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Posts Tagged ‘perfectionism’

I didn’t write a blog post earlier this week because I have the flu, and I spent most of Monday sleeping, and most of the rest of Monday having such a high fever that all I could do was sit around and think strange thoughts. I haven’t been this sick for quite some time. But I am going to do my best to write something for you today.

I’m going to tell you a story. Sometimes now when I write I hear James Altucher in my head saying “Bleed on the page.” And I see the photo of Penelope Trunk’s bruise after she had a fight with her husband. And I say to myself, I could never do that. But today I have the flu, which means I can do things I sometimes think I can’t, so this is that kind of story, only Amy-style.

I was sixteen or seventeen, in drama class. My drama teacher was big on improvisation and on giving us assignments that required improv. I wanted to be handed a script and learn my lines and figure out blocking, but that’s not the way things were done in drama most of the time.

My group was doing a skit that showed a teenage girl finding out she was pregnant in the middle of a family dinner. I was supposed to play the girl’s big sister who offered sage advice in a touching sisterly scene later on in the skit. But my classmate who was supposed to play the pregnant teen had been out sick for a long time, and eventually we had to perform the skit without her for our grade. So at the last minute, I had to step in to play the part.

Afterwards, I thought it had gone about as well as could be expected, given the lack of rehearsal time. I sat with the rest of my class in the seats facing the stage, glad it was over, until the drama teacher began really tearing into my performance.

Was I aware, she said, that I had been smiling the entire time? How horrible and awkward it had been, and how amazing my fellow group members were for somehow managing to continue on in the face of such a poor performance. And then she came right up to me, in front of the entire class, and said, “Do you always smile when you’re sad? Do you?” She was insisting on an answer I couldn’t give her, and it was all the worse because the answer was yes. And I hadn’t even known it until that very moment.

To this day, when I think of this story, my heart hurts.

I can even smile when I have the flu. Now there's talent for you. :)

I can even smile when I have the flu. Now there’s talent for you. 

Sometimes conditioning runs so deep that we don’t realize what we’re doing, even when we’re working very hard to be mindful. I write in this blog about a lot of things I still struggle with. I’m still a perfectionist. I’m still sometimes a people pleaser. I tell you that your emotions are okay, but I don’t always believe that for myself. When something happens that is upsetting for me, my first instinct is to pretend everything is okay.

Once upon a time, it was extremely important that I be good at acting in a very specific way. One that didn’t go over well in drama class.

That story is over now. But I still smile sometimes when I’m sad.

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I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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I generally don’t do New Year’s resolutions. For me, they conjure up the idea of things people kind of want to do but don’t have the commitment with which to follow through. They have a half-hearted, wistful kind of air that frankly, I find a bit depressing.

That being said, for 2012 I made a resolution. Only I called it an intention to make myself feel better.

What I wanted to do this year was to focus on my friendships. I wanted more friends, and I wanted friends with whom I could discuss the things that are important to me. And I made a specific but modest goal: that by the end of the year, I would have two close friends, at least one of whom lived locally, with whom I felt comfortable being really open.

There were times at the beginning of the year when I felt very discouraged about this goal. I thought I was going to fail. I want to be clear that this had very little to do with the people around me, and very much to do with myself. I knew I had closed myself off in various ways, and that was hard to change. I had to force myself to take uncomfortable risks. I had to be assertive. I had to jettison the “I must always appear fine and happy and perfect” messages I’d been taught in childhood.

And now?

Photo by Ferran Jorda

Now I am surrounded by the most fabulous group of people I could have ever imagined. Each one of them is different, with their own superpowers, their own weaknesses, their own ways of being a part of my life. They have fun with me, they teach me, they comfort me, and they laugh with me. They welcome me with open arms when I visit, and they text and email during hurricanes. They dress up with me for James Bond because I think it’s the best idea ever, and they feed me, and they give me another chance. They encourage my writing and offer to help and give feedback so I can become better. They celebrate with me, and they hug me while I cry. They talk to me, and they listen to me, and we swap advice. They let me into their lives, and I let them into mine. Some of them even laugh at my jokes.

Some of them have been in my life for a long time. Some of them I’ve met recently. Some of them I see all the time. Some of them I rarely get to see. I feel like I’ve known some of them much longer than I actually have.

All of them have something in common: they support me being myself, flaws and all, and they support my vision for my life and who I want to be and the changes I have been making.

I love my friends with all my heart. They make my world brighter and my smile bigger.

No doubt some of them are reading this. I hope they are because it gives me another chance to say thank you. You are awesome, and I’m so glad we get to spend some time in each other’s excellent company.

A piece of common wisdom states that you should surround yourself with the kind of person you want to be. In other words, you want to spend most of your time with people who lift you up instead of bring you down.

Thank you, dear friends, for your lifting. I only hope I can do the same for you.

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I normally don’t write a post for Thanksgiving Day because I figure a lot of you will be too busy inducing food comas and hanging out with people to read any blogs. But some of you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and others of you might want a well-deserved five-minute break from all activities Thanksgiving, so this year, here I am.

And guess what. I’m not even going to be talking about gratitude. Revolutionary, I know.

Although I will post a vanity pic of my first ever homemade cranberry sauce.

Instead, I want to talk about emotions. Our culture often puts certain value judgements on emotions. We have the “We must always be happy” myth. We also have the “tears are for wimps” myth. And we have the “Emotions are bad and must be suppressed–yay detachment!” idea.

I’m the first to agree that the ability to reframe and see the positive side of life is a great gift. Those of you who are regular readers have seen me write about that several times. Positivity helps with emotional resilience, and I think it tends to make people generally happier. All of which is fabulous.

But it’s fine when we have emotions besides happiness. It’s fine to sit there and admit to yourself that something really sucks. It’s fine to be frightened, or angry, or sad, or confused. It’s fine to be completely and utterly miserable. It’s fine to have a bad day. It’s fine if you don’t like Thanksgiving, or if your family is stressing you out, or if you’re worried that the mashed potatoes aren’t going to turn out. It’s fine if you feel shy because look and see all of these people you don’t know.

You don’t need my permission to feel however it is that you feel right now. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Go ahead and feel it. You don’t have to do anything about it, after all. A feeling doesn’t have to propel you into action. It can simply be.

We can repress and get down on ourselves when we aren’t feeling exactly what we’re “supposed” to feel. Or we can celebrate the fact that we’re alive right now and we get to feel the full spectrum of emotions. Some of them are tougher, for sure. Some of them we wish we weren’t feeling. But most of them happen to most of us at one point or another.

The idea that we must be constantly happy at all times is not particularly helpful. In fact, I find it downright exhausting. My favorite people are the ones that are okay with me however I happen to be feeling right then, even if I’m feeling cranky, or stressed, or really sad. The ones that need me to be happy all the time are not privy to the entireness of Amy, and I think that’s too bad. But regardless, I get to experience the entireness of Amy, just as all of you get to experience the entireness of who you are and how you feel. This is a beautiful thing. And it is part of being human.

Maybe there’s some irony in me being positive about not being positive and having emotions like sadness and fear and anger. But I don’t think we hear this message enough. It’s okay to feel how we feel. It’s okay if we don’t exist in an ecstatic cloud of happiness all the time.

It’s okay to accept the humanity of emotion.

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I stumbled across an interview with Brene Brown (whose TED talk I mentioned last week), and at the end she says if she was going to found a museum, she would call it “a Museum of Epic Failure.” At which point I instantly emailed a link to the article to my friend and said, “This is the title of my next blog post!”

Photo by the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institute

We have such strange ideas about failure and success. I meet people again and again who assume that, having failed at something once, it makes sense to automatically give up and not try again. They wonder at the fact that I have written THREE novels, even though none of them are yet published. They make comments that call into question the entire premise of one of my failures, as if I have now automatically learned better.

Sure, sometimes a failure, and the lessons we learn by failing, cause us to change directions. Sometimes we decide we’re better suited to doing something different, or we’ve found a new passion to pursue. Sometimes our viewpoint has changed so that we no longer want the same things we wanted before. But failure can also mean that the next time we try, we’ll apply what we’ve learned this time around and do better.

Meanwhile, when we stop doing something we’ve been successful at in some form or another, people get confused and tell us it’s “too bad.” And if they like us (aka social success), they tell us to “never change.” There’s this idea that once success has been achieved, we need to hold onto it tightly while avoiding change at all costs.

This is an example of black and white thinking at its finest, where success is positive and good and to be cherished, while failure is negative and bad and to be avoided.

What is often overlooked is the necessity of failure. When we take a risk, it is risky because there is the possibility of failure. If we were one hundred percent sure we’d succeed, it wouldn’t be a risk at all, would it? And so many great successes and helpful learning moments come from the willingness to take a risk and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Most great art–be it visual, literary, musical, or theatrical–comes from reaching to see where we can go, from exposing ourselves in the act of creation.

Most great relationships–be they platonic or romantic–come from opening up and being authentic with one another, while not knowing how we’ll be received.

Most great entrepreneurial ventures–be they tech start-ups or service businesses or local merchants–come from taking the leap into the unknown and committing ourselves and our resources to a particular vision.

When we are engaged in these activities and being honest with ourselves, we know we are taking risks. We know we may fail. And it is when we allow ourselves the space to fail (say goodbye to perfectionism!) that we are capable of our best work.

Which is when we realize that failure isn’t inherently bad. It teaches us, it pushes us, it leads down paths we wouldn’t have noticed by ourselves. It makes success, when it comes, more meaningful, even while it keeps us grounded and connected. And when failure comes instead, and we feel flattened by its impact, we can remind ourselves of the alternative: staying safe, cramped, and complacent while being too afraid to really try.

We are each in the process of creating our own personal Museum of Epic Failure. I’ve already collected many interesting exhibits in mine. And each one has helped to shape who I am today.

Even things that are uncomfortable can have reasons to be celebrated. Is there a failure you’ve experienced that you learned something important from or that you’re grateful for now? Feel free to share in the comments.

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I just got back from L.A. and the annual SCBWI summer writing conference. I got to spend a lot of time with some truly incredible human beings, I got to hear Matthew Kirby be intelligent (if you ever have the opportunity to hear him talk, go!), I got to be inspired and fired up and reminded of a critical component of my own identity.

But I’m going to talk about something that was said at the conference that I disagree with. One of the keynotes given was “The Power of Quiet,” presented by Deborah Underwood. It was a good talk about, among other things, creativity, recent neuroscience research, the usefulness of daydreaming, and the importance of allowing for quiet time in our lives. But… Towards the end, Ms. Underwood basically said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that we don’t owe it to ourselves to make time for quiet, but rather that we owe it to the children who will read our books.

[Insert appropriate noise of pain and frustration here.]

Then today I was linked to an article by Amanda Craig in which she says, “Yet putting yourself last is one of the best things that can happen to a writer.” (This article, by the way, is a great way of inducing rage in yourself as it is one of the more misogynistic and offensive pieces of writing I’ve seen. Happily the commenters seem to agree with me, which does help prop up my hope for humanity.)

Both of these examples reference writers in particular, but I see this idea of selflessness, self sacrifice, and the deprioritization of self care all over the place. Our society propagates it, and while it is a popular idea, it can also be quite harmful. It is tempting to link it to our society’s issues with gender and the role of the female as the nurturing caregiver who puts everyone in front of herself, but actually I believe it’s a universal message that simply sometimes differs in presentation depending on gender.

This is not an idea I can support. Yes, it is good to be kind and treat each other well. It is good to help others. It is good to fulfill your responsibilities. Sometimes you have to compromise or put other people’s needs ahead of your own, particularly if you have children. Sometimes you have to juggle priorities and put important personal ones on the back burner for a while. Life happens.

But having needs is not only okay, it’s human. We all have needs. It is not necessary to put ourselves last in order to be virtuous or good writers or good family members or good citizens. It is not necessary to give ourselves permission to do something good for ourselves (and in this example, good for our careers as well) only because it might help other people down the line. It is not necessary to value ourselves so little. It’s as if we’re afraid that by giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, the ugly Selfish Monster will burst out of our foreheads and wreak havoc on the world.

Well, guess what? It takes a lot more for the Selfish Monster to show itself.

Putting yourself last is NOT the best thing that can happen to a writer. It keeps you from writing. It keeps you from feeding your creativity and inspiration. It keeps you weighed down on the floor instead of being able to fly. It encourages you to make poor business decisions. It keeps you from taking care of yourself, which means that stress and bad health are going to take their tolls…both on you and–shocking, I know–on your writing.

Give yourself permission to fly.

Putting yourself last is not the best thing that can happen to ANYONE. Sometimes it happens. But think about it. Putting yourself last literally means you’re putting the needs of every person you know, and society at large, and probably also random groups of strangers, in front of your own. All the time. How long is it possible to survive this way? Why do we valorize behavior that leads to unhealthy perfectionism, people pleasing behavior, and nervous breakdowns? How can you be the best possible version of you, which is on its own a huge service to the world, if you’re treating yourself so badly?

Someday I hope I’ll have the opportunity to give my own speech on this subject. But in the meantime, take care of yourselves. Cherish yourselves. Respect yourselves. Not just because you’re doing worthwhile, noble work (although that is awesome), but because you allow yourself, your life, and your experiences to have their own inherent and deeply personal value.

Please believe you’re worth it.

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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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