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Posts Tagged ‘disappointment’

This summer I went to a workshop about dealing with fear, and I left it feeling disappointed. The teachers didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known. They kept using examples that either weren’t really about fear or that were about being afraid of public speaking. So it wasn’t a talk geared for me.

Apparently fear of public speaking is the second most common fear in the United States. But to me, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I get nervous ahead of time, and I over-prepare, and I don’t always do a good job with it. But it’s so much better than having to sing operatic arias in a foreign language I don’t actually speak that contain high notes I can’t actually hit from memory and then have my performance critiqued in front of a group of fellow singers. That’s what I spent my college years doing. Which was still better than actual auditions.

So one way to manage fear is to do something a lot harder, and then easier things might not seem so bad. Another way is to do whatever you’re afraid to do A LOT. So basically you’re practicing your way out of fear.

But really I was disappointed in the talk because there is no easy answer. Whether you’re afraid of speaking in public or dying, uncertainty or being treated poorly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And I wish there was. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion. It can both hold us back and make things a lot more miserable even as we trudge forward. It can warp the nature of reality itself, making things that might be true seem like they are actually true. And it can make us physically ill in a variety of ways.

I have spent a lot of time being afraid. And ultimately it’s always the same thing that pushes me through.

Belief.

I remember once as a student, I was walking towards the music building where I had an audition. I think I was sick (I was almost always sick), and I already knew I wasn’t going to get the part. I thought to myself, Why are you even bothering? Why don’t you just go home? Why are you doing this to yourself?

But the answer was clear. I had decided to do this. I believed this was what I should be doing, even though I felt awful and I was really nervous and I knew I wouldn’t get the part. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to be, and this crappy audition experience was a part of that. So I went, and I did the audition, and I didn’t get the part, and I moved on.

Belief is still what gets me through fear. I fix my eyes on my idea of the future, and I clench my jaw, and I do what needs to be done to give myself a chance of getting there. The fear is still there, making things harder, making me pause and ask myself why I am putting myself through such difficulty. But I believe in my vision, and I hold onto that belief as if my life depends on it.

So I guess if I were to give a workshop on overcoming fear, I’d explore how to create a vision strong enough to withstand whatever fear can throw at us. I’d look for some exercises to promote self esteem, because in order to believe in a vision, I think we also have to believe in ourselves. And I’d talk about how to take care of ourselves and handle rejection and disappointment and failure and other obstacles in a resilient way that allows us to keep moving forward.

How do you overcome fear?

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Let’s talk about failing.

Remember Adam Baker, producer of the documentary I’m Fine, Thanks? (The movie, incidentally, has now reached its funding goals, hooray!) He had this to say about how people overcome falling into complacency:

“They started to become comfortable being able to fail. I don’t mean they LIKED failing. Or even tried to fail. But they were o.k. with that being part of the process. Often, the desire NOT to fail was what kept people trapped for decades!”

How often do we hold ourselves back because we’re afraid to fail? Maybe people won’t like our final product (or us, heaven forbid). Maybe people will say no to us. Maybe people won’t buy our book, or listen to our songs, or even know we exist, even when we’ve given it our best shot. Maybe we’ll sound stupid. Maybe we’ll realize a major flaw only after our idea/plan/creative work has already been made public. Maybe maybe maybe.

So in order to protect ourselves from all those maybes, those things that might happen in the future, we fail before we even start, by not allowing ourselves to start (or finish). In this way we can preserve some illusion of perfection, of possibility, of “I could have done this if I’d really wanted to.” Some of us have been taught that failure is an unacceptable and unendurable sort of experience, and thus, we protect ourselves from the imagined agony it will cause.

Except. Failure only has the power over us that we grant it. Failure only causes us agonies if we allow it to do so. When we reframe failure to be okay, to be a learning experience, perhaps even a way of being able to tell that we’re saying yes to our own potential, then it loses its power to wound so deeply.

Even in the hero’s journey, the hero fails before succeeding.

“Boldness is genius.” I read this post by Sarah Peck recently, and it suits my current frame of mind (I even gave a spirited live reading of it, which I wish I had video of so we could laugh about it together). I’ve been trying to be more bold lately. And you know what has mostly happened?

I’ve failed. A lot more than usual. Things have fallen through. People have told me no. Vast quantities of uncertainty have wrapped their tendrils throughout my life. I’ve miscalculated the risks involved. I’ve been disappointed and frustrated. Sometimes I have a sensation not unlike banging my head repeatedly against a hard object.

But you know what? Failure? It’s not so bad. I haven’t disintegrated into a pile of green goo. My sense of self worth still exists. Sure, I don’t particularly enjoy being disappointed or frustrated, but I’m pretty sure I’d feel those emotions no matter what, and this way I’m not giving them power over me in the same way. I feel frustrated? Let’s try something new, take a break from whatever is getting under my skin. I feel disappointed? I’ll only dwell on it until I try the next thing. And if I’m being bold, that means I’m trying the next new thing a lot sooner.

The idea that failure always equals disaster is just plain wrong. Boldness IS genius. Comfort with failure unlocks many doors. And allowing ourselves to separate from all those crippling maybes is freedom.

How are you going to be bold this week?

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What subjects do you avoid? What don’t you like to admit? What topics do you not talk about because they feel somehow inappropriate?

Theodora Goss’s recent blog post Telling the Truthis an excellent and thought-provoking essay well worth a read: “And this got me thinking about all the things we don’t talk about,” she says. “There are so many of them!”I think a lot about all the things we don’t talk about. In fact, that was one of the reasons I wanted to start a blog, because I wanted to have a platform from which to speak about some of these things. But of course, I still carefully write around so many of these things of which we never speak.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine who revealed that he used to have crushes on girls starting in third grade. He had never told anyone else about this because he was embarrassed because he thought it was out of the ordinary. Can you imagine? I had crushes in elementary school, and some people in my classes even had “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” (although of course it meant something slightly different back then). But you know what? I never talked about my crushes. And apparently no one else talked about them to my friend either, so he’s spent all this time secretly thinking that he’s different, that something was wrong with him, because he failed to pick up the social cues that would have informed him that crushes aren’t so unusual after all.

I wonder how many things we are all secretly embarrassed about or ashamed of that are, in reality, very common. Only we never find this out because we’re all busy feeling like outsiders together.

I think many of us are ashamed of failure, like Dora says in her essay. I know I am, and being a perfectionist doesn’t help out with this. And yet, failure is essential for those of us with ambitious dreams. Most people don’t succeed with huge dreams right away. I listened to an interview with Seth Godin the other day in which he bemoaned how afraid so many people are of failure. This fear holds us back. It makes us unwilling to take the risks we need to take to learn, to grow, and to achieve something truly great. And yet, even though I understand the need for failure intellectually, it doesn’t take away the fear.

But on the other hand, the more I fail, the more I know that I am living an interesting and daring life. Failure is taking your life and seeing what you can wring from it instead of coasting along and choosing the safest route. Failure is pursuing lofty goals and pushing back against the fear. Failure is exposing yourself to the world and teaching yourself to believe in the you of possibilities instead of the you of limitations. Failure is the strength to believe in yourself so much that you can rise above your worries (or the reality) of what other people think about you.

Failure is saying, “This is my life, and I’m going to make every inch of it mine.”
Maybe if we can reclaim failure, it won’t be so scary after all. Or at least maybe it can become a badge of courage instead of one of shame.

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For most of my life, I have bent over backwards to avoid disappointing anyone.

This is classic behavior for the dedicated people pleaser. We hate saying no (even when we force ourselves to say it anyway). We want to make people happy, avoid conflict, and live up to any and all expectations placed on us, even if said expectations are completely insane. As a result, many of us turn into perfectionists, and we drive ourselves up the wall with anxiety trying to live up to an impossible ideal.

So now I practice disappointment. I give myself permission to disappoint someone else if I believe it is the right thing for me to do. After years of putting everyone in front of myself, I practice putting myself first. I ask myself what I feel comfortable with. I ask myself what I feel like doing. I ask myself how I want to be treated. And I try to make my decisions accordingly. Not in the spirit of being unkind or selfish, but in the spirit of finally giving myself control over my own life.

Sometimes practicing is difficult. I had someone make a request of me a month or so ago. It was something to which I had already responded no earlier in the year, and something which, if I agreed to it, would undoubtedly make me very unhappy. I said no again, and the person wrote back to tell me how disappointed they were, and how everything was going to be much more difficult for them now. I, of course, felt like melting into a puddle and wallowing in my failure as a human being.

Instead I made it into an exercise. I thought of all the other nice things I had done for this person over the last year. I reminded myself that I also have a right to be happy. I didn’t ignore, as I usually do, the fact that this person has a habit of asking me for things while not being particularly nice the rest of the time. I realized that disappointment isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things–I am often disappointed myself, and yet somehow I carry on, so the odds were good that this person would be just fine. And somewhere near the end of my thought process, I knew that just because a decision of mine had caused disappointment didn’t mean it was the wrong one.

So now I sometimes disappoint people. I don’t always give the “right” answer. I don’t always hide my own feelings. I still endeavor to be tactful and kind, but I’m able to stand firm when I need to. And even when I fail, I’m much more likely to recognize what’s going on. For those of you who have always been able to do this, it might not sound like much, but for me it’s like living in an entirely different world.

A world in which I’m finally allowed to be me.

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Last week we talked about thinking of writing as a business, which includes educating ourselves about the industry and making informed choices. Today I want to talk about something that keeps us from making clear-headed business decisions. 

Desperation.

Desperation rears its ugly head for most writers, often (although not exclusively) toward the beginning of a career. We want so badly to be published, to be chosen, to have public validation that we aren’t wasting our time. We want to get our words and stories to the public. We want to be able to tell our friends and acquaintances, “Why, yes, I have an agent now. And Big Publisher XYZ wants to buy my novel.” Or “Why, yes, my indie-published novel is on the Kindle Best-seller List now, thanks for asking.” We want to know that we’re moving forward with our craft and not staying stuck in a hellish holding pattern. We want we want we want.

Some amount of ambition and desire for success is healthy. It might keep us on a daily writing schedule or encourage us to continue sending out those queries. It might motivate us to improve our craft or take a workshop. But it’s so easy to cross from these helpful impulses into the dark side of desperation.

The danger of entering that desperate place is that our decision-making process becomes impaired. Instead of making practical, well-reasoned decisions, we’re suddenly willing to do almost anything to see our work in print. We’ll sign with an agent even though we either haven’t done thorough research on the agent’s history or have a bad feeling about the working relationship. We’ll sign a publishing contract even though it offers poor terms. We’ll rush into self-publishing our novel electronically without enlisting first readers and/or editors to help us make the book the best it can be. We’ll say something best left unsaid on the social media of our choice because we’re so stressed/insecure/jealous/upset that we just can’t help ourselves.

Acting from a place of desperation is the opposite of acting from empowerment. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with a traditional publishing structure or taking the indie path. In either case, desperation will lead to poor decisions (unless you’re very, very lucky). Desperation will tempt you to devalue yourself and your work and believe me, you don’t want to go down that path.

So what is a poor writer to do? Stop. Breathe. Try to convince yourself that you’re not in a race and you don’t have to hurry to the detriment of everything else. Avoid comparing yourself to other writers who are doing everything better, faster, with more shiny. Avoid it like the plague. Postpone any big decisions until you can talk yourself into a calmer state of mind.

And remember you’re not alone. I think writer desperation is very common, but we don’t always talk about it. I am writing this to tell you that I have felt it, I have been there, and I might very well be there again. All of the doubt and the waiting and the anxiety and the rejection and the lack of understanding–it SUCKS. Of course we sometimes feel desperate. But we don’t have to give the desperation the power to take over our lives. We can feel it and then keep going, keep trying, keep believing in ourselves. And we can do our best to make our business decisions based on the facts and our priorities instead of on a crazy-making emotional state.

Does anyone else ever experience writer desperation? Have any good tips on how to avoid it or deal with it once it’s happening? Please share!

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A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, about how to think outside the box. The entire essay is well worth the read, and I might discuss other aspects of it some other time (yes, that’s how good it is). But for now I’m going to focus on just one brilliant paragraph:“We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we’re alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.”

Crafting our lives is the ultimate form of expressing ourselves, and we all do it, every single one of us. The decisions we make on a daily basis form the shape of our story, both in our own heads and in the outside world. That’s one reason why I’m so big on priorities: your priorities can quite literally determine the direction your life follows. Our priorities are the guiding vision for the complex artistic creation of who we are.  (more…)

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I was attending my husband’s company holiday party a few weeks ago when one of his co-workers came up to me and said, “Hey, I read your blog!”  This was, as you might imagine, a small moment of joy for me.  She went on to say something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re really optimistic.”

She was right, of course.  I am definitely of the optimistic persuasion, as I trust you may have noticed.  I hadn’t realized that optimism was such a distinguishing trait for me, though, until hearing about it from the outside.  So I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering the nature of optimism.

Part of it may well be disposition.  Optimism comes naturally to me.  I’ve said before that my neutral state, if nothing much good or bad is going on, tends to be set on the positive side.  Little things make me inordinately happy.  I get an e-mail from a friend and I’m already smiling.  My dog does something cute and I’m happy.  I think about the gingerbread cookie I’m going to have for lunch and I’m filled with anticipation all morning long.

Then comes the filtering.  We all do it, although some of us are better at it than others.  Filtering is the reason there can be horrible catastrophes somewhere else and we can continue through our day as if we don’t know that somewhere else people are dying in misery.  Filtering is forgetting or distracting yourself or not really listening.  Filtering is auto-pilot and prioritizing.  It can be enormously helpful or greatly hurtful.  I’m not always so talented at the filtering, which is why I sometimes have to take breaks and go months at a time without looking at a newspaper.

Once we’re done filtering, then we’re left to deal with whatever is left.  And Wesley wasn’t lying in The Princess Bride when he told Buttercup that life is pain.   At certain points all of us are called upon to deal with illness, with injury, with disappointment, with grinding monotony.  We experience setbacks, we make mistakes, and people don’t always treat us as well as they should.  We worry about our loved ones, our finances, current affairs.  When I was a kid we all worried about nuclear apocalypse.  Now we’re terrified of an environmental apocalypse instead.  If we look for something wrong or painful or scary, we’re sure to find it.

At this point, at least for those of us who don’t filter so well, we have two choices.  We can let the negativity pull us down and learn to expect the worst.  Pessimism is a coping mechanism, nothing more.  If we routinely expect the worst, we can protect ourselves from disappointment because we didn’t think anything good was likely to happen anyway.  It’s a thought process meant to cushion the blows of life.  The problem with it is that it also tends to keep us confined into a little box in which nothing much is possible.  It encourages us to be resigned instead of to strive.

Our other choice is optimism – to take what we find and make the best of it.  Just like pessimism, this is a coping mechanism.  It is the choice, in the face of the dark, to strive for better, which illustrates the inherent belief that things can be better.  Someone treats us badly, and we try to understand why so we can learn from their mistakes and become better people ourselves.  We get a rejection and we double our efforts to improve.  We see problems in the world and we start from the assumption that maybe something can be done to alleviate them, that maybe there’s even something we can do personally that might help a little bit.  It’s believing that the little things, like telling someone to have a nice day and meaning it, or complimenting someone on a job well done, will add up to make a difference in the world around us.

Sometimes when I am faced with a particularly daunting truth, I am a pessimist.  Sometimes I get tired and wonder if I’m making any progress.  I worry that I’m not making even a small difference.  I don’t know how I can possibly surmount what I see in front of me.  For those of us who either can’t or won’t filter, it is easy to become daunted and overwhelmed.  But as much as I can, I try to choose optimism because when I do, I’m happier.  I’d rather live a life infused with meaning.  I’d rather have the bittersweet comfort of hope.  I’d rather make the gamble that the little things sometimes matter after all.

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