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4 Steps to Turn Your Mess Into Your Message

“We heal the world when we heal ourselves, and hope shines brightest when it illuminates the dark.” – Sasha Graham

It was Sunday and the snow had finally melted enough in the backyard that I could see the grass again. We had arrived home the night before in darkness after a 9-and-half-hour journey from Nevada City, California, the foothills of Gold Country, in our RV which left me ready to collapse on my bed for the night. A full week of family togetherness (which was lovely), coupled with living out of a cramped RV for five nights, left me depleted in much-needed alone time to re-energize. I started my day slow and easy and I hoped the rest of it could go, but I knew that wasn’t an option given the cleanup and prep we had ahead of us from the week prior and the week to come. My daughter snuggled against pillows on the couch in her robe reading the second book in the Crave series on her kindle, oblivious to the black cloud of the to-do list looming over my head as I stared out the window from the kitchen.

I couldn’t match the kids’ exuberance to take on Christmas. I considered it for a moment and quickly shelved the idea feeling a wave of overwhelm at taking on another project to further complicate one perfectly lovely Sunday. I tried to picture us stringing lights on the house and finding nooks on shelves for the nutcrackers to stand as sentinels over our festivities for the season, but instead of feeling joy, I felt heavy considering all the tiny tasks to make that moment feel light and enjoyable to me. It wasn’t lost on me that I was a tad bit obsessive-compulsive, a symptom of anxiety I never realized I had until our daughter was diagnosed this year.

“It’s hereditary,” said Jenny, the pediatric nurse who evaluated her told us as we sat hip to hip on the couch in her office. “It’s likely that one or both of you have anxiety that runs in the family.” Brent and I turned to each other and, although no fingers were pointed, I knew we were both wondering who had what kind of anxiety between us.

As we continued our research once home, we learned that anxiety manifests in different ways, and later decided between us that his brand was the cautious, tribal kind that makes separation from the clan feel scary, and mine was the controlling, obsessive type that likes things just so. The more I thought about it the more I could see it. I like things to operate smoothly, to have a sense of shape and order, and to be predictable, safe, and easy. I put a lot of work and effort into creating a sense of ease—the great irony of my life.

I shifted my focus back to my coffee as I sat back down at the kitchen table to triage the list. On the docket for the day was cleaning the RV out, winterizing it before the snowstorm came in that night, and delivering it back to storage. You pay for the fun RVs offer in more ways than one. The list continued: Walk the dogs, grocery shop, laundry (so much laundry!), put house away, make dinner . . . I hovered the pen above the next line searching for any tasks I forgot to write down. The kids were chirping to decorate the house for Christmas, which I answered with a vague, “Ok. We’ll see how much time we have this afternoon.”

I added, “Decorate for Christmas?” to the list.

Brent sat drinking coffee from a club chair with his feet up while watching YouTube tutorials to reacquaint himself with how to winterize the rig. At least he looked relaxed. I pushed away the list and went back to writing in my journal.

It was 11 am and we had done one thing on the list. We walked the dogs and my son's RC car through the neighborhood. Revitalized from the freezing temperatures outside, I got a wild hair and proclaimed before thinking and ruling out my impulsive idea, “Let’s go to Costco!”(Not on the list). “We can get groceries, wrapping paper, whatever we need.”

Brent brightened up. “Let‘s do it!” He loves Costco. “Kids, load up! We’re leaving.”

We were veering way off course.

He headed to the garage with the kids as I headed to the backyard to take a moment alone and return to the freshness of the winter air, feeling my feet on earth. The grass was soggy with snow melt. The purple and black fallen leaves of autumn had been trapped by snowfall and left to lay smothering the ground in thick, heavy heaps of decay. Piles of dog shit sat upright in numbers like tiny sand villages pocketed by rain and snow and punctuating the landscape of the lawn. I hopped over the landmines to retrieve the shovel and started collecting the numerous messes into a bucket.

Brent stepped out from the house onto the porch, furrowing his brow, he called out that they were waiting. I looked up, called back that I was coming, and kept scooping. I had cleared one half of the lawn and had another to go. Another 10 minutes passed. I knew I was making the three of them wait. I was wasting their time. I knew it. But left to my own devices, I felt compelled to finish the job.

Once done, I quickly inspected the bottom of my shoes and found a clop of poop on the heel of one. Another delay! I walked to the spigot and there was no hose. Ugh! I deduced that Brent had detached and drained the hose for winter, but understanding that did little to assuage my mounting frustration. I searched the hose that hung on the side of the house for the end, but it seemed only to be one unending loop. Is the Universe playing a sick trick on me?

In my increasing frenzy to hurry and end the madness of the drawn out impulsive yard-cleaning project, I began talking to myself, “What is happening?! Why didn’t Brent leave the hose at the base of the spigot? This is crazy! How is this helpful? It’s not!”

And then I let Anger speak for me, and she is a nasty bitch. I called Brent on my Apple watch—it was easy and instantaneous—within a moment his warm voice filled the space beside me. My voice came out in a high tone of urgency as if this was life or death, “Where is the hose? It’s not here and I have shit on my shoe. This is so frustrating!” Not his problem, but I wanted him to take the problem off my hands. He didn’t bite.

Calm and measured to my off-the-wall insanity, “It’s right there along the side of the house where it always is.” I knew that. He knew I knew. His point was that my call was ridiculous, not for information gathering but to spew my venom. He was right.

“It makes no sense! The hose should be here where we can attach it and use it when needed, like for me now.” I hung up feeling just as frustrated as when I called, still reeling from the hold my anger had over me.

I attached the hose and sprayed off my shoe. The force of the jet spray ricocheted from the bottom of the shoe onto my face and sweater. I released my grip on the nozzle and dropped the hose with one hand and with the other slammed my shoe on the deck. I dragged the arm of my sweater across my face to dry off the spray that landed like a cruel joke mocking my unconscious and absurd behavior. It was at that moment I finally awoke to see how I allowed my anger and obsessive tendencies to ride roughshod over me.

I tucked into the front seat of the car quietly, still trying to recover myself after the episode with the hose. Brent said nothing about my call. I felt my muscles begin to relax as he wove us out of the neighborhood toward Costco.

“I’m sorry I yelled. I’m sorry for all of it.” I turned to take in Brent’s face, but couldn’t read his expression under his sunglasses. “I owe you more than an apology. I don’t know what came over me.”

“You could have solved your own problem. You had all you needed right there.”

“I know. I did. I hosed off my shoes and got poop backsplash all over me.” I knew I was more myself again because I could chuckle at the memory.

The next morning I wrote for 45 minutes reflecting on the memory of the events. I turned the moments over in my head as I would a gem, looking closely at each side in an effort to understand and appreciate the whole. Anger is not my best attribute, but it is a part of how I express myself when my needs are not met and I feel out of alignment with myself. My anger signals to me, and others who bear its sting, that there is something demanding my attention.

“Unless you learn to face your own shadows, you will continue to see them in others, because the world outside of you is only a reflection of the world inside of you.” – Carl Jung

One of my favorite maxims for self-development is “Your mess is the message.” It’s a powerful reframing of how we understand the lesson of our experiences of hardship, disappointment, and failure. I knew that I had screwed up with Brent by allowing myself to give into my lesser, below-the-line emotions of anger and frustration. I felt guilty about it, but I also knew I was committed to not repeating my mistake and learning from it. I knew I needed to forgive myself before I could expect him to forgive me. In the days following my yard-project episode, I got curious and researched the link between OCD and anger, which there is definitely a link. Good to know! I’m recommitted to taking better care of myself, which includes time to rest, hydration, alone time, and exercise—many of the things I was missing on our trip.

It won’t be the last time I make a mess, but if I am committed to discerning the message from each mess I make, I feel good about that. From this learning experience, I gathered a few steps and I'd like to share them with you in the hopes that they will help you too. I encourage you to really dig in. It's worth it. I promise.

4 Steps to Turn Your Mess into Your Message

Here are 4 ways we can receive the message from our mess in life to strengthen our ability to recover to our highest, above-the-line [link to blog] self:

  1. Name the mess. Name the emotion that causes it. Name the outcome that drives the making of the mess. Write down your reflections, putting words to the feelings to create clarity and call the whole mess forward out of the shadows.

  2. Embrace ALL OF YOU. Move away from shame and toward empathy. Forgive yourself for messing up. Release the guilt and accept the lesson. Consciously acknowledge the “mess” and accept responsibility for it. Shine a light on the ugly, othered parts of yourself that you are not proud of, but cannot deny existing. By accepting these parts of yourself, you are embracing your wholeness of being and your authentic self. Your imperfections make you human and uniquely YOU.

  3. Shine a light on these parts of yourself. Write it. Speak it. Get it out of the shadows where it festers and creates a chasm dividing you into silos of selfhood. Share the highs and the lows with neutrality and non-judgment as simply parts of the whole story of you.

  4. Learn from the mess. What lessons does the mess offer you at this moment in your life? What is the message of the mess? How can you recover stronger from the episode of the mess? Hold empathy and compassion for yourself as you explore these questions.

Put these ideas into practice–

  • Make a list of messes in your life.

  • Choose one to write about for 10 minutes without stopping. Let your reflections fill pages as you recount the mess in search of the message.

  • Name two insights you have from reflecting on this mess.

  • Name two choices will you make having learned from the mess.

  • Share your learning to support others who may not know how to discern the message from their mess.

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