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Archive for the ‘Personal Development’ Category

We are on the eve of 2016.

I like that number.

As previously stated, I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, per say, but I do think the end of the year can be a good time to reflect on goals and priorities and potentially re-focus on the things that matter to you. So I’ve been thinking about what I’m looking forward to in 2016 and what I want to be keeping in mind.

This might sound kind of funny, but one of the things I’m most looking forward to is to have some time when not much is going on. The last few months have been a veritable whirlwind of excitement: all the holidays and their trappings, a trip to Disneyland, big concerts, the French Laundry, a few big movie events, etc. And it has been great! I’ve had such a good time!

And now I am very tired. And I am so looking forward to getting back to my normal schedule. I can’t wait to start working in earnest on a new writing project (right now I’m in the brainstorming stage, which is fun but also drives me a little nuts). I can’t wait to get back to dancing every Thursday night. I can’t wait to reconnect with friends when I’m not on constant excitement overdrive. I spent some time with one of my close friends a few nights ago, and we sat quietly with some hot cider and talked about our lives, and it was the best thing ever. I’m looking forward to more of that.

I’m looking forward to doing a bit more writing travel in 2016 because that means I’ll get to spend more time with many dear friends. And I miss my writer friends. Often I get to see them two or three times a year, but this past year I only got to see most of them once, if at all. And I just got my panel schedule for ConFusion, which is happening only a few weeks now, and I get to talk about such interesting things!

I’m looking forward to continuing to work on personal growth as well. The other week a friend of mine told me, “You’re really good at boundaries now!” and that felt really good to hear. And I am a lot better than I was. But the truth is, my starting point was very low. I’ve progressed a lot, but there is still more room to improve. One of the hard truths about change is that sometimes it takes a long time. But one of the great things about change is that you can see what a positive impact it is having, which is very inspiring.

On a more mundane note, I am looking forward to having (hopefully) improved health insurance, after doing the work to switch to a provider I hope will better meet my needs. And I’ve finally done the work to update my calendar/scheduling system, consolidating everything into one place instead of…um…four, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that works. It’s color-coded and everything!

Mostly, my hope for 2016 is that I get to spend time doing the things that are important to me: writing, singing, dancing, playing with Nala, spending time with the people I love, learning about myself and the world around me, and pursuing my hobbies. I hope I get to try something new. I hope I move through my difficulties with grace. I hope I remember to appreciate all the good things. I hope I am kind, both to myself and to others. I hope I am joyful. I hope I make the space around me a little bit brighter.

Here is my wish for us this New Year’s Eve: May we all have a positive and meaningful 2016. And thank you so much for sharing 2015 with me.

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I usually write a blog post around this time that is about my theme for the year.

I spent some time this morning going through old blog posts and thinking about theme ideas. And, all in all, this has been a really good year for me. REALLY good.

List of possible 2015 themes:

Peaches.

Look, I’m happy!

Cool, I think I’m going to go take care of myself now.

Yeah, I got this.

Thanks for being my friend, you rock!

No thanks.

The important thing is the work.

Milkshakes! Pancakes! Peanut butter pie!

Shake it off.

This is one picture of happiness.

This is one picture of happiness.

Hmm, which one of these should I use as the headline of this post? Decisions, decisions.

But in all seriousness, just because I had a positive year doesn’t mean I didn’t still learn a lot. Here are some of the things I learned:

  1. Dancing helps with my physical health in the medium term.
  2. Also it’s freaking awesome.
  3. Also it automatically improves my mood.
  4. My apartment is my sanctuary, and as such, it’s worth every cent I pay in rent.
  5. Sprained toes take a really long time to heal.
  6. Sometimes taking a break from networking can be beneficial to my mental health.
  7. Because it’s the actual writing that matters the most.
  8. Just because I’m afraid is not a reason not to do a thing. It’s also not a reason to automatically do a thing.
  9. I really like my friends. Well, okay, I guess I already knew this, but I get constant reminders.
  10. I like to see as many friends as possible at least once a month. By the time I’m going three months without seeing them, I am less happy.
  11. Finding meaning in your life is super important.
  12. Life after getting an agent is pretty much the same as life before. Except without the endless querying.
  13. Sometimes it is really hard to let go.
  14. Being gentle with yourself doesn’t mean you automatically stop learning from your mistakes. It more often means you’re not damaging your self-esteem so much in the process.
  15. People are different, and they pay different energy costs for different things. And that’s okay.
  16. Being indirect often does not pay off. And at least with directness you know you said what you wanted to say.
  17. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also important to strive for kindness. You can be direct and kind at the same time.
  18. Sometimes you’re not going to say what the other person wants to hear. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it.
  19. We all have quirks and eccentricities. Learning to accept this is important. About yourself too, not just about other people.
  20. Some comedy is actually funny. Yes, I know you already knew this. Now I do too!
  21. But some comedy is still not that funny at all.
  22. The necessity of sometimes having to wait isn’t going to go anywhere.
  23. Having a lot of lemonade in my fridge is wonderful.
  24. So much that’s going on has very little to do with me. I learn this every year. The trick, then, is to figure out what does have to do with me and focus on that.
  25. When you can make the choice to think positively, that’s the right choice to make. When you can’t, allowing that to be okay too can sometimes help you get back to a happier frame of mind more quickly.
  26. It’s important to allow other people to make their own mistakes. Even when it’s painful to watch. But if it’s too tiring to watch, it’s okay to take a little break.
  27. Differentiating between short-term and long-term problems can save a lot of energy.
  28. Mashed potatoes taste better when you add a lot of butter.
  29. Everyone has problems. People who understand this tend to be good people to have around.
  30. Loving yourself is still one of the most important things you can learn how to do.


What did you learn this year?

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I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning today.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, I very highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in philosophy, psychology, or the triumph of the human spirit. About two-thirds of it is a first person account of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps during World War II. It is difficult and grim reading, of course, but also deeply inspirational and very well written. This is followed by a section detailing his doctrine of logotherapy and a postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

I’ve written about some of Frankl’s thoughts before, but after reading this book, I would like to revisit his philosophy.

Meaning, Frankl tells us, is both paramount and personal. He repeatedly quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And each person must embark upon a quest for meaning for themselves; one person’s meaning will not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. Therefore, the ultimate existential question becomes not “What is the meaning of life,” but rather “What is my meaning in life?”

While no two paths to meaning may look exactly alike, Frankl believed we could discover the meaning in our lives through three different avenues:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed. In other words, we can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone. This includes experiences of art and culture, of travel, and of nature. It also includes the social experiences of feeling love and being part of a community.
  3. The attitude we choose when we face unavoidable suffering.

It is this third method towards meaning that is a primary focus of Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camps, perhaps because it is both the hardest to grasp and the hardest to implement.

Frankl firmly believed suffering was an opportunity: “Most important…is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

(It is also worth noting Frankl didn’t believe suffering is inherently necessary to discover meaning and explicitly stated the meaningful thing to do when suffering is avoidable is to remove its cause rather than continue suffering for suffering’s sake.)

When I think of what I know of unavoidable suffering, I think of when I was young, still a child, and surrounded by suffering. I could not escape it; it was truly unavoidable. There was little if anything I could do to affect the situation in which I found myself. So I watched the tragedies of those around me, and I did my best to learn from them, and I told myself, with a fierceness that has not lessened in the intervening years: “This will not be me. I will not let my own suffering overcome me. I. Will. Not.”

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

And that is when I learned that even when faced with suffering we cannot change, we get to decide who we are. We can choose to continue to search for meaning, even when the world around us is dark and full of terrors. We can cultivate a “tragic optimism;” that is, an optimism that does not shy away from suffering and other difficult truths but lives on regardless, saying, “Yes, yes, there is suffering, and yes, it is challenging and awful. But even so, here I am and I will make what I can from the circumstances in which I find myself.”

This ability, this tragic optimism, is one of the abiding lights of humanity. We all suffer, yes, but we are also all granted the privilege of transforming our suffering into meaning.

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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.

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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.

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I used to never say “Enough.”

I’d bend over backwards to avoid saying “Enough.” I didn’t know what would happen if I ever did, and I was afraid to find out. Coming from a background in which I was harshly punished for ever expressing inconvenient needs, the idea of saying “Enough” was nigh unthinkable.

Saying “Enough” would mean acknowledging something bad was happening. Something hurtful enough that such a response was warranted.

The first time I really said “Enough” started out small. It was almost accidental. I felt so hurt and so awful I could no longer pretend everything was okay. I gave a tiny weak “Enough.” I hoped it would give me a few weeks of breathing room and recovery time before I had to go back to pretending.

That’s not what ended up happening though. My tiny weak “Enough” got push-back, and I needed that recovery time so desperately, I actually held the line. No one was more surprised about this than me. And every time my “Enough” got pushed on, it got a little bigger. And a little bigger. And it was all so stressful I broke my tooth from clenching my jaw so hard.

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

The hardest part of saying “Enough” is that it forces things into the light. The light is revealing. And you might learn that things aren’t going to change, and yet the light shows that things are intolerable. And you see that all the effort you’ve put in, all the years of swallowing your feelings and smoothing things over and bucking up and keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping for the best and thinking this time things will be different, all of this is the mental equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Saying “Enough” is also saying “Please stop hurting me,” and sometimes the answer you will receive is “No.” And with the bullshit stripped away, you then have to respond to this situation.

I wish I could tell you that this first experience with “Enough” taught me how to do it again, but it didn’t. It was just a beginning.

But it did teach me that “Enough” was a possibility.

Anyway, I faffed around for a couple of years, still not able to say “Enough” even when it needed to be said, which was unfortunate on many levels. And little by little I improved, and little by little my courage for speaking up for myself grew. And at the same time I did my best to change my life so I wouldn’t have to say “Enough” so often in the first place.

Last month I had to say “Enough” twice. What I’ve learned is, while it is important to be able to say “Enough” when you need to, if you reach that point, things have already gone a little bit off the rails. So twice in one month is not ideal. For one thing, it is pretty exhausting. For another, it means I was making some less-than-ideal choices, which is never fun to have to acknowledge.

But I can also tell that my choices overall have improved, because one person responded to my “Enough” with a genuine and heartfelt apology and respect for the boundaries I’d requested. This hardly ever happens, in my experience at least, and it is the best possible outcome to a not-so-great situation.

I used to never say “Enough.” But I’m really glad I learned how.

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What does it mean to respect yourself?

That is a question one of my friends asked on my last post, and I’ve been thinking about possible answers ever since. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a good idea of what respecting myself feels like, but as it turns out, putting that feeling into words is not without its challenges.

So I took myself off to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which defines respect as an act of giving particular attention. When we act with respect, we act with consideration. It’s also defined as high or special regard, i.e. esteem. So when we are talking about respecting ourselves, no surprise, we are talking about self-esteem and self-consideration.

It’s hard to talk about self-respect sometimes because we live in a culture in which confidence is sometimes equated with arrogance and self-consideration is sometimes equated with selfishness. And of course, arrogance and selfishness are attitudes that many of us strive to avoid, to the point that we can end up overcompensating. Which is why Matthew McConaughey’s point that it’s easier to respect others when we’re already respecting ourselves is so critical.

I think of self-respect as fostering a relationship with ourselves. Just as we put in a lot of time and effort building our relationships and friendships with other people, so we can put in time and effort into our relationship with ourselves. Getting to know ourselves, and getting to know how to take care of ourselves and what we need to function well are fundamental acts of self-respect.

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I can’t talk about self-respect without bringing up boundaries. Setting and keeping healthy boundaries is also an act of self-respect. Some people do this so automatically they don’t even have to think about it. And some of us have to practice and do this a lot more explicitly.

It is harder to maintain self-respect (or learn it in the first place) if you spend a lot of time in an environment in which you are not receiving external respect. When you’re with people who don’t value your opinion, your comfort, or your emotional or even physical boundaries, it becomes easy to internalize these attitudes of disrespect. And of course, it’s in these people’s best interests that you do so, as it is perpetuates the dysfunctional system. This is one of the reasons why mindfully choosing the people with whom we spend time and develop intimacy is so important.

What does self-respect mean to me personally? I’ve made a little list.

  • Taking care of my physical needs, such as doing my best to get enough sleep, eat good food when I’m hungry, rest and recover when I’m sick, etc.
  • Taking care of my emotional needs, such as having people in my life with whom I don’t have to pretend when I’m having a hard time, reaching out for support, doing self-care, fostering supportive connections with others, doing activities that make me happy, taking alone time when necessary, etc.
  • Taking care of my mental needs, like engaging in projects that I find challenging and interesting, trying new things, learning, asking questions, having an artistic outlet, etc.
  • Prioritizing my time and energy for people and activities that are generally positive to my well-being.
  • Setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries, and surrounding myself by people who support this.
  • Protecting myself from the disrespectful behavior of others.
  • Taking ultimate responsibility for my decisions, which also means not being too easily swayed by others’ opinions.
  • Embracing who I am and where I come from.
  • Being kind to myself and relaxing my perfectionism as much as possible; recognizing my own humanity and fallibility.
  • Being my own best friend.

What does self-respect mean to you?

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