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.

Quieting the Tyrant Within

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.

Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

Image of Jessica Lange from the movie Frances.

*****

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

*****

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

*****

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.

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.

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

When Plans Change

Driving home from the grocery store, my eyes well up. They aren’t so much tears of sadness as a release of frustration. My upper lip trembles a bit, but no gasps or sobs emerge. “Worlds Away” by The Go-Go’s is playing, and it turns out to be the perfect song for a gentle, wistful cry.

My highly anticipated trip to Florida, which is two weeks away, is about to be deferred for the third freaking time.

I first booked this trip back in February of 2020, right before the pandemic got serious in the United States. One of my best friends had just died suddenly, and I was going to visit our mutual friends so that we could share memories and mark her passing.

But I was sick with giardia, and it was taking its sweet time going away despite the antibiotics. I did not want to get on a plane while this intestinal infection was lingering. So, I moved my flight to April, hoping that the coronavirus would blow over quickly.

You know what happened next. Businesses in our state started to close, and it was clear that a stay-home order was coming soon. In late March, I canceled my flight and accepted an open voucher from the airlines.

About a year later, I finally got vaccinated and started re-planning my visit. We settled on the end of July and booked a place on the beach for a long weekend.

Once again, nature stepped in. This time it’s something called red tide—a toxic algae bloom that is hitting the Tampa Bay area hard. Trucks are removing tons (literally, tons) of dead fish that have been washing up on shore. One of my friends, who lives in St. Petersburg, says it smells terrible. She is experiencing awful headaches and breathing deeply is a challenge.

So, this morning we decided to put the trip on hold. For the record: This gathering has been obstructed by a parasite in my intestines, a worldwide pandemic, and a “fish kill” in Florida. Ok, ok, I get the message!

As I hop in my car later, I decide to explore what caused my tears this morning. Yes, I am sad that another couple months or possibly a year will go by without seeing my dear friends. But I will eventually see them—I’m not worried about that.

And, if anything, I’m a little relieved that I don’t have to fly while the latest COVID variant is spreading and people are acting out on planes.

Before I reach my destination, I settle on two main causes for my irritation:

Control. Many grievances come down to control with me. I really don’t like it when things don’t turn out as planned. It reminds me that I do not have complete control over my life, and this scares me. I talk through this fear as I drive, and I remind myself that I have a pretty decent level of control over my life right now—perhaps more than I’ve ever had. I encourage myself to be grateful for the control and the abilities that I do have, like how easy it was to jump online and cancel my flight with the click of a button.

Stories. Of the many stories I have running in my head, one of the oldest is: I have the worst luck. I’ve repeated variations on this theme countless times. For so long, I was convinced that bad things always happened to me. Because I was stuck in this story, I couldn’t see how the good in my life clearly outweighed the bad. The result of this story was that I had a built-in excuse to give up, because why bother anyway? Ironically, I claim I want more control over my life (see previous paragraph), and yet I’ve used the power of this sad-sack story to relieve myself from taking control.

I’m still mad that this trip has been delayed three times, and I hope that I won’t have to wait too long to see my friends. But today I chose to explore my tendency to wallow in disappointment. As it often does, this kind of self-reflection got me out of the doldrums and onto my laptop to document these insights. The more consistently I do this, the less I get caught up in this kind of self-pity in the first place.  

Accepting New Things

There’s a saying that goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” According to the internet, this quote is a mash-up of writings by Mahatma Ghandi and a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein.

These men were referring to the gradual success of political movements, but I think the insight captures the spirit of how we humans respond to all kinds of new things.

Earlier this year, I went to pick up food at a Five Guys burger joint, and while I waited, I became fascinated with a sign that was attached to the side of their soda machine. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with one of these touch-screen soda machines, but they’re pretty cool. You can choose from like a thousand options of soda, tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit flavorings. It makes the traditional soda fountain look quaint and insufficient.

The sign instructed customers that they could use their smart phone to scan a QR code from the screen of the soda machine. This would allow them to select from all of the same beverage options through their phone rather than having to touch a screen that other people may have touched.

At first, I rolled my eyes hard. I snapped a photo of the sign, looking forward to sharing this ridiculousness with my husband. He, too, chuckled when he saw it.

Months later, I was scrolling through my phone and happened upon that photo. With some distance, it didn’t seem quite so silly. Why not offer people an option that takes advantage of the powerful technology that so many of us carry around? Who was this sign hurting? OK, it might slow down the line a tad as people try to figure out the app, but what’s the problem with slowing down for a minute or two?

Things that are new and different scare us. Our minds haven’t yet figured out why we need them or how they work, so we reject them. Why is that? Maybe the primitive part of our brain worries that if we don’t understand something, if we have to incorporate new information in order to “get” it, that implies something is lacking in us.

But as time goes on, and we acquire that knowledge without even trying, as we think about it some more and become familiar with the new thing, we start to warm up to it.

Sometimes, like the quote, we still fight against the new thing. And those who fight don’t always win. But slowly, the new thing becomes a part of our culture, and we grow to accept it. Can you think of an example of a practice that was shunned, even outlawed, which is now embraced? I bet you can. This has been happening for centuries in societies all over the world. The process can be long or short or anywhere in between.

This same principle is at work in our personal lives. We resist making changes. The new thing—think meditation, exercise, journaling—runs counter to the self that we know. Contemplating adding this new thing to our existence suggests that we are currently incomplete or deficient. And that makes us feel unsafe, so we puff ourselves up by snickering at the alien thing.

However, once you immerse yourself in something unusual, the process of acceptance speeds up—like stepping your foot on the gas. We can all override our instinct to ridicule the new and unusual, and the reward is a more expansive life and a more inclusive society.

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.