Growing in Confidence

Growing in Confidence
I work as a developer/analyst in the IT department of a large international corporation. And last year was a rough year for me. There was a major reorganization of the company, which actually resulted in my employer being split into two separate companies leaving me on a much smaller team than what I was had grown accustomed to. My team lead went to the other company, as did most of the other senior developers on my team. Where before I could lean heavily on the team lead and senior developers for support and assistance, I found myself being held responsible for even more without their aid. Our manager informed us early in the year that everyone would be expected to perform on a higher level, and she turned out to be right. I suddenly found myself handling much more responsibility than I was accustomed to, and was put on a “performance improvement plan” as I was neither trained for nor accustomed to the new expectations.

And I was terrified, and feared that a PIP meant I was soon to be fired. For months, I was constantly on edge at work, at one point experiencing sharp cramps in my back from sitting so tensely at my computer. I seriously considered leaving, and even attended career counseling sessions to try to find an alternative career path. But I didn’t leave, with the hopes that things would get better.

And I am still working for the same employer now. Yesterday I had my yearly evaluation, and it looks like I have come a long way since I was under that PIP. According to my manager, I am now performing well up to expectations, even though I am just as busy as ever. And now with two more developers recently having been added to the team, it looks like things are about to get a bit less hectic.

I learned a lot about myself though my anxious career experiences last year. I discovered that when I am feeling overwhelmingly anxious and uncertain about the future, superstitious and religious thinking is more tempting than ever. I am currently reading The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer and learning about studies that have shown that when people are stressed out and feeling out-of-control, they are more likely to see patterns in noise and more likely to attribute conscience agency to chance events in their lives (whether it’s ideas of a higher being having plans for their life, or of a conspiracy theory to ruin it). Makes sense to me, as I have caught myself in that kind of thinking when I am stressed out.

Here is probably the most important lesson I have learned though all of this. While it was difficult enough to deal with the heightened expectations of my employer, my main stumbling block had to do with unrealistically high expectations of myself. I have never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I have discovered that I have some perfectionist tendencies. And I projected that perfectionism onto others around me, fearing that if I made mistakes or was unable to solve that complex programming problem within the original estimates I would be fired. Come to find out, it doesn’t work that way so long as I communicate clearly about any problems or delays I am experiencing. I am perfectly capable of handling my responsibilities at work, despite my insecurities.

As long as I remember to think positively and not panic.

English: Don't Panic towel
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How could a 12-year-old girl deserve hell?

How could a 12-year-old girl deserve hell?

WARNING: Things will get a bit personal in this post.

I will be talking about my experiences with religion as relates to my self-esteem and self-confidence. Will I be blaming all my insecurities on religion? Well, no, though I think there are areas where religious messages I received as a child took advantage of and exacerbated my natural insecurities. It’s probably only in very recent years that I’ve realized how much some of these messages have messed with my head.

Lets start at the natural starting point, the Christian sum-up of the human condition: Romans 3:23 : “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Yes, I know there is context around this one, but this verse was very often quoted on its own so I will leave it that way. Feel free to look it up if you like.)

So, what could a 12-year-old girl (as this is about the time I started really paying attention to this) have done to “fall short of the glory of God”? This is the message I was just starting to absorb, right in the midst of developing my personal identity. I would think and think and try to remember what I had done wrong so I could confess it, because believing you had not sinned meant you were a liar and full of spiritual pride. (see 1 John 1:8) Oh, there it is. It’s just inescapable…it was almost a relief to be able to name some way I had sinned because then I would at least not be guilty of pride. Oh, and if you didn’t feel bad about your sins your repentance wasn’t genuine right? So my religious reflections were often reflections on my guilt and unworthiness.

I can just see Christians out there saying “Wait, no! You misunderstood the message!” But really, I was only absorbing what I was told and carrying it to its logical consequences, and could you blame me for taking what I was told both seriously and literally? I didn’t have a lot of extra-curricular activities growing up, so I spent a lot of my time in quite thinking and reflection and when I thought of these messages I got from church I could come up with no other conclusion.

I was told that I shared the blame for this. Something that supposedly happened 2000 years before I was born? It makes no sense. But what a guilt trip!

But, you might say, Jesus took care of that right? “God loves you!!!” Still, the idea that “God loves you” doesn’t help confidence if it is coupled with the idea of “you are sinner and deserve punishment.” What is it when someone says they love you but also tells you that you are unworthy of love? I knew I would never really measure up. And just about every Sunday morning, this message would be reinforced. Both in the weekly altar calls and in testimonies from others in church services who talked about how when they tried to take control of their lives everything fell apart and nothing was right until they tearfully came crawling back to God.

I determined I would never make their mistakes.

In the midst of trying to erase my doubts about God, I was being filled with doubts about myself. My own ability to succeed and thrive, and to get though Middle School with my sanity intact. I never did well socially at school, partly to do with my fear of doing anything wrong or breaking any rule (to step out of line was sin!). And also partly because my parents didn’t have a lot of money and it violated my sense of fairness and justice to beg them for expensive designer clothes as some of my friends advised. I feel the need to mention that my religious upbringing was not totally bad. While I never understood the stupid status games played in Middle School, and was never popular there, I found plenty of acceptance among my mother and her group of friends from church. They didn’t care if I didn’t wear makeup, or curl my hair, or wear the tight jeans that were in vogue at the time. When I was a teenager, I got along much better with adults than with my own peers. This was, no doubt, one of the factors that kept me from sinking into serious mental problems.

As you can see, the issues I had with the Christian theology was with the message itself and not with the people. The people, at least the mature ones, were generally wonderful. But this message: That I messed up because I was inherently evil and depraved and not because I was immature and still learning how to behave? And that my guilt is tied to some act of independence and rebellion that my first grandmother once committed? I now know that when a child tells a lie or behaves selfishly it is not because they are evil, but because they are immature.

This concept of sin gets in the way of personal understanding of why we do what we do, and how we change ourselves when we do things we do not like or that have bad consequences. Modern psychology (and honest reflection on one’s own mind for that matter) reveals that quite often we just don’t understand the real causes behind what we do–we do it, and then come up with the rationale after the fact. This is why people so often make the same mistakes over and over and over. It takes a lot of work and self-reflection to overcome the negative patterns. Merely attributing the wrong to “sin” and being sorry for it and resolving to repent is not good enough, and only results in believers getting caught in a cycle of “sin,” guilt, and repentance, and keeps them chained in whatever religious tradition they happen to be in.

And you know what? It’s ok to trust your own reasoning, because your mind is not depraved and sinful. The human brain is imperfect–since we are always stretching it beyond its evolutionary purpose (survival and reproduction). So we should always we willing to consider that we could be wrong. It takes courage and self-confidence to risk being wrong. But it is not a sin to be wrong, and if you find out you are wrong you can always change your mind. Don’t like your behavior? Don’t be mired in guilt, but try to understand your patterns and behaviors so you can make changes. And get help if you need it…this stuff can be hard. There are real solutions to these problems.

And one final point: there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that could make a 12-year-old child deserve hell, whether literal or metaphorical. For a trusted adult to teach a child otherwise is, frankly, abusive.

EDIT: Just to make sure I am absolutely clear on this point, no one ever personally threatened me with hell when I was a child or teenager. I did have experience one or two pastors and sunday school teachers who seemed to be fascinated with “hellfire and brimstone,” but the fact that my parents openly rejected that sort of fear tactic lessened its impact on me. However, even when it was not discussed, hell was always a part of the Christian belief system I was raised in, always lurking in the background as what was waiting for you after death if you did not commit your whole heart and soul to Jesus. So it was always an issue, even if it was not discussed often. 

Here is the talk from Dan Barker from Skepticon IV. If you do not know Dan Barker, he is a former Evangelical Christian pastor and missionary who is now an atheist. His talk is not exactly what I am saying in the post, but it is very closely related and he says it so well. 🙂 (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the main point starts about the 20:00 minute mark.)

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Atheist music: Shelley Segal

This is the single from Shelley Segal’s “An Atheist Album.” I love this, first of all because it is well written and well produced and beautiful. If it were not for these things, I would never give it a second listen.

But beyond that, I think it is a great thing to have atheists out there expressing their thoughts in ways other than cerebral scientific or philosophical discourse. This song is not an argument for atheism, it is an expression of what it is like to live as an atheist in a religious society. I think I like this most of all because as both an atheist and a woman, I identify with what she is saying.

If you are interested in hearing more, “An Atheist Album” can be found on Amazon and iTunes. If you like this song, you will love the rest of the album.

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Lasik one week later…

It has now been a week and a couple of days since my Lasik eye surgery. My vision has sharpened up a lot by now, and I do not think I will need glasses even for driving. Driving and focusing on street signs does not make my head hurt any more. I still see halos around lights, especially around the headlights of oncoming cars, and from what I hear it may be a permanent effect. However, it is tolerable, and I can still drive at night without problems.

Right now my eyes are itchy and watery and sensitive to light. Those symptoms just started on Friday though…I wonder if I should take a pill for allergies?

EDIT: My eyes feel better after showering. Still rather sensitive to bright light though. I think that’s normal.

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Congratulations to Jessica Ahlquist

I can hardly imagine the pluck and bravery of this young woman. Especially in high school, where such action can and does result in serious social consequences, there are still people out there who put themselves on the line to defend their values.

In this case, she called on the ACLU to challenge the unquestionably sectarian “School Prayer” posted on the walls of her high school.

Seriously, schools should stick to education and not erect religious barriers up between the students. Nothing says “you are just not one of us” like a declaration that your school promotes a religion you don’t believe in. And every student deserves to belong in their own school. And, yes, it is unconstitutional for schools to give endorsement to religion, for good reason.

Ahlquist said she is proud of her decision to fight for what she felt was right.

“Even if kids in school hate you, even if there are nasty comments all over the Internet, it’s important to just stand true to what you believe in,” Ahlquist said.

From: Student who challenged Prayer Banner speaks out

If you appreciate this young woman as much as I do, you can show your support in a concrete way by contributing to Jessica’s scholarship fund.

EDIT: Actually, as the ChipIn widget does not show properly on my blog, here is a better link for Jessica’s scholarship fund: A fundraiser for Jessica Ahlquist

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