Trapped in your story of you

You and I have similar bodies. And similar brains. Similar minds and hearts, even. Humans are mostly, well, human.

Which tells me that if you can do something I can do something. At least mostly. Like I can’t Michael Phelps, but I can pay down my credit cards. I can speak my truth and argue calmly. I can eat fairly healthily. I can quit my job or apply for a promotion. I can go on a date or at least introduce myself to someone. I can do human things.

As can you.

Except it’s not that simple.

~

A long time ago, some psychologists did an enlightening, if cruel, experiment with a bunch of dogs. They paired up each dog from group A with a dog from group B, put them all in little boxes, and started administering electric shocks. Dogs from group A eventually discovered that if they pressed a nearby lever, the shocks would end. They got to rescue themselves. Group B dogs, however, had no lever. And even though their shocks also ended when their group A mate found its lever, since they didn’t experience solving the problem by pressing the lever, they felt completely helpless about the shocks. Nothing they could do. Inevitable. Unstoppable. Helpless.

Later, they took all the dogs–group A and group B–and put them in different little boxes with a small partition in the middle of each. Electric shocks began again on the side the dogs were placed in. To avoid the shocks, they simply had to jump over the little partition to the safe side. Remember the dogs from group A? The ones that got to experience rescuing themselves? They jumped the partition to safety. And the group B dogs that just had to wait out the abuse? The ones who had experienced the shocks helplessly before? They just lay there accepting the shocks. Ingrained belief that there was nothing they could do. “Learned helplessness.”

Group A dogs had learned a story about themselves and shocks: I can change this.

Group B dogs had learned a different story: I can’t help getting shocked.

And, as a reminder, group A dogs and group B dogs are all dogs with the same puppy-legs built to clear those partitions. But their experiences created stories about themselves. And those stories dictated how they handled the next challenge.

~

Which is why I say it’s not that simple.

Yes, you and I have the same fingers with which to type that text, update that résumé, add that friend, sign up for that class, and bravely reach out to hold that hand. But you and I have very different stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

My story includes an odd jumble of affection and hiding and anxiety and determination and hope and authenticity and pain and adventure and caution and expectations and wisdom and pessimism and and scars and bravery. And though it’s a jumble, it’s a very specific jumble, specific to me. And it informs every day, every decision, every thought, every moment.

And our stories include the fate-type stuff we’ve learned about ourselves.

Having learned about ourselves that we “can’t,” or we’re “not strong enough,” or we “always do that,” or we “can’t help it,” or we “will always be treated like” . . . we accept our fate as our story plays out the way it’s “supposed” to.

Like: When I work out, I always end up in pain or injured. I’ll never be healthy and strong. So why bother trying?

Or: We always end up in a fight when this subject comes up. And I can’t deal with confrontation. So I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t matter to me anymore.

The themes that we’ve experienced, whether willingly explored or helplessly forced on us, have become our stories about ourselves.

Like those dogs.

“I can” or “I can’t.”

~

And while it’s not that simple–as simple as being humans that can change–it also is that simple.

Group A and B dogs are both dogs with legs to jump. And when the researchers finally showed the group B dogs they really could change their situation, holding their little legs and teaching them to move, the once helpless dogs did learn to rescue themselves.

You and I are both humans with human bodies and human minds.

And when someone finally showed me that I was allowed to experience and express a full range of emotions, ask for what I want, say what I really feel–I shed a little learned helplessness.

~

All this to say, you CAN.

Not you can everything. I can’t be on the Yankees team, which is super frustrating.

But you can do that thing–the one you keep wanting to do or trying to do or meaning to do or starting to do or committing to do.

That thing you’ve been remembering each January that you really want to do, and drafting to-do lists and schedules about, and starting, and eventually stopping every time.

Finding that community. Reading those books. Sharing that struggle with a friend. Eating in a way that feels better to your body again. Sticking to those boundaries next time. Sticking with therapy even when it gets too hard. Applying for that new job. Registering for those yoga classes. Cutting back on the Amazon shopping. Reserving more time for your loved ones. Or starting that difficult conversation that makes you a little nauseated.

Do you ever find yourself quick reality-checking a hopeful idea or plan or desire you had? “But you’ve tried that already, and you never stick with it.” Or “You’re just not that person.”

I do.

My story about myself includes decades of patterns that dictate to me who I am now–what I could do next, what I couldn’t do next–what my life officially looks like.

Unhealthiness.

Chronic pain.

People-pleasing.

Staying up too late.

Being only mildly expressive.

When I was 18, I was a loved and respected participant in a number of churches–they were like my families, and I was the confidant of most of my family members. And I had a best friend. I turned 19 and hopped on a plane to Africa, having that large home of friends and church families to come back to. Then I very suddenly, thoroughly, terrifyingly lost all of it. My family, my church families, even my best friend. Gone.

(Yes, I know I’m the common denominator there, and that’s not a great look. It’s a rough story.)

So in my story there’s this big theme about not getting too close to people, especially communities.

Talk about a powerful theme.

And I’ve stuck to that theme through a whole lot of life.

Stories are powerful.

~

What’s your theme?

What happened to you?

What’s your brand of helpless?

What’s your story of you?

And what if you aren’t actually trapped in that story?

~

The assumption that your story has to go a certain way–follow your norm, or any norm–like if you were abused you’ll be anxious, if you struggle with addiction you’ll never stop, if you try to save money you’ll fail–that assumption is a story you’re telling yourself built on powerful experiences you’ve learned from.

But what if you’re the author? And what if, as the author, you can just throw any random new color you want onto the page?

~

And remember, it’s simple and not simple: The trappedness in our stories is like learned helplessness. And while you may have the same mind and body as the next person–while you have the potential–remember that those dogs actually needed someone to move their legs. The aloner you are, the trappeder you are. So as you decide to change your plot this time, ask someone to help move your legs. A therapist. A bodyworker. A mentor. A friend.

~

What is your story about you?

And what if you’re the author?

Would you write something different next?

There is power in stepping back and asking what stories we’re trapped in and whether we’d like to re-write them.

What new plotline are you going to write today?

Goodbye 2019, Hello 2020!

Of all the years in my whole entire life, 2019 is the year that I’ve most often found myself telling someone, “It’s been a tough year.” But I’m going to miss 2019. The sad parts of a journal aren’t any less treasured memories than the happy parts. Each year is my story.

At the end of a weird year, I’m struck by how unique each life is. How unique each person is. How unique each day is. And I want to honor the uniqueness in you–your life, your person, your days. I don’t hope your 2019 journal was full of happy parts, I hope it was full of you parts. And I wish even more genuine you-days in your 2020.

I’m grateful to live in a world with such diverse, beautiful, real, colorful humans all around me.

I love excuses to celebrate. I don’t care what the day is, taking time to feel differently than you feel in the daily grind, taking time to look. Sometimes the roads feel different, people sound different, even the sky looks different just because it’s a special day. Well–they probably don’t, it’s just that special days remind us to look closer. To stop and realize and think and appreciate and celebrate all the color in this world.

Each new year, to me, is also a special opportunity, a ritualistic reminder, to reflect on who I am, who I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I do, what I want. The older I get, the more my mind goes in the new year to who I want to be every day, not just the things I want to have done eventually.

As I try to be who I want to be, I realize that sometimes that makes me seem Not-Peter to people who know me well. People get suspicious or just feel weird when you change. I noticed this year how I do this to other people, too. Little, inconsequential, why-would-I-even-notice changes that people make, I get a little weird about it, sometimes. That’s not fair. When you change more to who you want to be, you will seem a little fake, and you will feel a lot fake, and that is just the process. Just hang on tight.

I also learned this year that when it comes to who I am and what I want and all the New-Yearsy type reflections there are to reflect on, it is so important and so okay to be real about what you want. Really real.

So if I had one wish for my 2020 and for yours, it would be this: Be your REAL self this year. Even if it’s different and weird and feels not-quite-right for a while. And even if it’s not who others expect or want you to be. If you like cold weather, and someone says “ugh, this weather,” I wish that in your 2020 you won’t reply “ugh, yeah, I know!” I wish that you’ll actually be true to deep-down-you. That means letting yourself know about yourself, too.

I want to thank everyone who has read my blog in 2019. This has been a really fun and really surprising and really fulfilling journey for me. Thanks for coming along!

A year ago, I committed to publishing 5 blog posts each month in 2019, because I believe in the whole consistent baby steps thing. Here I am. I did it!

I hopefully imagined that I might double the number of readers from the year before. I didn’t expect to end up reaching ten times last year’s, but I’m there, and I feel excited and thankful and proud of it. A couple posts in particular caught on and made the rounds on social media and it was sweet to see lots of kind words and lots of people feeling encouraged. And I have a couple posts that aren’t even my favorites that seem to be helpful enough that every day they’re being shared all over places I don’t know. So I do feel good, like writing works. Consistency works.

But even more satisfying and exciting and heart-warming and every-good-feeling to me has been the people that I’ve heard have been touched in some way by something I’ve written this year. Encouraged. Inspired. Helped. Made to feel not alone. Honestly, getting to help just one person in some little way makes all the work–and it is work, sometimes–worth it.

My wish for my writing is that I can keep doing it, but do it more. This year, I’ve learned to really love writing as writing itself, not just as a method to do some good deed. I’m really happy when I write. I do hope, though, that I can keep writing and communicating with more and more people in ways that help people to feel hope, to feel not alone, and to remember that we’re all in this crazy thing called life together.

So honestly, thank you for all the reads and the shares, and especially for the kind words!

My wish for all my people’s 2020s! Be thoroughly, beautifully, strangely, bravely, whole-heartedly you!

Happy new year, my friends! Here’s to a 2020 full of colorful life!

Thank you, 2019, for a beautiful time.

Neil Gaiman - as only you can brown

7 Inspiring Quotes for Your Next Year

For some reason, Thanksgiving always brings out the new-year-spirit in me. Maybe because it seems like a time of thankfulness is a time of reflection and a time of reflection is a time for dreaming and inspiration. And maybe because I think a year ending deserves a whole month of reflection and appreciation and celebration.

I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s words lately, looking for little gems of encouragement and hope. A lot of times “quotes,” little snippets of a writer’s original thoughts, sometimes out of context, often leaving so much more to be explored–a lot of times quotes don’t say enough. But a lot of times, they say exactly just enough to give you courage, to give you drive, or just to give you peace and hope and something to hold onto.

Here are 7 quotes I love about living your life. If any or all of them resonate with you, bring them into your next year.

Buddha - you deserve your love

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – attr. Buddha

Debbie Ford - Be Who You Are

“The greatest act of courage is to be and to own all of who you are–without apology, without excuses, without masks to cover the truth of who you are.” – Debbie Ford

Kahlil Gibran - out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Kahlil Gibran

Jon Kabat-Zinn - surf the waves

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

000 Soren Kierkegaard - not to dare is to lose oneself

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” – Søren Kierkegaard

Terrie Davoll Hudson - the things that excite you

“The things that excite you are not random. They are connected to your purpose. Follow them.” – Terrie Davoll Hudson

Neil Gaiman - As Only You Can

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” – Neil Gaiman

3 Unique Suggestions for Connecting Deeply

One-on-one. A group of friends. An audience watching you on stage. Whatever the context–truly, deeply connecting is the key to making a difference, to getting your message across, to building trust, to leaving a lasting impression, to inspiring good.

And I don’t think the ingredients in genuine connection differ too much from context to context.

So how DO you truly connect?

These aren’t the “top 3 ways.” There are lots of top 3 ways. But here are 3 ways that I found EXTREMELY useful in crafting a recent speech for my Toastmasters club:

1. Don’t describe your history. Use stories that give them the chance to feel your history.

Stories are said to increase your audience’s memory by twenty-two times what they’ll retain from the rest of your words. Stories are powerful.

I think where we can go wrong with stories, though, is telling people everything we think about our stories–how we felt about them, how we understood them, how everything fit in. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re not what’s memorable. What’s memorable–what really connects–is taking your audience’s hand and walking them through the story for themselves. It’s okay if they fill the story in with a few different colors and shapes than you. Let their imagination do its thing. All you need to do is put the audience right there. To put them through the experience as bluntly as you can.

I will understand you far better by reliving a couple crazy moments from your childhood than by hearing all the philosophizing you want to do about it all.

2. Get weirdly specific.

I wish I could take credit for this idea. I have learned to use it a lot, but I learned its value from an interview with a comedian. I’m pretty sure it was John Mulaney. Might have been Mike Birbiglia. It may have been John Mulaney talking about what he learned from Mike Birbiglia–who knows. Either way, here’s the gist: It’s easy to assume that the more broadly shared your experiences, the more people will get you. Well actually, it turns out that people get realness, not generic-ness. Even if their real was a little different than yours–they can feel your realness. People’s own lives aren’t generic, they’re extremely specific. So get very, super, weirdly specific.

For example: “When I was 18 I used to covertly bypass our burglar alarm at night so that I could sneak out later to take walks . . . alone . . . in the dark . . . in my trench coat.”

I could have told you all about how sheltered I felt my childhood was, the lack of freedom I felt, my desperation to get away, my loneliness and what a lifesaver my loneliness actually was to me, my fear and my need to keep my deepest needs sacred, my imagination and its strangely confident sense of my cool self, and the future version of me I expected to be. But those are ideas–concepts–concepts you may have experienced in your own ways in your own life. And making you listen while I analyze all those ideas through my own lenses requires a lot of attention. It requires a lot of you accepting and translating my interpretations. I don’t need to do all that work with you. And you may not have the time or patience. Instead, I can just give you a few really weird details. Details that make you go, “Oh yeah, I also have a weird life,” and then leaves your imagination filling in the blanks in my story. “What kind of kid wears a trench coat?”

3. Make it a roller coaster.

Don’t stay funny. Don’t stay happy. Don’t stay sad. Don’t stay serious. Don’t stay positive. Don’t stay hopeful. Don’t stay negative. Don’t stay bitter.

Life is a roller coaster. A crazy, spicy, ridiculous roller coaster.

Emotional roller coasters get people right in the feels. And getting people right in the feels is what sticks with them.

So lift your audience up. Then dash their hopes. Then show them the beauty in the ashes.

I bet that is an experience they can relate to.

Good luck!

Let’s use our stories to inspire hope and love in each other every chance we get. We’re all in this together!

Jimmy Neil Smith - connection of storytelling