Getting Back to Good: Surviving Pressure to Succeed

 I’ll let you in on a little secret.  It’s not all exotic trips, personal trainers and daydreaming at my house.  Yes, the home behind the blog is flawed.  Last week was especially trying.  The air was thick and suffocating, the floor was sprinkled with eggshells and the corners were piled with gunpowder awaiting the tiniest spark.  It was hard to breathe, create or live in this supercharged, stressed out atmosphere, but little, by little we got it back to good.

Work Stress

Last Friday our middle son, Josh, brought home his third grade spelling test with a score just below failing.   School is usually easy for him. 

Josh is a highly sensitive  kid.  He can only tolerate very soft materials for his clothing, bedding and bath towels.  If he is hungry nothing else matters.  His sense of smell is keen.  He doesn’t like milk from a carton because it smells and tastes different than milk from a plastic jug.  He internalizes everything.  So you can imagine his reaction to the low score on his spelling test.  His self esteem flagging, he raged at my husband and I when we had him study for and retake the test at home.  He didn’t want to do the work, which is why he was in this predicament in the first place.  He didn’t study before the school test either.   The teddy-bear kid who still holds my hand when crossing a parking lot, now hated everyone and everything.  He was ornery and overwhelmed and consequently so was the rest of the household. I was anything but calm.

At the same time Josh was stewing and spewing, I was feeling my own internal pressure.  I had put up a fan page on Facebook for space2live and now felt an intense need to be wise and witty with my status updates and weekly writing.  I created an audience and now I needed to perform…well.  Adding to the pressure, a couple of  writers that I respect (seasoned bloggers with published books) had contacted me regarding my own blog.  They were watching. 

It was difficult to focus on writing when my house was a powder keg next to a lit sparkler.  There was no flow state to fall into, just survival.  The turmoil manifested itself into insomnia.  I could fall asleep because I was mentally exhausted but then around 2A.M. my mind became a runaway train with me, the damsel in distress, dragging behind it.  There was no soothing mental exercise or gentlemen with a handlebar moustache to save me.  I just waited for the alarm on my nightstand to go off.  I got up and trudged through my day with a numbed brain and racing rabbit heart. 

Back to Calm

 According to Elaine Arons’ book The Highly Sensitive Child, one of the first things you have to do to live and love with a highly sensitive child is remain calm.  You have to be calm so that your child can be calm.  Like putting your oxygen mask on first and then your child’s when the plane is going down.  No one can process or learn anything if they are worked up and overwhelmed.

So this is what we did…

Josh was worried about the new spelling packet for the week, but my husband went over each word with him.  Josh and I sat down on our wooden steps and breathed deeply together.  I demonstrated belly breaths (expand the belly on the inhale, squeeze it towards the spine on exhale) but he just took big gulping, hyperventilating breaths instead.  Somehow that worked.  He relaxed.

Also to create a diversion from Josh’s schoolwork, I had him help me make dinner.  At first he viewed it as more work in his life, but then found it fun to snap asparagus spears and peel apples.  He reveled in being useful.  I made sure to point out his help at the dinner table that night.  He smiled and showed his beautiful dimples.

I slept better that night.

As for myself and my worries about being creative, prolific and perfect, well, I decided to restock my images, a favorite suggestion from Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way .  I know when I am feeling low on ideas I need to explore the world a little, leave behind the mundane and witness the meaningful.  For this expedition I didn’t even have to leave my house.  I allowed myself a day of freedom and tried not to feel guilty.  I chose Monday to slip into my artistic reverie.  The kids were at school and my husband was at work.  I watched a French film called The Chorus.  The story about misunderstood boys in a prison-like reformatory school pulled on my heartstrings, releasing them from their tight, desperate knot.  I saw Josh’s wounded spirit in the eyes of those boys.  The angelic singing in the movie brought me to that place where everyone is connected through beauty.  That higher level of living. 

I dusted my guitar off and played.  It felt good to pluck and strum.  Tension from my fingertips met the tension of six wires and transformed into music and ease. 

I read essays by E.B. White and poems by Mary Oliver.  I floated on their words rather than try to eek out my own.

By the end of the day, my shoulders felt lighter and my posture improved.  My eyes twinkled and I was looking forward to the kids coming home from school. 

Back to Work

By Wednesday I was ready to get back in the saddle.  I put my head down and wrote.  Over the previous few days ideas had flitted in and out of my consciousness.  My idea notebooks (scattered all over the house), were doing their job, holding bits of clarity and brain lint.  I only needed to pull something together out of the pieces.  Some of the pressure was off.

I spent 45 minutes on the elliptical machine in our basement on Friday morning.  I listened to a podcast on Internet Marketing for Smart People about transient success. It spoke of getting back to grounded once you’ve achieved.  It all came down to doing the work, keeping up your craft.  If you have an idea and get others to go along with it you have to be willing to pay the price of consistently committing to the work. 

I believe failure and success are opposite sides of the same coin.  If you falter, same thing, pick yourself up and carry on.  Get back to the craft, the work, but consider an element of ease, or space where you can breathe first. Something that soothes your spirit and creates an opening for inspiration.

Josh and I both had put stress on ourselves regarding our commitments.  What seemed to get us out of the boiler pot was breathing and returning to the work.   In his case, literal deep breaths calmed him down.  In my case, taking time to connect with film, music and poetry led to an openness where creativity could enter.  Both of us moved forward with our responsibilities.  He studied for the spelling test this week and did his daily reading.  I sat down with the laptop and tapped out strings of words and did my best to be a calm mom. 

 Success and failure are transient, but for today, we’re back to good.

How do you pick yourself up after a downfall?  How do you handle achievement? 

P.S. Josh did very well on this week’s spelling test.

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