Surviving People’s Best Intentions

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Have you ever been the recipient of unsolicited advice? Some of the circumstances that can trigger an influx of helpful suggestions include: having a baby, buying a house or a car, trying to lose weight and/or eat healthier and/or get in shape, making home improvements, suffering a lingering illness or injury, experiencing a legal challenge. People have lots of opinions on what are the right and wrong things to do in such situations.

Some of these people know what they’re talking about, and some do not. The overwhelming majority of them mean well. They really do.

A month ago, I self-published my first book. I’ve been very public about this on social media, so I have effectively invited folks to weigh in on how I should successfully market my book.

As someone who has struggled with self-doubt and anxiety pretty much my entire life, it can be difficult to absorb these recommendations while maintaining a positive frame of mind.

My brain hears a tip that had not occurred to me, and it immediately thinks:

Does this person think I’m in desperate need of help?

Do I appear to be floundering?

Why didn’t I think of that idea?

Does the fact that I’m not already doing it make me look stupid?

Do I have the time to tackle this task?

What if I don’t have the energy or desire to do it?

Ugh, how am I ever going to do everything I need to do?!

I’ve noticed that when my brain goes into this panic mode, I feel obliged to make explanations. I want to assure the advice-giver (and my own ego, if I’m being honest) that I really am being thoughtful about my choices. Inside, my mind is screaming: What about all the things I am doing, aren’t they good enough?!

Sound familiar?

This natural defensiveness is a sign that we are unsure of ourselves. And that’s ok. Doing something for the first, second, or even third time can be scary. You don’t have a lot of experience, so you’re learning as you go. Making mistakes is a given—it’s one of the most powerful ways of learning.

But it’s critical to remember that we don’t owe anyone anything. We can reject or “park” unsolicited ideas with no explanation. I’m quite certain that most people are fine with throwing out their advice and then moving on with their lives. We do not need to report back to them like they’re our boss. Well, unless you follow their advice and it works magic—you might want to tell them in that case.

When you have a lot on your shoulders, like a new baby or a new book, it’s ok to follow your instincts and to move at your own pace. We don’t all have the same energy or capacity levels. We don’t need to justify our decisions to others.

After that defensiveness subsides, and perhaps our time opens up a bit, we can always revisit that unexpected idea. I’ve found that days or weeks later, an idea that felt impossible at first starts to look like a possibility after all.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me at work over the years. I’ve pooh-poohed an idea in the moment only to warm up it to later. I guess my ego just needed an adjustment period.

We all want to feel competent, capable, and knowledgeable. That’s part of the reason we hand out advice, and its why we sometimes chafe at it. Realizing that we all share this need makes me more accepting of everyone’s good advice.

Learn more about my new book, My Unfurling, on my website or head straight to Amazon and order your copy now.

The Fine Line between Kindness, People-Pleasing, and Self-Sabotage

Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.”

You’ve probably heard someone say this. Maybe it’s one of your own favorite expressions. I’ve heard it used in the workplace more than once as rationale for forging ahead with an idea that might otherwise fail to get the green light.

As someone who can catastrophize with the best of them, I am not inclined to follow this advice. My mind is skilled at imagining a million ways for something to go wrong, so waiting to find out if I need to seek forgiveness does not sound appealing to me. At all.

I am currently at the tail end of the process of writing, editing, and self-publishing my first book—a memoir that covers multiple decades of my life. My book includes many stories from my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood that involve friends, family members, and love interests. To protect people’s privacy, I changed the names of everyone portrayed in the book, as well as some locations and identifying details.

All the same, I reached out to a number of people to give them a heads up that they appear in the book. The folks who got the most ink were first on my list. As the editing wore on, I continued to reach out to additional people who play smaller but still pivotal roles in the book.

With a release date of March 31, last week was pretty much my final chance to give these folks advance notice. As I typed out messages to this final round of people and hit send, my stomach was in knots and my heart was thumping. What was I doing?

Was I truly being considerate of these people’s feelings? Or was I following my long-established pattern of people-pleasing? Or…was I creating an anxious situation for myself because I’m a stress addict?

It’s probably all three. And maybe even a few impulses I haven’t uncovered yet.

Growing up, I was taught to be kind and compassionate. I often thought about what life was life for others and what emotions they might be experiencing. I didn’t want anyone to be unhappy or sad. I didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced or unnecessarily challenged. Especially those close to me.

I also absorbed the lesson that being a good girl meant being polite and accommodating. The idea that someone might ever get mad at me was terrifying. What did it mean if someone disliked me? Was it a sign that I was a bad person? Was I going to hell?

Furthermore, from an early age, I developed an attachment to my anxiety. Angst and uncertainty felt like home. A fretful state of mind became so familiar that I started creating added stress for myself.

So, yeah, I think all three of these motivations were at work last week. There I was, at a point when I could start focusing on proudly celebrating the end result that is my book. But I still couldn’t resist tossing in a last-minute test of my fortitude.

Or maybe, just maybe, a part of me knew that something good might arise from doing this difficult thing. Because it did. I reconnected with a friend I haven’t communicated with in decades. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I think even our most confounding instincts can have positive results. Not always, of course. Sometimes when we ask for permission or forgiveness, it doesn’t go well. And in those cases, all we can do is try to be understanding and to learn from the experience. And try to do better next time.

The Card Game of Life

I love a good analogy, and here is a near perfect one: Life is like a card game. Yeah, it sounds trite, but hear me out.

At the beginning, each player is dealt a random hand of cards that impart advantages or disadvantages in the game. The established rules specify how the game proceeds and what the players can and can’t do. In addition to their hand, each player brings their own skill and mindset to the game.

Let’s examine how the interplay of these three components—hand, rules, mindset—relates to real life.

The Hand We Are Dealt

Every human being starts the game of life in a body, geographic location, period in time, and economic class that was not of their choosing. For example, I was born white, female, and able-bodied in the 1960s. My family was lower middle class, but we lived in one of the richest countries in the world. My father was not in the picture, my mother suffered from health issues and depression, and my extended family was, for the most part, supportive. I was a physical late bloomer with a sharp mind that was prone to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Each one of these facts was beyond my control, particularly in childhood.

In my tween years, the shortcomings of my hand became more apparent, and I often wallowed in self-pity that my family didn’t have much money, my father had opted out of our lives, and my small size and big hair were a target of endless teasing. As I grew up, I came to understand that many people had been dealt far more challenges than I had. Slowly, I realized that it made little sense to continue wishing I had lucked into a better first hand. I could not alter my origin story.

Layered on top of this truth was the reality that the cards in my hand were better or worse depending on how they related to the rules.

The Rules of the Game

In a card game, the rules typically dictate how many cards each person is dealt, which cards are most or least valuable, and how a winner is crowned. In real life, the rules of our society tell us how much we pay in taxes, how fast we can drive without getting a ticket, which actions are considered crimes, what is required to buy a car or a house, which substances we are allowed to ingest, and so on. Outside of the law, an endless list of customs, tacit agreements, and prejudices also guide our behavior and our perceptions of people.

We tend to think of these rules as institutional, and sometimes they feel like they’re set in stone. But they are not untouchable. The rules that govern our existence are created and enforced by groups of people—elected officials, judges, business leaders, and other powerful individuals working together. Which means that they can be changed by people working together.

Rules rarely transform overnight and not without a struggle. Modifying or overhauling the system usually takes time, hard work, and a keen strategy. Commitment, collaboration, and vision are all vital. And let’s not forget the importance of access to capital.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed a number of revisions to the rules and social conventions that have historically held back women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. These advancements have been impressive but are far from complete.

While people strive to secure rule changes that will allow entire groups of people to participate more fully in the game of life, individuals may want to explore how they can control their own actions in the present.

Personal Gameplay

If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve probably seen inspirational quotes declaring that the only person you can command is you. These maxims don’t commonly mention that different people have differing abilities, resources, and opportunities available to them depending on the hand of cards they were dealt. Not a single one of us has 100 percent control over what we can do, and some have much less.

But each of us has choices. Even little ones. Read a book or scroll on social media? Take a walk or watch TV? Drink a glass of water or a soda? Let that remark go or argue back? Take a deep breath and move forward or stay in our comfort zone? Okay, that last one might be a tad formidable.

The energy and preparation that we bring to the table counts. The card player learns about the game by reading up and practicing. As adult players in life, we are responsible for our ongoing growth and development. We “win” the game when we figure out what we have power over and then exercise our power as often as possible.

For a large chunk of my adult life, I worked at a nonprofit organization focused on reshaping the rules in our nation in favor of equality for all. The work we did was critical to others and meaningful to me.

I am now at a phase in my life when I am more focused on what I can do as an individual to push past my demons and chase my dreams. And to inspire others to do the same.

We need people leading the way down both paths—rule changing and personal responsibility. Some of us are more suited to one path over the other. One day I would like to find a way to combine the two endeavors, but perhaps I’ve found my best path.

Either way, thanks to the card game metaphor, I can see both paths more clearly.

What Sobriety Means to a Former Gray Area Drinker

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in October 2018. I am reposting it here in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir, which will address this issue at length.

When I decided to stop drinking in May of 2017, I knew I would eventually write publicly about my journey. Even before I made the choice, I started jotting down my thoughts about alcohol—the hold it had on my life, the challenges of drinking moderately, and the reasons why quitting was starting to look like the obvious solution.

Three months into my recovery, I revealed to Facebook friends and my blog’s tiny audience that I had managed to stay sober for the longest period yet in my adult life. I posted again at the five-month mark, at which point a few people suggested that it was time for me to congratulate myself and move on.

I don’t think so.

I’m rarely shy when it comes to sharing stories about my life. Nearly two decades of working in communications for a political organization helped me develop a pretty thick skin. I learned that no matter what a person says or how they say it, someone is going to find something in their words to criticize. But that shouldn’t keep us from speaking our truth.

My concern about writing on this topic stems not from a fear of being judged but from a suspicion that I don’t belong in the recovery community. You see, I’m what’s called a “gray area” or “high bottom” drinker. While I believe that I had an alcohol dependency, my habit never escalated to the level typically associated with people who quit drinking.

I was doing well at work, and my personal relationships were intact, but my dreams were stalled. Drinking had made my life repetitive and stagnant. My writing career and love of trying new things had been put on hold. This went on for decades.

Like many gray area drinkers, I tried all the tricks designed to keep alcohol at arm’s length but still within grasp. I counted drinks, tracked how many nights in a row I stayed dry, diluted my wine with seltzer, only drank when I was home or only drank when I was out, and so on. Nothing worked. My mind was more preoccupied than ever with thoughts of alcohol.

When I finally quit, I did so with the knowledge that I didn’t have to hit a disastrous rock bottom to recognize the negative impact alcohol was having on me. As a writer, I am eager to share this news with the world. As a longtime activist, I want to help others make the same realization as soon as possible.

But I worry that by talking about my sobriety, I am claiming ground that belongs to those who have struggled more. The insecure, anxious woman who turned to alcohol for confidence and comfort is panicked at the thought of stepping on anyone’s toes.

Feeling like an outsider was a monster that haunted me throughout my childhood, adolescence, and into my adult years. The beast is clutching at my ankles again, even when I’m feeling my sharpest and bravest.

The only way I know to get past this fear is to march directly through it. So, I am sharing with you what recovery means to a gray area drinker like me.

Liberation

My drinking habit was like carrying a backpack full of bricks at all times. I could function, but something was always weighing me down. I often felt tired, cranky and frustrated with myself. Hangovers stole hours from me on weekend days when I should have been having fun or getting errands done. And when it had been a couple days since my last drink, I was consumed with thinking about my next one.

Taking off that backpack allowed me to wake up every morning with zero worries about what I’d said or done the night before. By the end of my drinking “career,” I wasn’t going out and doing crazy stuff anymore, but I was still capable of picking fights with my husband, drunk dialing friends and posting nonsense on social media.

Being clearheaded and liberated from the effects of alcohol is truly a gift.

Perspective

When I was deciding whether to quit entirely or continue trying to moderate my drinking, I worked hard to put aside my emotional attachment to alcohol and appeal to my logical side.

Despite overwhelming evidence that I felt better when I wasn’t drinking, I kept at it. What if I did the same thing at work, employing an ineffective strategy over and over? My boss would have taken me aside long ago and demanded that I try a new tactic.

So, as my own boss, I gave myself a “needs improvement” performance review and chose sobriety as the answer. The results were so successful that I am applying this lens to other aspects of my life. This means examining other deep-rooted practices and asking if they are serving me.

In the quest to live my best life, perspective is everything. Sobriety changed my vantage point.

Self-Respect

How many hours, how many nights did I spend drinking? Some of those events included laughing and bonding with dear friends, but many of them were more about getting drunk than anything else. What if I had spent even half of that time writing and taking on new challenges?

Alcohol allowed me to do things that would have been boring or foolish if sober. Some were minor infractions, like waiting at the bar for a table, getting buzzed and skipping dinner to get trashed. Some were more consequential, like barely making it to an early morning doctor’s appointment and then sleeping off a hangover in the back seat of my car.

Now that I’ve removed alcohol from the equation of my life, I find that I value my time far more. And what do we have if we don’t have time? In recovery, I’ve concluded that valuing your time is the highest form of self-respect.

Peace

Since girlhood, my brain has been full of obsessive thoughts—fear of death, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of being seen as unworthy of attention or respect. My first therapist put me on Zoloft to help me focus in our sessions. But alcohol was my favorite form of self-medication.

Drinking to slow down my mind was effective but not without serious side effects. Even worse, it was getting me nowhere. I was not learning how to deal with my stress or my penchant for latching onto a sense of dread and letting it flood my body and spirit.

Sobriety didn’t automatically bring peace to my mind. I had to take up meditation and yoga. I had to remember to pay attention to my breath in moments of distress. Taking away alcohol made space for these more productive solutions.

The transformation I am experiencing is slower and less noticeable than guzzling two or three glasses of wine. But one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t experienced that panicky feeling in weeks. I still get lost in worry and self-doubt on occasion, but I have the tools now to acknowledge those thoughts and then carry on.

Sharing these breakthroughs is why I am proud to take my place in the sobriety community.

Dealing with a Broken Streak

Tracking my meditation in the Ten Percent Happier app.

Last week, I picked up my phone one morning and saw a notification from the Ten Percent Happier app reminding me to meditate.

Aaargh! Somehow, I had forgotten to meditate the day before, thus breaking a long streak I had put together. Over the previous few weeks, I had meditated every afternoon or before bed. Each day that I used a guided meditation on the app, a circle was filled in under my profile. What a satisfying feeling, watching those rows of solid red dots multiply. I was approaching a personal-best streak, longer than any run since I first started meditating regularly several years ago.

And then…there was an empty circle glaring at me. At first, my brain wanted to seize on this small blip as an excuse to throw in the towel. What’s the freakin’ point, anyway, right? After berating myself for a few seconds, I stopped to ask a different question: What does a streak even mean?

As someone moderately obsessed with numbers, I find it fun to count how many days or times I complete an action. And as I try to build new habits, daily tracking helps encourage me to stay the course. The knowledge that I was working on a streak led me to meditate on nights when I was tired or cranky and just wanted to go to sleep (or watch late-night TV). If I’m honest, though, numbers can get tied up in my self-worth. A long streak produces evidence of my value as a person.

But the thing with tracking streaks is that they almost always get broken. And then, you can’t let that disappointment in yourself get you derailed.

The streak itself, the number of days, is meaningless. It’s just a number. Okay, maybe a particularly long streak demonstrates that you are dedicated and disciplined. But does a missed day or two say the opposite? Are you suddenly lazy and weak?

As a member of several online recovery groups, I’ve witnessed how hard it can be when weeks or months or years of sobriety are interrupted. Some folks chose to keep counting, tallying up the number of days they didn’t drink that year or in general, without returning to zero. All those sober days did have an impact, after all, and there is no rule that says you have to erase them.

That morning, looking at my phone, I decided that I would not let my broken meditation streak make me feel as if I had failed. The progress I had made in building a stronger meditation habit had not vanished. Meditating more frequently had already made its mark on my ability to handle stress and to live in the moment, which was my goal. Not a row of red circles.

I will still keep an eye on my streaks for motivation purposes. But I promise that I’ll keep my tracking in perspective and remind myself what’s really at stake: my health and well-being.   

Lake of Tears

Image of geese flying over Lake Linganore in Maryland (photo effects from Nexmuse.com).

Recently I was reading through the memoir I’ve written, giving it one more light edit before sending it off to the proofreader. About halfway through, something occurred to me: I am a big crybaby.

My manuscript covers the full scope of my life, with a strong focus on my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. Apparently, those years featured a lot of bawling. Out of curiosity, I searched my document for the use of words like “cry,” “tears,” “sob,” “weep,” etc.

I found no fewer than 14 descriptions of me wailing, gasping for breath, whimpering, or blubbering. Despite my embarrassment at all this lamentation, I decided to keep each and every reference to tears in my book. Though I come across as dramatic and self-indulgent…well, that’s who I am to a certain degree.

Over the past five years, I’ve tried to interrupt this inclination to lean into my emotions, particularly the self-pitying and indignant ones. I hear a lot these days about the importance of sitting with your feelings: We are meant to feel our feelings, not run or distract from them. At the same time, it can be unhealthy to get lost in our emotions—to let them sweep us away.

Last week, I was in a yoga class, and we did a number of hip-opener poses, which can help release stored-up stress and emotion. Toward the end of class, in our next-to-last pose, I found my eyes filling up with tears. It freaked me out at first. I held back, and then when I got out to my car, I had a good little cry and got in touch with what was stirring inside me.

As I sat there, I thought about how our emotions are like water. They are important, but their power must be respected. They can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful.

The lake where I live is beautiful; it serves as a water source for our county, as a home for countless creatures, and as a place for recreation and connecting with nature. But it can also be dangerous if you don’t practice appropriate safety measures. People have died in boating, swimming, and diving accidents in this lake.

Emotions don’t often kill us, but they can swallow us up. In addition to all the crying scenes in my manuscript, I also write about my issues with anger. I have been known to let my temper get the best of me, to fight tooth and nail to win an argument. This fury can lead me to say terrible things to others, to push the most sensitive buttons of the people I love, and to act in a way that seems out of sync with my values.

So, I’ve been working on locating that fine line between exploring my feelings and drowning in them. Meditation has assisted in this effort. Spending time outdoors helps put things in perspective. And sometimes simply thinking about the impact of our emotions, as I did in the car last week, and as I’m doing right now, helps bring everything together in a lesson that’s hard to forget.

Paper Jams and Perspectives

Have you ever tried to fix a paper jam in one of those huge copy machines that’s the size of a refrigerator sitting on its side? It can also happen on a small home printer, like it did to me the other day. I’m usually pretty good at clearing those jams, mainly because I’m patient.

You have to try everything. When you find that first crumpled piece of paper and pull it out, you may feel satisfied that you’ve resolved the problem. But there is a 95 percent chance that at least one more piece of paper is stuck even further inside.

You go for it anyway: You close the door or tray and take a look at the little display screen. The machine informs you that it is still jammed. So, you try again. And again. Eventually you will find a small, brightly colored handle that you didn’t know existed, and it will open a compartment you’ve never see before. And there you will find a piece of paper so mangled that you have to pry it out in shreds.

When you finally close up the printer for like the tenth time and it starts to hum and you hit start and copies come out, you feel like Jack in Titanic shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

This machine might not end up on the bottom of the ocean, but much like Rose, you will outlive it. One day you will arrive at work and encounter a gleaming new printer that, according to the office manager, will change your life. Wrong. It just has even more places where paper can lodge.

This past year I wrote a memoir about how I got stuck for a long time. As I wrote this book, I reminded myself not to be content with the easy discoveries. Even in the editing phase, I tried to peek into every possible hiding space where the answers might be tucked away. I had to take on new vantage points—to peer at my life from every angle I could embrace.

But sometimes one person is not enough. The possibilities are too vast, and an individual’s frame of reference only goes so far. A team of people working on a project is almost always enhanced when each person on the team offers a distinct set of skills and insight. Welcoming in new viewpoints makes the team stronger.

So, once I completed the third draft of my memoir, I recruited test readers. I reached out to a whole bunch of people because I knew it was important to obtain a variety of perspectives. These folks might spot a weakness that I was too close to observe. Some of them did, and their comments made my manuscript better.

A couple weeks ago I attended a writer’s association meeting, and I shared with the group the progress I’ve made on my book. I was informed that my collection of beta readers was still too narrow because they were all friends, acquaintances, or former co-workers. A member of the writer’s group who I had only just met offered to read my book if I would read theirs.

A part of me feels like I’ve been working on this book forever, and I should just skip this step. That’s the part of me that wants to stop fixing the friggin’ paper jam already. Luckily, that part almost always concedes to the part of me that wants to keep looking. After all, who knows what this new reader will find? What if they locate that final crinkled piece of paper that eluded everyone else?

Each person we collaborate with brings with them a whole host of contexts and experiences that exist well beyond our own. We should think of our self as our first collaborator, and our duty is to push past those early automatic thoughts to get to the deeper stuff. And then, when we are stretched to our outer limits, we can invite in others to help us extend the boundaries of what’s possible.

How else do you think those giant printers came to be?!