January 2015

Last week’s IEP meeting

Last week we had an annual review IEP meeting for one of our 8th grade students. Because he is now 14, he came to the meeting for a few minutes, to discuss his transition plan. This boy is one of the most empathetic students I have. He carries a tremendous amount of anxiety, which I am willing to bet has to do with his diagnoses and learning challenges, but also with trying to figure out how to be such a sensitive soul in this world.

He walked into the room, and took a seat. He looked around the table and said “hi” to his mom, and then quickly addressed every single person at the table and said “hi” to them, too. Our IEP team facilitator greeted him, told him that we would all love to hear a bit about what’s going well for him.

“So, maybe tell us, what’s your favorite class?” she asked him.

“Oh, uh…Science.” he replied. Then, scanning the room, realizing that several of his teachers were there, but not his science teacher, he quickly added, “But, uh, I love Math too. And Reading is okay. And Language Arts. And hey Jen, I like Speech, too.” There were a few smiles, but I felt myself getting teary. I totally got what he was doing. He was terrified of offending one of us. So much so, that, his math teacher responded, “It’s okay. I know you don’t love math. And I would never be upset with you for saying so.”

Our team facilitator moved on. “You and your counselor met to talk about what you’d like to do in the future. You mentioned that you would love to stay at [our school] for high school, and that after high school maybe you would work with computers or animals.”

His counselor jumped in. “Yup, and we talked about way down the road, where you might like to live. Remember, you told me that one day you would like to live on your own, and not with your parents?” he nodded, agreeing with her, and then caught his mom’s eye and froze. Oh no, I could imagine him thinking. What is Mom going to think to hear that I don’t want to live with her? 

“Uh, Mom…” he tried to explain. “I was just thinking that one day I’d like to have an apartment. But, uh, it’s not that I don’t love you. Because I do. You and Dad have been really good to me. But it’s just…” his voice trailed off as his eyes quickly darted from person to person.

His mom smiled, and gave a kind laugh. “It’s okay, buddy. I would hope you want to live on your own some day!”

After talking a bit about his career aspirations, and his love for computers and cartoons, his counselor sensed his mounting anxiety and backed up a little bit. “Now, all of this is going to be a long time from now. And we’re talking about things that might happen. But is it okay if your ideas change?”

“Uh…I guess so…” he said.

“Will anyone be upset with you if you change your mind about what you want to do or where you want to live?”

“Uh…I guess not…”

“Right. Because we’re just thinking. None of these are decisions that we have to follow. We’re just imagining. But just because we’re imagining does it mean you have to do these things?”


“No, it doesn’t. And we don’t even have to worry about those things. Those are your long-term plans, but right now, our main focus is that you’re going to finish 8th grade and then go to 9th grade.”

“Um. Okay. Yes.”

He headed out of the meeting then, after saying goodbye to every single one of us, and giving his mom a hug.

I think we were all overcome with emotion. And I totally got it – I understand that desperate need to please everyone, the fear of what people will think of you if you don’t give equal attention or love or praise. For the rest of the meeting, we talked through his IEP goals, but we kept coming back to his sensitivities and anxieties. Because among his autism, among his language and learning disabilities, sensitivity and anxiety are at his core. They affect every part of what he does every day. And the same is true for so many of our kids. I truly believe – there are times when noncompliance or overreactions, or other behaviors, are just a mask for that panic inside. And I am not autistic. I don’t have a language disorder. And it’s taken a long time for me to be able to identify my anxiety and sensitivity and put it into words. So I can only imagine what it’s like for our kids. And I feel really blessed to get to help them do just that.

“I’m confusing”

One night while we were in Florida, we went to dinner at an old favorite restaurant. It’s buffet style, and I was at the dessert station. After thinking of the greatest dessert idea ever, I put vanilla ice cream in my bowl and waited in line to top it with apple cobbler. In front of me in line was a boy, probably about 9 years old. He was attempting to scoop apple cobbler onto his already overflowing bowl of ice cream. After a few minutes of determination, he noticed me waiting, gave me a huge grin, and said, “Sorry!”

“That’s okay,” I replied. “I had the same idea as you.”

“My mom makes apple cobbler!” he informed me.

“Cool. My mom makes blueberry crisp.”

He continued scooping cobbler, and as he tried to use his hand to get the cobbler from the spoon to his bowl, his finger touched the ice cream and he squealed.

“It just felt hot and cold at the same time!” he exclaimed. “The ice cream was cold and the cobbler was hot! That was confusing!” He thought for a moment, and then added, “Just like me. I’m confusing.”

“I’m confusing, too.” I told him.

He smiled at me, got his spoonful of cobbler, and went back to his family. And I got my cobbler, went back to my family, smiling all the way.


When I discovered Brené Brown’s work on shame, specifically her most recent book, I grabbed hold of it (literally!), thinking, this is IT. This is what I’ve been trying to put into words. This is what I’ve been trying to understand. And it was almost a sigh of relief; I don’t have to spend my life figuring it out, because she did the research and put it to words.

And so over the last however many months, or maybe a year, I’ve been thinking about shame and compassion even more than ever. I’ve tried to express my own thoughts on the subject. I’ve written a poem about it. I’ve jotted down notes. I’ve tried to briefly explain that the fear of shame is what makes us lack compassion for ourselves.

During this time, a friend and I have had countless conversations on this topic. Over and over again, we wonder: why do we think the worst about ourselves, but highly of each other? Why do we feel nothing but deep compassion for each other’s experiences and thoughts, but feel shame for our own? Why do we think we are the outlier or the exception?

And after thinking a lot, (I know, you’re shocked), I have a tentative conclusion: shame is (sometimes) somewhat of a self-protective mechanism.

I always used to say that I was pessimistic and didn’t get my hopes up about things, because that way I didn’t have to worry about disappointment. The fall is a lot less painful when you never left the ground, versus when you’ve climbed to the top of the tree. I think shame is similar. We preemptively shame ourselves so that if others shame us, it hurts less.

Have you ever gotten up the courage to share something with someone, something that was important to you, for whatever reason? And have you ever had their response be to tell you that you’re being dramatic, exaggerating, or just looking for attention? Boom. The shame response is born. From that moment on, we expect that the next time we share something, we will face the same response, which we can’t bear to experience. So we protect ourselves. We pre-shame ourselves, if you will. We preface our stories with, “I know it’s not a big deal, but….” or “I’m sure this isn’t what you want to hear, but…” or “This is really f***** up, but….” It’s protection. It’s setting the bar low, so if we are met there, no harm done.

(By the way? Even if we were being dramatic or exaggerating or whatever. The first thing we learn in our fields of work is that behavior=communication. It’s a principle we are taught to apply to all of our kiddos. And it applies to us, too. So there was a reason we once said or did what we did. We needed something from it; we were trying to express something, trying to release something. Even if at the time we weren’t sure what. And in the same way that we help our kids learn to express what it is that they truly are trying to say, we need to help ourselves. It’s a process.)

The interesting thing is, we expect to be shamed, but we would never shame others in that same way. Which is why we preface our stories that way, but if a friend were to tell the exact same story, or share the exact same idea, and preface it that same way, we would say things like, “Of course it’s a big deal” or “I do want to hear anything you want to say” or “It’s not messed up, tell me.”

If we were to tell our stories, to share our thoughts, without that preface, we’d be putting ourselves at risk. Which isn’t inherently something we want to do. We’d be standing on the edge of a cliff and trusting we aren’t going to fall. Which is terrifying. Even just writing this post, I want to put a whole long list of disclaimers, like, Feel free to disagree with this and I’m probably wrong but I’m just trying to share my thoughts and it’s fine if you think it’s stupid…..etc. But I won’t, not this time.

Part of it, I believe, is our culture. We live in a shame-filled society. If you think about the news, there is stigma placed on so many things, so it’s no wonder why we expect shame as anyone’s response.

I think the solution is to practice little bits at a time. And it’s HARD. A friend and I have a rule that we never apologize for texting the other. We’ve established that if the other person is busy, or not in a place to text or chat, they won’t until they’re ready; so we never need to apologize. But we find it funny that without a doubt, when we’re in a vulnerable place and text the other, we apologize. We say, “Sorry, I’m sure you’re busy, but….” and “Ugh I’m probably stressing you out more.” And then the other person says, “No apologizing!” So I’m certainly not saying it’s always doable. Especially when we’re vulnerable, or spinny, or anxious, or just out of balance.

But find that person with whom you’ve been vulnerable, with whom you’ve shared something, something that you worried would have a shame response, and didn’t. And the next time you talk with this person, try not to preface your stories. Just say them. Trust that you will not be shamed. Trust that this person is not going to suddenly think less of you. Trust that you trust this person for a reason. Trust that you’ll be met with compassion. Oh, it’s hard. But I’ve done it before, with a handful of people. And the feeling of just talking, just sharing, without those self-shaming or self-deprecating comments, is so liberating.

You deserve to release shame into the wind and breathe compassion in.

Accepting the storm

When a wave of anxiety hits me, be it for a moment or a day or a week, my first thought is always panic. Why am I anxious, what am I anxious about, why is this happening, what can I do to feel better, why are none of my coping mechanisms making me feel better, why is it a day later and my heart is still pounding? Then is a little bit of, What do I do what do I do what do I do??? And then I breathe. And I remember. I have a choice.

I could fight it. I could wish it away. But that doesn’t work.

I could allow helplessness to consume me. I could decide that there’s nothing I can do, so I will drown.

Or I can accept it.

Because I know how to tread water.

Accepting it isn’t the same thing as submitting to it. Acceptance is peace. It’s mindfulness. It’s riding whatever wave is carrying me, whatever weather the universe is bringing. I don’t fight it. I don’t curse the storm. Nor do I submit to it. I don’t go outside barefoot and in a thin t-shirt and allow myself to be soaked. Accepting it means putting a raincoat on when I go outside into the storm because no, I can’t stop the storm, but I can protect myself.

The power of coping with anxiety is that balance. There is power in acceptance. In knowing, this is where I am. This is what’s happening. I might know why it’s happening, I might not. I might be able to see the way out of it, I might not. But in this moment, I can protect myself. I don’t have to fight it. And I don’t have to submit to it. Just as I can’t fight a riptide, nor do I need to let it pull me away. I know how to tread water. I know how to breathe. I know how to keep myself safe – while being in it – until the waters subside. I don’t need to know why the riptide is happening. I don’t need to understand why the storm hit. I can just be.

And in the meantime? I tread water. I rest. I write. I read. I stretch. I light a scented candle. I color. I drink tea. I breathe. I reach out. I look at the sky. I accept hugs.

And eventually, the storm subsides.

When “strong is the new skinny” becomes a problem

More and more recently, the phrase “Strong is the new skinny” has been circulating. At first, I liked it. Yes! A push for women to be muscular and strong, and not a focus on losing weight! Awesome! This is how we should all think! This is going to make us all feel great about ourselves! But as time has gone on, I’ve seen that phrase go two different ways.

The first path that phrase can take is a healthy one. I have many, many friends who love exercising. I know people who lift weights multiple times each week, who run marathons each month, who practice yoga on a daily basis. These people love to exercise, love how it makes them feel. And I am all for that. As a (related) sidenote, I highly recommend the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John C. Ratey. It completely changed how I view exercise and enlightened me on the physiological, brain/body connection between exercise and various physical and mental disorders and syndromes.

The people who walk this path exercise for fun, for a hobby, and as an added bonus, it makes them feel strong. The people on this path tend to not run/lift/go to yoga because they feel lazy or worthless. They do those activities because they love them. They feel the pumping in their heart, they feel how capable their bodies are. These people might miss out or feel disappointed when they skip exercising because they are sick or injured or tired, but it doesn’t ruin them.

The second path the phrase can take is the one that is concerning. Sometimes we trick ourselves, convince ourselves what we want to believe. We tell ourselves, “I’m not focused on losing weight anymore! So I’m healthy!” And sometimes, that’s true. But sometimes? You’ve just swapped one addiction for another. Maybe once you spent hours at the gym trying to burn calories and lose pounds, and now you spend hours at the gym trying to gain muscle and get to a higher weight on the bench press. Yes, you can tell yourself that you’re “healthier” because this time you’ve eaten enough calories to sustain your workout, because you’re not trying to lose weight, because your heart isn’t as likely to stop. But the bottom line is that if you still have that underlying panicky feeling if you miss a workout, if you can’t run, if you can’t lift, if you can’t get stronger, it might still be the same issues morphed into another form, hidden behind a cute little, “strong is the new skinny” mask.

Exercise can be a fine line between healthy and obsessively unhealthy. And I think it’s a line we all struggle with to an extent – I certainly have questioned my motivations for going to the gym before. The way I try to think about it, is: are you are exercising (in any form) to make your body feel good, to feel your muscles contract, to feel the blood pump, to enjoy the endurance and strength? Or, are you exercising because if you don’t, you’ll be anxious, feel disgusted, feel weak, and just in general feel negative?

Again, like everything, generalizations don’t fully work, and I am certainly not claiming to have “figured it all out” or that everyone fits into one or the other group. Exercising a lot isn’t always a bad thing, exercising a little isn’t always a bad thing. Heavy lifting can be healthy or unhealthy, running miles each day can be positive or negative. It all has to do with each person’s individual situation; we know this. But I would encourage everyone (myself included, always) to examine their motivations for trying to be strong and fit. Because I am willing to bet that one or two people will realize it’s simply a set of addictions, of negative beliefs, of obsessions that have shifted form.

As always, I welcome thoughts, opinions, anecdotes, and stories – please share!

Things I could write about

I could write about how I got my nails done yesterday for the first time in months, in a super dark shade of purple/plum. But people don’t care about that.

I could write about the cauliflower soup I made yesterday. But I’m not a food blogger.

I could write about how I smelled and sensed snow in the air today. But there are no poetic words floating about in my head.

I could write about how, after two weeks off for vacation, I’m a little anxious at the thought of diving back into the joyful insanity of work again. I guess I could share how after every vacation I notice a little voice of fear in my head, wondering if I’ll somehow forget to be a good speech-language pathologist when I go back.

I suppose I could write about not knowing what to write. But I always do that.

I could talk about how the news, the articles, the talk of rape and rape culture and doubts and accusations and shame are breaking my heart, but I can’t stop reading.

I could attempt to explain how I am fairly confident that shame is the opposite of compassion, and the reason people shame themselves and feel shame for their decisions and experiences is due to the fear of being met with shame; if they knew they’d be met with compassion, they might find it a tiny bit easier to find compassion for themselves.

I could write about how it’s so much easier to say things to other people, to believe things for other people, than for ourselves.

I guess I could write how my grief comes and goes, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. But I don’t have any words.

I could talk about my ever-ongoing battle of nurturing the introvert/routine-follower in me, and going out of my comfort zone/pushing myself a little bit. There’s a line somewhere between the two but it’s sometimes hard to see.

I could continue rambling on about anxiety or sensitivity or life. But I have nothing profound to say, and I write about those topics too much.

I guess I could write about any of those topics.
But I don’t have the words. I don’t have the courage. I don’t have the initiative.

So today, yet again, I’m not going to write.

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