Friday, December 31, 2010


1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary

In a year replete with change, I have spent some time thinking about the difference between external change and internal change.  And how much harder it is to experience, embrace and embody the latter.

It's far easier to paint a room than remember to take a breath before speaking when angry.  Renovating a kitchen is a piece of cake compared to learning when to speak and when to stay silent.  Even learning to home school is easier than keeping myself from having the same old emotional response, regardless of how appropriate it is to the situation.

My friend calls this your "problem emotion."  (I have no idea whether that's a technical term, but I learned it from my friend K, so I'm giving her the credit.)  Your problem emotion is the way you react when upset, regardless of whether the situation calls for that reaction.  You can identify your problem emotion by thinking about a stressful situation beyond your control and imagining what emotion you'd feel in that moment.  For example, if your daughter were to dump a bowl of soup on a guest at your Christmas Open House, how might you react?  Anger at your daughter for the mess, the mistake?  Fear that your daughter or guest might be hurt?

Pick your circumstance, your hypothetical situation, your scenario of choice, here's what I would feel: shame.  A good bit of counseling has helped me realize that shame is my problem emotion.  In fact, it is the emotion I feel most easily and most often.  And while shame has a place in the pantheon of our feelings, the kind of shame I feel is not shame for something I've done, but shame for who I am.  The two are vastly different.

I've begun to recognize shame when it rears its ugly head, especially when it is an inappropriate response to the situation.  When I received A's TCAP scores a few months ago and found she had dropped from advanced to proficient in both math and science, it was a prime opportunity for a good spiral of shame.  But I reminded myself that A's scores had nothing to do with me - they weren't a reflection of my parenting skills, of my teaching skills, of anything about me.

I'm getting better at avoiding feeling shame for nothing I've done, but I was reminded today that knowing what I should do and doing it are two different things.  Sometimes, it is simply not enough to know what I should do.  Sometimes, my habit of shaming myself takes over and my response is involuntary.  Even being aware of it, I spiral into shame and rational thoughts are not quite enough to pull me out of it.

I wrote most of this post last night and then found myself too tired to articulate a cohesive finish.  So I woke this morning thinking about habits, about the role they have in our lives and what good things they bring us.  A few years ago I would have unreservedly described myself as a creature of habit.  I've always been thankful when fall rolls around and school starts back and that is due in part to the rhythm that the habit of school imposes on our lives.  But of late I have noticed that I am equally thankful for school breaks to arrive.  I love the freedom of unstructured time, the opportunity to simply see where the day takes us and the chance to make the day what we want it to be.  And I have found in home schooling that one of my favorite things is the freedom from imposed structure.

I'm not sure whether these recent discoveries mean that I am less of a creature of habit than I used to be or whether I am simply finding the right role for habit in my life.  I do know that I want habit to have its proper place in my life.  This year of change has not been about throwing out everything and starting all over.  Instead, it's been about leaving circumstances, places and habits behind that no longer serve me well.  Many of these changes have been bittersweet, but I have felt in each step that the changes have been akin to the ones a caterpillar undergoes.  So in a year filled with change both voluntary and involuntary, I find myself facing a new year with a reminder that old habits are indeed hard to break, but there's always a period of adjustment when emerging from the chrysalis.

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