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Archive for the ‘Personal Development’ Category

In fact, at times they have been fairly noteworthy for their badness. People have been quick to offer silver linings, which, thanks, I’ve got that covered. But sometimes you’ve just got to accept that some bad stuff is happening, and that in the present moment, things are difficult.

And I felt a lot of doubt. What, I thought, was the point of putting so much effort into all this personal development if it was still possible for me to be taking this many serious emotional hits within a short period of time? I was fighting disillusionment and asking A LOT of questions.

Here is what I learned:

I learned that you can’t control how other people behave, how other people treat you, or a whole host of potential crap that life can throw at you. You can only control how you choose to respond to these situations.

I learned that sometimes people deeply disappoint you, and that sucks, and there’s nothing you can do about it except take care of you.

I learned what it feels like to say a more effortless no. I’ve been saying so much no lately. No, this is not acceptable. No, we can’t just ignore this. No, you can’t erase my reality. No, I can’t do that thing. No, I can’t deal with complicated logistics right now. No, I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for that. No, I can’t make yet another decision right now. No, I’m not going to show up when you’re not. No no no no no.

It turns out it’s a lot easier to say no when your plate is full to capacity. Because then some of the requests (and demands) take on a slightly absurd quality or are just obviously impossible, and those are the ones to which I say no. Almost always without guilt, I might add. Which is fucking fantastic.

I learned that how someone else chooses to treat me does not have to affect how I feel about myself.

I learned that some mistakes are correctable.

I learned that some people surprise you in a great way.

I learned the power of being done.

I learned that even when you’re having trouble feeling grateful, the reasons for you to be grateful are still right there.

I let go of a lot of things I’d been holding onto for a loooong time. And I stopped trying so hard to make everyone except me comfortable. And guess what! It turns out I like being comfortable too. Who knew.

I learned that there are lots of reasons to get your life in order, even though that doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to trouble. Because whatever is happening on the outside, you’ve still got whatever you’ve built on the inside. And even through these last few hard months, there have been so many bright spots. There’s this year’s book, and I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I love this book so hard, and its imperfections and difficulties only make me love it more. There’s Nala, who decided on her own to morph into a lap dog in order to better support me. There’s some of my best friends, both local and not, both new and old, who have shown up in all kinds of ways. There are concerts and books and musicals and plays and albums and T.V. shows and museum exhibits. And dancing. I  had one of the best dancing nights of my life last weekend.

And there’s planning for a future I am incredibly excited about.

At one point back in March, one of my close friends said something like, “Amy, I know things are hard right now, but I think you’re going through a big period of change, and it’s going to be amazing for you in the end.” As soon as he said that, I felt a lot better. Change was all around me, and it seemed so dark, and I was so tired. But being reminded that the light was there, that maybe it wasn’t even that far away anymore, I tightened my jaw and I kept going.

And now here I am. There is sun on my face. And more clearly than ever before, I know who I am and what I want. No wishy-washiness, no compromises, no vision clouded by fear and misplaced empathy.

All right then. Let’s do this thing.

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A few years ago, I was really struggling to forgive someone. Looking back on it now, I know why I was having such difficulty, but at the time, it really bothered me. So I spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness, both what it means and what it doesn’t mean. At one point, in some desperation for a new perspective, I even began combing through my more philosophical nonfiction.

I found what I was looking for in the book Emotional Awareness, which is a conversation between Paul Ekman, who is well known for his work on facial expressions and micro expressions, and the Dalai Lama.

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At one point the two of them discuss forgiveness, and to this day I have that place marked in the book. Here is the relevant passage:

EKMAN: It is good for the person who forgives. But does it not remove responsibility?

DALAI LAMA: No, no. For example, now, we mentally give forgiveness to the Chinese. That means we try not to keep negative feeling toward them because of their wrong deeds. But that does not mean we accept it, what they have done. So we have little forgiveness against them, as far as their action is concerned.

DALAI LAMA: Forgiveness means not to forget what they have done. But forgiveness means do not keep your negative feeling toward them. As far as their action is concerned, you use your intelligence. You totally have to take countermeasures, but without negative feeling.

This one passage has entirely changed my understanding and practice of forgiveness.

One of the mistakes I make over and over in my life is being too forgiving. I like people, and I tend to believe the best of them, and I feel friendly towards them. I can almost always see their point of view. So it is incredibly easy for me to think, “Oh, maybe it wasn’t that big a deal” or “Yeah, that really sucked, but I like this person, so….” or “maybe if I do xyz, things will go better” or “They’re doing the best they can” or any of a hundred similar thoughts. This tendency can sometimes be a positive one, but for me, it has also often been a negative one.

In the instance above, when I was struggling so with forgiveness, it was because my natural tendency was to allow the issue to be swept under the rug and go back to the status quo. But at the same time, I now felt unsafe with this person, who I didn’t think had taken appropriate responsibility for their actions and who hadn’t responded well to my boundaries thus far.

So the idea that I could forgive this person, as I both wanted to do and felt a lot of pressure to do, while also keeping myself safe by taking countermeasures (aka setting whatever boundaries I needed to ensure my safety), was, at that time, completely revolutionary for me.

This is when I realized on a deep level the difference between the kind of forgiveness I’d been taught, which meant huge amounts of self-sacrifice and suffering and exhaustion, and the kind of forgiveness the Dalai Lama was talking about, which leads to inner peace and strength and compassion not only towards others but also towards myself.

This is also when I learned that my safety, both physical and emotional, matters. This might seem obvious, but it was not what I was taught, and it is not always how I am treated by others even now. But it is how I strive to treat myself, and that is the most critical–and life-changing–thing. It is when I stop feeling guilty for prioritizing my safety that I find myself surrounded by the supportive and kind people who don’t feel entitled to me, and those are the people I want in my life.

Being given permission to use your intelligence can be a powerful thing.  

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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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