Cry Me a River

A muffle hum cues my tear ducts into action.  Instinctually, the soles of my feet plant themselves into the carpet as temporary paralysis floods through my body. I scan for the nearest exit – a door, my desk, an excuse to leave the room.  But its too late.  The oh-so-familiar sensation of tears sprinkle down my face while questions spin through my head.  Why am I crying?  What did the person say? Oh this is so embarrassing.  Now stop, please.  

***

“Don’t take it to heart.”  “Toughen up, will you.”  “Stop being so defensive.”  I’ve heard it all.

As a child, I was a cry baby.  Not because I was constantly sad, but because crying became my go-to expressive form.  If someone hurt me and I felt angry, I would cry in frustration of not having the courage to confront them about it.  If someone gave me constructive criticism, I blamed my flawed performance of not being skilled enough as an individual, and cried for being imperfect.

My innate drive for perfectionism created standards which I expected myself to reach.  If I did, I thought, Good, I should have, and if not… well, I assume by now you know how I reacted.  However, I didn’t want to react this way.  I knew it was not only often immature and unwarranted, but also prevented me from building the resilience needed to bounce back every time a tripped.  I wanted to strive for optimal growth, but the reaction of crying seemed so ingrained in me that I was unsure of how to change.

***

During my summer between the end of high school and beginning of university, I became intrigued by the idea of Mindfulness.  Namely, because it claims to be able to rewire your brain and in turn your thoughts and emotions.  After reading my fair share of Mindfulness related books, a few favourites being James Doty’s Into the Magic Shop, and Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B, I checked myself in as a Mindfulness Guinea pig to test these theories out (summarised below).

***

On the last day of my summer internship this year, my supervisor and I had a wrap-up meeting to evaluate my performance.  Due to having received minimal constructive criticism on my performance thus far, I assumed I had done alright.  However,  unknowing to me at the time, my supervisor thought otherwise.

As the meeting progressed, and a generous handful of constructive feedback flowed my way (some which I agreed with, others which I strongly did not), many thoughts slipped through my head.  First, the initial shock from being caught off guard by all this not-so-positive feedback, a sudden trigger for the self-erecting defensive wall in my brain.  Yet in the split second before over-drive kicked in, I found myself consciously slowing down my breath and loosening my posture.  I tried imagining myself as an outsider, recognising both the feedback given and my own thoughts without giving either the satisfaction of a reaction.  Instead, I released the best fake genuine smile my cheekbones could muster and soon, the meeting was finally over.

***

Although I’m still finding the optimal balance between my inner perfectionist, and the ability to apply resilience through Mindfulness techniques, I know one thing for certain – that if this situation happened a year ago today, the outcome would be very, very different.

***

A few pointers I gathered from Doty, Grant and Sandberg.  They aren’t revelationary ideas, but set-in-stone phrases for the reason that they may actually really work.

P.S. I recognise Mindfulness isn’t for everyone, but hey, who’s not in for a little personal growth?

1.You’re in control

I’ve noticed that in between receiving a trigger from the external environment and expressing a reaction, my mind pauses for a split second while it processes the new information.  This is the time when you have the power to decide how you’re going to react.

2.Its not personal

Often, we’re so caught up on how we’re feeling that we forget about others.  What other people say or do is swayed by factors like how they’re feeling at the time, and their personal beliefs – its not always about you.

3.Take a step back

In heated moments, I like to take a step back to see a situation from an outsider’s point of view,  Often, the situation isn’t as magnified as you play it out to be.  It helps put things back into perspective.

 

Connecting the Dots in a Misaligned Puzzle

As if for the final shi-bang in a synchronised swimming act at the Olympics, the smell of bitter burning sugar tumbles over the once sweet whiff seeping out from under the kitchen door just as the toddler pierces the room’s simple serenity with a squeal for hunger.  Decisions whiz through the Mother’s head.  Save the muffins or save my eardrums?  Muffins, I’m hungry.  And just like that, a connect-the-dots puzzle is slammed onto table under the toddler’s nose.

***

Whether it be due to a moment of strained parenting or genuine interest for mental stimulation at age 3, I would like to think that most of us have completed a connect-the-dots puzzle before.  Like many puzzles, these puzzles are geared for success.  The dots are arranged in such a way that after connecting each dot in the correct sequence, the outline of something entertaining appears.  But what happens when the dots don’t align?

***

“Where do I belong? I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere.”, I exclaimed bitterly to one of my old high-school friends over a meal of Japanese food.  Somehow during the summer after my first year at university abroad, the extent of my cultural identity crisis began dawning on me.  In Scotland (the location of my university), I am just another Chinese student reaping the benefits of their Higher Education system, and potentially later on, the local job market as well.  However, back at “home” in Hong Kong, the stars aren’t twinkling any brighter.  My broken Cantonese (if you could call it that) makes it hard to navigate through any conversation which doesn’t include ordering food or locating the nearest toilet.  And if all this isn’t enough, my family roots as a New Zealand-born-Chinese is the garnish to the dish.

In all three places, seedlings have sprouted, but neither the time nor patience has been expelled to allow them to flourish.  The result?  Initial loneliness that this struggle is unique to my specific cultural upbringing.  Confusion on why this problem is only mattering now, and frustration on not knowing how to resolve it and how long it will take.

Although I am certain many share uniquely similar experiences, I am still uncertain about everything other than these visceral emotions.  So let me ask – when you’re the wallflower in that awkward, empty, fuzzy space in between the dots, what do you do?

 

 

Planet me

As I stared intently through the car’s front window to the slab of road hugging the bonnet, my grip on the steering wheel tightened (this was my futile attempt at off-setting the effects of a brewing pool of hand sweat accumulating right underneath).  “Do you see that brown building a few hundred meters ahead?”, my car instructor said calmly, slicing the wires quickly latching itself between my thoughts and panic, and jolting me back to the present.  “Well look there, never look right in front”.

***

Recently, I read a quote that went something like this – “As we’re all busy growing up, we often forget that our loved ones are getting older”.  As logical as this statement may be, reading this for the first time left me in a shock.  One, because I had not pieced these two simple puzzle squares together on my own merit, and two, because I was baffled at how true this statement really was.

In my own life, the commotion over starting my first year at university had ever so naturally slid those once valued thoughts about my family into the backseat of my mind.  Everything I began thinking revolved around planet me.  Will I be able to make friends?  Will I survive on cafeteria food for a whole year without starving?  Will I enjoy my course?  And as I kept ruminating over these seemingly relevant and pressing concerns, unknowing to me at the time, planet me transitioned from something merely orbiting in my mind to the thing everything else was orbiting around.

So when I read this quote, it triggered an affect similar to that described by my driving instructor – my perception recalibrated its lense from micro to macro.  As cliche as it is, I realised how self-absorbed I was about my own concerns, and in turn how carefree I was about those of the family I claimed to care about.  I realised that just because these people were no longer in my immediate surroundings and hence did not require the physical reaction of a shared laughter or smothering hug, did not mean that my “care level” for them was any less.  Moreover, because of my brief period of self-centeredness, a lapse of memory had a occurred.  I was up-to-date with the nitty-gritty details about my family leading up to and after my self-centered phase, but not during the part in-between.

This hit home during summer on a visit to see my parents and grandparents.  I noticed my Mum slumping a bit deeper into her steps, the first white hairs planting themselves amongst my Dad’s black eyebrows, my Grandpa struggling with the simple skills of sitting and standing.  It was as if they had all miraculously aged.

Even though this phrase is now so overused that I doubt it provokes much reaction, I will still give it a try – STOP, just for a second.  Auto-pilot catches on to the best of us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t press pause once in a while and appreciate those still around.