Gaining Clarity in Life


It had been more than a week since I opened my journal to write something. I felt bad for neglecting it (as I often do between breaks in my journal writing), and my disappointment made it all the more difficult to begin.

Nonetheless, I knew that writing something–anything–would help move things forward. I removed its elastic sling, felt for the ribbon sticking out of the bottom spine, and used it to fling open to the next blank page. 

For two pages, I let my thoughts pour out of me in an attempt to understand things better. As I turned to the next page, I watched myself (almost like a witness) scrawl out in big letters: 


It took up the entire page. I traced over it a few times, bolding it and deepening its imprint so that it could be clearly felt on the other side, like a piece of Braille writing or something. I copied it over and over until it felt like it might tear a hole in the page, at which point, I stopped, dropped my pen in my lap, and held up my journal out in front of me as if it were a piece of art that needs to be taken in from far away.


Yes, that was it. That was exactly what I was needing. I hadn’t known what to name it until just now. I didn’t know about it prior to writing it on the page. It was as if my hand was plugged into a knowledge center deeper than my conscious mind (or it was just a lucky guess), and was able to scrawl out an exact bullseye to my problem.

The Problem is Hazy

What exactly was my problem? 

My problem had been going on for a while. This problem, as problems often are, was quite fuzzy to begin with. I knew there was a problem because I was feeling regular emotional discomfort whenever I thought about or interacted with anyone at work. It wasn’t clear to me what the nature of it was, or what aspects of it were legitimate versus totally made up in my head. 

The problem was also getting worse. A few months back it felt like a near-continuous low level stress, where the stress spiked high whenever something particularly bad happened. These days, all of that continued, but on top of it I was also experiencing full-blown panic attacks on almost a weekly basis. 

Panic Attacks

The last time I was having regular panic attacks I was a senior in college. I was trying to figure out what life after college would be like with a theatre degree. I was also trying to be okay about breaking up with my boyfriend, with whom I was very much in love, but who was traveling down a different life path, and the time was coming for us to part ways for good. 

Eventually, I graduated college, I endured the painful breakup, and I watched myself move forward one inch at a time. Soon, my panic attacks became much more mild, softening to a whisper, and then, thankfully, fading out of my life.

That was 12 years ago. While that problem challenged me to my limits at the time, I don’t think going through something like that today would bring back my panic attacks. For one thing, I now have 12 more years of learning and development under my belt. I have new psychological tools that I can use to approach my problems. And I have a deeper understanding about myself, the world, and my place in it. 

In fact, I’ve gone through periods of stress a lot worse than my senior year of college, and my panic attacks have never resurfaced. 

So imagine my surprise to find myself 12 years later pacing in the kitchen, struggling to catch my breath, compulsively shaking my hands in front of me, and feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

The Problem Becomes Clear

As a person who experiences a lot of intense emotions, it’s sometimes hard to sort out which ones are pointing me towards real problems that need to be resolved, and which ones are just complaining about things I don’t like.

The fact that I was having panic attacks again was enough evidence for me to start taking a closer look. Yes, there were problems at work, but I hadn’t been able to reach any conclusions about them based on the information I had. 

During a recent panic episode, I decided that it would be okay to sit down, close my eyes, and pay attention to what was happening inside my emotional pain. I watched how the emotions transformed. I noticed the quality of each feeling that I was experiencing as it paired up with thoughts about particular people, assignments, challenges. I started asking myself: 

What is causing me the most pain? 

What is causing me the most pain? 

What is causing me the most pain?

I asked myself over and over until my brain started giving me answers. This thing! That thing! 

The first answers that came up were not it. They were the warm-up answers my brain throws out when it’s starting its engine up to think about something new.

It started sputtering out more answers. Some of them seemed like synonyms for other answers tossed out moments before–just a slightly different flavor of this or that. 

Pretty soon, I started narrowing in on some themes. The problem was finally becoming clear.

Engaging the Problem

As I sat down with my journal after a week of absence, the word CLARITY poured out of me with conviction (more conviction than usual).

I knew that the crux of my problem at work had to do with CLARITY. It had to do with a lack of CLARITY that I felt about pretty much every aspect of my job. It had to do with feeling stuck in the mud, like CLARITY was not on the way to me anytime soon, and that my job would continue to feel unclear to me for the foreseeable future.

In that moment I realized what a fundamental need CLARITY is for me (and maybe people in general). It’s so important that when I get too far into the realm of ambiguity, it actually causes me panic attacks. 

Like a jigsaw puzzle coming together in the final hours, the concept of CLARITY began to take form, pull meaning and connect into different areas in my life.

It connected into something I had recently learned about setting boundaries for myself. When people talk about the importance of setting boundaries, I typically hear it described as the ability to say no when you want to. That’s not my problem with boundaries. My problem with boundaries is that sometimes when I say yes to something, I’m genuinely enthusiastic about my commitment, but it turns out to be more than I bargained for, and in those instances I feel angry and resentful about having said yes when the mud thickens. My problem with boundaries is that I say yes to things before I have CLARITY about what I’m saying yes to.

It connected into something else, something about the way Oli and I talk about stuff sometimes. There’s a particular batch of topics that we talk about regularly that seem to go on conversational repeat. It’s like we’re playing through the same ideas over and over again. As we stumbled into one of those conversations on our morning walk the other day, I began to feel a hint of frustration. Then it hit me: CLARITY. These conversations seem to go nowhere because we don’t have CLARITY about what we’re trying to achieve with them. Are we mining out all possible scenarios of a given situation? Are we figuring out the order of operations of a particular scenario? Are we trying to narrow in on a decision about what to do?

Before CLARITY jumped out of my pen into my journal, I hadn’t spent much thinking about it as a concept or human need. It dawned on me that up until this point in my life, I didn’t have many mechanisms for creating CLARITY in my life, and in many cases, I really had no clue whether something was clear or unclear to me. 

I’ll explain. One of the many symptoms of my mom’s long-standing autoimmune disease was blindness. When she became blind, she moved through the world in a different way. She stopped teaching me and my sister how to use our eyes. I didn’t imagine that this would have some sort of tangible impact on me, but when I moved out of her house and started living with friends, I noticed how differently I saw things around the house than they did. Everyone I ever lived with has been a genius at spotting contrast on the floor – a bug, a dust bunny, a leaf, a piece of garbage, a spot of dirt. They were on top of it. But I was never great at spotting things on the floor, to the great frustration of the people I’ve lived with. My mom’s blindness prevented her from seeing anything on the floor. She didn’t pay attention to the floor except to make sure there was no step she was about to trip over (which I will say, greatly improved my awareness of stairs in my general vicinity, even to this day). I may have been blessed with full vision, but I taught myself to use my eyes the way I saw my mom using hers. I obscured the CLARITY of my vision because I didn’t know how to use it effectively.

And now, my problem with CLARITY was finally clear (or at least getting there): I ignored my need for CLARITY because I didn’t know I needed it. As a result, a lack of CLARITY had seeped into different areas of my life. Without knowing it, I had allowed unclear situations to balloon up in size, angering me, frustrating me, and finally, giving me panic attacks. 

The only way to resolve it would be to achieve CLARITY for myself.

Achieving Clarity

How can I achieve CLARITY? 

I began to ask myself.

How can I achieve CLARITY?

Well, I guess CLARITY is an answer to a question. 

In the case of setting proper boundaries for myself, CLARITY is the answer to the question, “What all does this entail?”

In the case of unsticking repeated conversations with Oli, CLARITY is the answer to the question, “What are we trying to achieve with this conversation?”

In the case of my problem at work, CLARITY is the answer to the question…


Hmm. That’s a tough one. 

In the case of my problem at work, CLARITY is the answer to the question…

Well, I guess it’s the answer to several questions. It’s the answer to:

  • “How does my work impact others?” 

  • “How are we making decisions about our product and operational inefficiencies?” 

  • “What results are we aiming for as an organization?” 

  • “What commitments and accountabilities do I need to set for myself in order to reach those goals?” 

  • “How will I measure my work on a daily basis so that I know objectively that I’m doing a good job?”

Holy shit. That sounds pretty nice. That sounds pretty on-the-money to me. 

I sat back, dropped my journal into my lap, and stretched my arms wide in a victory V. I had no next steps in terms of what I was going to do with the questions, but I felt so relieved to have learned something new about myself, and to feel a hint of forward movement.

The simple part of the work was over. The simple part is the part I do on my own, thinking about what I’m going through and trying to figure out what I need in order to feel like my regular, happy-go-lucky self. The next leg of the journey involves other people, who while beautiful, are unpredictable in unpredictable ways. 

It was time to go have some crucial conversations about my need for CLARITY. Time to become good at recognizing my need for CLARITY in the moment. Time to develop my capacity to create CLARITY so fully that I could imagine myself one day automatically creating it for myself in any situation, not because I worked hard to create it, but because I have learned it so deeply that it is baked into how I approach the world. 

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