Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘personal development’

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.

Read Full Post »

There’s been a spate of recent research and popular science writing on happiness and what affects it (and what doesn’t affect it). I find this research to be fascinating stuff in its own right, and often a great leaping point. I write about it a fair amount, but I don’t think of what I’m writing to be scientific.

I actually think I write about philosophy. The philosophy of happiness, if you will. I use my own personal experience, the personal experience of others, the philosophy of others, and scientific studies that show certain trends, and I put it all in a blender, and you read the results.

I want to emphasize, though, that I don’t think that what makes me happier will make everyone in the entire world happier. If having a more fulfilling life is something you’re interested in, then collecting different viewpoints and ideas is one way of pushing forward your own quest. Maybe some of the theories and ideas I talk about will inspire or resonate with you.

But when ideas about individual happiness are presented as scientific fact or a fait accompli, then the issue becomes more confused. Which is why I was really happy to read the recent Scientific American blog post by Jamil Zaki entitled “Psychological studies are not about you.” Dr. Zaki decries popular science writing that implies that the studies cited are about individuals. Indeed, he says:

“…Psychological studies… can tell us about how changes in behavior (again, think generosity) might affect the well-being of whole populations…. Most sciences—including psychology—are much better suited to these broad applications than to telling any one person about their life.”

This is because psychological studies mostly involve groups and use statistics. So their findings focus on large-scale trends as opposed to the individual. For example, on average, people may increase their happiness by a certain amount if they engage in gratitude practice. But you as an individual might find that using gratitude practice increases your happiness a lot more than that, or alternately that is doesn’t have a very strong effect at all. Neither of those things make you at all strange since the study in question was talking about averages over a certain population.

Then of course there are the controversies where there are differing points of view. For example, there is a theory of happiness called the set point theory of happiness, or the hedonic treadmill, that states that people have a predetermined happiness set point. There have been a few famous studies, one that looked at people who had been paralyzed and ultimately returned to the same levels of happiness they had been at prior to injury and another that looked at lottery winners that returned to their pre-winnings level of happiness.

But now there are studies showing that this isn’t always the case: that indeed, sometimes people who win the lottery do have increased happiness over a period of time, and sometimes people who divorce do have increased happiness afterwards. There are also examples of individuals having permanently decreased happiness levels. There is more discussion about the forty percent of happiness levels that aren’t controlled by genetics but by intentional activity. And even if the set point theory of happiness is statistically present over a large population, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily apply to you personally. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

Which isn’t to say that reading about these studies or about other people’s personal anecdotes or philosophies can’t be enlightening and helpful. Just as with writing advice, we’re allowed to take whatever works for us and throw everything else away. We each get to learn about the unique combination of what makes us tick and make decisions based on that self knowledge.

What advice about happiness and fulfillment hasn’t worked for you? What advice has?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Occasionally I read an article that makes me really excited because it puts an idea or concept so elegantly into words that even if I’ve thought about the topic many times before, I feel like I’ve made a brand new discovery. This happened a couple of days ago when I read Toni Bernhard’s “Why Judging People Makes Us Happy.”

In the article, she explains the distinction between discernment and judgment:

“Discernment means perceiving the way things are, period. Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison (implicit or explicit) between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.”

When I was younger, I wanted so badly to be nonjudgmental that I often didn’t even allow myself to practice discernment. This had results about as unfortunate as you might expect.

When I started allowing myself to have opinions again, I had no idea what to do with them. Plus I’d been storing them up for quite some time. I felt like I was having judgmental thoughts left and right.

That’s why I like the idea of discernment, the middle ground of seeing the truth of what’s going on around you. Discernment doesn’t require excuse-making (for ourselves or for anybody else). It also doesn’t require us to change anything (or wish anybody would change). What it does allow for is seeing a situation as it is unfolding, for seeing how other people are acting and reacting, and for noticing how what’s going on is affecting our own states, whether that be emotionally or physically.

Discernment gives us data, the data of what actually is as opposed to wishes about what could be. Once we have data, then we can make good decisions for ourselves as to what actions we wish to take and what boundaries we might want to set. Without data, it’s hard to figure out the best way to take care of ourselves.

Let’s say I have a friend, and I notice that every time we’re together, he’s talking in a negative way. At that point I can pay attention to how that’s affecting me: Am I tired after we hang out? Do I feel more negative myself? What emotions am I feeling? Do I brush off the negativity fairly easily or does it linger for the rest of the day?

Maybe it doesn’t affect me very strongly, and I feel compassionate towards my friend because I know he’s having a hard time, in which case I don’t have to do anything at all. Or maybe I’m feeling drained or some other way that I don’t like feeling, and I realize I only want to spend time with my friend when I have a certain amount of energy. Maybe some other stuff is going on in the friendship too, and I decide I need some distance. Or maybe I have a conversation about it with my friend. All of these choices are fine, and they simply depend on the dynamics of that particular friendship.

Discernment and then action move us away from the blame game. Instead of thoughts of “it’s her fault, and why does she have to be that way?”, we move to “what do I need to do to take care of myself?” Taking care of ourselves is something we can act upon, and doing so allows us to have more compassion for those around us.

What do you think? Do you agree with Toni Bernhard’s definition of discernment vs. judgment?

Read Full Post »

In my ongoing quest to stop being a perfectionist and instead just be a human being, I have found the following strategies to be useful.

1. Get a dog. Dogs don’t care if you’re perfect; they only care that you love them.

Portrait of a Devoted Doggie

2. Reframe the idea of perfection. Decide it is impossible, or decide it encompasses more than a single rigid definition, or go all philosophical and decide that imperfection is perfect in its own way.

3. Spend time around people who appreciate your natural strengths.

4. Spend time around people who are okay when you falter.

5. In fact, spend lots of energy finding awesome people with whom to surround yourself. This helps with all sorts of things if you are paying attention.

6. Distinguish between situations in which you must present yourself professionally at all costs and those (often in your personal life) in which you have some more leeway.

7. For the latter, force yourself to be honest. Especially when you really don’t want to admit that you need help or that you’re having a rough time.

8. Accept that not all people are going to understand or believe your honesty. Change your response to this from a panicked “I must seek their approval at all costs” to a shrug. Be grateful for those who are supportive. (And if none of those exist in your life yet, go back to number 5 and try some more. They are out there.)

9. Remember that you are one person and that therefore you cannot do all the things. Even if other people want you to. Even if you want to.

10. Realize you can’t control everything, and that perfection doesn’t automatically equal happiness.

11. Actually, not only does perfection not equal happiness, it sometimes equals stress, burn-out, dysfunctional relationships, isolation, and despair. Remind yourself of its downsides when you’re having trouble letting go.

12. Embrace the cheesiness and tell yourself you love yourself. Tell this to yourself even more when you think you’ve fallen short.

Read Full Post »

Photo Credit: chiaralily via Compfight cc

The scene: A spring afternoon on a concrete patio with metal tables and chairs, close to the train tracks. A slight breeze keeps me worried that I should have brought more than my thin sweater, worried enough that I order a hot drink in spite of the sunny weather. A large dog lays with his head between his paws, gazing with eyes big enough that many of his actions automatically become characterized as mournful even though that’s not his personality at all.

My friend is telling me about a conversation she had with a customer service representative over the phone. After explaining recent events and how they pertained to the issue in discussion, the woman told her, “Don’t worry, now you’re getting the chance to start over.”

I say, “Don’t we all start over at one point or another?”

***

I have thrown away a bowl full of leaden gingerbread dough. I have discarded ten thousand words and started a novel from scratch (and felt grateful it was only that many). I have graduated, I have moved, I have ended relationships, rekindled relationships, started relationships. I have obtained employment, lost employment, quit, and changed careers. I have opened and closed a business. I have walked out of a lobby at a convention and sat for twenty minutes in my hotel room before coming back out and starting again. I have spent months recovering from physical injuries, only to re-injure myself and go back to the beginning of the process. I have rebooted my computer, my phone, huge strands of my life.

So I guess you could say I start over a lot.

***

A friend of mine moved recently, and in the process, she got rid of a ton of stuff. She hardly has any books left (she mostly reads electronically these days), most of her kitchen cabinets are empty, she’s getting rid of big pieces of furniture. I thought to myself, “Wow. This is the way to start over.”

By contrast, when I start over, I tend to carry everything with me: my experiences, my memories, my baggage, and physical mementos from the past. It’s certainly the bulkier way to go. But there is no one right way to start over. There is the way that feels right at the time.

My kitchen cabinets are full. But I do have an empty bookshelf.

***

The title of this post suggests that I’m going to offer up advice or maybe a list of ten bullet points summing up the process of starting over. But this time I don’t have a list for you.

Starting over is hard. A lot of that is because of the fear that often comes with it, the fear and the not knowing and the what if game. And starting over is stressful. If you look at the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, you’ll see that almost all of the most stressful events in life have to do with change: beginnings, endings, and starting over.

So really when we’re talking about how to start over, we’re also talking about how to be kind to ourselves and how to be resilient and how to deal with stress.

When have you started over?

Read Full Post »

I am tired of apologizing.

Expressing empathy and sympathy? I’m all over that. But I’ve spent way too much of my energy apologizing for things that have nothing to do with me.

And you know what? I’m not sorry.

  • I’m not sorry that I may have different priorities than other people .
  • I’m not sorry that I have things I want and things I need.
  • I’m not sorry that I want to be treated with respect and consideration.
  • I’m not sorry for the life choices I’ve made, even if people don’t agree with them or understand them.
  • I’m not sorry that I don’t want to discuss my financial situation with strangers.
  • I’m not sorry that I have a different sleep schedule from the norm.
  • I’m not sorry that the ways in which I spend my time are not obvious.
  • I’m not sorry that I notice and sometimes point out sexism and misogyny in media.
  • I’m not sorry for my own opinion and assessment of myself.
  • I’m not sorry when I choose to say no.
  • I’m not sorry that I can’t be perfect.
  • I’m not sorry when I refuse to take on other people’s issues willy nilly.
  • I’m not sorry for the existence of my emotions.
  • I’m not sorry for standing up for myself.
  • I’m not sorry for communicating.
  • I’m not sorry for being complicated.
  • I’m not sorry that we don’t have every single thing about ourselves in common.
  • I’m not sorry when people won’t take care of themselves. I feel sad about it, because I know how bad that feels, but I am not responsible for the choices they make and the pain they put themselves through.

This is what it looks like to not be a people pleaser. You start apologizing a lot less frequently. Instead you communicate, and you compromise, and you take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and you surround yourself with people who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and when you screw up on occasion, you apologize and make amends, and everything works out a whole lot better.

Stop apologizing for yourself. Start living instead.

Read Full Post »

You know how people say that as you get older, you stop changing? They see the teens and early twenties as this turbulent time as you explore and establish who you are, and then your identity is set, and you are who you are.

This idea of selfhood has always disturbed me. I have never wanted to become set. I enjoy playing with identity, whether it is through writing characters, wearing clothes and costumes, playing RPGs, or acting on the stage. I like thinking about why I do what I do, and why people in general do what they do, and what influence society and families and past experience has on our emotions and decisions and worldviews.

But recently (and by recently, I mean ten minutes ago), I realized my own relationship with identity is more complex than that. Because I do believe there is an unchanging core of myself, of Amyness, that has existed as far back as I have memory. Just as I can look at old photographs of myself and see my current face in the chubby cheeks of two-year-old Amy, in the gawkiness of nine-year-old Amy, behind the huge glasses of teenaged Amy, so I can feel an ongoing sense of self that has persisted throughout my lifetime.

Yes, the title of this post might be a thinly veiled excuse for a cute dog photo.

Yes, the title of this post might be a thinly veiled excuse for a cute dog photo.

My friend Rahul wrote in one of his excellent essays: “I wonder if individuality is something that deepens in you when you start to live purposefully.” To come at the same idea from a slightly different direction, I think that through life, we can grow in ways that bring out and express our own individuality with greater strength and clarity. And these changes that we can make that allow ourselves to shine out ever brighter, these changes are what I am personally committed to and what I hope will never stop, no matter how old I become.

I have spent the last few years completely dedicated to change. Some of that evolution has been documented here on the blog, most explicitly through my backbone project. What I realize, though, is that I haven’t been changing the core of who I am. That sense of self is my foundation, the part that by never changing allows me to have the strength to challenge myself and my assumptions and make so many other changes. What I have been changing are my attitudes, my behaviors, my reactions, my understanding, and my choices. I have the freedom to change so much because ultimately, I am already so grounded in who Amy is that my core identity can survive through any changes I care to make.

And through all this change, I see the juxtaposition that so many of us struggle with. On the one hand, we want to be the same. We want understanding and empathy and sympathy, we want people to like the same things we like, we want to have that sense of connection that can come from sharing. But simultaneously, we want to be different. We want to rebel, we want to express our individuality, we want to be SPECIAL. And there is a push and pull created between these two opposing desires.

Only they’re not opposing at all. We can be both ordinary and special. We are all the same in some really basic ways. But each of us also has that core of identity that makes us who we are, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and each core varies ever so slightly from every other core. And each of us has our own slightly different point of view as we travel through life. And this different selfhood and different perspective makes us special even as we are awash in sameness. In a similar way, we can be changing like mad even as we’re always ourselves.

Isn’t it neat the way that works out?

Read Full Post »

I’ll let you in on a little secret. We who carry with us the legacy of a troubled childhood sometimes talk about the people who don’t. You know, the ones who had fairly normal childhoods with just a sprinkling of trauma and have gone on to become well-adjusted adults without years of therapy or going on a spiritual quest in India or having a near-death experience.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I think we attract and are attracted by people who have similar world views to our own. And we are also heavily influenced by the five people we spend the most time with (or three, or ten, but you get the idea). So I have a lot of investment in the idea of spending time with emotionally healthy people, including those who had pretty happy childhoods.

But I’ve noticed a theme in recent conversations about these people. Words like “boring” and “not very deep” tend to come up. And when I pushed a little harder, a friend said, “What I really want is someone who will understand. And people who are happy and healthy won’t be able to understand.”

We get so excited when we find someone who “understands,” and we look with eagerness for our commonalities. “Wow, you’re a Disneyland person? I’m a Disneyland person too!” or “Your favorite book is my favorite book!” or “We both know this obscure fact about this obscure interest!” And abracadabra, instant bonding. We do the same thing with tragedy. There is no time when people will be more likely to share stories of everyone they’ve known who has ever died than when you are grieving yourself.

But I question the whole idea of understanding. Can anyone else ever truly understand what it is to be me, and what it means to have my experiences? We can build up models of each other, sure, and keep adding details for ever-increasing accuracy, but even then we are not understanding so much as empathizing. We can use our imaginations to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, but we can never truly know what those shoes feel like.

We see this in good writing. It’s why choosing the point of view character(s) is so critical. The story completely changes based on who is telling it, even if most of the events and even scenes are the same. I see this when I talk to my sister. We both lived through many of the same formative events, and yet today when we talk about it, it’s vividly clear that we had completely different experiences. The details we remember are different, and our impressions of each other from that time are often inaccurate. We think we understand, and yet sometimes that false impression has actually kept us farther apart.

Photo Credit: Ma Gali via Compfight cc

Understanding is overrated. What I’m interested in and what I want for myself is empathy. And empathy, and the personal depth and wisdom that having empathy requires, can be given regardless of childhood experience. The whole point of empathy is the cognizance that you can’t completely understand, even if you’ve had similar experiences; that you aren’t the other person and the whole sum of past and present, personality and passions, fears and flaws that makes them who they are. And in spite of that, in spite of the impossibility of understanding, you’re willing to sit with them and listen to them and try to hold as much as them as possible in your mind so you can see who they are, even though it’s sometimes so hard to leave yourself out of that picture. And yet somehow, even though it sounds hard and complicated, many of us are surprisingly good at being empathetic.

I don’t understand you, not really. And you don’t understand me. We come from different places, and we live in different worlds. But we can still find a way to know each other.

Read Full Post »

1. Assertiveness is not the same as decisiveness. Some of my friends disagree with me on this one, but I actually feel very strongly about it. Sometimes the most assertive thing to say in a situation is “I don’t know.” Maybe you need more time or more information before you can form an opinion or make a decision. Not being assertive would mean allowing someone else to push you into a decision before you are ready, possibly in the name of “decisiveness.” Assertiveness also doesn’t close the door on changing our minds, which is something else I feel strongly about.

2. Assertiveness is stating your opinion and showing yourself to the world. Even though you might be wrong. Even though you aren’t perfect. Even though people might not care or want to hear what you have to say. Even though everyone won’t agree with you. I think the courage to do this in a strong but balanced way comes from a sense of self worthiness.

3. Assertiveness is asking for what you want/need. Even when doing so is scary. Even when it might make the person you’re talking to think less of you, or not like you, or feel emotions. Maybe especially then.

4. Assertiveness is being okay when someone says no. Which, if you’re asking for what you want on a regular basis, is definitely going to happen. Emotions might happen when someone says no, and that’s fine…as long as you don’t act on them and instead deal with them in a mature way that works for you.

That is one assertive apple. (Photo by Fernando Revilla)

5. Assertiveness is gathering information. Maybe some people aren’t okay with you being assertive. Maybe some people repeatedly say no, don’t do what they say they’re going to do, or behave towards you in ways that you’re not okay with. This sucks. But it’s good to know so you can make decisions based on reality instead of what you wish was true. The kind of fabulous people you want in your life aren’t going to be trampling all over your boundaries all the time like it’s some kind of sport.

6. Assertiveness is allowing other people to have their own feelings and their own issues instead of taking those on as your own. The more I pay attention to this, the more I realize hardly anything that happens is actually about me. It’s about the mood someone else is in, or they’re worried about xyz that has nothing to do with me, or they want something so much they’re not even paying attention to me, or they’re behaving in this bizarre way because of some childhood trauma or the way they were raised or because they’re been compelled to do so by the power of Cthulu. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter why. Our job is to take care of ourselves by asking for what we want, sometimes saying no, and dealing with our own emotions. Our job is not to take on everyone else’s stuff.

7. Assertiveness is embracing the awkward and the uncomfortable. Change is sometimes awkward. Saying no can be awkward. Being honest can be awkward. Being vulnerable can be awkward. Letting someone know how you feel can be uncomfortable. Letting someone know they’ve behaved in an inappropriate way can be uncomfortable. I’ve grown very skilled at making people feel comfortable over the years, which is fabulous when you’re teaching voice lessons. However, assertiveness sometimes requires allowing those awkward moments and uncomfortable silences to happen instead of smoothing them over.

8. Assertiveness is respecting yourself. There is that old truism about how you can only truly help other people after you’ve taken care of yourself. I completely agree with this statement, but I also think it’s a way to dance around the truth so people pleasers might actually listen. That truth? Respecting and caring for yourself is inherently important and valuable. It means you have healthy self esteem and can go rock the world with your own personal brand of awesome.

A year and a half later, and look at the Backbone Project go!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,708 other followers