AN ABSTRACT ARTIST & FRENCH INSTRUCTOR WHO SPEAKS ABOUT HER ANXIETY, EXTREME FATIGUE & BODY SHAME AND HOW ACCEPTANCE IS SETTING HER FREE
ON aCCEPTing WHAT MAKES HER DIFFERENT:
"I’ve had many transitions that have largely affected my life. I’ll choose one: going to middle school and hitting adolescence. I was in a small environment in my private elementary school. I had been there since I was 5. Then, I graduated and went to another private school…a middle school and high school. It no longer felt like home. It was very competitive. I hated it. I didn’t click with the people. But I didn’t want to admit how much I hated it. I tried to pretend that I was a happy American school girl, like the others. I was not feeling adolescence. The teenage brain is something I never had and I never related to. So socially I wasn’t popular or feeling at home. I was on the periphery. Athletically, I wasn’t good enough to be on any of the teams. Academically, it was a lot more responsibility than what I was used to and I was getting “demerits” for forgetting my homework. So I became more focused and organized on my academics and, to my surprise, I actually became really good at it, good at every subject. It came easy once I focused.
It was also at this time that I embraced being an artist. I was recognized for my artistic ability in school. And I hated going to school hangouts, parties or football games. What I preferred to do is be alone, at home, making jewelry, sketching fashion designs, painting and being creative. So, the painful social experiences and also general hell that is to be in middle school shifted my focus and perspective to art and academics… and now I am a professional artist and French teacher at a university. So, my identity, I believe, was formed through feeling terribly out of place, which forced me to be comfortable going it alone, being independent to develop my strengths.
"MY IDENTITY WAS FORMED THROUGH FEELING TERRIBLY OUT OF PLACE..."
Also, oddly enough, it was during this time that I learned to employ my extraversion and develop my people and conversational skills... to move past the discomfort and meet more people who share my values, outlook and sense of humor. When I look back at this transition of my life, I see it as an important shift and an explanation of my identity development. Although I still internalize a lot of insecurities, I've learned that I cannot compromise who I am, and that it’s impossible for me to be someone I am not. I went my own way, even though it was lonely and painful."
"ALTHOUGH I STILL INTERNALIZE A LOT OF INSECURITIES, I'VE LEARNED THAT I CANNOT COMPROMISE WHO I AM, AND THAT IT'S IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO BE SOMEONE I AM NOT. I WENT MY OWN WAY, EVEN THOUGH IT WAS LONELY AND PAINFUL."
ON the painful process of learning:
"When living in France (ages 23-25), I was completely living outside of my comfort zone. I still feel shades of that whenever I go back and speak with natives, even though now France feels like a second home. I started learning French when I was 21 and first lived in France at the age of 23. I had the sole goal of becoming fluent, and I had unrealistic expectations of myself, as a perfectionist. Before going to France, I took French courses in college. I was very timid and shy and I didn’t want to make errors out loud. So I knew I needed to be in an environment that forced me to speak, so that I could advance towards my goal of fluency. Hence, immersion (the most extreme option) was the only answer to advancing. It was PAINFUL. Every conversation was uncomfortable and put my insecurities under a microscope. I saw errors as personal failures and constantly compared myself to my French-learning peers or to French friends who spoke English so well. Unfortunately, this unhealthy hypersensitivity prevented me from progressing as much as I could have in an immersed environment, had I been open and not cared about sounding like an idiot during the language learning process.
"I SAW (LANGUAGE) ERRORS AS PERSONAL FAILURES AND CONSTANTLY COMPARED MYSELF TO MY PEERS... AFTER FORCING MYSELF TO KEEP AT IT, I DID PROGRESS AND MY ADVANCEMENT BUILT A TYPE OF CONFIDENCE THAT I STILL DRAW STRENGTH FROM TODAY."
After forcing myself to keep at it, I did progress and my advancement built a type of confidence that I still draw strength from today. However, to be honest, I still deal with mini versions of that lack of confidence and extreme discomfort in my language learning process. The process is, unfortunately, ENDLESS."
ON HAVING EXTREME FATIGUE:
"I almost always feel vulnerable, at some point in the day. I’d say I feel vulnerable and fragile more often than not. I live with dips of extreme fatigue (I have since I was 17), and it can’t be explained with definable causes. Most people don’t understand or relate to it. When people get to know me, I have to reveal this fatigue struggle and it’s always frustrating and gets in the way of committing to plans.
"I LIVE WITH DIPS OF EXTREME FATIGUE AND IT CAN'T BE EXPLAINED WITH DEFINABLE CAUSES. MOST PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND OR RELATE TO IT."
When experiencing fatigue, I feel a heightened sense of fragility and vulnerability, as I must retreat and rest, while tasks and socializing are forced to get put on hold. This is very inconvenient and frustrating for relationships and general goals. I’m currently in a bout of fatigue, and I’m feeling very fragile and, of course, I’m feeling very vulnerable as I write all this, pouring out my guts."
ON BEING ASHAMED OF HER BODY:
"I’ve been very ashamed of myself in lots of ways. I’ve been ashamed of my body… ashamed that I haven’t been able to maintain a certain weight and ideal, like a self-controlled woman of society should. I realize these are atrocious expectations put on women. I’m someone who cannot be skinny, and I’ve resented that. I grew up going to a cookie-cutter private school and I was anything but cookie-cutter perfect. I tried to be skinny by going on very healthy diets as a teenager. These diets ended up being very detrimental to my health because I became obsessed with the diets. The diets were unsustainable, as I followed them to the extreme. As a result, after a year, I couldn’t sustain the diets and saw it as failure of self-control. I became compulsive and my weight fluctuated a lot as a result. This was very painful for me and I have felt very ashamed of this fluctuation.
"I'VE BEEN ASHAMED OF MY BODY... ASHAMED THAT I HAVEN'T BEEN ABLE TO MAINTAIN A CERTAIN WEIGHT AND IDEAL, LIKE A SELF-CONTROLLED WOMAN OF SOCIETY SHOULD."
I’ve experienced various versions of this bizarre relationship with my body, until I was about 29… when I just gave up trying to diet or calorie count. What I wish I could have learned was to never diet and to accept my body, and learn to listen…listen to what I need and what my body is telling me. I would have dealt with so much less pain had I done that. Listening to your body takes maturity and it’s usually not what society tells you."
ON LETTING GO OF HER DEPRESSED SELF-NARRATIVE:
"After my first year of graduate school, I was in an anxious state that I had never previously known. My anxiety and stress was extreme. I couldn’t eat. I was at my lowest weight as an adult. I thought I was going to have to quit grad school and move back home and be institutionalized. “I can’t handle life,” I thought to myself. “All this achievement and social butterflying is a ruse. Who you really are is someone depressed and anxious and needing to be sheltered.” I had to bail on my job (something I’d never done), go back home to Nashville for a week with my parents and reassess.
Over the next month, I worked with doctors to find a good fit for anti-anxiety medicine. I started painting again after many years off. I took a Myers-Briggs test that said I was an ENFP and that the depressed version of myself who needed to be sheltered was just an unhealthy version of myself under stress. I felt so liberated to know that information! I had been feeding myself a narrative, saying that the true Sarah was that introverted, depressed version of myself. The medicine helped a ton, and I went back into my second year of graduate school stronger than ever. Letting go of that depressed self-narrative really set me free and, oddly enough, the Myers Briggs personality test really helped me understand myself and realize that I wasn’t alone, that there were many other zany, super emotional people out there like me."
"LETTING GO OF THAT DEPRESSED SELF-NARRATIVE REALLY SET ME FREE... THE MYERS BRIGGS PERSONALITY TEST REALLY HELPED ME UNDERSTAND MYSELF AND REALIZE THAT I WASN'T ALONE, THAT THERE WERE MANY OTHER ZANY, SUPER EMOTIONAL PEOPLE OUT THERE LIKE ME."
ON LEARNING TO SPEAK HER NEEDS:
"I really wish I had learned to speak my needs and be blunt, especially when it comes to men. The #metoo movement really brought to light some very painful dynamics in our culture and how, as a woman, I have been trained and expected to please, to be nice, to smile, to brush things off, to say “yes” or to “go along with it” and to not express my needs or opinions bluntly. I really wish that I had been taught a consent-based sex education. I’m reviewing my behavior and responses and saying, “Why do I do this? Where have I learned this?” The predatory, sexual culture and dynamics are so exhausting and terrifying.
"THE #METOO MOVEMENT REALLY BROUGHT TO LIGHT SOME VERY PAINFUL DYNAMICS IN OUR CULTURE AND HOW, AS A WOMAN, I HAVE BEEN TRAINED AND EXPECTED TO PLEASE, TO BE NICE, TO SMILE, TO BRUSH THINGS OFF, TO SAY 'YES' OR TO GO ALONG WITH IT..."
These issues and discomforts were the catalysts that launched me back into counseling. I am reviewing patterns, trying to be graceful with myself, journaling A LOT, and talking to close friends and mentors. I’m also working to be honest, and express myself in all relationships...even after the fact, as it often takes me time to process. I find it also very helpful to establish boundaries. Direct, blunt communication works the best for me."
ON THE ANXIETY OF DECISION-MAKING:
"I need help making decisions because I often want it all or I often have anxiety about making the “right” choice. So since I was probably 18, I have flipped coins… “heads I do this, tails I do this.” For many years, you could always find quarters on my bedroom floor and this was why. Then I downloaded an app that allows me to do the same thing on my phone, since I don’t have coins with me at all times. I use it multiple times a day. I recently realized that even my closest friends didn’t know this about me. So, I thought I’d share."
ON PUSHING OUT NEGATIVE MANTRAS:
"I’ve been working on recognizing negative self talk, writing out a specific thought in one column and then counteracting it with a positive affirmation in another. One chapter in Edmund Bourne’s book “Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” specifically addresses negative talk and gives examples for counteracting thoughts with positive affirmations (this is how I got this whole idea in the first place). It has really helped me. Guided meditations and Yoga Nidra also really help my mindset and nervous, adrenal system. I do these as much as possible."