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Doing it Right or Doing it Real

One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
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As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled. How can doing things real ever be good enough? As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible? The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?” I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope! A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart. How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections? It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them. I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own? I don’t want to be one of those people.
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Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them. Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself? Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
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But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message: “You didn’t do that right.” No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there. This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better. What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place? Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive. The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself. It’s entirely disempowering. But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy. I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me. I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out? Doing it right or doing it real? My daily crime.
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Pleasing Fear

My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.

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Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.

Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.

Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.

I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.

I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.

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I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.

I’ve never noticed that before.

Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.

I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.

I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.

Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.

What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.

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Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.

Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.

But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.

I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.

Psychology has identified four responses to trauma: freeze, flee, fawn (show excessive compliance), or fight.

I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.

Here’s something I can do!

The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.

All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.

Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?

If not now, when?

My daily crime.

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Who Am I Becoming?

As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.

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Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.

Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.

I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).

At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.

Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.

I don’t want to do it all.

Doing it all is overrated.

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So, I have to make choices, practice saying no, maintain boundaries, and stay balanced and centered.

It sounds so neat and easy. So mature and together!

Ha.

Becker’s piece made me smile, and then laugh out loud. (I miss laughing out loud. LOL is not laughing out loud.)

He asks such a simple, and at the same time, deep, question: Do I like who I’m becoming?

Like all really good questions, an honest answer is complicated, because our experience of ourselves is often different in different arenas of our lives.

It reminds me of another question I frequently see as I practice minimalism: Does this choice make my life easier or harder?

Of course, needs, structure and choice underlie both questions, but I like the way they leave the mechanics aside and focus on feelings.

Do I like me? Are my choices making my life easier or harder?

I almost made a choice last week that would have made my life harder, but it also would have increased my income.

Naturally, I thought first about the income. Security, stability, savings. Sure, it would mean less time and energy for other things, but – you know, more money!

Except not that much more. And there was no denying it would take away from my writing.

And the writing, unpaid as it is at this point, is what makes me happy, the reason I’m in the world, the center of my life and experience.

Money can’t compete.

Chasing money has made me a fearful people pleaser, perfectionistic, compulsive, depressed, and anxious.

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Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.

Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?

The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.

Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.

I have no intention of going backwards.

Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.

We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.

Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.

Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?

We’ll see.

(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)

My daily crime.

The Case for Emotional Intelligence

In this age of disinformation, misinformation, and connectivity, it’s ironic that some of the most emotionally intelligent among us are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such people have a twisted mastery of emotional intelligence; enough to successfully manipulate and recruit others behind lies, postmodernism and ideology, but not enough to use constructively.

We are evolved to be emotional creatures, and the combination of our feelings and intellect is powerful, but we must maintain a balance of both. Feelings without the tempering effect of information will often lead us astray. Intellect without feelings abandons traits that make us human, such as intuition and compassion.

Belief is built on trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something, and once we establish a belief, we think of it as part of our identity. However, true identity is not defined by our beliefs, choices, style, or preferences. Those are merely toxic mimics for a healthy identity, which evolves, changes, and expands as we learn and grow.

When influencers encourage us to mistake our beliefs for our identities, they’re wielding a powerful social tool in order to glue together communities they can manipulate. Within such communities, to question or lose confidence in a belief results in severe social sanctions intended to stifle any such challenge. Influencers work hard to control and manage both our emotions and access to information that might threaten the belief they’re selling.

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Fear of being outcast effectively disables our willingness to objectively examine the beliefs our community espouses.

If we are low in emotional intelligence, our lives don’t work well. Happiness eludes us. Relationships are problematic and frequently unhealthy. We’re ignorant of our needs and thus neglect them. We become estranged from ourselves (our true identities) and lose our flexibility and resilience. We take everything personally, and fiercely protect our beliefs, no matter how damaging and illogical they are.

We stop growing and learning. We murder our curiosity and become afraid to ask questions or seek new information.

Worst of all, we are blind to the emotional manipulations of others. An appeal to our desire to heal the planet, be kind and compassionate, be tolerant and generous, pushes us into enabling the agendas of others before we’ve thoroughly researched and explored those agendas. We react to the views and criticisms of others reflexively, fearful of appearing in a bad light.

We cannot identify our power and thus fail to protect it, making it easy for others to take it away.

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Many well-meaning people are duped by predators who play on their fears and/or desire to make a positive contribution to the culture and conversation. If we identify as a good person, a peaceful person, we’re deeply distressed by the accusation that we’re hateful, and will accept any kind of ideological nonsense in order to maintain our social identity. We, in turn, pass on the pressure to others. If we must believe the moon is made of green cheese in order to be accepted, others must also believe it for us to accept them.

Our lack of emotional intelligence makes our current chaos of dis- and misinformation predictable. People interested in power and control have no problem lying, and our low emotional skills make us quite vulnerable to those lies, especially when they’re presented with high emotion.

We don’t have mastery of our emotions and thus become victims.

I’m reading a book titled Controlling People, by Patricia Evans. It’s an interesting look at why some people are so controlling of others. Here’s a quote I resonated with:

“What blinds people the most to controlling behavior is the belief that the person who consistently defines them truly loves them.”

We are so often manipulated by others because we believe they have something we need. Love. Wealth. A raise or promotion. Validation. Belonging. Something.

As long as we believe anyone has something we need, we’re open to manipulation. We’ve entered the ancient archetype of prostitution. We’ll make choices based on pleasing that person in order to earn what we need.

The minute we enter into that dynamic, we’ve become disempowered, and I assure you that pleasing people never works. It always ends badly. Show me someone, no matter how beloved, who demands you please them in order to be rewarded, and I’ll show you a power predator incapable of love or being pleased.

Such people do not share power. Ever.

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When you are no longer useful, you will be discarded.

Emotional intelligence empowers us to find an effective balance between feelings and information. It allows us to discard our pseudo selves and support a dynamic identity. It helps us discern the difference between someone seeking to control and disempower us with emotional appeals and someone committed to power-with and win-win, where disagreement and curiosity are not punished and we’re encouraged to think for ourselves.

An emotionally intelligent life. My daily crime.

Leave It Better Than You Found It

I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.

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This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.

This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.

So, what does that mean?

If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.

Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.

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Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.

Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.

Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.

I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.

If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.

Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.

We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”

An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.

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Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.

Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:

  • Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
  • Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
  • Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
  • Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
  • Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
  • Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
  • Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
  • Do I have expectations of others?
  • Am I highly invested in the outcomes of choices that others make?
  • Am I being honest about who I am and giving freely from my authenticity?
  • Can I be wrong? Do I know how to say I’m sorry? Do I take responsibility when I’ve hurt someone? Can I accept an apology? Can I practice forgiveness?
  • Can I be honest about my feelings?
  • Do I use my power to make others bigger or silence and diminish them?
  • Do I keep my word?
  • Am I able to give and take gracefully and equally?
  • Do I value the needs of others as much as I value my own?
  • Can I bless the ground between us?

I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.

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We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.

Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.

As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.

Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.

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