Whose Brain Is It Anyway?
"We have met the enemy and it is us."
The other day I was meeting with my ancestors when I made an important discovery.
The “meeting,” I should explain, was a visualization exercise led by my writing coach/spiritual guide. I went into the exercise hoping to explore why I seem to shift from content-with-little-activity to overwhelmed-by-too-much-activity rapidly, and repeatedly.
I mentioned in a previous post that my “retirement” had become unexpectedly hectic as I supplemented these weekly posts with podcasts and other services, all with their own deadlines. The overwhelm came as I approached a two-week break for a big family event. What had been quite manageable suddenly turned into high anxiety. How could I take time off and still make all my deadlines? Impossible!
Yet I knew the facts didn’t justify the panic. I have always made deadlines, an old habit from journalism days. I always find the time. So if the panic wasn’t based on reality, where was it coming from?
A Voice from the Past
Back to the visualization: Guided by my coach, I tried to remember where the feelings of being overwhelmed first appeared. What was causing my brain to turn somersaults and push the panic button?
And then, there it was. It was a voice in my head – my mother’s voice, actually – pleading, “Don’t do too much, you might have a nervous breakdown!” It was the refrain I heard in real time whenever I loaded up on too many extracurriculars, or even when I stayed up past midnight (horrors!) to finish a project that was due the next day. And it was a refrain I continued to hear in my head for years after, whenever juggling work and school and family and community obligations came due all at once.
For the record, I never had a nervous breakdown. I was never even close. (Well, except for this one time, but that was mostly because of sleep deprivation.) In my visualization, I realized that the “nervous breakdown” message was an old one that had never been appropriate to me. I’m rock steady, adaptable, and resourceful, traits that have given me the capacity to work well under pressure. Yet for my whole life, I’ve been afraid of doing too much at once. It’s an automatic reflex.
Maybe the warning about nerves was appropriate for my mother. Although as I thought about it, I realized my mother never had a breakdown either. She was a bit high-strung, but she slogged her way through a lifetime of adversity, handling everything life threw at her.
At that moment in the visualization, I realized this message was older than my mother. It was something that had been said to her, and it had convinced her that she was a fragile flower who might wither under pressure. She acted on that belief all her life, never giving herself credit for being the strong character she was. Someone in my maternal line had a reason to pass this message down through the generations. Someone, somewhere back in time, must have experienced a mental collapse and inspired the warning.
You probably have heard this curious fact about captive elephants: When they are babies a rope around one foot, attached to a stake, is strong enough to prevent their escape. When the young elephants realize they cannot break the rope, they stop trying. When they grow to full adulthood, with more than enough strength to break the rope at will, they don’t because they are conditioned to believe that they cannot break free.
That’s how I felt in my “meeting” with my ancestors, when I realized that my recurring panic about being overwhelmed was triggered by an irrelevant piece of junk information, dutifully absorbed and never questioned. Like the grown elephant, it had caused me to self-limit my own capacity out of fear that I could do no more without going over the edge.
We all have irrelevant messages stuck in our brains, some that were relevant when we were children, some that were never appropriate at all. It’s never too late to rip up the stakes that keep us tied down and set ourselves free.