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Sometimes it can be scary to want things.

I just read an Ask Polly advice column, and the whole thing is pretty interesting, but here is the passage I want to look at today:

You don’t know what to do about it, so instead of throwing a fit or walking out the door, you become someone who exists in the margins, someone who can tuck herself into the background and make do with whatever leftovers come her way.

The problem is, that kind of passivity tends to bleed out over the rest of your life. You are willing to wait and see where you’ll live, and wait and see whether you’ll ever have kids, and wait and see if you’ll ever find a better job, until eventually you forget that you have control over these outcomes and everything else in your life.”

This kind of passivity is also a way to avoid commitment, to avoid figuring out what you actually want. What you want enough to really invest in it. What you want enough to risk sacrifice for it. What you want even though you might not get it.

In the last few years, you all watched me go through the decision of where I wanted to live. Before, I felt like I’d just ended up living in the Bay Area. It wasn’t so much that I’d made an active choice to live here as that life events pushed me toward it and I hadn’t resisted. So then, for me, part of learning who I am and what I want was really looking at where I was living and deciding if it was what I actually wanted.

And I have to say, while going through that process wasn’t the most fun ever, I am much more satisfied with my life having come out on the other side with an actual well-thought-out decision. Yes, I want to be here. Yes, I am committed to making certain sacrifices in order to stay. And sure, at some point those sacrifices might be too high and I might change my mind, but even if I leave at some point in the future, it feels good to know what I want right now.

Photo Credit: Shenghung Lin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Shenghung Lin via Compfight cc

Part of the reason I am writing this now is because it can be easy to fall into passivity. Especially for a recovering people pleaser. It can be easy to wait and see, all the while hoping for the best. And it’s not always wrong to do that, that’s not what I’m saying. Optimism can be a beautiful attitude to adopt. But sometimes it can also allow you to hide from certain realities and steer you away from being fully yourself.

So right now I am trying to embrace the experience of wanting things in active ways. It is terrifying, because once embraced, it makes it feel like I have so much more to lose. I feel vulnerable. And I realize the wanting means I have to take risks. I have to write things I don’t know if I can write. I have to do things I don’t know if I can do. I have to be myself even when that might lead to the necessity of letting go.

I write about this kind of stuff all the time. I write about it because I think it’s important to talk about it, and I also write about it because it is hard for me. Here on the blog it is easier to be clear. It is easier to take an idea and distill it down and develop an understanding of it. And then I carry these ideas out into the world, which is a murky, messy place at the best of times. I get confused, and sometimes I get frightened. Sometimes my ideas don’t seem so easy to implement anymore, and sometimes I forget what I actually think. But even so, I’m better off with these gems of ideas in my pocket, and I hope you are too.

So then, here is today’s gem: Sometimes it can be scary to want things. But that is who I want to be: a person who wants things and goes after them even when it’s scary and hard. A person who will choose risking failure rather than hanging out in passivity.

This isn’t always the person I will be. It certainly isn’t always the person I have been. But it’s the person towards whom I can aim.

Yes, I want things, with all my heart. Let’s see what happens next.

Because I am a writer, it will probably come as no surprise to learn words are very important to me.

As such, it’s been something of a struggle for me to clearly delineate the difference between actions and words, and to make personal choices accordingly. For me, words tend to carry more weight than is helpful, and actions less than they deserve.

That’s not to say words aren’t still important. Indeed, some time ago I dated one gentleman who indulged in almost zero Words of Affirmation (we are all familiar with the Five Love Languages, yes?), a situation that was, as it turned out, intolerable to me. Words do carry a certain amount of weight and are also intrinsic parts of many actions.

However, I have observed that it is much easier to adjust words away from the actual truth of a situation than it is to adjust actions. Meaning, actions tend to be a more reliable gauge of what’s actually going on and a more accurate reflection of a person’s feelings and priorities. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story for the past week, and he emphasizes again and again that deep character is revealed through conflict; that pressure is placed on a character, forcing her to act, and it is in that action that the viewer/reader learns who she truly is. It’s not what the character says that matters, but what she does.

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

This is not a new insight for me; in fact, I’ve written about it before. But it’s been getting easier to apply it in my actual life, and I think the feedback loop that is causing this improvement is interesting. It works like this: as I’m surrounded more and more by action and behavior that is respectful and positive and affirming, the instances when action and behavior is not acceptable stick out a lot more clearly. Basically, my baseline has shifted.

This shift has resulted in several differences. For one thing, I am much more capable of identifying unhealthy situations and acting on this information. I am more able to clearly state when I’m not okay with something when I think that is the right thing to do. And I am able to figure out what it is I need in order to take care of myself in a more timely and efficient way. All of this means that smaller issues are less likely to spiral and grow into bigger ones. Which is pretty great, even if at the time it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.

I am even able to notice much more quickly when these kinds of circumstances begin to push me down an unproductive thought path. “Oh no, this person isn’t going to like me,” I think. But then, an hour later, “Wait a second. Maybe it’s okay if this person doesn’t like me. My job isn’t to make sure everyone likes me. My job is to set boundaries to keep myself healthy while doing my best to remain compassionate. Right.”

All of this, incidentally, supports being more compassionate. I tend not to associate firm decisive action with being compassionate, especially when said action involves saying no or otherwise disappointing someone. But I think I’m wrong in this. Modeling healthy behavior is ultimately a net win for all parties, as it nips issues in the bud that might have otherwise stretched out into longer periods of suffering for everyone. It sometimes allows for the potential for the relationship to heal and grow stronger. And since you are taking care of yourself, you are opening up more emotional space for noticing what the other person is going through and genuinely feeling for them, even if (and this is often the case) there is nothing much you can do about it.

Words are still important to me. But so often it is the associated actions that make all the difference.

I Can Live This Life

I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, flossing and brushing my teeth, when suddenly I looked in the mirror. I stared at my face, and I said, “Wait a second. Amy, what are you doing?”

And I blinked and looked myself in the eye, and several layers of exhaustion and doubt and fear and overwhelm sloughed off, and I said, “Oh yeah. Right, then. Back on track.”

Because in that moment, I remembered who I am.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: what is essential to identity, of what layers it is comprised, how malleable it is, why some people are able to hold onto some core of who they are throughout their lives while others are not.

And I realized that an essential part of change, for me, is re-crafting personal identity. External circumstances can and do change, sometimes because of a deliberate decision we’ve made and sometimes not. Sometimes our lives change because of other people’s decisions, or because of the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions we’ve made mostly unawares, or because of pure happenstance.

But I think the change that matters most, or certainly that is the most interesting to me personally, is the change of self. And while identity can change based on external events, it certainly doesn’t always do so. And sometimes external circumstances can change from the inside out, based on changes of the self.

And then there’s the common temporary changes, such as most New Year’s resolutions, that end in backslides and no long-term change whatsoever.

One of the ways to hold onto change, then, is to craft that change into your personal identity, into how you see yourself, into who you are. For example, I am a person who is confident in her abilities. Or, I am person who cares about eating healthily. Or, I am a person who is kind to others. Or, I am a person who goes out of his way to be generous.

We can incorporate these beliefs into our identities through repeatedly engaging in thought patterns and behaviors that support them. If I go dancing one to three times a week for six months, then it is easy enough to include “I am a dancer” in my self-identity. If I am steadily working on writing projects, then “I am a writer” comes easily as well.

And the same holds true of traits. For example, I decided I wanted to be more confident. So I told myself over and over again that I loved myself, even though it felt like one of the stupidest things ever. And I gave myself pep talks. And I encouraged myself to stand with my hands behind my back in a confident pose, especially when I felt the most nervous. And I made the deliberate choice to surround myself with people who boosted my confidence. And I experimented with acting confidently even when I didn’t feel that way to see what happened. And I did all these things for years. Literally.

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The test comes in times of stress. Now, invariably when I am faced with a challenge, I think to myself, “Wait. What would I do now in this situation? I have been practicing for this!”

So I’ve been tested these last few stressful weeks. And because I’ve practiced so much, I was pretty pleased with how I was doing. But even so, that much deliberate action during stress was taking its toll, in that I was getting more. and. more. tired. And as I got more tired, my confidence was decreasing. And doing the things I wanted to do and reacting the way I wanted to react was getting more and more difficult. And I was feeling more and more pull from my old identity and from old ways of thinking.

Until that moment at the mirror. Because what I felt wasn’t disappointment or anger or fear. It was confusion.

Wait a second, I thought. This isn’t who I am. I am perfectly capable of coming up with good plans and following through on them. I don’t have to feel threatened; I know I’m enough. I don’t have to feel frightened because I know I can see this through for myself. I can write this fucking book. I can take this fucking risk. I can live this fucking life.

Once you’ve built your personal identity to be strong and true, sometimes all it takes is one moment to remember who you’ve become.

On Emotion

“Feel, feel, I say — feel for all you’re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live.”  – Henry James

Last weekend I was at the Disney museum, and there was an exhibit of random stuff Walt Disney collected during his lifetime. In one of the cases was a few rooms of miniatures: small to-scale furniture and household items and dishes and all that kind of stuff.

And suddenly I was swept away by grief.

My mom collected miniatures. It was something the two of us did together during the hard years. It was something good, something to look forward to.

Anyway, my first reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me. Why? Why do I have to be feeling this grief right now? It’s been SEVENTEEN years.

Actually, that was also my second reaction, and possibly my third.

The next day I tearfully discussed it with a friend, and he gently pointed out how much stress I’ve been under lately. So that at least partially answers the why question. My toe hurts. I miss dancing. I’m stressed out by a few writing projects right now. I’m upset that Jimmy died, and I miss some of my friends. I am taking risks that make me uncomfortable. I am trying to do self care, but I’m having trouble keeping up.

And grief doesn’t play by normal schedules.

So, this is what I’ve got for you today, this Henry James quotation. I really admire Henry James. He was an incredibly skilled writer and astute observer of human nature. Washington Square is possibly on my list of favorite novels of all time.

I think this is a good reminder. Feel for all you’re worth. Even if it’s grief for someone lost long ago. Even if it’s discouragement over setbacks. Even if it’s fear of what the future might bring.

These feelings, they mean we’re fully engaged in our lives. And that, all by itself, means a hell of a lot.

Nala is adorable

On My Own Privilege

I have not had an easy life.

I lived through significant trauma in my adolescence. I had to deal with some serious shit. When I tell people the highlights of that part of my history, they don’t know what to say. It’s okay. I don’t know what to say either. I tend to downplay it, because sometimes it seems like the only redemptive part of the story is that I survived basically intact to tell it.

That kind of prolonged trauma reverberates through the years. I have made unfortunate choices based on the dysfunction I learned as a teenager. I have health problems now because of the stress of the past. My brain developed differently than it might otherwise have done, leaving me, for example, with the tendency of being hypervigilant. I have trouble convincing myself being hypervigilant isn’t a useful and basically good thing (it isn’t, it really isn’t, but it still seems so very practical).

I have had to teach myself what having a safe and happy and functional life looks like. And I have had to draw some hard lines I never wanted to draw and make some difficult choices I never wanted to make.

I am also incredibly fucking privileged.

I am a white, heterosexual, attractive, thin, intelligent woman. I was raised middle class in California in one of the richest counties in one of the richest countries in the world. I received a college education without accruing huge amounts of debt. I know how to speak, how to dress, how to behave in order to receive better treatment.

People are not randomly afraid of me. People are more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt. People are more likely to assume positive things about me. People are more likely to return my smiles. People are more likely to give me opportunities. People are more likely to assume I’m competent and that my work will be good. People are more likely to offer me assistance. I have access to better medical care, to better dental care, to resources that mean I have a lot more choices and control of my life.

I am oozing in privilege.

I have had a hard life.

These two statements are not incompatible.

What I see so often in conversations about privilege is this insistence on “I.” We all want empathy. We all want to be heard and recognized. We all want acknowledgment of our suffering. And, you know, Buddha said life is suffering, and there’s more than enough of it to go around.

This desire for empathy is normal. It is supremely human. And we all deserve it.

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

But. It is possible to receive empathy and give empathy to ourselves while also recognizing our privilege. It is possible to gently remind ourselves that actually, not everything is about us and our particular concerns. That our pain and our problems do not always need to get time in the spotlight, that sometimes other people’s problems and pain needs the exposure, the airtime, the discussion, the push for change, more. That injustice, oppression, lack of privilege, these are systemic issues that are woven into the very fabric of our society, and changing these things, it is a long slow painful process that necessarily shifts the focus from individual problems to societal problems. That even if we have valid points, if part of the purpose or result of those valid points is to shift the focus back to us, that is not always a net win.

I have had a hard life.

I am extremely privileged.

These statements are both true.

Dating as a feminist has been … eye-opening.

When I began dating, I didn’t really think about this being a sticking point. I didn’t see myself as being particularly noteworthy in my opinions about sexism. I was happy to pay for myself or be treated (as long as I could tell what was happening). I didn’t mind having doors held open for me (especially with a sprain, this is actually super helpful). I didn’t even mind having car doors opened for me, even if it does feel a little bit silly. After all, we all still know I am capable of opening the car door myself, right? Right?

But I was wrong. Dating as a feminist has been different. And I have stopped dating more than one person at least partially because of their beliefs, attitudes, and statements about gender.

Photo Credit: armigeress via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: armigeress via Compfight cc

 

The first time I stopped dating someone because of this, I cried while delivering the news. I cried partly because I was having trouble believing it was actually happening, that this was a reason that had actually come up in my life. But I felt very strongly that it would be hypocritical of me to date this person, given my own feminist beliefs. I was also concerned it would affect my attitudes about my writing career, that I would internalize these sexists ideas I was hearing and they would make me less ambitious, less capable, and less confident.

I learned to never explicitly state that sexist attitudes were a reason for discontinuing dating. (Yeah, I had to learn this through experience. Oops. Trust me, this mistake wasn’t pretty.)

And I learned that a certain degree of sexism is a deal breaker for me.

Really, dealing with sexism is hard enough as it is. It is so easy to internalize all the messages we are receiving from media, from society, from our peers. And the little things do matter.

For example, I heard a sexist remark over the weekend, and I knew at the time it was sexist. And even still, I found myself revisiting it the next day and feeling anxiety as to how I personally fit into the scheme of the joke. At which point I had to remind myself it was sexist and that if anybody was thinking about me in that way, it was somebody about whose opinion I wouldn’t care anyway.

So much effort, because of one stupid off-hand “joke.” Meanwhile, none of the guys who heard this joke had to think about it the next day and talk themselves out of worrying that it applied to them. And this was actually a better outcome than it would have been if I hadn’t noticed and if I’d unconsciously incorporated it into my opinion of myself. This kind of cognitive load is largely invisible, but it can add up to become quite significant.

Now, imagine you’re dating someone who has a lot of unexamined sexist beliefs and who makes a lot of these kinds of jokes and generalizations and is unable to check routine mansplaining (I know a lot of you hate this word, but I don’t have another one that means what I want to say, so we’ll go with it for now). How much cognitive load would it take to avoid internalizing these self-limiting beliefs? And how many would slip through without notice?

Sometimes people laugh at my post about how I think shared interests don’t matter that much in dating. And it’s true I was supporting a rather extreme point of view. Of course it’s nice to share interests with your partner. Of course it’s nice to have fun stuff to do together.

But the longer I’ve been dating, the more convinced I’ve become about what matters more to me. Kindness, honest and clear communication, respect and compassion for each other as we are, not as we wish we were. And how can someone who sees me as a mystery or thinks women are “crazy” or doesn’t trust my basic competence truly respect me? How can they see who I am?

And why would I want to spend a lot of time with someone who listens to and shares ideas that tear me down, that make who I’m allowed to be smaller and more limited, and thinks they’re an amusing joke?

Once you discover respect for yourself, you begin to demand respect from the people around you. This is an important part of dating. And it is also part of what being a feminist means to me.

Six Months

I am writing this on Wednesday, and today is the six-month anniversary of the day I started dancing again. Many weeks ago, I put this date into my day planner along with a note to write about it.

Then I sprained my toe, and I haven’t danced for three weeks. But I decided I’d still write this post.

Then last night a colleague of mine who I really liked and admired died. So it’s been a hard day. I thought about not writing anything at all. I thought, how could I write about something as happy as dancing on a day like today?

I thought, why am I so upset? I haven’t seen this colleague of mine for years and years. But I am. I am upset. We do not need to be in regular contact with people in order for them to be important to us. We do not need to be close to people in order for them to have impact on us.

And then I thought, I will write about dancing anyway, because this friend of mine, Jimmy, he was a comedian and an actor and a director and a drama teacher, and he was one of those people who seemed so fully alive and so fully committed to and passionate about what he was doing. So it feels apropos for me to be writing today about something about which I feel passionate.

I haven’t danced for three weeks, and I feel a bit sulky about it. I really, really miss it. I think all the time about when I’ll be able to dance again, and every week, I think, well, not this week, because my toe still really hurts, but maybe next week. I can’t wait till I’m all healed up and ready to go.

But here’s what is incredible to me. Before six months ago, I hardly ever danced. And before a few years ago, I didn’t even have the option of dancing. No dancing. None. Ever.

How my life has changed.

How I have loved the last six months. Even the last three weeks of that, because even though I can’t dance right this minute, I know I will be dancing. It’s only a matter of time.

I feel like dancing has changed me, and during this last period of time of enforced non-dancing, this has been interesting to watch. Because now that I’m not dancing, it could change back, right?

But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like dancing hasn’t merely changed the way I exercise, or the strength of my muscles, or my priorities in terms of my schedule. It feels like dancing has changed something inside of me. To have a physical means of expression, and one for which I don’t place huge amounts of pressure on myself to be perfect, has grounded me in a way I didn’t expect.

Photo by Richard Seely.

Photo by Richard Seely.

And then there’s the joy. I am so happy when I’m dancing, I feel like my happiness must be shining out of me like a beacon. I am happy thinking about going dancing ahead of time, and I’m happy after going dancing, while I’m driving home to good music and then eating my instant oatmeal (brown sugar and maple flavored, of course). And I am the happiest of all when I’m in the flow of the dance, buoyed by good music, connected to my partner, and experiencing the joy of a moving creation.

When I am dancing, there is nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing. And having that space to be so devoted and focused is extremely precious.

So on this, the six-month anniversary of rediscovering this joy, I hope for much more dancing in my future. I wish I could dance this week. For myself, to celebrate this milestone, and also for Jimmy. Thanks for showing us how to live with gratitude and passion, my friend. You are an inspiration.

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