Your imperfect help

It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.

I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.

Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”

So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.

After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.

So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?

Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)

I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.

In April, Willoughby died.

I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.

Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.

I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.

what grief looks like

I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.

Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?

Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.

Yes.

Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.

And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.

Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.

Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.

Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.

In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.

And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.

It’s because there’s too much.

Like the Grand Canyon.

When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.

And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.

But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.

What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?

There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”

And that has become my life’s motto.

I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.

In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.

And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.

The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?

Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .

I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.

Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.

Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.

A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”

I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.

First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.

What do you know “too much” about after this last year?

My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.

A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.

On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”

What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?

Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.

I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.

And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.

So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).

Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)

Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.

So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?

I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.

Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.

Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.

I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.

I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.

I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.

A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.

Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.

So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.

We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?

We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.

Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.

I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.

I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.

Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.

Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?

If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.

I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.

That the world is feeling hard to show up for.

That smiles are a little harder to offer.

That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.

That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.

That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.

But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.

And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.

You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.

You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.

That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.

But not if you and I give up.

If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.

So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?

It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.

If I keep showing up, will you?

And will you really show up?

I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.

Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?

There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.

But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.

We need your message.

We need your encouragement.

We need your kindness.

We need your story.

We need you.

~

4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.

Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3

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. :)

A safe and meaningless love

If you carefully edit your identity so that you’ll be loved and accepted,

and then the love and acceptance come,

is it really yours,

or does it belong to the caricature,

and where does that leave you?

So what would it take for your actual self to find love?

~

Wishing you courage to be yourself, friend! If you could use some weekly reminders to value your deep-down self, hop on board:

But is it REALLY okay?

#makeitok is a hashtag for those of us who want to end the stigma around mental illness. For those of us who want talking about and attending to mental health to be a normal, accepted, an “ok” part of life.

In the last few years I’ve been really impressed by the differences in the shapes and sizes of the bodies in advertising. Even cellulite is allowed now, officially.

All kinds of things that were once sort of taboo to talk about, or seen as disappointing or embarrassing, have become very widely accepted and even celebrated.

You are you, and that is okay.

That is our official policy.

And we will even design some advertising around it.

And post on Instagram about it.

. . .

I don’t actually think this is all posturing. I actually feel really hopeful about all this change.

But I do wonder, if we’re being honest–is this stuff that we’re saying is okay–is it really okay? Are we standing behind that declaration? Or are we just saying it?

Like, yes, we know deep down that each human is on their own colorful journey, that everyone will have their own struggles or their own characteristics, and that we want to be very accepting . . .

But what about the comments or conversations that don’t go on Instagram?

What about the accidental messages that are sent when the two or three heavier people in the workout class get left on the outside of the cliques?

What are people internalizing when the assumptive goals and programs the gym offers always start with something about losing weight, looking better?

Or what about when we create these communities where we hold “mental health” events and keep saying stuff like “anxiety is normal” or “it’s okay to struggle,” but then . . . you don’t actually witness anyone feeling the safety to raise their hands and say, “hey guys, I’m actually falling apart now, like in real-time, I think I need some help.” . . . ?

I live with a good amount of anxiety, and I’ll tell you what, it is not a walk in the park for my best friend who shows up for me in the anxiousest moments (you’re welcome dictionary). Anxious energy, depressed energy–it can be really difficult to be around. Your anxious friend may be on the lookout for reasons to label you a threat. Your depressed friend may not seem to appreciate you and all the love you’re showering on them, because today they literally can’t appreciate anything. And that is not easy to sit with, as the person showing up, “making it okay.”

It’s so easy–even trendy–to say “We all struggle with mental health sometimes, it’s okay that you do, too!” It feels good for a minute to raise our hands and say “Yeah, I actually have anxiety, too” and then to have a bunch of people nod their heads and say “Mmmm! Thanks for sharing!”

And these aren’t bad things. These are step 1. Step 1 used to be taboo. But step 1 has become the norm. A trend. We made it okay to at least SAY that it’s all okay.

. . .

I can’t recall in which book or talk or maybe podcast, but I heard one of my favorite authors, Jon Kabat-Zinn (who helped popularize meditation and other eastern practices and ideas in the western world) express some concern over the trendiness of yoga: It’s fantastic that it’s more accepted and accessible now, but as the west becomes drenched in yoga classes and yoga workouts–are we losing some of the deep, life-changing principles that have been at yoga’s core for centuries?

In other words: Everyone “does yoga” now. But . . . how much depth in yoga traditions is being forgotten or neglected?

It’s an unfortunate side effect of trends–one that maybe we can work to mitigate: The popularization of good, true, loving principles is wonderful, but the more popular the message, the easier it is to posture, to put on a show, but to go no further than lip service.

When that happens in areas where people have felt left out or ashamed–personality, interests, sexual identity, poverty, mental illness, weight and body-type, race or ethnicity, abilities . . . the list of reasons society through history has given people to feel inferior is endless–when the posturing of acceptance and inclusivity happen in areas where people have felt left out or ashamed, it can do a lot of damage.

We’ll get to that more, I promise.

. . .

So–we checked off step 1. As a society, we’re officially kind and accepting of all kinds of bodies, all kinds of minds, all kinds of all kinds.

Officially.

. . .

When was the last time someone got really raw and real with you about how they’re struggling–in this moment–let you see and hear and feel their struggle?

Were you able to make it safe for them? No matter how heavy that energy was? Or how panicky? Were you able to prove to them that they’re okay for being them, even with the raw mental health struggles?

And when you post to Instagram about how as a personal trainer you believe in the okay-ness of every different shape and size, and a new client shows up feeling relieved and hopeful now that they’ve found personal training with no shame–what expectations do you actually set with them? What messages do you give them? Do you encourage them to love and accept their right-now body? Do you talk about sets and reps like they’re punishments or the price to pay for the way they eat? Or assume they’re here for a “lifestyle change?”

Or how about as a gym owner or manager that publicly champions healthy body image, claims credit for saying “all shapes and sizes are welcome here,” and that body-sculpting isn’t the only acceptable goal for gym-goers–who are you hiring as trainers and staff? And what pressure are you putting on them to “look the part” by getting lean and toned and badass? And what comments are you making about them when you don’t think they’ll hear? And do all the special programs and challenges you offer seem to say, at their core, “You should look better”?

Okay, so we all do this. We say “I’m a good person.” “I don’t bully.” “I don’t make fun of people.” “I accept everyone.” But in some realm, some way, some context–I think we’ve all got some work to do to make this “okay” stuff ACTUALLY okay.

It’s like when a big corporate company proudly publicizes their strong commitment to inclusivity–all races and ethnicities, all differences in ability, all ages . . . but then you look inside the company and you can’t find BIPOC team members or leaders, you can’t find anyone with a disability, and it seems like older people who can’t keep up quite as easily with the new and the young are always the ones whose positions get coincidentally eliminated.

. . .

We’ve taken step 1 as a society.

We accept all kinds of differences–even ones that by definition include some extra care, like differing physical abilities or like mental illnesses.

Publicly. Loudly. Proudly.

It’s our policy.

We are accepting.

But are we actually showing true, complete, genuine, radical acceptance when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff–the little conversations, the little cliques, the goals, the decisions, the priorities, the relationships?

Posting an Instagram-vs-reality side-by-side where you proudly tell your followers “See? I have love-handles, too! Bodies are okay!” is a start. But what happens when all the rest of your posts seem dedicated to showing only the picture-perfect stuff?

And what happens when you promise the world that your community is a community where they don’t have to hide mental illness, where they can stop pretending–and then this sweet, tender kid, whose dark life story you couldn’t imagine, finally tries opening up, and it’s awkward (because it is) and it’s raw and it’s dark and it’s sad and it’s heavy, so heavy–and then next time . . . nobody really seems to have the time to listen?

We’ve got to go past step 1.

A lot of times, we do!

I don’t intend to be writing this long post about how everyone actually sucks at being accepting. We . . . we don’t. We’re learning. In some contexts we’re super good at it. In some contexts we’re still learning. Some of us mean better than others about it. Everyone’s at a different point in their kindness-journey, different baggage, different inherited prejudices, different perspectives . . . and we’ve made it a long way as a society.

Step 1–the official policy of acceptance–we’ve sort of completed. Step 2 is well underway. But it’s also, well, not underway, sometimes.

So for you and me to think about . . . where are you and I saying one thing but practicing another, proving another, implying another?

What subtle pressures as professionals, friends, parents, co-workers, social media users–what subtle pressures are we putting on people to be a certain concept of perfect? Maybe it’s even unconsciously, so the self-reflection needs to be deep.

When we tell someone it’s okay to be who they are . . . are we then proving to them that it’s okay, by regularly showing up in love and acceptance, by regularly adding to the world’s library of diverse beauty, raising the volume on celebrations of each perfectly unique and valuable life around us?

Or are we saying “It’s okay to struggle” or “It’s okay to look like that” and then unconsciously building higher walls and higher barriers, telling the story of a world where you should look like this, feel like this, own this, do this, fit in this crowd . . . ?

. . .

A little mental exercise: Put yourself in the place of someone who has grown up with the assigned (and eventually self-assigned) label “fat.” Lots of baggage with that one . . .

I’m gross. I’m not attractive. Nobody will want me. Nobody will listen to me. I can’t do all-those-things. I’m a failure.

And all of a sudden, the world starts . . . accepting them! Celebrating them!

The clothing aisles have pictures of people that actually look like me now! And all the fitness accounts are on my side finally, telling people to stop shaming me, that it’s okay to be me!

This is . . . absolutely life-changing. This is hope. This is love. This is self-love. Finally! This is peace and acceptance and happiness and hope and yes yes yes.

Maybe I’m beautiful! I AM beautiful. I am me, and people are okay with that now–I’M okay with that!

And then . . . . . . . . and then, it all starts to feel a little . . . hollow, a little empty, a little like a sad, mean trick.

Like, they’re celebrating me . . . but I don’t feel very welcome or included in that celebration. Nobody’s listening to my own story about it. Or like . . . they say I’m allowed to be this heavy, but all they want to talk to me about is how they can help me lose weight. And they still don’t want me too involved. Like, I can be their acceptance-poster-child, but I’m still too heavy to work with them or be a part of the in-crowd . . .

And then, sometimes, the “behind-closed-doors” conversations happen, and you catch wind of it.

“. . . really could afford to lose a few pounds . . .” “. . . doesn’t represent a healthy lifestyle . . .” “. . . can’t imagine treating my body that way . . .”

And now–now you’re officially on the outside again. Well, not officially, but in reality you are. And now you can’t even claim that you’re not accepted. Now you can’t even ask for compassion as a person who is labeled or misunderstood or judged, because . . . because, officially, they SAID you’re okay. They said they love you, they said they accept you, they said they celebrate you.

So now you’re back to square one, your old place of shame and loneliness. Only with a little more in the way of dashed hopes than when you started.

The world just isn’t safe for people like me. I’m fat and nobody likes that.

. . .

Does this ring true at all for you? Do you get it? Have you been on the receiving end? Do you think maybe you’ve been on the dishing end?

We SAY it’s okay for people to be who they are.

But are we actually MAKING IT okay?

Can we?

I bet we can.

Sometimes we do.

I bet we can more.

Here’s to supporting each other through radical love and acceptance.

namaste

Living for more time

Time is a weird and inevitable thing.

If we get to the end of our lives having spent the whole thing fighting time, we will have lost.

If we spend our days wishing we were younger, refusing to accept changes, we will always be feeling hurt and scared and defeated.

If our deepest need is for time to not pass, to not grow old and die, we will end up with the greatest loss and frustration.

Time. Will. Pass.

We can’t live for keeping yesterday or today.

We can’t live for staying alive.

So what else can we live for?

Love?

Kindness?

Showing up for each other?

Making the world a little bit of a sweeter place?

Things like safety and survival are overrated. At the end of the day, they’re sort of . . . impossible.

Unfortunately, we seem to be wired to keep anxiously reverting back to “Must stay safe!”

“According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent.” ~ Dalai Lama

Time. Will. Pass.

So what more meaningful things can we do with our time here together?

“Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love.” “Warm hugs?” “I like warm hugs.” ~ Disney. Of course.

What are you living for today?