Seeking Self-Worth in Unemployment

Watching something you created come off a giant printing press is pretty thrilling.

The original “Party of Five” television series ended in 2000, when I was 34 years old. In one of the final episodes, the character Julia (played by Neve Campbell) can be seen reading a copy of the National NOW Times, a newspaper that I edited and produced for the National Organization for Women.

Someone from the show had reached out to us for materials, but I had no way of knowing if they were going to use anything. I literally squealed when I saw it. Something I had created had appeared, if only fleetingly, on TV. After years of coveting public acclaim, I was fame-adjacent!

Twenty-one years later, I am 55 and unemployed. A couple days ago I saw a news segment about how women have been leaving the paid workforce in droves during the pandemic, and a sense of sadness washed over me.

March 13 marks one year that I’ve been out of work. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my job due to COVID (though it may have happened eventually, had I stayed). Before the lockdowns started, I made the decision to resign because I was buckling under the pressure of looking after my mother while trying to work a part-time job that could not be done from home.

Thankfully, my husband was willing to see if we could make things work on his salary alone. It’s not like I was making much money, anyway. The bigger sacrifice, financially, had been two years earlier when my mom first went on dialysis and I exited a full-time marketing job that was satisfying and paid pretty well.

So, here I am, having scaled back first to a minimum-wage job and then to nothing. I shouldn’t say nothing. I am a caretaker for my 81-year-old mom, who no longer drives and has multiple health conditions. There is honor in this role. But a large part of my identity was wrapped up in earning pay and accolades for my vocation.

After college, I discovered that working hard and winning promotions could provide much-needed boosts to my self-confidence. Work became the arena where I proved to myself that I was smart and capable and resourceful. I particularly liked producing print publications that I could hold in my hands.

But after 30 years of working in offices, it turns out I was relieved to step off the management track. I no longer hungered for higher titles and increased responsibility. I just wanted to do what I was good at without having to constantly prove I hadn’t grown complacent.

I come here to confess my complicated feelings about paid work—fears and insecurities that others may share. I didn’t appreciate being constantly evaluated, and though I enjoyed collaborating with people, I resented that supervising larger and larger teams and then departments is a necessary means to moving ahead in so many fields.

As a feminist, I find it embarrassing that I like not working right now. With less pressure and expectations, my anxiety has decreased. I have been able to explore other interests and interview my mom for the memoir I’m writing.

And yet, I’m not sure who I am without a regular paycheck for my efforts, without a boss to praise me. I worry that depending on my husband financially betrays my values and makes me uninteresting.

I also fret that the longer I stay out of the workforce at my age, the harder it’s going to be to reenter if and when I need to—this concern has produced some sleepless nights.

Will my personal writing save my dignity? Stay tuned.

Rooftops and Control Issues

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I used to visit friends in Brooklyn. This couple lived in an apartment building that was about five or six stories tall, and they had access to the roof. Hanging out on their roof offered a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline.

Whenever we were up on that roof, taking in the towering skyscrapers, I kept my distance from the edge of the building. If I stood within a couple feet of the edge, I felt as if I might go flying right off.

I had no desire to jump, and my friends weren’t prone to violence or stupid stunts, so the chance of falling from their roof was remote. But it terrified me, nonetheless. If I did inch toward the edge, my heart started thumping and my stomach twisted, as if I were on a tightrope instead of a solid surface.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid of my life spiraling out of control. For decades I struggled to feel secure about my safety, health, finances, friendships, relationships, even my mental stability.

My mind would go from zero to 60 in an instant. A sharp pain in my back was probably cancer, an overdrawn bank account would lead to financial ruin, a missed deadline meant I was about to get fired.

Clearly, I had issues with control. My brain always craved more.

No one wants less control over their lives, right? We expect a certain measure of control over the basics—where we live, what we eat, whom we love, how we dress, what we read, when or if we have a family, how or if we worship. When those options are blocked, we get our backs up, and rightly so.

But for some folks, a generally accepted level of control is inadequate. It’s too slippery, too treacherous.

Control is a funny thing. I could argue that we have way more control over our lives than we realize, and I would be right. I could also make a compelling argument that we have far less power than we think and be correct. Like a kaleidoscope, our ability to control our lives is constantly shifting due to all the moving parts.

How can we panicky people accept the randomness of human existence? I’ve decided to focus on the control that I do have. I am scouring my days, looking for parcels of time that I can affect. The simple act of pausing and choosing one thing over another instead of running on auto-pilot is surprisingly empowering.

Instead of watching cable news, I can read. In the first 62 days of 2021, I completed six books, which is the same number I read all last year.

Rather than getting lost in YouTube videos, I can write in my journal. I’ve never been much of a journal keeper, but this year I am using a book with prompts and have filled 40 typed pages thus far.

When I have 10 minutes here or there, instead of scrolling through social media, I can meditate.

Instead of doing busywork (like organizing my closet or writing out detailed to-do lists), I can take a walk or do yoga or brainstorm small business ideas.

Big actions can help clear the decks for the smaller stuff. I chose to quit drinking nearly four years ago, which was a huge power move. That decision opened up vast amounts of time in my life.

The results have been promising. The more control I exert over my days, the less I worry about my life blowing away from me.

Posts Against Humanity

Have you ever started a sentence with “I do not understand how a person can…” or “I’m not sure why people don’t…”? Many of us do it. Such a statement sounds like curiosity about human nature, but usually it is an expression of frustration with those who don’t act or think as we do.

I have a folder on my computer containing screenshots of social media posts and comments that demonstrate an irritation with how foolish people can be. These are not the nastiest posts on the Internet. They’re the everyday digs meant to spotlight our wisdom compared to someone else’s ignorance.    

I’m not trying to shame anyone, but I believe our tendency to puff ourselves up by belittling others is a human trait that sows division while accomplishing nothing. Here are some specific examples from my collection:

Example 1: Toughen Up, Snowflake

My neighborhood has a Facebook group where people gather to debate anything and everything. One year our homeowner’s association sent out an email suggesting that, due to a forecast of heavy rain and winds for Oct. 31, Halloween activities should take place on Nov. 1. An intense online battle followed.

Common reactions included, “I have no idea how I survived my childhood trick or treating in not wonderful weather! I’m SO lucky I lived to see adulthood,” and “Halloween is on October 31 . . . Come to my house on Friday and you get NADA!” and “I’m gonna laugh when it doesn’t rain.”

Predictably, it didn’t rain until after trick-or-treating hours, and the Oct. 31 purists did, in fact, report that they were enjoying a good chuckle.

Most people were ok with choosing between Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, and some promised to hand out candy on both nights. But a vocal minority made clear that they thought anyone opting for the Nov. 1 alternative was raising their kids to be wimps.

Example 2:  You Dog is a Hot Mess

A neighbor once commented that their dog hates being home alone, and someone theorized: “Your dog has separation anxiety because you’ve failed to properly train her.” When a third person suggested that the dog in question might be a rescue with trauma issues, the reply was, “You can always re-train a dog. Failure to do so is mistreatment because it is stressful for the dog to live that way.” Is advice offered in this manner ever helpful, or was it more important for this commenter to project their righteousness?

Example 3: Shaming the Kiddos

Some people are even willing to shame their own children! An acquaintance posted a photo of a small child sitting on the floor of a bedroom, with their face buried in their arms. The caption read, “Someone lost their doorknob privileges…” with an empty doorknob hole clearly visible. Was the goal here disciplining a child or scoring some online laughs from other adults?

Maybe I’m overreacting. Perhaps someone will accuse me of having “a case of the angry sads,” or a commenter will note: “Some people just need to obsess their way into writing a blog about pretty much anything. Grow up.”

Even if I am a big snowflake, collecting these examples has helped me become more aware of my own inclination to elevate my ego atop a hill of mockery and scorn. Now, I try to catch myself when I start to say, “I don’t understand why people…” and I make an effort to do just that—understand.

The Road Trip of Your Life

Suppose you have two road trips planned (for once this pandemic is behind us, of course). The first trip will take you only four hours away from home. You haven’t been to this city in forever, and you can’t wait to see some old friends who live there. On the second trip, you will drive for several days to reach your destination. You’ll be setting foot in this state for the first time, and you’re super excited to go.

Would you ever tell yourself that the second trip won’t be worth it because it takes too long to get there? That the first trip will be much more fun because you’re going to arrive sooner? I’m guessing your answer is No.

This is the kind of analogy I create to guide myself through self-doubt and disappointment. I have several big life goals I haven’t yet achieved—goals my younger self thought for sure I would have realized by now. Perhaps it’s just taking me longer to get there, which in no way invalidates the journey or the destination.

Travel as a metaphor appeals to me so much, I’m going to elaborate on it…

Imagine you’ve always dreamed of going to Paris. You thought for sure you would go there in your early 20s, but years have passed and you still haven’t seen Paris.

If you do make it there one day, will Paris be any less spectacular because you’re not in your 20s anymore? The experience might be different because you won’t be the same person you were when you were younger, but what’s wrong with that?

In the meantime, you’ve spent time in lots of great cities in the U.S.—like Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, plus you’ve been to Mexico a couple times. For years, you’ve been discovering places your younger self didn’t even think to put on the to-see list.

What if you never make it to Paris? Is that ok? Can you find other locales to satisfy your sense of adventure?  

You see, I was “supposed” to be a published author by now. I hoped a big publishing house would print my first book while I was still in my 20s, with more to follow. If I am completely honest, I guess I thought I would win a few awards and settle down in middle-age to teach creative writing at a university. These dreams were my Paris.

But none of that happened. What did happen is, I worked at several interesting and fulfilling jobs where I acquired multiple degrees worth of knowledge and met many hilarious, kind, and inspiring people. I am a changed person from the girl who thought she needed to publish her first novel before she hit 25. Those positions I held, the skills and confidence I developed, and the friends I made are like visits to Boston and San Francisco.

I may never be a published author. I am working on a book, and possibly the writing process will be sufficient reward all on its own. Or maybe I will self-publish. Whatever I decide to do, it won’t be any less gratifying because it took longer than planned.

Reevaluating old goals is acceptable, even healthy. You may learn that other goals suit you better now. Whatever you do, be patient with yourself—you may be on a winding road trip that is worth every precious second.  

Moving at the Speed of YOU

The internet is overflowing with motivational quotes. I often take screenshots on my phone of messages that speak to me. As I was transferring a batch of these images to my laptop recently, this one came up: “Be the Kind of Woman That Makes Other Women Want to Up Their Game.”

(Note: A Google search revealed that this quote has been shared countless times in numerous designs and with a variety of attributions. I tried to identify the original author, with no luck as of yet.)

I can see why many women would find these words inspiring. But I saved the quote because it provoked complicated feelings that I wanted to explore later.

We humans frequently compare ourselves to each other, and we like to compete to determine who’s the best at pretty much everything. Social media platforms take advantage of this inclination. They pit us against each other in a battle of likes and follows and retweets.

As someone who grew up feeling like I was “less than” my peers, and who still struggles with my inner critic, social media is like thumbing through a catalog of successful people—every one of them apparently working harder than me to get ahead.

The self-interrogation starts: Did I do enough today? Did I do the right things? Did I do them well? Am I smart? Interesting? Highly competent? Better than average? More than mediocre?

For decades I wished that I were more self-motived, ambitious, driven. But when I left my last full-time job a couple years ago, I did so with the knowledge that I no longer wanted to climb the corporate ladder. I had ascended as high as I cared to on my office’s organizational chart, and I was surprisingly ok with the fact that I would never hold a VP or executive director title.

Ok, it stings a bit, but I’m getting used to it.  

In our culture, we often look down on those we think aren’t living up to their potential or to society’s expectations. I’ve been guilty of this myself—guilty of thinking people are being lazy and taking advantage of others.

Now I’m unemployed and looking at this from a new perspective…

We already know that people are different in all kinds of wonderful ways. Maybe we are also different in our ability to grind away.

Three questions come to mind:

1) What if there is a wide spectrum of how much physical and mental energy humans are capable of exerting on a regular basis over an extended period of time?

2) What if our society does a poor job of providing people with the opportunity to identify the kind of work that suits them best?

3) What if getting frustrated that not everyone is busting their butt equally is a pointless and unhelpful endeavor?

Maybe some us were meant for a slower life.

Maybe some of us get stressed out easier than others.

Maybe it’s ok if we don’t all work at the same speed and intensity.

Maybe some of us take longer to accelerate in life, while others decelerate sooner.  

Maybe some of us need longer sabbaticals in between periods of steady employment.

Maybe I don’t want to push myself in order to make another woman feel like she needs to do more.

Maybe, just maybe, our cultural standards don’t work well for everyone, and we need to challenge ourselves to think about how we can expand our definition of work and achievement and contribution to family and society.

More on this to come!

My Fleeting Flirtation with TikTok

Like many people, I fell in love with comedian Sarah Cooper earlier this year. I wanted to easily find all her Donald Trump lip-syncing videos, and I heard she was posting them on TikTok, so I downloaded the app onto my phone.

Coincidentally, I had put myself in a social media “time-out” right before taking the plunge into TikTok. In quick succession, I had removed Facebook, then Instagram, and then Twitter from my phone. Each time I deleted an app, I found myself spending more time scrolling on whatever remained. I even took to scrolling on LinkedIn for a brief period! So, I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

First, when you download TikTok, the app asks you to check off what topics interest you. The subjects I selected seemed innocent enough, but the outcome was an endless stream of girls in bikinis doing identical dance routines.

This should have scared me off, and yet it didn’t. Fascinated, I scrolled and scrolled through videos of young women with seemingly perfect bodies, beautiful hair, and not half-bad dance moves. I started to feel bad about my own appearance, which is pretty stupid given the vast age difference between me and these video stars. Even the moms showing off their youthful good looks were at least a decade younger than me.

Disconcerting thoughts popped up: I’m pretty sure we didn’t have butts like that when I was a teenager! Was I ever that flexible or sexy? Could I get away with wearing an outfit like that at my age? And how come everyone lives in such a fancy, pristine house?

I had to remind myself that I was seeing these specific videos because they were among the most popular content on TikTok. Not everyone posting on the app looks or moves like that or has a closet full of trendy clothes.

The videos started playing in my head even when I wasn’t scrolling. Thus, after only a few weeks, I banished TikTok from my phone. Perhaps it was just a weird phase I went through in a relentlessly awful year.

Still, I’m mad at myself for falling prey once again to the idea that being “hot” is the ultimate achievement for women of all ages. For goodness’ sake, I worked at a feminist organization for 18 years and helped create content for a campaign promoting positive body images. Maybe that’s why I loved working on that project—because I was intimately familiar with the how the media exploit and even cultivate our personal insecurities.

Well into middle age, I haven’t really recovered from the sense that life would be better if I were more attractive. Instead, my fixations have simply shifted. Rather than hating on my big nose, my stubby legs, or my frizzy hair, now I’m more obsessed with my saggy neck, my stomach cellulite, or the gray in my hair.

As I try to escape this feeling of beauty inadequacy, the practices that work the best are spending less time looking in the mirror and waaaay less time scrolling through social media. When I’m moving my body as opposed to focusing on its reflection, I forget about my self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on social media—and Instagram is back on my phone. But these days I consciously concentrate on the accounts I have deemed worthy of my attention, and I do my best to avoid the content served up through ads or the search function.

My recommendation: Identify why and how you want to use social media and stay within those margins!

Why I’m Breaking Up with To-Do Lists

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved making lists—particularly to-do lists. Those empty little boxes next to each task thrill me, and I can barely wait to fill them in with triumphant checkmarks.

Over the last couple years, my to-do list habit grew and morphed into something a bit more obsessive. The items multiplied and branched out into sub-categories. I experimented with keeping a Bullet Journal and settled on a variation that required me to rewrite the list over again every morning in a steno book.

Then I left my job and COVID hit, and suddenly I didn’t need such elaborate lists (if I ever did). And yet, I remained in thrall to those little suckers. They appeared on post-its and scraps of paper in my kitchen, in notebooks of all sizes, typed up in my phone notes, and in files on my laptop. I started to suspect that all this documenting and tracking of everything from trivial daily tasks to big life goals might be contributing to my anxiety.

Then, I got a brilliant idea, which I must credit in part to dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp. In her book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” Tharp shares her practice of temporarily removing the biggest distractions from her life in order to boost creativity and focus. For a week, she steers clear of multitasking, movies, numbers, and background music.

Tharp writes: “Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence. It’s liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.”

She’s right, of course. Quitting to-do lists for a short period of time felt so freeing that I’ve chosen to strike them indefinitely—maybe forever.

What am I getting out of it?

Once I stopped writing down all my tasks, I started to get a better idea of my true priorities. Apparently, in my haste to check off items on the list, I had been tackling the easy tasks first plus the ones I wanted to get out of the way. Consequently, the things I really wanted to do kept sliding to the bottom of the list and then on to the next day, and the next, and the next.

With no list taunting me, I’m able to ask myself, what do I want to do right now? And then I do it. It’s sounds ridiculous, but for someone like me, it seems to be working.

For important items, like doctor’s appointments, I schedule them in the calendar in my phone and set a digital reminder to make sure I don’t miss them. But I do this only for appointments that must not be missed. Everything else is up for grabs.

This hasn’t been easy. My hand wants to grab that pen and paper. My mind wants to see what all is on my plate. But I stop myself and move on. And it gets easier every day. My mind feels more spacious and fluid.

I also decided to stop mentally ticking off all my accomplishments for the day. I used to do this in bed at night, and though it sounds like a nice way to pat myself on the back, in practice it functioned too much like a nightly meeting with the judge who resides inside my head.

Maybe one day I will try making a simpler version of my to-do lists; or maybe, like alcohol, my life is better without them.

The Difference Between Oprah and Me

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Impressionism in every day life: my feet under our patio table.

As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came upon a post from a former co-worker I like and admire very much. She was announcing that she had accepted an impressive new job. This was not the first colleague or friend to share similar news within the last several months.

Each time, I was truly happy to learn that someone for whom I have mad respect earned a major promotion, decided to start their own business, or otherwise achieved something extraordinary career-wise.

But I also felt a chilly wind blowing through my chest. Someone else’s success often leads me to panic that I am flailing about in life, and it’s particularly tough when I’m going through an iffy transition period.

Currently, I am making a shift in my career, and I guess you could say I’m playing a long game—though that phrasing would imply that a clear plan is in effect. In reality, there’s no telling how this move will pan out. Given my pessimistic and impatient nature, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve taken such a leap without knowing exactly how or where I’ll land.

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Flowers alongside Lake Linganore, Md.

The Self-Motivation Spectrum

On a long drive the other day, I did a little self coaching to process my fear of being an underachiever. As I have many times before, I pictured a spectrum that measures a potent mix of ambition, drive, and perseverance.

At one end of this spectrum are people like Oprah who started out their lives with very few advantages yet became wildly successful. These people shine bright in their chosen field, take on daring new projects, and lead the way for others. They are respected and reliable. Inspired and inspiring.

The kind of person who resides at the other end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily unimaginative or lazy, but for whatever reason they are not inclined to step outside their comfort zone, to take risks, to push ahead.

By my own estimation, I sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—maybe a bit above the center marker, or maybe just below (depending on the day, month, or year). Where you fall on the spectrum doesn’t matter so much, as long as you are happy and fulfilled.

For those of us who wish we were a little higher on the spectrum, an important question emerges: Why do folks land at various points along the spectrum? I’ve formed a theory that might help answer that question.

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Sign outside a home in Williamsport, Md.

Toxic Stress

When I am faced with uncharted territory—something new, challenging, different—I typically convert much of the accompanying uncertainty and excitement into stress.

In situations like this, I would define stress as a toxic combination of three tendencies:

1. Catastrophizing: Conjuring up all the things that could go wrong, from the small to the spectacular.

2. Self-doubt: Assuming I will fail because I’m really not that talented, skilled, or industrious.

3. Martyrdom: Reminding myself that I have terrible luck, and life is so unfair.

Once stress takes form, I grab onto it like it’s a life raft in choppy water. But stress is not a lifesaver—its an identity that I cling to out of fear. I’m afraid to let go of that anxious person I’ve always been. It’s a habit as strong and automatic as any addiction.

People like Oprah, I believe, convert the same uncertainty and excitement into positive energy or fuel. They thrive on pushing themselves to reach higher, build new skills, and cross new thresholds. I’m sure they experience stress and doubt, too. But they might end up with 20 percent stress and 80 percent motivation, while I end up with 80 percent stress and 20 percent motivation.

Where Oprah sees opportunity, I see obstacles.

Jessie Graff is one of the top competitors on the show American Ninja Warrior. In the final seconds of an amazing run a couple years ago, Graff fell off the last obstacle, thus eliminating herself from the competition. She was interviewed on the sidelines afterward, and Graff said she was ok with falling—that discovering the limit of her abilities showed her where she needed to do the work. What a fabulous outlook to have!

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Tools for sale at a street fair in Elkridge, Md.

Attitude Adjustment

So…I’ve hypothesized that some of us on the spectrum are stressing ourselves out far more than we should, and that is leading to discomfort and inertia. Now what?

Lately I’ve been listening more closely to the words that come out of my mouth—specifically the off-the-cuff answers I give to unexpected questions.

Just the other day, my mother’s therapist suggested something I could do to help her, and I was full of reasons why it wouldn’t work. As the words left my lips, I could hear the negativity, and I wanted to suck them back in. Too late. As the counselor urged me to focus on the potential positives, I sat there feeling ashamed of my pessimistic mindset.

A recent commenter on this very blog suggested that I “stop being so over critical.” Oh, how I would love to!

But that’s just it—no one can do this but me. Like Graff, my limits are pointing to where I need to do the work. If I want to move up a few notches on the motivation spectrum, I need to convert some of that excess stress to excitement, hope, and optimism.

Here are a few simple strategies I’m employing:

– When I read posts from or about inspiring people, rather than focus on how much I envy them or differ from them, I will try to focus on what I can learn from them.

– Instead of noting all the times I’ve faltered, I will recall the times I’ve succeeded. This will come more naturally if I practice telling myself over and over: You have what it takes!

– I will remind myself that even hugely accomplished people fail at various points in their lives. No one can win all the time, and failure is actually critical to success.

– I have committed that my next three blog posts will be more positive. Period.

Shaking off my longtime stress monkey isn’t going to happen overnight. Years of conditioning have etched unease into my nervous system.

But progress will come, if I embrace this attitude adjustment as a key part of my ongoing journey.

In the meantime, keep those announcements coming, my friends! I’m so proud of you all.

The Writer in Me: Hiding No More

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Writing at our window overlooking Lake Linganore, Md.

For many years I hid from becoming a writer. Even when I was in hiding, I was still a writer in my heart and soul. But I was not putting myself out there——and now I know why I was so scared.

To back up a minute: I’ve wanted a career in writing since I was about 10 years old. I majored in creative writing at college and did well in my classes. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I had some skills.

After graduating college, I moved to New York City. In a town full of publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, and ad agencies, I didn’t know what to do with my major. I hadn’t applied myself in school. I didn’t write for the literary magazine or the campus paper. There was nothing to distinguish me from every other person who wanted to write for a living.

I still could have tried to launch a writing career without any credits to my name. But I didn’t.

Flash forward three decades (yes, decades), and I finally decided to do something about my situation. Two years ago, I launched this blog. One year ago, I signed up for a writing program that encouraged me to build my online profile, pitch articles to outlets, and develop a book proposal.

For the first time in decades, I started thinking of myself as a writer with stories and opinions to share with the world, not just a writer inside my own head. I had energy and ideas, and the words started pouring out.

But. (There’s usually a but with me.) Suddenly, I was connected with other writers who seemed so talented and driven. I felt compelled to ask myself: Who am I as a writer? And most importantly: Do I like who I am? Can I live with who I am?

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Display at Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

A few things I am not:

A sassy writer. I am actually pretty funny in person, but I’m not comfortable being humorous on the page—it feels forced.

A lyrical writer. I am not poetic or “dazzling.” I am not a master of metaphor.

A sophisticated writer. I do not have an impressive reserve of literary references. My style is not bold or experimental.

A few things I am:

A relatable writer. Yeah, I’m basic. Ordinary. In a good way, I believe.

An honest writer. I am willing to spill my guts for my readers. And I’m not afraid to get political.

An idea writer. I live to find the ideas at the core of my writing, the concepts that help illuminate our shared humanity.

A readable writer. I enjoy spending time constructing sentences and paragraphs that are clear and flow well.

Are those two lists a bearable trade-off?

Sometimes I read a beautiful or hilarious sentence by a brilliant writer, and I look up from the page or screen. I sigh and wonder if I should try harder to be a different kind of writer.

I never want to give up on becoming a better writer. Honing my existing skills is a must. But can I teach myself to be more poetic? Can I practice putting my wit into words? Can I bone up on literary stuff?

Or, should I spend my energy learning to appreciate who I am already as a writer and finding ways to make that work for me?

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An emphatic sign at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

This is why I was scared all those years, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I was hiding from the pain of my own expectations, my self-judgment, the fear of facing my identity as a writer. And, if I have to be totally honest, the fear of facing my identity as a person. I’ve long been afraid that my authentic self is not cool or classy or intellectual enough to reach some to-be-determined level of success that will validate my worth.

These past few years I’ve been figuring out how to accept myself, to love the woman inside while gently nudging her forward. Because I’ve realized that the validation I so desperately crave needs to come from within.

Recently I ventured a wee bit out of my comfort zone on an essay. The two people I showed it to urged me to make substantial edits. My first reaction was defensive—I wanted to dig in my heels because their input felt like a wallop to my ego. Once I got over myself, and made the revisions, they really paid off. Clearly there is room to stretch within my wheelhouse without having to reinvent myself.

My aim is to elevate my craft while playing to my strengths and exploring my passions. My main goal is to reach people with my writing, help them feel not so alone, and shine light onto interesting paths. As long as I work at doing that, I won’t need to hide anymore.

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Metal flower at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

Can We Talk About Jealousy?

This post continues exploring a theme I first addressed in Wrestling with My Inner Mean Girl in Honor of #MeToo.

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A seemingly satisfied goose at England Acres Farm in Mt Airy, Md.

Several months ago The New York Times ran a style piece about a woman in her 20s who creates designer ice cubes. As I read the article, my mind lit up with envy. The subject, Leslie Kirchhoff, was being celebrated for capitalizing on something I recall doing as a child—suspending objects in ice.

But frozen water is not her only medium. The article relayed her first big break: “While studying abroad in Paris during her sophomore year at New York University, Ms. Kirchhoff learned how to D.J. at the hip nightclub Le Montana, which led to a regular Friday night gig at the Top of the Standard when she returned to New York.”

How exactly she managed to score D.J. lessons at a trendy French club wasn’t explained.

One of Kirchhoff’s other claims to fame is co-creating the buzz-worthy “Drunk Crustaceans” calendar, which features shellfish in twee settings, such as a shrimp lounging in a miniature bathtub with a tiny bottle of wine. And if that’s not enough, Kirchhoff is also a photographer, with credits that include Vogue.com.

In the photo that accompanied the NYT piece, Kirchhoff is revealed to be tall and slim with long blonde hair. She is the kind of woman Paper magazine photographs in designer clothes and dubs “The Coolest Girl in the Room.” To sum it up, I hate her.

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Metal flamingos at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

Jealousy is a common human emotion, but you don’t hear many people eager to unpack it. Copping to envy is like admitting that you’re insecure, and possibly vain and petty as well. Who wants to explore how crappy it feels to be covetous and resentful? Surprisingly, I do!

But why? Well, let’s face it, the world is often unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Most of us encounter numerous inequities, both big and small, throughout our lives. When this occurs, initially we might feel bad about ourselves—maybe we don’t deserve to have good things happen to us. This feeling is quite uncomfortable, so often we transfer the blame onto the person who has what we want.

Thus, envy hardens into animosity toward people we assume have an unearned leg up or are gaming the system. This line of thinking can affect how we treat others. Sensing you’ve been cheated can lead someone to think, say, and do foolish, spiteful things.

A closer examination could help prevent jealousy from degenerating into ill-advised words and actions, and I believe that’s an opportunity worth seizing. So, let’s dive deeper.

I sat down and drafted a lengthy list of things that make me jealous. Then I grouped the items on the list into three main categories, borrowing from the well-known Serenity Prayer for my framework. Every example below comes from my own messed-up (in other words, human) mind.

Things I cannot change:

 This first list comprises circumstances that are usually referred to as luck or fate.

  • Being born into wealth
  • Belonging to a family with connections to powerful people who can offer life-changing favors
  • Looking like a fashion model
  • Possessing the talent of a brilliant singer, dancer, painter, or other creative genius
  • Having siblings who can share the responsibilities involved in caring for aging parents

There is very little wiggle room in changing these circumstances, so getting peeved about them is a poor use of one’s mental energy. However, we humans like to be in control, so our lack of control here can be particularly annoying. When faced with the arbitrary nature of the universe, our minds can go to some unpleasant places.

For example: Upon reading about a woman who is beautiful, talented, and successful—a less charmed person (let’s say me) might wallow in the unfairness of the situation. Why wasn’t I blessed with such good fortune? This jealousy can lead to villainizing the woman to soothe my feelings of inferiority. Her parents are no doubt rich and well-connected—she probably doesn’t deserve her success at all. This tactic might make me feel better temporarily, but it does nothing for my long-term satisfaction.

The best remedy or antidote to the “things I cannot change” brand of envy is simple gratitude. For every quality you envy in a person who seems to have hit the birthright jackpot, think of something for which you can be grateful. I’ve been trying this, and it really can help. But sometimes it’s also best just to take quick note of someone’s prodigious gifts and then move on with your life.

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It would be silly to envy a beautiful flower; we simply appreciate it instead.

Things I can change:

The items in this second grouping feature characteristics that don’t come naturally to some of us but aren’t impossible to develop. 

  • The ability to relax and not stress over the small stuff, like housework, bills, deadlines
  • An inclination to rely on the big stuff turning out okay—not worrying about getting cancer, dying early, or going broke
  • Exuding genuine personal confidence
  • Being in good physical shape
  • Actively developing new skills, learning new things, and chasing life goals

I try to be delighted that there is so much to accomplish here—room for progress is good, otherwise we stagnate. The trick is not to dwell on how much improvement is needed, and instead jump in and get to work.

We may whine to ourselves that some of these things seem hard. When you’ve spent most of your life worrying, like I have, about dying in a car crash or losing my house or saying something stupid, it’s hard to imagine going through your days without such creeping dread. But you can control your thoughts and actions. You can become what you envy.

Here’s a simple example: My husband is way more chill than I am about things like yardwork and the cleanliness of our house. My feelings about this are a combination of frustration that I end up doing most of the work (which is my choice, after all) and envy transformed into anger. So, I decided to try learning from him. I’m reconditioning myself so that I do fewer chores that might make me resentful; instead I read, write, or take a nap—things that make me happy. I will never be as relaxed as he is, but I’m starting to see positive results in my attitude.

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Trying to chill in my kayak on Lake Linganore, Md. Those eyelids still look a little tense.

Things I may not want to change:

This last category contains items we only think we want. 

  • Ambition that results in big promotions and a rising career
  • Frequent travel to faraway places
  • Leading a wild life without concern for adverse consequences
  • Being super positive and cheerful all the time
  • Never second-guessing yourself or struggling to make decisions

The same feelings of resentment bubble up when you see someone exhibiting these desirable traits or behaviors. But if you’re completely honest with yourself, it becomes clear that you simply aren’t one of those people.

This is great news! You are off the hook from not being more driven or perky or decisive, and you can stop resenting those who are like that.

One more example: I have friends who make it a priority to travel twice a year—every freaking year—to exotic locations. I always get a twinge of jealousy when I see their photos on Facebook. But a couple years ago I began reminding myself that travel is not a priority of mine. I could save up the money and set aside some vacation time and travel more if I really wanted to, but I have other preferences that mean more to me. Now I just say to myself, that’s so great that my friends figured out how much they love to travel and are making it happen.

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When I do travel, I usually end up missing home, because why wouldn’t I?

If envy haunts you, make your own list. Once you place each jealousy trigger into one of the three categories, you’ll realize that there’s only one group that should have an impact on you—the things you can change. Now you have a manageable list for self-development.

When jealousy starts invading your brain anyway, reject the usual script and try out a new internal dialogue. Here’s how I might react differently to that same article about the luxury ice cube creator:

Smile upon other people’s good fortune: This woman studied abroad in Paris, and not only could she get into a hip club, but someone taught her how to D.J. while she was there! Now she’s getting rich making ice cubes! How awesome is that?!

Identify their effort: According to the article, Kirchhoff “spent four years developing her own ice-making method and turned it into a business.” Good for her for having the dedication and the belief in her vision to put in the time and energy.

Remember your dreams and your skills:  Ice cubes aren’t really my thing. I want to reach people through my writing. I’m not half bad at it, and I will only get better if I make it a higher priority.

Find inspiration: What an amazing world we live in—if people will buy designer ice, surely there is an audience for my writing. I just need to find my niche.

Commit to immediate and ongoing action: I’m going to spend two hours writing tonight instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media. And I will make room in my schedule for regular writing in the morning.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being jealous now and then and confessing to it as a way to expel the shame. If we don’t let it rule us, we can learn from envy and use it to propel us forward.

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I am grateful for many things, especially red velvet ice cream in a chocolate-dipped cone.