Star-Fishy, Star-Fishy

Sometimes my niece stops the world and holds on. I have no objective idea of why she does it. Hypothetically? 1) Deep pressure relieves stress. 2) Everything stops when this happens. 3) There’s something that she wants to make happen and this is a beginning point. 4) Somebody is lecturing, something hot is located close to her, or another situation feels threatening. But- in any given instance? I couldn’t say. And she doesn’t elaborate.

Holding on to somebody stops the world, at least briefly. Have you ever tried to cook dinner with a medium sized human hug-ster? You can’t take any steps to stir a pot, chop some ingredients or adjust the gas flame. Dinner is going to be delayed. I’ve noticed that these hug-fits correspond, at times, to a desire to leave home and pass through McDonalds for a Diet Coke, a drink classed as Ambrosia of the urban gods from J’s perspective. If she had a poetic bent, I’m sure she’d use this kind of descriptive hyperbole. Now, hugs that stop the world aren’t going to get dinner made or occasion an excursion to purchase bubbly bliss at “Mac-Noo”. It’s an act that’s ill suited to bring about either outcome. Still- I periodically face these star-fishy attacks.

I’ve noticed that I share this tendency to cling to the familiar in carrying out my own routines. When stressed, I tend to complain, overeat and shut down more demanding tasks. It’s the way that I’ve habitually shown up when my feelings are hurt because I didn’t get something that I wanted or thought that I’d earned. It’s automatic, though. My brain doesn’t say “now, what we want to do is consume this pint of ice cream” when I’m sleep deprived and blue. Lecturing J at length about how important it is to clean up after herself is nowhere in my conscious plan when I find a three foot high heap of her backpacks, books or clothes. Procrastinating the work needed to grow business systems for my coaching practice isn’t my conscious intention when the wonders of WordPress, the terrors of Twitter or the yawning abyss of the Youtube content production process loom.

“Catch me in the moment when I’m feeling really miserable and THAT’S when I get myself into trouble” said my friend on the call today. She was explaining why she took too much over the counter medication recently. She’s been hospitalized at least twice for the side effects of these efforts to clear up painful symptoms related to several health challenges. She’s experienced, intelligent and knowledgeable when it comes to taking prescribed medicines. Interactions? Side effects? Unexpected complications? She’s up to date on all of the studies, physician standards, literature and best practices. But- given a head that aches endlessly, a gut that spasms violently and and skin that blooms with assorted rashes and sores? She’s seeking relief where she can find it. As quickly as she can find it. Then extra side effects kick in and the cycle of symptoms, corrections and complications spirals on.

These are holding patterns that don’t really work. Like the Star-Fishy Hug from J, it serves to interrupt the situation that’s unfolding in the moment. It suppresses some of the sensations of anxiety, discomfort or distress, briefly. Often, these rituals that operate without our fully conscious engagement leave additional problems behind. The aftermath of numbing out, tuning out or zoning out is annoyance, consternation and shame. It’s the result of acting in ways that are out of alignment with our own consciously chosen values. And it arises when our resources are taxed. Too angry, too lonely, too hungry, too tired, too…

Those we care for chug along in tune with our mood, imitating it or reacting to it: They entrain to how we show up, often without the need for us to do or say much of anything. As parents and caring professionals, we sometimes unwittingly release negative energy that reverberates through hours and even days as it’s picked up and amplified by our clients or our children. There is a repetitive aspect to this exchange and angry, anxious behaviors proliferate. The impact of affect, behavior and reaction continues and can bounce back and forth between the person in a support role and the person being supported. It continues until there is an intervention or until time and space dissipate some of the intensity. Left unresolved, however, the whole morass of emotion and experience sits in the relational space between the caring and the cared for. Any trigger can serve to catalyze the recurrence of the same negative exchange.

The cycle is a circle: it’s our experience in the context and it’s made up of what’s happening, how we feel about it and how we react to it. When how we feel is overwhelming, we react. We take a trip through a smaller “side circle” of self medication or stress management that’s designed to shift the load. That side circle can spiral down quickly into blame, shame and self loathing. Then, the load often gets shifted back into the relational space. Caring, compassionate and ethical supporters will react, sometimes badly, to the original stressors. Only now, it’s compounded by the relative cost of that side trip to our sense of ourselves as capable and competent care providers. Optimism, innovation and the ability to embody our best selves recedes.

Holding on to things that don’t, ultimately, best serve us is an utterly human way of tuning out the impact of stress, trauma and unpredictable outcomes from all of the interventions we try. Strategically and ethically, however, we have a moral imperative to attend to our own needs well so that we can have the resources needed to support both the self and the ones for whom we care. We need to be conscientiously conscious in setting our intentions with respect to how we show up. And mindfully refocus our desired goals when we veer from the path our intentions have set out.

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