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. :)

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.

In your closest relationships, is the real you even there?

Driving home the other day, something struck me while I was listening to Nora McInerny’s (amazing) podcast (that you should listen to) Terrible, Thanks For Asking. In an episode called Don’t You Want Somebody to Take Care of You?, a woman named Gina recalled growing up with a depressed mother. Each morning her mom would retreat to her bedroom, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Then, shortly before dad returned from work, mom would appear, all made up and ready for the day. Looking back now, Gina realizes, her mom was “just trying to keep shit together, and not let my dad know how much she was struggling.”

That struck a nerve. It struck a nerve because I think I’ve lived both versions of that. The version where you hide your struggle and the version where you say “You know what? This is me.”

We hide things. It can be depression, as in the case of Gina’s mom. It can be addiction of all kinds. It can be insecurity. It can be anxiety. It can be compulsive spending on Amazon Prime. It can be our unfollowed preferences, desires, even dreams. It can be our anger or heartbreak. We hide things. Especially stuff we’re struggling with. Like loneliness, mental illness, guilt, and shame.

Why do we hide these things from our closest people? Gina’s mom didn’t need to advertise every detail of her depression to the whole world. (Some do find freedom in being an open book to the world–that’s not bad–nor is it wrong to want privacy.) But why did she need to hide from her spouse–the love of her life, her best, best friend? And why do you and I hide the stuff we’re struggling with from our closest friends? And especially our life partners?

We hide because we’re scared. Scared of being alone and scared of losing love. And we imagine scenarios like, “If only he knew, he would leave me,” or “If she found out, she would be so angry,” or “If I was honest about what I really want, we could never make this work.”

So we keep our struggles under wraps, desperately clinging to what love and acceptance and companionship we think we have.

Imagine you’re Gina’s mom. You never feel happy anymore, you never really feel much of anything–but your husband doesn’t see you as “a depressed person”–he doesn’t know. And you’re so afraid that if he finds out, you’ll lose the good you have, the love you have. Strangely, of all the people in the world, your life person is who you most need to hide the truth from. If the person ringing up your groceries finds out you’re depressed, no big deal. As long as my husband/wife/significant other/best friend/family doesn’t know!!!

The person who could be our biggest support is often the one we’re the most careful to hide our struggles from.

Why?

Last night on a Zoom double date, I told my wonderful psychologist friend Glenn that I quote a particular analogy of his all. the. time. It’s true. This concept sticks with me, because I think this analogy explains so much about our closest relationships: A close or intimate relationship (like marriage) is sort of like walking a plank over the Grand Canyon. Lay a narrow board on the ground in your backyard and you can stroll right across without skipping a beat. Place it over a canyon, and suddenly two things become true: Walking across it will be the most breathtaking, exhilarating, beautiful experience; And it will be the scariest, shakiest thing you’ll ever do. And that–in a nutshell–is a close relationship. The best and scariest thing in your life. When the board’s on flat ground, one misstep isn’t a big deal. Like when some person you barely know decides they don’t like you. With one misstep high above a beautiful canyon, however, there is so much to lose. Like when your spouse decides they don’t like you.

So shaking, white-knuckled, we grip the board and desperately try not to move, not to tip, not to misstep–we become paralyzed. There is too much to lose. This, unfortunately, is a fairly normal experience in our most intimate relationships. Protecting the bond we have feels so important that we can’t afford to show up as our real, messy, vulnerable, struggling selves. We have to keep it perfect. Too far to fall.

When I was a kid, I learned to hide everything. I hid everything because so constantly the things seen in me were corrected, condemned, and shamed. Choices, interests, activities, tastes, requests, dreams.

I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times I got up the courage, as a teenager, to ask permission to go hang out with friends. I knew that the reaction would almost always be about having something better to do with my time, not being around bad influences, or that I should love my family more than my friends. About to head overseas to work with a missionary for the better part of a year, 18-year-old me asked, “Hey, can I go spend an afternoon with Ben? I really want to see him before I leave.” The response was a mixture of anger and despair: “How could you ask that when I’m busy cleaning floors? Your family clearly doesn’t matter to you at all!” It was confusing.

I’d venture to say most of the people you and I come in contact with don’t leave us with scars and dysfunctions. All it really takes is a few important people to teach you those yucky lessons. Like that you are bad, or that you need to be perfect.

When we heard footsteps in the hall, my siblings and I would jump up from whatever innocent, carefree games we were playing and quickly start “cleaning” or “reading a good book” or something to show we were “redeeming the time.” Because most of the “enjoy” type stuff would be met with disapproval. To this day, I don’t think my parents know that I finally got to watch Beauty and the Beast on YouTube as a 17-year-old. The kind of stuff I had to keep to myself.

Those lessons don’t just go away when you “grow up.” The urge to hide all my stuff worked its way deep inside me. I don’t think I really noticed as an adult how much the urge to hide controlled me day to day. The assumption that real-me-stuff would make people hate me or judge me or disapprove of me.

I remember one time I heard my wife’s keys in the door and quickly turned the TV off and picked up a book instead. I didn’t want her to see me nerding out to a Marvel documentary. What if she didn’t like that about me? Better to just hide it. And more than a few times I made sure to hop out of the luxurious eucalyptus bath and dry off before she got home so that she wouldn’t think I was . . . . . taking a bath?

I know this sounds silly. But it was a lesson I learned as a kid: People will disapprove of the stuff you do. People will not like the real you. Hide your stuff.

The funny thing is what happens when we hide. It was a sort of subconscious way to keep my wife from disapproving of me. But slowly it made me feel like . . . she must not approve of me. After all, if I can’t be myself around her. . . . Spoiler alert–my wife doesn’t give a shit if I enjoy a bath or a yummy drink or make a spreadsheet of the MCU timeline. She’s not a bully. She wants me to be happy. But in my fear of rejection, hiding my happy stuff, I kept writing the same old story in my head: She wouldn’t like you.

Instead of keeping me safe, hiding my most basic self made me lonelier and lonelier and more afraid and more afraid.

I bet a few of you grew up learning that it was safer to not be your real self, too. I bet that just about all of you grew up learning that it was at least safer to not be your real struggling self.

Maybe feeling like you have to hide the innocent little personality-stuff doesn’t resonate at all with you. But I bet you do feel the need to hide the yucky stuff. The struggle. The dark, sad, scary, exhausting, hurtful, “bad” stuff. The stuff you’re afraid “could change everything.”

Back to Gina’s mom. She and this guy loved each other so much that they decided they’d be lifelong buddies, best friends: Marriage. And this friendship mattered so much to her that she couldn’t risk admitting, as time went by, that she was struggling. If I tell him how depressed I am, will he be angry, disappointed, unsatisfied? Will he want to leave? Will he think he’s better than me? Will he regret being with me? Will he get tired of me? So she kept it under wraps. Played her part. A façade.

Hiding the struggle keeps you . . . “safe.” Sort of. Safe from the chance that someone will reject you for it. And, as you hide, the struggle slowly pulls you down and holds you under. Ashamed. Alone.

What is your deep struggle that you can’t share with your most important person?

If you’re in a relationship, think about what sparked that interest, that desire–for you and your life person to belong to each other? Why do we attach to someone and share our deepest soul with someone in the first place? It has something to do with needing to be seen and loved. Something to do with being accepted. Something to do with having someone on our team. Someone by our side. Someone who says, “I see you and I love you.”

We need this so badly.

We finally get it.

And then we guard it. At all costs.

So when we struggle, we can’t let our struggle threaten that love we found. So we keep it to ourselves.

And all of a sudden, we’re alone. No longer seen and loved for who we are.

Listening to that story recently, it struck me just how relatable that story was to so, so, so many people: Slowly falling apart, but not being able to tell your life person just how broken you are.

I have something really special with my wife. Something I haven’t always had and may cycle in and out of in the future, but right now it’s pretty special. I’d say that I’m not sharing this to brag, but I guess after admitting to the Marvel spreadsheet thing you know I’m not here to impress. . . . So the special thing: Listening to that podcast, it also struck me just how opposite my experience has been with my own wife during some really, really, really deep struggle times. Resting my chin on the couch pillows, feeling every muscle weakened by this weird sort of gravity, I answered Lyssi’s “I want to know how you’re really doing” question: “Honestly, I’m not okay these days. I’m not happy. I feel hopeless. I don’t even care about the stuff I usually care about. I don’t want to run, I don’t want to write, I don’t even like watching movies or playing the piano. I’m so lonely and I don’t think anyone likes me. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to lay in bed.”

A few powerful things could have happened just then:

She could have rejected me: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

She could have desperately tried to fix me: You have so much to be happy about! Don’t be hopeless! I need you to feel better, okay? Which really translates to: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

Or she could have unconditionally accepted me: I hear you. It’s okay that you’re feeling that way. I love you and I’m here for you.

And in that moment, she picked the unconditional love route. And it made depression so, so, so okay. Like, still not all better, but at least I had her. I wasn’t alone. She wasn’t mad at me, she wasn’t threatened by me, she didn’t need me to stop being me, she just . . . was going to be with me. Okay. Maybe I can do this.

Like I said, my own life hasn’t always been–still isn’t always–marked by such open vulnerability met with perfect acceptance. But when it has been, that has been life-giving. Life-saving.

Struggling alone doesn’t work.

When we finally learn to share our struggles, we can discover that . . . our life people get it. And they love us. And . . . our struggles aren’t going to take away our most important relationships.

Sharing our struggles with our people opens up a world of safety, security, dignity, understanding, support–maybe the only conditions in which we can heal, or make it through at all. A space where we discover that struggling-Peter is no less valuable and loved than doing-great-Peter. A place where maybe we can go ahead and love our struggling selves, too.

So an invitation: What do you need to stop hiding? What is your struggle? And who could you tell?

If this sounds terrifying and panicky, that totally makes sense. The whole Grand Canyon thing. What if you share your struggle and it doesn’t go well? What if you lose that friend? That life person? At this terrified-point I’d encourage you to think back, again, to why you needed that relationship in the first place. Why the closeness? Because you needed to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved. So my question to you is: If you are not letting yourself be seen, accepted, and loved–is that relationship still even there? Like . . . the relationship you needed in the first place? Sure, you may live together or text each other every day, and it may get awkward in a worst-case-scenario where they walk away from you. But . . . if you can’t show up as yourself to be accepted and loved, then maybe the relationship you think you’re protecting is already gone. So do you really stand to lose by giving that relationship a chance to be real?

Not to downplay how crushing it will be if you give the openness a shot and it doesn’t go well. That would be terrible. Heart-breaking. And it may leave you with bigger scars. Of course, the alternative is to just keep your real-self hidden. Alone. Unloved. Both options suck.

The only route with any hope is saying “Yeah, this is the real me” and inviting someone to see and love that real you. And if that is a relationship they can’t handle, maybe it wasn’t there all along. And maybe it’s time to go find a person or two or three who want to know and support real-you.

(Hey, truth moment here. If you’re trying to share your real self with your closest people–spouse, parents, best friends–and it’s going badly, you’re being met with rejection, losing your most important relationships–that’s the start of an incredibly scary and fragile journey, one you probably need to take, and the absolutely number one biggest one hundred percentest thing I can tell you right right now is: Go ask a therapist for help. Don’t think twice, just go. This is not a journey you should take alone.)

When I started therapy I bought a beautiful handmade Italian journal to accompany me on what I knew was going to be a momentous journey. Opening it now to its first page, I find the very first entry quite fitting. A life-changing principle my therapist offered me: “Friday, October 26: Openness brings you closer together, no matter what the feeling you have to be open about. Not being open pushes you apart, no matter what the feeling–positive or negative–that you are keeping to yourself.

You know the stereotype of the dad that can’t express emotions? He loves his kid so so much but can’t really say it. Keeps the sloppy, choked-up love feelings to himself. And the kid grows up never hearing that dad loves them. And they drift apart. When we can’t express something–whether it’s a thing that makes us mad at our person or even our good feelings about our person–we drift apart. On the other hand, when we do share the stuff, then and only then can we grow closer. Even when it’s tough stuff, like “Hey, it really upsets me when you-” or “I’m not doing okay these days.”

Our closest relationships–the epic ones that can be as beautiful as the view walking above the Grand Canyon–they need vulnerability. They need us to show up, our real, messy selves. We can take the shaky steps and experience the beauty, the love, the acceptance. Or we can close our eyes and hold on for dear life, unable to take a step, and completely miss out on the love. In reality, alone.

So here’s your invitation to say your stuff–no matter how messy. Your life person is your life person. You need them to know YOU. So share.

And, just as importantly, another invitation–or maybe a plea: You and I are going to have people who finally take the risk of exposing their struggling insides to us. And in those moments, we can respond in a few different ways. We can reject. We can panic and try to make them change. Or we can say “Oh my goodness, thank you for telling me, I love you so much!” And your reaction in that moment just might change their life forever.

So please be the person someone can be real with. Especially for your best friend, your life person.

It’s not easy. But it’s vital.

Remember that each time our loved ones bare their hearts to us, we can make them feel safer, or we can make them feel like they need to keep it to themselves next time.

A girl I know finally opened up to her mom: She, their star child, their smart, confident girl, was depressed. She was even thinking about suicide. How would you respond if your kid blindsided you with “I’m thinking about killing myself”? The reply this girl got from her mom went something like this: “I had no idea! I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I want to commend you for how good a job you’ve done not being negative, not burdening others with these awful feelings. I encourage you to keep pressing on with being strong and not making others take care of you.” . . . what?! . . .

In those moments, you and I can prove to someone that they’re not alone, or we can prove to them that they are alone. And when we tell them they’re alone, that is a lesson they learn deep. All it takes is one experience to keep someone from ever sharing their real self again.

In other words: Those moments matter.

We need our loved ones to be a safe place for us to show up with our struggles. And they need the same from us.

So invitations all around: Say your stuff to your person; and unconditionally listen and love when your person tells you their stuff.

I should note that unconditional love doesn’t mean enabling–and expressing your deep down feelings doesn’t always mean acting on them. In other words sometimes unconditional love–sometimes being a safe space–means looking your loved one in the eyes and saying, “I understand this addiction. I get that you are struggling and I love you to death. And I can’t let you or me continue stuck in this. You need to get some help.” Like, it’s messy. And when he cheats on you, you don’t owe him “Oh honey, I get it, I’m not going anywhere.” Right?

But when your person is trying to hold on, barely able to keep their head above water, and finally says “Hey, I’m not okay”–that may be their last hope at finding support, and your reaction can break them or give them hope.

I think we’re all so scared of rejection that these vulnerable interactions don’t come naturally to us. Which means if we want to be good at asking for support and giving support when things are dark and scary, it might help to practice the deep openness right now. To get intentional, to get maybe even a little dorky about it. Like, “Should we schedule times to just tell each other all about how we’re feeling?”

Nurturing a safe space before you’re at rock bottom makes all the difference.

One little thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space is to notice each time I feel, for whatever reason, “Oooh, I’d better keep this to myself,”–reminding myself that’s an old story of rejection, of the need to be perfect, creeping up–softening into the thing I’m afraid of, and saying, “Hey, I think I need to share this thing, because I’m feeling scared of you knowing it, and I don’t like that feeling.”

Another thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space, I’ve learned just from observing my own best friend. People seem to share their stuff with her. A lot. When someone shares their stuff with me, I tend to automatically start calculating and fixing and offering and rescuing, and for whatever reason it only seems to make things worse. She, on the other hand, just listens. She listens. She just . . . . . is there with the struggling person. Just there to listen. To accept. Just being proof to them that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay that they’re struggling.

When you and I have to hide our deepest selves–especially the struggles–in our closest relationships, we slowly fall apart and we lose the love we thought we had. When you and I show up in these relationships by sharing our deepest, messy selves, and by showing up with love when they share their deepest, messy selves, we create a safe place to make it through this weird adventure called life together. We find hope. We fine healing. We find magic. We find love.

If you’re struggling deeply right now, why add hiding your struggle to the weight you’re already carrying? Why add wondering if you’re alone? What if you told someone? Imagine how good it would feel to get it off your chest. You may be surprised to learn that your people are okay with you being human. In fact, maybe they’ll just love you more.

And remember the life-changing gift you can give someone the next time they open up to you about something they’re scared to share.

We’re all a little weird. Let’s give each other some hugs about it.

Didn’t I tell you I hear what you say?
Never look back as you’re walking away.
Carry the music, the memories, and keep them inside you.
Laugh every day.
Don’t stop those tears from falling down.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
With courage and kindness hold onto your faith.
You get what you give and it’s never too late
to reach for the branch and climb up leaving sadness behind you.
Fight hard for love.
We can never give enough.
This is who I am inside
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
Riding the storms that come raging towards us we dive,
holding our breath as we break through the surface
with arms open wide.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.

Jordan Smith

P.S . Sometimes the things you’re afraid to let people see because you think they’ll judge you end up being the very things they really love about you.

If my weird-human-stuff complements your weird-human-stuff, throw your email below and we can keep thinking through this weird life 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.

~

You may be the lighthouse they need

Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, spoiler alert: So . . . Disney knows how to give us feelings. Oh man. To kick off the movie, the big brother runs into the burning building because he thinks someone is trapped inside it. And in a sudden explosion, he dies. Because that’s what happens in Disney movies: The characters love so much they’ll give up everything. It’s . . . powerful. Incredibly powerful.

People do that. Isn’t that amazing? We love each other so much, that we will die to save somebody else.

But sometimes in life, the thing that seems and sounds self-sacrificial doesn’t work. It’s why you’re told not to fumble around with everyone else’s oxygen masks before you’ve secured your own. Besides a few dramatic, life-and-death storybook moments, you can’t save other people by letting yourself die. Or even just by letting yourself fall apart, working yourself to the bone, or bleeding yourself dry.

Love is a beautiful thing, but it’s also such a strong and blinding emotion that it gets us into messy spots. We think we’re “being there for” someone, “helping” them, “saving” them, “rescuing” them . . . when in reality, we’re just drowning with them.

Feeling torn between the healthy boundaries I was setting with my family and the urge to give up all those boundaries so I could still show up to love and support, “no matter what”–my therapist gave me a thing to think about:

“When you’ve escaped rough waters, and your loved one is drowning, you want to jump in to save them, and they want you to jump in to save them, but if you jump in, you cannot save them. You’ll be drowning, too, and to top it off you’ll probably get bonked on the head as they thrash about trying to hold onto you. No, once you’ve escaped the waters, you can’t go back in. You barely made it out alive to begin with, and you certainly won’t have the capacity to do it again dragging someone else out with you. The loving thing to do is to say no to jumping back in. Instead, you can throw a rope. You can say, ‘hey–it’s safe up here on the dock. I’m here for you if you’ll grab the rope and get out of the water.’ And of course, you’ll feel guilty for not jumping back in, and of course, they will feel you don’t love them. If you loved them, they think, you’d jump back in. As long as you refuse to join them in the dangerous waters, they’ll feel betrayed, unloved. But, there’s another thing: They can see you. They see that someone made it to safety. They see that it’s possible. They see there’s a way to get out. They see that life outside the water is an option. They see you living. They see hope. They may feel bitter, but they see hope. And one day, maybe, just maybe . . . they’ll join you in the safety. And maybe, just maybe, it was your refusal to jump back into the rough waters that made you the proof they needed–proof that they, also, were allowed and able to come on shore.”

You’re a little bit like a lighthouse, showing the way. A lighthouse can’t help a battered boat if the lighthouse jumps in and gets tossed about, too. A lighthouse shows . . . hope.

~

Let’s talk about family. The most dangerous F-word. Dangerous because family is wonderful. It’s maybe literally the absolute top most best. In theory. And because it’s the best, because it “comes first,” its waters get pretty muddy.

If you found your way out of a toxic family environment, and still have family members you love who are trying to fit into that toxic environment, I bet I can tell a couple things about you: You sometimes feel guilty. You want SO badly to help. And love makes you so, so, so tempted to put yourself back in harm’s way. In fact, I bet, like everyone who has escaped toxicity, you’ve cycled in and out, diving back into the waves to try to save your sister, diving back into the waves to “be there for” your brother, diving back into the waves to “help” your mother, diving back into the waves so your father doesn’t have to be alone. . . . . . . Has it ever worked?

I know the deeply unhealthy family dynamic doesn’t resonate with everyone. If this isn’t you, bear with me, because it’s more than just family. But for now imagine with those of us who don’t have to use our imaginations because we remember it: How did you make it out of the abuse? Out of the web? The manipulation? The narcissistic control? How did you make it out of the deeply unhealthy environment?

Maybe you fought and fought and fought and fought and argued and argued and begged and begged and tried every which way to beat the toxicity. Spent years trying to heal the disease. And each day, it wore you out, held you down, as your life slipped away, a life very much not-yours-at-all.

Until one day, as a psychologist mentor of mine puts it, you “started on the other side of the wall.” (He actually uses this concept in a little different sense, but the effect is the same.) In other words: Instead of trying desperately, one brick at a time, to unbuild a wall of dysfunction and abuse and hurt and struggle and betrayal and fear and stuckness, you just . . . start on the other side. Leave the wall alone. You don’t have to unbuild it. You don’t have to “beat” the toxicity. You don’t have to heal the diseased environment. You just choose to start on the other side of the wall. To step out of it. After years and years, one day you stopped trying to calm the waves, held onto the rope being offered by the world outside the toxic environment, and climbed on shore.

I bet you didn’t find your freedom by having other people jump in and live with you in an unhealthy family dynamic. I bet you believed that you could escape the abuse, that you could find freedom, peace, happiness, healthiness. And I bet you believed that because you saw proof. Someone, somewhere, was a picture to you of love. An example of what functional relationships look like. A demonstration to you of healthy life on the other side of the wall . . . up on the shore, above the waves . . . you saw a lighthouse.

So if what saved your life, brought you into freedom and health, wasn’t winning the fight against a toxic environment, but stepping out of it–why do we suppose, again and again and again, that another loved one’s way out will involve staying in the unhealthy environment and trying to beat it? If someone (perhaps completely unknowingly) once held our rope, so we could climb out–why would we think our loved one is going to swim to safety without a rope if we jump back into the raging waters with them?

If what gave us the hope to step out was seeing that there was life to taste on the outside, why wouldn’t we stay on the outside, living a free and beautiful and healthy and functional and fulfilling life, so that the ones we wish we could save could see that there’s another way? Hope?

~

If all this family toxicity talk doesn’t resonate, because no matter how imperfect every family is, some are beautiful, safe places with healthy roots of love and kindness and support–and that’s the family you’ve known–there are still other storms you’ve escaped.

I remember my first job was at a place I eventually learned was absolutely notorious (at least at the time) for chewing up and spitting out its staff. Especially managers. The abuse we all went through was shocking. Fair pay, sufficient staffing, professional treatment–those things aren’t necessary when you can “vision” and “care” and “team-spirit” your people into working themselves to the bone or (surprisingly frequently) working hours and hours off the clock. I heard it described frequently as a “cult.”

There was so. Much. Manipulation. Everyone was drowning. One brave and visionary young manager after another tried to fix it. Things never, ever got better, but we kept thinking “if only I try harder,” because the one thing this place was good at was whipping up the strong emotion of loyalty. We stayed, because we cared.

I watched a lot of beautiful people fall apart under the weight, tirelessly swimming against the current to try to make it better. Nobody wanted to leave, because everybody desperately needed each other. We all needed each drowning other to save each drowning other. Actually–everybody wanted to leave and said so almost every day, but nobody could.

Because . . . we can’t leave the people we care about in alone in a bad place.

Love. We stayed in an impossibly unhealthy situation because we loved each other.

It was beautifully depressing.

Every once in a while, somebody would finally up and walk out. It was like they had woken up.

And then a couple months later, they’d come stop by. We’d share laughs and hugs and memories and they would tell us about how much relief they felt, how much happier they were, how much less stressed, now that they had gotten out.

Weirdly (actually not so weirdly if we understand how strong love is), they would sometimes come back. It was always their people, the fun and love and camaraderie they missed, that brought them back. And, again, they would slowly fall apart until they, again, walked away. Eventually, they learned the lesson that jumping back in would never, ever, ever work.

One lucky day, I became one of those managers who escaped. I had been completely losing myself and finally “woke up” and hopped out. And it was amazing. Afterward I frequently stopped by and said hello to my old team–my friends. I’d listen to the hopeless, exhausted stories of how much worse it had gotten (I hadn’t thought it could get any worse). And they’d ask how I was doing, and I’d get to say, “Oh man, I’m doing so much better now.” And they’d get this longing, dreamlike expression and go, “Man . . . I really need to get out of this place . . .”

Hope.

The lighthouse, proving dry, safe, hopeful land.

~

Maybe the workplace thing doesn’t speak to you, but you’ve got this one friend who is an absolutely beautiful, precious, wonderful person and you love them to death, but they’re deep, deep, deep in a sad place, and they really, really, really need you to join them there.

And you can’t. You can’t spend all day every day letting them hang onto you for dear life, telling you every hurt and every problem and every fear and every dark thought, because . . . well because you’re a person, too, and you have your dreams and your family and your books and your other friends and your sleep that you need.

Maybe you found a really healthy way to be there for them by having some boundaries: Saying “hello” and “I love you” every day, but only having a long chat once a week; Telling them you can’t stay up with them all night every night, but you’ll check in first thing tomorrow morning.

Or maybe, because you are a loving human and they are a human so-worth-loving, you give up your boundaries and you jump in with them. You set aside all your good things, happy things, other friendships, hobbies, tasks, sleep, rest, plans, dreams . . . and you jump in with them, feel every hurt they feel, carry every heaviness they carry.

And soon, you can’t help them anymore.

In fact, soon, you’re right where they are. You’re both falling apart. And you can’t help each other. And you’ve lost all your own hope.

Or maybe that’s not how the story ends, because you did stick to healthy boundaries. You did secure your own oxygen mask first, and that meant that you didn’t leave that friend alone, but you also kept time for yourself and for your other loved ones. You stayed healthy. You had happy times, you did exciting things, you enjoyed your hobbies, and you kept up on sleep.

This one’s tough, because the depression it sounds like this imaginary friend is struggling with doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not quite the same as “starting on the other side of the wall.” Just being a shining example to them that “people can sometimes be happy” might not save them. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance it won’t. But still, there is that chance that your freedom and health does give them hope. Even while they feel let down that you need your own boundaries–feeling let down, because through no fault of their own, they are absolutely drowning and can only see danger and rejection in your boundaries. . . . Even while they feel that betrayal, maybe, maybe you are a sort of a lighthouse. An example of someone doing whatever yucky things it takes to take care of their own mental health.

All these scenarios are tough, actually, because being a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse doesn’t guarantee safety for anyone–not your abused family member, not your burnt out co-worker, not your struggling friend . . .

There’s the rub: You actually can’t save people.

It’s not up to you.

And you certainly can’t save them by jumping back into the thing that almost killed you. By having two people thrashing against the current instead of one.

But you can stand on the dock and hold the rope and when they’re someday able and ready to climb out, you’ll be there for them.

Maybe the very best chance they’ve got is seeing proof that there is freedom.

Actually, if you can’t help but jump back in and drown alongside your loved ones, you’re proving to them a very sad lesson: “There is no way out. You tried to escape, but you’re back here drowning with me again. I guess this is what we’re stuck with. Drowning.”

~

I recently had a tough but hopeful talk with that psychologist mentor of mine I mentioned. What do I do with all the world’s heaviness that is dragging me under? So, so, so many suffer. Needlessly. Unjustly. So much hate, so much prejudice, so much looking the other way, so much carelessness. This massively wealthy world is full of cold, hungry, sick, and homeless. All over the globe. Not just in that remote village or third world city. Like . . . right here. On every corner in Minneapolis. New York. Portland. San Francisco. Atlanta. Everywhere. That’s hard to sleep with. It makes me sad and angry when I think about it. And it makes me sad and angry all the time when I think about it all the time.

How can I carry all this weight?

His answer? “You can’t.”

You can carry some of it. You can carry a lot of it some of the time. But you can’t carry all of it. And you can’t carry any of it all of the time. You can’t help the cold, hungry, sick, and homeless by falling apart under the weight of the entire world.

Absolutely you can help. And you should. And blissful ignorance–turning a blind eye–is gross.

But you can’t carry it all, and you can’t carry it all the time.

It makes your “help” worthless.

You drowning helps no one.

~

Back to where we started–Love is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is wonderful. But it can be so overpowering that we can’t think clearly.

“Love” ignores the flight attendant and tries heroically to strap everyone else’s oxygen mask on first. Heroically and fruitlessly.

“Love” screams deafeningly that you can never, ever, ever leave family behind.

“Love” leaves us feeling guilty and unsettled when we have to tell our struggling friend once again that we have to go now.

“Love” begs us to stay. Always stay. Stay with the ones who are drowning.

“Love” tells us to throw our health and our hopes and our dreams and our needs and our life away because we don’t want our drowning loved ones to drown alone.

~

I’m not saying that the right way is walking away, shutting out, ignoring, giving up on, or always choosing our own happiness.

What I do know, though, is that when “Love” is telling you to go to a place where you’re going to drown with the ones you want to help . . . and your drowning is not going to save them . . . there’s a better way you can love them.

Abusive families, cults, toxic workplaces, depression (for the record, 100%, depression is NOT in the same category as those others. Don’t misunderstand that. It’s just your inability to help if you drown, too, holds true in the face of every type of darkness) . . . one thing all kinds of dark places have in common is that the darkness cannot itself be changed to light. It is . . . darkness. There is not hope in the darkness. The hope is in the light, and the light is in a different place.

If you can hold the hand of someone walking out of darkness–wonderful, beautiful, worth every damn minute.

But if all you have to offer them is losing your own way in the dark, too . . . there’s no real hope for them in that.

If you’ve escaped a dark place, but you’ve left beautiful loved ones there, you have to remember how you escaped:

What did you see on the outside of the darkness that gave you that little glimmer of hope that there was light to be found?

Who was a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse for you?

And can you make the impossible-feeling choice to stand in the light and hold out your hand–your life a proof that freedom is out there? No matter how badly “Love” tells you to jump back in and drown with them?

They don’t need someone to drown with them.

They need a lighthouse.