May Book Club: A Mindful Guide to Managing Your Mood & Your Brood, From ‘Metta Mom’
In her book debut, Vanessa Linsey takes us on an uproarious journey of spirituality, humor and humility. Metta Mom, our May 2019 Book Club pick, brims with stories unheard outside our most intimate moments—like teenage slumber parties, deathbed confessionals and appointments with a gastroenterologist. Each humbling tale brings lifetimes of powerful lessons gleaned from healing and miracle-making. Metta Mom provides sanity-seeking parents with heroic, yet tangible steps to creating the harmonious family life they thought possible only in their dreams.
Vanessa’s writing style and humble approach to parenting make her book easy to read. As a peek into her mind and how to manage your mood (and your brood), we’ve excerpted a chapter of her book. It’s an insightful look into how childhood experiences can cause pathways in our brains to be formed, triggering feelings of inadequacy later in life—all told through lens of a middle school cafeteria.
Metta Mom Chapter 3 Excerpt
May I remember. May you remember. May we remember.
In seventh grade, I was the shortest kid in my class and so skinny, gangly, and flat-chested I looked like a walking skeleton. At age 12, I was the only girl in school who didn’t wear a bra. One adolescence defining afternoon in the cafeteria, a pale-faced, wide-mouthed boy locked his eyes on my chest from the head of the lunch table and bleated: “BRRRAAAAA! BRRRAAAAA! BRRRAAAAA!” Imagine a pubescent sheep at full volume and you’ve got the tenor of his delivery.
His relentless performance endured for about 40 seconds. The boy was rewarded with group laughter so intense, tears came more readily than sound. My response was to pretend it wasn’t happening. I dropped my head and stared into my Oscar Mayer sandwich, equal parts horrified and humiliated. Surely, they’d forgotten I was human. I changed tables the next day and avoided eye contact with that kid for three years.
Lying in bed that night, I recalled a moment in the lunchroom from the day before, when one of my girlfriends snuck up behind me while I was tossing my brown paper lunch bag in the trash. She pulled at the back of my turtleneck sweater, as if to snap a bra strap.
“Oops!” she mused. “You don’t wear one.”
The next day sheep boy gave his grand performance. Putting two and two together, I realized there had likely been considerable lunch table speculation on my state of puberty, spearheaded by someone I had believed to be a friend.
It hurt. I cried.
Since it seemed that half the school wanted me to wear a bra, I mustered the nerve to ask my mother for a shopping trip to the lingerie department at Jordan Marsh. The next year, eighth grade, I was a newly minted 13-year-old, sitting in the cafeteria with my girlfriends, chatting and goofing. I was wearing a white t-shirt, just sheer enough to show the outline of my ingloriously procured bra. When I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned around to see a kind boy with whom I’d always been friendly. “Vanessa,” he said. His face was bright red. I thought maybe he wanted to ask me out. Everyone was staring at us. “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” He shuffled back to his table, head down, all his friends keeling over, whooping loudly, holding their bellies.
I returned to my lunch and a few minutes later, the boy tapped my shoulder again. Same thing. His, “I can’t do it,” was followed by another round of knee slapping and crowing from the boys’ table across the cafeteria. A few more minutes passed; I felt another tap. I spun around this time to see a different boy—a friend of the first and, I had thought, a friend of mine. “Vanessa!” he hollered. “WHY DO YOU WEAR A BRA???!!!!”
The lunchroom ripped open.
High fives. Red faces. Hysteria.
Boys were laughing so hard they were falling off their seats. All I could do was sit there with my jaw dropped, living a teenage nightmare. I felt exposed and deeply ashamed, targeted and humiliated. Rejection comes in all shapes and sizes, and that afternoon it came in size 32-AAA.
I have fuzzy memories of history teachers, algebra classes, and school dances in junior high. Lunch hour is crystal clear.
Several years later, while seeking parenting advice in a book called The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, I was surprised to extract break-through insight into my own childhood.
They described implicit memories as things that we learn and are recalled unconsciously, automatically. When we type on a keyboard or ride a bike, we don’t think about the moments we first learned how—we just do it. For better or for worse, experiences can automate emotions in the same way. Every time we encounter something that has faint resemblance to emotional trauma that we’ve programmed implicitly, our brain unconsciously categorizes the new experience accordingly and generates the emotions that correspond. In my case, no one had to remind me that I was ugly and wretched, I’d learned it through traumatic interactions with my peers and implicitly carried that misguided truth forward into other parts of my life.
For those haunted by public humiliation like me, our wonder years may have looked something like this: not invited to a birthday party? Bam! I am an outcast. Dumped by a boyfriend? Flash! I am discardable. Not voted to Student Council? Crack! I am unworthy. Unfortunately, maturity doesn’t heal our implicit memories. Just like acne and mood swings, these hairy little beasts chase us into adulthood: turned down for your dream job? Kapow! I am not good enough! Your kid tanks his basketball team tryout?Boom! He’s a loser just like his mom. These implicits silently connect the dots between past and present experiences without us knowing they’re doing it.
There’s a saying in science, coined by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb back in 1949, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Each time a perceived stress occurs, the neural pathways connecting the stress, emotions, and sensations get stronger and stronger; through this well-worn connection, we learn to react to stressful situations by feeling (fill in the blank). For me, the blank was filled by humiliation, rejection, inadequacy and shame. Those feelings became my standard social knee-jerk.
The most distinctly painful memories I hold from adolescence revolve around being rejected and left out. I fell to pieces if I wasn’t invited to a sleepover or a Friday night trip to Westgate Mall. As an adult recalling this, I think, That’s crazy! I had lots of friends and got invited to tons of outings. But as a kid in the yuck, I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t hear the nice things people said to me. The majority of my experiences took the familiar neural railway straight to Loserville.
I unconsciously filtered many years of experiences through implicit memories, assigning meaning and purpose, to protect myself from tangles with hairy beasts. But I assigned the wrong meaning and the wrong purpose and continued to do so until I dragged those unconscious little implicits, wailing and moaning to the surface of awareness, where I could integrate them with explicit memories, or conscious memories.
Explicit memories are consciously formed memories—specific personal events that we recall with ease. When implicit becomes explicit, our automatic responses to potential stress take on clearer meaning, and we can actually make sense of it all. As we learn to respond insightfully to stimuli, like rejection, we forge new neural pathways in the brain, creating limitless, and perhaps beneficial, possibilities and outcomes.
With mindfulness practice, emotions and their sources remain exposed in the light where they can be seen clearly. No more hairy beasts lurking in dark corners, waiting to jump out and wrestle us to the topsoil when we feel vulnerable or stressed. But if we cannot become conscious of implicit memories, we are doomed to pass them on to our kids.
Seriously, this shit does not disappear on its own, my friend. The sooner we deal with implicits, the sooner we stop dumping our karma on our babies.
When my daughters started elementary school, I found myself very protective over their experiences in the cafeteria. I’d question them daily about the way they were being treated by peers during lunch. Their lunch period became my topsoil trigger.
I didn’t make the connection until I started writing this book. Recreating that lunchroom scene in vivid detail forced my implicit feelings to the surface where I could examine them and see how they affected my present-day interactions. Now, I am mindful of my tendency to grill the kids about lunch antics and check myself: This is MY issue, not theirs. I engage my freedom to choose another neural path. I zip my lips, take a breath, and let my babies teach me that the cafeteria can be a fun, safe place to enjoy good friends. No more hand-me-down yuck.
This is just one of many times I’ve used mindfulness and writing to rewire habitual categorization of experiences. The heaviest piece of implicit rejection—the piece that involved my father abandoning me—was a little more complicated to clear.
At age 11, the concept of abandonment was introduced, and my mind instinctively generated an intimate, first-hand definition of rejection. Rejection, and the physiological reactions that accompanied it, became an implicit memory—a silent current that has rocked the undercarriage of my experiences from the day my father rolled out of the driveway in his olive-green Jetta.
When I was about 33, I wrote down my abandoned little girl story, conjuring pre-adolescence, dredging details, reliving emotion, the whole bit. This took a long time, months and months. When it was all recorded, I read that story aloud until I could do it without crying. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this practice kept my deeply rooted emotional wounds exposed so they could be clearly seen and consciously healed.
While all that yuck was exposed, I engaged a superhero-style mindfulness tool that I learned in a book called Making a Change for Good by Zen master Cheri Huber. I started wearing my watch on the wrong wrist so that the discomfort would remind me to notice my thoughts. It was sort of like tying a ribbon around my finger, but less conspicuous. Every time I’d think something reject-y like, My neighbor is having a party and didn’t invite me because I’m a loser, the uncomfortable watch would trigger my awareness and I’d correct the thought, Nope. That’s not true. Because I’m not 11, and I’m actually kind of awesome. It was a little Jack Handy, but so what? It worked. (Look for more ideas like the watch trick in chapter five.)
This transformation toward awesomeness can take place over hours or years. It all depends on your readiness to heal and your willingness to take action.
It sounds so simple, because it can be simple if you let it be. Your responses to stress and trauma are in your complete control. You just have to: one, believe it; and two, allow it.
Interested in how mindfulness can actually impact your everyday? Here’s the science behind it.
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