You know that moment when Wile E. Coyote, suspended in mid-air, realized that he’s just run off the cliff?
That’s a little bit of what it feels like to be me right now.
Another school year ended last week. Ceremonies, deadlines, field trips, checklists, picnics, meetings, grading, cleaning, games, packing, and the flurry of activity that marks the end of an elementary year. The rhythm wasn’t a healthy one and I couldn’t wait for it to end, and yet, now that it’s come, I feel bereft.
Every year, the first week of summer feels somewhat like this. Throughout the school year, I become addicted to the rhythm of structured chaos and productive busyness. When summer comes, it’s always hard at first. Like I’m going through a detox, the painful withdrawal symptoms being a mild existential crisis. I’m feeling this uncomfortable downshift more keenly than other summers, as the end of this school year signified not just saying goodbye to being a teaching to this group of students, but I’m saying goodbye to being a teacher altogether. I’m in this surreal realization that I just walked away from my first career, a steady salary, the solid ground of my expected narrative.
So many things came to an end this week, and the new beginnings aren’t quite clear just yet. Similar to that cartoon Coyote, I’ve been running, and I’ve taken for granted the solid ground that’s always been beneath my feet. There’s always been a logical next step. The comfort of predictability. But now I’m stepping out into a reality where the level of unknowns are unprecedented. And I feel like just like Wile E., coming to grips with my reality, eyes bugging out in the pause before the plunge.
But unlike Coyote, I knew what I was getting into. Sure, I’ve been running full steam ahead, but I had been counting down the days till the end for a long time. I knew the cliff was coming and have been preparing myself to end well. I even sought out counseling months ago, knowing the turbulence of the upcoming transition would be challenging.
My counselor has been asking me a powerful question. “What does it mean to end well?” I wrote about my thoughts a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been trying so hard to lean into being fully present in this transition. Of speaking my truth and staying engaged, rather than withdrawing or jumping into planning for the future. I’ve been creating rituals to name and honor the season that is ending, practicing gratitude for the people and places that have become familiar companions these last few years.
I was so determined to end well, that I ran right into an all-too-familar trap, just like a Looney Toons character. The anvil that landed on my head might have had “Perfectionist-Expectations” written across it.
Which is why I sat down in the chair across from my counselor a few weeks ago, exhausted, bitter, and heart aching over the weight of my own expectations to “do it right.” I felt so tired from trying to muster up the energy to remain fully present to all things. I was expecting myself to remain “all in” until the last moment. I turned the idea of “ending well” into a checklist of rules to perform perfectly, and it wasn’t working.
Throughout the course of that counseling session, we sat with that tension, acknowledging the desire to end well and to fully honor the process as a good thing. But I also needed to realize (or remember) that I can’t and won’t “end perfectly.” I can’t say all the right things and end well with every interaction. Yes, it is good to engage with the process, to try to remain present in the moment. I don’t want to regret leaving things undone or unsaid. But part of ending is acknowledge the inevitable deaths occurring. Submitting to letting go, which doesn’t happen all at once. Gradients of change happen in the dying process. Grief and sadness need space, and that means not doing all of the things all of the time. There are a myriad of emotions, complex and vibrant, emerging throughout endings, and they need to be reckoned with. My heart posture was trying keep pace with the chaos of the end of the school year. I just wanted permission to start letting go. To let go of these expectations to “end well perfectly.”
Ok, so endings are messy. Challenging, laced with uncertainty and the inability to have a gameplan. (And can we just acknowledge for a moment, that “messy” has become glorified in our millennial culture? A lifestyle concept that has the appearance of free-spirited authenticity from the other side of a Instagram, but in the daily grind of messy, it’s not so glamourous. I can attest to that.) But when messiness is my reality, it can just turn into another thing to try to master. I try to be messy perfectly. Ha.
So this time around, I’m trying as much as possible to get out of my own way and to be where I am. To feel all the feels, as my friend Jordan would say. This is what my counselor and I came up with. Not a list of rules, but some thoughts on stepping into messiness in a healthy, holistic sense. Practical ways of giving myself permission to be where I am.
So often, in questions about the pursuit of joy, or finding peace, or living in reality, the answer comes back to the present moment. It’s the magnetic pole that the compass keeps pointing towards. “Pay attention to what you’re feeling, and even where in your body you are feeling it,” my counselor advised. Open your eyes to what’s going on around you and listen to how your spirit is responding internally. So easily, my mind fixates on something that happened last week or gravitates towards neurotically scrolling through my to-do list. Patiently, kindly, I keep leading my wandering self back to this moment. Be here, now. Be awake to this moment. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.
As much as possible, I’m trying to not get stuck in the rut of assumptions, even about my own self. I’m practicing a posture of curiosity towards myself and my reactions. This is not an open invitation to indulge in self-analysis or to slip into a downward spiral of introspection. Rather, it is a posture of open-handedness. What am I feeling in this moment? Why did I feel that way? What thought patterns need to be discarded in this new season? With the gentleness that I find easier to extend to others, I’m trying to be kind with myself in sitting with these questions, either through journaling, on a long walk, or in processing with a friend.
For a perfectionist, part of being messy is breaking the rules of expectations that I hold over myself. Asking “what do I need in this moment? What does it look like to honor myself right now?” And then (most of the time) doing just that. I’ve been keeping a big stack of pretend permission slips close by and giving them to myself when the moment calls for it. You need to skip going to the gym today? You got it. You need to not care about state testing anymore? OK. My counselor added that if honoring yourself can lead to connection, great. Practice needing to need, as Brené Brown says. Reaching out and asking to get coffee with a friend. Asking for a hug from my roommate. Sharing my messy processing with someone via text rather than carrying the burden alone. That’s what it has been looking like to honor myself in small ways that add up to mean big things.
Make Peace with the “Negative”
I’ve been noticing, within my own thought patterns, how much I’m believing the story that I’m only worthy, or desirable for connection when I’m bringing positive emotions to the table. When I’m feeling stable, optimistic in the face of frustrating situations. That I often try to do whatever I can to silence the sadness, to numb the funk that just comes with transitions. A big part of “being messy” well means fully accepting all the parts of me. Because when I allow the scared, whiny, self-pitying parts of me to air their grievances, rather than shushing them into a resentful repression, they actually don’t feel as heavy. Ironically, when I give myself permission to be in a weird mood, it doesn’t last as long.
The truth is, I’m walking contradiction these days. So many complex emotions are swimming around. I feel like I’m a pinprick away from a much needed ugly cry, and I’m also resting in a contented excitement over my upcoming adventure. I am delighting in this season, and also glad to be rid of it. If I start to zoom out too far, I get dizzy at the prospect of so many unknowns, but if I take just the next step, I’m fine. More than fine. Exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m writing to you from the midst of all of this. And this post reflects the messiness I find myself in. Someone who doesn’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to step into the questions.