone it down,” because I’m worried that I might hurt someone’s feelings. But I remind myself that the reason I started this blog was to be able to scream into the void. I would never in a million years talk to anyone in this way, but I must be true to the worst parts of myself in this format at the very least. To be continued.

Hitler isn’t in hell, but I am.

The title of this blog post is not supposed to be provocative. It’s something that came up in counseling while talking about self-forgiveness. Thinking about those words from time to time since then has been helpful to me because they’ve been keeping in check my tendency toward self-flagellation. I have a bad part of my brain that thinks I deserve all the worst things in the world and that in the afterlife I only deserve the harshest judgment from God. I don’t even know how to accurately or objectively assess my own moral standing, if that makes sense. I don’t know whether I’m a good person or a bad person. I guess I think I’m a pretty bad person. I’m a bad person because I think bad thoughts. Even when I was questioning the existence of God, I was sure that my thoughts were going to send me to Hell. And I didn’t even believe in it, really.

The thing is though, that when I articulate these thoughts about myself to my counselor, I begin to see what’s wrong with them.

I often categorize myself as “not a superstitious person”. People who don’t believe in God may scoff at that, because belief in anything that isn’t tangible is sometimes relegated to the realm of superstition. I do believe my faith suffers when I approach it from a superstitious angle. Let me try to illustrate what that looks like, in my experience:

I think a particularly abhorrent thought, therefore I will go to Hell.

I consume media that has no redeeming qualities and is morally bankrupt, therefore I will go to Hell.

My actions are not a reflection of my thoughts, therefore I am a hypocrite and I am going to Hell.

Basically I have created a way in which even my good actions will send me to Hell because I’m not being true to my bad thoughts. I think of any good actions as a way to make amends for my bad thoughts, but even that isn’t enough to escape Hell because God knows what my thoughts actually are.

I’m trying to accept that this is B.S., but it’s like I have to rewire my brain for that to happen.

I’ve gone on long enough about this, so let’s get back to Hitler.

My counselor asked me if Hitler was in Hell. I think he knew what I would say before I even responded, probably before the question was even a thought in his head. You don’t counsel someone for months without getting a sense that you’re talking to the kind of person who thinks there’s a good chance Hitler might not be in Hell. I am one of those people and maybe I’m very obvious about that, despite never having talked about it before because frankly the topic is done to death.

Why wouldn’t Hitler be in Hell? So many reasons, each of which is as improbable as the next, but it’s what I believe, so let’s get typing:

  • None of us can truly know what goes on inside another person, even the people closest to us.
  • None of us can know if, or to what extent, another person has sought forgiveness for their sins.
  • We pray for the release of all souls in purgatory in order that they may go to Heaven. If Hitler was able to escape eternal suffering in the afterlife, there’s a chance he could be in Heaven right now. I don’t know, I’m just typing insane things. Bear with me.
  • No matter how evil and destructive a person is on earth, it is not up to me to make a judgment that is reserved for God alone to make (this ties in to why capital punishment is also wrong, again, for so many reasons, but having the hubris to act like God is surely a great sin).

I can make every excuse in the book for why Hitler might not be in Hell. But I can’t make the same excuses for myself. Why? Well, I’ve had a pretty nice life. I was brought up well. I have great parents. They did a good job instilling a sense of right vs. wrong in their children, and I credit my Mom with adding empathy into the whole equation. Without empathy, the entire effort would’ve been pointless.

At this point, anything I do that is evil or destructive is entirely my own fault. That is why I think even the littlest things could send me to Hell.

At the end of that counseling session, as I was walking out the door, I said, “Hitler isn’t in Hell, but I am.” And it made me laugh. So now I like to say it in my head, all the time, and especially when I need to add some perspective to my bouts of self-judgment.

My counselor told me that he questions the existence of Hell because of what that says about the God who would create Hell. I do agree with that. I can’t say that I believe in Hell either, because to me it only surfaces as a concept when I’m approaching my faith in the most superstitious manner possible. My thoughts about Hell are indicative of the worst parts of my faith that I would like to challenge and hopefully dispose of. A person should not believe in Hell. A person of faith should believe in God. I only believe in Hell when I want to punish myself.

Self-forgiveness is the theme of this post.

Lessons from counseling

I’ve been seeing a counselor since July. I find it very helpful though I still have times when I’m not as talkative as I’d like to be. Of course, when I get home after a session like that, I can think of a dozen things I wish I had said. I’m probably not the most verbose patient even on a normal day, so when I’m having the type of day where I struggle with talking, I worry that I come across as brain dead. It’s possible that waking up earlier would help, to give myself time to do more than “get ready.” My appointments are at noon so I usually wake up at 11:00 a.m. and leave at 11:45. I reach peak talkativeness at around midnight when my shift at work ends. If my counseling sessions happened at 12:15 at night, I’d probably overstay my welcome every time.

I’ve been to counseling in the past at various times. The first time was during my parents’ separation so I must have been about 13 years old. It’s possible I’m not remembering that correctly, but I remember why we were there. I remember one session that included my brothers and I think another that included the whole family. I don’t recall if we went multiple times or not.

I do remember not knowing what to say. I needed and still need a lot of prompting. It’s hard for me to effortlessly carry on a conversation. I had doubts about returning to counseling this time around for that exact reason, but I think it’s going just fine.

About a month ago, my counselor was asking me questions about my family and what our relationship is like. I can’t recall how the subject came up. I didn’t re-enter counseling due to any kind of family issue, so it’s not a subject I tend to talk about very much unless it’s just casual stuff. Sometimes I talk about my brothers and my parents and what they’re up to, but again, just casual stuff.

I think my counselor was trying to get a handle on what my relationship was like with my parents. We somehow got on the subject of my Dad. I told him that I have a good relationship with my Dad, though it was not always that way, particularly after my parents separated. I told him about some of the guilt I still have about the way I treated my Dad back then, for example, when I would refuse to visit him at his new place. I had also screamed and yelled at him in anger more than once and acted in a way that was almost certainly hurtful to him. I’m sure it was hurtful because I intended for it to be hurtful because I wanted to punish him. My counselor asked me if I had ever told my Dad how I felt today about these things that happened back then. I started laughing at the thought of how terribly awkward and uncomfortable that would be. I said maybe I would, eventually. I have this image in my head of a situation that happens years from now in which my Dad is on his deathbed and I give him a handwritten letter explaining how I feel.

It’s good to write this out, because I can see immediately how ridiculous that is. It’s ridiculous to first of all carry around this assumption that my Dad will live for (x) amount of time and that we will all definitely have a clear idea of when the end is near and we’ll be able to prepare for it. That is a fantasy. It’s ridiculous to think that I have information that he might want to hear and I’m withholding it out of embarrassment, or fear, or something I can’t put a name to. There are a lot of ridiculous things about the whole scenario, but those two aspects of it strike me as being the most shameful.

It also might be ridiculous to assume that any of it would have any great meaning for him. I don’t actually know that it would. It might just be an assumption borne out of watching too many movies.

One good thing about Now vs. Then is that Nowadays I tell my Dad I love him a lot more often. Before we hang up the phone I make sure to tell him “I love you.” We hug more often than we used to. My brothers have told me that they don’t do this, and that’s fine. I think at some point I just decided that I was going to try treating my Dad the same way I treat my Mom when it comes to affection. With my Mom, it has always been easy to say “I love you” and to give hugs. So at least I had something to start with.