Planning too much means you may lack self-confidence

planning

This is day 15 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions: “What happens when you try to control things?” and “What would happen if you stopped trying to control things?” More info here

Writing about control before, I used the analogy of a violin bow: when I gripped my bow too tightly, trying to control the bouncing rather than letting it do its thing, I couldn’t get the technique right. 

It’s telling that you could come up with any number of analogies to show that excessive control and rigidity is detrimental. I remember a particularly painful roller coaster ride that threatened to give me a migraine; halfway through, I deliberately relaxed instead of reflexively squeezing my neck and shoulders, knowing that would make the pain even worse. The best swing dancers adapt to the music, not planning their flourishes and flare but acting on the spur of the moment. And it’s well known that when your car skids, you don’t try to pull it back in the right direction but follow the skid. 

In other words, roll with the punches.  

Through a bit of self-reflection, I realized that the reason I try to control and plan things is so that I know what’s going to happen so I can prepare for it so I’m certain I’ll be able to deal with things. That was a bit of a shock – does that mean I’m not confident that I can deal with things unless I know what they are? 

To survive in this world, we have to cultivate the belief – somewhere deep down – that whatever happens, I’ll be able to handle it. Because whatever is definitely going to happen – day after day after day. I went to a talk by a Buddhist who matter-of-factly explained that we go through life expecting everything – from our loved ones to our dinner to the guy in the next highway lane – to act the way we want.  “Why don’t you spend more time with me?” “I don’t like this tomato sauce!” “Why are there no parking spaces?” – all that could be paraphrased as “Why isn’t the world conforming exactly to my wishes and whims??” 

Well, when you put it that way…

It takes a supreme amount of self-confidence to be open to the unknown, to the “whatever.” We have to believe that, just as we have in the past, we’ll be able to survive the bangs and blows and disappointments. Planning and scheduling and over-preparing, beyond a reasonable amount, may just be creating an illusion of stability. Paradoxically, we show control by giving up control. 

For control freaks, the unexpected becomes a problem, an anomaly. Sushi is my favorite food and – as silly as this example is – when someone suggests sushi for dinner and I was expecting something else, I find myself getting frazzled rather than jumping for joy. We risk ignoring or dismissing happy accidents because they’re not part of the plan.

So we have a choice. Be the stiff violinist, the thrill seeker with a headache, the mediocre swing dancer, and the car accident victim. Or be flexible, adaptable, wide-eyed, flowing – and confident. 

Photo by Flickr user Nomadic Lass

The grace of reaching out

holding hands

This is day 14 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “Who is there for you when things don’t work out?” More info here.

When I’m afraid to reach out for help, I sometimes ask myself: how would I feel if the roles were reversed? 

If a friend or a loved one were in pain, struggling, hurting, would you want them to come to you? Or would you want them to keep quiet, afraid of what you might think of them? 

The fact that these questions are a no-brainer means that our emotional antennae are a little haywire as far as reaching out goes. 

Researcher Brene Brown goes even further: if you see yourself as weak for reaching out, that means you can’t help but see others as weak for seeking your help. It’s only logical. So the choice is clear: let yourself off the hook, or admit that your friends are spineless, too. 

I was raised to value independence, and things started getting tricky as soon as I formed strong relationships. Did having a boyfriend mean I was no longer independent? What if losing him would be devastating? Maybe it was then that I started to “make up” for the weakness of having a loved one by trying to handle all my emotions alone.

Some sort of confused pride held me back from sharing all my struggles, but fear is another culprit – the fear of judgment. Talking about our pain and problems is like handing off a fragile glass globe to someone else, hoping they won’t break it. And sometimes our friend or family member drops it on the ground accidentally by judging us, dismissing our feelings, or one-upping us with their own problems. Other times, the judgment is just in our heads, projected onto them.

But a theme that runs through Brown’s two books on vulnerability is that we can’t go it alone. As much as I’m loath to say it, I need my father, my fiance, my friends. Shame gets its power from the unspoken, and the fear of what will happen if we speak. People who are resilient to shame are the ones who reach out, seek help, and ask for what they need. During her “spiritual awakening” – her euphemism for a breakdown – Brown made the most progress when she forced herself to dial a friend in the middle of a “shame storm.” 

And those moments are the stuff of real connection. If someone can handle your glass globe of emotion delicately, without judgment, with sympathy and love, you’re weaving the threads of unbreakable connection. And when that person needs someone – as they inevitably will, because they’re human – they’ll be more likely to reach out to you. 

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, writes: 

“Brilliant people sometimes do the most unintelligent thing possible. In the midst of stress, rather than investing, these individuals divested from the greatest predictor of success and happiness: their social support network. Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance. But instead, these students had somehow learned that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – to an isolated cubicle in the library basement.” 

It’s time we reject our double standards and get truly tough – and see reaching out not as weakness, but as courage.

Photo by Flickr user Valerie Everett

Weekly research roundup: Here are the happiest languages and vowels

Happiness research

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

There’s an “i” in happiness – Researchers in Germany found that pronouncing an “i” sound – which contracts your facial muscles into a semi-smile – makes you happier, while an “o” sound – which produces a less chipper facial expression – makes you sadder. They also found that words with “i” tend to be more positive (“like”), while words with “o” tend to be more negative (“alone”).

Talk happy – Researchers from the University of Vermont found that Spanish, Portuguese, and English are the happiest languages. They picked 100,000 popular words from 10 languages and asked 5 million native speakers (total) to rate how positive or negative they are. Although all the languages had a positive bias – more positive words than negative ones – Chinese was the least happy.

Thanks, moms – A study of 315 same-sex couples in Australia found that children to same-sex couples had 6% higher physical health and family cohesion than children to heterosexual couples.

Don’t quit Facebook – A study out of Kansas State University found that people who take smartphone breaks during work report higher happiness and well-being. Using social media apps like Facebook and Twitter has more of a positive effect than playing games. Participants used their smartphones an average of 22 minutes during the work day.

Put up the fence – According to a pan-European study by the UK Office for National Statistics, connections to your community aren’t associated with higher levels of happiness.

Get your priorities straight – According to a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education of 10,000 middle and high school students, students care more about achievement than happiness or caring for others – and believe their parents and friends do, too.

Beware the big 3-0 – Research has shown that career satisfaction dips in your 30s, and a study out of Australia suggests that it’s because time pressure at work increases (as new recruits ask for help and mentoring) and coworker support wanes (as you compete for promotions).

Adapted photo by Flickr user TobiasMik WhatWeDo

 

 

That moment when everything is perfect and you think about…someone dying

storm line foreboding joy

This is day 13 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What things in life are you afraid of losing? Instead of feeling fear, can you feel gratitude?” More info here.

For a long time, Brene Brown thought she was the only one who stood over her sleeping children and, “engulfed with love and adoration,” immediately imagined them being killed in car accidents and her getting a call from the police. 

This phenomenon, which she calls “foreboding joy,” is one of those things that everyone does and no one talks about. Curled up in a warm embrace, my heart fit to bursting with happiness, is when I tend to have my shudders of fear about loss and mortality. 

Brown’s topic is vulnerability, and she brings up foreboding joy as an example of how avoiding vulnerability keeps us from fully experiencing positive emotions, not just negative ones. It’s hard to accept that the things in our lives that we love the most are tenuous, fleeting, and fragile, so we back off. Woah, there, don’t get so happy. It might be too good to be true. 

In our heads, we might think we’re preparing ourselves – steeling up our emotions for those worst-case scenarios, or at least reminding our children to be extra cautious. But the idea that we can prevent or minimize the effects of tragedy is an illusion; tragedy is tragedy, and it will be just as devastating if our kids die in a car crash whether we imagined it over and over or not. 

The antidote to foreboding joy is gratitude. Instead of fearing their loss, I should be grateful for my health, family, friends, job, money, and happiness. I should feel lucky that I care enough for these things to be afraid of losing them.

Full-blown, no-holds-barred, vulnerable happiness is the best way to prepare for tragedy, Brown says. Those moments of love, adoration, and joy are filling up our stores of resilience, which will be sorely tested if tragedy strikes. And particularly if it does, we’ll wish we spent all those moments appreciating what we had, not perfectly predicting the future. 

Photo by Flickr user jasohill

The Self-Worth-o-Meter 

self-worth-o-meter

This is day 10 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “Why do you want to control things?” More info here.

There’s a little counter in our brains, installed when we were very little. It’s called the Self-Worth-o-Meter, and it’s constantly measuring what we’re doing.

But not all Self-Worth-o-Meters are created alike. Some count units of input and some count units of output. Some measure work but not family, or family but not work. Some are broken and stuck on 0, while others are humming along, steadily increasing. 

My Self-Worth-o-Meter, I’ve realized recently, measures only (mostly) outputs related to intelligence. It shoots up when I write a thoughtful article but not a silly one; it ticks down when I don’t know what to say in an intellectual conversation. It’s tuned out when I’m showing love for my parents or being brave enough to travel.

Inputs are very much under my control: I can work hard, put in the hours, and be a good person. I’m not in control of the outputs – how many pageviews my articles get, whether I impress my bosses, how my friends see me – but those are the very things my Self-Worth-o-Meter pays the most attention to. So I’m constantly seeking to control the uncontrollable. 

Who wired me this way? It’s hard not to get a buggy Self-Worth-o-Meter if you grow up being told you’re smart because you aced the test, because you won the award, because you got into the smart classes. It’s already been documented that the Western style of teaching – which focuses on intelligence – is much less motivating than the Eastern style of teaching – which focuses on effort and hard work. Tell someone they’re smart, and when they fail, they’ll start thinking they’re dumb and give up. Tell someone they worked hard (or not enough) and they’ll work harder.

Luckily, we can rewire our meter, tuning it to the things that are in our control and adding attachments to receive data from other areas of our lives. We may have to shave away some confused emotions and mistaken assumptions, but it’s doable. And let’s remember to check on it every so often – maybe put it on our calendar the way we do the fire alarm. Faulty machinery is emotionally dangerous.   

Photo by Flickr user papadont

The cosmic lessons of a broken arm

broken armBuddhist broken arm proverb: What’s the sound of one hand lathering up soap? 

(Hint – It sounds like: grumble, grumble, grumble, why is this taking so long??) 

Thirty days ago, my bike got caught in the infamous Toronto streetcar tracks as I was making a left turn, and the routines of my life came to a thudding halt. 

Not that I recognized it right away. I was shocked, lying in the middle of Queen Street with a useless right arm and a laptop (thankfully unharmed) slung over my shoulder. A Red Cross volunteer and a pregnant lady rushed to help me up. (A bad omen – you know something’s wrong with you when a pregnant lady is helping you up.) 

For a while, I thought I would just go on with my day with a sore arm. “How silly!” I thought. “One little fall can’t be so catastrophic it will affect me for weeks to come, could it?” As the pain got worse, I realized it probably would…

The early days of my broken arm – A.B., after break, Fred jokingly called it – were just a series of dawning realizations about what I could not do. I could not type. I could not floss my teeth. I could not sleep on my side. I could not do the dishes (darn!). I could not eat with chopsticks. I could not go the gym. I could not cook. I could not pull my hair back into a ponytail. 

For someone who often feels rushed, who prizes efficiency, I was suddenly forced to go slow. Showers took an hour, and I usually needed a nap afterward from all the exertion. I had to peck away slowly at my keyboard until I discovered voice dictation. Even lathering up soap to wash my face was an exercise in patience.

Right after my fall, while I leaned against a building waiting to get driven to the emergency room, I actually laughed. Good one, universe. I had all these to-do’s and worries for the afternoon, and you just gave me a slap in the face (or elbow) to get my priorities straight. For the next two weeks, try as I might, I could barely put in two hours of work a day. The God-given painkillers started making me miserably nauseous whenever I tried to read email, and I napped like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t stray far from my apartment for fear of a sudden attack of exhaustion. I slept fitfully the first 12 days, trying to construct elaborate pillow pyramids to make my fractured elbow comfortable.

But the world carried on. My colleagues graciously stepped in (thank you Will and Camila!), and I didn’t die from not blogging or not finishing that week’s book. My inbox didn’t appreciate the strain, but it’s now (mostly) under control.   

I learned that happiness is all about your attitude – because at first, that’s literally all I had to go on in judging the quality of the day. I track my happiness level every day using AskMeEvery, and the usual things that would make me happy – being productive, or discovering a new cafe – were completely absent. All I had was read, nap, lunch, read, nap, dinner, Survivor – and my attitude. It usually came down to: did I struggle and sigh under my burdens, or stay positive? Did I get frustrated and impatient, or smile at the random strangers who offered me help and the barista who gave me extra chocolates because I looked so pitiable? 

(If you’re wondering, it took me 12 days to recover my usual 7/10 happiness level, after dipping into the 4-6 range. That’s coincidentally the same number of days it took to start sleeping normally…) 

In the end, I leaned on other people to get me through it. Even a nice nurse or a friendly fellow patient – who saw me tearing up in the waiting room and struck up a conversation about the ridiculous wait times – could turn my mood around. When I was in the emergency room, feeling sorry for myself because it was 3 am and I’d been there for 6 hours – all I could focus on was the elderly man across the hall who kept crying out for nurses to bring him water. I heard the doctors mention his nursing home and my heart sunk: he obviously had no one. I, on the other hand, had my long-suffering boyfriend and de facto caretaker holding my hand. I hope that man is okay.

I may forget lots of these details, but I won’t forget the way Fred took care of me. All my grumbles, all my 2 am despair from lack of sleep, all my exhaustion crashed on the shore of his positivity, warmth, and acceptance. Where others might have grumbled themselves, he pushed me to do less: “Nope, you are not independent anymore. Nope, you can’t make your own smoothie. Now get back to bed, broken-arm girl. Your full-time job is healing.” 

IMG_3475Thirty days later, I still can’t put my hair up in a ponytail, or chop apples, or twist a door handle. I’m back to the gym (left hand only), and back to doing dishes occasionally. Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt like a child going through a series of firsts: “Wow, Kira, you can put your clothes on now? You can make your own cereal? You can tie your shoes?” 

And at this point, all I can do is laugh.

A letter to myself 

love letters

This is day 8 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What would you say to yourself about your struggles if you were your best friend?” More info here.

Dear friend, 

It’s been awhile since we talked, and I know you’ve been busy. You helped your boss write a book, flew around the world, launched a meetup group, broke your arm, and started some odd #30daysofvulnerability experiment. That’s a lot to put on anyone’s plate, so it makes sense that you’d feel stressed. 

But why are you beating yourself up about it? Believe it or not, you’re not the only one in the world who gets stressed from time to time. You think you’re better than that? You’re only human. And that’s not an insult! 

Life is full of ups and downs, my friend. The world isn’t divided into “stressed people” and “relaxed people” or “happy people” and “sad people.” But the world may be divided into “people who accept the reality of human emotions” and “people who don’t.” You can be at peace even if you’re stressed and distressed, but not if you think negative emotions are evil. 

Why is everything you’ve done not enough, for now? You’re only 26. Who says 26-year-olds should have all the answers to life? Who says it’s even possible? What if life is like a startup, full of iterating, discovering, learning, checking your assumptions, and pivoting? A plan might be like a business model, a document that gets drafted once and thrown into a corner as it collides with reality and new inputs of data. Maybe a real plan, strictly followed, would hold you back from discovering what you truly love in favor of the structured and secure. 

You’re lucky because you still believe that life can be beautiful – you always did, ever since you started ending all your grade-school essays with uplifting imagery of shining sunlight. You may be skeptical about some things, but you still get teary when you hear an inspirational speaker whom other people find corny. You still see the beauty in a little chickadee taking a dust bath or a homeless violist playing Bach on a street corner. You still believe that dreams come true, that work can be love and love can be spiritual. 

Don’t lose heart – in fact, gain more heart. That’s what you need now, with all your theories and thoughts and outlines and lists. Be wholehearted; don’t restrict yourself. When life asks if you’re all in, shout YES and jump and don’t look back. 

All my love,

Kira

Photo by Flickr user advertisingelyse 

Why we need Brené Brown’s gremlin ninja warrior training

Ninja

This is day 4 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What are the benefits of feeling worthiness, like you are ‘enough’ just as you are?” More info here.

Do you believe you’re worthy of love? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably say, “Of course!”

But according to researcher Brené Brown, everyone is afraid they’re unworthy of love from time to time – unless they’re a sociopath. Shame, which refers to that fear, is universal.

Shame is when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see. Shame is when we get passed up for a promotion and have to tell our spouses. Shame is when all the other mothers seem to be handling things better. Shame is when we hide our depression or hide our wrinkles. Shame is when we feel like an outsider in the group. Shame is when there’s that one thing that we can never tell anyone about.

In her shame research, Brown encountered a group of people who were resilient to shame. Not that they never felt it, but they were able to work through it courageously and use it as an opportunity to get closer to other people, not push them away. She calls them Wholehearted – and lightheartedly calls their techniques gremlin ninja warrior training. 

What’s it like to live wholeheartedly, knowing that we’re worthy of love and belonging? Out in the world, it’s this wonderful freedom to be authentic, nothing less and nothing more than exactly who we are. We all probably have a friend or two whom we can tell anything, even our most shameful secrets, and we know they’ll still have our back. Imagine that cocoon of support and trust expanding to envelop your whole life. 

Inside our head, being wholehearted just loosens up a lot of pressure. No one job, article, competition, or conversation is going to define who we are. Our self doesn’t hang in the balance at every turn, ready to be pronounced good or bad, success or failure. We don’t have to be hustling all the time to get to a place where we accept who we are, and instead we can enjoy the lifelong journey of self-improvement. 

As gremlin ninja warriors, our first move is to recognize when we’re feeling shame. Then do a bit of mental gymnastics: remind ourselves that we all have imperfections and struggles, and the point is to be courageous in spite of them. The most important move, the one that’ll probably knockout the shame, is to talk to someone. Shame hates company – if someone sees the real you and still loves you, what is there to be afraid of? But as long as we keep it hidden in the dark, the gremlins win.

Photo by Flickr user Daniel Y. Go

The other “s” word 

red robot

This is day 3 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “Who or what are you ‘supposed to’ be?” More info here.

“Stop should-ing all over yourself” -a wise person

“The only thing you ‘should’ do is breathe” -my wise uncle

Sometimes life is a string of shoulds: I should work, I should go to the gym, I shouldn’t eat that ice cream. As adults, we drown in shoulds – while little kids have the answer to all our struggles. 

Open your eyes wide and ask…why? Or better yet, scream it. WHY??

Sometimes we’ll come up with a good answer, an answer from within: I should work on my blog because it’ll help me improve my writing, which is something I want. Instead of “should,” we can say, “I want to do X because…” 

But a lot of the time, the answers come from someone else – a strict parent, the faceless masses of society – or from something negative – the fear of rejection, an irrational belief. No, one ice cream probably isn’t going to chop days off my life, but shoulding all over myself very well might. 

Researcher Brene Brown says that authenticity is letting go of who you’re supposed to be and embracing who you are. “Supposed to” is, aptly, another “s” word. I’m supposed to be calm, put together, and happy. I’m supposed to be outgoing and interesting. I’m supposed to be a productivity machine, always the best and the smartest. Eight years ago, I was supposed to be a violinist…until I realized that I wasn’t.  

My high school calculus teacher called me a robot, and maybe I believed him for awhile. I could be robotic, getting straight A’s, being valedictorian, acing my SAT’s (except that one question – bad robot!). But robots have instructions written by other people. They always do what they’re supposed to be doing, but they don’t enjoy it (at least not yet). Maybe the curse of having wants is that they’re yours, and you have to own them, and you can’t just blame your instruction manual. But it’s a heck of a lot more fun than being a robot. 

Photo by Flickr user littlelostrobot

5 signs your productivity is motivated by shame 

midnight oil

This is day 2 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “When do you hustle for worthiness?” More info here.

All midnight work marathons aren’t created equal.

According to researcher Brené Brown, there’s a big difference between pulling an all-nighter because you’re bursting with ideas that simply must come to life, and pulling an all-nighter because you’re anxious to prove to your boss that you’re a good employee. 

They may look the same on the outside, but they’re very different on the inside. One is motivated by fear or shame; in Brown’s words, we’re “hustling for worthiness,” trying to perform, perfect, please, and prove. Our self-worth is on the line: if we don’t finish this project, and finish it well, we’re not hard-working or smart enough. The other one, presumably, is motivated by some form of love – the desire to create, express, explore. 

How can you tell if shame is driving you? For me, shame-driven productivity happens when I’ve set some arbitrary goal for myself, like working 10 hours or writing 15 articles. If I don’t meet that goal, I know I’ll feel like I’ve failed, like I’m lazy, like I’m not doing enough – even if everyone else seems to think otherwise. 

Does that sound familiar? Here are a few signs you might be motivated by shame: 

  • No one is forcing you to be so productive. You’re meeting your goals at work, but somehow that’s not enough. Some taunting inner voice is pushing you forward.  
  • You’re trying to gain someone’s approval. On the other hand, you may be worried about someone’s harsh judgment. If you do a good job, maybe you can finally get their respect. 
  • You feel terrible if you don’t meet arbitrary goals. Even if you’re ill or legitimately distracted, you have to perform. Time is slipping away. 
  • You think breaks are for wimps. Why waste your time? There are things to be done. 
  • You don’t want to be working. If your motivation isn’t to do good work – or some related goal, like moving your career in the right direction or helping a friend – you may just be doing it to bolster your self-worth. 

One night, after a week out of the office with a broken arm, I felt like working. It was Sunday, so there was no pressure to be on call and no hours to bank. I just wanted to get a headstart to the week and I finally had enough energy to sit at my computer. So I worked, churning out two articles. It was light and pressure-free; I put no arbitrary restrictions on what I had to accomplish. And it was a mini-revelation for me: all that self-imposed pressure may be motivating, but it’s not the only motivator out there. You can find your healthy motivation and desire; you just have to give it a little space. 

Cropped photo by Flickr user Fossil Watchman