I potted some plants the other day. I pulled on my brand new neon orange gardening gloves, scooped Miracle-Gro into an azure blue pot, and settled some spiky purple blooms around a central plant with trumpetlike white flowers. Promptly forgetting the names of the plants, I have dubbed the spiky purple ones dragonsbane after a plant described in Dealing With Dragons. I haven’t come up with a name for the white ones yet. There’s also an adorable tiny succulent on my windowsill, which I have named Junior after the asparagus from VeggieTales.
I was proud of this attempt at gardening. I was adding life to my home (and the plants seem like they’ll probably survive!). That burst of productivity even extended to vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, and balancing my budget. It was a good afternoon.
Then the next day I came home from work and didn’t move from my couch for the entire afternoon. Dinner was forgotten. The dishwasher did not get unloaded. Nothing happened except that I sat on the couch, coloring, until Netflix asked, “Are you still watching?” (a message I can’t help but read with a judgey inflection, even if Netflix is truly just concerned for my wellbeing). Even my mindfulness coloring book didn’t seem to help my mood.
And all I could think about was, “I never do anything anymore. I am so unproductive. I’m going to completely fail this year” – and there I went, slipping and sliding down a Stress Spiral. Basically, when I get into this self-overwhelming mindset, I use my current mood/emotion/situation to build illogically dramatic visions of the future. In this case, it went something like:
I’m not feeling productive today ⇒ I’m falling behind on all the things I wanted to do today. ⇒ I’m going to fall behind on all the things I wanted to accomplish this year. ⇒ I won’t get any writing done. ⇒ I will be a failure at achieving my dream of being an author.
Looking at this through a logical lens, of course, the extrapolation falls apart. For one thing, this year is not the only year I have in which to become an author. I have my whole life to do that; this is just some time I happen to have set aside to work toward that specifically. Scaling it back down, the dishwasher could conceivably be unloaded the next day. And a bout of unproductive-ness one day does not mean I’m that way all the time – just the day before, I’d potted plants! I’d budgeted! I’d been an adult! But the funny thing is that on those Good Adulting Days, I never think to myself, “I am always like this.” Those thoughts only come on days when I am not being who I want to be.
My favorite counselor once told me, “Emotional states are not personality traits.” It’s a helpful thing to repeat to myself when I’m scrabbling for a toehold in a Stress Spiral (and not just because it rhymes). At some point I developed the habit of mistaking my darker moods for reflections of my Core Self, and as painful and overwhelming as that is, it’s a difficult habit to break. So I journal, because sometimes just identifying the twists and turns of the Spiral helps me unravel it. I talk to the Engineer, whose belief in my abilities is dazzling and unwavering. I text my friends, who tell me I’m putting too much pressure on myself. And I stand at my window and see that Junior seems to be doing just fine. So odds are I’ll be fine too.