Trapped in your story of you

You and I have similar bodies. And similar brains. Similar minds and hearts, even. Humans are mostly, well, human.

Which tells me that if you can do something I can do something. At least mostly. Like I can’t Michael Phelps, but I can pay down my credit cards. I can speak my truth and argue calmly. I can eat fairly healthily. I can quit my job or apply for a promotion. I can go on a date or at least introduce myself to someone. I can do human things.

As can you.

Except it’s not that simple.

~

A long time ago, some psychologists did an enlightening, if cruel, experiment with a bunch of dogs. They paired up each dog from group A with a dog from group B, put them all in little boxes, and started administering electric shocks. Dogs from group A eventually discovered that if they pressed a nearby lever, the shocks would end. They got to rescue themselves. Group B dogs, however, had no lever. And even though their shocks also ended when their group A mate found its lever, since they didn’t experience solving the problem by pressing the lever, they felt completely helpless about the shocks. Nothing they could do. Inevitable. Unstoppable. Helpless.

Later, they took all the dogs–group A and group B–and put them in different little boxes with a small partition in the middle of each. Electric shocks began again on the side the dogs were placed in. To avoid the shocks, they simply had to jump over the little partition to the safe side. Remember the dogs from group A? The ones that got to experience rescuing themselves? They jumped the partition to safety. And the group B dogs that just had to wait out the abuse? The ones who had experienced the shocks helplessly before? They just lay there accepting the shocks. Ingrained belief that there was nothing they could do. “Learned helplessness.”

Group A dogs had learned a story about themselves and shocks: I can change this.

Group B dogs had learned a different story: I can’t help getting shocked.

And, as a reminder, group A dogs and group B dogs are all dogs with the same puppy-legs built to clear those partitions. But their experiences created stories about themselves. And those stories dictated how they handled the next challenge.

~

Which is why I say it’s not that simple.

Yes, you and I have the same fingers with which to type that text, update that résumé, add that friend, sign up for that class, and bravely reach out to hold that hand. But you and I have very different stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

My story includes an odd jumble of affection and hiding and anxiety and determination and hope and authenticity and pain and adventure and caution and expectations and wisdom and pessimism and and scars and bravery. And though it’s a jumble, it’s a very specific jumble, specific to me. And it informs every day, every decision, every thought, every moment.

And our stories include the fate-type stuff we’ve learned about ourselves.

Having learned about ourselves that we “can’t,” or we’re “not strong enough,” or we “always do that,” or we “can’t help it,” or we “will always be treated like” . . . we accept our fate as our story plays out the way it’s “supposed” to.

Like: When I work out, I always end up in pain or injured. I’ll never be healthy and strong. So why bother trying?

Or: We always end up in a fight when this subject comes up. And I can’t deal with confrontation. So I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t matter to me anymore.

The themes that we’ve experienced, whether willingly explored or helplessly forced on us, have become our stories about ourselves.

Like those dogs.

“I can” or “I can’t.”

~

And while it’s not that simple–as simple as being humans that can change–it also is that simple.

Group A and B dogs are both dogs with legs to jump. And when the researchers finally showed the group B dogs they really could change their situation, holding their little legs and teaching them to move, the once helpless dogs did learn to rescue themselves.

You and I are both humans with human bodies and human minds.

And when someone finally showed me that I was allowed to experience and express a full range of emotions, ask for what I want, say what I really feel–I shed a little learned helplessness.

~

All this to say, you CAN.

Not you can everything. I can’t be on the Yankees team, which is super frustrating.

But you can do that thing–the one you keep wanting to do or trying to do or meaning to do or starting to do or committing to do.

That thing you’ve been remembering each January that you really want to do, and drafting to-do lists and schedules about, and starting, and eventually stopping every time.

Finding that community. Reading those books. Sharing that struggle with a friend. Eating in a way that feels better to your body again. Sticking to those boundaries next time. Sticking with therapy even when it gets too hard. Applying for that new job. Registering for those yoga classes. Cutting back on the Amazon shopping. Reserving more time for your loved ones. Or starting that difficult conversation that makes you a little nauseated.

Do you ever find yourself quick reality-checking a hopeful idea or plan or desire you had? “But you’ve tried that already, and you never stick with it.” Or “You’re just not that person.”

I do.

My story about myself includes decades of patterns that dictate to me who I am now–what I could do next, what I couldn’t do next–what my life officially looks like.

Unhealthiness.

Chronic pain.

People-pleasing.

Staying up too late.

Being only mildly expressive.

When I was 18, I was a loved and respected participant in a number of churches–they were like my families, and I was the confidant of most of my family members. And I had a best friend. I turned 19 and hopped on a plane to Africa, having that large home of friends and church families to come back to. Then I very suddenly, thoroughly, terrifyingly lost all of it. My family, my church families, even my best friend. Gone.

(Yes, I know I’m the common denominator there, and that’s not a great look. It’s a rough story.)

So in my story there’s this big theme about not getting too close to people, especially communities.

Talk about a powerful theme.

And I’ve stuck to that theme through a whole lot of life.

Stories are powerful.

~

What’s your theme?

What happened to you?

What’s your brand of helpless?

What’s your story of you?

And what if you aren’t actually trapped in that story?

~

The assumption that your story has to go a certain way–follow your norm, or any norm–like if you were abused you’ll be anxious, if you struggle with addiction you’ll never stop, if you try to save money you’ll fail–that assumption is a story you’re telling yourself built on powerful experiences you’ve learned from.

But what if you’re the author? And what if, as the author, you can just throw any random new color you want onto the page?

~

And remember, it’s simple and not simple: The trappedness in our stories is like learned helplessness. And while you may have the same mind and body as the next person–while you have the potential–remember that those dogs actually needed someone to move their legs. The aloner you are, the trappeder you are. So as you decide to change your plot this time, ask someone to help move your legs. A therapist. A bodyworker. A mentor. A friend.

~

What is your story about you?

And what if you’re the author?

Would you write something different next?

There is power in stepping back and asking what stories we’re trapped in and whether we’d like to re-write them.

What new plotline are you going to write today?

Authentic, but like right now

I always armed the alarm system at night. If someone beat me to it, I’d find some need to go grab something from the garage or step outside so that I could re-arm it when I came back in. Arming it took a minute, because we had to bypass a few upstairs bedroom windows so we could let in the fresh night air. When I re-armed it, I’d add my first-story bedroom window. Besides my little brother/partner-in-crime, I don’t think anyone ever knew. Night after night, I’d slip out the window to go walk. In the dark. In my trench coat. (Yes. An odd window into my sheltered juvenility casting about in search of an identity named Me.)

It’s hard to pinpoint my first clear realization that I didn’t belong in my family. That I needed to be elsewhere.

When I was 11, I yelled and threw things a lot and thought my little sister was the devil (spoiler, I was wrong, she was just a drowned out human looking hard for a friend). In other words, I wasn’t happy. But I didn’t feel like I was supposed to get away. When I was 17, I was so certain that the environment was toxic to me that I day-dreamed of life in a faraway place, and at nights I walked the neighborhoods in my trench coat.

Somewhere in between, I realized I needed to leave.

Sitting around our ancient, creaky, memory-filled dining table for yet another family meal, the whole family was deep in discussion. There were laughs and there were criticisms as we sat in pious heavenly judgment of “the world.” Except I just sat there in silence, wanting to be anywhere else. “What Peter,” mom suddenly turned to me, “do you think you’re better than the rest of us? Like we’re all just mean and judgmental, and you’re above conversations like this?”

Yes. And no. Wait. Not better, no. I mean screw it, yes. Not, “I’m better,” but yes, it’s “better” to not find one’s entire identity in sitting around laughing and poking fun at everyone that doesn’t look and sound just like you. So . . . yes, sitting in silence did feel like the “better” option.

I knew I had to get out.

So I got out.

And it was maybe the best decision I’ve ever made in my whole entire life.

And . . . with that decision came what was maybe the most unhealthy talent in my entire life: Solving problems by changing location.

And I guess I start with this story to draw a clear distinction around what I’m about to say. Because there are toxic places, or places at least that are toxic to you. There are times you need to pick up and leave. There are people you can do nothing but drown with. There are environments that are too traumatic for you. There are times when the best, best, best decision is: I’ve got to get out of here.

But.

I have a favorite quote this year. It’s speaking deep to me as I take the 2021 twists and turns in my growth. It’s such a simple quote, I figured it must just be one of those old sayings attributed to a hundred different people. And I guess it probably is, but I forgot where I’d found it, and was delighted a minute ago to discover I read this favorite new quote in my favorite old book by my deeply favorite author:

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. “It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.”

“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

Okay.

Whoa.

Yeah.

Over coffee, a friend I work with asked me, “Peter are you burnt out?” It was sort of out of the blue, and I was so grateful for the question, and before I knew it I answered that question in a way I’ve never answered it in a work setting: Yes.

I explained that the years of trying daily to care about and focus on the things that I worry my position and industry suggests I should caught up to me. That saying the things I’m expected to say, agreeing to the things I’m expected to agree to, setting the goals I’m expected to set–that it has all meant I’m carefully keeping myself under wraps–at least at work. And not totally, but a lot. Worried that the compassionate me, the me that can never just small talk, the mental health advocate me, the don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff me, the anxious me, the me that speaks up when something feels unfair, the me that keeps daydreaming about jumping ship and taking out student loans to go be a therapist, the soft me, the me that gravitates away from cliquey criticism fests, the me that needs desperately to help the ones life isn’t as easy for, and the me that quit wearing ties when he quit living for approval from authorities because honestly we’re all just humans making this stuff up–worried all those me’s wouldn’t fit.

Like, in business, is a “man” supposed to be in touch with his “feminine” side?

And what if they found out I don’t know football?

And that I care less at the end of the day about being “profitable” than about really taking care of people?

But that ship has been slowly turning this year, sign-posted by a few honest chats over coffee or lunch with a few co-workers who have been on this same journey.

And the less each day is run by my anxiety, the more I’ve been able to say: “A little bit, f*** it, this is me.”

And it seems to be turning out well. And in hindsight I’m seeing that a lot of the anxiety that was keeping me from showing my true self was actually coming from not showing my true self.

And I didn’t show my true self because I felt, “My true self won’t fit here.”

So I realized, for the hundredth time, that I’d have to leave.

Find the place where it’s safe to be exactly me.

Haha.

Does this pattern feel at all familiar to you? You feel in a rut, like “this isn’t the me I wanted to be,” so you make a change–a new job, a cross-country move, a breakup, a new schedule, a new community. And then the same old fears and insecurities that put you in the rut in the last place show up in the new place? So we jump from here to there and then over there and then back here and then all the way over there. And no matter how many different scenes we try, we find the same damn struggles.

Why?

Well, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

In my own journey, I’ve slowly uncovered a pattern: I find myself a new place to safely build a home. I glance around expecting to find people who don’t approve of my home’s aesthetic. And of course, as Paulo Coelho put it, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And in the face of those threats, I be the me, choose the choices, say the sayings that I think will keep me safe. Be who you’re expected to be. And I wait, day-dreaming of this future where I’m happily living as the real me in a good place. But the dream fades as the façade heavies, and I find myself burnt out putting off who I want to be. So burnt out that this new home has become toxic, and it’s time to make a move. So I find myself a new place to safely build a home. I glance around expecting to find people, again, who don’t approve of my home’s aesthetic. And the cycle begins again.

And it’s not because the new place is the same as the old place. It’s not.

It’s not because where you are doesn’t matter. It does.

It’s because where you are doesn’t make a difference unless you get in touch with and nurture the you that you’re bringing with you. Learn how to bravely, authentically be the you you keep meaning to be, no matter who’s watching.

If you struggle with communicating your frustrations in a relationship, a new partner probably won’t change that.

If you struggle with giving your honest opinions at work, a new workplace probably won’t change that.

If you struggle with taking care of your body in Minnesota, Colorado won’t change that.

Of course there may be reasons to make those changes (like there’s no Mount Ida to hike in Minnesota). But when you leave to find a new place where you can be you, are you leaving because the place you’re in won’t let you be you, or because you won’t let you be you?

Truly?

My friend who has spent his career as a psychologist helping people understand their relationships has a really helpful way of putting it. Nine times out of ten, “if you leave your partner, a year from now you’ll be married to their twin.”

What is inside of you that is making your today-world what it is?

Because sure, the external world does come with its real threats. But is it stopping you from being you? Or are you stopping you from being you, “just in case” it doesn’t work?

And what would happen if you just . . . were you in the face of those (real or imagined) threats?

My dog Junko and I are very different. Largely because she’s a dog and I’m a human. Junko seems to have only one thing on her mind: The present. Right now. Where she is. Right now. This piece of cardboard to rip apart, right now. This squirrel to tree, right now. This belly rub to get, right now. I, on the other hand, obsess constantly over the future, and I mostly try to reject the present. The present is not good enough. I need a new place. That house to have, next year. That career to have, in five years. That painless spine to run with, someday. Then I can be happy.

Happiness, fulfillment, acceptance . . . they’re all waiting for things to be just right.

I’m sure you’ve watched Pixar’s Up. If you haven’t, pause right here, go find it–even if you have to pay for it–and watch it, right now. Once you’ve stopped crying, come on back and we’ll go on.

So–Up. Carl and Ellie get married with big plans to travel the world. It’s what will make them happy. Then, as we’re all familiar with, life happens. And they keep waiting for the day when they can take their big adventure. But life keeps happening. And with guilt and regret, Carl watches his best friend Ellie pass out of this world, never having taken the big adventure. It’s too late. In his grief, Carl opens an album of memories. Pictures of him and Ellie sharing a birthday cake, out on a drive, feeding the pigeons, picnicking under a tree.

Our lives of “not good enough,” or “not where I wanted to be,” or “not what I’m supposed to be doing,” are still our lives. And chances are, we’ve got a lot to love to tend to right here, right now. Like Junko. In the present.

I bet that if we treated each present moment as just as important as our dreamlike future, we’d show up differently. And just possibly in a way that would help us break the cycle of chasing new safe places that turn sour.

But that means accepting the non-dreamy parts of the present. Like going to couple’s therapy, or actually having those difficult conversations with a co-worker. Instead of giving up and moving on each time. It means digging into the you that’s too scared to show all the way up today. Asking the scary questions of your heart, like “why do I have a hard time trusting?” or “why can’t I say what I actually think?” or “why can’t I let myself have fun?” or “why won’t I take care of myself?”

Because those things are usually at least partly inside you.

And, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

What if instead of defaulting to changing our outer worlds, we dropped in on our inner worlds to ask some deep personal questions, like “What is stopping you from being all the way here, all the way you, right now?” What if we did self-nurturing just as often as we did future-dreaming? What if we got real bravely authentic, even though “this isn’t the place I dreamt of?”

Do you catch yourself holding out for a later time or a later place or a later job or a later person, at which time you’ll suddenly be able to shine your light and dance your dance?

Why aren’t you right now?

Because whatever parts of you are keeping yourself hidden today are coming with you when you run away tomorrow.

And yes, make the move when the place itself is a true problem.

But is the place really usually the problem?

Or is it that wherever you go, you keep bringing your anxious self with you?

What if you just decided to figure yourself out instead? To learn the stuff that’s keeping you stuck. Like trust, like vulnerability, like bravery, like communication, like acceptance, like kindness, like rest. The list goes on. Those things you think would be different about you if you moved to Colorado, but deep down have to admit are really just your fragile self.

Can you let yourself grow through the weeds into your beautiful, healthy self, right here, right now?

Or do you have to keep waiting till everything else is just right?

Maybe we can meet each other with brave authenticity and find life and love together?

It won’t all be easy and you’ll get a few bruises, but I wonder if it would feel better than waiting and hiding as the years tick by.

Here’s to your brave authenticity. <3

~

Want an authenticity cheerleader? Throw your email below.

Whose life are you living?

We humans do this weird thing.

When my adorable dog Willoughby wants something, he wants it. He doesn’t check, first, whether we want him to want it. He doesn’t wait to see if we’re okay with him wanting it. He doesn’t try to align his deepest desires with what he supposes that we may want him to want. He doesn’t try to guess what our vision of the perfect-Willoughby would want. He doesn’t worry that if he wants the thing, we won’t love him anymore. He just . . . wants it. This doesn’t mean he gets everything he wants, but he certainly doesn’t pretend to be not-Willoughby all the time. He just is Willoughby and Willoughby wants what he wants–especially if its edible.

We humans aren’t always quite that clever. Or maybe we’re too clever.

We humans do this weird thing where we suppress our actual desires.

Again, it’s probably best that we don’t actually take everything we want. After all, devouring two-and-a-half pounds of the kitchen garbage didn’t end up making Willoughby quite as happy as he thought it would.

But there’s a difference between self-control and self-supprression.

A bunch, if not most . . . if not all . . . of us do it–in some way or another, at one time or another. Some of us self-suppress consciously, some of us subconsciously.

It sounds something like this:

But what will this friend think?

Does that friend need me to be different?

Is it normal enough to feel this way?

Will this disappoint my family?

Will that friend feel let down?

Ask yourself . . .

. . . The things you say “yes” to in your day-to-day life . . . are they you things? Or are they that-friend things? Are they my-family things? Normal or expected things?

. . . If you felt 100% free from what your people have come to expect from you, would you still be doing or saying or choosing or pursuing the things you are?

. . . Do you sometimes catch yourself making a decision based on a hope to impress an important person in your life? Or not disappoint them? Even when deep in your gut you know you’re not being honest about what you want?

. . . Do you feel yourself pulled into dishonest yeses, because your person or your people need a version of you that’s not really you?

For some of us, I think this tendency is rooted in an unconscious belief that we are less important than others.

For some of us, I think it’s actually (or also) rooted in this quiet suspicion that we will lose people if we don’t live for them. That we will only be loved if we align our wants and decisions and priorities with what people in our lives would love to see us choose.

So 15-year-old kids turn into 40-year-olds in a career they wanted because their parents wanted them to want it only to discover they don’t actually want it.

And busy busy people cram even more things into their schedules only to realize that they still spend zero minutes each week on the things that actually spark passion inside them.

And you and I agree to be in positions where people are counting on us for something that we’re not admitting is bleeding us dry, and we can’t imagine backing out because that is not what those people want or need from us.

And the days turn into weeks, turn into months, turn into years.

And all the while, if Willoughby doesn’t want a bath, he doesn’t want a bath, and if he does want a bite of our steak, he does want a bite of our steak, and there is zero pressure in his mind to pretend he feels differently.

He just gets to be Willoughby.

What if you just let yourself be you?

Would life be different?

So how can you get more honest with yourself today? Whose life have you been living? What voices can you let go of today? What deep desire can you connect with today? How can you be truly you today?

Good luck friend!

Loneliness, stillness, and a North Shore adventure

It’s good to just go sometimes.

Adventure is always within reach.

The earth is bigger than your stress.

Nature is cleansing.

You’re allowed to take care of yourself.

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” ~ Viktor Frankl

“With shortness of breath
You explained the infinite
And how rare and beautiful it is to even exist”

~ Saturn, Sleeping at Last

“I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time
That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes”

~ Saturn, Sleeping at Last

Life is, among other things, what you make it. Inner life, at least.

Sit completely still sometimes. Let time carry you and space wash over you. There is something more to this life.

You are safe.

When you take a real break–leaving your people and places and things–the deep down life-feelings will come in waves. Inspiration. Loneliness. Love. Uncertainty. Wonder. Pain. Acceptance. It’s your heart finally getting a turn to speak. Don’t run away from your heart. Make times to really come back to yourself.

Loneliness, when you sit with it, is a doorway.

Loneliness teaches you what you’ve grown dependent on, what controls your mind.

Loneliness shows you which parts of yourself need a tighter hug.

And on the other side of loneliness lies the powerful truth that we humans need each other.

Next time you have the chance, grab your earbuds, pick the most beautiful songs you know, and just watch the morning do its thing.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Stillness can make one’s way clearer.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Learning to be okay with stillness gives you the time back, the presence back, to actually show up for that space in between stimulus and response, to actually recognize that you don’t have to be pulled along on a carousel of pre-determined conflict and coping–that you can slow down and mindfully choose your responses to the adventures life throws at you.

And you can always, always choose love.

~

Your disappearing place

Where is your disappearing place?

What place makes you remember your freedom, your self, your own breath?

Where can you truly feel “away from it all” for a soul-filling minute?