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Be Firm But Kind

One of my most popular posts is one I wrote back in September of 2012, entitled “Nice vs. Kind.” And this week I received a note about it from a person I recently met, so I thought it would be interesting to provide an update to you all.

In the post, I talked about the distinction I perceived between being nice and being kind, and I talked about how, while I was making the shift, it could sometimes be difficult for me to be kind at all, because then I’d just fall right back into being nice instead, which was something I was trying to change.

What I neglected to say was it was also difficult to be kind because I was so angry from the decades of not getting most of my needs met and receiving repeated messages of how unimportant I was. In other words, I had to learn to be kind to myself before being able to easily be kind to other people too.

Fast forward almost three years, and it has definitely become easier for me. I’ve created a kind of checklist for dealing with situations that feel fraught and involve setting boundaries. (Because honestly, the rest of the time, it’s not very hard for me to be kind.) This thought process has become mostly habitual at this point.

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Step 1: Figure out what I need/want.

If I really don’t care, then I get to be laid back, which is lovely.

If I don’t know, then I usually need some time. I’ve gotten better at simply saying I don’t know and getting the time I need to figure things out. Sometimes, when I’m really confused or emotional, I also need to talk things over with one or more friends to understand what it is I really need.

Step 2: Be clear and firm.

Step 3: Be kind.

Steps 2 and 3 are in that order for a reason. They reflect my priority, which is to be clear and firm FIRST, and kind SECOND. This helps prevent me from accidentally falling into niceness and wishy-washy-ness. It also reminds me not to soften or change what I need in order to be nicer, which is pretty much always an idea that crosses my mind at some point. (The Step 1 checking in with friends part is pretty helpful for this too, as it helps me not be too nice to begin with and builds in some accountability.)

I should note that if for some reason Step 3 is not possible, that doesn’t give an automatic pass to being UNkind. In general it is possible to be clear and firm without decimating someone in the process. To me, the main drawback of not being able to engage with Step 3 is it can feel a bit…robotic, but if that’s what necessary to express myself clearly and firmly, well, it’s not so bad. And luckily it doesn’t come up very often.

I should also note that following these steps doesn’t instantly solve all my interpersonal problems. The fact is, if someone wants something and I decide I don’t want to give that thing, then sometimes no amount of clarity or firmness or kindness is going to change the fact that the person isn’t going to be happy.

Still, each of these qualities serves its purpose. I practice clarity so I can get my actual point across with, I hope, fewer misunderstandings. I practice firmness so I’m less likely to have to revisit the same conversation and issue repeatedly or have someone try to change my mind. And the kindness? I believe it is ultimately helpful to the other person, and also, it’s simply the way I want to be.

“Be firm but kind, Amy.” This is the advice that runs through my head now. It isn’t foolproof, but it helps me remember how I want to be.

Things are going really well.

But Amy, didn’t you write last week about how you have a sprained toe?

Well, yes. I still have a sprained toe. That is not so great. It hurts. It is hard for me to get places. I can’t dance, which is awful. Nala’s routine is screwed up, so she’s having some trouble.

But.

Even the sprained toe is going really well. Not because it’s healing miraculously fast (I mean, I think it’s healing, but it’s slow going), but because of everything around the toe. Because the support system…it’s actually working. Blow me over with a feather.

People are feeding me. I love being fed even when nothing is wrong. But when something is wrong, and I’m tired and in pain and getting restless from sitting around all the time, it’s even better. And people have been visiting me. And checking in with me to see how I’m doing. And offering to help. And keeping me entertained.

And meanwhile they are giving me this opportunity to deepen our friendships.

It is so much easier to remain cheerful when you are getting what you need.

The support network is working exactly the way I supposed it might, too, which is to say, unpredictably. And that is lovely, and sometimes surprising in the best possible way. I’m getting to see my friends shine, and that makes me happy for both them and myself. Meanwhile, I’m not having to tap out any one person.

There are so many interesting aspects to living through big change. I’ve talked about the relief and the gratitude. I’ve talked about the testing, about the developing mindfulness, and the backward slides.

And now, here when everything is going well, there is also this: fear.

One night last week, I began to cry because everything was going so well, and things were continuing to improve, and it felt weird, and what if it all went away again? Because I like all the changes. I want to keep them.

I’m pretty sure the Buddhists would call this attachment.

I think that’s why it can be so difficult to change the status quo: it has a hard reality that all other possibilities lack. We know the status quo; we have come to trust it. Even if it sucks.

Whereas when we’re dealing with change, we’re exploring. We don’t know what we’ll find. We don’t know what will happen. We are steeped in uncertainty. And it can feel unreal, like a carriage that will melt back into a pumpkin at midnight.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, of course. It merely means we need to become better acquainted, perhaps even intimate enough that we create a new status quo.

This fear of mine, it’s definitely from the old status quo. It comes from decades of shoes raining from the sky. Enough shoes fall on your head and you become trained to expect them. And thinking about shoes falling on your head is scary.

But maybe in my new status quo, there are no shoes. Maybe we can all go barefoot instead.

And meanwhile, while I look up at the sky watching for shoes…things are still going really well.

Barefoot! (And ready to dance.)

Barefoot! (And ready to dance.)

Some months ago I decided to do a deep dive into shame. Inspired by the work of Brene Brown, I began to look at everything in my life that had to do with shame. Any shame about who I was, about my weaknesses, about my past, about my decisions, about things as trivial as my sleep schedule and as loaded as my divorce. It was all fair game.

I feel uncomfortable talking about shame. That is because shame thrives best in the dark places, in the crooks and crannies, in secrets and things left unsaid. Shine a light on it, and it writhes and squirms and hurts like the devil. And begins to shrink or dissipate like it’s allergic to the sun.

Shame feels like the kind of thing we’re not supposed to talk about. Shame breeds shame breeds shame. Shame encourages us to keep that big bright light far away from it. Shame has a strong survival instinct.

Photo Credit: LisiaolongFuko via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: LisiaolongFuko via Compfight cc

I feel uncomfortable talking about shame, but I have had such positive results from looking at it and working with it, and I want to share that with you. Especially because now that I’m looking for it, I see shame around me all the time. Shame about how we look physically. Shame about how “successful” we are. Shame about mental illness and chronic illness. Shame about lifestyle choices. Shame about not being good enough. Shame about needs and boundaries. And on and on.

Shame is different from other emotions that we typically think of as negative. Sadness, fear, anger, these are challenging emotions with dark sides, but they also have positive functions. Sadness honors the losses we suffer. Fear reminds us to watch over our safety. Anger can give us the energy we need to set boundaries or fight injustice.

But shame? Shame feels deeper to me, and more toxic. I haven’t found any positive functions of shame. Shame keeps us isolated and lonely, and it’s the source for astonishingly cruel self-talk. It fights against the sense of worthiness that I think is an essential component of inner peace. It keeps us from being with ourselves, and it keeps us from sharing ourselves.

We learn shame from our families, especially dysfunctional ones, and even if we get lucky there, we learn shame from our society. We also learn shame from individuals, people who are often struggling with shame themselves. And so shame marches forward.

Doing a deep dive into shame is…well, it’s unpleasant. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of courage. It requires looking at the things we don’t want to look at, talking about the things we don’t want to talk about, acknowledging the painful emotions and behavior of both ourselves and others. And it also calls for a lot of compassion because otherwise, honestly, it would be too hard. Once I started, it was amazing to me how much muck there was to clean out. More of it kept bubbling up.

I hesitate to use the term life-changing because it sounds like hyperbole, but in this case I think it is merited. Cleaning out shame has been life-changing. Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know it’s become something of a chronicle of personal change that started with me wanting to stop being such a people pleaser. That simple goal has taken me on a journey I never could have anticipated, and shame feels like it’s the very root of the problem. Finally. Here we are, performing a root canal on my psyche.

And the results? Well, this is a process, not a one-time fix and then it’s over. But over the last month or so I’ve been seeing the effects of the deep dive, and so far, this is what I can tell you.

I feel lighter. Everything feels different. My friends have been telling me things like “It seems like you have really found yourself” and “You seem a lot happier” and “Your choices seem to have really paid off.” I’m more likely to call bullshit, and when I do, I’m much more likely to think it’s stupid and much less likely to buy into it. I am slowly easing out of my protective shell because I don’t have as much need for it anymore. I am talking casually about things I didn’t use to talk casually about, if at all. I am being more direct, and I am being more authentic.

This isn’t a cure-all. I still feel uncomfortable sometimes (like talking about shame, for example). I still have attacks of writer angst. I still have emotions, I can still be disappointed, I still cry. I still sometimes dither, I still sometimes worry. I still have trouble sometimes saying no, or asking for help, or not apologizing, or remembering my needs are important.

But imagine shame as a heavy stone in the pit of your stomach. Imagine it weighing you down, getting heavier year after year, until you can barely walk from the burden. And then imagine realizing it’s there and chipping away at it. Imagine throwing it out of your body and far, far away, piece by painful piece.

It feels fucking incredible.

It feels like freedom.

Well, nothing like a little bit of crisis to give yourself perspective.

On Saturday morning I tripped on a plastic bag on the floor of my closet and bent back my big toe. It hurt. A lot. And turned bright red. I swore. A lot. And Nala looked concerned. I put some ice on it while I talked to my friend on the phone, and I took some Ibuprofen, just to be safe. Then I carried on with my day.

It wasn’t until several hours (and several miles walked) later that I realized something was wrong. I’d gotten back to my car after attending Wesley Chu’s reading at Borderlands, and I realized my toe really hurt. It hurt so much I felt queasy. It hurt so much that as I was driving the hour home, I had to take deep breaths and use lots of willpower to not cry.

So there I am, driving home, doing some deep breathing, in terrible pain, starving, exhausted because I’d had insomnia the night before (which, incidentally, is probably why I’d tripped in the first place), and what do I think? Maybe it’s not so bad. I don’t want to tell people I’m hurt. How can I make this easier for other people?

I wish I was making that up, but I’m not. But even in my I-want-to-sink-into-a-puddle-of-tears-on-the-couch state, I reined myself in. Nope, I told myself. You need to take care of yourself. That’s all you have to manage.

This is a fairly radical thought for me to have at such a time. This injury, then, became an opportunity.

But oh, it is so hard! I hate asking for help. I hate it so much. It feels like willpower in that after I’ve asked a certain number of times for help, I feel like my ability to ask is completely depleted, and I must do the things myself. I must! Who cares about pain? Who cares about RICE? I must put this paper towel in the trash can, goddamnit.

You know what else is hard? Not apologizing. I want to apologize so badly. Especially when I’m asking for help. But I’m determined not to because I know it’s ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is my irrational certainty that people will be angry at me for being injured. You know how many people have actually been angry? ZERO. Because that would be really weird.

Be that as it may, I do see progress. The last time I had a sprained ankle, I remember sitting in my easy chair seriously panicking. I had no idea how I would manage. My mind raced from solution to solution, and they all pretty much sucked, and no matter how long I thought about it, they didn’t improve. In the end, my solution was not-so-good.

But this time there was no panic. There was physical pain, sure, along with significant mental gymnastics about the whole not-apologizing and asking-for-help thing. But I knew it would work out. I knew I would be okay. I knew people would be there for me.

Not bad for a year-and-a-half.

Then on Sunday night I had to rush Nala to the emergency vet. I left my crutches at home. I didn’t care about my crutches. I didn’t care about my toe. All I cared about was my little dog in danger.

And that was right too because it was a genuine emergency.

Anyway, we’re both fine now. Nala is in good health, and I am spending a lot of time elevating my toe. This weekend’s crises were the normal kind of blips that show up from time to time. Stressful, but manageable.

See? Both fine.

See? Both fine.

And since I’m not allowed to say sorry, I’ve been trying to say thank you a lot instead. It’s amazing how the words we choose can change an experience from one of helplessness to one of gratitude and appreciation. It’s amazing how the words we choose can change the focus from our own pain to the generosity of others.

It’s amazing how much change is possible.

My revisions weren’t going so well yesterday. To put it mildly. I took Nala on a walk, but that didn’t help. So then I started chatting with a friend:

Me: “My life is meaningless and full of pain. Being an artist sucks. I mean, it’s obviously better than anything else. But right now it sucks. Why can’t I just write a decent novel???????”

Him: “Ah yes. This is one of the best parts of the creative process: crippling self-doubt.”

At which point there may have been a few tears, but they were relieved tears because putting a name to an emotional experience and having somebody who understands is infinitely better than mucking around in the dark.

Crippling self-doubt has this insidious way of expanding. First, I doubted one issue in my book. Then I doubted the whole book and thought maybe I should throw it all out. Then I doubted my overall writing skills and my ability to ever write a novel. Then I spun around in the fail well for a while.

Then it spread further. Maybe I shouldn’t go to the UK and Iceland in the fall anymore! Because that was partly for research, and maybe I don’t actually need to research and therefore should go somewhere else. Like Bali! Or Italy! (The fact that this train of thought actually might have some validity, in that it’s true I don’t need to take the research trip, did not help.) Then my brain went absolutely haywire and I decided maybe I should go to Antarctica. Never mind that I almost certainly cannot afford to go to Antarctica right now.

Then it sent a few questing tendrils out to the rest of my life. Maybe things weren’t going as well as I thought in general.

This is the point where I put my foot down. I felt I’d been very generous with my crippling self-doubt. I’d allowed it some free rein and let it make me very unhappy for an hour or so. But enough was enough.

The most ridiculous thing was, I already had a plan. A good plan. I knew I would finish this revision, come hell or high water, and then I’d send off the book to some readers. It is perfectly obvious I’ve lost any shred of objectivity I might have ever had about the book, which means it’s a perfect time to seek an outside perspective.

Plus this is what I was planning to do anyway, and when faced with crippling self-doubt, I find the answer is usually to carry on with your plan. The plan you made when you weren’t reeling from a stressful emotional experience.

In the meantime, though, I also had to gently talk myself down from my unhappiness, by reviewing the following points:

  1. Finishing is the most important thing right now.
  2. Nothing had actually changed from the day before, when I had been working perfectly happily on my revisions.
  3. There will be another book after this one. And another book. And another book.
  4. Even if this book crashes and burns and is an utter disaster, that doesn’t mean all the books I ever write in my entire life will do the same.
  5. It doesn’t matter what other people think about my writing career.
  6. Yes, even that one thing that one person said that one time that made me question the fact that I’m writing at all and seemed to call my very self-worth into question. That one doesn’t matter in particular.
  7. Some writers write at least TEN books before they get one published, which means I still have several to go before I should start really freaking out.
  8. Meanwhile, I can eat some cheese.
  9. And work really hard on this book.
  10. And maybe try to decide where I actually want to travel this fall.
  11. And think about Disneyland.
  12. And snuggle the little dog.
  13. And remember my emotions do not necessarily reflect reality accurately.
  14. And regain my sense of humor.
  15. And feel grateful I have friends to whom I can send a melodramatic sentence like “My life is meaningless and full of pain,” which is very satisfying to do, and still have them be sympathetic and insightful.

And now the crippling self-doubt, while not eradicated, is at least behaving itself with a bit more decorum.

What do you do when you’re suffering through a bout of self-doubt?

One of the best cures for self-doubt: the little dog!

One of the best cures for self-doubt: the little dog!

On Childlike Joy

I love Disneyland.

I have not been to Disneyland since 2011 (which I think is tragic), but I’m confident I still love Disneyland. I love the surge of excitement that comes to a peak when I pass through the gates and pass under the tunnel into Main Street. I love mapping out my plan of action. I love riding the same rides I have been riding since I was a baby, or seven, or ten. I love riding the same rides over and over again.

I love how the entire park is like a gigantic show. I love the secret nooks. I love the churros. I love how light I feel, and I love how even when I’m soaking wet from Splash Mountain and I’m kind of cold and uncomfortable, I’m still happy because I am HERE, in this magical place. I love the continuity of history; I love the old rides and I love the new rides and I love remembering the rides that used to be here.

I can't find a photo of me at Disneyland, but here, have a photo of me at Disneyland Paris instead.

I can’t find a photo of me at Disneyland, but here, have a photo of me at Disneyland Paris instead.

I’ve created a Disneyland in my mind, with help from the actual one in existence, that reminds me how joy feels. The uncomplicated, pure joy that I felt when I was six years old pretending to steer a car next to my mom.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for growing up and being an adult. I like being able to make my own decisions. I like being able to protect myself. I like making my own priorities and choosing how I am going to create meaning.

But I also like that childhood joy and wonder, and it is something I strive to hold onto. Retaining a connection with that spark of magic makes my life…well, flat-out better. Looking forward to things is fun. Cultivating enthusiasm makes the same experiences more exciting. And all of this encourages gratitude.

And if you look at many of the things I feel most strongly about today, many of them are markers for that joy. They are reminders of that wonder. They are evolutions of things I have loved for a very long time. We’d play pretend Disneyland in the backyard as kids, we loved it so much. There’s a video of me, maybe four years old, “dancing” to music by walking around in a circle. I sang as soon as I could talk. I wrote as soon as I could read fluently. Once I could read, I inhaled twelve books every two weeks from the library, and then I’d start in on the Reader’s Digest condensed books that lined our bookshelves. Christmas was the most magical time of year. Getting a puppy when I was six was like a dream come true. I climbed Vernal Falls in Yosemite every year of my childhood starting when I was, what, age four? Age five? The Mist Trail, with its rainbows and delicate barriers of condensation, was as close as I could get to the fairyland of the fairy tales I read in bulk.

I’m glad I grew up, but part of the reason I feel glad is because I didn’t have to give up the essence of what mattered to me back then. I didn’t have to give up the excitement of what the next day might bring. I didn’t have to give up the wholehearted love I felt for the world around me. I didn’t have to give up the feeling that we live in a world of wonders.

Instead, I got to learn that I get to choose. It’s not that I don’t see the hard realities of the world. It’s not that I don’t see suffering, or feel it for myself. It’s not that I’m not afraid of disasters and warfare and hatred, of sickness and pain and death. It’s not that I turn a blind eye to the problems and injustices that surround us all.

I see the difficulties, the pain, the ugliness, where we fall short. But even so, I can also tap into that joy. I can remember the parts of the world, and humanity, that make improvement worth fighting for.

I can feel the hush of the evening the night before Christmas, when the tree lights shine and my heart is full and the anticipation of tomorrow hangs over me like a mantle. I can feel the love well up inside of me when I look down at the little dog, who is once more lying completely upside down with her legs sticking straight up. I can feel the full rightness of moving my body to music or singing the notes to a favorite song.

And I can visit the wishing well outside the Disneyland castle, and I can believe that magic, of a kind, can still be found all around us.

I care very deeply about documenting the process of change.

Whenever I think about change, I think about the montage scene. Actually, I think of one specific montage scene: the one in Dirty Dancing when Jennifer Grey learns, through much trial and error, how to ballroom dance well enough to fill in for a professional. That is my quintessential montage scene.

But as useful as the montage scene is, it fails on some fundamental level to reflect the reality of change: that it is slow, and it is hard, and it is filled with doubt and confusion and setbacks, and it hurts. If you’re learning how to dance, it really hurts. Your thighs hurt, and your calves hurt, and your low back hurts because your posture kind of sucks, and your weak ankle aches, and the morning after your first time dancing, you can barely crawl out of bed, it hurts so bad.

The montage scene doesn’t really show the pain, and it doesn’t really show the duration, either. Change takes so much time. Even once you get it, or at least think you do, you often have to realize it all over again a month later, or six months later, or two years later. And each time, there’s this “Aha” moment, and each time it feels important, and each time you move forward, and each time there is still further forward that you could go.

Which is to say, I feel incredibly proud of the personal change I’ve been able to accomplish, symbolized by the tweet Ferrett made back in February. I am proud of it the way I’m proud I started a business. I’m proud of it the way I imagine I’ll be proud when my first novel hits the shelves someday. It is a major accomplishment for me.

And yet. There is still further forward for me to go. I am not magically finished, not suddenly foolproof at the art of not giving a fuck. No, what has happened is that I’ve made visible progress, and that is awesome. Meanwhile the work continues.

Last week I talked about feeling tired in dating. And a lot of that fatigue is tied up, for me, in the act of presentation. Which is all tied in to me still being invested in things of which I’d rather let go. I’ve got this act down. I am tactful, I am diplomatic, I can listen to a subject for half an hour without expressing an actual opinion. If I sense any discomfort in the other person, I act instantly to defuse it. I smooth, I smile, I charm, and I would certainly never admit to what I’m saying in this paragraph right now. Except maybe as a little joke that would probably fly under the radar.

Here’s the thing, you guys. I have taught myself over this last three years to rein this set of skills back when I’m with my trusted friends. I am so much more likely now to tell my friends how I really feel, what I really think. But when I am nervous or uncomfortable or, I don’t know, dating, it is so easy to turn it all back on without even thinking about it.

It feels easier. It isn’t though. Over time, it becomes exhausting. It feels heavy. It keeps me awake at night.

It doesn’t work.

20150708_193540

And it’s not even real. That’s not how I feel anymore. I don’t want a relationship that begins in such a lopsided way. I don’t feel like I need to apologize for who I am or what I like or what has happened in the past. I don’t even feel bad about the boundaries I’ve needed to set. If people don’t want to like me for those things, that’s their prerogative. I don’t need to convince them otherwise. I just want to be me.

And I can. How beautiful is that?

So I was on the phone with this guy who was asking me on a date. And we were chatting because we hardly know each other. And I chose not to flip that stupid switch. And at one point he said, “It’s funny that I called to ask you on a date and now here we are chatting about our divorces.”

And I said, “Well, you know, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to do my best to be straightforward and open about things. How do you think it’s going so far?”

It was a good conversation. And you know what? I wasn’t exhausted at the end.

This here is another piece of change, clicking into place.

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