The Many Gifts of Trauma: Letting Go of June

Alissa, me, Stevi, and LeAnne. Graduation June 7, 2017.

Alissa, me, Stevi, and LeAnne. Graduation June 7, 2017.

“The Price of Security is Insecurity.”- Dan Harris, 10% Happier

Vulnerability, vulnerability, vulnerability…

Before I begin with my post, I wish to ponder: how do you exercise self-empathy and self-compassion? While self-care is incredibly important to consider, I think a consideration of self-empathy and self-compassion should be as important (if not more so than) as self-care. Self-empathy and self-compassion require non-judgement and non-attachment. Being that it is the month of June again, I’m struggling with both. The post today is my own engagement in self-empathy and self-compassion (and putting my ego in the seat of non-judgement is really hard to do).

For today, I wish to consider the possibility that experiencing trauma can bring about many gifts, which includes empathy and compassion for oneself and for others. In No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron contemplates the three benefits of pain which I would like to consider as extensions of traumatic experiences. She writes,

First [suffering] is valuable because through sorrow, pride is driven out. No matter how arrogant and condescending we’ve been, great suffering can humble us. The pain of a serious illness or loss of a loved one can be transformative, softening us and making us less self-centered. The second benefit is empathy: the compassion felt for those who wander in samsara. Our personal suffering brings compassion for others in the same situation…The third value of suffering is that evil is avoided and goodness seems delightful. When we practice according to Shantideva’s instructions, we can get smarter about cause and result. Based on this understanding, we’ll have less inclination to cause harm, and more desire to gather virtue and benefit others…These are the three values of suffering: it humbles us; it causes us to feel compassion for others in the same situation; and, because we begin to understand the workings of karma, it motivates us to not add to our burden of pain when we could lighten the load. (172-173)

Despite how we might normally think of trauma (in negative terms), I wish to consider how we might reframe trauma (in positive terms). In other words, what gifts might traumatic events inspire? Additionally, what gifts might everyday anxieties inspire? Rather than frame our traumas and anxieties as burdens, how helpful would it be to reframe them as gifts?

Joseph Goldstein: “Be aware and Don’t Cling” (title of a 20-minute meditation from 10% Happier)

In a meditation from the 10% Happier app, Joseph Goldstein explains, “Too many expectations can lead to disappointment.” These expectations run into many roadblocks, and life essentially not unfolding as we had planned is the cause of much anxiety and worry. As I write this post, I’m setting the intention of letting go of June and the difficult emotions it conjures in me.

Why is this so? Let me count the ways: father-in-law’s death in 2016; the months leading up to my dissertation defense in June 2017; a panic attack at a major conference the week following my defense in 2017; and constant job insecurity (job offers for contingent faculty usually manifest in the summer months).

In the picture above, one might think this was a joyous occasion: graduation. It was for me and for many who were conferred our doctoral degrees on June 7, 2017. But this moment is also remembered as the week prior to the most humiliating event of my career: a panic attack a week and a half later during my presentation at the African Literature Association Conference in 2017 at Yale University on Saturday, June 17 (approximately 9:10 AM).

If you’ve read Dan Harris’ 10% Happier, he chronicles his own panic attack which occurred live on air of Good Morning America in 2007 at the beginning of the book. I, too, experienced a very similar incident (minus the 5 million or so viewers; mine included only 12). Like Harris, I was reading from a script (in this case, my paper); three lines into the presentation and I started to panic, mumbling my words, and eventually pausing to catch my breath. Unlike Harris though, I didn’t leave the room. I stayed until the very end, which included two more incidents where I had to pause, breathe, and start again all the while the audience merely wondering what was wrong with me. I experienced what is termed “air hunger,” an actual medical term to describe a person experiencing a panic attack.

It took me quite a while to come to terms with this event primarily due to shame and fear. “Real academics don’t have panic attacks!” yelled my ego. Because I present information to people for a living, I honestly thought this was a career-ending moment in my life, and the fear that sparked from this resulted in tremendous stage fright. For the most part, the months leading up to my dissertation defense and following it were anxiety-fueled; instead of the golden gates opening upon defending my dissertation, in my ways, the gates of Hell opened instead. The first year teaching full time were the most challenging by far due to my anxiety and shame: what would happen if anyone found out about my trauma? Instead of teaching a 4/4 course load, attending 4 conferences, publishing two articles, and mentoring two graduate students, I honestly should have been in therapy.

Mindfulness and therapy have been empowering tools for overcoming this trauma in my life, and recently, I even started a meditation practice, all of which have been essential for navigating when I become emotionally hooked (full disclosure: now is one of those times I’m emotionally hooked on these two events, herego my post). Mindfulness and meditation allow me to recognize these moments in order to not become blindly attached to difficult emotions. To learn the simple task of observation is an important step in practicing non-attachment. While these are not “silver bullets,” they are powerful in many ways and are integral to my recovery process.

Too simply put, “June,” for me, has been marked by two traumatic events: father-in-law’s death in 2016 and my panic attack in 2017. The difficult emotions I currently experience at the beginning of June are, I think, due to these two hallmarks. Now, I am currently in the process of reorienting myself to June and letting go of the difficult emotions this month conjures for me. For June also has incredibly happy moments: my father’s birthday; my parents’ anniversary; my graduation from graduate school; and beginning my meditation practice. Also, I recently came out of color guard retirement! After 11 years!

Curiosity truly is, as Brené Brown puts it in Rising Strong, a “shit-starter.” This summer, I am marching with Atlanta CV, an all-age drum corps (dubbed “senior” corps). When I slammed my flag down at the end of the closer in 2008 (my age-out year at The Cavaliers), I never wanted to do color guard again. I was at a stage of my life where I was pursuing new interests in academia and wanted to invest my time in new goals. I was essentially in the process of cultivating my identity as a serious academic and my independence streak was running full force at 21 years of age. Having developed major issues with authority at this stage of my life is perhaps why even today I have a hard time receiving feedback. In my profession, feedback sends me spiraling into a shame storm, especially when receiving feedback from students. When I receive feedback during rehearsal, I shut down completely. I’m striving to get better with not becoming emotionally hooked during these situations and not attaching my self-worth to the comments; as Brené Brown advises with her feedback mantra, “Take what works, leave the rest.”

How did I arrive to this point? First, since beginning therapy, I have been on a journey of self-discovery, consuming every book by Brené Brown, among several others. In her work, she emphasizes the importance of tapping into our creative outlets, especially if we are in a profession that doesn’t satisfy our creativity. Additionally, she advocates for the importance of finding pleasures in activities outside of our careers. In her research, she conceptualizes creativity and what she terms “slash careers” as imperative to those individuals she terms “wholehearted.” In an effort to become more “wholehearted,” and as a way of overcoming my anxiety and traumas, I am making a conscious effort to re-engage with those activities and interests that spark other aspects of my creativity, such as color guard. In essence, I am taking on a new personal challenge of letting go of “supposed to.” Doing this activity again is activating every shame and anxiety trigger for me; these include anxieties and shame around time, energy, money, and patience. Dealing with my anxiety and shame triggers in a different arena is really pivotal in my process of self-discovery and taking on personal challenges such as this one.

While I very much love my career, it is not my everything, a statement that would probably be blasphemous in many (if not all) professions. I would venture to argue that most of us (if not all) are in professions that do not fulfill our every desire; we are simply too afraid and are too far into scarcity to admit this. Our ego questions our decisions, “What will your colleagues think of you?! What will your family think of you?! What about your spouse?! Won’t pursuing other interests raise red flags about your responsibility?!” These are by far normal reactions given the fact that our egos are really our inner 2-year-old (or 5-year-old or 7-year-old, depending on how loud and unruly one’s ego might be). To combat these internalized narratives, the stories that we tell ourselves, Brené Brown argues that we must exercise a very large dose of letting go of “supposed to.” Indeed, letting go of “I’m supposed to only focus on my career” is the challenge to engaging in activities outside of our professions. This is not only in academia, as our professional training and sociocultural conditioning in work culture in capitalist societies regardless of one’s field are primary controllers of our emotional attachments to these issues.

Before my time in academia (pre-2010), for many years, I engaged in other activities such as color guard and marching band and teaching group fitness classes. These interests allowed me to exist in multiple arenas which, in hindsight, diminished the severity of things that happened in my academic life. But, during my fourth year of graduate school, I wanted to focus exclusively on my PhD qualifying exams and moving forward successfully with my dissertation. By existing only in one arena, my self-worth and my identity became hyper-attached to my success or failure as an academic. Only recently in April did I discover that a major shame trigger for me is in fact my teaching. In fact, I honestly feel like my self-worth is on the line whenever I step into the classroom. Despite having many years of experience in color guard and group fitness, I felt like I only knew one thing well: academia.

The reality though is that this is not the case. I am good at many things, not just teaching and scholarship. Entering back into the arena with color guard is representative of my decision to not allow my career to define my self-worth. I’m currently experiencing what might be called a mid-life crisis: a systemic re-evaluation of one’s identity and the ways in which our self-worth becomes defined by our current circumstances. For this summer, I have zero expectations. I have no expectations of our placement; no expectations of the color guard’s placement; no expectations of the show design or the production; no expectations that the color guard will spin in time. As Anne Lamott makes clear, “Expectations are disappointments waiting to happen.” With expectations also comes issues of self-worth. Experience tells me that when I attach expectations knowingly or unknowingly to an experience, I will not enjoy what I am doing because I will be overly concerned about the final outcome. Furthermore, with expectations come feelings of self-wroth: “I’ll be worthy if,” or “I’ll be worthy when” will mark these events.

When I marched The Cavaliers in 2005, I knowingly attached myself to the idea that I’ll be worthy when I have a DCI gold medal. As many know, The Cavaliers won in 2006, which would have been my second year. I did not march that year due to a turbulent relationship which ended shortly after in August. This has been another source of shame for me and only recently begun to let that attachment go. Again, this was an experience where my self-worth was anchored to the experience. So, by not having expectations for this summer, I am not allowing myself to attach my self-worth to this experience (although this is much easier said than done, as my ego frequently makes an appearance when learning choreography or getting critiqued during rehearsal; silencing my inner 2-year-old critic is really hard). This is all important to keep in mind because my participation in color guard has had a lot to do with building my self-confidence and becoming empowered, especially as someone who is queer and from rural Mississippi. In this regard, color guard is more than just objects moving together; it is about creating an arena where participants feel like they are empowered and belong. Not about winning or losing or show design or catching things (although the latter thing does have its own merits). These things are simply perks of the experience and should not be a source of self-worth.

Narrating this story to you, dear readers, is not about floodlighting for attention sake; this is about uncovering a shameful secret (or, rather, a set of shameful secrets) that I need to highlight for my own emotional process. Because difficult emotions, left unprocessed, do not fade into the background; they metastasize.

So, what is the take-away here for teaching and brining these issues to our classrooms?

First, this is an exercise in risking vulnerability and letting go of the outcome of the situation. In doing so, it’s important to communicate to students that attaching our self-worth to anything that we do is a recipe for disaster; indeed, emotionally detaching ourselves from our work is vital. For students, this means not attaching themselves to achieving certain grades (such as As); their career plans; their degree plans; finishing in four years; feedback on an assignment; or even attending college. When we attach our self-worth and value to an event or an experience, we are setting ourselves up for tremendous amounts of anxiety and disappointment. We have to teach students how to practice non-attachment, but, first, we have to model this ourselves. Sharing our stories (such as mine here) is a way of modeling the importance of this lesson.

Second, practicing non-attachment to events and experiences is an incredible way of practicing self-empathy and self-compassion. By lowering our own unrealistic expectations, we can then experience life from a new set of principles, ones that are not attached to expectations and outcomes. In a culture of “never enough,” lowering our unrealistic expectations allows us to live as being “enough” in whatever shape that happens to take for us.  

Finally, the many gifts these traumatic events have inspired cannot be fully counted. What I can say is that my panic attack has allowed me a greater a sense of empathy for those who battle such events in their own lives, especially students who are experiencing greater amounts of anxiety due to a culture of “never enough”. Attempting to live up to unrealistic expectations is an incredible challenge. But letting go of these unrealistic expectations is perhaps even a bigger challenge. Another unexpected gift from such traumas is compassion. Experiencing the loss of a parent is incredibly destabilizing and cannot be fully accounted for with words.

As such, cultivating self-empathy and self-compassion are life-long processes, ones that are in constant transformation and ones that require reality-checking the expectations we knowingly or unknowingly attach.

So, June, here’s to you and the transformation of our relationship.