What I do when worry takes over

What I do when worry takes over

I’ve spent a lot of time worrying the past few days. My worrying always tends to be about the same, familiar topics and it feels involuntary — I’ll be fine one minute and then suddenly I’ll start with a familiar spiral of worrying thoughts. Like a well-worn path in the woods, my neurons have forged paths through my white matter where they trigger the same fearful thoughts over and over.

Most of my worries are about safety and security. I worry about my business being successful. I worry if I will have enough money when I retire. I worry where I will live in 20, 30 or 40 years. And I worry about my health and if I will have people to take care of me when I get old and frail.

But I’m sure if my life circumstances were different, I’d find different things to worry about. If I had kids, I’m sure I’d be worried about them. If I owned a house, I’d probably worry about a big repair that I couldn’t afford. Even if I had millions of dollars, I might worry about never finding love.

Worry does that. It finds something to latch on to, regardless of our life circumstances. 

But I know better than to let my worries completely take over. I know that they have a sneaky way of amplifying themselves and consuming my day if I let them drive the narrative.

So today instead of letting worry take over or trying to forge ahead by forcing myself to push aside the worry, I took a walk in the park to have a conversation with my worry. 

The worry started its chatter, “Why are you in the park? You should be working on marketing right now. How are you ever going to be successful if you don’t start doing more?”

“Yes,” I answered, “I hear you. What are you really scared of?”

“I don’t want to be destitute and alone,” said my worry “I don’t want to feel like I have to keep pushing and working and struggling when I’m 80 and too tired to do it anymore.”

“But I’m pushing and struggling now,” I replied, “I’m not marketing because you’ve put so much pressure on me and my success that I can’t possibly be lit up and excited about it. What if I didn’t worry about what I was building for the future and instead just did what I enjoyed, right now?”

I reminded my worry none of us know what will happen in the future, life is quite unpredictable, so trying to live there is actually a bit silly. All we can do is live in the now.

“I’m scared,” my worry said.

“I know,” I replied.

“I want to feel taken care of,” said worry, “I want to feel connection and warmth and like I don’t have to do this alone.”

Ah, there it is. My core wound coming up again.

You see, as a small child and all through my adolescence, I had to do some really hard things with little to no support. My mother had a severe personality disorder and if I expressed any need for help or care, it was met with anger, blame, and vitriol, so I learned to do everything on my own. I still struggle with this today, and when I worry, it’s that I’ll be alone on my own again, with my heart broken and no one around to hold me or help me through.

I’m not actually scared of any particular circumstances, I’m scared to feel that heartbreak again.

But I’m not 7 anymore, and I know if I feel heartbreak, I will make it through. It won’t be pleasant, but it also won’t kill me.

So I ask my worry to show me where that heartbreak is in my body. It’s a tightness in my chest and heavy like a stone. I walk through the park and I simply feel it. I don’t make a story about being alone and unsupported in the future, or let it take over my thoughts about work, I simply let the physical sensations arise in my body.

It hurt. I felt so, so alone and so desperate for connection and care.

Then, I turned to my inner caregiver, that part of my awareness that I’ve cultivated over the last few years as a source of love and care, and I asked her to show me what care feels like.

I felt warmth, connection, laughter. I saw times with friends where I’d felt so comforted and loved. I saw the world as a welcoming place. I saw future relationships with people that I don’t even know yet that fulfil me in new and amazing ways.

Suddenly, I heard the birds in the park and I stopped to listen. Had they been singing this whole time? The grass had been freshly mowed and felt like soft velvet under my feet. There were two girls on the swings screaming and laughing their heads off.

“Right now, this world is safe,” I thought, “and I am not doing this alone. I am connected and cared for by my friends, this planet, and even by people I haven’t met yet.”

I could almost feel my brain chemistry change in that moment. Like one set of neurotransmitters had been reabsorbed while another came flooding in.

I felt safe. I felt connected. I felt like all was going to be okay.

I know it’s different for those of us that grew up in severely dysfunctional or abusive situations. I know how our brains developed differently under the constant stress, I know our nervous systems do their best to try to navigate the patterns of extreme highs and lows, and I know that all of that is now a part of my physiological makeup, and why when my worry comes along, it feels so invasive and involuntary.

But you can get to a place where you can feel comfort, safety, connection and care, even with no one else there. You can change the way you perceive the world, and when you do that, it no longer seems like such a scary place.

It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a willingness to do some shadow work and let some intense feelings arise, but it can be done.

If you want some support in this, a sherpa to help you climb this mountain, then please reach out. You deserve to feel safe and comforted. You deserve to look at the world and see connection and care.

Xo Megan

How to turn hate and fear into love

How to turn hate and fear into love

One of the most difficult things I’ve done is learn how to love the person who abused me.

When I was 26 years old, I made the incredibly difficult decision to cut my mother out of my life. In child abuse survivor circles, this is often called going “no contact” or NC and it was not a decision that was made lightly. In fact, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

I’d tried everything I could think of — writing her letters, talking things through, therapy for myself, and family therapy with her and my sister. I desperately wanted a relationship with my mom, and I didn’t want to go through life without that type of support. The idea of not having a mom in my life felt so freakish and lonely, so I was trying anything I could to salvage a workable relationship so that I could have her in my life.

Finally, after a typical abusive episode at a restaurant where she loudly told me what I was wearing made me look fat, repulsive, hideous, and disgusting and she couldn’t imagine how I could let people see me in public like that (for the record — it was a nice skirt and blouse that I often wore to the office), I decided I’d had enough.

I was at a loss. How do you go about divorcing your mother? How do you deal with the guilt, the anger, the loss, and the intense emotional pain?

When I asked people who I thought of as older and wiser, the response was often, “But she’s your mother! You can’t cut her off. I don’t care how horrible she was to you, she’s still your mother.” I was told by so many well-meaning people that once I’d had my own kids, I’d understand how you simply CAN’T cut your own mother off. Then, they’d give me suggestions for how to work things out that I’d tried 1000 times before.

No one I knew seemed to have any answers.

And while I know they didn’t understand the depth of the abuse, and the lengths to which I’d gone to salvage the relationship, they were right about one thing. She was still my mother. I needed to figure out a way to relate to her in my own psyche, even if she wasn’t in my life. So what could I do?

About a year later, I found myself at my first meditation training. The instructor was B. Allan Wallace, a Buddhist monk who seemed like he may have some answers. One day I asked if I could eat lunch with him and talk to him about something I was wrestling with, in my life. I gave him a brief account of my childhood, my mom, and all the things I’d tried to do to repair our relationship. To my surprise, even after that brief account, he didn’t try to suggest new ways to repair it or even question my decision to go no contact. He paused for a minute and then said, “Sometimes the only way to have people in our life is to send them compassion from afar. And that isn’t nothing — sending someone the energy of compassion can be very healing.” At the time I thought he meant healing for my mom, but I’ve now come to realize he meant healing for me, too.

So I practiced sending her the Buddhist prayer of Mettā each time I thought of her (which was still many times per day).

“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.” 

I repeated this over and over, through tears, through rage, through confusion, through grief, and through loneliness.

Finally, I started to understand. I could be furious at how she treated me and also have compassion for her suffering. I could be brokenhearted and also have compassion for how miserable she clearly was. I could hate her for what she did to me and also have compassion for what had happened to her to create such psychological instability in her own mind.

And I could do the same for myself. I could feel broken and depressed and also have compassion for myself. I could feel shame and also have compassion for myself. I could hear her abusive voice in my head, now my own inner critic, and also have compassion for myself.

Compassion can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. Fondness or affection is not a prerequisite for compassion. In fact, seeing someone in their wholeness, both the “good” and “bad” parts of them, is a huge part of compassion.

And beyond that, once you feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, even love can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. You can love the part of them that hurts, the part that is suffering, and in this way, you can move towards healing the pain.

“I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”

― Ram Dass

What Ram Dass is saying here is essentially the same thing that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It is possible to have love in your heart, no matter what someone has done to you.

It took me YEARS to get to a place where when I thought of my mother, I was able to send her love. Now, don’t get me wrong —  I was still angry, sad, confused, and traumatized (sometimes all at once) but at the same time I was feeling all of that, I was also able to feel compassion for her suffering, and then from there, eventually, I could feel love for her.

My mother died earlier this summer. I hadn’t spoken to her in over 15 years, but when I heard she was dying, I went to the hospital to say goodbye. It took 30 minutes of meditation in the hospital parking lot to regulate my nervous system so I wasn’t about to have a panic attack, but once I felt centered, I went in.

I told her I loved her, and I meant it. She asked what had happened, why we hadn’t spoken in so long. I looked at her and said, honestly, “Our relationship caused me too much anxiety. I couldn’t handle it, so I pulled away.” She said she wished it had been different. I cried and told her I did, too.

And then I held her hand and told her all the things I loved about her. And I told her all the things I knew others loved about her, too.

She denied it all. She said, “Oh, come on” and waved me away.

I know mom. I know you never felt worthy of love. I know that’s why you tormented me, and I can see that through the eyes of compassion now. Hurt people hurt people, until we break the generational cycle.

So, I’m here to break that cycle. I’m here to “be a statement of love and compassion.” In many ways, mom, you were the hardest place to do that work. You were the person who did the most damage to me and so you were also the hardest person for me to love. But I thank you for that lesson because you know what? Now that I know how to feel compassion for you, I can feel that same love for everyone I meet.

I understand that loving someone has nothing to do with agreeing with their actions, their beliefs, or their words and, instead, has everything to do with seeing them in their wholeness and that simple Mettā prayer of compassion:

“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”

Xo Megan

Do you know how to be proud of yourself?

The other day, my mentor asked me, “Are you proud of yourself?”

I had just finished running my new course, Unconventional Tools for Healing, for the first time and was telling her how pleased I was to get some really lovely feedback from the participants.

I stopped for a moment and reflected on her question. I answered honestly, and felt myself holding back tears as I responded:

“I don’t think I know how to be proud of myself.”

The first time I ever remember hearing, “I’m proud of you” from any of my family members was in an email from my father after I’d finished cancer treatment. I’d been writing a blog throughout my treatment and he responded to one of my posts, telling me he was proud of me.

I cried big, wet tears for about 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how long I’d been waiting to hear that from him.

The insidious fallout for children of emotionally immature or abusive parents is that we often don’t learn what it feels like to take a moment to be proud of ourselves. If we’re hyperfocused and hypervigilant on being the good girl or boy and keeping all the plates spinning in the air, we never learn to stop and take stock of what we’ve achieved.

That moment of feeling pride is important. It’s a moment of rest, reflection and integration before starting the next task.

But in the day in and day out nature of extreme emotional caretaking, there is no rest and there is no moment to reflect.

If this is what “normal” was for you as a child, then stopping, reflecting, and being proud of what you’ve achieved can feel uncomfortable and perhaps even a little anxiety provoking. There’s no awareness of the importance of resting and feeling proud of your achievements before taking on the next challenge.

Here are some signs that you might never have learned how to rest and integrate:

  1. You feel anxious of uncomfortable when you have nothing to do. Your brain wants to know, “what’s next?” and you quickly find something to busy yourself. (This can also manifest as ADHD.)
  2. You think that your achievements are just the bare minimum of what you were supposed to do. I finished chemo? Well, I had cancer I was supposed to. I launched a successful online course? Well, I was supposed to, that’s what you do when you have your own business.
  3. You think that all of the success you’ve achieved might be because of a fluke and not because you worked hard and deserved it. The good things that happen to you are courtesy of chance. The bad things that happen to you are your responsibility.
  4. You don’t think your needs matter or are worth taking into account and this includes your need for rest and integration.
  5. You feel that you are not enough. You feel like you have to go above and beyond every time and that nothing you do is ever quite good enough.
  6. You think that you are too much and you need to work on toning it down.
  7. You believe that if you take time to rest, you will be chastised for being lazy, needy or selfish.

If any of these feel familiar, then please let me be the first to tell you:

Rest, my child.

You deserve to rest.

You deserve to take time for yourself to reset, realign, and heal.

You deserve time only for yourself, with no responsibilities for anyone or anything else.

And furthermore, I am proud of you. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve lived a life that’s anything special or you’ve done anything particularly praise worthy, I am proud of you.

I am proud of you because you have made it this far through some pretty tough shit. You’ve survived some things that probably temporarily broke you, and you’ve picked yourself up and put the pieces back together.

YOU did that. And that’s pretty amazing.

So, please, hear me when I say I’m proud of you.

And now, let us rest.

Xo Megan

Why It’s So Hard To Rest And Relax

The other day, my mentor asked me, “Are you proud of yourself?”.  

I had just finished running my new course, Unconventional Tools for Healing, for the first time and was telling her how pleased I was to get some really lovely feedback from the participants. 

I stopped for a moment and reflected on her question. I answered honestly, and felt myself holding back tears as I responded: 

“I don’t think I know how to be proud of myself.” 

The first time I ever remember hearing, “I’m proud of you” from any of my family members was in an email from my father after I’d finished cancer treatment. I’d been writing a blog throughout my treatment and he responded to one of my posts, telling me he was proud of me. 

I cried big, wet tears for about 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how long I’d been waiting to hear that from him.

The insidious fallout for children of emotionally immature or abusive parents is that we often don’t learn what it feels like to take a moment to be proud of ourselves. If we’re hyperfocused and hypervigilant on being the good girl or boy and keeping all the plates spinning in the air, we never learn to stop and take stock of what we’ve achieved. 

That moment of feeling pride is important. It’s a moment of rest, reflection and integration before starting the next task.  

But in the day in and day out nature of extreme emotional caretaking, there is no rest and there is no moment to reflect. 

If this is what “normal” was for you as a child, then stopping, reflecting, and being proud of what you’ve achieved can feel uncomfortable and perhaps even a little anxiety provoking. There’s no awareness of the importance of resting and feeling proud of your achievements before taking on the next challenge. 

Here are some signs that you might never have learned how to rest and integrate: 

  1. You feel anxious or uncomfortable when you have nothing to do. Your brain wants to know, “what’s next?” and you quickly find something to busy yourself. (This can also manifest as ADHD.) 
  2. You think that your achievements are just the bare minimum of what you were supposed to do. I finished chemo? Well, I had cancer I was supposed to. I launched a successful online course? Well, I was supposed to, that’s what you do when you have your own business. 
  3. You think that all of the success you’ve achieved might be because of a fluke and not because you worked hard and deserved it. The good things that happen to you are courtesy of chance. The bad things that happen to you are your responsibility.
  4. You don’t think your needs matter or are worth taking into account and this includes your need for rest and integration.
  5. You feel that you are not enough. You feel like you have to go above and beyond every time, and that nothing you do is ever quite good enough. 
  6. You think that you are too much, and you need to work on toning it down. 
  7. You believe that if you take time to rest, you will be chastised for being lazy, needy or selfish. 

If any of these feel familiar, then please let me be the first to tell you: 

Rest, my child.

You deserve to rest. 

You deserve to take time for yourself to reset, realign, and heal. 

You deserve time only for yourself, with no responsibilities for anyone or anything else. 

And furthermore, I am proud of you. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve lived a life that’s anything special or you’ve done anything particularly praise worthy, I am proud of you

I am proud of you because you have made it this far through some pretty tough shit. You’ve survived some things that probably temporarily broke you, and you’ve picked yourself up and put the pieces back together. 

YOU did that. And that’s pretty amazing. 

So, please, hear me when I say I’m proud of you. 

And now, let us rest. 

xo,

Megan

The Most Important Relationship You’ll Ever Have

We all have “inner critics” — that voice in our head that’s less than supportive, doubting, and sometimes even mean. 

Our inner critic feeds off of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and shame. This is often an echo of the way that we were spoken to as children or a reflection of the value system we grew up in, like valuing hard work or piousness and thereby shaming “laziness” or “bad behavior.”

The main problem with the inner critic is that it keeps us from having a healthy version of the most important relationship we’ll ever have —  the relationship with ourselves.

When we can learn to be our own cheerleaders, wise mentors, and caregivers, it makes life so much more pleasant. When we develop inner mentors and inner caregivers, we improve our relationship with ourself and see dramatic changes in how we interact with the world.

How do we convince the inner critic that they are wrong and that we truly are worthy, wonderful human beings?

One of the ways we can improve our relationship with ourselves is by consistently demonstrating our love and care for ourselves and by asking others to help us, too.

This is just like you’d do with a romantic partner – relationships need to be looked after and tended on a daily basis, and the one you have with yourself is no exception.

One way we can work on our relationship with ourselves is through our “love languages.” We each have a ranking of which love languages makes us feel most loved, valued and appreciated. The five love languages are Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.

 You can find yours here: Take the quiz!

(Mine are: “receiving gifts”, “words of affirmation” and “acts of service”)

 

 Once you have found your love language profile, here’s what you can do to improve your relationship with yourself.

  1. Find your top 2 love languages and do (or pay someone to do) at least 2 things per week for yourself. For example, buy yourself a small gift (“receiving gifts”), use a grocery delivery app (“acts of service”), get a massage (“physical touch”).  Make note of the ones that bring you the most joy so you can do them again!
  1. ASK for others to do things for you in your love language.  For example, ask a friend to tell you 3 reasons they value your friendship (“words of affirmation”), ask a friend to surprise you with a gift sometime in the next week (“receiving gifts”), or ask your partner to do the dishes every night this week (“acts of service”).

 

This may feel weird to ask at first, but we have to get used to asking for what will make us feel loved. Plus, studies show that taking care of others increases people’s happiness. So we’re actually making THEM happier by asking!

Once you’ve made it a habit to buy yourself flowers every Sunday like Lizzo or get a massage each week no matter what, you will be well on your way to learning how to value yourself and understand that you deserve to be treated well and are deserving of all the love.

 

xo,

Megan

 

What I’ve learned about growth mindset from binging British reality TV competitions

Lately, I’ve been working on unhooking from praise and criticism in how I evaluate myself and my work. I’ve been examining my own unhealthy relationship to praise and how I’ve chased “gold star stickers” as validation for most of my life.

This started in elementary school when I would get praise for doing well academically. There’s a meme that made the rounds a few years ago that was so spot on for me, it made me cringe in recognition. 

Oh yes, all of the above. 100%

The challenges that “gifted and talented” kids face later in life can be explained by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset vs fixed mindset. A growth mindset is where you believe intelligence is malleable and can develop and grow over time. A fixed mindset is one where you believe intelligence is fixed and static. It turns out that  when we praise kids for specific abilities or achievements (“That was a great essay!”, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a good athlete!”) as opposed to attributes or intrinsic qualities (“Wow! I’m impressed at how hard you worked on that!” or “That was tough but I’m proud of how you stuck with it.”) we inadvertently stunt their growth mindset and drive them towards a fixed mindset. 

Ability-based praise leads kids to believe that labels like “you’re so smart” are true for them and these attributes quickly become part of their self-identity. While this doesn’t seem bad at first glance, when we attach too strongly to something as part of our identity/ego, we then become terrified of it being stripped away. This causes us to default to a fixed mindset in order to preserve our precious identity and we learn to fear the inevitable failures that come as part and parcel of a healthy growth mindset. If trying something and failing becomes something that threatens who we think we are, then failure becomes a painful ego distortion rather than a normal part of learning and growing. The result is that the kids who were praised for abilities are much less likely to want to try challenging tasks than the kids who are praised for attributes, and are more often up for a new challenge. 

As one of the “gifted and talented kids” my parents praised me up, down and sideways for my academic achievements. They bragged about it to friends. They told me I had such a bright future ahead of me as a result. They pulled me out of one school and put me into another to better match my intellectual prowess. It quickly became part of my identity and a great source of my self-esteem. 

However, the problem with self-esteem is this — what happens when we can no longer do esteemable things? What happens when for some reason or another, we can’t perform at the level that we’ve come to expect? 

Let me tell you, it feels like crap

It feels like shame

It feels like existential failure

This became suddenly and abundantly clear to me when I lost a good deal of my cognitive function due to “chemo brain” almost overnight. My memory, information processing abilities, recall, vocabulary, and other markers of intelligence were all severely impacted by chemotherapy and I found myself unable to be the “smart kid” anymore. How could I be the smart kid when I couldn’t even process what someone was saying to me, let alone remember any information that would help me craft a response? 

Common words eluded me. Facts and figures and ideas that I’d known by heart were murky at best. And my auditory processing was shot — if someone said something to me verbally rather than writing it down, I had no memory of it. Which made me feel like an idiot when I couldn’t remember something they’d said to me mere hours before. “Don’t you remember? We JUST talked about this, Megan.” 

It was a huge slap in the face. And while I’ve recovered a good deal of my cognitive abilities, they’re still not what they used to be. But that sudden loss allowed me to look at my core identity as “the smart one” and how deeply it had been ingrained in my sense of self and ego. Only then could I look at whether that served me or not, and make some conscious decisions about what I wanted my self-concept to be. 

So, what’s the antidote to this relentless quest for the gold star fix? And what does it have to do with British reality TV? 

I realized after chemo brain hit me hard that I needed to shift my identity to be about attributes rather than abilities. For example, I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning rather than “I’m smart.” Or, I am compassionate, curious and open-minded about those in my life rather than “I’m a nice person.” Can I love reading and not be smart? Sure can! Can I be compassionate with someone’s suffering and still have good boundaries and say no? You betcha. 

During the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching two British reality TV competitions: “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown.” These shows touch me in a way that I couldn’t quite name until one recent episode of “Pottery Throwdown.” One of the contestants, Roz, was asked to do a task that was way out of her wheelhouse. She finished the task but came in last in the judging. As she’s speaking to the judges about coming in last she says she’s embarrassed. Keith, one of the judges, looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Never feel embarrassed, Roz.” 

What he’s saying to Roz here is that she should be proud of herself, she should be proud of her attributes of persistence, resilience and grit rather than be embarrassed about her abilities (or lack thereof) at this specific task. You can see the interaction here: 

 

My love of these British reality competitions comes from the culture on these shows of being proud of trying your best, going out of your comfort zone, and being resilient and gritty. These are valued more on these shows than whether you came first or last. It’s not about the gold star or the winner’s ribbon, that’s just icing on the cake. (Yes, I made a baking pun, just for you my fellow GBBO fans.) The core values of these shows are about how extraordinary it is for people to show up with uncertainty, put in the effort, and try something new without knowing how it will turn out.  

No wonder I love these shows, they’re models of growth mindset that I desperately need. They feed the part of me that wants to see this in action, the part of me that wants to soak up all of these examples of how to value attributes rather than abilities like a sponge so I can turn around and do the same for myself and others. 

Here’s my challenge for you this week — try to think of a time when someone praised you for your attributes rather than your abilities. What did they say? How did it feel? 

If you can think of one, please comment on this post or email me at megan@megancaper.com and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself. 

Xo Megan

P.S. For more on this subject:

Tara Mohr “Playing Big”

Carol Dweck “Mindset”

Alice Miller “Drama of the Gifted Child”