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.

~

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. :)

Willoughby

I don’t have many words these days.

Life goes on, when someone you love dies, and that’s so frustrating. I want the world to stop for a minute. Or at least I want to take a step away from it all for a minute, but unfortunately I still have to get groceries and go to work and say hello back to people. And all those people expect me to be normal or at least decent, but all I want is to not talk to anyone, to not look at anyone, to not care about things like money or drama or events.

Everyone is so sympathetic at first, so many big feelings sent. And then, like the rest of life, those people also go on, because they’re those people, not me, and because they should go on, they have to go on, they just obviously would go on, because why would they stop life to just watch me grieve for days and weeks and months? It only makes sense. Just because my world comes to a screeching halt, doesn’t mean the world comes to a screeching halt. Which is a little whiplashy. So after the first few days, most people have forgotten it, and after the first couple weeks, most who remembered it won’t dare to bring it up.

Why do people think it will hurt too much if they keep bringing up someone you’ve lost? Letting them disappear hurts so much worse. I daydream of moments when a friend would say “How are you doing with all this?” or “Are you okay?” or “I’m so sorry you lost him” or “Do you want to talk about it?” or “What was he like?”

Because I don’t want to be done with him. Ever.

What was he like? He was perfect. And by perfect I mean in a particular way.

He cost a lot of money to take care of in his old age. And when we left for too long in the evenings he would tear up a toilet paper roll or dump the contents of a backpack at the front door, which seemed to be his way of saying “I need to be with you.” His snoring and licking and midnight hijinks made it hard to sleep until I finally bought ear plugs. To record anything for my blog anymore, I had to close myself behind two doors and hope that no footsteps in the hall would make him bark and then deal with his looks of betrayal for a while when I finally opened the doors. And some nights I really didn’t want to take him back outside before bed.

So then what does perfect mean?

Perfect means that I never had to wonder, for even a second. Willoughby loved me. And he just wanted to be with me. And he would always, always be there, wagging his tail, ready to give all the licks and hugs. I napped more when Willoughby was around, because when you’re in the presence of so much love, resting makes sense. It was just love. Acceptance. Friendship. Perfect.

Oh, and he was absolutely hilarious.

I scheduled myself a Monday off work just so that I could bring Willoughby out into the world for one more good adventure day. His tumor was growing and I knew he didn’t have much time. The week before, I had taken him on a walk in the strong wind. He had run and run with the blowing wind accentuating the massive grin plastered on his face. Couldn’t get enough. When we had gotten to the front door, it was abundantly clear he wasn’t ready to leave the great outdoors. So we stood in the wind until the wind became snow and his old man legs started shaking and then finally he sat straight down on the sidewalk and I realized that this was the most important stuff of life so I sat down next to him and we just watched the world and felt the beating snow. And it was our best day. So I scheduled the next Monday to take him to go see all of the world that he could possibly want to see. But he didn’t make it to Monday.

I still feel this need to explain, somehow justify, why Willoughby’s death left me as torn up as it did. I think I’ve said “I know we only had him for about a year” twenty times, and I hate every single time that I have said that. When Willoughby died he was my best friend and he was my wife’s best friend. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with unconditional love. To become attached to it. Wrapped up in it. The last few years haven’t been easy. Honestly, life hasn’t. I had a lucky few light-hearted years in my early 20’s, but I didn’t realize then how much childhood trauma was simmering under the surface. Add a couple concussions that brought so much to the surface and then a pandemic and loss of community and chronic pain and too many more little things that added up so much. For a lot of it, Willoughby kept me going. Life drained me, but then I’d get home and Willoughby’s entire rear half would be violently wagging at the door because he was so damn excited that WE WERE TOGETHER AGAIN! So life was okay. And then he wasn’t there. And life wasn’t okay anymore.

I never really understood the anger part of grief so much. Like, sure anger about mean or abusive people that hurt you or the ones you love. But anger over the loss of such a good, pure, perfect thing? Why would you be angry?

Maybe because it was my lifeline. It was the good thing. It was the only uncontaminated thing. Everything else was up in the air. Now I understand the anger.

We gave Willoughby a home to retire in, but I honestly think in a more real way he gave us a home. He gave me a home. He gave my heart a safe place. And he gave me the gift of love. A kind of love that, even when he’s gone, is still just as strong. The kind of love that doesn’t depend on stuff and doesn’t go back and forth. Just complete, unconditional, untiring love.

“There’s nothing you could have done, ” said a soft voice, “Calm down, you will survive.”
~ SYML, DIM

Thursday morning I took Willoughby for a walk. All he wanted was to eat grass. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Sometimes dogs do that when they’re not feeling good in their tummies. I think it was the tumor taking over. That morning, Lyssi and I finally listened to SYML’s new EP, DIM. That night, Willoughby couldn’t stand up. The next morning, after a lonely drive crying in a way I didn’t know I could cry, we said goodbye.

I want some more time, I can’t give you up.
One lifetime is never enough, so stay with me.
More than a body, you’re more than my heart,
you’re my blood, stay with me, stay with me
!”
~ SYML, STAY CLOSE

Whenever I park my car and hop out, I instinctively glance up at the window and watch Willoughby let out an over-excited howl because we get to be together again. Now I keep looking up at the window before remembering that he won’t be there. It’s rough. And I keep imagining some way that we could actually see him again.

“Lay down with me tonight, breathing slow . . . rest now, kiss me goodbye in the morning. I’m with you always.”
~ SYML, DIM

Nora McInerny was right. In her Ted Talk on grief, which is everything I have to say about grief at this point, she shares the very curious fact that when people lose someone who matters so deeply to them, they keep using the present tense to talk about them. Because they’re not really gone. I used to not get that. But after Willoughby died, I kept catching myself talking about him like he was still here. “He’s the best.” “He’s so full of love.” “He’s a senior dog.” “He’s such a good boy!” “He’s our best friend.” “I love Willoughby so much!” “He’s so sweet!” Because he is all of those things. Willoughby’s Willoughby-ness will always be real, and always be beautiful, and always be happy, and always be perfect.

“Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . .
I will protect your light.”
~ SYML, DIM

And I don’t ever want to be done talking about him. Or even talking to him. I still do that. Because he’s the best.

I miss you Willoughby. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write down just how much you mean to me, to us. And maybe I’ll be able to speak about some of the deep truths I learned about life and loss and love and grief and beauty and strength and friendship and hope from you. And just how rough it is to not see you anymore. For now, I don’t have many words.

Cut yourself some slack, it’s just how brains work

Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.

The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.

The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.

And here’s the fun thing.

The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.

In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.

Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”

But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.

Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.

Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.

Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.

That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.

But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.

You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.

That’s just human.

~

For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Good luck with your amygdala. <3

If you’d like some company figuring out this weird experience called being a human, subscribe below. We’re in this together.

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?