a poem: spring

My spring started December 22
On a plane
Bound for home
Nowhere else to go
But home
Home to home’s original place
Back to where I might find
The space to call me mine
Back to the space where I could find
A beginning to heal
To find what was real
To find what was mine
What was me
What was home
That’s spring for me
The beginning of me
The end of lying to me
Am I putting out leaves?

-a.e

Be Yourself: TED Talk Review

 

Have you ever heard the phrase “just be yourself?” I’m positive you have. If not said directly to you, then in a book or on TV, always given as advice on how to overcome shyness or anxiety. How to survive at a party or on a first date. How to make friends the first day of school. How to ace an interview.

But in this talk, Caroline McHugh points out that being yourself is hard work. And nobody is “just” anything. Just implies that it’s so easy, so little, so meager to be yourself, when really it’s the journey of a lifetime to even figure out what that is.

Yourself is hard work. Yourself free of others’ expectations of you, of your own expectations, of how you were raised and the people who surround you, is hard. We need to give a little more grace to the process and a little more honor. Being yourself is the goal in life, and if you can say that you are yourself unabashedly, that’s a cause for celebration.

McHugh also invites us to ask not what our life expectancy is but what do we expect of life. She points out that that is a much more interesting question and one that will help us uncover who we are.

Who we are, in being ourselves, is well represented by an hourglass. At the beginning and the end of our lives, we are the best at being ourselves. Kids run around and play and goof off with very little awareness of themselves or what people think, and we all know the stereotype of the elderly being crotchety and outspoken. What I love is that McHugh says that when you realize you have more summers behind you than in front of you, you become more honest because you just can’t be arsed to care about anybody else’s opinion.

The bit in the middle is more problematic, when we’re squeezed by society’s pressures and have to accommodate and adapt and live up to other people’s expectations.

In the middle of her talk, McHugh dives into her idea of an interiority complex, presented in contrast to the inferiority and superiority complexes. An interiority complex is entirely unrelative to others.  It’s a vantage point and orientation where you have no competition. Contrast that with the idea of superior/inferior mindsets that depend on others to exist (superior – I am better than those around me, inferior – I am worse than those around me).

Remember what Jill Scott said about queendom (paraphrase): “Mine can never compare to hers and hers can never compare to mine. We all come with our own strengths.” This is such an important mindset to have, and one we try to teach ourselves and our students and our kids, but again and again we find it so difficult.

When you think about your identity, you’re not your thoughts, you’re not your feelings (because who’s feeling them), you’re not what you do, there’s something underneath it all that is the real you. Growing up, growing old, growing out; it’s all a way to figure out what that person deep inside is.

McHugh mentions the blue sky, which caught my attention because it’s such a prominent idea in my meditation practice.  The sky doesn’t’ boast or complain about it’s weather, it knows the impermanence of the storms and the sunsets and the permanence of the blue sky.

I think the advice of this talk can best be summed up in these words; don’t live someone else’s opinion of you. Find it for yourself and be honest. Be you.

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Overcoming Anxiety with a Binary Mindset: A Tip From an Imperfectionist

As you may or may not know, I suffer from anxiety/panic disorder. It’s gotten a lot better since I moved home from Korea, but it hasn’t gone away, and it was really difficult the first few weeks after it started.

In the early days of my recovery, I read the book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and though the book is full of good advice, there was one tip that really stood out in my mind as something useful for people dealing with anxiety*.

Stephen Guise, the author of HTBAI, dealt with pretty crippling anxiety in his time, so he knows where he’s coming from when he says that perfectionism is a major cause of anxiety. Socially anxious people are more concerned than anyone else about a social interaction; they want it to go perfectly, and may or may not imagine all the things that could go wrong. If they do end up at the party or talking with that person, and it doesn’t go perfectly (and it won’t, because we’re humans on earth), then the person walks away feeling like a failure.

Enter the Binary Mindset

Guise says that decreasing a fear of making mistakes begins with a shift in your perspective.

He starts by talking computer lingo, but don’t worry, it’s stuff we all know; 0 and 1. Computers speak it. He goes on to talk about digital vs analog information. Digital information is finite and defined, and analog is more of a spectrum. Guise says we need to adopt the binary or digital mindset in order to overcome fear of failure.

He gives a lot of good examples, but the basic idea boils down to this; in a digital or binary task, you either succeed or you don’t. There’s no gradient of success. You flip a switch. It’s either “on” or it’s “off.” The focus is on if you take the action, not how well you do.

Contrast that with the analog idea of a task like a speech; you won’t fail absolutely 100% but you probably won’t be completely flawless either. You fall somewhere on a spectrum.

The trick is to make as many tasks binary as possible, including ones we normally put on a spectrum (like speeches).

Reimagine your speech. Instead of aiming for 100% flawless delivery, which is pretty much impossible, instead decide that getting up on stage and giving the speech is a success; a 1. That’s it. You can make all kinds of mistakes and still consider it a success because you did it. You redefined success and put it in a binary position.

Let’s extrapolate. You want to go to a party. Before, in your analog state, you would want the party to be fun the whole time, you wouldn’t want any awkward time drifting between friends, and you would want to be witty and charming when you were talking. Anything other than that is some kind of failure, and your night (especially for an anxious person) is ruined. Or it doesn’t exist because you’re too psyched out to go.

Now, redefine that in binary. If you go to the party, it’s a 1 – success. If you don’t go, it’s a 0 – fail. No matter what happens at the party, if you go, you have succeeded. So let’s say you go, and it’s okay, and you leave early when you get tired, but you went. Success!

As I’ve talked about a lot with every book of Guise’s, the idea is to build up a mental stronghold of success. If you keep succeeding, you enter a positive feedback loop that will help your mental state. Likewise, if you keep failing (in your mind), you enter a negative feedback loop where you are more likely to fail the more you fail because you are used to and expect failure.

I’d rather get used to successes, even small ones.

Personal Experience

I tried this immediately after reading about it. I redefined anything I could as a 1/0 situation. When I went to the doctor for the first time after coming back to America and getting healthcare, I wasn’t sure what would happen. I might have my insurance rejected, or have to pay a lot more than I was expecting, or the doctor would find something wrong with me, or the medicine might be expensive…there was a large spectrum of things that could go wrong.

But instead of thinking of all of those things, I said that if I drove myself to the doctor, it was a success. Even if my insurance somehow had messed up and they didn’t take it. The only way to fail was to not go.

I went. It went well. Yes, there was some back and forth over insurance (isn’t there always), but I was able to talk to my doctor and got good results. But the point is that even if I hadn’t gotten good results, it would have been a success.

I did the same thing with pretty much every social encounter as well; something that’s tough on an introvert with anxiety. If I did the thing, it was a 1, no matter how it went. D&D session wasn’t quite what I’d hoped? I went, so it was a success! Got super tired after talking with a friend? I did it, so it was a success!

This sort of mindset has been hugely helpful so far. I mean, it’s changed how I view everything. Of course it hasn’t taken the anxiety away, and it doesn’t mean I float through life like a butterfly, but it does mean I realize that situations are up to me to control. I define success on my terms, and if I can define it so I will succeed, so much the better.

The binary mindset. It’s the bee’s knees, y’all.

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*Disclaimer: if you do have depression, anxiety, or have suffered trauma or abuse, this sort of advice will only do so much. I always encourage you to see a doctor or psychiatrist first. They are trained professionals. The advice I give on this blog is more general. 🙂

Three Month Check-In: Accomplishments

I left Korea exactly three months ago on December 22. I realized it this morning and thought it was the perfect moment to do a check-in. So hang on, folks, we’re going into the depths of my mind…

Anxiety

Comparing my anxiety now to three months ago, it’s almost unbelievable how much better I am. Now, I don’t believe in getting rid of emotions, and that’s certainly not my aim with anxiety, but physically, emotionally, and mentally I am much healthier. I’m sleeping better, my energy is better, and slowly I’ve been able to do more and more of the things that were lost to me when this all started. When I first got home, the idea of going out was terrifying; I was so afraid it would trigger a panic attack that I stayed at home for weeks. For most of January, I stayed inside, only going to my chiropractor and (I think) like two other places. January was the real recovery month, as I focused on my sleep and actual physical health.

February I started going out more, playing D&D and seeing a few friends, but it was still pretty low-key. I was still worried about having an attack, and still enjoying my downtime at home.

March was when everything started to pick up. I started driving again (a huge fear for me which turned out to be no problem), went shopping, went out to dinner with friends, went to a drop-in D&D session with strangers, and started therapy.

All of this to say that my anxiety has definitely decreased. I still feel anxious (or afraid, as my therapist tells me) about new things, but I’m excited to lean into it and stretch myself, whereas before that fear would have kept me home.

Habits/Accomplishments

So what have I actually done in three months? When I first realized it was already Spring I felt a moment of panic because it seemed like I hadn’t done anything at all. I still don’t have a job, I still haven’t finished a book, and I’m still not healed. Yeah, I expected miracles to happen when I got home. But today, this three-month anniversary, I thought about all that I have accomplished, and I felt proud. Going from what I was (wrecked, quivering ball of insomnia and panic) to what I am now (excited, healthy, curious) is amazing.

I have;

  • been to the doctor twice and gotten on less medication
  • been to therapy three times and learned where my issues might be coming from, which is the first step to healing
  • been to D&D countless times (seriously, I’m not going to go back and count the weekends) and have a solid group of friends
  • been out with friends for dinner (that’s huge when you have agoraphobia)
  • written a lot (short stories, this blog, other story ideas)
  • learned a lot about writing
  • read 44 books (damn)
  • started driving again
  • made two paper masks
  • furnished my office
  • DMed a duet D&D session with a friend
  • exercised every day (holy…)
  • meditated every day
  • discovered what foods I’m slightly allergic to (that’s a whole story, sheesh)
  • been on an overnight trip with a friend

…and I’m sleeping regularly.

This is huge for me, guys. I realized that I have in fact made vast steps forward on the way to recovery, and my expectation that I would bounce back fully and 100% within this time was totally unrealistic.

I’m thrilled how well it’s gone, honestly. I know exactly how tough it was for me those last few weeks in Korea, and I can barely believe how good I feel now.

I still have a long way to go; my whole life will be learning to live with myself, anxiety and all, but I’m okay with that now. I’m ready and waiting to take those next steps.

To anyone suffering from anxiety or depression, I hope my journey will help you in some way. Let’s #buildaladder together!

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Today I Married Myself

I know what you’re thinking. This title is click-bait, up there among the lady who married a bridge and the man who married a box of pizza.

It’s not like that, I swear.

I’ve been reading the book I mentioned in this post, Emotional Agility by Susan David, and it’s…well, it’s one of those books I think should be mandatory reading if you are human.

In the first section, she talks about self-compassion, about accepting yourself for better or for worse. Sounds like marriage vows to me.

I gave it a try. Self, I accept you, body and soul, till death do us part.  Yeah, it was just as stupid and crazy to do as it sounds. I didn’t put on a dress, thank heavens, or play music, although the music might have helped. I just spoke the words to myself, thinking of all the times I’d treated myself like absolute shit, speaking ill right in front of me, blaming me for every failure and setback, and ultimately deciding I was just no good, willing to leave me for another, younger, better version of myself.

Except, unlike marriage, I can’t actually divorce myself. I can only learn to live with me, which, when you take into consideration my annoying eating habits and tendency to leave clothes on the floor, is no mean feat.

I’m trying to make it comical, but it was really quite a turnaround in thinking. Just like in marriage, and in any other relationship, you work at it. You work at being kinder and fighting better and caring for the other even when they’re being a lazy bum and not doing what they promised they would.

Marriage means accepting the other for better or worse, in sickness and health, in productive times and unproductive times, in financial straits or excess. It means you’re committed to being in it for good.

So the same with this notion I had, of, well, not marrying myself, but treating myself better.

Self-compassion, self-care, treat yo’ self – these are all popular buzzwords in society today. But they often take a dangerous form known as enabling. Enabling is typically when a partner, friend or parent allows their loved one to engage in damaging behavior (drugs, alcohol, bad health habits, bad financial habits, seeing bad friends, verbal abuse, etc) and doesn’t call them out on it. The justification is usually that they don’t want to hurt their loved one and don’t want to force them to face the consequences of their actions. Parents continue to give money to grown children who won’t face responsibility. Wives don’t follow through on threats to leave their alcoholic husband. Friends don’t tell each other the person they’re dating is treating them poorly.

This so-called love and compassion is more damaging than helpful, and we often take this stance with ourselves too. We’re so harsh on ourselves normally that we cave in the name of treating ourselves and go to the opposite extreme of trying to let overindulgence, impulsive shopping, or working on something other than our dreams make us feel better about ourselves. In the same way that enabling allows destructive behavior to continue, treating ourselves to cheap and fast rewards leads to less happiness overall.

Instead, as in a good marriage, we need to call ourselves out on bad behavior with compassion and love. We don’t need to rail about how awful we are for failing to work on that project again, or overeating again, or yelling at our kids again. We need to ask why we’re reacting that way, what the deeper issue is, and work to resolve it. We need to have more constructive self-care habits, like meditation, connection with supportive and healthy friends and finding something we value to invest time in.

That’s a good marriage. That’s a good relationship. That’s what I’m trying to do for myself. I’m a pretty nice person. A lot of people have said so. But I’m not nice to myself most of the time. I judge myself by a far higher standard. Most of us do that. We know what we want and what our version of perfect is, and we rarely meet that standard.

The answer is not mindless indulgence after a bout of self-loathing. The answer is healthy communication and honesty with ourselves.

Marry yourself. I recommend it.*

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*THIS IS A JOKE. I took it too far, yes. You get the picture.