Crossing the Divide Between Two Worlds

canstockphoto8316983I woke with a start this morning. Something bad was happening. Where was I? My heart was racing. What did I need to do? I lay there, in the gauzy land between dreaming and waking, paralyzed by not knowing. This is sometimes how I wake up when I’m in the middle of a dream. Once, I rolled off the bed, and jumped into a sparring position, hands curled into tight fists, ready to take out an imaginary attacker. It’s disorienting to realize that your ninja dream is not the reality.

While no advocate of Scientology, I read L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics many years ago. Like most philosophies, I latched onto a few ideas and discarded the rest. His work on mental health is regarded as pseudoscience and has created couch-jumping douchebags who eschew psychotropic drugs for treating any kind of mental illness. One of the concepts that did interest me was what Mr. Hubbard wrote about the rational versus the reactive mind.

It basically runs like this: your reactive mind is the mind that deals with situations based on past negative experiences. Your rational mind is the one that logically assesses a situation based on the conditions and facts in the current situation. Scientologists, feel free to NOT comment or correct me. I have no money nor any interest in arguing you about the misguided mental health system. We actually might agree on a few things and that just creeps me out.

It is human nature to react and learn based on our experiences. Thank goodness for that. How would we know not to put our hands on stove burners or not to date men who name their cars? On the other hand, there are scenarios where reacting to life as if all your circumstances have never changed since childhood is not a good thing.

My street cred as a survivor is mediocre. I come from a home where alcoholism and domestic violence had a foothold. I grew up poor and with an inferiority complex that comes from little material wealth and low self-esteem. These are hurdles to overcome and while I was forced to become stronger and more self-sufficient as a result, I don’t recommend it as the path to being a better person. I’m still learning lessons that some people are able to assume as their birthright.

I’m at a point in life where I no longer need to just “survive”. I finally have choices about how I spend my time and where I’d like my path to take me. But I’m jumpy. When I talk about first world problems, like the difficulty of working from home (despite easy access to clean water and the fridge), it is also accompanied with an apologetic “I know I’m whining. I should just be grateful”.

I realize the gratitude zealots will say this is a good thing, but gratitude is like any other emotion  – where it comes from matters. I’m grateful no one threatens me. I’m glad that I don’t have to be afraid when I go to sleep at night. I’m glad that I don’t have to count on soda can returns for a meal. I’m glad that I don’t have to wear shoes that are too small for my feet. I’m glad that I know where I’ll be sleeping tonight. Anything above that and I feel a level of shame and guilt for my good fortune. It’s not the same as heartfelt gratitude.

I still live in my reactive mind at times and it is sometimes jarring to realize I’m reacting to things as if I were a small, frightened child – defensive, ashamed and powerless. I have a misplaced sense of survivor’s guilt. If I feel shame and guilt for the smallest of fortunes, am I getting in the way of my own happiness?

If I felt hostility towards all women who wear purple scarves just because I had a vicious first-grade teacher who always wore one, maybe I’d miss the friendship of a lifetime. Or if I feared public speaking, because someone laughed at me during a middle school book report presentation, I’d miss out on a great career opportunity. Or, if I’m too busy feeling embarrassed about my good fortunes, I miss out on feeling genuine gratitude and joy.

It’s a mindful practice – to pay attention to emotions as you’re feeling them, identify their source and question whether your reaction is commiserate with the reality at hand. Is this reality, a dream or a nightmare of days long gone? Are you in the moment, or is your head in the land of Nod or Never Again? It’s a work in progress for me and for that, I’m truly grateful.

33 Comments on “Crossing the Divide Between Two Worlds

  1. You are a very smart woman. I marvel at your self awareness and growth.
    My upbringing the the complete opposite of yours. I was raised in a home of love, respect. stability and security. I was raised to believe that it is my right to nothing less than honesty, trust, and love. I learned this at infancy and never doubted these expectations..

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    • Occasionally I’m smart. Occasionally I need to learn the same lesson over and over! My husband had a similar experience as yours growing up, so seeing his family interact has been eye-opening and a really positive experience for me.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story!!! I know I’m horrible about taking chances and letting past bad experiences hole me in, so to speak. This was really helpful to me!!!

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    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think even without a back story, we do tend to make a lot of decisions based on faulty or limited information from past experiences. It’s a tough practice to open one’s eyes wider and see what the reality is, instead of vision based on what happened before to us.

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  3. My life experiences have been similar to westlakemusings, Lucky me and I do realize that. But it doesn’t make the heartfelt gratitude any easier. I take too much for granted. My life has been pretty simple and serene. It’s hard for me to empathize with those who have had a difficult life. I do wonder about approaching everything in a positive way….. has my life been uncomplicated because of the way I react or am I just lucky? It’s probably too deep of a subject for me but it is intriguing!
    I do admire the fact that you are so aware of your emotions and attitudes. Sometimes I feel like Pollyanna, just seeing the good and ignoring the bad because it’s easier. .

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    • Sometimes I struggle to explain myself to people who don’t have a similar background, but I NEED those people. I am surrounded by relatively positive, happy people and it makes my life better. I get frustrated at times, because who wants to be the depressive person at the party? It’s a real quandary because all the circumstances of my life dictate that I should be happy, but I still struggle with the ghosts.

      You make a very good point about approaching things in a positive way – even that causes some self-doubt, apparently! I don’t think it’s Pollyanna, but a mindset you were taught from the start. I have to take a more balanced approach, because I have to counter the negative, which never goes away, with the positive, which I’ve focused on learning.

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  4. You’re absolutely right about not living as though we’re still in our past circumstances. It’s hard sometimes to transcend the gut reaction–the “hit first, ask questions later” reaction, for instance–but once you get the knack for it, it can be so rewarding. The past won’t leave us, but the future is there for us to create.
    Karen who is not at all a Scientologist. But I did watch that South Park episode.

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    • I think sometimes just noticing the gut reaction for what it is, diminishes its impact on one’s judgment and behavior. It’s catching it before you react that is the trick.

      I try to be respectful of other people’s beliefs, but Scientology does have some very strange representatives. Like most belief systems, there is something to be learned.

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  5. I love how you end with gratitude, Michelle. I still hear some self-hate in your words. Why would you think you don’t deserve the things that you have been blessed with? I had to learn to love myself again, before I could love the blessings around me. Like you, I’m still a work in progress. {{{hugs}}}Kozo

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    • I think it’s the nature of the survivor mentality to feel undeserving of the good things. It’s not a rational feeling, so better to acknowledge and work with it, rather than deny it.
      When you say “love yourself again”, it suggests you were able to recognize the feeling. Unfortunately, a lot of kids grow up without that initial feeling and have to constantly teach themselves. I’m not suggesting that I’m in that stage still, but when you don’t have an appropriate baseline for self-value as a child, it’s never going to come naturally. Always in progress…

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      • Great point, Michelle, I didn’t want to minimize the difficulty of self-compassion. Kristen Neff has done some great work on self-compassion. I know that this can be a lifelong process, but I do think it is the key to recovery. Thank you for your insightful response of this comment.

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  6. Well thunk out thoughts that will have me thinking for quite a while. Right now, I just can’t think of what I want to say. Very unusually, Michelle, you have me speechless. I’m sure many folks are thanking you!

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    • Ha! I feel like I’ve been incessantly blathering lately, so maybe there’s balance in the universe when you fall speechless.
      I seem to be in an introspective mode and even I am beginning to think “good god, woman, lighten up!”

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  7. We are all a work in progress. The important thing is to keep progress-ing. All of us will still be unfinished when we leave this life, so I think it doesn’t matter if we leave while still imperfect. It only matters that we faced our personal challenges and attempted to something, anything, whether successful or not, about it. We are progressing at that’s all that matters

    If you are being “mindful,” you are doing a great thing for yourself. More power to you. You have much to be grateful for, and the greatest of these things is that you watch yourself (mindful) rather than simply react. It doesn’t matter where the practice came from, only that you do it. Kudos to you!

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    • Thanks for the proverbial pat on the back. I was glancing back at other posts I’ve written and apparently all I do is work on myself! I need to do some serious escapist writing for awhile.

      Sometimes I think it’s hard to separate gratitude from smugness. Especially when there is so much pain and suffering in the world. But that’s a separate issue from facing life with emotions from past experiences.

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  8. I liked this a lot – staying in this moment now is something that takes practice and even as time passes it’s easy to slip back into reaction. I became aware that I was allowing my past to color my reactions around the time I hit 30. I suddenly saw myself using my past as a giant excuse not to handle things. I decided that from that point on my actions and reactions were on me – no one else was responsible. I still miss the mark, but my thinking has changed completely. My past made me – it’s just an ingredient of the total experience, not the backdrop.

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    • I like the idea of things being ingredients. I find as I get older, I’m less likely to hold onto negative reactions and move quickly to be more circumspect and mindful. During times of stress though, issues crop again and I am reminded to pay attention. I feel like I’ve written about this before, but that is a hazard of blogging, I think – we’re always bound to repeat ourselves!

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      • Boy that’s the truth – I had to look to see if I had already posted a set of photos the other day, my post was feeling familiar.

        Stress is the kicker – that’s when I melt down and fall into my old ways. Thankfully I just feel out of kilter when that happens and can readjust things pretty quickly.

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        • Maybe that’s really what comes with maturity and self-awareness – the ability to adapt and adjust more readily. I like the Buddhist notion of simply taking notice of thoughts, neither labeling them as good or bad, but allowing them to pass as quickly as they arrive.

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        • That’s a pretty interesting concept. I think it would take a of practice to develop that discipline. I tend to ruminate and think things through – letting thoughts pass quickly would be tough, but I could see the value in it.

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  9. Yes and yes. Like you said, the most important part is to observe the reactions–with as much gentle curiosity as possible.

    Gratitude is mighty powerful. It changes brain chemistry and, actually, the physical structure of the brain (I’ve got those study stats here somewhere…). Doesn’t matter how big or small the object of your gratitude–the act of cultivating that mindset is the important part.

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    • I get a little turned off when a concept that is common sense goes mainstream. Gratitude is the new catchword. Something in my brain chemistry dislikes how words become meaningless through overuse. I like to know what I truly mean when I use the word, hence the over-thinking. Plus, I over-think everything. Welcome to my brain – able to turn simple concepts into complex messes in a single stream of consciousness! It’s a super power. Of sorts.

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  10. It doesn’t sound like your cred is mediocre. I think it is stronger because you’ve found a way to survive and now see the need to move beyond the survivor status.

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    • I say it like that as a way of keeping things in perspective. I’ve heard many awful stories, some of which the children did not survive. I don’t mean to marginalize domestic violence or my own experiences, but I am grateful to have been able to work through much of it and lead a relatively happy life.

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  11. I have bipolar disorder. For me, my emotions get stuck and amplified on either a negative or super positive plane. I wish they could just flow over me. While I am quite mindful of my current emotional state, so far I haven’t found any good reliable way to reverse my wildly swinging pendulum even though I know some of the triggers. And I unfortunately my mood is never “normal”. A very difficult life to lead. Sometimes mood and emotions aren’t reactive, they are chemical.

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    • I have a family history of manic depression, OCD and a whole buffet of disorders, so I understand this very well. I am a moody person that probably walks the line between bipolar and hormonally imbalanced. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had a little more leeway to ride out the mood swings and to compensate for high and low times, but it takes a lot of energy and work to be that mindful. Throw in an unstable childhood and it’s a recipe for a constant tightrope walk.
      This is where I mock Scientology. Bipolar disorder falls along a spectrum and there are people for whom everyday living is nearly unbearable, where the use of psychotropic drugs makes things manageable. To deny that and use terms like the “aberrant mind” is to disregard viable options for many people.

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      • People like Vivian Leigh and Lord Byron would most likely have given much to have the opportunity we have for relief from the constant upheaval from uncontrolled mood swings. Weird how therapies that would have been met with open arms are now vilified. We forget our history, and the sufferings of those before us. My grandmother spent 2 years in bed from such profound depression she couldn’t even talk to her family. Two whole years wasted. I respect another person’s (or organization’s) passionate viewpoint, heck, I have a load of my own. But everyone should have the right to seek relief from the burdens of illness if they desire, now matter where they originate. And I do believe that is where the Scientologists, or other organizations who think mental illness is “preventable or weak”, do wrong.

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