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Posts Tagged ‘personal development’

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?

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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.

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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!

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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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A couple of weeks ago I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown entitled “The Power of Vulnerability.” It’s twenty minutes long, but I highly recommend watching it when you get the chance. Brene Brown is a researcher who spent years studying vulnerability, shame, and human connection, and she shares valuable insights from her work and how it has affected her own life.

I’ve been seeing a common theme coming up this year, and it comes up again in this talk: that connection and well-being come from the inside, that they arise from our own beliefs and attitudes about ourselves.

I saw it in James Altucher’s post about Kamal Ravikant, who was desperately ill and miserable until he turned things around for himself and ended up writing a short book about the experience. His secret? He told himself that he loved himself a billion and one times.

I saw it in the reading I was doing about attachment styles. Apparently people with a healthy attachment style tend to assume that their needs will be met. And guess what? More often than not, their needs are met, one way or another. Part of this is probably because they are asking for what they need, and part of it is because they are attracting other people who are okay meeting some of these needs. The fact that they assume their needs are okay and will be met shows a greater sense of self worth.

And now here is Brene Brown, telling us that the one thing separating those people who experience a lot of love and belonging in their lives from those who do not is a sense of worthiness. When we believe that we are worthy of love and connection, when we believe that we are enough just as we are, then we can embrace our vulnerability, find our authenticity, and achieve greater connection.

And in her list of traits that these “heart whole” people have in common, she mentions them having compassion for themselves, because otherwise they are unable to have compassion for other people. This idea relates back to the Nice vs. Kind trap and one of the reasons being a people pleaser ultimately doesn’t work out so well.

At the end of last year, I wrote a post called “You are Worth It,” giving this message in yet another way.

This idea of worthiness circles back around on itself in a feedback loop. Take the recent World Fantasy Convention as an example. I entered into the convention feeling comfortable and like I belonged. Because of that, I was more relaxed, having a better time, and able to be very much Amy. So I could connect more easily with both people I knew and people I was meeting. Then people started joking that I knew everyone (not true, but thank you!), which made me feel like I belonged even more, and so made me connect more. Rinse and repeat.

Very Much Amy

The key point, though, is that the nifty cycle I described started with me. It began with me taking my career seriously and feeling like I belonged in a group of professionals. It began with me taking myself seriously, as a person worthy of respect. Without that, the cycle wouldn’t have had a chance to feed back on itself.

We talk a lot about authenticity: to connect with each other, and in a professional context, to connect with readers. This authenticity comes from the courage to be vulnerable. And make no mistake, it does take courage; this blog has taught me that. And here we find another loop: courage builds feelings of worthiness, and a feeling of self worth increases our courage. 

Let’s be brave together.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being nice and being kind.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who also used to be a people pleaser. (There are few things more encouraging than finding and talking to people who used to be people pleasers and now are completely not that way at all.) He told me how he felt that in some ways, in order to change who he was and stop being a people pleaser, he had to swing to the other extreme for a time. But now he was at the place where he was hoping to become kinder and more generous.

A few days later Justine Musk posted her brilliant piece on nice vs. kind that does a great job defining terms, and everything clicked together for me.

Since I know not all of you are going to read her essay, I’ll quickly define the difference. Nice is doing things because you’re supposed to, because you feel you have to, because it’s expected, because you’re being pressured into it in some way, because you don’t feel you have the option to say no. Kind is doing things because you want to: you want to help, you want to be there for someone, you want to give of yourself.

Photo by Martina K

When you’re a people pleaser, when you’re nice all the time, you have trouble telling the difference between nice and kind. And forcing yourself into constant niceness erodes the capacity to be kind. Why? Because you are tired. Because you have nothing left to give.

In order to stop being a people pleaser, you have to start saying no. You have to pay conscious attention to the difference between nice and kind, and it’s difficult, and it takes a lot more energy than it would usually take. And my friend was correct. You swing over to the other side, because you’re saying no to being nice, but you haven’t yet built up your reserves to the point that you can be kind as often as you’d like.

I know because this is where I am right now. I want to be kind. But sometimes I can’t. And sometimes I’m accidentally nice, and sometimes I don’t have the energy NOT to be nice. Because as exhausting as it can be, nice is what I’m used to. Nice is my default setting, and as such, it’s what I tend to fall back on when I’m stressed or tired or in any way not one hundred percent.

Resetting a default, I’m finding, takes a lot of time and patience and mistakes and experimentation.

But I’m making progress. Understanding how kind is different than nice is a part of that progress. I am a lot less nice than I used to be. I say things that people don’t want to hear. I allow people to be uncomfortable instead of automatically smoothing things over. I say no and take care of myself instead.

Nice is something I’m happy to leave behind. Kindness is what I have to look forward to.

What about you? Do you have trouble telling the difference between nice and kind? What kind of balance do you try to strike between kindness and taking care of yourself?

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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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