Posts Tagged ‘personal development’

Elizabeth Bear recently wrote an essay in which she stated her intention to try not to self-denigrate herself out loud. You should go read it because it is thought-provoking and also because she references Sondheim in an awesome way, and who doesn’t love that?

That being said, it was a painful essay to read, at least for me. Yes, a great step would be for people to keep those tenacious feelings of self loathing to themselves so they don’t model them for others. Perhaps without the vocalization and implicit validation of those feelings, they will even lessen over time. But I can’t help but see the tragedy that those feelings of self-hatred and self belittlement are so prevalent in the first place.

In the comments section for the post, there is some mention of bragging, and how terrible it would be if one were to accidentally brag. (Okay, that’s not actually what is said, but that’s how it translated in my own head.) I mean, really, didn’t you know the world will END if you brag? Especially if you are a woman. Heaven forbid that you actually appreciate something awesome about yourself and want to share it with others. Heaven forbid that you give yourself a public pat on the back like I did last week. (And yes, I felt fairly uncomfortable about doing that, which was a signal to myself that it was important to do.) Humility is a great trait to embrace, but according to a recent Psychology Today blog post, “humble people are not self-deprecating but rather accurate in how they regard and present themselves.” And that is a big difference indeed.

I see this kind of unproductive behavior all the time. I talked to a friend this weekend who knows she is under charging for her valuable services. This is not the first friend I’ve talked to with this problem. I’ve talked to award-winning writers who are convinced they suck. On Twitter, a friend was talking about her husband, and how he gets a fabulous performance review every time at work, and then within a week or so he’s already back to worrying about how he’s doing. So many of us have so much trouble embracing our strengths and talents and believing in ourselves.

I recently read some blogging advice that said that in every post, you should be revealing all of your own weaknesses and mess-ups and personal disasters because that is what people like to read. And it’s true, there is a certain appealing rawness to that sort of writing, and certainly it’s not always the most helpful or communicative (or honest) to set oneself up as perfect. But aren’t success stories also instructive? Do I really have to focus only on the parts of me I don’t like in order to engage an audience? We as a culture seem to have this idea that we aren’t allowed to acknowledge our own awesomeness. Instead we wallow in insecurity and resentment, and at our low point, we try to tear other people down because we can’t raise ourselves up.

Photo by Kate McCarthy

Well, screw that! I love that Elizabeth Bear shows how this kind of behavior doesn’t just hurt ourselves, it hurts the people for whom we are role models–it is particularly brilliant because it tricks people into healthier behavior by playing on their concern for others. But can we take it a step further? Let’s have this concern for ourselves. Let’s acknowledge when we do something well, or when we come through in a difficult situation, or when we face our fears and do important work anyway. Let’s acknowledge that we are allowed to have something to say, that we are allowed to have opinions, that we are allowed to value our own expertise. Let’s acknowledge that we are worth it.

And let’s all take a moment to brag and celebrate our own awesomeness. (Oh, the horror!) Leave me a comment and tell me something amazing about you. It can be something small, like the way you rocked your To-Do list yesterday, or it can be something large, like how you raised millions of dollars for charity. Tell me how great you look in that outfit, or how many books you read last year, or the amazing high score you got on your GRE/SAT/whatever test you want. Tell me about the awards you’ve been nominated for (or won!), or the way you totally helped someone out, or how you met one of your goals. The sky is the limit, and the only rule is, you have to brag. About yourself.

I’ll start us off. I sold six stories in my first year of selling anything at all. I am super smart. I have a great smile. I spend most of my time doing things that I love and/or really care about. I read thirty books in the past three months. I am a passionate and dedicated blogger. I am an intellectual bad ass.

Yeesh, that was uncomfortable. And now it’s your turn. Guilt-free bragging! Who’s with me?

I can’t wait to read about how amazing you all are.

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I haven’t been writing recently about being a people pleaser, or becoming more assertive, and other topics like that. You know why? Because it’s hard. It’s hard to change how you react to things. It’s hard to tear your life apart, examine it from every angle, and then slowly put it back together again. I often put pieces on backwards, or they just don’t fit right even though I’m hammering at them for dear life.

But then I read this essay by Penelope Trunk, who is, as you know, one of my favorite bloggers, and I realized I should write about it more. Here is what she had to say:

“It’s hard to know who to take advice from. But my instinct tells me that the best advice comes from the people with the most difficulties. Not in the past. But right now. Because that’s where you want to be: doing something difficult right this moment.”

So yeah. I’m doing something difficult right now, so maybe it is worth talking about, even though it’s dangerous and messy and I don’t have all the answers. I don’t want to give you advice as much as I want to illustrate that people can in fact do this–that people can change themselves, that people can look at themselves and say, I could be a lot happier than I am, and then take positive steps to make it so. Because I meet so many people who seem to think that almost everything is impossible, and that just isn’t true.

Here are two things that happen when you have actually made strides at changing your people pleaser tendencies: people will freak the hell out, and you will realize you have spent most of your life listening to very bad advice.

People will freak out because, even if they are actually decent people (and sadly, some of them aren’t), they are used to you being a doormat. You suddenly deciding you’re not a doormat is vastly inconvenient and confusing. It disrupts the normal patterns of all your relationships. Even the people who are generally supportive of this change will sometimes freak out, because oh my god change and where do they fit into this new picture?

As for the bad advice, it’s amazing how willing many people are to support you making decisions that are outright harmful for you. Society as a whole is quite okay with this notion too. There are two forces at work here. There are the people who are taking advantage of you in some way. It is obviously in their best interest to give you bad advice about continuing to be a doormat with everyone; they have a vested interest in you continuing to drink the Kool-aid. And there are the people who are doormats just like you, who don’t have good advice to give since they are in the same unfortunate position, and who wouldn’t give the good advice anyway because then it might force them to examine their own position, which they don’t want to do because of the chaos that would then ensue in their own lives.

Of course, once you have that lightbulb moment in which you realize how generally absurd most of this advice is (and wouldn’t that make a fun post one of these days?), there is no turning back. You have taken the red pill, and you begin to wonder: why was pleasing these people ever so important in the first place? So instead you sit back and watch them freak out, and you remember that you are worth it. And you keep resisting the gravitation pull of going back to the old comfortable ways that were holding you down.


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I don’t really like pain, and I don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I daydream about my ideal life, when I have fixed all my problems, have everything I want, and am exactly where I want to be in my career.I will never achieve that ideal life. And thank goodness, because if I did I’d be bored stiff…in which case I would have a problem, wouldn’t I?

Seth Godin published an insightful post last week entitled “Trading in your pain,” in which he outlines two common problems we can have due to our relationship with pain.

The first is the “if only” syndrome. We think if only something (fill in the blank) happens, then everything will be great and we won’t feel pain/discomfort/ uncertainty anymore. If only I meet the right person. If only I buy the right house. If only I remodel. If only I get an agent. If only I sell my first novel. If only my sales figures exceed a certain golden number. If only I win this award or make that bestseller list. If only I get this promotion. If only I was better or had more or …

That’s not generally the way things work, though. Whatever “if only” you’re hoping for (and I’m holding out for several myself), even if it happens, it will open the way to new challenges, new problems, new if only’s, and new pain as you strive. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing well. It doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. It’s just life.

The second is the “fear of change” syndrome. We sometimes become comfortable with a certain flavor of pain or discomfort, and we hold onto it really tightly so we won’t have to deal with another, unknown flavor instead. We become frozen. Stagnant. Afraid of success and the new problems success will bring us. Afraid of a different failure mode and how that will make us feel.

Behind the GateWriters who don’t write are having this second problem. They are used to dealing with the failure mode of “I suck because I’m not writing” and don’t want to address whatever issues might come up if they actually did write: “I suck because I’m not selling” or “I suck because I’m not selling enough” or “I suck because now I have to make business decisions” or whatever.

But I see this problem everywhere, not just in writers. We make ourselves at home with a certain problem, and settle in for keeps. And in the process, we get stuck. We can’t move on; we can’t grow.

Our identity and our personal narrative become entwined with our pain. I’m the girl whose mother died when I was only nineteen. That’s not who I am anymore. It is, however, who I could have been. It is who I was for a period of years. And then I let go and moved on. Instead I’m the girl who loved her mother very much.

Pain can be your friend. It will be lurking nearby for your entire life, and that’s okay. It means you’re alive, and it reminds you that you care what happens. It can push you forward instead of holding you still. It can give you focus instead of causing you to scatter. It can make our priorities clear to us.

If you could shed one “if only” or do one thing that makes you frightened, what would it be?

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It’s been a good year here at the Practical Free Spirit. I’ve garnered much enjoyment from writing for this blog, and as I gain more experience, the essays often come easier. I’m becoming clearer about what I care about writing about, and I’ve had some great conversations with many of you.

In terms of traffic, the blog is growing slowly but steadily. I’m happy to say that December 2011 has recently become the highest-traffic month in the blog’s history. It’s a satisfying way to close out the year.

Photo by Ray Wewerka

The Backbone Project:

This summer I ran the very successful backbone project, in which I committed to writing three essays on subjects about which I was nervous to write. Not only did I get some much needed practice in being assertive and brave, but I got to hear about so many people’s experiences and opinions, all of which enriched my own. All of the backbone project posts landed in the list of top 10 read posts this year.

The Backbone Project: Help Me Become Less Wishy-Washy
You are not a Weenie if a Critique Makes You Cry
Where is my Geek Cred?
The Teetotaler Manifesto, or Why I Don’t Drink

Most Popular Posts:

Being an Introvert is Awesome!

Like it or not, people in our society are very worried about being introverts, due to the false association between introversion and lack of social skills.

Loneliness and Social Media

The popularity of this article makes me realize that this is another issue that many people are concerned about. Does social media connect us more or make us feel more isolated?

Living Free From Regret

This one is mostly popular because of the awesome photo, but the message is inspiring too.

10 Things I Wish I’d Known 10 Years Ago

This recent post has the distinction of being the second most read post ever on the site on the day of its publication.

My Personal Favorites:

Writers are Super Heroes

This essay gives me an extra dose of “go get them” energy when I need it.

Problem Competition: Who is Worse Off?

How comparing our problems pushes us farther apart instead of bringing us together.

Will You Change the World?

I hope the answer is yes!

The Stories of Our Lives

“We are all leading ladies and men. And we each get the privilege of creating the stories of our lives.”

All together, it’s been a great year. Here’s to another year of interesting thoughts and engaging conversations!

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Some of my astute readers might have noticed that I initiated a massive life re-haul and personality shift this year. I have written a fair amount about being a people pleaser, developing a backbone, and being a perfectionist because these were things that were on my mind. I decided, somewhere in the haze of extreme tooth pain, that I needed to change, and I set about doing just that.

I’m still in the middle of it. It has already been completely worth it.

It is one of the hardest things I’ve done.

Here is what I have learned: You have to respect yourself. You have to believe that you are worth it. And you have to do whatever it takes to convince yourself you are worth it, even if it means muttering silly mantras to yourself and being glad you work at home so no one suspects you are crazy.

I have spent my entire life believing that if only I was good enough (oh, hey perfectionism), people would love me, respect me, and treat me well. I really wish this were the case, but I was flat-out wrong. The truth is, if you are willing to let something happen, the odds are that it will happen. If you are willing to tolerate being lied to, then people will lie to you. If you are willing to let people ignore you, then they will. If you don’t take a stand against bad behavior towards yourself, then that bad behavior will continue. The world doesn’t give you a voice, you have to demand it.

And in order to demand the respect you deserve, you have to give it to yourself first. You have to believe you are worth it.

Photo by Anita Hart

This self-respect is not the same as thinking you are perfect and infallible and can’t possibly make a mistake. Therein lies another problem (oh, hey narcissism). And it doesn’t preclude feeling compassion for people, even (and especially) the ones who are in the middle of making your life difficult.

What self-respect does give you is the ability to empower yourself. It gives you the choice of surrounding yourself with people who will lift you up instead of pulling you down. It gives you the chance to speak up. It gives you permission to refuse to take on every single problem as your own, when so many of them aren’t really yours at all. It gives you the strength to confront the parts of yourself that you don’t like. It gives you the space to say “No.”

No, I am not your bitch. But thanks for asking.

Remember that you are worth it. That is what I have learned this year.

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1. It is not as common as it once was to spend your entire career working at one company, or even in one career. Therefore most of my parents’ career advice was completely useless.

2. Bodies are complicated, and often doctors don’t know what’s wrong. So sometimes you have to get creative and proactive in seeking out information, alternatives, and talented people who can help you.

3. A large number of acquaintances is not necessarily going to be as satisfying as a small number of people to whom you can reveal your true self.

4. If your significant other is not meeting one of your core needs and shows no inclination of doing so in the future, it is okay (even necessary) to break up with them.

5. So much of life boils down to communication. Unfortunately, many people are incredibly bad at it.

6. Thinking you might not be good enough is not a good enough reason to decide not to do something.

7. The people who are judgmental about your life choices are generally not the people you want to spend time with, anyway. And it’s impossible to make every person in the entire world like you.

8. Be on the lookout for those who are taking away your agency. The easiest way to have your choices taken away from you is if you never even realize you had a choice in the first place.

9. Fake it until you make it is a cheesy-sounding piece of advice that is actually true. Corollary: Your major is not as important as you think. (Except when it is.)

10. Be fanatical about taking care of your teeth, flossing, and visiting the dentist regularly. And use a mouth guard if there’s even a chance you’re grinding your teeth at night…the unsexiness of such a device be damned!

What do you know now that you wish you’d learned earlier?

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When I was entering the job market in my early twenties, I tried to be proactive and prepare for the inevitable interview process. The hypothetical question that all the articles told me I had to be ready for that freaked me out the most was the perennial: What is your greatest weakness? I still hate this question. I mean, there you are, trying your best to sell yourself in a high pressure situation and then you’re forced to talk about your less than ideal points? Plus, according to said interview advice, what you were really supposed to do was choose a “weakness” that you could spin as a positive, meaning that the entire exchange was just an elaborate test of whether or not you could bullshit effectively. Ugh. Anyhow, I chose perfectionism as my flaw, which was one of the examples used on the internet as a good choice. Because perfectionism (I thought) shows that you are actually very diligent, hardworking, detail oriented, and competent.

I never got asked that question in an interview.

Which is just as well, because after having spent years and years of my life as a recovering perfectionist, I can say with authority that the negatives far outweigh any positives. And if I had answered the way I’d planned to anyone with insight into human character, it might very well have cost me the job.

Nothing and no one living is always perfect. (Photo by jfh686 on flickr)

Not convinced? Let me draw your attention to some perfectionism highlights:

1. Freeze/block: Yes, perfectionism can cause things like writer’s block. I know because to this day it gives me trouble while I’m writing. Once a perfectionist realizes there is no way to get a given job done perfectly, it becomes oh so very difficult to do that job at all. At least, if we actually care about the job at all. The less we care, the easier it is to avoid the freeze.

2. Inefficiency: Unless the perfectionist’s target IS efficiency, of course. Because it’s so hard for us to leave something alone and actually call it done. If we just made another little tweak…or a hundred. If we only had time to start over. You’d better hope your perfectionist is feeling perfectionistic about deadlines, or it’s all over. (Happily, I am in fact a perfectionist about deadlines, so at least I get to finish, whether I like it or not.)

3. Stress: If you aren’t a perfectionist yourself, just imagine a world in which everything you are even tangentially involved with has to be perfect and go exactly as planned. And if it’s not perfect, you have failed and it is All. Your Fault. And if it doesn’t go as planned, then life is ruined. And if only you could be a little better, maybe all the problems in the universe would disappear. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

4. Obliviousness, otherwise known as self denigration: Because perfectionists hold ourselves to such impossible standards, we often fail to notice, or give ourselves appropriate credit for, the awesome things we may accomplish. We may not notice positive character traits, and if we do, we think they’re no big deal. If we achieve something big, we focus on what we didn’t achieve yet, something we failed at, or explain why it isn’t important: Well, but I’ve only made one pro sale. Well, but I’ve only sold one novel. Well, but I was only able to succeed at x because I failed so spectacularly at y. Well, but I’m not that intelligent because I don’t have a PhD/don’t have a deep understanding of quantum mechanics/don’t speak six different languages fluently.

So yes, all is not fun bright times in perfectionism world. While perfectionism does often create driven personalities who go on to achieve great things, I think there are ways of being driven and ambitious without being quite so hard on ourselves. One of my favorite parts of The West Wing was when President Bartlett had dealt with a problem, often less than perfectly, often when there were no good solutions or easy answers. He’d always turn right around and say, “What next?” What next allows us to focus on what we can do instead of dwelling on our inability to be perfect.

Any other perfectionists out there? Any strategies you use to help you work through it? Any aspects you find especially difficult? I’d love to hear from you.

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It’s really hard for me to write about aging. Hard enough that I’ve been procrastinating on the internet and thinking through what I want to say and then tearing it to shreds before I type a single word–not because it’s so bad, but because I’m trying to avoid writing about it. Which of course, given my obstinate nature, means that now I really have to.

Our culture gives aging a very bad rap. I mean, we live in a world in which it doesn’t sound completely unusual for someone to say that the best years of life were in high school, or college, and once you turn twenty-five, it’s all downhill from there. Whenever I hear that kind of thinking, I want to scream. I mean, sure, there were some good moments in high school, and college was a special time for me, but really? That’s as good as it gets? Fumbling around in the dark being confused and angsty and not understanding what was going on half the time is supposed to be the high point of my life? No, thanks.

Photo by ezioman on Flickr

I’ve been thinking about aging a lot after that whole tooth debacle, which awakened me to the profound idea that I probably won’t keep all my teeth for my whole life. I know, I know, who hasn’t heard of dentures, but it shook me up all the same. And then I’ve been having all these bizarre health problems, and they make me feel old. For the record, none of these health problems are age-related. Let me repeat that. NONE of them are age-related. But it’s easy to slip into the sloppy thinking that maybe they are.

But really, what makes me think about aging is my epidemic of white hairs. I know, how superficial, right? My mother went gray at a fairly young age, and I remember kids thinking she must be a grandmother because of her hair…when she was around FORTY. Ever since that time I have associated gray hair with looking old, so I am ridiculously disturbed whenever a white hair intrudes upon my notice. It screams out at me with its little crispy voice, “Aha! You see me? You can’t even pretend to be in your twenties anymore. And your life might already be half over.”

I am choosing to reveal my neuroticism about aging (and I’m sure I’m not alone in how I feel) because it is all in my head. Yay society for helping me out with that, but ultimately I can choose for myself how I feel about aging. And what I choose will affect the rest of my life, quite literally. This study showed that people who thought about how aging might be affecting them performed worse on memory performance tests. So how I think about myself as I age will determine what I am able to achieve. Suddenly, developing a healthy relationship with aging seems a whole lot more important.

We tend to focus on the negative impacts of aging, but what about the many positive ones? I’ve become a much more developed singer and musician than I used to be, and I have the same maturation of my writing to look forward to in the future. I know and understand myself a lot better than I used to, which greatly improves the quality of my life. I am happier. I know more things and have more skills. I have perspective and experience, and I look forward to gaining more of both. I have more trust in myself.

Aimee Mann recently gave an interview all about aging (imagine, a famous musician actually daring to talk about her age!), and she said:

So that’s what aging probably means. You’ve got to be around long enough to try all the dumb stuff and then get sick of it and then kind of reach the conclusion of, look, I don’t care if this is cool or sounds cool, I want a life that works now, because I want to be creative, and it’s not being creative to be obsessed, anxious, depressed, trying to control other people, trying to control circumstances, and flipping out when stuff doesn’t go your way. But that’s what most people are. And you know, I don’t need to make cool my higher power. Cool doesn’t work.

Yes. I want to be creative in a way that works. And the closer aging can bring me to that, the more valuable it becomes.

Fundamentally, all of us will either age or we’ll die. Given my choice, I’d pick aging any day.

So, anyone else ever feel neurotic about aging? Got anything you are particularly looking forward to as you age, or have you already experienced some positive benefits? Please share.

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This week I have a Neil Patrick Harris quote stuck in my head:
“I feel like it’s important to have three lives. Your professional life, your personal life, and your private life.”
He goes on to talk about how these lives relate to the entertainment industry in particular, but while I think the distinction may be more relevant for public figures (including many artists), I was struck by how the same could be said of all of us.

The professional life: This is our most public face, the life in which we are focused on our career and the image we want to project to the general population. We live this life when we’re at the office, at professional events (although these sometimes blur into the personal and private), and doing public tasks associated with our roles. For instance, a mom attending a PTA meeting, a writer sending a query, and a businessperson attending a party for the primary purpose of networking could be said to be living their professional lives.

The personal life: This is still often a public part of our lives, but it is focused on a life outside of jobs, careers, and professional-related goals. This life includes such things as friendships, relationships, family, and hobbies, although only to a certain depth. It might also involve your religion (particularly if you attend church, thereby making your practice more public) and certain groups or communities you may belong to (while others of these will be private). Information (non-work-related) that you feel comfortable divulging in casual conversation with an acquaintance probably lands in this sphere. What you post on Facebook or Google+ often also falls into this category, unless you’ve made the decision to use these tools for strictly professional purposes.

The personal life can be an important component of professional relationships. We are often expected to have hobbies and interests so we appear well-rounded, for instance; there is also the stereotypical example from the ‘50s of the ambitious young man who is expected to get married (and perhaps even start a family) in order to receive the coveted promotion. The personal life plays a key role in the new trend of authenticity–allowing your audience inside your life so they gain the impression of really knowing you.

The private life: Most people do not want this life to be public. It includes the deeper aspects of relationships and friendships, facets of ourselves that we think we will be judged for, and certain stories from our pasts. If there is some part of your life that you do not generally speak of, or only to a carefully chosen few, that falls into your private life.

Everyone has different comfort levels and therefore different boundaries that constitute the private life, but we have certain societal norms for what we tend to share and what we don’t. When someone doesn’t share these norms or has parts of the private life come unexpectedly to light, the result is often scandal and/or controversy: for example, when Penelope Trunk tweeted that she was at a business meeting and in the middle of a miscarriage, or when a politician’s unconventional sex life becomes headline news.

The secret life: According to Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel Galileo’s Dream, we have seven secret lives as well:

“We all have seven secret lives. The life of excretion; the world of inappropriate sexual fantasies; our real hopes; our terror of death; our experience of shame; the world of pain; and our dreams. No one else ever knows these lives.”
I would add another to these secret lives: the unique experience of being the person we are. No one else can completely understand what it is to be Amy, just as no one can completely understand what it is to be you. Empathy can help us in our quest for understanding, but it falls short of complete experience.
Can you divide your own life into these parts? Where do their boundaries fall for you?

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