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. :)

If another human can…

I’d like to be a professional writer and public speaker who helps make the world a better place. BUT. I’m SCARED.

I’m scared that I don’t have what it takes. So I often find myself giving up. I hold myself back. Out of fear.

Do you ever find you’re not trying because you don’t want to fail? Turning your back on your dreams because you probably couldn’t bring them to life?

 

I often find myself wondering in amazement about grand things that other people have done: How the hell did they get somebody all the way up to the moon??? How does one person handle as much responsibility and stress as a country’s leader or a giant company’s CEO? How did my friend ever get so successful at sales? And what the hell even is the internet and how can it possibly work?!?

Sometimes other people seem superhuman. Sometimes the advancements and accomplishments that make up the world I live in seem like magic.

Who are these god-like people who shake the world? The inventors, the leaders, the athletes, and the entrepreneurs? What other-worldly stuff are they made of?

 

Turns out they’re just humans.

Like you and me. Made of the same stuff. They were born with the same senses and tools and brains as I was.

Sometimes I have to slap myself awake as I watch successful business-people who make hundreds of thousands a year. I so often find myself feeling small and weak and full of doubt. If only–if only I had what they had.

The other day I was having a heart to heart with someone way higher up than me on the ladder. She was describing to me how she sometimes struggles with communicating freely because she’s been burned so many times. Then it hit me–here’s this person in a position I tell myself I couldn’t handle yet or don’t deserve. And she has the exact same insecurities as me. But she’s made it that far and is doing great at it. Humanness and all.

Turns out I can do those things, too.

It stands to reason. We’re all humans. I’m fully capable of making the same decisions and speaking the same words as any CEO or world leader. We’re all human, with the same voices to persuade with and the same minds to decide with. I could be that executive that executive I hopelessly compare myself to when he walks by my desk. I have to stop telling myself that I can’t.

 

Yes, some start with an advantage. Some are born into healthy homes with supportive parents. Some get good educations and college degrees. Some are born into wealth. Some grow up surrounded by safety nets others don’t have, safety nets that help them take those big leaps.

But there are a lot of people who have started with huge disadvantages and still achieved their dreams against all odds.

One of my heroes as a baseball fan, Mariano Rivera, grew up in a poor Panama town using a cardboard milk carton as baseball glove and a tree branch as a bat. He accepted early on that he was born to catch sardines on a commercial fishing boat. Despite a deck stacked against him–poverty, discouragements, injuries, and broken dreams, he ended up achieving such wild success in baseball that he is now widely considered the greatest closing pitcher of all time.

And it’s never too late to start! Ray Kroc was a milkshake device salesman until he bought McDonald’s as a 52-year-old. Vera Wang didn’t start her designing career until she was 40. Colonel Sanders bounced from job to job until he finally founded KFC at age 62. And Harrison Ford was so disappointed in his weak attempts at becoming a Hollywood star that he became a carpenter instead to support his family–until he became Han Solo.

 

Point is–you’re no different. You’re a human. In general, you have the same abilities as the next person. The same potential. None of those massively successful people are super-human. You don’t have to be super-human. I don’t have to be super-human.

You can do it–just the way you are! You’re a person. If someone else can do person things, so can you.

 

I’ve experienced this time and time again in my own life. It’s encouraging to look back…

a1 - runningI took my little brother running one night that I’ll always remember. “I promise,” I told him, “if you just don’t stop, no matter how tired you feel, once we’ve made it about 2 miles you’ll feel so much better!” And it was true. A block in, he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. But he kept going and finally hit his stride. I have found that almost anyone can be a runner. And most of the people who “can’t” really can. They’ve just already given up.

a2 - guacamoleWhen I started my first job as a 19-year-old, I was absolutely terrified and clueless. I crawled into bed in tears night after night feeling like I was weird and awkward and would never fit in, never make it. But then I did. Before long I was getting promotion after promotion and found myself running my own store. And fixing up a mean batch of guacamole.

When we got engaged, Lyssi and I had this crazy dream–what if we went and got married in Italy? But we put the thought away. We’re not THOSE people! We can’t do that! Then one day we started trying–just for kicks. A few months later we were exchanging vows together at the Villa del Balbianello, living our dream. Turns out, we ARE those people!

a3 - wedding

Another big one that I think about a lot is the lifestyle my wife and I have embraced–full of exploring and adventuring, taking planes, trains, and automobiles everywhere we can to experience a world full of beauty together. I always hear people envying those people that have the time and the money to explore and travel all the time. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t have more time and money to travel with than the next person. In fact, for a long, long time we dreamed and dreamed that one day we’d be able to go on those adventures–like “those” people. And then finally we decided to stop waiting and figure out how to make it work. Only then did we discover just how much we really could do. (If you want any adventuring tips, let me know. It’s something we’re passionate about!)

a4

(Fyi, each of the above pictures came from trips there were good adulty reasons not to take.)

 

So please–please, please, please–don’t tell yourself you can’t. Don’t tell yourself you’re “not that person.” Don’t give up before you’ve started.

 

Lately I find myself daydreaming about the next big thing I’m going to discover I can do. Maybe perform piano. Maybe take writing to the next level. I could go back and finish my degree. Pursue another big promotion. Or what the heck, maybe I’ll go back and try baseball again.

If there’s something you want, don’t be afraid. Go for it. Embrace it. Know that it could be you. Know that the people already doing it are just like you.

What’s next for you?

~

 

“All our dreams can come true–if we have the courage to pursue them.” – Walt Disney

Scary till you do it

H P Lovecraft - Fear of the unknown

I find that things can be scary to me until I do them. If not scary, at least intimidating or overwhelming. Giving a performance, running a marathon, making new friends, confronting a coworker, or even just a little handyman project at home.

“It’s scary till you do it” seems like a good general rule to me, and one that can be very helpful to remember.

I say “general rule” because on occasion, things we are scared of get even scarier after we make ourselves do them. Case in point: Giant crowds or loud parties can get worse and worse every time for an especially introverted introvert.

But this really is a more common theme in life than we may first imagine. Sure, most things in life don’t scare you right now. But they used to. When you were a newborn baby, meeting a new face scared you. As a toddler, dogs scared you until you had met a few of them. You were scared of riding your bike without training wheels until you finally just went for it. You probably used to be scared of the pool. And even though you’ve gotten used to most things in life, there are probably a few things that still really scare you. Interviewing, mortgages, or maybe even spiders.

A perfect example: My wife and I were hiking the other day and found a snake. She assured me it was harmless. She and her siblings used to catch them in their yard. In my head I believed her. But when she reached down and grabbed its tail, I just about had a heart attack. The thing is, she had plenty of experience at this. I did not. Easy peasy for her. Not for me.

More applicable to day-to-day life–and what got me thinking about this in the first place–is car shopping. Last Saturday I went with my brother-in-law to a dealership to look at cars. The entire process was brand new to him, whereas I had bought from a dealer twice before, loans and all. More than anything, I was really there to help make it less overwhelming, to lend some confidence. After a day at the dealer, my brother-in-law talked about how much easier it would be next time around for him. He knew what to expect now. It was no longer uncharted territory. And someday he’ll be the experienced car shopper helping someone who’s a little scared because they haven’t tried it before.

 

Understanding that things are less scary after you do them doesn’t magically make things not scary. It just makes scary okay. It helps us do the scary thing anyway so we can have the big reward.

Planning our entire wedding and honeymoon trip to Italy by ourselves, when neither of us had traveled far in a long, long time, was very nerve-racking. I just kept feeling like something wasn’t going to work out. Like we’d get there and realize we hadn’t gotten our plans quite right. Like we weren’t actually going to be able to pull off our dream wedding. But there was also a little part of me that remembered traveling to Africa alone when I was younger, and how much easier and less scary it was than I thought it was going to be. So we took a leap and did it. It was absolutely incredible, and now travel planning is a lot less intimidating.

 

Understanding this general rule helps us to do scary things anyway. Understanding a bit more about how it works might make life even easier. So here are a couple more things I’ve noticed:

The longer you put something off out of fear, the scarier it gets. Standing at the top of a cliff, staring down into the water below, friends daring you to jump in–you realize just how high it really is. You take a step back and start to launch yourself. Halfway through you freeze. You panic. It’s too far. So you wait and wait and wait. You keep preparing yourself to jump. But for some reason, it gets harder and harder and harder the longer you wait. Sometimes life is easier when you just do the scary thing quickly.

It might still be scary after you do it–just probably not quite as scary as before. Doing something you were scared of doesn’t guarantee it won’t be scary anymore. In fact, with many things it will probably stay scary even if you’ve done it a number of times. Like starting a new job. It could be your tenth employer and you’ll still be nervous. But I’ll bet you’re not as when you started your first job.

The more you do the scary thing, the easier it gets. If you want to be less scared of something, do it again and again. I have come to love public speaking, but I was definitely not a natural at it. The first time I ever tried, I lasted about 10 seconds, did more squirming than speaking, and cried in front of an audience. Then I kept doing it through the fear. After a few times it was still awful, but a little less. I kept doing it through high school, and then later on through a Toastmasters club. Eventually, public speaking became so familiar and comfortable it just wasn’t scary anymore.

It is okay to be scared. Just let yourself be a human. You’re going to do better than you think.

 

Courage isn’t not being scared. It’s doing something even though you’re scared. And the more you exercise your courage, the less scary things get.

When you were laying in bed as a kid, the coat hanging in the closet that looked like a monster got a lot less scary when you got up the courage to go check it out for yourself.

Now that you’re an adult, remember: Big scary things life things usually aren’t so scary once you get to know them.

Everybody is bad at something

Everybody is bad at something.

I’m really bad at handyman stuff. I don’t know how to fix things or maintain things. Whenever something goes wrong with my car, or something breaks in the house, I feel totally lost. I feel overwhelmed when I have to take care of it. Like I’m out of my depth. I’m always afraid I’ll break it worse. Even if I take my car to the shop, or have someone come do the work for me at home, I feel embarrassed that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I never know if I’m getting ripped off by someone who’s realized they’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t know the difference between an alternator and a radiator.

It’s one of the things I’m bad at. There are lots of things I’m bad at. There are a few big important things that I’m especially bad at and feel very insecure about or even ashamed about. Those big ones I think about a lot.

Do you ever get stuck seeing yourself and your life exclusively through the lens of that one big thing you’re bad at?

 

A while ago I was chatting with a young couple about their big thing: Credit card debt. They were feeling very defeated. Sad, scared, embarrassed, and most of all hopeless. They could have more than paid for a mortgage with their minimum monthly credit card payments. They were searching for options to pay it down quickly and avoid thousands upon thousands in interest payments for years and years, but so far everything had been a dead end. They said they thought about it all the time, and it was constantly weighing them down. It was starting to define their lives.

But this young couple was the sweetest couple you could meet. Their careers were off to a great start. They were stylish and funny. They clearly had the greatest friendship and partnership. In most ways, they were the couple everyone wants to be. All they could see, though, was their debt.

And sometimes all I can see are the things I’ve failed at or the things I’m bad at.

 

I think we forget sometimes–very often in fact–that there is so much more to life than the one big thing we’re bad at. So we’re insecure.

 

Maybe someone has massive debt that they can’t see past, always stressing them out. But maybe that same person has a fantastic career going, one they should be very proud of, and if they focused on that they’d feel confidence and hope.

Maybe someone else without much of a career–still delivering pizzas or washing dishes–maybe that someone is looking enviously and insecurely at that first person with the great career, thinking that if only they were so successful, they’d be happy. But maybe the delivery guy is also fit and athletic, playing sports with friends all summer, hitting the gym every night.

Someone else is watching the athletic guy, wishing they looked like him–that they weren’t overweight, wishing they could go running, or at least climb the stairs without feeling short of breath. They focus on their weight problem until it seems like the only thing in their life. But they’re forgetting they have a couple hard-earned degrees from prestigious universities–an education many people only dream of. They’re smart and well-read. They have a great understanding of politics and current events. They have ‘Harvard’ on their resume and an almost automatic leg up on their professional competition.

And there’s another person who can think of nothing but how badly he wants and needs that education. If only he had taken out the loans to go to school, life would be so much better now. He constantly regrets it and feels inferior to his professional peers. He dreads getting asked where he went to school. But maybe he’s taking for granted what a great family he has. He has a couple kiddos that think the world of him. He gets to come home every night to warm hugs and smiles. And maybe in reality, that can make him a lot happier than a degree.

And maybe there’s someone else who doesn’t have a family. She doesn’t fit in with her siblings and she isn’t respected by her parents. She’s had to move on, and she’s lonely. She sees happy families everywhere and it hurts her. But what if she chose to focus on what she’s good at–the great things in her life? Maybe she gets to go on adventures, exploring the great outdoors, traveling to beautiful cities and exotic mountains.

 

The point is this: There’s always a hole in someone’s heart. There’s always a big thing someone’s bad at. Something they don’t have. Their big insecurity. But that’s never all there is to them.

 

What’s the thing you’re bad at? What’s the sad thing in your life? What’s your big insecurity?

If you find yourself thinking about it constantly, defining yourself by your weakness–you’re not alone. So many of us naturally focus on the sad or bad thing about ourselves.

But there’s also always good stuff. Good stuff we may not be seeing, because we’re so distracted by the bad stuff.

When you’re feeling discouraged about who you’re not, try thinking about who you are instead. There’s amazing stuff there.

Craig Lounsbrough - We focus more on our weaknesses