I’ve officially gone off the deep end

deep end

This is day 31 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions “What does it mean to be courageous and “show up”?,” “What does it mean to be authentic?” and “How can you play, laugh, sing, and dance more?” More info here.

I never thought I’d be the one writing about “fluffy,” “sentimental” stuff like vulnerability, acceptance, authenticity, and worthiness. But here I am, on day 31 of (whoops) #30daysofvulnerability, and that’s all that’s on my mind.

If you look back at my writing from college, I’m talking about productivity and rationality and success. I even had a blog once called Joie d’Achieve (that should have been a clue).

Turns out that everything works until it doesn’t work. Being over-focused on achievement worked for me (sort of) for 25 years. But it’s not working anymore.

It makes a lot of sense to me now why self-improvement content is so personal. Gretchen Rubin discovered this when she asked readers what their personal commandments were, and got a ton of contradictory answers: Do more. Do less. Say yes. Say no. Let go. Hold on.

It’s like a pendulum – I’ve been swinging so far to the side of productivity and achievement that I’ve swung all the way to the top and the pendulum is upside down, and I have all the stability of an upside-down pendulum. What I need now isn’t what I needed then – or at least, not what I thought I needed. Maybe if I had encountered these ideas earlier, I wouldn’t be so unbalanced now. But I doubt I would have listened.     

What I learned is the value of being open-minded. Today, I’ve read books that I wouldn’t have touched four years ago. I’ve entertained ideas and concepts and exercises that I would have seen as silly, irrational, or weak. But guess what? It works now. It’ll work until it doesn’t work.

So I’m here on day 31 to tell you about my new three goals. I wrote about how productivity is not a useful happiness proxy, at least not for me. Maybe I’ll fare better with these:

Courage, not success. Focusing on success often means I’m hesitant to try new things and get discouraged in the face of discomfort and stress. Courage means attempting and persisting even when things are hard. Even if I don’t get every single thing on my to-do list done with the patience and peace of a Buddhist, I can still decide to persevere and stay engaged and not give up. I love how Brené Brown says that vulnerability is life’s great dare, asking if you’re all in. I so want to be all in, living with my whole heart, not holding back.

Authenticity, not perfection. Who knew? Turns out I’m not perfect. Or the smartest. Or the best. I want to find out who I am besides an intelligent, productive person. I want to learn about and value my other traits, like being kind and good and curious. I want to listen to my feelings (God, I never thought I’d write this) and not be constantly telling myself how I “should” feel.

Play, not productivity. For a long time, I had this feeling that people who acted silly were dumb, unintelligent. Turns out silly people are very, very smart. I want to smile enough that no one on the street can joke that I dropped my smile (not funny, people!). I want to laugh enough so I get wrinkles and don’t care. I want to play and do nothing and take breaks and cut myself some slack.

So there you have it. None of this is going to be easy, because I still haven’t kicked out the little gremlin inside of me that’s constantly jumping up and down shouting, “Work! Work! Work!” He’s such a jerk, I should totally evict him, but we’re good friends and I’m not quite sure where I’d be without him. I’m not even sure I’m ready to get friendly with a flowery, emotional, Zen fairy, but I know she’s a lot nicer and she won’t call me names. And if she makes me happier, that’s all I’m asking for.

Photo by Flickr user Sarah Ross photography

Most of your to-do list is irrelevant

joy machine

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability: “Make a “joy and meaning” list: List the ingredients that you need in your life to feel like things are going well, and compare it to your to-do list.” More info here.

One of the little tips in Brené Brown’s The Gift’s of Imperfection caught my eye:

“One of the best things that we’ve ever done in our family is making the ‘ingredients for joy and meaning’ list. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of the specific conditions that are in place when everything feels good in your life. Then check that list against your to-do list and your to-accomplish list. It might surprise you,” she writes.

Okay, okay, I get the idea. We have to focus on the essentials. But it didn’t hit home until one evening when I was stressing about my to-do list and forced myself to follow her suggestion: 

Joy and meaning list:

  • A career I love
  • A happy relationship
  • Friends and family
  • Low stress
  • Health

To-do list

  • Be #1 on the writer’s leaderboard for Tech Cocktail
  • Get my work inbox to 0
  • Get my personal inbox to 0, and answer all my dad’s emails
  • Impress the people at the talent agency I have a (totally random) appointment with tomorrow
  • Never make my boyfriend upset
  • Go to gym class three times a week
  • Read one book a week
  • Work on my blog for 10 hours a week
  • Meditate every day

…you get the idea.

You may find related items on your lists – for example, “go to gym class three times a week” and “health.” Health is my real goal, so I need to cut myself some slack when I miss a class (which hasn’t even happened, except when my arm was broken). All my work-related to-do’s should be in service of “a career I love,” not the need to be perfect or hyper-efficient or inhumanely productive. Just because I don’t reply to one of my dad’s emails or say something when I’m hangry that I later regret doesn’t make me a bad daughter or a bad girlfriend.

These lists remind me of Shawn Achor’s concept of meaning markers, the symbolic goalposts in life that guide our actions. Sometimes, we forget about our real meaning markers and get distracted by “hijackers,” false sources of meaning that end up making us frustrated and unhappy.

In other words, most of our to-do lists have been “hijacked” – and if we want our sanity back, we need to find our way to what’s really meaningful.

Photo by Flickr user atomicity

What’s your happiness proxy?

happiness proxy

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?” More info here.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I thought productivity was a magical thing. I had just started playing violin, and I made a nice little chart with dates that I taped on my wall. Every day when I practiced for 20 minutes, I put a little check mark in the appropriate box.

Some nights, lying in bed, I would jolt awake realizing that I hadn’t practiced, and hop out of bed to put in my 20 minutes in my pajamas. Apparently my 7-year-old self hadn’t read up on the science of sleep yet.

These days, I still act like productivity is a magical thing – and by “magical thing,” I mean a proxy for happiness.

You can’t wake up and try to be happy, so most of us wake up and try to be something else. I try to be productive; Fred tries to achieve freedom; other people probably try to be good parents, altruistic, or healthy.

I suspect productivity is one of the most common happiness proxies. As Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, “Most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.” He spends the rest of the book explaining why this formula is “broken,” and it’s actually happiness that leads to success.

But if science isn’t enough to dethrone productivity, we can just look at our own lives. Lately, I’ve been hyper-aware of the negative consequences of deifying productivity: I begrudge a weekday trip to the grocery store because I “should” be working; I get irritated at Fred because he’s not getting out the door fast enough, wasting time; I ignore stress and persist, which makes my stress worse.

The problem with productivity as a happiness proxy is that – at least as I conceptualize is – it’s not a trait but an action. When I’m working, I’m (usually) productive; when I stop working, I cease being productive and start itching to be productive again. That’s probably one of the reasons why people become workaholics: because productivity is their self-worth and their supposed path to happiness, so being at home makes them feel lost and frivolous.

A workable happiness proxy should be some kind of trait that we have all the time, or at least more of the time. Productivity is hard (not impossible) to apply to leisure time, and to do so you have to fight the cultural stigmas against play, self-indulgence, and doing nothing. Goals like being authentic, brave, or grateful might be easier to apply.

It’s not enough to say, “Authenticity is my new goal” and be cured. As Gretchen Rubin points out, we all have “True Rules” for behavior, or rules of thumb that we unconsciously follow. Mine include “If you have free time, work”; “To-do’s must be finished, no matter what”; and “TV is a waste of time.” We have habitual emotional patterns that won’t disappear with the snap of a magician’s fingers. The only way to change our happiness proxy is to put in the hard, introspective, emotional, honest work – but remember to cut ourselves some slack along the way. We’re not productivity monsters, after all.

Photo by Flickr user mikerastiello

Are you passing life’s little tests?

Brown - experiment 13+15

This is day 24 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “If you’re able to persist and engage in life despite discomfort, what does that say about you?” More info here.

The man who survived the Holocaust and came through with a positive attitude. The 17-year-old girl who spoke out against life under the Taliban. The cyclist who beat cancer and went on to win the Tour de France (before all that drug stuff).

I’ve always felt an odd combination of awe and uneasiness when contemplating the greatness of such people, and now I think I know why. I admire them for their resilience – bouncing back after adversity – at the same time that I question if I’d be capable of it.

There’s a widespread belief that these traumatic moments are when our true self emerges. But how can we know how we’d react to cancer, abuse, tyranny? It’s like contemplating heroic acts – I think I would save someone from drowning…right?

If we want to know the answer, we need look no further than life’s daily discomforts. When Gretchen Rubin created the Happiness Project, she realized that part of her motivation was to prepare for tragedy – her husband’s future liver failure. Not only was she creating a storehouse of happy memories, she was also learning to deal with life’s frustrations.

If we can’t deal with losing a sock, will we be able to deal with our spouse’s liver failure? If a cold is devastating, what will diabetes be like? If we can’t stop thinking about the $5 we lost, what will happen when we lose our job? And so on.

To eliminate the fear that we’d collapse under the adversity, we need to start with the lost socks and colds and bills. Instead of getting annoyed, we can think of them as life’s little exercises – mini-training in resilience. And slowly, the uneasiness and fear may give way to calm and courage.

Photo by Flickr user r.nial.bradshaw

The bad feelings won’t go away – and that’s okay 

theater masks tragedy comedy

This is day 22 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions: “How do you run away from discomfort?” and “Why do you need to normalize discomfort, or understand that discomfort is a part of life?” More info here.

Every time I do a guided meditation, the soothing Andy Puddicombe asks me to remind myself of my motivation for sitting down to practice. 

But just before “Stop my rambling thoughts! Get rid of my stress!” comes desperately to mind, he adds a caveat: meditation doesn’t stop thoughts or feelings. Your motivation has to be in line with the nature of meditation, which is to help us observe, accept, and be present with them. 

Really, Andy, that’s all you’ve got to offer me?

Brené Brown would agree with him, but her way of saying it is that we need to “normalize discomfort.” Discomfort is part of life, normal. She even tells her students that if they don’t feel uncomfortable during the semester, they’re doing it wrong.

“The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame,” she writes. 

Well, it would have been nice to know that a while ago. Most of us grow up learning that discomfort, like pain, is a sign that something is going wrong. Now I understand why some parents resolve not to fix all their children’s problems and tears, but let them sort it out on their own. If every unhappiness or cry is treated like a catastrophe, we grow up into adults who live in fear of negative emotions. 

So, we devise all these techniques for keeping them at bay. I avoid emotionally risky situations – I’m aware that I have an aversion for trying new things, because it’s uncomfortable for me to be an uncertain beginner. It takes Herculean effort for me to go networking, because I constantly feel awkward. I distract myself – with movies and lolcats, reading books, meditation, or talking. 

But probably worst of all, I try to minimize my feelings. I blame other people when the cause is within myself. If I’m in the mood, I make jokes (“I’m stressed about stress! How ridiculous is that!”). I tell myself it’s irrational, I shouldn’t feel upset, to be optimistic. In short, I do everything Andy says not to – I deny what I’m really feeling and try to get it away from me!

“For many of us, our first response to the vulnerability and pain of these [powerful emotions] is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away,” writes Brown. 

The good news in all of this – besides the fact that we’re not nuts, messed up, or flawed for feeling blue sometimes – is that negative and positive emotions are separate things. According to positive psychology research, emotion isn’t a single lever, but two. Women, in fact, have more positive and more negative emotions. Even if you’re feeling bad about something, you can also cultivate good feelings. 

My dad often reiterates words of wisdom from his best friend: “Who said easy?” A lot of the time, it’s our assumption that life will be smooth sailing that makes the rocking and bumping unbearable. As in meditation, the point is to ride out the storm and wait for the waves to settle, not steer the ship as if nothing’s wrong. 

Photo by Flickr user mikecogh

If you’re stressed, you’re not alone 

This is day 19 of #30DaysofVulnerability. More info here.

One theme of Brene Brown’s research is that we’re not alone. Whatever we’re feeling – shame, fear, anxiety – someone (everyone) has been there before. 

But when we’re experiencing these things, we often feel so uniquely dysfunctional. We don’t speak for fear of being judged, when we’d actually be embraced into the fold of common humanity. 

I’ve started writing about stress and perfectionism lately, and it’s a weird feeling talking about these parts of myself. I’m worried I’ll sound weak, self-indulgent, “messed up.” But whenever I get a note from someone telling me to keep writing, I feel like I’ve made a connection – they must understand, too. 

In the spirit of “you’re not alone,” I took to Facebook and asked, “What in life stresses you out the most/when do you feel the most stressed?” Here are some of my friends’ answers: 

Brown - experiment 11 Daniel Daniel T. Richards: Immediate uncertainty stresses me out. Not knowing if I got a job or approved for an apartment or if a loved one will be OK after a health scare. Once I *know* I can act. Cheer, cry, research, etc. But being uncertain is a constant state of stress.”

Brown - experiment 11 Jason GroteJason Grote: “The illusion that I need to be socially relevant – which at times surfaces and overwhelms my ego.”

 

Brown - experiment 11 Michael ShapiroMichael Shapiro: “Put abstractly, competing for limited resources with unpredictable arbitration. For example, waiting in a deli counter or bar where the next person served is whoever catches the eye of the employee. General admission at theaters rather than assigned seating. Traffic. Just about any interaction with organized medicine.”

Brown - experiment 11 Zach DavisZach Davis: “Doing anything other than what I know I *should* be doing (whether it be due to self-induced obligations, bad habits, or losing perspective of the bigger picture). The internal compass always knows where I should be going; stress is the signal that tells me if I’m moving the wrong way.”

Brown - experiment 11 Kane TanKane Tan: “Managing money as a resource. Fixed income, variable wants 🙂 Basically anything where I am aware of a looming cost and a fixed line of resources.”


Brown - experiment 11 Irene Ngo
Irene Ngo: “
When I feel trapped or like I have no control over something. This can apply to different parts of life 🙂 ”

 


Brown - experiment 11 Morgane Heyne
Morgane Heyne: “
Having to hand in my notice at my job because I got a better job at another agency. And as a result, dealing with my clients for a month when all I want is to move on to the next thing.”

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

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