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Posts Tagged ‘resilience’

Change is an Inside Job

I’ve gotten two pieces of advice repeatedly over the last week, and they’ve both proven to be quite helpful, so I thought I’d share.

  1. “Things will get better now that the pretending is passed.” aka you don’t have to pretend everything is completely fine.
  2. Talk to your friends about your problems.

So I followed this advice. I stopped pretending, and I talked, and I talked, and I talked some more, and some more after that. And in between I did nice things for myself and gave myself a lot of alone time.

And eventually the clouds began to lift, and I began to feel better.

In the process, I learned something interesting about change.

There’s this feeling I’ve been having for quite some time, a fear that the change I’ve been working toward all this time isn’t real or long-term, that it won’t stick, that one day it will disappear without warning, that I’ll find myself back where I started. It’s very powerful, this fear, and not all that helpful.

Here is what I have realized: conscious change does not ultimately depend on external factors. Change does not rest on the shoulders of one or two key people in our lives, or on a job, or on geography. Change does not rest on our communities, or on a hobby, or on a lifestyle choice. All of these things can help facilitate change, yes, absolutely. But strip any of them away, and what are we left with?

The internal change. We can be thrown into situations that we might have hoped all this change would have prevented. But if there has been internal change, we will respond differently. We will have different skills and different strengths. We will see the situation differently, we might be aware of different options, and we will be able to make different choices if that is what we want to do.

Internal change is not something that just goes away. Can we experience a backslide? Sure. Some confusion? You bet. But I could no more find myself back where I started than I could snap my fingers and cause instantaneous deep change on a whim. Everything–all the hard work, all the insights, all the frustrations and setbacks, all the small victories–builds on itself to create the change.

And perhaps one of the last steps is to gain the confidence that such change can be both true and lasting. That it is not something that can be irrevocably lost or taken away. That failures and difficult situations are an opportunity to learn more rather than some kind of final grim judgment of self-worth.

That the change is not dependent on any one thing or any one person except myself.

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight cc

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“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

—Kurt Vonnegut

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“This is just too hard.” I declare this late at night, tears streaming down my cheeks, head rested on my friend’s shoulder.

To be soft is to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable is to have those moments when it seems impossible to continue.

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Photo Credit: Send me adrift. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Send me adrift. via Compfight cc

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I tell my friend about a share my blog post about grief got on Facebook. “I have never experienced loss to this degree,” the person said about my post.

“Why?” I ask my friend. “I want to be the person who has never experienced loss. Why can’t I be that person?”

I have all the silver linings for loss and suffering memorized. They build character. They mean I am living life fully, that I am throwing myself fully into the world around me. They have helped me develop the resilience that allows me to pick myself afterwards and keep moving. They give me a depth of experience that I can use to help other people and that I can use to enrich my writing. I wouldn’t give up who I am today, and my experiences have shaped me.

But I’d be lying if I told you that whisper of “Why?” doesn’t linger in the background.

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We cannot erase the why. But there isn’t always an answer to that question. There isn’t always a reason.

Life doesn’t always have a satisfying narrative.

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We don’t get to determine why. But we can try to affect the how. We can strive to retain our softness, or we can allow ourselves to harden in defense. We can allow a moment of impossibility to extend to a lifetime, our doors remaining securely locked, or we can reject that idea and live to fling the door open once more. We can withdraw in fury or fear or hopelessness, or we can look for a way to give, to reach out, to make our time count.

We can believe the world is still a beautiful place. Maybe not all the world, and not all the time. But we can start with a small moment: the beginnings of a smile, the release of a sigh, the comfort of a hand on a shoulder.

Why? We do not know. But the beauty remains, if we allow ourselves to remember how to see it.

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Oh, 2013. How glad I am that you are almost over. You had your moments, many of them, but you sure didn’t spare the punches either. You taught me many new things and reminded me of many things I already knew.

Photo Credit: MomMaven via Compfight cc

Here are some of the ideas I’m taking with me into 2014:

1. Things often take longer than you think they’ll take. Especially things you really care about or that are particularly unpleasant.

2. Stress takes its toll on the physical body.

3. Perfection is frequently impossible. Doing one’s best is a more realistic target.

4. Meaning in life is created by relationships, engaging work, and an ability to reframe adversity.

5. Feelings are always okay. It’s what you do with them that you have to be careful about.

6. The gift of true and unconditional listening is rare. Shower those who give it to you with affection and appreciation.

7. The temptation to lie is data about you and your relationship with the person to whom you want to lie.

8. Sometimes pretending you belong even when you feel like you don’t will get you pretty far.

9. Knowing who you are is magic akin to knowing a true name.

10. Sometimes other people are wrong.

11. Learning to recognize the difference between things that are true about yourself and things society has told you are true about yourself can help you achieve things you never thought were possible.

12. The food in France is really, really good.

13. Home is a little white dog, a piano, a place to create, and good times with friends.

14. Asking is a good skill to cultivate. So is saying no. So is generosity.

15. Being imperfect makes you more approachable.

16. Failure is a part of life. Sometimes it feels like it is a larger part of life than you would like. That is the time to embrace it even more strongly. You are learning, you are growing, you are taking risks, and you are the active driver of your own life story.

17. Change takes a long time and is often uncomfortable and difficult. You will need all your courage and belief in yourself to pull it off. Including the courage to fail and pick yourself back up to try again.

18. I can listen to Moonface’s new album Julia with Blue Jeans On over and over again and I never get tired of it.

19. Repeat after me: You can’t make everybody happy all the time. No, really. You can’t. Nobody can.

20. In times of darkness, it is the ability to find the pinpoints of light that keeps you going.

21. Sometimes I am lonely. But I am not alone.

What have you learned this year?

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This summer I went to a workshop about dealing with fear, and I left it feeling disappointed. The teachers didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known. They kept using examples that either weren’t really about fear or that were about being afraid of public speaking. So it wasn’t a talk geared for me.

Apparently fear of public speaking is the second most common fear in the United States. But to me, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I get nervous ahead of time, and I over-prepare, and I don’t always do a good job with it. But it’s so much better than having to sing operatic arias in a foreign language I don’t actually speak that contain high notes I can’t actually hit from memory and then have my performance critiqued in front of a group of fellow singers. That’s what I spent my college years doing. Which was still better than actual auditions.

So one way to manage fear is to do something a lot harder, and then easier things might not seem so bad. Another way is to do whatever you’re afraid to do A LOT. So basically you’re practicing your way out of fear.

But really I was disappointed in the talk because there is no easy answer. Whether you’re afraid of speaking in public or dying, uncertainty or being treated poorly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And I wish there was. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion. It can both hold us back and make things a lot more miserable even as we trudge forward. It can warp the nature of reality itself, making things that might be true seem like they are actually true. And it can make us physically ill in a variety of ways.

I have spent a lot of time being afraid. And ultimately it’s always the same thing that pushes me through.

Belief.

I remember once as a student, I was walking towards the music building where I had an audition. I think I was sick (I was almost always sick), and I already knew I wasn’t going to get the part. I thought to myself, Why are you even bothering? Why don’t you just go home? Why are you doing this to yourself?

But the answer was clear. I had decided to do this. I believed this was what I should be doing, even though I felt awful and I was really nervous and I knew I wouldn’t get the part. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to be, and this crappy audition experience was a part of that. So I went, and I did the audition, and I didn’t get the part, and I moved on.

Belief is still what gets me through fear. I fix my eyes on my idea of the future, and I clench my jaw, and I do what needs to be done to give myself a chance of getting there. The fear is still there, making things harder, making me pause and ask myself why I am putting myself through such difficulty. But I believe in my vision, and I hold onto that belief as if my life depends on it.

So I guess if I were to give a workshop on overcoming fear, I’d explore how to create a vision strong enough to withstand whatever fear can throw at us. I’d look for some exercises to promote self esteem, because in order to believe in a vision, I think we also have to believe in ourselves. And I’d talk about how to take care of ourselves and handle rejection and disappointment and failure and other obstacles in a resilient way that allows us to keep moving forward.

How do you overcome fear?

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Photo Credit: chiaralily via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When have you started over?

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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 have a new favorite Facebook personage whose page I have liked. He’s a writer named Jonathan Carroll, and he posts all of these amazing quotations and excerpts from his work that tend to be quite insightful and make me happy.

Here’s a quote he shared earlier this week: “It is a great art to laugh at your own misfortune.” – Danish proverb

Photo by Manosij Mukherjee

Remember how I said one mark of emotional resiliency is developing a sense of humor? (I know, I know, I keep going back to that, but I’m just so excited to have a name for one of my interests.) I suspect that an especially helpful part of humor is the ability to laugh at yourself, your life, your world. And when I can’t do that, when I can’t find anything remotely funny, even the tiniest bit that is only tangentially related, well, that’s when I know I’m in for a real emotional wringer.

I was talking to someone about absurdity, and how a sense of absurdity in life can result in a loss of meaning. But I don’t think this has to be the case. Sometimes finding that hint of the absurd is the only way I can find humor in a given situation. Absurdity also makes it easier for me to laugh at myself, as I notice my own foibles and eccentricities. The trick, then, is to notice the absurdity around yourself while not allowing it to erode those ideas, relationships, or things through which you find meaning.

Perhaps we can do this by realizing that so much of everything is absurd if you’re looking at it from a certain perspective, and accepting the absurdity while still seeing the beauty and meaning shining through. (Is this a type of idealism, perhaps? Or optimism?) Look at writing, for example. So many things about writing are absurd. The cultural norms reflected both in and around writing, the prescribed structures of fiction, the putting down words and then deleting them and then putting down more words and then deleting them ad nauseam. The basic idea of fiction, of writing down a story that never happened and never will happen, has an element of absurdity in it–enough, in fact, that some people cannot enjoy fiction because of this (although I do wonder if this reflects on their ability to deal with absurdity in other realms of life as well). What about the idea of becoming immortal through your words, an absurd idea if I ever heard one given the low chances of being one of the few writers whose works are still being read two hundred years later. And don’t even get me started on the absurdities inherent in the business aspects of being a writer, because they are legion.

And yet, writing still has deep meaning for me. I can laugh at it (and I do), and then I sit down and write some more. Absurdity doesn’t erase the importance of writing for me; it is a part of writing, and then there are other aspects of writing that call to me and make the time and energy spent on it seem deeply worthwhile. It’s a similar strangeness to that of concurrently laughing at yourself and taking yourself very seriously.

I wish I had something sage but pithy to say about how to develop the art of laughing at oneself. But the truth is, sometimes it comes easily to me and sometimes it doesn’t. I do find that the more I can gain a wider perspective and the less caught up in perfectionism I am, the easier it gets. So I suppose that’s my insight for today: Look outside of yourself. Allow yourself imperfections. Go ahead and hold yourself to a high standard to begin with, but be gentle when you fall down. Cultivate laughter. And spend time around people who do the same.

What are you laughing about today?

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