I adopted a Rubik’s cube the summer after second grade from my cousins. I think they were downsizing their toy supply. I had heard of these challenging puzzles, and because I enjoyed proving that I could do what others saw as challenging, I knew this little revolving maze was made just for me.
I brought it home and spent at least one summer afternoon puzzling over it. My head began spinning with all the confusion that a trial-and-error approach might produce. I had probably skipped my mid-afternoon Kool-Aid break, and we didn’t have air-conditioning, so perhaps I was feeling a little under the gun, but really, I had my whole life to figure out that puzzle.
Only I wanted to know NOW because I saw in my inability to solve this demonic cube proof that perhaps I was not the smart, amazing, talented, wonderful girl I’d gotten used to being. That was unthinkable. But here it was, no talent for something that smart people conquer all of the time. I thought that just because many things came easily to me, having to try to the point of frustration meant I was somehow lacking. And so I rejected the toy.
Here’s how it went down. I walked into the kitchen, perhaps wondering if someone had already mixed my Tropical Fruit Punch and lemonade on ice for me. I needed something to dull my anger. I don’t know whether I found any, or if it was the sudden thought that life was unfair for giving me ambitions without raw talent, but I hurled the Rubik’s cube at the floor. I just wanted it to know how angry I felt.
Oh, it knew alright. All 54 pieces of it knew. Plus that little mechanism in the center. Immediately I began grabbing the pieces and attempted to pop them back in place, but it was truly broken. I think my mom convinced me that no glue would fix it and to throw it away (the mom in me thinks she cited choking hazard since my youngest brother was a toddler).
I did not know what to do with frustration and failure.
Children in public schools today are learning what to do with these moments, which is a mindset more necessary than ever. I grew up with a fixed mindset: you succeed or fail, win or lose, you’ve got it or you don’t. A growth mindset adds dimensions to my children’s world of which generations before them may know very little. Adopting a growth mindset lets you live through the ups and the downs without shaking your identity to the core.
It has taken me 22 years of medication (with a really awful hiatus the winter of 2012-13), 15 years of therapy on and off, 15 months of listening to free life coach podcasts, and countless moments of journaling, spiritual renewal, thought work, missing my cue, making a scene, blaming my circumstances, and otherwise beating myself up for what I called failure to finally arrive at a moment of triumph.
Follow me to that moment.
Tonight I learned that a conflict in my extended family had just taken an ugly turn. (Don’t worry–if you’re my extended family, your situations remain unknown to me–those who know about this situation know that I know.) I had thought it was improving, but new evidence came along that gave me plenty of reason to feel vulnerable, betrayed, attacked, and very much on the defense for the people who would be most affected.
I was wrapped up in laundry and messes and kid fights and making dinner when my husband came in and told me. I read the message too. My head and heart went into a little tailspin. I kept trying to focus on the tasks at hand, but I wasn’t having any of it.
I let my daughter know that I couldn’t laugh at her joke just then because I was having some very upset feelings about some things I was thinking about that were unrelated to her. I calmed down enough to start making a salad. Everyone gathered. We started to dish up spaghetti. I had no thought of eating, so I began unloading the dishwasher. No good. I could not pretend everything was normal.
I told my husband I needed to go out for a bit. I tracked down my porch clogs that the painters had moved today, I tried to gather my thoughts as I walked in erratic lines across the yard. I had planned to go close up the hen house but was instead walking around like a chicken with her head cut off.
I returned to the sidewalk and froze so I could press my hands to my eyes and just feel the pain. I prayed I could somehow help things get better.
My husband came to check on me. My face still covered, I said, “Don’t hug me” without sounding vicious. I spoke words and checked myself when the ugly words I would regret tried to surface. I named (yelled) my emotions. I identified the thoughts behind them. I recognized options beyond blame and anger. I wasn’t ready to embrace them, but I knew they were there.
I went back inside with my cry-face and found some more information in the group text. My emotions paused as my beliefs about the situation began to change a little. My cognitive functions began to return.
I thought as I tackled a dirty dish, “I’m resisting (fighting against) this situation. What if I accepted it and said, ‘This is exactly the way things should be right now’ –what if I said that? How could that be true?”
I answered myself as something went into the fridge, “This would be exactly right if this situation could help those involved grow and learn in the ways they still need. But it won’t teach me what I need to learn while I am fighting against it.”
I set aside my weapons of war and began to get curious. I listened to an animated conversation my husband had with the person who had sent the text. I realized I couldn’t join in the anger or the defense. “Defense is the first act of war,” I remembered (thank you Byron Katie via Jody Moore). Why am I on the defense when the other party probably thinks of themselves as being on the defense? What offense has occurred in their eyes?
And then I got to that place of just being honest, open, thoughtful, creative. It took less than an hour. I felt the fear, the anger, the pain, the grief for others. And then I ascended to the next step.
Emotion felt and understood has cleansed me. I have never so clearly seen negative emotions serve me. My mind and heart feel no confusion, and I see one way after another that I have been prepared to be here in this moment with my particular experiences and what I thought were my shortcomings so that I can reach to whoever is willing so they too can take the next step.
Or I can use that step above to see and understand what is happening without getting caught up in it. I can recognize that it is not about me at all. I can be free to feel what I want to feel about the things I cannot solve.
Frustration is just negative emotion left unused. It takes time and struggle, but learn to work with all of your emotions. Just this one taste today is worth all the times I’ve tried to reject negative emotions and instead shattered my belief in myself.
I love God for always believing in me, for never rejecting me when I feel too broken, and for showing me that I am not simply a puzzle to be solved. I am a being meant to truly be. No way I can do that if I don’t learn how to be with my emotions. I think I have never been grateful before for having them. But now they’re mine, and I love them.