Annual Review

I started 2019 with a simple goal. I wanted to listen to my body more, which has been quite the fruitful exercise. There have been times over the years where my body was complaining, maybe my muscles were far too sore or my gut was telling me something was wrong, and the old me would have acknowledged those feelings and then dismissed them just as quickly. Trusting myself, treating my body as a wise and sensing organism, has only helped me. Being a victim of years of gaslighting, where my grasp of reality and sanity were questioned and challenged for years, has generally taught me to not believe or trust my own senses as much as I need to, so reclaiming ownership of the driver's seat has been extremely rewarding. 2014 was when my life started to fly off the rails, and 2019 was when it got back on track. I now have the privilege of working with an amazing company and team (and vice versa 😛), and Carrie has established her private practice enough that we get to spend quality time together again.

My new goal for 2020 is to see myself more clearly. An example of how I had a distorted view of myself is how I only recently discovered that I'm a physically attractive person. (Oh, this paragraph is going to be indulgent, so if you're feeling grossed out like I already am, please be encouraged to skip it.) My self-esteem has always been so low that when people took second looks at me, I always felt like an ogre that they were staring at out of fear. I have this piercing gaze, no doubt caused by my childhood trauma and the resulting hyper-vigilance, I'm tall-ish, I'm have dark skin in a province that’s 3/4 white, so I always felt like this menacing figure even from a young age. In response to people looking at me, I would try to diminish myself, take up less space, avoid looking at people, or leave the area. Turns out that at least some of those people were checking me out, and I wasn't always the only one introducing awkward energy into those interactions. Carrie has been helping me for quite some time with rebuilding my wardrobe and taking better care of my health -- she taught me how to take care of my skin, along with the true meaning behind the saying "moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty." After I bought a sweater earlier last year and showed it off to her at home, she said that, for the first time in our relationship, I was better-dressed than her. (Our friends didn't even believe me when I told them.) That's all well and good, but the deeper, underlying mechanism that I'm more interested in is having an accurate, truthful view of myself. I‘m okay with not being attractive, as 30 years of my identity and self-concept can attest to, but what's going to move me forward in this universe is maintaining an updated understanding of who I am. Confidence comes from knowing yourself, knowing who you are and who you aren’t, what you're capable of and unable to do. Now that I've established how to listen to my body, this next year will be time for me to see myself more clearly.

This new perspective acts in service of the larger goal of dealing with more of my childhood baggage. r/raisedbynarcissists calls them FLEAs; a backronym that stands for frightening, lasting effects of abuse, originally from the adage "lie down with dogs and you are bound to get fleas." One example is how I often felt ignored or dismissed, regardless of the arguments I used or how genuine I was. This pervasive feeling has developed into this overwhelming sense of defeat when it comes to low stakes, non-confrontational discussions. I feel like most people just don't get what I'm trying to say, when clearly there are tons of brilliant people in this world who not only understand my arguments but whose thinking in the area is much further developed. It shows up in small little areas like when deciding where to eat out with others. People will toss out ideas and see how the group reacts, and since the stakes are so low, there isn't that much of a risk beyond not having the best food of your life for that particular meal of the day. Instead of contributing, I'll bite my tongue and refuse to make a suggestion because the fear of being rejected, of being told as a kid that nobody cares what I think, is still very much alive in my psyche. Instead, I'll just go with the flow even when I have something to share. This particular shortcoming appears everywhere, and in some non-linear, meandering way, I’m going to address it by working to see myself more clearly in 2020. It could be as easy as regularly reminding myself that I have valid ideas to share, and sometimes what that could even look like is by not sharing anything at all.

Another FLEA is the voice of criticism living in my head. I'm so used to it that I don't realize just how absurd it sounds most of the time. Sometimes when I'm out with friends, during the part of the night where you drunkenly open up and share your vulnerabilities and honest thoughts, I've shared some of my self-talk, how I see and treat myself, and observing people’s reactions to it has been enlightening. I'm very harsh and critical of myself, even after several years of therapy, and gauging from the reactions of those close friends, it was like they were personally hurt and offended by how mean I was being to myself. Saying it out loud can be enough for me to catch it, but it's like when you listen to music through headphones, your brain pictures the music as coming from the centre of your head. Almost every other type of sound in this universe comes from outside of your body, but somehow, we don't think anything is off when a full band performs from within a single point source located perfectly symmetrically in the centre of our skull. This voice of criticism is where my perfectionism comes from, the generator of many of my anxious and stressful moments. It sounds a lot like my own voice when I know that it’s really my dad’s, but that's part of the deception that sustains its existence. It sneaks up from behind me and whispers in my ear, pretending to be me, whereas even the basic act of acknowledging that it‘s not me can rob some of its power. Much of life's joy is found in the imperfect, from suspending the expectations and polish and allowing things to be as they are. I've learned this from coding at work, following the Test Driven Development philosophy. The start of the programming cycle focuses on just making things work, as ugly and spaghetti-like as your code can be. After getting your code to achieve its purpose, then you rewrite it to fall in line with best practices, like making it more readable, efficient, easy to maintain. Even still, depending on what you're writing, sometimes you never need to rewrite things to meet any established standards; maybe you only run the code once every few months or maybe nobody will ever look at it besides you. I spent a lot of my life trying to perfect my execution and technique before even reaching my basic goals, also known as premature optimization. The critical voice follows you around at every step, telling you that nothing is ever good enough. Whatever I happen to be doing could somehow be too much or too little, and somehow both at the same time. I've learned now that it's okay if I never learn to fly so long as I can fall with style. (Yes, I recently rewatched Toy Story on my Disney+ trial.) I know the voice of criticism doesn't belong in my head, it's not my voice, so unless it's ready to start paying rent, it’s time to go. It’s not going to leave willingly, unfortunately.

Meme of Moe bouncing Barney

As much as I’ve craved for years to reach this level of stability, one unexpected byproduct has been that my brain has been flushing out all sorts of random feelings that I’ve put into storage since childhood. It’s wild, considering again that I’ve spent years actively diving into this storage area to declutter my emotions. I half-expected that once we reached this place, we would live happily ever after, which feels silly to even admit. There are some days where I’ll wake up to a panic attack, heart racing and pounding through my ribs, with no discernible threat in sight. It’s like my body started spring cleaning early, and I’ll have flashes of the most random and remote memories without any prompting whatsoever. I see myself as a designer, so I always try to be creative, to remove myself from echo chambers or bubbles, to grow and push my boundaries, to reach outside of myself, but even still I’m surprised by how absolutely out of left field some of these memories are. The common thread through all of them is that I felt emotionally overwhelmed, whether it was shame, pride, fear, awkwardness, anything really. It’s like cleaning up the toys scattered around a child’s playroom, where each toy has no connection to the others besides that they’re out and about. Some of these experiences include:

- a kid in my brother’s class laughing at the colour of my skin when I was in elementary school;

- some unfortunate words that were exchanged with a rando at a friend’s wedding; and

- being laughed at by my entire class for saying something (even though I discovered nine years later that I was right all along).

Sometimes it’s a generalized feeling of pain rushing through me, sending goosebumps and chills down my spine. I view the compartment in my brain for emotional storage like a can of Pringles chips, with the last one in being the first one to come out. As much as I want to just move on from the previous chapter, to be able to get into fun projects and hobbies again, to learn new skills or do nothing at all, it’s been interesting to adapt to this new phenomenon which has no appearance of going away anytime soon. Even though I’ve plugged the leaks that introduced all sorts of stressors into my system, there’s still a bunch of cleanup to do before I can go back to whatever “normal” looks like. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to be where I am now, and I’m trying to understand how, even when things were at their worst, my life was still better off with respect to income, health, safety, and overall life satisfaction than billions of people will ever experience.

Finally, I forget if I mentioned this before but I’d like to write more about myself and less about others. I generally try to be vague in my writing with regards to the people in my experiences, but I have written a lot about my family and my wife. Even though I feel wronged by my family, even I get exhausted from all the whinging and complaining I do in text. As much as possible, I’d like to stop faulting them for the way I turned out. I’m always trying to maintain the forgiveness I gave to them, even as strong feelings still bubble up from time to time. I don’t want bitterness to reign in my life like it once did, so I’d like to move forward. In addition, it has been made known to me by several people that I have been quite harsh on Carrie on this blog, and my weak excuse for that is that I had always pictured most of my readers knowing the both of us fairly well, that I’m still head-over-heels in love with her, that she takes great care of me, and that I’m still alive today in large part because of her. I have this fault where I sometimes don’t see the positive things in my life, and that has come through in my writing in respect to how well Carrie has taken care of me all while I was blogging these past few years. The power of words means that this correction isn’t nearly strong enough to undo the damage I’ve caused, and even though I know well enough what’s it like to be on the other side of the fence, I also understand that I can never really understand the harm and pain I caused her. I’m sorry, baby. I hope that I can stop making this mistake by writing less about my family of origin and my wife.

Overall, 2020 looks to be a more hopeful year. Things aren’t perfect, but it’s quiet enough that I can get back to being me. I get to spend quality time with Carrie again, chatting and processing the events of the day, existing together — being. After the success of 2019’s goal of listening to my body more, I’m going to work on seeing myself more clearly in 2020. I’d like to be less mean to myself, acknowledging and silencing the voice of criticism. Meanwhile, as my brain continues to flush out useless memories and emotions, I’ll continue processing my experiences on this blog without implicating others as much. 2020 looks to be a good year.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le