How mindfulness saved my life

Trigger warning: mention of anxiety, extreme burnout & suicidal thoughts

This Free to Spiel guest feature, written by Mindfulness Coach Jon Barbieri (@jonbarbierimc), is longer than the others but definitely worth a read!

Jon shares his story of being an introvert whilst working in a corporate environment, and how his attempts to compensate eventually led to extreme burnout. Since discovering the root cause behind his need to achieve professional perfection, Jon has transformed his life through the practice of mindfulness – and now coaches other people to do the same!

“Considering ourselves as victims is a choice”

Hi, I’m Jon, 41 years old, and until some years ago I was one of the many who considered Mindfulness to be some sort of hippy-weird placebo for the troubles and worries we all face in life.

I mean, life is hard, work is difficult, money is too fast to go out and too slow to come in, people are liars, cheaters and backstabbers. Poor me, victim of a horrible society and modern times, right?

Actually, no.

Don’t get me wrong, we live in difficult times. Fast rhythms, keeping a job you need but don’t like, dependency upon money and social media likes, and lots and lots of judgement basically lead to physical and mental exhaustion.

However, considering ourselves as victims is a choice – something I’ve learned the hard way.

I forgot to mention that I’m a transgender man.

“The ‘issue’ of being introverted in a [corporate] environment”

I’ve always considered myself a ‘lucky’ transgender. Despite starting my journey relatively late, at 26 years of age, I had a supportive family and was inventive enough to speed through the whole process (as much as it was possible to speed up this procedure in early-2000s Italy).

At the end of 2009, after a little less than 3 years, I had my chosen name on my ID card, a flat chest and a beard. During this time, I powered through working multiple jobs and volunteering in the local LGBT association.

Without the stigma of presenting female documents, I was hired with indeterminate contract. The job wasn’t really something I’d even thought about, but hey, a job is a job. My parents had raised me with the adamant principle that you need to grab onto and never let go of a job that pays, so I guessed that was it – I was a Logistics Manager. The company I worked for was demanding, with no time for volunteering; just work, work, work.

In 2015, I moved from Italy to Luxembourg for a job in a large company that allowed me to live a much more comfortable life than the one I was living in Italy, with the additional benefits of an extremely interesting profession.

After settling in, I realized that all in all I wasn’t doing too bad; I was living in a civilized country with a great salary and stimulating job.

Typical to the modern corporate environment, my role was full of pressure from bosses, peers, customers – and of course the pressures I imposed on myself. On top of it, there was also the ‘issue’ of being introverted in an environment where you don’t achieve results based on how hard you work, but according to how good you can sell yourself… in retrospect, how could it have not gone wrong?

I soon started detaching from the reality of being present with my family, partner and colleagues

I was pushing myself really hard in trying to do the best I could for the company – no compromises on quality nor quantity. After all, if this approach had worked for a major thing like my gender transition, then surely it would also do wonders in a work environment?

I was so focused on my thoughts that I soon started detaching from the reality of being present with my family, partner and colleagues. I didn’t care if everyone was going for drinks after work because I wanted to spend time with my family, but when I was at home I couldn’t stop thinking about my job: ‘Have I done this?’, ‘Have I called that guy for that meeting?’, ‘Have I notified the customers about that?’.

An inner voice in my head was constantly reminding me that I wasn’t good as my extroverted, smiling colleagues – but if I can’t be the most charismatic, then I can for sure be the most productive one.

So I pushed even harder, with no compromises whatsoever, no possibility of mistakes and no mercy. Without even realizing it, I became some sort of Gollum clinched not to a ring, but to the unachievable idea of ‘perfection’ written in stone in my mind. No need to say that my reactions, as the fallen Hobbit, were driven by an underlying fear that was pushing me to communicate less and less and in a progressively annoyed way.

But worthy of what? Why did I feel this need? Why did I feel constantly judged?

I could clearly perceive my mind as a separate entity from my body. I was seeing myself giving answers and reacting in a way that seemed beyond my control, like I was in a cinema watching an embarrassing movie about myself. And at every embarrassing part, the voice in my head was reminding me how big a failure I was; an awkward and unlikable hypocrite who can demand things from others but isn’t even able to control himself.

It got so bad that even my colleagues became my enemies. I was living in constant anxiety for everything.

“While my colleagues were being promoted, I was not even able to pull myself together.

One day, I simply wasn’t able to enter the office. I was on the bus and visualizing the office doors, when I started hyperventilating and losing the ground under my feet. I was terrified. Being a hypochondriac (of course), I thought that I was having a stroke – a mass that was pressing on my organs. Of course, this made me panic even more… I skipped my bus stop and continued the ride until it stopped at the end of the line.

That was it. It was time to admit that I was fully burnout, and probably had been for years.

At the time, it was inconceivable for me to take stress-related sick leave. There was no such thing; I thought that people who took sick leave due to stress were just lazy morons. But then I thought to myself: why am I experiencing so much stress to the point that I’m sick? How can it be false if it’s happening to me?

After this point, my whole belief system started to crumble…

My doctor put me on sick leave for a month, saying that at the end of it I should either be much better or quit my job. If the issue was that I couldn’t manage working in that company, then I should find another one (and I’m supposedly the one without emotional intelligence…!).

I didn’t have much choice but to quit, which led me to think that I was a failure – while my colleagues were being promoted, I was not even able to pull myself together. I was a victim of the corporate system; it was the system that gave me anxiety attacks. I thought to myself: “Why can’t the others simply work at my standards?”, “Why do I need to feel excluded from the team just because I don’t want to spend any more time with my colleagues after work?”, “Why do they make fun of me, calling me ‘angry puppy’ or ‘weirdo’?” and “Why do they talk about me behind my back?”

I needed to understand why I was acting this way in order to control my actions

After a good month of staying at home drowning in self-pity and weed, my doctor suggested that I visit a psychiatrist to find a solution to this unhealthy situation. Through Google, I found a psych who accepted me relatively quickly. At the end of two sessions, where I was rumbling and he was silently listening, he prescribed me drugs.

Having some family experience in the field of drug treatment for psychiatric purposes I asked for more information about the specific drug he had prescribed me. He answered me that it was an anti-epilepsy drug, ending his sentence with an ominous “meh, I think it should be fine for you”.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t like the ‘should’ part of this sentence. Thanks, but no thanks.

Back to square one.

Based on my readings (and my beliefs), I needed to understand why I was acting this way in order to control my actions. I didn’t want to use drugs, so it was time to move to Psychology.

I managed to find a great Psychologist; she was calm, her voice was soothing and most importantly she was interacting with me and being straight forward. We started working on the root of my problems, where this need for me to adhere to strict rules was coming from, when I started behaving this way and why.

I realized that I had had this problem since before I could even remember. At the end of every session, I was feeling calm and like I was starting to understand the cause. Logic dictates that if you understand the cause, then you can fix it.

Wrong again.

After a couple of months, I started feeling even more anxious: “Am I just wasting time and money?”, “Why she is not able to fix me?”, “I gave her trust and shared my most embarrassing stories and feelings, so why do I still feel like I’m not in control?” and “I want to be in control of my body and my life!”.

I sat in the movie theatre watching myself have what can only be described as a tantrum with my Psychologist. I barked everything I had in my mind to her, with no control whatsoever. I would ran out of her office feeling like dumbest and most horrible person on Earth. Every time I had one of my outbursts, I would feel so ashamed of myself afterwards.

I was sure of one thing: I needed to learn how to control myself before I started work again

I never had the courage to go back to that amazing psychologist. I was spiraling so fast and so deep that on more than one occasion I even visualized throwing myself off a balcony. It would have been a quick way to end my suffering, but luckily I decided against it.

To keep my mind busy, I decided to fill my days with reading and taking the time to heal before going back to work; I was sure of one thing: I needed to learn how to control myself before I started work again.

I started looking up techniques to help manage my anxiety, and in one of the many sleepless night spent watching random TED talks on YouTube, a guided meditation video popped up. The teacher was Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Lama and Meditation Master with not only an extended knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, but also of western science and psychology.

In my head – so grasped around the concept of science and processes – he represented the perfect bridge to help me seek the ‘enlightenment’ I so desperately needed.

I started understanding that my lack of control was driven by my detachment from the present. As there was a scientific explanation behind this statement, my silly mind was able to accept this concept without labeling it as ‘hippy crap’.

I narrowed down my readings to the topic that I now know is Mindfulness, but even more importantly, I started to ‘release and let go’ of my thoughts.

“[The process of mindfulness] simply became part of my mind”

It was extremely difficult at the beginning, with lots of failures and the usual frustration that happens when you try with all your effort to accomplish and see results overnight. However, over time this process started to become easier, until it simply became part of my mind.

I was able to stop the constant chain of thoughts in the background and, paradoxically, thinking became clearer.

I started replacing TV with walks in nature, during which I was not bombarded by thousands of negative thoughts, but simply enjoying the colours, animals and landscape. These sensations became my anchor, allowing me to be in control of my thoughts, and therefore my feelings.

After spending more than a year in solitude, healing and training my mind with meditation and lots of studying, I felt ready to go back to the world. I decided to take the opportunity to reflect upon what I really wanted to do.

As I mentioned, growing up I had been always told that you don’t have to like your job – as long as it brings in as much money as possible. I’ve been a sales rep, problem solver and trainer in the past, but none of these jobs had ever given me the satisfaction I was looking for.

I wanted to at least try following my dreams, but what were my dreams? The difference this time around was that instead of going crazy with worries about poverty and anxiety, I started thinking about my life and writing down when I had been the most satisfied with myself. I realized that this was when I had been volunteering for the transgender association back in Italy.

I then thought “OK, that’s nice, but volunteering doesn’t make a living by definition. Keep thinking. What are your fondest memories at work?”. I cherished the moment where I was a mentor and a trainer – it was the idea of helping someone else and seeing them smile that gave me the biggest sense of accomplishment.

Opening the door to the present also freed me from my past

During a meditative walk it simply popped in my head: ‘If being a helper gives me joy, then I should be a helper… or something close to it!’

I realized that as learning Mindfulness changed my life so much, then maybe I could help other people facing similar struggles. You only have to spend 10 minutes on social media to notice how many people are as sad, exhausted, frustrated and angry as I had been in the past.

I thought: “Yes, I want to teach Mindfulness. I want to see people feeling better, I want to see people smile. That’s what makes me happy“.

Opening the door to the present also freed me from my past. I don’t feel the burden of my errors anymore; rather I cherish all the experiences and lessons that my errors and successes have offered me.

With a light heart and smile, I now look at my future, ready to do my part in changing the world – one present moment at a time.

Thank you Jon, for sharing your story! Readers can connect with the author via Instagram (@jonbarbierimc).

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