I know it’s not quite what you imagined. But can you do some good with it anyway?
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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. :)
Waddling’s the word for the way Willoughby walked. Willoughwaddles.
He was an old man when we adopted him. But as slowly and arthritically as he moved 95% of the time, he was still ready for an occasional mad dash when we played hide and seek, or to stand his ground like the Rock of Gibraltar when he wasn’t done sniffing a tree trunk.
The first time I remember seeing Willoughby run was at a rest stop in Wisconsin. Lyssi was gone for a couple minutes, which was a couple minutes too long. When he saw her coming, he started walking, and as she got closer, and he became more sure, he took off bounding toward her and gave her a giant Willoughby hug.
There was something about that moment. You know how in the movies when two people love each other to death and see each other from a distance, there’s this Valentinesy moment where they pick up speed and run into each other’s arms? And you feel like “Ugh, I want that to happen to me.” Well that’s what dogs give us. That moment never went away.
If you read what I write, you may have gotten your fill of grief lately. Welcome to grief. This is, apparently, how it works. At some point, I’ll also write about other things. But not today. Grief has been on my mind, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I know you’re going to lose something or someone, too. Maybe already have. You’ll probably grieve many losses. And it’s just the worst. And there are a couple things that have been surprisingly helpful, so maybe they’ll help you.
For weeks and weeks after Willoughby died, I couldn’t stop playing this scene in my head: Somehow, somewhere, sometime I’d see Willoughby from across a distance. He’d see me, and he’d get that look in his eyes, and he’d start moving, and the waddles would turn into a run, and he’d land in my arms again, tail wagging, sneezes sneezing.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
And then a few different friends gave me cards with the story of the Rainbow Bridge. The beloved pets we have lost “all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted . . .”
It’s not real.
But it’s a story worth imagining.
And I’ve imagined it again and again and again. And I keep feeling “If only . . .”
When I think about seeing Willoughby again, hearing his old man bark, seeing him running and playing, it hurts a lot. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I really cry. Each time feels a little different as grief winds its weird path and I feel the Willoughwaves come and go.
But it never doesn’t hurt to think about. So why keep thinking about it?
Like most of us, I always assumed that it would feel better not to think about the wonderful things we’ve lost. The things we were so attached to that the memory physically hurts. I remember my psychologist friend sharing that a lot of his clients who have lost loved ones say that they can’t let themselves start thinking about it, because if they start crying they’ll never stop. We believe grief will overwhelm and break us. That if we let it in, it will be too much. Permanent.
But it actually doesn’t work that way.
The first surprising grief lesson I’ll share was this weird thing that worked.
Pizza tasted good, but it didn’t really carry us through our feelings. Distractions delayed some tears, which honestly was really helpful, but then the distractions ended. The one activity that seemed to “work” in any healing way was watching videos of Willoughby.
I didn’t think I’d be able to handle pictures of Willoughby, let alone videos, but it turned out they were the exact medicine. Especially the videos. The videos gave me his sound. I got to watch him and listen to him and relive the memories and fully feel how badly I love him.
And then, strangely, it would feel . . . better . . . ?
Which is the opposite, I think, of what we expect. Grief knocks us down, so we think the best defense is to not let it knock us down, and we find ourselves worn out bracing against its power, “not listening, not listening.”
But when we finally do listen, look, feel . . . it sort of moves through us. It does its thing.
Emotions are made to be felt, not fought. Well before Willoughby died, I gave a blog post the title Letting the waves do their thing. I described how surfing is used as an analogy for life–when the waves come, we learn to ride the waves. But not just that. We often forget that surfers don’t just ride the waves, they also wipe out, because from time to time a wave comes that is too big, and it pulls them under into a current that is too strong, and surfers have to learn a life-saving lesson: You can’t fight the water. When it pulls you under, you have to swim with it, or at least not against it. If you try to fight it, you will drown. And I think life is the same way. The waves are surfable, but at some point they’re going to knock you down and pull you under, and those giant emotions are too strong to fight. Too strong to deny. Too strong to say things like “well at least” or “it’s okay because.” Too strong to look the other way and distract ourselves. So when we try to fight them, we lose. They just get bigger and bigger and become more and more deeply entrenched. And one day our dams will break.
The strange thing that my psychologist friend gets to share with his clients who are afraid to let the tears start is that when we actually get open and honest and familiar and accepting with the tears, the emotions move through us. Emotions, when allowed, do their thing and then . . . let up. The current is strong, but if you go with it, it will let you back up for air.
Emotions, when blocked, exhaust us and grow bigger. Emotions, when accepted, fulfill their purpose and then recede.
And sure enough, when I put on that SYML song that brings me back to the drive to say one last goodbye, or when I tell a friend who is brave and thoughtful enough to ask all about him, or when I watch the videos of Willoughby being Willoughby–the tears come. And then they go. And it . . . helps.
So that’s thing one: Watch the videos, let the memories in, feel the feels. Deep. It hurts deep, but it heals deep.
And it keeps working that way, 4 months later. The longer I try to just put those thoughts and memories away when they creep up, the more ominous and yucky it feels. And when I finally just go, “Okay, time to hear the Willoughby playlist again,” it heals. It’s better.
At least for me. So maybe for you?
Why is it better for me to feel it all the way and let the grief grieve? I think maybe because Willoughby’s not actually gone from my heart. So trying to deny his visits to my heart hurts worse than just remembering the love and feeling him again.
Nora McInerny has a lot to say about this, and the day we let Willoughby go I listened again to her Ted Talk on grief, because I needed to remember that it is okay not to move on from Willoughby. I’m attaching her Ted Talk at the bottom of this post, because I hope, hope, hope you’ll watch it. It has been the perfect guide for me.
Thing two that seems to have really helped is this weird, masochistic-sounding experiment I did through the whole process.
Loss can change people. There’s something I’ve heard about the likelihood of couples who lose children breaking up. It’s just hard to survive deep losses. It’s hard to be healthy about them. It’s hard not to just throw shit at the walls and scream. It’s hard not to blame. It’s hard not to clam up. It’s hard. It’s all hard.
In his life-changing book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the origins of trauma. It’s fascinating. I promise this is way over-simplified, but: One of the reasons trauma is so traumatic is that it is too much to show up for, too much to process in our brains. Too terrifying to look closely. Like the shadow in the closet. We hide under our blanket instead of investigating, so we spend the rest of our lives under our blanket instead of seeing that the shadow has come and gone.
In Off Camera with Sam Jones, Matt Damon describes the true-to-life flavor they gave a scene in the movie Contagion. Near the beginning of the movie, a doctor tells Damon’s character that his wife has died. “Right. . . . can I go talk to her?” In researching how this would play, they learned from doctors that they’re trained to use very specific language. They don’t say soft things like “didn’t make it,” they get real brutally direct: “Their heart stopped and they did die.” Apparently the word “did” gives it some extra force. They do this because that truth is so hard for people to hear that we literally won’t hear it. Won’t understand it. Won’t accept it.
It’s easier to not look at the worst stuff. To block it out. To stuff it down. To turn our feelings off. To lie to ourselves and say “I’m fine.” To pretend the trauma’s not really there. To not look at it. To not touch it.
Because some things are too scary. Too awful.
But then, when we deny it, when we stay in the denial stage or the bargaining stage, it roots deeply in our core as trauma. Something we couldn’t bear to show up for, something that’s too big a monster hiding in the closet. So we live the rest of our lives in its shadow. Avoiding triggers. Emotionally shut down. Carefully blocking the experience.
So what would happen with that experience if instead of shutting down during it we opened all the way up to it?
My experiment was to stay outrageously present for Willoughby’s death. No denying. No pretending. No blocking. No looking away. No trying to get away. No shutting out or shutting down. Just all the way present.
What did I feel? What did I hear? What did I smell? What did I see? And what–exactly what–was happening in my heart? And could I sit with it? Sit in it?
My heart was saying “I’m not ready for this! I can’t let you go, Willoughby.” I’ve never cried that hard and may never again. I felt the cold rain sprinkling on my skin. I heard the cars drive by as we stood in the alley behind the vet clinic. I heard Willoughby’s silence. Too tired. I smelled Willoughby as I leaned down to kiss his forehead. Again. And again. I felt Lyssi’s shoulders as we held onto each other. I heard my calming voice telling, promising Willoughby we weren’t going anywhere and telling him he’d been such a good boy. I saw Willoughby’s head peeking out from under the covers. I watched his eyes move. I noticed how completely normal but still tender this moment felt to the nurse who came out when we said we were ready. I listened to her explain what happens. And then I watched Willoughby’s eyes get really big all of a sudden. Like something was happening. And then he got sleepy and peaceful. We said silly things like “Thank you” to the nurse and walked back to the car. We sat in it and held each other and cried. Together. For a long time.
Lyssi and I agreed to be really present with each other for the grief. To accept it, to let each other show all the yucky pain, to be all the way emotionally available and emotionally together about it, no matter how awful.
It would have been easier to be a trooper. To keep my chin up. To “be strong.” It would have been easier to “can’t think about it right now,” or to get back to work, or to take care of things and do stuff. It was definitely harder to be consciously, carefully present. In the moment.
And I don’t think I can describe how much it has helped. It was a moment full of love that I will never ever get back. And if I hadn’t said the things and given him the kisses, I wouldn’t have that memory. If I hadn’t soaked it all in, it would be gone, and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.
And it would be big. A big shadow. That trauma thing.
Have you ever had an anxiety attack? Most of the time, we humans make it through pretty dreadful things. But anxiety is about feeling there’s a too-big thing looming around the corner. One you won’t make it through. And an anxiety attack happens when your body gets too overwhelmed with that undefinable, vague shadow, and begins to panic. So how do you calm an anxiety attack? By returning to the senses. What do you see? What can you touch? What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you taste? Because no matter how awful, usually, when we can return to our senses, we’re able to be there.
I think that happens with grief, too. With loss. It’s pretty gut-wrenchingly awful. And we can run away from the shadow, let the trauma hunt us in a game of hide-and-seek that will never end. Or we can show all the way up for it.
This pain, this loss, has stayed with me in a different way than others have in the past. And I do think it has some to do with how present we stayed for it. No denial. No soldiering on. No turning off feelings.
He was really dying. And we were really there for it. And we will always have that moment. We understood it. No matter how painful, we understood it and got to show up with agency and love in that moment while he crossed that bridge.
I’ve just seen so many people shut down to survive loss, but it always turns out they didn’t survive it. They just hit pause. The loss is still waiting. So maybe they’ll just stay paused. Forever. While the shadow grows bigger, and their heart grows emptier.
Being intentionally present with Willoughby’s death was so hard and so sad. But I think it helped. A lot. I think it saved some trauma. I think it saved some regret. I think it saved some dysfunction. Some struggle. I think it meant I get to look back with tears and love at our goodbye, instead of panicking and running away from the thought for the rest of my life.
I don’t know if either of these will help you.
Deciding to show up in love and presence for the saddest times;
And letting the waves of grief do their thing, healing you as they go.
But they’ve helped me immensely.
So when the waves knock you down and pull you under–and they will–maybe try showing all the way up and feeling the feels.
The Willoughwaves keep coming, for me, but as long as I don’t fight them, they seem to be serving a purpose.
Do you show up for your grief?
P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:
It seems we’re both figuring this whole life thing out as we go. Can I send you updates when I figure more of it out? Wishing you the best!