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Stop the Spiral

I decided to learn Python, and my first step in that process was to hop on to codecademy.com and fire up the Python 2 course. A few minutes later — and I do mean minutes — I came across a lesson I couldn’t understand. I read the explanation, I looked at the sample code, I re-read the explanation, rinse and repeat times ten. Cue the spiral.

“I’m stupid.”

“What is wrong with me? Why can’t I get this?”

“I’m a failure.”

“I’ll never learn Python.”

When I tried to talk myself out of it, things got even darker for a minute.

Rational Brain: “It’s only the first day — nay, the first minute — of this course.”
Spiral Brain: “Then it should be pretty freakin’ easy, shouldn’t it?”

Rational Brain: “It’s just a pattern.”
Spiral Brain: “Yeah, exactly, I suck at patterns, remember that pattern test they gave us in fourth grade to see if we were smart enough for the gifted program and I bombed and humiliated myself and disgraced my family name and then had to sit in class with the rest of the dumb kids watching the smart kids file out for special fun activities while stewing in the feelings of longing and shame and self-loathing?”

That, my friends, is when I pumped the brakes. If there’s any red flag at all that indicates when I’m spiraling, casting back twenty years to a single incident that is supposedly proof of my eternal ineptitude is certainly it. While I’m a big proponent of feeling your feelings, that doesn’t include The Spiral. When you acknowledge what you feel, you can interrogate those emotions and work though them. There is nothing productive to be gained from allowing The Spiral to continue.

So I got up from my desk, I walked the length of my apartment, I walked back, and I sat back down. I took a sip of my coffee, and then I looked at the code again. I silenced the voices in my head that were asking a million questions like “How does the computer know what this means?” and “How would this function in a larger program?” and just absorbed exactly what was in front of me. I followed the thread, I found the pattern, and I realized how the code worked. I did the exercise, and when I hit run, I was confident that little green check box would pop up, because now the code made sense.

I’ll say it one more time, loudly, for the people in the back: NOTHING PRODUCTIVE COMES FROM THE SPIRAL. When you can feel it happening, SHUT IT DOWN. It’s not easy to stop The Spiral because it’s fueled by deeply-rooted insecurities that would probably require a lot of time and therapy to fully conquer, but for the sake of fostering a mental environment that is conducive to learning, you have to try. Physically move yourself away, say “Stop!” out loud, play your favorite song until the voices in your head are forced to sing along rather than tear you down. I’ve also found sipping a hot beverage to be helpful, both for the comforting sensation of warmth spreading through your body as well as for the way sipping makes you breathe. Caffeine has been known to have a negative effect on anxiety, though, so I recommend something caffeine-free if you’re going to go that route.

We all spiral sometimes. Know that you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, and you’re NOT a failure. You can do it. You can stop The Spiral. Now git commit & git back to work.

</ XOXO >

[Photo credit: Tulen Travel via Unsplash]

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