Staying positive in a world of toxicity

Yoga keeps me sane. Period.

Yoga keeps me sane. Period.

Like most families, mine has gotten the celebration of holidays down to a science. Most of the time the dinner table overflows with food, laughs and surrounding family members, but this year my Christmas came with a side of dysfunction next to the gravy boat.

One family member, who will remain nameless (a girl never reveals her sources), has a difficult time getting through the holidays because of a recent loss. But rather than sharing the burden with all of us in a healthy way, the individual chose to nitpick and yell at virtually everyone at the table, all in front of my poor grandfather, who by the end of it looked like he was one short breath away from a coronary.

And I can’t say I blame him. Nor do I particularly harbor resentment toward the family member – loss affects us all in different ways. But nobody expects such behavior over turkey and stuffing, and on days like these I find myself wishing people who act in such a way did not exist.

In my short lifetime, I’ve encountered many people like this. I’d venture to say we all have. The Debbie Downers. The Negative Nancies. Those people whose mere presence is so toxic it sucks all the air out of the room and replaces it with anxiety and contempt. And at a time where my life has endured such tumultuous change, I find myself still navigating healthy ways to confront the negativity knocking at my door without inviting it in for dinner and a movie.

A majority of the time, my life as a 22-year-old feels like this: a struggle between the reserve to stay positive and the urge to let myself give up, just for one day. During the two week break from work I’ve experienced both: I’ve shooed away the self-critiques that tell me I’ll never amount to anything, encouraging myself to keep pushing for another semester of all 4.0s (I didn’t mean for that to be a humble brag, but hell, I worked hard for these grades and I’m gonna brag about ‘em).

But there have been a couple days where I’ve felt so discouraged it rendered me frozen in bed, absentminded and at a loss. We’ve all had those days – we scroll through social media sites endlessly, reading the same status eight times because we just can’t retain any more information in our tired brains. And what we do retain is typically the positive things our Facebook “friends” are doing with their lives, which really just translates to a comparison pity party. We watch Netflix until our brains go blank, numbing ourselves enough to get through the day without a legitimate thought. Because thoughts about our future mean we have to consider taking risks, and risks can mean failure.

So how do we, as newly-functioning young adults, begin to tackle these feelings? How can I, a person who has never been comfortable settling academically or professionally, let go of all that negative, toxic mojo and focus on all the positives on the flip side?

Thus far, I’ve found the true power comes from recognizing that the coping mechanisms I’d previously used in times of trouble simply weren’t cutting it anymore. I used to go to family and close friends often for advice, but as the only person in both groups pursuing post-graduate studies I’ve found they often can’t relate to what I’m going through. This in turn makes me compare my struggles to theirs, which never bodes well amongst other 22-year-olds who already have full-time careers (*cries*). Or even worse, there are times where they throw up their hands, sigh and say “I don’t know what else to tell you.” Those eight words translate to “I give up,” which then makes me want to give up as well.

So rather than overwhelming my closest loved ones with problems they can’t relate to, I have found myself confiding in some acquaintances and friends I’ve met at school. They can all relate to my struggles – always being broke, family/relationship stress – and nothing has made me feel better than realizing I’m not alone. When in doubt, it helps to surround myself with people who are as passionate about social work as I am to push me further.

Another avenue of positive reinforcement is a friendly trip to the online classifieds for jobs in my field. When dozens of openings fly down my screen, I heave a sigh of relief: “There are jobs!” Although I can’t have any of them yet (God willing), it’s extremely encouraging to know I’ll also be compensated relatively well for all my trouble.

If the aforementioned methods just aren’t cutting it, I take a slightly simpler psychological approach: working my butt off at the gym. Whether it’s an hour of yoga or some intense cardio, it typically does the trick. On mornings where I don’t have work or class until later in the day, I love nothing more than spending an hour kicking my own ass to the beat of Missy Elliott or Britney Spears, then coming home and making my favorite post-workout meal: 2 eggs, a bagel and a banana. Don’t ask me why, but the routine found within the little moments makes life seem less abysmal for the day.

At this point, I want what every 22-year-old wants: a great job with sizable benefits, a pretty apartment and a car that came off the assembly line some time after the new millennium. But until all of the items on my ultimate wish list fall into place, I’m just going to have to find ways to keep myself upbeat and positive. Really, it’s what we all want: something to pass the time until the “next big thing” comes along.

But my needs are deeper than that. I refuse to live my life believing that the next promotion, or a big happy wedding, or another degree will make me happy. The cheesiest fortune cookie scripts and dial-a-minute mediums tell us to be happy in the moment, and it might make me a Pollyanna to believe it but if it gets me through, then I can’t apologize for that.

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Smack heard round the world – or maybe just the jungle gym

It was an average day on the playground.

Nine tiny humans, lined up and ready to go outside. I spent an ungodly amount of time zipping hot pink jackets, putting on gloves and general child wrangling. Once I let them all loose in the courtyard, the fun began.

There’s a set of twins in my class, and to put it mildly they’ve put me through the wringer. One is sweet and sensitive, while the other is hyper, has a short attention span and some violent tendencies. This combination has the potential to become explosive quickly, and it often leaves me stressed, frustrated and exhausted.

These two were a part of my group, which combines with another

Some of my girls in their best princess attire.

Some of my girls in their best princess attire.

class on the playground in the late afternoon. So I signed my kids in for the other teaching assistants, said goodbye for the day and started to leave on my merry way.

Yes, it was an average day on the playground — that is, until it wasn’t. It all happened so quickly I almost missed it. But for reasons that soon will become clear, I’m glad I didn’t.

One twin hit the other in the face. This isn’t atypical by any means. Usually we attempt to separate them so we can assess the problem and discipline further.  But this time, the hitter just wasn’t having it and darted across the grass like a Jack Russell chasing a shiny red frisbee.

Before I could even get a “come back!” out of my mouth, the errant child had been tackled to the ground by three other 4-year-olds.

“You were NOT listening to Miss Katie!” one shouted sternly.

“We GOT you!” another declared. They high-fived, gave speechless me a hug and went about their business as usual.

Once I got over the shock of it all, My mind was racing. “My kids just stood up for me. My kids are on my side. MY KIDS AREN’T TRYING TO KILL ME.”

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Although at times they exasperate me to no end, my kids have hearts of gold.

Disclaimer: OBVIOUSLY I teach my class that violence is not the answer, and I explained that while I appreciated their help, it’s not OK to tackle people. But on the inside I was screaming with joy.

We as adults are often quick to lose our patience with kids. We think logically (for the most part), and their growing brains don’t have the cognitive functioning to embody our ideology just yet. I’ll admit, there are times when I lose it. But this was one of those rare moments that helped me realize that with kids, some of the biggest annoyances also can manifest as their most powerful strengths.

Really, it’s true. The typical 4-year-old sees black and white, right and wrong, and nothing in between. While concrete thinking is typical of their age (and at times a major pain in the you-know-what), it can bring blind, unwavering loyalty toward the people they care about. While they didn’t display their loyalty in the most respectable  way, today they showed their loyalty to me. And I’m not one to discount such acts.

As silly and neurotic as it might be, my kids inspired me today. They helped me look past all the times I got annoyed when they took too long to get their snow boots on. I saw beyond the nap time debacles and messy snacks and just saw my kids.

My kids – the kids who made Christmas cards for elderly people in nursing homes because they didn’t want them to feel alone during the holidays. The kids who problem solve on their own when they all want to wear the Princess Elsa dress for the day. The kids who are fiercely independent, loyal, and with the right timing, sensitive and caring.

They’re my kids, and I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to help them learn.  

Should I stay or should I go: navigating the part-time job Sahara

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You're welcome.

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You’re welcome.

There’s this dream I keep having, night after night. I’m working with a research team in a clinic, performing behavioral assessments on patients for a new study. Everyone’s calling me “Doctor” Abdilla, but not the white coat-wearing variety. They’re coming to me with all their questions, and I have all the answers.

In this dream, I’m wearing bookishly high-fashion glasses, and my cable-knit sweater is J. Crew (hey, scientists can adore fashion too!) I’m the Christina Yang of behavioral science, and I couldn’t be happier with my research.

Fast-forward, and our work has made national news, and by some miracle no reporter has messed it up or misquoted me (har-har, journalist friends). We’re nominated for awards, and other behavioral scientists across the globe know all about it.

…Ok, do me a favor and please pretend that’s not as nerdy as it sounds. Do that, and I’ll pretend it’s not a huge change of pace from my daily work: a teaching assistant at a preschool.

That’s right. At night I’m having these dreams, and during the day it is my sole duty to make sure my bustling four-year olds don’t murder or maim each other. At this point in my life, I’m standing at the crossroads between making the best of the situation or moving on to bigger and better things. Or, perhaps there’s a third option: making my current job bigger and better by finding it in myself to make it a positive experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. Really, I do. When they don’t make me want to stab child-size pencils through my eyeballs, which is often, they’re adorable and sweet and fun.

This undertaking of mine – it’s sort of like that one couple everyone knows. They’ve been together forever, even though everyone except them seems to know it just isn’t working anymore. When it’s good it’s great, but when it’s bad, the whole world knows it. Yet they keep trying, hoping for a different outcome.

So instead of doing the same thing over and over, I’m trying to make some changes. And, like it does for many others, to me the challenge often feels like the riddle of the Sphinx. 

For the past few months I’ve searched for methods to make matters more interesting: reading books about cognitive restructuring, researching new methods of conflict resolution and assessing the progress of children with behavioral problems. None of these things are required for the job, but somehow it makes me feel like I’m contributing more than I was previously.

In other words, I’m looking for new ways to be challenged.

On its face the job should be simple, straightforward. But I am not a simple girl. Nor am I overly attached to the education system unless I’m talking about reforming it.

So reform it I shall. Through the eyes of my kids, I will make changes.

Although this blog might provide evidence to the contrary, I don’t think my needs are all that different from every other student my age. I want the stress and craziness of a full day’s work. I want a challenge. More than anything, I want the chance to put my skills to good use and prove myself as a competent, professional human being.

In other words, I want the life I most likely will have to wait until post-graduation to see and experience. At the moment, what I’m struggling with most is the discrepancy between what I want and what I’ve learned in the social work sector thus far.

But this is the career situation I signed up for. This is the delayed gratification I know will come. I knew this when I got into my first grad school. I’ve made my postgrad bed, but do I have to lie in it for so long?

Well for now, I just have to let it lie. But that doesn’t mean I can’t flip the pillows and see my job from a new perspective.

When working with kids, it’s so easy to let the microscopic transgressions overtake you. But instead of getting fed up and giving up, for the time being I’m taking on the challenge in stride and waiting for the next opportunity to learn.