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?

When it feels like too much

A soft, fuzzy mommy with no food. Or a wire mommy with food. Which would you pick?

In a 1958 experiment by the scientist Harry Harlow, baby monkeys gravitated heavily toward the soft, fuzzy mommy with no food.

Comfort and security mattered the most. Like even more than dinner. And not much matters more than dinner.

We humans seem wired to desperately seek and hold onto comfort. Even when the comfort is unhealthy or doesn’t serve us in the long run. It’s just how we are.

In his two podcasts about The Office and its making, Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin on the show, repeatedly asks the question: Why do people obsessively binge The Office? And the answer, repeatedly, is it’s familiar. It’s a comfort thing.

The more familiar something becomes, the more we turn to it for comfort. That can be good, bad, or neutral. Like getting hugs from your best friend, or returning to your abuser, or just streaming The Office long past Netflix’s “Are you still watching?” intermission.

Familiarity makes comfort. And on the flipside: unfamiliarity–or change–triggers discomfort.

Like when Netflix’s contract for The Office expires.

So what happens with change? What happens when we suddenly lose the familiar? Suddenly step out of our comfort zones? Suddenly find ourselves in this strange, new, and uncomfortable world?

Very often, what we think will happen turns out to be very different from what actually does.

We humans tend to be far more capable of recovering from emotional crises than we expect. When faced with loss and challenge, people frequently overestimate how long it will take before their minds can return at least partial attention to their typical day-to-day concerns. We frequently end up at least some version of “okay” more quickly than we expect.

And I think that’s very much worth thinking on for a bit. With the big discomforts and the little ones.

What actually happens?

~

A friend adopted a dog last week. Being a mom to furry friends wasn’t new to her, and everything was ready to go, but still she couldn’t shake this anxious feeling. She felt stressed out and on edge. What could go wrong? Is it going to go okay?

I shared my own story of adopting our pup, Junko, a year-and-a-half shepherd mix rescue. We brought her home a few months ago and, although she was about as well-behaved as they come, and we also were more than ready and not new to this, the next few days were some of the highest anxiety we’ve ever felt–panicky. The unknowns, the “Was this a bad decision?” thoughts, the fear that we wouldn’t be good care-takers for her.

The moral of the story seems to be: All significant changes–even the EPIC ones–are stressful.

Change is uncomfortable.

And we desperately want comfort.

A ray of hope in the height of the Junko-anxiety was: Someday it won’t be this-week anymore. In other words, this maximum-feeling stress isn’t going to be forever.

And while that reminder is common sense, it’s one I think we forget a lot.

So I’d like to explore this change/discomfort thing together.

~

When we experience a new thing that comes with stress, we tend to worry that we WON’T get comfortable with the new thing. The discomfort feels so uncomfortable that all we want is to go find our fuzzy mommy. We don’t think we’re going to make it out here in this scary new world, because we know we can’t survive this tight feeling in our chests and the woozy feeling in our heads and the tummy-waves forever. It’s too uncomfortable. And we need to get out.

So sometimes we take it back. No change. Stay safe.

Whether they’re big changes or lesser bumps in the road, we expect that we won’t get comfortable: A new community, a new person, a loss, a habit, a decision, a life-path, a job or promotion, learning something you didn’t know about someone, etc. All these changes lead to lots of worry and anxiety, and while the alarm-bells are ringing, we overestimate how permanent the stress will be.

Which, again, can make us take it back. Bail. Give up on our deepest desires and truest selves. No change. Need to get back to comfortable.

But what if comfort in the new reality is just a matter of time?

~

We found our dream home one September night and made our first offer since we’d started house-hunting. It was perfect. One we knew we’d never leave. So we threw more at it than we’d budgeted. And it scared the hell out of us. We backed out right before we signed the offer. Then we jumped in again an hour before the deadline. We couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t calm down, couldn’t eat. Work that day was awful. I had this sick, end-of-the-world feeling in my gut. Could we really afford this? (Yes. Very much.) Were we signing our lives away? Would we go bankrupt? Barely scrape by, stressing constantly about money? Find ourselves years later trapped in our not-dream-jobs making just enough money to afford this crazy choice? Making the wrong decision that would change our lives? Finally out on a distracting-walk, we got the phone call. It was a no go. Back to the drawing board. Deeply stressed, not ready to keep going with this panicky feeling, maybe a little traumatized. For the next 9 months we made that offer again, reviewed that budget again, slept on it again, and again, and again. Finally we saw a home and had 15 minutes before the deadline to submit an offer. In minutes we hashed out our most aggressive offer yet, signed it, and hopped into a boat to relax with our best friends. The deeply scary, uncomfortable, stressful thing we didn’t think we’d be able to handle had become . . . easy.

We went stand up paddleboarding lately, my wife’s first time. It’s a weird, tiring thing for your legs and feet at first. The goal was a relaxing adventure and it didn’t feel relaxing. After a bit she wasn’t sure it would ever get chill enough. Fast forward 45 minutes and we were cruising and laughing and chatting away. The uncomfortable thing had become . . . chill.

I felt like I was going to pass out when I gave my first impromptu speech in high school. It lasted about 20 seconds and consisted mostly of messing with my feet and chewing on my lip. It was brutal. This was not for me. Public speaking is outrageously uncomfortable to most people. Until you do it again and again and again. And then, for many, it sort of clicks. Sure, still some butterflies, but we’ve got this. Nowadays, I get a thrill when I have a chance to present in front of a group, and there’s no such thing as too unprepared. I’m 100% there for it. The terrifying thing has become . . . exciting.

Speaking of speaking, I joined a Toastmasters club years ago, looking for some like-minded people. And while speaking was exciting for me, the socializing was nerve-wracking. I was super anxious to make good impressions, and everyone there seemed so put together and intimidating. I felt like I could feel my blood pressure rise when I’d get there, after the hours of anticipation. It was a lot. Stressful, even if a sort of exciting kind. And then all the intimidating people became my good friends and I slowly became one of the long-time members welcoming shy new members. The lonely, anxious space had become . . . home.

A common theme I’ve found with all my co-workers is that we all have this idea that “those professionals,” the ones who have been doing it longer, are in those more advanced positions, must have some special knowledge and expertise and capabilities. Those positions seem scary, out of reach, like we couldn’t keep up with them. Until we take that next scary step and jump in the deep end. After each stressful promotion or transition our splashing about slowly turns to a smooth stroke, and suddenly we just are those cool people we didn’t think we could ever be. Again and again and again, the uncomfortable jobs had become . . . mundane.

Have you ever admitted some deep secret to someone? Shared something that you’re afraid will change how they feel about you? Maybe sometimes it does change how they think of you. In fact, probably most of the time it does. But how long does that change last? When I’ve found myself in that position with friends or family, I’m always surprised by how quickly people are able to adjust and accept. I’m still me. You’re still you. Those scary conversations we think will ruin it all, typically end up just growing the relationships deeper. The upsetting or confusing new side of you quickly becomes for them just . . . you.

Even Willoughby. My last few blog posts have been pretty messy about my Willoughby buddy I lost in April. And you don’t lose the sadness, but I don’t spend most hours of most days in deep sadness about it anymore.

Blogging is a good one, too. There have been some big blog or even social media risks I’ve taken. Scary, brave feeling ways I’ve put myself out there. Opening up about trauma or mental health. Speaking up on sensitive topics. Marketing myself and asking for attention. And each one of those uncomfortable steps I’ve taken that have felt like they’ll be too much, forever putting me in a new space of insecurity, has ended up being totally . . . okay.

Or even this pandemic. No, it’s not all okay now. Not at all. But there is a significant difference in how we function day-to-day as compared to the first month. Remember being super nervous and over-aware every time you left the house? How you’d catch yourself touching your face? Washing your hands and wiping stuff down? And how literally uncomfortable the masks were when you first had to wear them? How complicated the zoom meetings were? And now? It’s . . . normal. In a strange way. The fifth COVID-test feels much less monumental than the first one did. Sometimes you forget you’re wearing the mask until you’ve already made it home and inside. You’re a zoom pro now. And you just don’t think about COVID-19 every minute of every day anymore. The world outside doesn’t look or feel quite so eerily post-apocalyptic as it did at the beginning. The uncomfortable “new normals” became just that . . . normal.

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What about you? Can you think of something in your life that went from extremely uncomfortable to comfortable? Scary to happy? Difficult to chill? Stressful to normal? Crisis-y to completely and utterly mundane?

Something you thought you’d never be able to handle? Something you thought would be permanently hard? And now it’s . . . not?

~

We are emotional creatures. And we learn discomforts way faster than we learn comforts. We are on the lookout for danger, and changes stresses us the hell out.

But, can we give ourselves these little reminders that the uncomfortable things will get more comfortable?

And quite possibly pretty quickly?

What could this awareness do for us?

Maybe it would give us the strength to do that big thing we’ve been putting off in fear? Knowing that the fear would subside? We could chase our dreams a little more?

Maybe it would give us the strength to keep going with those practices we know are healthy even when we hit a wall that feels like a crisis? Having the perspective that even though it feels like the world is ending, we can keep being us, because if we’re still going to be here, we still need to be ourselves? Like muscling my way through my yoga practice even though the capitol just got stormed because by summer that crazy new reality will have just settled into the actual reality I live in? And yoga would have helped along the way?

Maybe it would save us some hours of intense worry? The stress-feelings could start to just mean that we’re stretching and growing and on a new adventure?

Maybe it would help us connect and communicate genuinely. Speaking our uncomfortable truths, trusting that the more we speak them, the more they’ll feel like they belong?

Maybe it would mean we could be our truest selves through the stress times, the change times, good, bad, or neutral.

~

Do you remember going to the gym for the first time? Seeing all those fit runners and badass lifters doing their thing as if it’s no big deal. And you awkwardly put your stuff in the cubby and try to decide whether to keep your water bottle with you and glance around for a place to tie your shoes where you won’t be in anyone’s way? You wonder a lot what they think of you. You try the machine you’ve always seen used and you can feel the sympathetic grins burning through the back of your head. You see the trainers high five the members they already know so well and convince yourself that you’ll never be one of them.

And then, as happens when you immerse yourself in any community and stick around through the discomfort, you eventually find yourself at home. Or at least no longer on the edge of a panic attack.

The places and spaces and big life changes that we think are going to make life impossible and lead to permanent fear and stress and stomach upsets . . . we get used to them. They become okay. It just happens.

And that’s really quite hopeful.

We’re going to be okay.

You can do it.

~

It seems that almost everything we think will never get comfortable ends up getting comfortable–or at least routine. When we find ourselves thinking that something will permanently bother or upset us, it can help to be a little more down-to-earth and realize we’ll probably feel differently in a few days.

So what adventure or cause have you been desperately wishing you could pour yourself into, but keep finding yourself holding back, afraid it will be too scary?

Or what struggle or change or new reality are you currently going through that is keeping you up at night, leaving you afraid this peak stress is here to stay?

Can you remind yourself that you’ll grow into it?

That the scary will become routine or happy?

The uncomfortable will become comfortable?

The scary new you will soon be the strong new you?

What if you just gave yourself permission to go ahead and chase the thing from the bottom of your heart? Dive straight in, even though the butterflies do their thing in your tummy?

What if you just trusted the process?

What could you do?

What would you have?

Who will you be?

You are safe.

And don’t worry. Your body will discover that’s true. For today, ride the thrills.

Be you through the stress. You’ll stick around longer than it will.

Want a bravery buddy in life? I’ll come with. Throw your email below. :)

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.

~

Don’t wait for all this to be over

Crisis. Fear. Risk. Danger. Change. Unknown.

My natural reaction in a time of uncertainty, anxiety, or crisis is to put things “on hold.”

You, too?

Goals. Learning. Health. Exercise. Conversation. Causes. Projects. Healing. Big life changes.

What have you put on hold in the last week of fear and change?

And what would happen if you DIDN’T put it on hold?

What would happen if you decided that you were going to keep chasing your goals during the crisis? Keep eating healthy? Keep running? Keep talking about the things you love to talk about? Keep working on your projects? Keep making your changes?

What if you didn’t just wait for all this to be over? Didn’t wait for the time to be “right?” Your dreams are still here. What would happen if, with a few socially responsible adjustments, you just kept putting one foot in front of the other?

A - Title pic

Sidewalk

Nobody actually says–or at least nobody actually gets to say–that just because you’re a “grown up” now, you have to stick to the sidewalk.

Hop up on the wall, if it’s calling your name, and teeter your way along in the sky above the sidewalk for a while.

Or abandon the sidewalk entirely and crunch through the leaves as you venture into the woods.

You are still human. There is still wonder. You are still free, child.

George Bernard Shaw - grow old because stop playing