Seeking Tension's Source


I have long suffered from tension headaches, and for just as long, I've prayed, asking for God to heal them. But when I do, I hear a firm "no," and now I think I know why: the tension that causes the headaches is a symptom of an underlying problem, and I think God wants to address that deeper issue. To explore what I think is going on, I want to first establish my tension symptoms and their history.

Feeling Tense

The tension I experience is primarily in my neck, shoulders, upper back, and head. I also suspect I experience some tension around my chest, though this is harder to observe. With conscious effort and intent, I can relax these muscles, and it does feel like they are tense most of the time; indeed, that seems to be the default state.

This tension at minimum contributes to a sense of fatigue, which impacts concentration and tiredness. It can escalate into a full headache, which can be fairly debilitating. I have found that keeping well-hydrated helps manage the severity of my symptoms, particularly on the headache front. I'm not really sure why this is, but I'm glad something helps. I've also found that lying down and resting helps my body relax naturally, which can lead to a rather strange experience where I have a great deal of tension-related fatigue before heading to bed for the night, but when I lie down, the relaxation of tension reduces that feeling of fatigue, resulting in my feeling more awake after lying down to go to sleep than I was just prior to doing so.

I do think the severity of this tension has been increasing in recent years (with any of this sort of thing, it can be hard to remember specifically). This increase started with my jaw, where opening my mouth sometimes causes it to pop back into place (thankfully, this is not painful). I've also more recently been experiencing soreness in my jaw that I think is from muscle tension, since relaxing those muscles causes a change in sensation consistent with tired muscles no longer exerting. Also, within the last year or so, I've been experiencing tingling sensations around my body that may be related to muscles in my neck squeezing too hard on nerves.

So that's the overall state of this muscle tension. To recap, it exacerbates my feelings of tiredness and fatigue, can cause sometimes nasty headaches, and more recently is responsible (to the extent of my knowledge) for some jaw and nerve problems.

A Tense History

To the best of my recollection, I first developed issues with tension, and especially tension headaches, somewhere around 2008-2010, during the second half of my time in college (I no longer remember exactly when this began). This was during a troubled time for me. I'll get into this more in the next section, but it was during my 3rd year of college (2008-2009 school year), which is when I finally found myself academically challenged.

Initially, I had a brain fog that drifted in whenever I wanted to go and try to get any work done. I now believe this to have been a spiritual attack of some kind. I distinctly recall heading towards campus one day to try and get some work done and feeling the brain fog begin to rise. I began to feel a desperate panic in response ("No, not this again!") and told the brain fog to go away. It obeyed and hasn't been back since.

However, I was left with tension headaches. They were more severe at that time and have mellowed over the years to mostly be background noise for me (kind of like the noise of being in an airplane, though). It took a while initially to diagnose them, too. We tried some different things to figure out why I was having so many headaches, and I vaguely recall it wasn't until somewhere around 2011 or 2012 when we finally figured it out. It's been long enough that I don't remember that timeline too clearly, either, but regardless, I've had this tension for over a decade now, and while the intensity has varied over the years, it's never gone away entirely.

Entering the Speculation Zone

So why did I develop tension issues, and why are they persisting? I don't know for sure, but this article was prompted by some new ideas that I want to dig into and explore. Working my way through them by writing helps me do just that. As such, please be aware that this section will be heavy on the speculation; conclusions that I draw here are ideas that will inevitably need further processing and validating over time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: What follows is a process of introspection that I will leave minimally edited. It was written as a stream of consciousness over the course of several sessions. I will add clarifying editor's notes in orange (like this one) where I deem it useful. There will be a final conclusion at the end; feel free to skip to that if you want—the process of finding my way to it was long and winding, and while reading it will provide insight into me, I can fully understand someone just wanting to get to the point. Note that I'm instinctually careful about "I feel" statements versus "I think" statements. The former denote an emotional or intuitional idea, while the latter is an intellectual or reasoned idea.

I think the tension is built around a ball of stress that I hold internally. The stress is around others' expectations and nebulous fears that flow from those expectations. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Expectations proves to be an important theme!] I want to be clear that these expectations are sourced in a complex way, and many of them are based on general culture. In other words, while individuals have contributed, the fact that these perceived expectations are from a diffused, general source impacts how I perceive them: notably, I can't disregard them as the opinion of one person.

I mentioned previously that the tension issues began when I was struggling academically partway through college, and I think that's an important point to note. The expectations I felt from society as a kid were mostly around getting good grades in school. Because I'm blessed to have a brain that did well in a school setting, this was trivial for me. Homework was easy (not that I liked it; it felt like a waste of time to me). I didn't have to study for tests. I was not particularly challenged in this way, which meant being successful was easy and not a major focus for me.

In other words, from my perspective, school was something I went through, but didn't really have to focus on. I could instead think about video games, some movie or show, or LEGOs. I didn't hate going to school (though I did hate having to wake up for it!), it was just the thing you did as a kid. This all meant I was mostly free to invest my time and energy in things I enjoyed and actually cared about while still being socially rewarded for good grades, which were, as we've established, trivial for me to obtain.

Even the first couple of years of college were easy for me. And then I suddenly hit a wall. I don't know how much the brain fog contributed to this, but by that point, I had never learned how to deal with academic difficulty. My success as a student shattered. What would people think of me? How would they judge me? Would they condemn me as lazy? [EDITOR'S NOTE: In my mind, "laziness" is one of society's most damning labels—this is a complex topic that I'll be touching more on in the conclusion.] I hadn't learned how to be a "hard worker," though: my time as a student before that had never required that of me. Did they think I was being flippant? That I wasn't taking my classes seriously? But what does "taking seriously" mean in this context?

I actually have a letter I wrote to my parents from spring of 2010 where I was explaining why my grades had been getting worse and worse. My conclusion at the time was that my procrastination was not counterbalanced by perfectionism; in other words, I didn't have perfectionism to counterbalance a lack of intrinsic motivation to do something.

As I'm thinking about this, I feel a big egg within me that I'm trying to crack. I'm turning it over, looking for a weak point so I can open it and peer within. I'm connecting the idea of "potential" (people call me talented, I'm "smart" and therefore should be able to be successful, right?) with motivation. I feel...hmmm...this seems linked to how I feel about a religious thing.

It's not uncommon in Christian circles for people to discuss those who've suffered for the faith: the persecuted, martyrs, and the like. People find their sacrifices and endurance encouraging, but to me, it feels like a condemnation. I think I feel that way about most (if not all) so-called "role models." I can't live up to any of them, and so I'm condemned. And the condemned are unacceptable; they are to be cast out of society, for they have no place in it. My mind knows these words are hyperbolic, but I think they reflect my heart. [EDITOR'S NOTE: More accurately, my heart's fears. Basically, if I can't live up to these role models, I fear people will reject me.]

I think I exaggerate others' expectations of me in my emotional core. Hrm. But why can't the things I actually care about be enough? I suppose I've got some catching up to do...a student succeeds by getting good grades, and once I failed at that, it shattered my feelings of being acceptable, leaving me feeling judged and in a precarious place. I think the stress of that is the origin point of the tension I experience. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This isn't quite it yet, obviously! But it provides a good direction as I continue to explore myself.] But how does one who is not a student succeed? By making lots of money. The more money you have, the more successful you are. But lots of money can't be made in a way that's as trivial for me as getting good grades in school was. As such, I can't get automatic success.

Everything in this sodding country goes back to hard work, doesn't it? [EDITOR'S NOTE: I've modified the original statement to more clearly express my sentiment; it was made in frustration, and in such a way that my reason for making it was quite unclear. However, I've also softened the sentiment in the process, but the fact I felt there was reason to do so is part of the problem.]

It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for that blasted "potential," as if being good at academics somehow translates into success at anything else. But why should it?! And how do I even talk about any of this (as I have lamented previously) without getting self-deprecating in order to preempt all of the criticisms I expect people to make of me being a prima donna or whatever? I wish I could feel able to talk openly and honestly about this and be taken seriously, but in this country, we've got to prostrate ourselves before Capitalism (nay, Corporatism), the great god of this land, and uphold the highest virtue of "hard work." [EDITOR'S NOTE: I view Capitalism as a useful tool, but it makes for a tyrannical idol.]

I mayhap exaggerate from others' point of view, but it does feel that way to me sometimes. My core issue is that, whatever my gifts, I am immensely poorly extrinsically motivated. I do not, as a general principle, want to spend my time doing something I don't care about. This has always been true, and the only thing that made school tolerable in this regard is that it didn't feel it asked all that much of me. Also, it was sometimes interesting and often useful, plus I could hang out with my friends (times for this varied depending on the specifics).

There is plenty I want to do with my life, but figuring out how to successfully monetize it feels like too big a burden for me. No one is paying you $100,000+ a year to listen to people talk for 5-6 hours a day each weekday and then maybe answer a few questions about what they said, right? Because that's basically what school was for me. Granted, I'd most likely prefer to put my time towards playing video games, making video games, and whatever other creative things I want to do.

I'm not sure if I've really gotten to the bottom of anything, but I've maybe put a few cracks in that query egg I mentioned several paragraphs back. Let's see if I can't put a few more there and finally get to the yolk of truth for which I yearn.

So, to recap thus far: School was really easy for me, so I was comfortable in feeling like I was meeting society's expectations of me. Then, I hit a difficult period of school, my grades dropped, I failed a few classes, and I didn't know how to cope. I felt like I lost some ephemeral thing...respect? Being valued? Or maybe I suddenly felt like I was being scrutinized in a way that was denigrating and scary? Or maybe just scary? Like suddenly my weaknesses were sinking me. That hits a vein of emotion... [EDITOR'S NOTE: The "vein of emotion" indicated to me that this was a good area to focus my investigation.]

I managed to pull things together and graduate, but then what? My work history is: I graduated in May of 2011 (or was it June? About then.), failed to get a job for several months (and if I'm honest, I'm not sure what I would've wanted anyway). I started working with some friends in January of 2012, mostly without pay (though not entirely). Regardless of whether I was paid or not, though, I feel like I struggled to be really motivated to get anything done for the entire time I was at their place trying to work. To be clear, I did want to get stuff done in abstract, but whatever the source of my motivation is, it wasn't in it, so I was slow. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This, along with some other experiences, is a leading reason why I'm so hesitant to do creative work for someone else.] We eventually released a game in February of 2016 that went on to be a flop. We had a few failed starts after that, then in the autumn of 2017 I split off on my own making content, largely to no major success, though I can't claim I've had none. I did do some math tutoring for a few hours each week as well; I think I started that in 2016 after our game came out? It just kind of ended in March of 2020 for Pandemic reasons.

As my dad has often said, and I think accurately, you're either working for someone else or you're in sales (and sometimes both). What do I do if I feel like I'm terrible at both of those things? Being smart with terrible motivation feels like a curse. I feel like I don't know how to be acceptable to society and the weight of its expectations.

What if I look at this from another angle? One thing I particularly struggle with is that I tend to have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest. As such, I often think systemically, and my solutions to problems are therefore systemic. In other words, I have a hard time finding individual solutions to problems because the way my brain works means that I want to change the system so that the problem point goes away.

This perspective is, I think, a core reason why I feel the social pressure so much in the first place. I want to feel like I can belong to society, but I also feel like society has very strict "belong/not-condemned" definitions. This is just how my brain works.

So if I try another angle, maybe seeking places of belonging would help? People of belonging? But how do I overcome this society-wide, forest-level feeling of unacceptability? I feel like I need a shield-guardian of some kind. Alas, if only the church could be that! [EDITOR'S NOTE: I have a tendency to assume other people hold the views I ascribe to culture; this is a bad habit of mine, I'm realizing.]

As I contemplate this more, I find myself considering the nature of unconditional love. Do I believe in it? Or do I feel I must do something to earn the love of others? And by love (because English means too many things by that word) I mean care and nurturing in this instance, I think? It can often feel like society only views people of accomplishment as worthy of life—various economic policies (and general political rhetoric) can and does reinforce this view.

How do I lay aside the baggage society has laid upon me? How do I become free of these chains? So many of them are false. Society at large is imaginary, though that doesn't mean we don't make it real by our deeds. But what things am I imagining as part of society aren't actually part of it? I really do think I've been badly negatively affected by political rhetoric, as I think about it. In particular, I've heard a lot of conservative talking points that leave me feeling condemned as a person. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an important point! I've listened to a lot of conservative media over the years; in particular, my dad often has conservative talk radio on, so when I spent time with him as a kid, I heard a lot of it. I think that's shaped my view of the world—not to be confused with my world view—in such a way that I feel condemned by society at large as a result. This also makes me particularly wary of anyone expressing conservative views, as many Christians do.]

Is it possible to feel loved if you also feel like you need to earn your right to exist? I feel like I talk about this a lot, but that's only evidence of how intractable this garbage is. And then I'm torn, because responding to that by trying to earn my right to exist feels like giving up. [EDITOR'S NOTE: For context, since I apparently decided to leave that in my head when first writing this, I feel like becoming employed by someone so I can feel like I've earned my right to exist is giving up on my own self worth because it'd mean I'd be admitting that I need a job/wealth to have value as a human being or be worthy of love.] Thus I'm in a strange sort of paradox.

What a hideous bind, of feeling I must gain accomplishments for society to say I deserve to exist and have a place in the broader whole, yet feeling unable to achieve those accomplishments.

I find my idealism is at war with my pragmatism. The way the "real world" works is horrible and an abomination, but it's a very sticky one that is nigh impossible to escape. It is, alas, the product of a broken world and fallen mankind, and there is precious little I can do about either. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I do believe we as a society can make changes to address many of my issues, but I also believe human nature will continually find ways to undermine any solutions.] In many ways, the ideal world I long for is more real; or, at least, I believe it is. But it is also currently distant, or so it feels. But what then of belief? How much does God overturn the brokenness now? What is the true significance of believing oneself an adoptee of God for this life?

On the one hand, I live because my parents grant it to be so by continuing to generously provide for my needs. On the other hand, is it not God providing for me through them at this time? In truth, I fantasize about a wife who usurps my parents' position as need-provider, and mayhap one day God will grant that be so. At the same time, I cannot lay upon her, nor anyone save God, the true depths of my internal struggles. There is one Healer, and it is idolatry to look to another to fulfill that role, and yet, the Healer may use others to bring about healing. At the same time, Satan may use others to bring about hurt. [EDITOR'S NOTE: My point is that humans are unreliable and can be both a source of healing and hurt.]

The truth I seem to, in all this, be inexorably walking towards is that I need to have my faith grow. If the root of my problems is an insecurity; that is, the fear of losing care and provision, then it seems to me the counter is an increased trust in the real ability of the ultimate source of those things to provide them.

And yet I wonder...are those who must beg lacking in faith? Or is there more here? What standard of living can I hope for from God?

To change gears a bit, I'm also realizing a related knot in this Gordian mess is a feeling of obligation with my time. In short, I feel a particular sort of weight of expectation that I use my time in ways that others deem to be activities of value. I notably feel this when writing the "Dear Patrons..." daily diary entries for those few (at present) who support me on my Patreon. It feels weird to discuss this here, as doing so feels like some sort of backdoor shilling attempt, but writing Dear Patrons... is nevertheless an aspect of my daily life. In short, I do worry about what my Patrons will think of me when they read those entries, and in particular, I feel like I need to have a certain amount of "work" presented for my activities that day or I'll be condemned in some ambiguous way. This is especially true given that (again, at present) all of my Patrons are people I personally know. How will what I share of my day impact my relationships? I fear the unknown here.

Going back to childhood and school, I felt a very low weight of obligation regarding my time. I was expected to go to school and do my homework, yes, but neither of those things were particularly difficult activities, and by and large, there was little concern with how I spent the rest of my time. There was a period of time where my mom attempted to encourage limited screen time (two hours a day, as I recall), but it wasn't really enforced by anyone and didn't count for much.

As an adult, however, I feel a great deal of pressure to adhere to social standards of spending forty hours a week on "productive activities" (where a "productive activity" is one that has the ultimate goal of making money or otherwise selling oneself, whether ideas, labor, or so on). There's also the added pressure that that work must be sufficiently productive; i.e. it needs to be on productive activities that can generate enough income for financial independence.

I think the weight of this perceived expectation is stifling to me, and I think it is at least part of the source of the stress I feel that I'm thinking contributes to (or entirely is the root of) the tension that I've ostensibly been discussing.

There are a lot of personality reasons why I think this is. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Self, you really left this sentence a bit unclear. I think I meant there are a lot of personality reasons why the weight of the perceived expectation of time spent working on things that'll produce income is stifling to me?] Part of it is that my capacity for "productive activities" fluctuates a great deal day-to-day. Part of it is this mindset can get my brain in weird binds, where I feel like I'm supposed to do X but have no motivation to do so, so can't bring myself to (unlike others who can "man up" or whatever other words we want to use), leaving me feeling guilty and inadequate (but mostly guilty); this also prevents me from doing the things I want to do (because I don't feel like I'm allowed to do them until I've done X; a sort of having-to-eat-your-dinner-before-you-get-dessert mindset), so I settle for something in between. This has often been social media or YouTube.

So, as a child, meeting others' expectations of how I spent my time was relatively easy, but as an adult, I've found it extremely difficult to impossible. The idea of not having expectations on how I spend my time is incredibly freeing.

I am thinking now of my picture of a powerful person. They are someone beholden to no one, having neither obligation to another nor needing anything from them. Such a person is therefore able to love freely and fully, for the love itself is pure, untainted by any need of requite. This is how God loves us, isn't it? God does not need us to return His love; rather, we need to requite, for our need for Him is absolute. Not having to care about what others think, but doing so to the extent necessary to show them genuine love...that is a glorious place to be; a beautiful place to be.

I want to be able to create things, not because I need money from them, but because I want to create them. I don't want the extrinsic motivation of money to hang over me, because it ultimately gums up the works. It is poor motivation. A sense of duty is fine, a desire to create is fine. But as soon as money gets involved, it taints the whole process, at least for me. It seems, then, that it must be introduced as late as possible. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Ideally, someone else is bothering with the whole monetizing thing.]

Thinking about these things feels freeing, like an ACE elastic wrap being unwound from me. But am I able to reside here? How do I stay in this place? Will "reality" come crashing back down on it? Can those I rely on accept it?

At the very least, I can trust that Jesus my Savior, God my Father, and the Holy Spirit my companion and guide can. Can my heart find that to be enough?

Conclusion

I think my biggest takeaway from this processing is just how acutely I feel the expectations of others. I can't force myself to conform to them, yet I feel like I have to. This creates a dissonance between who I am and who I feel like I have to present myself as. My sense of expectations have been built up primarily through culture and media sources, which I subconsciously take as being authoritative on others, leading me to make assumptions about their beliefs.

Fulfilling the expectations for a student (get good grades) was mostly extremely easy for me, but as I've become an adult, I've found the expectations I assume others have of me are significantly harder to fulfill. A major one here is the expectation of time spent doing "hard work" so as to be virtuous according to society's values. A big problem for me with this is that I don't really know what constitutes "hard work." It's a phrase that's almost meaningless to me because it isn't tethered to an actual idea. (This is not the first time I've had issues with this kind of thing: I've similarly struggled with "holy" before, and it wasn't until I compared it to "beauty" as a kind of value-tag that I felt I gained an understanding of it. For me, words need to connect to an underlying idea for me to be able to fully understand them.)

Because I don't know what "hard work" is, I don't feel like I'm able to identify myself as a hard worker. The fatigue I experience from my tension doesn't help in this regard! At the same time, I feel like I have to project the image of a hard worker to others so I can satisfy the expectation of being one and avoid the "lazy" label, a label people use to justify not helping or caring for those cursed with it. The best ways I can understand to avoid this label are to do things myself ("Only lazy people make others do things for them," is the logic here) and try to appear as though I've done productive activities for approximately forty hours each week. (For those that skipped the processing section, a "productive activity" is one that is undertaken to earn money.)

In short, I feel like I have to play-act at being a hard worker without really understanding what the role is supposed to look like. The feeling that others expect me to spend my time in certain ways ultimately feels constraining to me. I also waste time at this play-acting, and I find myself doing middling activities that don't help me accomplish any particularly meaningful goals for me. Overall, this leaves me feeling like I don't fit in with American culture very well.

I can tell that processing these things has been overall beneficial to me. I think my next steps are centered around trust. I want my trust in God to grow, but I also need to build my trust in other people. As part of that, I need to be careful about what assumptions I make of others and their expectations towards me. I also think that gaining confidence as my authentic self will help to resolve the dissonance I experience. Ultimately, I want to be truly known. For that, I have to share my true self with others, which requires me to trust them with that true self. The assumptions I make about others' beliefs prevents me from doing this. I need to treat other people as fundamentally more unknown than I do. After all, I don't want others making assumptions about me, either.

The journey of growth is a long one. Writing this has been a significant step for me, but I still must integrate the lessons learned from it or they're nothing more than a bunch of ideas. Doing that will take time, but I look forward to the changes it will bring!

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