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Posts Tagged ‘change’

It is April 1st, and I have officially moved. All my stuff was in one place, and now it is in a different place. It is mostly in boxes, which is admittedly sad for me. But it is here!

Meanwhile, I am completely exhausted. I want to lie around and do not much for the next several weeks at least. I am not going to do that, because I have a novel to write and stuff to remove from boxes and place in spots that look purposeful. But it sounds like a lovely idea.

Nala and I, collapsed on the floor.

Nala and I, collapsed on the floor.

I gave up the keys to my old place yesterday, and I did feel a pang. I tend towards the sentimental, and even more so when I’m tired. I was only living there for one year, but it was certainly an eventful year, not to mention a year surprisingly well documented with photos. I have many happy memories of time spent in that condo.

It’s strange how leaving a space feels like leaving something more intangible behind. I’ve heard people reference the memories that live in the walls, and I suppose that is some of it. But there’s also, I think, the more pervasive feeling of change. Now that this one major part of my life has changed, how are the ripples of that change going to spread? I’ve talked before about being in a liminal space, and moving certainly triggers that experience, of transition and being in between.

I think maybe that’s why I’m so tired. Okay, realistically, I’m so tired because moving is a huge amount of work and expense and stress. But I also feel slightly off balance, like things are in motion but I’m not quite sure what all they are or where they’re going.

It’s somewhat comforting to consider, then, that my priorities remain much the same. Nala, my novel, my friends. Settling into the new place and getting my body back to its normal state after all the moving strains. Thinking interesting and challenging and wonderful thoughts.

Things change and things stay the same, all in a strange concurrent muddle of life.

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I recently took a couple of online personality tests (the Myers-Briggs and the IPIP-NEO), and my results have changed. I’m now coming out fairly firmly on the extroverted side of things instead of being almost exactly in the middle.

I want to leave aside, for now, the argument that introversion is not a personality trait. I also don’t want to delve deeply into the sometimes ignorant stereotypes and oversimplification that goes along with discussions of introversion and extraversion.

I have not been trying to change into more of an extrovert, but I think me doing so has been a side effect of another change I have been trying to make: namely, to develop a backbone, tone down the people pleasing, and learn to set boundaries.

As it turns out, it is exhausting to be around people when you are a people pleaser. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or an extrovert. It doesn’t matter if you know how to make conversation or can be a good listener or are a generally pleasant person to be around.

It takes huge amounts of energy to be around people when you aren’t allowed to say no, don’t value your own opinions and feelings and desires, and won’t stand up for yourself. Because the people around you might ask you to do something that you can’t possibly or don’t want to do for them. Or they might (inadvertently or not) treat you without respect. Or they might disagree about how something should happen, and then there will be conflict, which is anathema to the people pleaser. Or they might do something that bothers you but to which you do not feel able to respond.

At some point, in order to protect yourself from this huge expenditure of emotional energy, you might begin to build a wall around yourself. You might find yourself wishing to be alone because being alone is the only time when you can truly relax and be peaceful. You might keep other people at arms’ length to minimize the requests and the conflicts and the fatigue. You might need a lot of time to recharge after socializing.

You might appear to be an introvert.

But as it turns out, with proper implementation of boundaries, there are possibilities! You can say no. You can set limits on the behavior you’re willing to accept. You can stand up for your opinions. You can have opinions in the first place. You can object. You can have emotions. You can leave if you’re not having a good time.

You can be a better friend because you no longer need to demand perfection from yourself or from other people. You don’t need perfection when you’re allowed to communicate and take care of yourself.

And at some point, being around people just doesn’t take up as much energy as it used to.

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Where’s Amy? Photo by Yvette Ono, photographer extraordinaire.

Let me be clear. I don’t think all or even most introverts are people pleasers, and that this is why they are introverts. I put no value judgment on how much time people like to spend with other people or how much alone time people want. But I do think that being a people pleaser can mask or change parts of the personality. In my own case, being a people pleaser encouraged me to become more introverted. But as I have been focusing on becoming less of a people pleaser, I’ve also been changing my social behavior and my attitude towards it.

I like seeing markers of progress, even unexpected ones. And I like feeling more fully myself.

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Oh, 2013. How glad I am that you are almost over. You had your moments, many of them, but you sure didn’t spare the punches either. You taught me many new things and reminded me of many things I already knew.

Photo Credit: MomMaven via Compfight cc

Here are some of the ideas I’m taking with me into 2014:

1. Things often take longer than you think they’ll take. Especially things you really care about or that are particularly unpleasant.

2. Stress takes its toll on the physical body.

3. Perfection is frequently impossible. Doing one’s best is a more realistic target.

4. Meaning in life is created by relationships, engaging work, and an ability to reframe adversity.

5. Feelings are always okay. It’s what you do with them that you have to be careful about.

6. The gift of true and unconditional listening is rare. Shower those who give it to you with affection and appreciation.

7. The temptation to lie is data about you and your relationship with the person to whom you want to lie.

8. Sometimes pretending you belong even when you feel like you don’t will get you pretty far.

9. Knowing who you are is magic akin to knowing a true name.

10. Sometimes other people are wrong.

11. Learning to recognize the difference between things that are true about yourself and things society has told you are true about yourself can help you achieve things you never thought were possible.

12. The food in France is really, really good.

13. Home is a little white dog, a piano, a place to create, and good times with friends.

14. Asking is a good skill to cultivate. So is saying no. So is generosity.

15. Being imperfect makes you more approachable.

16. Failure is a part of life. Sometimes it feels like it is a larger part of life than you would like. That is the time to embrace it even more strongly. You are learning, you are growing, you are taking risks, and you are the active driver of your own life story.

17. Change takes a long time and is often uncomfortable and difficult. You will need all your courage and belief in yourself to pull it off. Including the courage to fail and pick yourself back up to try again.

18. I can listen to Moonface’s new album Julia with Blue Jeans On over and over again and I never get tired of it.

19. Repeat after me: You can’t make everybody happy all the time. No, really. You can’t. Nobody can.

20. In times of darkness, it is the ability to find the pinpoints of light that keeps you going.

21. Sometimes I am lonely. But I am not alone.

What have you learned this year?

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There was no post on Tuesday this week because I sprained my ankle, and my head was too boggled by dealing with that to have extra room for other thoughts that I could write about. So I’m just going to have a single post during this holiday week and call it good. And it’s going to be about something I spend a lot of time thinking about and practicing: asking for what we need.

Asking for what I need is most immediately on my mind because of the sprained ankle. I live in a building on the third floor. There is an elevator, thank goodness, but it is a long hallway down from my condo, and then another medium distance from there to a car or a dog-friendly outside area. Not the easiest. And Nala demands being taking outside a minimum of three to four times a day, so…yeah. There is going to be a lot of asking for what I need, namely help, in the immediate future.

The sprained ankle as personal growth exercise. How’s that for a silver lining?

I’ve been practicing asking for what I need for some time now. I often find it uncomfortable, but I am convinced it, along with setting boundaries and taking care of myself, is the only way to leave my people pleasing past behind me. I sometimes even put myself before others now, and I feel only somewhat guilty about it. Go me!

But after a lifetime of putting others first, smoothing things over, and prioritizing others’ comfort above my own, it certainly is unsettling to ask for what I need instead. It’s not as if these new behaviors I’m using meet with universal approval and warm, fuzzy feelings. Sometimes they cause conflict! And using these behaviors in an appropriate and kind way is surprisingly tricky. Sometimes I screw up! And other times I really don’t know what to do, only what I would have done in a past that is no longer relevant. So sometimes I can’t make up my mind!

Yeah, change is hard. I’m like a toddler learning how to walk. Well, really I think I’m slightly more experienced now, so maybe I’m more like a four-year-old who can walk but falls and skins her knee a lot.

Maybe next year I can graduate to being able to run, only I’ll sometimes forget to pay attention or get too excited and wham into the door frame instead.

Learning to walk. Photo Credit: cindy47452 via Compfight cc

I’m writing about this because I see people struggling with similar issues all around me. This is difficult stuff. I talk about it with my friends all the time. And I think it helps to know that it’s hard for other people too.

If you’re struggling to set boundaries or to ask for what you need or to take care of yourself even when you’re under pressure not to, I want to tell you I believe in what you’re doing. When you’re able to go for it, I want to cheer and applaud. And when you try and just can’t do it, I want to hold out my hand to you and help you back up so you can try again later.

We are none of us alone in our quest to better understand, express, and take care of ourselves.

Enjoy the rest of your week, and if you celebrate Thanksgiving, have a great one. I’ll see you all next week! 

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A Happy Life:

I have few or no worries and low stress. I am healthy and pain-free. I don’t have to deal with change very often. I spend time doing pleasant activities: reading books, playing games, watching movies, eating good food, making music, doing fun work, hanging out with friends. I go on fun outings on the weekends. I have enough money to do what I want to do.

A Meaningful Life:

I don’t walk away from something only because it is difficult. I embrace change when it is necessary. I enjoy challenges. I prioritize time for the things that matter to me: building close connections with others, helping others, working towards artistic mastery, creating things, doing work I’m invested in, learning more about the world and about myself, feeling gratitude and appreciation for the little things, evoking emotions and uncovering truth. While I still search for a balance in order to take care of myself, I make trade-offs in order to live in line with my priorities.

*****

I don’t think these two lives are necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do sometimes come into conflict with each other. And when I’m being honest with myself, I know that the happy life, while sometimes tempting, also sounds…empty. I’d enjoy it for a while, sure, but if that was all there was for me, I’d get restless.

When I think back on my life so far, what gives me the most personal satisfaction are not the pleasant activities I’ve done. I can hardly remember most of them. Most of the things I’m actively glad I did were challenging and not always comfortable. I’m glad I moved to London for a year. I’m glad I studied music. I’m glad I got to travel. I’m glad for the relationships I formed, with students, family, friends, romantic partners. I’m glad I taught. I’m glad I wrote a musical, and short stories, and novels. I’m glad I got a dog. None of those things were easy, and none of them were unadulterated happiness (although the dog was close!). But they are what matter to me.

I was struck by something in the Atlantic article “There’s more to life than being happy:”

“Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.”

Now there’s a silver lining if ever I’ve heard one. Right after reading the above article, I happened across my friend Myke Cole’s essay on PTSD, and he also talks about finding meaning in the face of adversity:

“We have to find a way to construct significance, to help a changed person forge a path in a world that hasn’t changed along with them.”

This is how we move forward in the world, through the meaning we create, through the choices we make. The more I think about this idea, the more clarity I find. Buddhism talks a lot about the inevitability of suffering. But the suffering can give birth to meaning, and that meaning? It’s a truly beautiful thing.

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My friend posted a link to “Writing — for health and happiness?” a few days ago with a funny comment about how people use Facebook as therapy. The article talks about the therapeutic benefits of writing down thoughts and feelings and explores whether doing so online gives the same benefits as private writing. It also hints at a few obvious drawbacks to talking about traumatic experiences publicly, although it doesn’t explore that issue in depth.

But what I found most interesting about it had nothing to do with the internet: “…People who had had an early traumatic sexual experience were more likely to suffer health problems later in life… Prof Pennebaker said he realised it was because that experience was a secret.”

Secrets cause stress. Secrets cause health problems. Secrets can quite literally kill you (and I’m not talking about like in those “solve a murder every week” detective shows, either).

A big secret feels like it’s gnawing into you from the inside out. It’s always there, waiting for your fragile moments to twist you into knots. It works on you, changing who you are and how you see the world. It grows bigger and bigger the longer you wait, ever more impossible to talk about. It saps your happiness and mental well-being. And it causes physical consequences.

That’s why I talk again and again about the importance of having connections with other people. Writing about a secret will take away some of its power, and so will talking with a trustworthy someone. It doesn’t matter so much who it is, as long as that person knows how to be supportive: your family, your friends, your SO, your therapist.

Secrets left untold become all-consuming, but once they are out in the open, they return to their original sizes. And sometimes the act of keeping them can trap us, keeping us from facing the reality of a situation. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still hard and painful and traumatic. But some of their significance comes from the act of keeping them secret, and that part of the emotional load can be dropped.

I think this is part of why I always feel so confused when people say happiness isn’t something that can be improved upon. Secrets actively cause emotional unhappiness, and we can make the choice to tell them and work through them. Secrets lead to poor health, which also causes unhappiness (chronic pain, anyone?), and we can change our health risks by keeping a journal or finding even one person to talk to, online or off.

Sadly, I can’t have a discussion about secrets without adding this caveat: personal safety comes first. And telling secrets can sometimes jeopardize that. In such cases, you might need to seek professional help in order to keep yourself safe.

Telling secrets is hard. Writing down the truth is hard. Finding someone you can really trust is hard. Deciding to change is hard. And it might take a long time. But none of that changes the fact that keeping secrets is unhealthy.

Whereas finding a way to tell a secret might just save your life.

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I talk about creating change a lot, and I want to be clear about what I’m talking about. Making a change in our lives is not necessarily about happiness. I mean, it can be, but that is not the only reason to change. And even if the end goal is happiness, the process of change itself is not conducive to increased happiness; it’s too difficult and stressful for that.

So why change, then? We may wish to change to create more meaning for ourselves and our lives. We may wish to tell a different story with our lives than the one we find ourselves in. We may be thirsty for challenge or new experiences. We may be on a quest to become healthier or more empowered or more mindful. Or we may sense that we are being pushed down below our natural happiness setting and wish to change the circumstances causing this.

A lot of people are looking for something. We may be looking for happiness, or we may be looking for comfort or satisfaction or excitement. We may be looking for answers to questions that echo down the years of our lives. We may be looking for something larger than ourselves.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

At the World Domination Summit, Donald Miller, a memoirist, spoke about the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who wrote the bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, and he worked professionally with Holocaust survivors. For him, life was all about creating meaning, even in the face of horrific circumstances.

According to Mr. Miller, Dr. Frankl believed three things mattered in creating a meaningful life:

1. Having a meaningful project that helps the world in some way (note this doesn’t have to be a paying project)

2. Having personal connections with other people, whether that be family, a significant other, friends, and/or a community

3. Having a redemptive perspective on suffering; aka finding the meaning in suffering, feeling one is achieving something through one’s suffering, choosing how to respond to suffering, etc.

This is some of the best advice on how to live life that I have ever heard. It’s so practical. It doesn’t wince away from the tough realities that sometimes face us. And it crystallizes my thoughts about my own life. It’s not happiness I’m seeking, not really. It’s meaning. It’s the ability to have a life that matters to me, and one in which I’ll be okay even in the darkest of times.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor Frankl

Maybe the happiness research is correct, and there isn’t very much we can do to affect our own personal happiness levels (although gratitude and mindfulness practice seem to help). But if we are most concerned with meaning, then that hardly matters. We don’t have to be the happiest people on the planet in order to create meaningful lives. We simply have to decide that meaning is important to us and make choices that reflect that belief.

A project that matters. Being brave, finding the silver lining, and experiencing gratitude even through bad experiences. Love.

Yes. These are the building blocks of the life I want to live.

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I spent last weekend at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. The theme of the conference is how to live a remarkable life in a conventional world.

I could write so many essays about things I learned this weekend (and maybe I will in the future). But right now I want to share some moments of transformation.

As some of my long-time readers know, I’ve been struggling with a lot of physical problems the last few years. I hurt both my knees in the spring of 2009, and they never completely recovered. I’ve also repeatedly injured my left ankle. At the height of these injuries, I was unable to walk a single city block.

But by far the worst parts of my injuries are the activities I’ve had to give up. Nowadays I have to tailor my travel very carefully around my limitations. I’ve spent the last four years being unable to hike, an activity I’ve been doing since I learned to walk. And for the most part, I’ve had to give up dancing.

I began to dance in a summer theater program when I was around eleven, and I was horrible at it. I was awkward, uncoordinated, as inflexible as could be, and had trouble even figuring out if I was turning right or left. But I learned that summer that I could like something even though I wasn’t good at it.

I continued to dance. I learned to dance through the musicals I performed in. I spent months learning how to do the time step (tap). In college, I took some jazz dance classes, swing classes, and salsa classes. But it was in London that I completely fell in love with dance. I took a weekly Five Rhythms (R) dance class, which is a kind of freestyle meditative dance, and I couldn’t get enough.

When I dance, it stops mattering what I look like, or how good or bad a dancer I am. All that matters is the beat and my body moving and the energy I’m sharing with those dancing around me. Everything else falls away, and I feel so much closer to the essentials of what matters to me.

And then I couldn’t dance any more. I had to be careful. I had to be cautious. I had to avoid pain and allow space for the healing that was so incredibly slow. I couldn’t put  much weight on my ankle, and what if I bent it the wrong way? What if I pushed myself too far and undid whatever progress I had made? More than four years passed in this way.

This weekend I gave up on being careful. I let go of safe. Such a large part of my injuries was related to stress and tight muscles and losing a part of myself. And I’ve been working so hard to make the necessary changes to heal.

This weekend it was time.

Me with some new WDS friends at the closing party. Photo by Armosa Studios.

I danced. At first it was hard, awkward with my left ankle in a brace. I couldn’t remember how to move. I don’t have the right muscles anymore. The few times I’ve allowed myself to dance in the past few years, I’ve been so very careful. But this time I didn’t stop myself. I paid attention to my body and experimented at the opening party, and then Sunday night at the closing party, I let myself go. I danced three hours straight with only brief breaks. Once I had started, I never wanted to stop.

I’m somewhere in that crowd, dancing with all my might! Photo by Armosa Studios.

I spent many years not feeling like I could be myself. No longer being able to dance was a symptom of that feeling. I was trapped in a prison of impossible expectations, both outer and inner. The world felt like a dangerous place.

When people tell or show us that we don’t matter, we begin to believe it. Until we consciously choose NOT to believe it.

I danced at the World Domination Summit to celebrate the experience of being myself, in all its facets: the brilliance and the mistakes, the joys and the pains, the successes and the failures. Lately I’ve often felt like I’m waiting, that something new is right around the bend if I can only hold out that long.

But something new isn’t coming. Something new is already here.

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My post about my friend who throws away books generated a fair bit of controversy a couple of weeks ago. I was really happy to hear from so many people who love books a lot, just as I do. But I was also a bit surprised by how upset some people were, to the point that one person even said that he couldn’t be friends with someone who threw books away.

I guess we all have our hot topic buttons, but I can’t imagine throwing Rahul under the bus because he has a different perception than me (and one he has thought about, to boot). Most of my friendships can survive more than one difference of opinion, particularly one that doesn’t affect me directly (regular and overt sexist behavior, for example, would be another kettle of fish).

Anyway, I’m talking about this because I’m going to share a profound Rahul Kanakia quotation from Facebook: “The only major decision that life offers is: Should I look for something better, even though it means endangering what I have?

Photo Credit: timtom.ch via Compfight cc

(I mean, seriously, how could I not be friends with someone who randomly posts status messages like that on Facebook?)

I’ve been trying to think of a major decision that doesn’t involve the choice of perhaps losing or changing what you already have, and I’m drawing a blank. Change involves endangering the status quo. Sometimes when we’re involved with change, we’re pretty sure we’re going to end up better off because of it; other times, we’re simply guessing. We don’t know, and that’s where some of the pain of change comes in: letting go of something to make room for something else that might not be any better (or, even worse, might be not as good).

Also, if looking for something better doesn’t endanger what you already have in any way, then it’s not a very hard decision.

I suppose there is sometimes a follow-up decision, which is this: you’ve already decided on the change, but you have to choose between several options. In this case, instead of endangering what you already have, you’re trying to make the optimal decision for yourself. We see this when high school seniors are deciding what college to attend, in multiple job offer situations, when going house shopping. The more options there are, the more decision paralysis sets in. But you’ve already made the initial decision to look for something different (by getting more education, purchasing a house, searching for a job, etc.).

Should I look for something better and accept the risk? It’s a question worth asking. Often the answer is no. The risk isn’t worth it. The hypothetical better isn’t worth it. But sometimes the answer is yes.

Good fiction asks this question a lot. Sure, sometimes the main character is railroaded by events, but the most interesting fiction gives the protagonist some agency. As readers we enjoy when the stakes are high and the protagonist has more to lose, because then this decision becomes really interesting.

Do I act, even though by acting I risk losing what I care about? Do I try, even though I could fail and never get back to where I am now? Do I change, even though the changes will have unforeseen consequences?

These questions, I think, are a deep part of what it is to be human.

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I have a friend who occasionally requests blog posts, and her ideas are always so good. It’s actually quite a talent to come up with good topic ideas. I know because sometimes I’m completely stumped, and I ask someone what I should write about, and they can never come up with anything good either. So obviously from now on I should ask Danielle.

This time she asked me to write about intention. (See what I mean? That is exactly the kind of thing I write about.)

Intention can be one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. It’s good for change, for achievement, for opening ourselves up to possibility. It’s a way of resetting old beliefs, world views, and limiting thoughts that might or might not have had a good reason to exist in the past but are definitely holding us back now.

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

Of course, in order to work, intention has to be an active process. Take my intention at the beginning of last year: I wanted to have more friends, so I set the intention to be open to new friendships. From that intention, I decided on concrete priorities and actions. If I told myself, “It would be nice to have more friends” and then proceeded to sit on my couch every night and not talk to anybody, then nothing would have happened. Instead, I accepted invitations, I invited people to do stuff, I traveled to various events, I texted and wrote emails, I sometimes went out even when I didn’t exactly feel like it, I practiced healthy boundary setting. In short, I put in a lot of effort.

I find that when I set an intention, it helps me better focus on what I need to do next. In the case of socializing, it means I’m paying attention and making or inviting that overture of friendship. Maybe it was there all along, but I’m much more likely to notice it and make that little extra effort required. In the case of writing, it means I keep plugging away, even if that means only doing a little work each day. I remember that I want to live a literary life and it informs the choices I make on a daily basis.

Our intentions join together to form our vision, both of who we want to be and what we want our lives to look like. Vision is an interesting thing because I think we have to believe completely in our vision for ourselves at the same time as we doubt and question it. It’s like reading a novel, being completely immersed in the world of these characters and events while simultaneously knowing that it’s fiction.

I believe completely in my vision for myself. I also think it might not happen. But I do believe it could happen, and perhaps that’s the important distinction–the belief in what’s possible and the willingness to commit ourselves to finding out.

What intention(s) have you set for yourself recently?

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