Unfu*k Yourself, Already

I read a book last week. Yes. A whole book. It was a short book, but still. The book was Unfu*k Yourself by Gary John Bishop. To be honest, I started listening to the book on Audible, enjoyed the introduction delivered with the author’s no-bullshit, full-on Scottish attitude and accent, and then got on Amazon and ordered a paper copy because I knew I would want to highlight passages. When it arrived, Mr. Bishop and I got right back to work. The book, as you can imagine from its cheeky title, offers suggestions for those of us who feel stuck on repetitive hamster wheel of self-sabotage. It’s a book about unsticking yourself.

As I listened, a few things became clearer to me about my life, the consequences of my upbringing, and my future trajectory. First, there was the admission that I’ve been spinning and getting nowhere for about four years now. There are several life situations that coalesced to create a quicksand pit from which I have not escaped. The specifics about them aren’t as important as the fact that I was able to name them, which gives me a concrete place from which to get to work. You have to know what stopped you to figure out how to get around it. Second, the book prompted me to do a lot of thinking about the areas of my own modus operandi that work against me the most often. The result? The behavior that most often holds me back is fawning. I am a people pleaser. This does not mean I succeed at it. It just means I attempt to make others happy by doing what they want. I regularly set aside my own wishes to avoid conflict, to ensure other people are happy and comfortable, and to be palatable. You’ll often hear me speaking Fawn-ese: I’m good with whatever. You choose. Whatever works for you is fine with me. Really. It’s okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m flexible. I don’t want to be a bother. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve got it. No worries. I can make that work. These statements (a product of being raised to believe I am the world’s most sensitive, overreacting, selfish jerk) make me feel like I’m being generous and thoughtful to others. In reality, however, I often say them because I’m so used to deferring to others that 1) I don’t know what I want or like, so I don’t know how to ask for it, and 2) I assume that letting others get their way will make me worth hanging around with. The truth is that my fear of speaking up for myself often makes me grumpy. Who wouldn’t be grumpy when they take on more than they can handle and often end up doing exactly what they don’t want to do? Unfu*k Yourself is about getting out of your own way and moving yourself into a better future, and Mr. Bishop outlines some key things you need to do to bring that about. And he does it by not pulling any punches and speaking directly to the multitudinous methods people employ to hold themselves back. In fact, the way he reads the book in audio form you can just about hear his frustration. I’m fairly certain he is tired of having to point out to people that the path to their best life runs only through them.

In one chapter, he discusses how we are wired to win. What he means by this is that we get what we set ourselves up for and expect. We are masters of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Spending your life bemoaning your history of finding the worst partners? You’re probably attracting all the wrong people because of something in your past. If you don’t fix what’s behind that curtain, you will keep winning at picking the losers to date. But, if you sift through the memories of your old relationships, perhaps you can pinpoint where they went wrong and do some work around your discovery so that next time you make a different choice. The bottom line is that when you’re wired to win, you can win at losing or win at winning. There’s a famous quote attributed to Jessie Potter that fits this idea: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” You can keep repeating your mistakes and blaming mysterious exterior forces that don’t exist or you can do the work, get your poop in a group, and do better in the future.

The chapter that I most needed to hear right now was entitled, “I am not my thoughts. I am what I do.” As a person who spends a lot of time in her head, thinking, rethinking, analyzing, overanalyzing, and reanalyzing those analyses, this chapter reminded me that I will never get anywhere good this way. I have to stop thinking and start doing. I’ve been unhappy with my fitness level. I can either sit on my sofa thinking about how I used to be in great shape and now I can’t seem to get motivated or I can haul my sorry ass off the sofa and put it on the seat of the Peloton bike and change my situation. I can whine about a relationship in my life that is dying but that I keep trying (unsuccessfully) to revive or I can decide it’s time to let it go and put my energy towards endeavors that may lead me somewhere I want to be. People who are successful have one thing in common. They stop talking and start doing. You can’t just hope things will get better. You need to look for solutions and then go out and do something to put you where you would like to be.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of people who might read the book (or listen to the audiobook to enjoy the author’s delivery of it) and say, “Yeah. Yeah. This all sounds familiar. Nothing new here.” But that is kind of the point. If you’re still reading self-help books and saying they aren’t helping, maybe it’s because a book can’t change your life. YOU have to do that. And this book has some ideas about where you might want to start and why, if you don’t take action, you can continue to enjoy all the crap you feel life has handed you that you don’t deserve. If all I take away from this book is the mindset to get back to better health and get rid of relationships that don’t serve me, it will totally have been worth the paper it was printed on.

What was it Red said in The Shawshank Redemption?

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

I am getting busy living. I will figure out who I am and what I want along the way.

The Word For The Year Is Boundaries

I was reading through The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown today when I came upon this:

“The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.”

This hit me hard because I have had a long-term struggle with boundaries. As a child, I learned that it was not okay for me to set them. So as an adult, to avoid conflict, I have continued to shift my boundaries to accommodate what someone else wanted or expected of me. Doing so made me bitter without any understanding that the bitterness was coming from my giving what I wanted and needed away to keep someone else comfortable. Giving others their peace took away my own. Not setting boundaries kept me stuck. Understanding that keeping boundaries is essential to being compassionate to myself and others empowers me to stand my ground, to make room for myself, and to find that peace I have been lacking.

Over the past year, I have been working a great deal on boundaries. I didn’t come at this through the knowledge that it would allow me to better practice compassion. I came at this because I finally got to a point in my life where I realized that not having any boundaries in place for myself was no longer a tenable situation. The pandemic, and lockdown particularly, taught me I need boundaries to stay sane and to be pleasant towards others. I learned that I need space. I need silence. I need peace. And I need to stand up for myself to have these things in my life. If I don’t set boundaries, if I am not willing to ask for (and demand, if necessary) what I need from others, then I will forever be a grumpy, negative person who feels powerless. I don’t like that. I don’t want that, and I don’t want to be that person. So, I am learning to set boundaries and to accept that those boundaries will piss some people off and completely alienate others and that is not my concern. My concern is keeping myself and my sense of self safe from those who would use my difficulty in advocating for myself against me.

“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you having none.” ~Unknown

“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” ~ Unknown

I might start saying no more firmly this year. You might hear me saying things like, “I understand that is what you want, but that doesn’t work for me.” I may full well make some people uncomfortable by refusing to do what they think is fair and right because I believe it doesn’t align with my core values and what I need. This will be hard for me because I was raised to believe people would only like me if I made myself likable by acquiescing to their whims. But I’m old enough now to understand that it’s not only acceptable but imperative that I set boundaries where I need them and tend to them to keep them secure and impenetrable. I will ruffle feathers and others may use my boundaries as talking points to turn others against me, but I no longer care about that. I’m exhausted from being the willow tree that bends. I’m ready to be the rock that the tree learns to grow around.

Like A Millennial With A Real Job, I’m Moving Out

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Artist’s rendering of the box I’ve lived in. Not to scale.

A friend reminded me last night that I have not posted a blog in a while. He was right. I haven’t. And it is weird when a writer stops writing. Writers have a reputation for not holding back, for both celebrating the good and for laying themselves bare in heart-wrenching detail with words. Sometimes the words launch themselves in rounds from an automatic rifle. Sometimes they come on the back of a desert tortoise. And, sometimes, the words lie in wait. They wait for clarity or resolution or time to heal or situational appropriateness. Sometimes they aren’t written for a period because it is not time for the truth to out. Sometimes they never make the light of day.

This morning, I saw this quote on the page of a fellow blogger.

You are here. However you imagine yourself to be, you are here. Imagine yourself as a body, you are here. Imagine yourself as God, you are here. Imagine yourself as worthless, superior, nothing at all, you are still here. My suggestion is that you stop all imagining, here. ― Gangaji

I have spent most of my life imagining (believing, really) I was crammed inside a box labeled Supposed. Inside this box, unable to wriggle into a different vantage point, I continually faced the false narrative of who I am supposed to be. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, inside that box I was made to view dark, horrific imagery until what I saw of myself made me sick. I began to accept what I saw on the inside of that box as the only Truth of me. I lived inside that box so long that I forgot who I once was on the outside.

A couple days ago, like a young child, I marked my half birthday. I am now six months from the big 5-0. I don’t know how I got this far, but I do know I don’t want to live the last bit of my life, however long or short that may be, cowering in the box I was stuffed into before I understood the air holes poked in the cardboard were not large enough to keep me from suffocation.

Recently, I have been working with a therapist to kick the sides of that box from within and weaken my corrugated cell. On Monday, I did my first session of  EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. I sat in the therapist’s office, following her fingers from left to right like a patient undergoing hypnosis while reimagining an incident that had a negative impact on my sense of self. A few hours after I left the office, I noticed the memory was no longer painful. It was simply something that happened. And the message I learned about myself on the basis of that incident had been replaced by something its polar opposite. Since Monday, I have been able to accept without question a truth about myself that had been waiting for me on the outside of my box all this time. We opened an air hole large enough for a breeze to enter and wide enough to allow me to see outside for the first time since my incarceration began. Outside, I can see hope.

I now believe there will be a time in the foreseeable future when I won’t be imagining myself as something negative and I won’t be fighting to imagine something positive in its place. Like I quote, I won’t have to imagine anything. I will simply be here. And being here will not only be enough, it will be everything. And I will go on to do the great things I imagined I could do if I ever busted out of that crappy prison box and left it like a discarded skin on the side of the road out of town, proof of my growth.

 

The Beginning of Badassery

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I am standing in the Best Sellers section of Barnes and Noble and, directly below my reason for the visit, a bright yellow book with large black text screams to me. You Are A Badass. I ignore it (of course) and pick up the book I came in for. I begin reading its back cover. Again the book below beckons, this time it tries with a whispered “Pssst. Hey…I’m talking to you.” You Are A Badass. I look behind me. Who? Me? I pretend I heard nothing. I go back to reading. A third time it speaks up. You Are A Badass. Okay. Okay. Enough already. This book is a relentless, attention-seeking menace. So I set down The Girl on the Train and pick up the yellow book. I read the author’s first line in the Introduction, which begins directly under an inspirational quote.

I used to think quotes like this were a bunch of crap.

I decide I like this book. Because I’ve made a commitment to work on my self-esteem, and because I am intrigued and humbled by the way the Universe works and therefore it’s not lost on me that the book I came in for was placed directly above this book on an open shelf in a book store among tens of thousands of books, I buy the damn book. I have no choice.

Truth. I’m a great purchaser of self-help books. Their potential for crushing my issues in a relatively quick 200 pages suckers me every time. Second truth. I am not a great reader of self-help books. I rarely finish them because either they’re too mired in psychology and I get bored or they’re too weighed down by cutesy platitudes and I lose respect. When I get home, though, and start diving into this book, I realize this might be The One. I begin underlining ideas like a being possessed. Nearly everything the author writes is a line I can identify with or is something I desperately need to hear. It’s like one giant hug of You’re-Awesome-And-You’ve-Got-This. And at this point I feel could underline the whole book. I don’t, though, because that would just be silly.

Yesterday, I am reading (and underlining) and I run across this:

It’s not that the things and opportunities that we want in life don’t exist yet. It’s that we’re not yet aware of their existence (or the fact that we can really have them).

I get really stuck on the part in parentheses. Traditionally, I haven’t been brave enough to believe that I deserve my dreams. The voices in my head won’t allow it. What makes you so special that you deserve your dream? Don’t you appreciate how lucky you are already? Get over yourself, keep your head down, and realize that life is about living and not dreaming. Etc. Etc. Etc. Because of the voices, I’ve never allowed myself to have a dream.

So, I reflect for a few minutes about what the author is saying and try to imagine a world where I could really have a dream. What would that look like? And in my heart the answer raises its timid hand. My dream is one where I get to write every day and someone, somewhere, reads my words and finds a connection with them in their life and their experience, the way there is a connection for me with the writer of this book I am reading. As an added bonus, if I got paid for my work and never had to go back to a traditional workplace again, that would be perfection. Wait, though. Isn’t that what every writer wants? Who am I to….the negativity creeps back in, but I force it out. What if I could be a writer who made that happen? I imagine it. I let the thought in and then allow the possibility to wash over me. Mind. Blown.

A couple hours later, long after I’d stopped my reverie to let real life intervene, I stumble upon a friend’s link to a Washington Post article about a new book by Glennon Doyle Melton. Glennon (aren’t we on a first name basis?) is a blogger who has written several books, the latest of which was picked by The Oprah for her book club. My friend has written this long introduction to the article, talking about honesty and truth telling. And there, near the bottom of her post after she mentions Glennon and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, I see this:

Oh, and Justine, my beautiful FB friend, your truth, your journey, fully resonates with me. Bless you for being willing to take so many risks – you are the real deal!

I read the post a second time. Then a third. Did she just mention me in the same post along with Glennon and Elizabeth? I let that sink in for a minute. Then I went into a full on cry. The good kind. The therapeutic kind where the emotion of the moment, filled with a mixed bag of joy, surprise, hope, gratitude, dreams and, yes, even self-love, swallows you whole. I let the thought occur to me. Maybe I could live my dream. For real. Kim generously reminded me that I am already on the path to doing what I previously didn’t dare dream I could do. I am writing and when my words strike the right set of eyes there is a ripple in the pond.

I went back to the Badass book to search for something I had underlined.

You don’t have to know exactly where it’s going to take you, you just need to start with one thing that feels right and keep following right-feeling things and see where they lead.

So that is my plan. I am simply going forward doing what I love to do, what feeds my soul. I am going to write with honesty and share my truth. I am going to stop second guessing things that feel right and I am going to stop thinking about who I might offend. I am going to see what kind of ripples I can create and revel in those small moments and learn from them and move on to the next one. Sooner or later, the collective ripples will become a wave, and I will sweep up my tribe and we will go be badass together.

 

 

Un*#@% Yourself

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Me back in the days before I had self-awareness

Un*#@% yourself. Be who you were before all that stuff happened that dimmed your *#@%ing shine.

If you’re lucky, there comes a time in your life when you wake up. I mean really wake up. And it’s the kind of wake up that comes at the end of a nightmare where you are falling into an endless abyss or your children are drowning before your eyes while you stand powerlessly nearby or you are being crushed under a collapsing building and your lungs begin to burn with suffocation. It’s the kind of wake up that leaves you shaking and stunned and mind blown and sick to your stomach. It might happen from one singular event (“I’m sorry, but you have cancer”) or, as in my case, it might happen over time as the weight of a lifetime filled with little injuries finally snaps something inside of you. Some people never wake up. But, if you’re lucky, it happens, and you can start living consciously.

I went back to therapy yesterday for the first time in nearly a year. I went with the idea that, at forty-eight, it is finally time to get over my obnoxious lack of self-esteem. So, I told her that I need to get my head on straight about myself. I do not see myself as others see me. I self-sabotage my own potential for success. My stinking thinking has got to go. I need tools, I told her. To gain some insight into where we should start, she conducted some basic reconnaissance work.

Her:  What if you won an award? What would that feel like for you? What would you think?

Me:  *head tilt with impressive pensive expression as I tried to imagine facing success*

Her:  I’m guessing you would feel it was undeserved? 

Me:  Ummm….yeah. But that is not the worst of it. I would assume there had been a mistake.

Her: *consciously trying to keep a neutral countenance* 

Me:  I would be thinking that they must have run out of other people to give the award to.

Her: *noticeable eyebrow raise* 

Me:  I would assume I was their last choice.

Her:  Wow. Okay. We have some work to do. 

Being me, my next thought was that she was making a mental note to determine if my insurance would cover enough therapy sessions to help me out because that, my friends, is how deep my internal negativity goes. I am appallingly cynical. It would make for great sitcom dialogue.

After a little more chatting, we came up with some strategies. I need to write a letter saying goodbye to the person I am now and all the baggage she carries that is unhealthy. I need to define who I think I really am underneath all the old junk and what the new me looks like inside. I need to make a list of things the old me would not have attempted because of fear and negativity and then start doing those things to reinforce positive behaviors. I need to decide on a mantra I can use to replace the old thoughts when they creep in and start messing with me. I need to surround myself with positivity and people who support my goal. And I need to be willing to talk about this journey without judging it or myself, which is why I am writing here today.

All this makes my head hurt. A lot. But, it turns out that the copious amounts of wine I have been imbibing and augmenting with generous servings of Ben & Jerry’s are not helping me feel better either. Trust me. I have tried that therapy for a year. It’s possible that only because that therapy didn’t work I had to go to real therapy. (Well….that and an increasingly obvious waistband issue.) I now have no choice but to do the hard work. My desire to change has finally exceeded the ease of staying stuck in the miserable same. It’s a weird place to be.

Putting yourself out there is rough. It’s hard under the best circumstances, but it’s harder still when what you’re putting out there is a shameful something you’ve spent your lifetime ignoring. If it weren’t for the waking up, though, I wouldn’t be sure it was worth it. If it weren’t for the annoying headache brought on by mental overload, I wouldn’t know for sure I am more awake today than I was yesterday. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? Well…I’ve done that. Now it’s time to get to work. I am cautiously optimistic that I will like the new me. I think she’s a good kid with crazy potential.

Relax…Nothing Is In Control

A typical Colorado ski morning sunrise
A typical Colorado ski morning sunrise

“Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.” ~Eckhart Tolle

I got to take the boys to their ski lessons today. For me this meant a 5:30 a.m. wake up call, followed by a quick trip to Starbucks for a latte to help wash down my Lara Bar breakfast on the ski-traffic-heavy drive to Winter Park. As the sun was coming up, I sipped my daily dose of caffeine and listened to my sons discussing Pokemon…again. I looked up occasionally from the road to witness the sun tinting the snowy peaks the palest shade of baby-pig pink. Colorado is awesome. And, as much as I gripe when the alarm goes off at 5:30 on a weekend morning meant for sleeping in, and as mind-numbing as hours crawling along in round-trip ski traffic can be, I’ve accepted that ski lesson Saturdays are a miracle. They just are. They fill me with inexplicable gratitude.

I skied a few runs with the boys and their ski instructors this morning before taking off to do a few runs on my own. As I was waiting in the singles line for a quad lift at the base of the resort, I made a mental note that it wasn’t going anywhere fast. I looked to the loading area and determined that they had stopped the lift. If you ski, you know lifts get stopped all the time to help load or unload passengers who need extra time. Not a big deal. I looked away to take in the ski racers cruising down the run to the right of me. When I looked back, I noticed that the lines were getting longer and the lift was still not moving. Clearly, this might be something bigger than a stop for a person who had difficulty getting off the lift up top. I was confident it would start again soon, though, so I stayed in line.

While I was waiting, the guy behind me in line got a phone call. I got to enjoy every word of his not-so-private, personal conversation. It went something like this.

“Hey. Yeah, babe. I don’t think I’m going to make it up there in time for the next competition. I know! Well, don’t be mad at me. I want to be up there. The lift is STOPPED. I can’t go anywhere. No. Seriously. It’s stopped. They just brought over a maintenance dude so I don’t think they’re going to get it moving anytime soon. (He began to get more agitated.) What do you want me to do? I can’t fix the lift. I can’t believe I’m going to miss the competition. I’m so pissed. Yeah. This is bullshit. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t miss another competition! (Here he got really sarcastic and caustic.) Hey. I get it. You’re mad. I’ll get there when I get there. No. Seriously. What am I supposed to do? Yeah. Whatever.”

At this point, he disconnected the call, muttered under his breath a five-letter word for the woman he’d just spoken to, and started complaining to another person in line about the lift situation. He was animated, irate, and nearly ready to start a bar-level brawl with anyone who might be in charge of the lift. The lift was still not operational, and I could hear him huffing and puffing in disgust behind me. He could have been a toddler.

While he was doing this, I looked around. There we were. Healthy, fit, and privileged enough to be able to afford the not-entirely-inexpensive sport of snow skiing. It was a gorgeous, sunny, 40-degree day standing there in the unmoving line at the Zephyr lift at 9,000 feet. Everywhere I looked, there were people who were taking a day with family or friends to enjoy a fun activity in the beauty and majesty of the wintry Colorado Rockies on a nearly cloudless morning. It was a perfect day, even if the yahoo behind me couldn’t see it through the cloud of his righteous fury and the fog he had generated with his Big Bad Wolf heavy breathing.

Realizing that it was silly to wait when there was another lift 50 yards away, I backed out of line and skied toward the Arrow lift, kind of happy to be leaving Mr. Grumpypants behind. The Zephyr lift did get started again, shortly before I boarded my nearby chair. On my ride up, I thought a lot about the guy behind me in that other line. It seemed like such a waste to get bent over something utterly out of his control. He was so wrapped up in his world, in his disappointment, in his annoyance, that he couldn’t even take a deep breath and enjoy the situation for what it was…a nice muscle break in between ski runs. End of story. The competition went on without him. And I’m pretty sure everyone’s world continued to spin without him there. Even his.

I recently saw this quote I’ve been repeating as a mantra lately. Relax…nothing is in control. Seems to me one of our biggest flaws as human beings (and yes, I’m sure there is some perfectly rational psychological mumbo-jumbo to explain why it’s imperative to our survival) is our inability to accept that the vast majority of what happens in our lives is beyond our control. You can choose the perfect outfit to wear to the meeting, but not be able to help spilling coffee on it when the light rail lurches to an unexpected stop. You can choose your college major, but not the fact that ten years after you graduate with said degree it may be obsolete. You can choose your lovely suburban home, but not the criminal who decides its contents would look better as cash in his wallet. Relax…nothing is in control is the same as the old, tried-and-true shit happens. It does. And no amount of indignation, profanity, or foot-stomping is going to change that.

Take a look around you. How much of your time do you waste railing against things beyond your control? Where has that gotten you? Take a deep breath and take comfort in the fact that nothing is in control. When the unexpected happens, look for the gift there. You can usually find one. And if you can’t now, hopefully you will be able to someday.