A week before Christmas, this from Joshua Fields Millburn came to my Inbox. Then, a couple of days later, I read this edgy piece by Tina Lear about erasing our future.
I’ve been thinking about these two pieces of writing as I clean out cupboards, pack, and work on finding a temporary storage unit to help smooth the process of moving house.
To outsource is to obtain something from an outside source. I loved Millburn’s article about outsourcing our happiness because I’ve noticed this, too. We outsource our success. We outsource our sense of style and beauty. We outsource our power in all kinds of ways. We don’t even notice we’re doing it most of the time. What it really amounts to is permanently putting ourselves behind bars.
I had an interaction recently at work that perfectly illustrated outsourcing our power. It was the end of a 10-hour day. I was tired. We were trying to close the pool, which requires several complicated chemical and maintenance tasks. We had some late swimmers we were working around. A woman walked in asking for information about joining. I launched into our well-rehearsed spiel about paperwork, reservations, COVID precautions, and our policies and procedures.
Our population is mostly elderly, and this woman was grey-haired. There’s a lot of information to absorb, and we’re used to people being confused or anxious and needing to ask several questions. We can also anticipate problems with filling out the paperwork correctly, so we show newcomers all the places they’ll need to sign, date, and initial.
She interrupted me abruptly in midflow, saying she was busy and didn’t have time for all this. She didn’t smile. I shut up, handed her the paperwork, and thanked her for coming by. She left and I went back to what I had been doing. I was busy, too.
A half an hour later, on the way home, I realized I was upset. I went back over the interaction to figure out where it had gone wrong. I rarely have interactions like this. I’m usually good with people. Had I said or done something wrong? Had I been impatient or unhelpful or unpleasant in some way?
All at once, I felt as though I’d had a “bad” day at work. I’d screwed it up. It hadn’t gone well.
I realized, of course, it wasn’t about me. This woman is a stranger. She doesn’t know me well enough to dislike me. I knew I was being oversensitive and I let it go.
She came in a few days later to swim, which means she took her mask off. I recognized her immediately, though she took no notice of me. I watched her as I guarded and noted, once again, how attractive she is. I also noticed how sad she looked. She’s got beautiful bone structure, but she has an air of iron self-control and her face in repose as she enjoyed the warm therapy pool was stoic, her mouth secretive and folded in upon itself. She looks as though she’s suffered in her life, and is determined to bear it with dignity.
It takes one to know one, I thought to myself.
That thirty seconds of interaction with a stranger tilted my whole day. In a moment, I lost my sense of competence and confidence. One interaction erased all the dozens of positive interactions I had and all the things I did right over my 10-hour shift and before.
This is outsourcing our satisfaction and happiness with ourselves and our lives. It puts our power outside us, into the hands of someone else. It doesn’t matter if the someone else is a loved one or stranger.
The second article, by Tina Lear, suggests we consider erasing our stories about the future. She’s coming at it from a minimalist perspective. She realized she was keeping lots of things “in case.” In case collapse comes. In case the power grid fails. In case we suddenly become different people. In case we lose weight. In case things come back into fashion. In case we suddenly love doing something we’ve already tried doing and didn’t love.
This is a big one for me. I always want to be prepared for anything. If I’d had the money and focus, I’d have been a prepper.
I don’t think being prepared is bad. Not at all. In fact, my partner and I are having considerable friction right now around preparing to move. I want to do a little cleaning, a little packing, a little organizing every day. He’s not interested. He won’t be interested until his back is against the wall and then he’ll begin taking action. I can’t work that way. He drives me nuts. He thinks I’m exhausting myself for no reason.
Aren’t relationships fun?
Anyway, Lear is right. When is the future ever what we think it will be? We can’t prepare for all eventualities. (Didn’t I just write something about leaping?) What we can do is be sure we don’t outsource our happiness, our confidence, our sense of self. We can be on our own side. We can validate ourselves and cheer ourselves on when we need it. We can love ourselves, even in the moments when it seems no one else does. Especially in the moments when it seems no one else does.
We can stop scaring ourselves with stories about what might happen in the future and trust we’ll survive and thrive, no matter what does happen, because we haven’t outsourced our happiness, our confidence, or our competence. We may have discarded something we suddenly need, but how serious is that, really? We can buy another. We can borrow it. We can use something else. The sky won’t fall. We’ll figure it out.
Life will go on. Let us be in charge of our own lives rather than outsourcing them to someone else.
I’ve been considering confidence for some time through the lens of minimalism. As I transition from clearing unneeded objects from my life (relatively easy) to clearing unwanted behavior patterns, habits and beliefs from my life (hard!), I follow the same basic tenets: How can I replace two or more similar but limited internal tools with one multi-purpose tool?
I’ve always had a messy relationship with confidence. At this point in my life, I’m confident of my own worth, but have no confidence anyone else will view me as worthy. Truthfully, this doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Aside from a few close and longstanding relationships, I don’t much care what most of the world thinks of me. I realize now most people aren’t spending a minute thinking about me at all. Most of us are primarily preoccupied with ourselves!
I see confidence as a choice. The Latin root of the word means “have full trust” (Oxford Online Dictionary), and trust is certainly a choice. Confidence, like success, can be tried on like a hat. What I discover is choosing confidence for a day or even an hour significantly diminishes my internal clutter.
If I choose to be confident, perfectionism is no longer relevant. Neither are shame or anyone else’s expectations, judgements or criticisms. Defenses and pseudo self are no longer needed. Outcomes cease to feel like a matter of life or death. I don’t need to win, be right or exercise my outrage. I don’t need to explain, justify, or make sure everyone understands what I’m up to. Choosing confidence means letting go of all that, which means reducing my mental and emotional clutter, which means more peace, more time and more energy.
As I’ve been thinking about confidence, I’ve also been teaching swim lessons at work to children from infancy to nine or ten. I discovered as a teenager working with children teaches me as much as it does them. That was true when I was a teenager in the pool, in hospitals, in schools, as I parented, and now, again, in the pool.
I suspect confidence is built from a combination of nature and nurture. Some people seem to be inherently more confident than others. On the other hand, it’s not hard to mutilate a child’s confidence. Sustained criticism will do it. Careless language will do it. Refusing to acknowledge a child’s wants, needs and feelings will do it. Mockery and teasing will do it. Rigid and unrealistic expectations will do it.
I can tell within five minutes if I’m dealing with a confident or mistrustful child. Confident kids may be shy, hesitant, or wary of a new environment and a new person, but they’re willing to trust, explore and try. Mistrustful kids cry, act out, refuse to engage, or (most heartbreaking of all) stoically endure, rigid with tension and terror. A child who shrinks from my touch and cowers in fear of being dragged bodily into deep water and left to drown has certainly been forced by someone they trusted to do things he or she was not ready to do.
As a swim teacher, I notice how much effort and energy mistrust costs us, not only the one lacking confidence, but everyone around them. A mistrustful, frightened child requires constant reassurance and encouragement. Their fear makes them more at risk in the water (and elsewhere) than their lack of skill. A confident child may frequently need to be hauled up from water over their heads by the scruff of the neck, spluttering and coughing, but as soon as they’ve snorted the water out of their nose, they’re ready to try again.
At the end of the lesson, all the kids are tired, but some are tired because they wriggled and flopped and kicked and bubbled with such enthusiasm and willingness they wore themselves out, while others are exhausted from lack of confidence and the firm belief they can’t. Carlos Castanada said, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
Confidence, I’m pleased to report, can certainly be repaired, and not only in those of us who are nicely mature! Confidence is contagious. I have a four-year-old in one lesson who spends a great deal of time comforting and reassuring another child who lacks confidence. The confident child encourages the mistrustful one, demonstrating skills first to show they’re fun and easy, and promising “Miss Jen will keep us safe.”
From the lofty eminence of adulthood, I can reassure a child I will not break trust with him or her in the water, but a peer is in a much more powerful position with such reassurance, particularly a peer who is willing to go first. A child whose confidence has been injured is at a distinct disadvantage in all areas of life and learning. Building confidence is possible, but it takes time, consistency, and patience with kids whose trust has been violated in the past.
We can’t learn if we believe we can’t. Being willing to try or to learn requires a teacher who never sees failure and only focuses on progress and effort, no matter how small. A child who is afraid to blow bubbles in the water gets praised to the skies if he or she can be coaxed to dip their chin in the water. Even if that’s the only progress they make in a lesson, it’s a huge step for a frightened child who lacks confidence. Blowing bubbles will come when the child is ready. I’m confident of that, I repeat it aloud with confidence in front of the child and his or her parents, and invariably, a lesson or two later, that same child is blowing bubbles with great glee, in between accidental inhalations of pool water. Buoyed by praise, celebration and high fives, the child develops some confidence, but it took the other kids in the lesson, the swim teachers, and watching staff and parents to do it.
Lack of confidence is very expensive, and very cluttered. Confidence, the single quality of the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary) can replace a whole host of ineffective and energy-consuming thoughts and beliefs.
It’s obvious to me that consciously choosing confidence is the simplest thing to do. As has frequently happened in the past, children show me the way, and I do my best to return the favor, not only as a teacher, but also as a parent, friend and coworker. When others believe and trust in us, we are empowered. When we believe and trust in ourselves, we are empowered.
Broken confidence can be repaired. In fact, it must be repaired if we are to thrive. Not everyone in our lives deserves or earns our trust, of course, but if we are unwilling to trust ourselves, we are truly lost in the darkness without a guiding light.
“Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.” ― Zig Ziglar
This week I’ve spent hours working on finalizing a query letter for publishers and literary agents, as well as shaping a 1-2-page synopsis of my first manuscript.
I approached this task in my usual methodical way. I researched writing queries and synopses.
As so often happens, I found lots of advice, much of it conflicting.
I took notes, bookmarked sites and started rough drafts. My research mode doesn’t usually last more than an hour or two. At the point when much of what I’m finding is repetitive and I feel more bored than interested I know it’s time to switch to writing, no matter how tentatively or sloppily. One can’t begin editing and refining unless there are words on the page.
Out of all the templates, formulas, critiques and examples of “successful” queries and synopses, one shining question stood out, and I didn’t find it on a search. I found it on a literary agency website. “Tell us why you were the one who had to write this book.”
I realize this question is the opposite of my usual frame, no matter what I’m doing. My conviction of my own inadequacy and that others will invariably be disappointed in me means I’m focused on all the reasons why I’m not qualified to write a book — or do almost anything else. What makes the submission task so daunting is coming up with a realistic, concise, clear evaluation and presentation of my creative work — and I’m extremely resistant to trying.
Yet the hardest work of the query has actually been going on for months, or even years, as I wrote, edited, rewrote, re-edited, and nurtured a tentative, almost shameful feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and amazement that I actually wrote a book — a long one!
Thinking about why I had to be the one to write The Hanged Manturns me away from all the things I’m not and asks me for what I am.
I have little confidence in anyone else finding my work valuable, but the fact is I find it — and myself — valuable, so I can write about that. I can speak for myself and my vision. I cringe when I’m asked to write a short biography, but I can write about why I’m the one who had to write this book.
As I began to answer that question, writing the query suddenly got easier. I was able to evaluate my creation more clearly, and find a comfortable balance between overconfidence and no confidence at all. I stopped worrying about never being published before, winning no contests or awards, and receiving no formal or traditional higher education for writing, and started thinking about all the reasons why I, and only I, had to write this particular piece of work.
It made a nice change.
Obviously, I want to get published, but I wonder if the submission process itself is not the biggest payoff for me, regardless of the outcome. The necessity to stand up, speak up, support and believe in myself in order to be the writer I am drives me to push myself in ways that nothing else could, because nothing else is as important to me. It would be much easier to coast along with my old paradigm: I’m no good, and neither is anything I think, say, make or do. It’s my familiar story, and I feel anxious when I think about rewriting it.
I notice this tension between believing in myself and having no confidence in myself at work, too. I watch a colleague teach a water exercise class and admire the way he structures the class and his manner with the class participants. I think about the next time I’ll be teaching that class, and how I’m so much less than my coworker. I prepare and worry, knowing I won’t measure up, knowing the class would rather have another teacher, knowing I won’t do it right.
Then I get into the water, stop thinking and anticipating, assess the participants and their physical and social needs, and off we go. I have a good time. I feel calm and competent. I stop fearing I’m not good enough and give it my best. By the time the class is over, I wonder what all my fuss was about.
Why am I the one who had to write this book? Why am I the one who has to teach a class on any given day?
Maybe simply because I’m the one who did write it, and teach it. Maybe I was engaging with those activities because I was the best one for that particular job.
“Why can’t you be like …?”
Others have asked me that question, but not as often as I’ve asked it of myself.
I can’t be like all the other wonderful, competent, gifted, beautiful people in the world because I’m not them. I can’t follow their paths. Their definition of success may not be the same as mine. I can’t look like them, teach like them, write like them or make choices the way they do.
The piece I never think about is that they can’t be like me, either. Because they’re not me.
We can learn from each other. We can support each other. We can tear each other down. At the end of the day, though, we can only be ourselves. Everyone else is taken.
I have a query letter I feel good about now. I followed traditional conventions and standards for such a letter — to a point. But I also let my own voice and style shine through. No one but me could have written the query or the manuscript accompanying it. The day I finished the query I submitted to my first agent. The next agent I want to approach requires a synopsis and a query letter.
Sigh. Back to the drawing board. This time for a synopsis only I can write.
For the most part, I love living the life I have. I don’t find myself or my writing either inadequate or disappointing. Maybe an agent and publisher out there will agree with me.
I’ll never know if I don’t try.
And I’ll find my own path through the query and submission process, a path only I can make.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.