On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

Life has been busy. Good-busy, mostly. In the middle of it all, living, loving, and learning are all happening. Life unfolds in all directions the way fern fronds sprawl slowly out and askew in the spring, the silent and celebratory party favors of the season.

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Yet, the part of me that maintains a hyperawareness, a vigilance about everything in this phase of my life is looking for trouble. It wants categories; it strains to sort. It wonders, are we now post-[post-divorce]? If so, do we need to call it something else? That vigilant consciousness is always on the lookout for chaos, ready to find a way to diffuse it. It feels like an anxious, hyperactive, working dog without a job to do is pacing inside my head, nervously chewing on shoes. But another part of me – maybe new, maybe long dormant and grizzly bear waking now – is wanting to learn the way to live differently. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop. Without needing to gnaw on something to feel busy and safe and purposeful.

Sometimes I wish we could extricate ourselves from the parts of our psyche we don’t need anymore. Perform surgery on a vestigial organ and bury it, entomb it, pharaoh-less, with no afterlife. I suppose, though, we worry that we might need it again someday. I suppose we maintain a sentimental attachment to it as a once-favorite thing. The vestigial and vigilant worrier warrior, the protector, was once more than a part of me. It was most of me. And though now I’d like to bury it or send it packing, sometimes it remains, fretting and pacing and making work where there isn’t any. Today I wonder if I can find another job for it to do. I wonder if it can be escorted off the premises, and if not, can it be given a makeover. It’s too bad I can’t simply assign it a different task. You don’t need to protect me anymore. I’m okay. Can you help me learn to play the piano instead? How are you at financial planning?

During tough, or worse, traumatic times, the vigilant worrier in all of us gets amplified, elevated to superhero status. It works overtime; it has to. When life calms, and chaos retreats, that part of us can be unwilling to relinquish its elevated status. Sometimes it seizes on any worry, no matter how big or small, and amplifies it, so the cloud of anxiety cloaks everything, things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. The vigilance works against us. As if to say, you don’t recognize threats anymore; I need to remind you.

I think the worst part of this is two-fold. Though our psyche wants to protect us, it goes too far, and seeks to shield us from threats that aren’t there. But it makes it hard for the rational part of us to grow and get stronger and be able to see clearly. It also makes us question our gut. We wonder, what if all this anxiety, this worry, IS my gut. Is this what it looks like when it is trying to tell me something? Sometimes it is tough to know. But, if it is tough to know, then I suspect it isn’t your gut. Instinct doesn’t make us chase our tail or pace and fret at everything – experience does that. Instinct is a magnet that pushes us toward what’s good for us and repels us from what isn’t. It is strong and quiet and deep, not frantic.

For me the question has become, at this (post [post-divorce]) point in my life, how do I move past what my good-natured but often misguided vigilant worrier warrior is trying to do, and grow more in tune with my instincts? How do we move away from fretful what-if-ing and move toward calm, toward trust (both self-trust, and beyond)?

I think that answer is different for everyone. Sometimes I have to write my way to it, sometimes I have to pick at it, run toward it, run away from it and back again, talk through it over and over. Sometimes we wear ourselves out with worry and then, quiet and exhausted, we find our true way. I’d like to find the straight line there, the shortest-distance-between-two-points path rather then the endless circles I pace in first. But I suppose that’s part of the journey too.

All of this might sound a bit familiar, if you’ve been following this blog for a while. We tell ourselves the same stories in different ways, trying to make it all make sense. I also find that anxiety rises up most in periods of happiness, a pattern that is perhaps common to many of us. It’s easy to be wary, easy to wonder how will this be taken away (this time) or how will I mess this up (again)? Seeing others do this, I wholeheartedly want to reassure, to tell them, go easy on yourself, it’ll be okay, let yourself have this. It’s always more difficult to be generous and kind and loving with ourselves than it is to be with other people.

It’s a good time for all of us to try. Love, Cath

 

On Ambiguity

By Catherine DiMercurio

I think it is human nature to crave clarity; the nature of our world is to offer us, instead, a lot of ambiguity. When I hired in for my current job, the posting included a line about being comfortable with ambiguity. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the latest corporate buzzword, like “agile” or “synergy.” I remember laughing, thinking how silly that sounded on a job posting, and also feeling as though, having gone through a divorce, I’d muddled through so much ambiguity I was a pro at it. But I’m not. I can handle it, I can move through it. I can even fake a positive attitude about it when I have to. Sometimes, it’s not even faking. I can pull it off and accept that the world is simply this way. But often, ambiguity is, for me, a wellspring of stress.

Life and Algebra

In high school, my advanced algebra/geometry teacher encouraged me to go into some math-based profession, to keep taking advanced mathematics in college. I remember telling him, in a manner that was, for me, oddly candid, that I hated math. I was taking the classes the school’s advisor told me to take if I wanted to get into a good college, but I hated math. He told me that I couldn’t hate it and be so good at it. Part of me, he said, must really like it. I thought he was crazy. But when I think of that now, I realize he was a little right. Probably the part I liked was that at the end of ambiguity and confusion, there was a right answer and I could usually find my way there.

One of the worst parts about divorce was the realization—and it hits you in different ways almost daily—that the future you had been not only imagining but cultivating, simply wasn’t going to happen anymore. The erasure of it all is maddening. Talk about ambiguity. Moving forward and coping with that is often easier as time goes on, but sometimes it still feels like a punch in the gut. Building a different future and cultivating new dreams helps a lot, though. So, when I’m told I need to be comfortable working in an ambiguous environment, I think, no problem.

Clarity and Answers Are Not the Same Things

But like algebra, living in ambiguity doesn’t come easy to me. I have to work at it. Not being able to visualize how things are going to work out can feel quite threatening. I had a whole blog post written about dealing with something difficult at work, and how I struggled in the aftermath of knowing a mistake I’d made on the job had made more work and stress for a respected coworker. I agonized over the error.

But as my weekend unfolded, an event occurred that put this work issue in perspective. Those details are not fodder for this forum, but the situation reminded me that we have no choice but to live in ambiguity, that though we may be offered clarity, even finality on one front, this too offers new and uncertain paths that we have no choice but to take. We can’t control what others think about who we are or the choices or effort that we’ve made, and we often will never know what they think. All we can do is try and be our best and be true to ourselves. And this holds true within the workplace and outside of it.

Being who we are takes bravery and thoughtfulness, and if we want our true self to be perceived by those around us, all we can do is try earnestly and openly to keep being who we are. Still, we may have to accept that people’s unfavorable opinions about us have formed not because they have failed to understand us, but because they have accurately seen us for who we are, have understood on some level that which we want others to understand. They may have perceived our truth and still found fault, or a reason to pull away. We may also have to accept that we might never know what others see in us, or believe they know about us. We have to live within the cloudy grey space of not knowing if they got us “right” or if they got it all wrong somehow.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Understanding all this, living in this reality, is hard work for me. In part, this blog reflects my effort to live with openness and candor and integrity, knowing that in the end, I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I say this in a lighthearted way, searching for silver linings, but when I say it’s hard work, I don’t mean the kind that makes you sweat with effort and feel good about it when you’re done. I mean the kind that hurts when you are doing it and never feels much better because there is always more of it. Maybe there is no victory in this work but there is balm for weariness in knowing ourselves better, in being our better selves through the effort.

Love, Cath

On Waiting and Letting Go

By Catherine DiMercurio

I woke on Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops pelting the window and the scrape of an ice-laden tree branch on the roof above my bedroom. All I wanted to do was pull the covers back over my head and ignore the worries about falling branches and icy roads. I braced myself for what was coming next—the assessment of whether it would be safe for my daughter to make the trip to Ann Arbor that she had planned for the day. And I knew that I had to let her decide for herself.

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My son woke up not long after I did. We drank our coffee and darted from window to window, noting the way the cars, fences, and tree branches were slicked with a layer of ice. The temperature hovered just about the freezing mark and it was unclear whether the pouring rain hitting the ice was building up another layer, or was melting it. The roads looked wet. A couple of limbs creaked free from tree trunks and crashed to the ground, the fine coating of ice shattering from the smaller branches, studded with leaf buds.

Risk Assessment

When my daughter woke up and I asked if I was still going to let her go, I avoided the question. I watched her retrace my steps window to window, taking in the same factors I had. On our phones we sought reports on social media from people who might have braved the roads already. We listened to the weatherman say that despite the rain, the roads could still by icy. My daughter suggests that she head out anyway, saying if things seem bad, she’ll turn around and come home. I know from experience that sometimes things don’t seem bad until you are already on the highway and the conditions are fine until they aren’t and you have to decide which is safer—proceeding to your destination or heading back the way you came.

I can’t decide if this is high-stakes parenting or not. Is her life at risk any more than any other time she gets behind the wheel, any more than mine is each time I brave a morning commute? Maybe it’s fine. Maybe it won’t get icier the closer she gets to Ann Arbor. Maybe some spots will be bad and doesn’t she have to learn to negotiate the conditions anyway?

It isn’t a stand-off we have at the front door with her making a plea to go and me deciding in that heartbeat whether to allow or forbid. We’ve had those before and this isn’t like that. I’m looking at an eighteen-year-old young woman who claims her readiness to handle changing conditions, and she’s looking at someone with a little more experience and some reasonable concerns about her safety. Significantly, I can tell she sees and respects this. “Be careful. Text me when you get there,” I say.

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Knowing that she made it there and back safely, that she was fine, in a way makes me feel that my heightened worrying was unnecessary. But I know the significance of the moment at the doorway, when we weren’t really sure how bad the conditions were, when she wondered if I would to forbid her to go, and when I didn’t.

As I waited for her text, I had the sense that I’d probably done the right thing. I had to let her make the decision on her own, when the consequences could be significant—I see in my head the car accident on the icy highway, the one that doesn’t happen, the semi unable to stop—because she’s going to have to make decisions like that again and again when she leaves home in the fall to attend college. I know all the decision-making we’d negotiated to this point, whether through careful conversations or door-slamming shouting matches, all brought us to this point. And I know this hasn’t been the first high-stakes moment.

Self-Aware Parenting

The difference this time is that I’m aware, in the moment, that I’m surrendering the decision-making, that it is a conscious, willful act of love and trust. As parents our entire existence is predicated on the notion that we are preparing our children to not need us. It’s all part of the longest goodbye ever, from the moment they begin to crawl.

Just the day before, I’d been in the car with my son, who will be sixteen in a month. He’s trying to get enough hours in to take the second segment of driver’s ed. It’ll be a few months before he gets his permit. It’s raining and he’s doing great, though visibility at times is lousy. Does he see that stop sign? Do I point it out? The micro decision-making is just as hard as the macro decision-making. It’s parenting inch by inch, breath by breath. Sometimes it feels like I’m falling off a cliff, waiting for a moment, an hour, or years, to see if the decision I made was the right one.

Go, Go, Go. Stop.

It sounds like I don’t give them enough credit. They are bright kids, possessing common sense along with intellectual and emotional intelligence. I do trust that. It is what allows me to say go and what keeps me from saying stop. It is the comfort I take in the waiting. At the same time, I know what the stakes are, large and small.

I’ve always erred on the side of being overprotective. It’s the way I’m wired. It takes intentional self-awareness to step out of this habit sometimes. My thinking is that I want the kids to leave our home having known what it feels like to be nurtured and cared for, but also having learned how to nurture and care for themselves. I’ll always wonder if I’ve gotten the balance right, and I’ll probably wait years to find the answer. It can be confusing, parenting during transitions like these, as your kids enter adulthood. It’s like being caught between seasons, a tree in full bud suddenly coated in April ice.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath