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 

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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

Day 1 of #30DaysofVulnerability: What are your imperfections? 

This post is part of a 30-day experiment in vulnerability – more details here

Researcher Brené Brown has a nice phrase about what we do when we feel ashamed: we “hustle for worthiness.” 

We don’t “strive” or “pursue” worthiness – no, those words are too abstract and banal. We “hustle” – sprinting, frenetic, sweating, rushing, frenzied, never-quite-there. 

Contrast that with what happens when you let go of who you think you should be and just be. Embrace who you are. Own your story. Accept, feel compassion, stop, breathe. You’re here, you’re home. 

For Brown, we have a choice – and we don’t just make it once. We make it every moment, every time we fail or mess up or do something silly. We can strain and struggle and resist our own imperfections, or accept and love ourselves nonetheless. 

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” – Leonard Cohen

cracksWe’re all full of cracks, Brown reminds us. I over-stress and over-worry and over-think. And when the stresses and worries and thoughts get to be too much, I sometimes get moody and detached. In those moments, I don’t have much to give to the people I love. 

In discussions, it takes a lot to change my mind – and even when I do, I’m embarrassed to admit it. I can get over-exuberant, eager to spread Truth with a capital T. After years and years of being the smart one, sometimes I still don’t feel smart enough. 

I’m clumsy, and I get too hot or too cold if the temperature fluctuates outside the 70-72-degree range. On the days when my hair is untamable and I’ve got nothing to wear, I feel like I’m not pretty, short, tan, or stylish enough. 

I’m not even sure I believe the quote above about the cracks. I still want to be better, and I’m still on my hands and knees patching them up with whatever clay or caulking goes into the cracks of human imperfection. But at least now, I can take some breaks. I know that new cracks will always appear; the task will never be done. I don’t have to define myself by the cracks, but by everything else in between. 

Adapted photo by Flickr user Stian Olsen

A blogging challenge for July: #30DaysofVulnerability 

30 days of vulnerability

Brené Brown, get out of my head!

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection was custom-written for me. The chapter headings read like a perfectionist’s how-to manual: controlling everything, doing what you “should” be doing, defining yourself by your productivity. Except those are the things you’re supposed to let go of.

I’ve done month-long experiments in gratitude, optimism, and honesty, and I knew I wanted to do one in vulnerability, Brown’s concept of embracing the inherent uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of life. She actually hosted a six-week course with Oprah, but it’s not available anymore. So I had to improvise.

As I understand Brown’s books, becoming more vulnerable is not a set of to-do’s, but really requires some deep soul-searching. So instead of a daily exercise, this experiment is a series of questions to reflect on – and if you’re like me, blog about. In the end, the goal is to move toward what Brown calls Wholeheartedness: living life with courage, compassion, and the feeling that you’re worthy of love and belonging – without shame. 

Does anyone want to join me in blogging #30DaysofVulnerability in July? I’ve created five prompts per week, but you don’t have to do all of them. If you’re interested, just tag your posts on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #30DaysofVulnerability. 

Week 1: Worthiness/self-acceptance

  • What are your imperfections? What are you ashamed of? Fill in the blank: I am not _____ enough.
  • When do you “hustle for worthiness,” or act energetically to prove that you’re worthy?
  • Whom or what do you feel you’re “supposed to” be?
  • What are the benefits of feeling worthiness, that you are “enough” just as you are?
  • What would you say to yourself about your struggles if you were your best friend?

Week 2: Letting go of control

  • Why do you want to control things?
  • What things in life are you afraid of losing? Instead of feeling fear, can you feel gratitude?
  • Who is there for you when things don’t work out? Share one of your answers to these questions with them.
  • What happens when you try to control things?
  • What would happen if you stopped trying to control things?

Week 3: Normalizing discomfort

  • How do you run away from discomfort?
  • Ask your friends, or post on Facebook or Twitter: When do you feel stress and anxiety (or whatever your typical discomfort is)? See what people say. 
  • What discomforts are a normal part of your life?
  • Why do you need to normalize discomfort, or understand that discomfort is a part of life?
  • If you’re able to persist and engage in life despite discomfort, what does that say about you?

Week 4: Changing priorities 

  • Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?
  • 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.
  • What does it mean to be courageous and “show up”?
  • What does it mean to be authentic?
  • How can you play, laugh, sing, and dance more?

Every day

  • When you wake up, say: “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”
  • Before you go to sleep, say: “Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Photo by Flickr user  paolo di tommaso