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“That’s Mine; You Have Yours.” – Why You Should Do You

do youSnowflakes are falling outside my window as I write this, big and little ones together, and I can’t take my eyes off of them. Most of the flakes are gliding on the wind at the same diagonal angle, like the “from the heart” pattern on an English rep tie. And when a more horizontal wind picks up, they all go that way too, the whole group moving in the same pattern, all in fluffy lockstep.

Occasionally, however, there is one little rebel flake that takes a different path, a twisting, turning, zigzag line, exhibiting – in a rather bold expression of independence – an absolute refusal to go along. “Do you, little snowflake,” I think to myself as I watch this rebel do its thing.

Lessons From My Daughter
The toddler years can be trying ones, can’t they? Willfulness added to boundless energy and shaken with a bit of emotional reactivity; it’s a potent cocktail that can put us right over the edge on some days, and not in a good way. Turns out there’s a reason we call them the terrible twos, the traumatic threes and the fearsome fours. (Okay, I just made that middle one up.)

But in the midst of all of the chasing, herding, explaining and insisting that marks these years there is also, of course, magic and wonder. Everything is so new to a young child, and as he or she works to explore and make sense of the world around them, we are privileged to travel with them on this journey of discovery, to see things through their eyes.

And they say the weirdest, most delightful things, don’t they?

Being that our daughter, Emily, was our first-born, we of course have more data on her. My son, Sam, never lets us forget this, convinced that the paucity of photos and observations marking his early years means either that he was adopted, or that we didn’t love him as much as we did his sister. Truly, like most parents, our recording secretary energy just petered out one day, and we became more interested in living the moments with our children than in saving them for posterity. I feel bad for Sam, but there you have it.

do youSo we wrote down a lot of the things Emily said during this time. And as I look back through the small notebook reserved for this task, I find that a lot of her observations were pretty funny. Like the time when, after a very unusual noise came from Emily’s direction, I asked her, “Was that a toot?” and she replied, “No, it was a toot in my mouth.” Or the time she held her eyes in a wink at the dinner table and announced, “I have one eye sleeping and one eye up!”

Other times, her observations were heartbreakingly sweet, like on the evening she sat in my lap to comfort me as I teared up after a hard day, put her cheek to mine in a soft hug, and whispered gently, “Mommy, you got your sad on my face.”

Her most repeated comment, however, usually precipitated by either her father or I invoking parental privilege and attempting to steal a bit of food from her plate, was: “That’s mine; you have yours!”

Now, there was a lot going on in that statement. Yes, my young daughter was absolutely claiming what was hers, like any good capitalist toddler would. And she was, of course, engaging in that toddler willfulness I mentioned earlier. But I believe she was also asserting, to herself and to us, that she was Emily and we weren’t, thus exhibiting the beginnings of a healthy delineation of self and other. She was beginning to know, and do, Emily.

Doing Me Again
At the age of 48, a year after a cross-country move to a newly empty nest, as I work to explore and make sense of this new life I’m in and notice myself taking those same baby-steps toward selfhood now that Emily took so many years ago (yes, at the age of 48 I am doing that again), I find that I lean on Emily’s childhood observation like a mantra.

do youCarving out my identity, my desires and my beliefs from those around me, like a sculptor scraping and slicing to reveal the bust that has been, until just this moment, surrounded by extra clay, I work through the possibilities and make the decisions:

No, I don’t believe I am THAT mother (or friend, or therapist, or writer); I am more like THIS. Scrape, scrape. No, I don’t feel THAT way; I feel THIS way. Cut and smooth. No, I don’t want to do THAT, I want to do THIS. Scrape and smooth.

And as I scrape, cut and smooth my clay, I speak Emily’s words: “That’s mine; you have yours.” Sometimes I speak them loudly, brazenly. Other times, more softly and tentatively. But I assert these words on a daily basis, and they help me find my self.

I am trying, like my daughter before me, to do me.

But it’s scary.
Yes. It turns out that sticking out, going against the grain, is hard, scary work, even at the age of 48, and some days I’d rather some other snowflake took the risk.

Because it feels so much safer to just go with the prevailing wind. There is strength in numbers, isn’t there? And comfort in having my perspective affirmed by others. After all, how could we all possibly be wrong?

But there is also sameness in a numbers. And stagnation. And a lack of something. What was it? Oh, right – authenticity.

Here’s the thing that I’m just figuring out. We think we are doing the world and ourselves a favor by holding back our true selves, like if we gave it our all, our REAL all, it might upset a cosmic balance or something or, even worse, people might gasp and mutter to each other things like, “Who does she think she is?” and “What the h___ is she doing?” Or at least this is how I think.

But the reality is, when we dumb down our presence in the world, when we “sand off the interesting edges” as Seth Godin remarks in a recent blog post, we are actually withholding the one unique thing we have to offer – our singular perspective, the way that our particular brain and heart has tried to make sense of our particular set of experiences. No one else can offer this. No one.

Emily Still Has Hers
My daughter inspires me even now. She is graduating from college next month, and has discarded all of the usual post-college options like graduate school and psychology research positions and has chosen instead to spend a year by herself in Cape Town, South Africa helping people. “That’s mine; you have yours.” She’s still doing Emily.

So, inspired once again by my daughter, I keep scraping, cutting, getting down to me. Doing me. And, all the time, repeating my mantra: “Do you, little snowflake.”

Let other people have theirs. Let other people do themselves.

We, each of us, have ours. And we all can, and should, do us.

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What about you? How are you doing you? Any lessons learned along the journey? Feel free to share your experience in a comment below.

And if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out There is a First Time For Everything or these other posts on the process of change.

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Cooking Without A Net – The Art Of Letting Go

letting goThe Recipe Says . . .
I am a recipe follower. My husband, he’s more of a recipe avoider. And it drives me crazy in the kitchen. Witness this recent conversation in the middle of making Spaghetti Carbonara:

Me: “Oh, the recipe says to put in two cups of chicken stock.”
Him: “Yeah, well, I don’t always follow the recipe.”
Me: “You don’t always follow the recipe.”
Him: “Nope.”
Me: “So, let me see if I understand you: a trained chef, someone who went to school to learn how to cook, went to the trouble to research how to make this dish, and offers us this perfected recipe, and you choose to not follow it, to make something up?”
Him: “Pretty much.”
Me: “But I like the way it tastes when we follow the recipe.”
Him: “Me too. But I also like to do things my own way, try something different, cook without a net.”
Me: “Well . . . that’s just stupid.”

Actually, deep down, I am really more of a baker than a cook. Because baking is chemistry, and so it has rules, parameters, and predictable outcomes. See, I don’t mind if the ending comes out the same each time, so I don’t need to try something different. In fact, I really like knowing what’s coming; I like that if you do A and B, that C will then predictably follow. Like a recipe.

So it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I am a rule follower in pretty much every area of my life. My husband, he’s a . . . well, he’s not really a rule avoider. He’s more of a rule questioner.

Oh, he follows all the really important rules, like the ones having to do with being honest and kind to people and generous with his resources. And most of the traffic ones. But he’s a little undisciplined about some of the other ones. Like the one that tells you how much chicken stock you should use in Spaghetti Carbonara. That’s two cups, in case you weren’t paying attention.

letting goI Want the Net
I am so into rules that if I can’t find one that will apply, I’ll invent one. No, really. I do this all the time.

For instance, it’s a rule in my house that the flap on the toilet paper roll has to lay on top of the roll, not under it.

It’s also a rule that my clothes need to hang in color-coded order in my closet.

And when I put my shoes away, the rule is that they have to go together insole to insole, as if they were on somebody’s feet. Seeing them the other way creeps me out.

Truly, I think I like rules and recipes because I am, at the bottom of it all, deeply afraid. I’m afraid of letting go, afraid of not being in control, afraid of failing, afraid of the unknown. Afraid of leprechauns. You name it and I’m probably afraid of it.

Having rules to follow makes me feel safer, more secure, and keeps the fear at bay. And so I want the net.

But I do admire my husband. He’s apparently not so afraid all the time. And his courage gives him the freedom to question some rules, to play around with which ones are important to follow and which ones have some wiggle room, to risk failure in order to try something new. He doesn’t have any problem letting go of the rules, letting go of control.

It occurs to me that people like my husband are okay with not knowing the ending to the story, because they know they’re helping to write it.

Hmmm.

That sounds kind of cool. A little scary, maybe, but still pretty cool. So I wonder: could I be more like that? Could I move past the fear and the rules and live a little more on the edge? Could I get better at letting go? Could I cook without a net?

letting goBrussels Sprouts Without a Net
I recently tried to do this in a small way. My husband and I were having a dinner party, and it was my job to prepare the Brussels Sprouts. I love Brussels Sprouts, but was tired of our usual recipe, so I went looking for another one.

I found a recipe I liked (with balsamic vinegar and grapes – yum!), but it was not really a recipe at all, more like loose guidelines – suggestions, really – about what ingredients to use, and not even a rough estimate regarding amounts.

Really, people? How is this supposed to be helpful?

I almost chucked the whole idea. The possibility of failure was just too imminent. What if I didn’t prepare it correctly? What if I screwed up the amounts? What if our guests hated it?

But I couldn’t find a better option, and I really wanted to try something new. So I poured myself a martini, took a deep, cleansing breath, and decided to try, just this once, to proceed without any rules. No A plus B, no obvious C, no assurances about how the story would turn out. No net.

Big surprise. The sprouts turned out okay. Pretty good, even.

So, I guess maybe someday I could learn to cook without a net. And maybe I could also learn to do other things without so many rules involved, without knowing the ending to the story. I could get better at letting go.

Maybe. But later. Because first I need to flip some toilet rolls.

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What about you? Are you a rule follower or a rule questioner? Have you attempted to work, play, or cook without a net lately? Tell us about your experiences below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out my post on living messy, or this Tiny Buddha blog post on letting go of control.

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5 Tips For When You’re Stuck

stuckSo. It’s February. How are those resolutions going?
I know, right? It seemed so easy at first, so possible. You read a blog post about breaking bad habits, you identified your triggers and payoffs, you set your goals and set out optimistically on the road to change.

Only to find that this particular road is not so easy to traverse. Lots of curves, bumps and pits. And now you find yourself in breakdown mode, stranded and lonely and thinking perhaps you’ll just go back home, give up on this trip for now.

If you’re feeling stuck like this, take heart.
We all feel stuck at times. Really. All of us. And the experts tell us that being stuck is a normal and expected stage of the change process. So you’re not actually as alone as you feel. And there is hope.

Because being stuck doesn’t have to be a final destination. More like a layover or a rest stop, a place to pause until you’re ready for the next leg of the journey.

And you will be ready for that next leg soon.

Because even when you’re in a stuck place, even when it seems like from the outside that nothing is going on, things are happening inside you that are moving you closer to that next good thing.

But what to do in the meantime?
First, what NOT to do:

  • Don’t deny your stuckness, hoping if you ignore it long enough it will just go away.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time “shoulding” yourself into the next stage. We all know where that kind of thinking takes us.
  • And, for heaven’s sake, don’t give up. As the experts note, you’re closer to your goal than you think you are.

But you don’t have to just sit there either, waiting patiently, or probably impatiently, for the tow truck to come. There are a few things you can do to make your stuck time both more productive and more tolerable.

Five things, in fact:

1. Accept where you are right now. Radical acceptance is what we’re looking for here. Repeat after me: “It is what it is, it’s not my fault, and it will get better.” Your stuck self will need some convincing about this, so be ready to say this mantra several times a day, and with gusto, like an annoyingly positive cheerleader.

2. Be the best you can be in this stuck place. Don’t use being stuck in one area as an excuse to make bad decisions in multiple areas of your life. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Be the best and healthiest person you can be while you’re waiting for the next stage.

3. Take some small, new, positive action every day. Drive a different route home from work, try a new food, call a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while, experience a book or movie you’d normally avoid as “not really your thing.” In short, do something to break your normal pattern and surprise your brain. Keep things energized, keep newness and change in your life.

4. Take care of yourself. This is a hard one, I know, but it’s really important. Like I said, it’s not your fault you’re in this tension (It’s NORMAL, remember?), so don’t punish yourself for being there. Continue to make good decisions about your health and wellbeing; nurture yourself during this difficult time. And reach out to a friend or counseling professional if you need a boost.

5. Assume a posture of expectation. Expect that change will happen and be ready to go with it when it comes. Because it will, in fact, come. Help will arrive, you’ll repair your engine, and you’ll be on your way again.

So take heart.
The next good thing, the next stage of change, will come sooner than you think. And if you follow the steps above, you’ll be in great shape to meet it when it does. And then you’ll be back on your journey.

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What about you? Have you ever been stuck? How did you handle it? Tell us about your experience below; we can all use a little roadside assistance from someone who’s been there.

If this post spoke got you thinking, you might also like Embracing Emptiness, Things Get Worse Before They Get Better, and Conquering Our Inner Toddle – Letting Others Help.

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Fear And The Twinkie Effect

fearActually, I’m more of a Little Debbie Nutty Bar fan. But then I always was a little different from the other kids.

Still, you had to admire the Twinkie, even if you wouldn’t choose it from the snack shelf at the 7-Eleven. Rumors were, the Twinkie could survive a nuclear holocaust, outlive the cockroaches, that sort of thing. Impressive.

But last year, as we read headlines like “Twinkie, Where Art Thou?, “Requiem For The Twinkie,” “Twinkie’s Last Stand” and “Twinkie R.I.P,” it appeared the Twinkie might be in real peril.

Countless Facebook posts lamented the possibility of the Twinkie’s demise, YouTube videos promoted do-it-yourself Twinkie recipes, and panicked Twinkie lovers all over the world cleared supermarket shelves of their beloved snack.

True Twinkie fans stockpiled entire cases of the product in order to insure their own lifetime supply; others, more capitalistically inclined, reoffered the product for sale on eBay for anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million dollars.

“It’s pandemic out here. Everybody’s going to grab the Hostess,” one man said, describing the general sentiment.

I am not making any of this up, people. Call it the Twinkie Effect.

Crisis Averted . . . This Time
Much to our relief, it turns out the report of Hostess’s death was, like Mark Twain’s, greatly exaggerated. And so it appears that Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, Sno Balls, Suzy Qs and, yes, the iconic Twinkie, are probably safe for the time being.

So that’s good.

But what was all this Twinkie hoopla and panic about, exactly? What does our inclination to stockpile Hostess products say about us as people, as a culture?

Does the country, as a whole, suffer from a wicked carb addiction? Or are we nostalgic for simpler times? Maybe.

Or maybe it’s that we’re afraid.

fearI Am Definitely Afraid of A Lot of Things
After all, there’s a lot to be afraid of out there: global warming and terrorists, swine flues and home invasions, the possibility of an economic or government collapse, and troubled gunmen opening fire on our community spaces or our child’s school.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t really think we believe, somewhere in the depths of our reptilian brain, that these highly caloric, spongy snacks will come in handy during the next environmental or geopolitical crisis. I don’t think our actions are quite so rational or purposeful.

Yet I do believe there is a connection between our fears and our hoarding behavior. I believe this because it’s true in my own life.

  • For instance, when I’m afraid of an approaching blizzard, I head to the supermarket along with the rest of my community to stock op on “necessities” like milk and eggs, even though I don’t actually like or use these products on a daily basis and have every reason to expect that our power will go out and cause everything in the refrigerator to spoil.
  • I’m also embarrassed to admit that I often find myself appeasing my anxieties about the economy by purchasing more stuff on our already loaded credit card, and then using the fact that I feel burdened by debt to justify cutting back on our charitable giving.
  • And, more recently, I have come to understand the thinking of my neighbors who’ve purchased a firearm for their home, that perhaps their action will insure their family’s protection from a home intruder, even though the statistics show we are more likely to be injured or killed by our own guns than use them effectively against a perpetrator.

Faced with real fear, and with the nagging sense that I don’t actually have much control over things, I – along with many others – default to the individualistic, insular response of protecting myself from, stockpiling against.

And I convince myself I am behaving rationally, responsibly, when I am really just operating out of a barely controlled panic, running for cover and pulling all of my various parts and supplies into my house like a turtle withdrawing into its shell.

And I think that maybe, just maybe, I am protected, safe. But I am still so very vulnerable. And I believe that I am in control of my fear. But, really, my fear is controlling me.

Most importantly, not only does hoarding Hostess products, milk and eggs or firearms not protect me from the threats I fear, but the act of hoarding, because it is, at its core, a selfish and insular response, actually separates me from the rest of the world, from the people and systems that might actually be able to help me figure things out.

fearComing Out Of Our Shell
In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “. . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The key here, I think, is to accept that life is scary, and live in the tension that the presence of real risk presents for us. To feel the fear, but be determined to live a full, expansive and generous life anyway, to come out of our shells, to advance instead of retreat. And to respond to our fear about a world that seems increasingly more and more out of our control, not by being individualistic and reclusive, but by being communal and expansive.

  • So, during the next Twinkie crisis, instead of devoting our time and energy to hoarding Hostess products we could, perhaps, consider how best to help the Hostess employees that will no doubt lose their jobs when some of the plants close.
  • And maybe, when a storm is approaching, instead of heading to the store to clean the shelves of the last milk and eggs, we could check in with everyone else on our street to see if anyone needs flashlights or batteries, or their walkway shoveled.
  • And perhaps, when we are frightened of the violence all around us, instead of buying a gun that gives us the illusion of protection from senseless violence, we could instead gather around a table with our neighbors to talk about how to make some sense out of what is happening, and prevent gun violence on a larger scale.

Maybe, just maybe, if we can manage to so these things, and to not value our own survival above all else, we will, finally and collectively, not have to be so afraid.

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What about you? What are you afraid of? How do you handle your fears? Tell us in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Making the Table Bigger or The Importance of Making Room.

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3 Steps To Breaking Bad (Habits)

habitsOkay, all you New Year’s resolution people – this one’s for you.

A habit in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing.
Our brain likes making habits, because habits allow the brain to function more efficiently.

Take, for instance, the action of backing a car out of the driveway. Because of the multiple steps, skills and considerations involved, what most drivers find to be a relatively simple task would take absolutely forever to accomplish if our brain didn’t create a habit out of all of these factors and then file away this habit for later, repeated use.

Can you imagine a world in which everyone drove the same way they did when they first got behind a wheel? Holy Hannah! That’s a world without habits.

So the ability of the brain to form habits is actually a good thing. They allow the brain to function more efficiently. Habits only become a problem when they encourage unhealthy behaviors, like snacking late at night or grinding our teeth.

This is how it works.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit (an interesting look at the science of habit formation and change), our brain converts a set of actions into an automatic routine, or habit, in a process called “chunking.” And when a habit is developed, it appears in a habit loop. The habit loop consists of the following parts:

• First, a cue or trigger tells your brain to go into automatic mode. In the example above, the trigger might be the act of putting your car in reverse.

• Then, the brain engages in a particular routine associated with that trigger. The routine associated with a habit can be either physical, cognitive or emotional, or a combination of all three. In our example, the routine is primarily a physical one consisting of the series of steps required to back the car out of the driveway.

• Finally, a reward reinforces the habit. In this case, the reward is that you were able to back your car out of the driveway without veering into your neighbor’s yard and running over her prize petunias.

As the reward reinforces the routine, the cue, routine, reward loop becomes more and more automatic and . . . voila! . . . a habit is formed.

Now you see why habits are so hard to break.
Remember the part about how habits allow the brain to function more efficiently? Once a habit loop is established, the brain stops participating fully in the decision-making, and the pattern unfolds automatically.

So, we have to deliberately choose to change a habit, and we have to go about it systematically. Here’s how . . .

3 Steps To Breaking Bad Habits

habitsStep 1: Figure out your habit loop.
Let’s say . . . for arguments sake . . . not that I have any personal experience with this, mind you . . . that you have a habit of always eating a high-carb snack in the evening.

Think about it. What is your trigger each time? Are you hungry or bored? Or is the trigger more of an emotional one, like sadness, anger or loneliness? Write down the answer to this question in a daily log. What pattern do you discover?

And the routine? We know that one. It’s going into the pantry, grabbing that leftover bag of Cheetos, and inhaling it.

Or so I’ve heard.

Finally, what is the reward? Well, you feel better in some way. Your tummy feels full, and that alleviates your hunger. You’ve occupied yourself with an activity, and that takes care of your boredom. Or, your action has produced a nice carb high (and, later, a carb coma) that helps alleviate your uncomfortable feelings for awhile.

Step 2: Get creative.
Once you know your loop, you then have an opportunity to consider other actions you can implement when you experience your trigger, actions that will offer you the same sought-after reward. This is your chance to be creative, think out of the box.

For instance, if you find that you’re always hungry in the evening, you could make a point of having healthier snacks on hand. Alternately, you could plan on eating a larger and/or more protein-filled dinner so you don’t feel hungry later on.

If it’s boredom that triggers your snacking, you might jot down a list of non-eating activities that would occupy your attention without adding calories (like reading, watching TV or working a puzzle). And if this evening boredom is a regular dilemma for you, you might consider the possibility of adopting a new hobby or joining a club or class that meets in the evening.

If it’s emotions like sadness or loneliness that trigger your eating, you could probably think of other actions that would directly, and more permanently, improve your mood, like calling or meeting a friend, writing in a journal, or making an appointment with a counselor to explore the origins of your feelings and different alternatives for addressing them.

Step 3: Substitute
The final step in breaking bad habits is to begin substituting the new, healthier action for the unwanted one.

I know. This is the hard part. And there’s no magic pill here. Habits that took years to form can’t be changed in one day, and changing them will take some work.

But, as Duhigg notes in his book, “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

So let’s get to work.

I for one am off to buy some healthy snacks.

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What about you? Do you have any tips on breaking bad habits that might help the rest of us keep our New Year’s resolutions? Do you have a couple of habits you’d like help breaking this year? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also like 6 Creative Combacks to Combat Your Inner Critic or Conquering Our Inner Toddler – Letting Others Help.

Or, if your New Year’s resolutions include a promise to take on something new, you might want to check out Try Something New for 30 Days, a short, lighthearted Ted Talk by Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google.

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Yes, We Can Make a Difference

make a differenceSo, I’m kind of pathetic.
I used to have this website plug-in for something called a Cluster Map that posted a small, colorful, sometimes twinkling, map in the upper right-hand corner of my blog landing page. The map showed the numbers and locations of visitors to my website – 1,478 at one point; I wasn’t getting a lot of play in China, Eastern Russia or the North African continent, but otherwise I was doing pretty well.

Never mind that some of my visitors – well, okay, probably a lot of them – were unmanned computer programs trying to spam my comment section or connect with my server to wreak havoc on someone else’s site. The point was that A LOT of entities were paying attention to me. The point was, and still is, that I matter, I make a difference. Or at least that’s the happy, tingling sensation I got when I saw a new dot shine out from the map like a perfect, twinkling star. I felt, as Sally Field’s character is often misquoted as saying: “You like me; you really like me!”

Kind of pathetic, isn’t it, relying on a twinkling map to feel appreciated?

It’s not just me, though.
I have a friend who’s always up for new experiences. A few years ago, he discovered Foursquare. Not the ball game played with four kids on the blacktop during recess, but the location-based phone app with which users “check in” at places like restaurants and offices.

Obviously, the app provides great advertising opportunities for local businesses. That’s probably the whole point, in fact. But there’s something in it for us too. Each check-in awards the user points, which is pretty fun. You can also, if you are attentive and lucky, earn badges (yes, just like in scouting . . . only minus the personal accomplishment part).

The app also makes it possible to meet up with friends who decide to make a post office run at the exact time you do, receive discounts at your favorite store, or even get a special parking spot for being the “mayor” of a location, a distinction you earn by checking into a spot more times than anyone else.

It was this last award that my friend especially liked, and he was a master at achieving it. Over time, he became the mayor of countless restaurants, various retail outlets, his office, my office and barn (neither of which he visited with any frequency), and a particularly convenient restroom at the local airport.

He was even the mayor of a brick sculpture wall for a time. I’m pretty sure he was able to get this distinction by first creating a Foursquare site for the wall, and then checking in to it every time he stopped at the stoplight on the corner nearest the structure (which he did pretty much on a daily basis).

I know, right? He’s much more pathetic than me.

make a differenceHonestly, we just want to make a difference.
Yes, my friend and I, we want to be noticed, affirmed. We crave affiliation and esteem, to know that we matter. But ultimately, we want to believe we make a difference. And sweet, needy little creatures that we are, we’re not above creating an artificial digital context in which we can achieve this nice difference-making feeling.

Because it feels pretty great, doesn’t it, earning a badge or a title, showing off our web traffic with little glowing dots, or even zinging the other side in a Facebook debate? These small, easy actions offer us a sense of achievement, one we are only too happy to interpret as affirmation of our relevance.

The problem with relying on web traffic stats, social media gimmicks and titillating Facebook posts for affirmation is that the digital world can be a finicky, fickle, even pushy place. Trends come and go, Facebook “friends” let us down, and the roar of an angry digital mob can drown out the still, small voice of reason.

And so reliance on primarily digital connections, accolades and debates often leaves us feeling empty. Noticed perhaps, maybe even “right,” but still empty.

Empty because we haven’t really been able to make a difference. We haven’t really accomplished, or truly connected with, much of anything.

make a differenceIf you’re also struggling a little in this department lately, you’re not alone.
Last week’s massacre at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino was an unspeakable horror, another bewildering, potentially hope-sucking reminder of the fallibility of the world and the human capacity for unimaginable violence. Stunned, confused and so very sad, many of us took to the digital airwaves to look for news, comfort and – if it wouldn’t be too much trouble – SOME ANSWERS, PLEASE.

And some of us kind of got stuck out there.

I know I for one spent way too much time combing the Internet for news updates, uncovering background stories, reading essays and opinion pieces . . . taking in anything that would help me wrap my brain around what had happened. And, within just a week of the tragedy, I also managed to get myself into more than one Facebook comment volley over topics like gun control, the terror threat and treatment for the mentally ill.

This behavior is perfectly understandable. We need information and a sense of affiliation at a time like this. And the online community offers a quick fix.

But precisely because the digital world can, like a high-carb snack, offer such immediate comfort and energy, we can be seduced into relying exclusively on this once-removed way of gathering, sharing and comforting rather than seeking out more intimate, real world encounters. And that’s how we get stuck.

make a differenceThe key is to unplug.

  • Unplug from the frantic search for easy answers.
  • Unplug from the desire to look like we have it all figured out.
  • Unplug from the need to be right.
  • Unplug from the digital noise so that we can hear the real truth of the matter.

And the truth is that we can – we do – matter. And we can make a difference.

We are of consequence, we matter, not because of a digital badge or a twinkling light, or 100+ likes on our Facebook post, but because we are, each of us, an authentic, integral part of a real world community, and as such we have the ability to join together and figure this thing out.

In order to do this, we will first have to acknowledge our overwhelming feelings of grief and powerlessness and really live in that scary place for a while. While there, we can share our sadness, our fear and our sense of hopelessness face-to-face and out loud, and there is real power in that.

Then, we will have to risk looking uncertain, admitting to each other and to ourselves that we have more questions than answers (and we really ought to, shouldn’t we, when faced with something this incomprehensible?).

And, later, we will definitely have to compromise.

make a differenceIt will be difficult to unplug, to get unstuck. BUT WE CAN DO THIS. We can step away from the screen, bring our whole, fragile, fallible selves to a coffee shop two-top, a family dinner table, or the expanse of a board meeting room, and sit down together in community at a real world gathering. We can cry, we can scream, we can talk, we can pray. We can figure something out.

A next step, a compromise.

A way to really matter, and to make a difference.

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What about you? Do you sometimes get seduced by the siren song of Facebook posts and comments? Do you have tricks you use to unstick yourself? Are you gathering in some way with others to mourn and discuss what happened in San Bernardino? Please tell us about your experiences below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Keeping Your Cool or Making The Table Bigger, or this excellent NY Times article about our addiction to digital devices.

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Making A Bigger Table

bigger tableIn honor of Thanksgiving . . .

In honor of family, members who have died and those who live on to keep the traditions . . .

In honor of big tables that always have room for another chair . . .

I am pleased to offer the following Thanksgiving guest post from a member of my family.

Making the Table Bigger
Annie and I spent a recent weekend down in Texas to be with Annie’s people. Her side of the family all hail from the Lone Star State, and have been there for several generations, so that is where we go when we need to catch up.

Although she has gone to heaven now, being in Dallas – and driving through her neighborhood and by her old home – got me to thinking about Great Granny Alma.

Great Granny Alma was the matriarch of my wife’s family. She was a diminutive, reserved and modest senior lady with a depth of life experience I have rarely encountered anywhere else . . . and a will packed into that tiny body of tempered steel.

Alma was a depression child who would economize in ways that just flummoxed the rest of us. For example, we weren’t allowed to use her dishwasher (too wasteful of water!) or throw away cottage cheese tubs (and because recycling was uncommon at this time, the tubs began to fill her kitchen cabinets).

Alma was fiercely protective of her family. This meant, of course, that we all knew she’d bail us out if we got into trouble. But it also meant there were some big and deeply buried secrets in her house. (My wife’s cousin and great childhood friend was in prison for a year before Alma grudgingly revealed the fact.)

Finally, Alma also had the strongest imaginable opinions about how to live life well, and about what constituted real success in life. She was pretty tough on family members who weren’t serious about getting an education, finding her version of a “good” job, or being disciplined about doing that job to the very best of their abilities.

But for all of this, Alma inspired us. Not only because of all that she had survived growing up with so little in the 1920s and 30s but, far more meaningfully, because of her big old heart, the way she consistently, generously, humbly and prophetically reached out to be of loving service and support to other people.

Yes, she was great to her family. And I was blessed by my marriage to Annie to be on the receiving end of many kindnesses. But the truth is that lots of folks are good to their families. What inspired and moved me (though it took me years to realize this was going on) were the innumerable ways Alma shared what she had to help other people, often people who were virtually unknown to her.

As a landlord, she sometimes helped folks who rented from her by covering their rent or utilities, or by hiring them for an odd job or two. Other times, she helped friends of the family or friends of friends by paying for their education, car repairs or groceries. But just as often she helped virtual strangers, people she just happened to meet and listen to living and working in her day-to-day life.

In all of this, Alma taught me both what it might mean to LOVE in a concrete and meaningful way that challenged my stingy notion of sacrificial giving, and she also taught me just about the most expansive definition of “neighbor” I have ever seen.

Great Granny Alma died eleven years ago this autumn. The family asked if I would say a few words at her graveside. I remember worrying over what in the world to say. Her life was too big and her impact on that family too great to begin to scratch the surface of all she’d meant to us. In fact, I don’t know all that I said on that funeral day except for one thing: I remember that I talked about Alma’s kitchen table.

For me, the great symbol of Alma’s generosity and spirit was the table around which we’d gather for meals when we visited her home. Hers was not a fancy table. It was a dinged up old oak piece, undoubtedly ordered at some point decades back from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. It was not stylish or fashionable in the least.

The one notable design feature of this table was the fact that it could grow to an amazing length, as leaves were added by the number, to accommodate the astonishing bounty that would be set out at meal time and to make room for every guest. Alma could always make a bigger table.

And that’s how it would go. At suppertime, the family would start milling around the kitchen and Alma would begin calling out favors and chores:

“Scott, here’s ten dollars, run down to Krogers and get us a couple bottles of wine.”

“Annie . . . look out in the garage, Hon . . . bring us up one of those big jars of sweet pickles, and fill up one of those little crystal bowls from the sideboard over there.”

“Shannon . . . check the back of the bottom shelf of the icebox. There’s a cottage cheese tub back there full of some pulled pork leftover from Sunday.”

And as the family scurried about taking orders and setting the table, our numbers would begin to swell as stragglers walked through the door, family and friends both, all of whom would inevitably bringing along friends and acquaintances both known and unknown to Alma.

“Jason – grab another leaf! Let’s make a bigger table!”

Let’s make a bigger table!

And we would.

When we finally sat down to eat it was a vision of God’s kingdom . . . every time. There sat some toddler in a high chair at the corner, throwing mashed carrots around and giggling like a madwoman. There sat some old uncle in from the West Texas oilfield, hands and fingernails stained black despite five minutes of washing up. There sat somebody’s shy new boyfriend from Nebraska (“Why, Honey, he’s a Yankee!”), unable to summon the courage to speak through the din, but doing his part by piling a plate so high with food that the rest had to stop eating and stare, mouths agape.

And there would be stories, and there would be arguments, and there would be laughter, and nobody left hungry.

Never, ever.

Because the table was big enough for all.

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Scott Barker is an Episcopal Priest and the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. He is also my awesome life partner.

What about you? Do you have a favorite family story, or memories of a loved one who was always up for making the table bigger? Please share!

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out The Importance of Making Room or Living Messy.

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6 Creative Comebacks To Combat Your Inner Critic

inner criticcar·ni·val  /ˈkärnəvəl/
1. A period of public revelry at a regular time each year
2. An exciting or riotous mixture of something

blog car·ni·val  /blôg/ˈkärnəvəl/
1. A blog article that contains links to other articles covering a specific topic.
2. An exciting or riotous mixture of writing

Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen! My online friend and fellow blogger, Tamara Suttle of All Things Private Practice, is hosting her first ever Blog Carnival today, and my post below is one of five articles include in this “exciting and riotous mixture of writing” on her theme, Creative Responses in Building A Private Practice.

So take in my post on combating your inner critic that follows (rated G for general audiences, not just private practitioners), and then check out the main carnival tent on Tamara’s blog, Private Practice From the Inside Out, as well as the contributions of the other carnival participants (noted below).

6 Creative Comebacks To Combat Your Inner Critic

In the early stages of building our practices, when we have literally HOURS to let our mind wander while we wait for clients to call or show, it is easy to get in the habit of obsessing over all the ways in which we might have screwed up so far.

This is a dangerous habit to get into.

Because I know from my own experience that when I get in the habit of humoring my inner critic, I get out of the habit of trusting my ideas and decisions, and become less daring, less creative, and less bold than I might otherwise be. Moreover, I am sure that in these moments I also secrete a palpable low-self-confidence energy that does nothing to encourage my clients to trust my input.

All of this is, obviously, bad for business. But it is also, most definitely, bad self-care. And as we are in the business of caring for other people, it is of supreme importance that we make a habit of first caring for ourselves.

So, join me now in stepping away from immobilizing self-criticism, and instead belly up to this bar of creative confidence-giving comebacks.

Comeback #1
Name your self-doubt monster.
This is a war. Know your enemy. Describe your inner critic in detail. Give her or him a life and a name. Get to know Ms. Negative Nellie or Ned intimately.

My own monster looks and acts a lot like my scary elementary school coach. He is both vertically and horizontally huge, with dark eyes, a perpetual frown, and an absolutely booming voice that yells at me to “SIT ON THE WALL, BARKER!” every time I don’t measure up. I call him Coach Meanie.

Comeback #2
Talk back to the monster.
Firmly and with wild abandon. Refute. Debate. Cheerlead your head off.

Comeback #3
Keep a brag book.
Maintain a journal of all the things you’ve done right. Write down your victories, both large and small. Don’t be shy. Blow your own horn loudly.

This discipline encourages you to focus on the positive instead of the negative, and gives you great talking points with which to debate the monster.

Comeback #4
Channel a surrogate cheerleader.
If there are times you can’t quite muster the ability to advocate for yourself, assign the comeback task to a trusted cheerleader type.

Think of the person in your life who, when you were growing up, always had something good to say about you (your grandmother, a coach, a parent, a best friend), imagine what that person would say to your inner critic in this moment, and then say it. Go on, BE THE GRANDMOTHER!

Comeback #5
Create a cheerleader out of whole cloth.
This alternate version of Strategy #4 comes in handy during those moments when your cheerleader just isn’t up to the task, or if you can’t think of a real-life person with a resume that qualifies them for the cheerleader position in the first place.

Imagine your inner critic as a nasty little devil sitting on your left shoulder, and then counter this image with one of an angel on the right one. This angel could be the aforementioned cheerleader-type person, but with super powers. It could be a Disney character (Robin Williams’ Alladin Genie comes to mind), or something/someone completely of your own invention.

Whenever your self-doubt monster gets out of hand, sic your little angel on him, stand back, and watch the fireworks.

My angel is a tiny Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. She is beautiful, effervescent, poised and polite, but with a runway-model-fierce attitude and a wand that can freeze Coach Meanie from 20 feet.

Comeback #6
Face your fears.
Ask people how you’re doing.

Go ahead; ask the difficult questions. Ask if what you said came out wrong, if this piece of marketing material is too slick, if there is any additional training you could benefit from. The truth might hurt a bit, but it’s probably not anywhere near as scary as the script your inner critic is pushing.

It’s even okay, good therapy even, to ask a client how they are feeling about your work with them.

Because I have such a running self-doubt monologue, I have made a routine out of this last one. Somewhere between session 4 and 6, I check in with the client to see how we’re doing so far, how my approach and our efforts are working for them, and ask if we need to tweak anything for the experience to be more helpful.

Nine times out of ten, they report that we are on track, and Glinda can tell Coach Meanie to take a hike. That tenth time, if they do have a critique or request, it doesn’t have to feed the self-doubt monster because I’m open to receiving it and ready to use it to enhance our work.

Speaking of Our Clients . . .
You get extra points for paying attention if you’ve noticed that all of these comebacks can also be shared with our clients as we help them learn to combat their own inner critics. I’ve suggested these strategies in session at one time or another, and have always received positive and, yes, sometimes hilarious, feedback.

So go ye out and slay the monster, and teach others to do the same.

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And tell us the tale as you do. Do you have your own creative strategy for dealing with your inner critic? Did this post inspire you to think of a particularly witty comeback or an especially juicy self-doubt monster description? Get your creative juices flowing and share your results in a comment below.

And be sure to check out the other writers participating in this carnival, and comment generously on their sites. We’re all one big, happy blogging circus family today!

The other carnival participants are:

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, at A Peaceful Life’s Blog, is writing today on Why You Should Reinvent the Wheel.

Nina Danhorn, MS, NCC, at Laska Counseling offers her thoughts on Self Care for Healing Professionals.

Kate Daigle, MA, LPC, NCC, at Kate Daigle Counseling is thinking about Nourishing Growth and Giving Breath to My Hungry Private Practice.

And, finally, Giora Carmi, ATR-BC, LCAT, BCPC, BCIM, at Intuitive Flow, brings an art therapist’s perspective to building a private practice with his post, Pricing Policy.

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Dos And Don’ts To Combat Insomnia

insomnia

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.” 

David Benioff City of Thieves

Me too! So what’s a poor insomniac to do? Check out the following Dos and Don’ts for some sleep strategies that really work to combat insomnia. Your physical, mental and emotional self will all be better for it.

DO . . .

Keep a regular sleep schedule: wake at about the same time every morning and avoid “sleeping in” on weekends or when you have a bad night.

Develop a relaxing bedtime routine to help your mind and body wind down from the day. Soak in a hot bath, listen to soothing music, read for pleasure in low light.

Use the bed only for sleeping or sex, or you risk weakening the association of bed with sleep. So no computer, television, texting, talking on the phone, eating or work.

Limit your bed partners. Human and/or pet partners may offer a sense of comfort, but their presence can also disturb sleep. Work out the arrangement best for you.

Get a 30-45 minute dose of morning light to maintain your natural sleep/wake cycle. Walk the dog, exercise, do an outside chore or eat breakfast by a window.

Exercise regularly for physical and emotional wellness, and sound sleep. Morning exercise is ideal, but anytime is fine so long as it preserves your bedtime relaxation routine.

DON’T . . .

Eat too much too close to bedtime, and avoid stimulants such as nicotine, sugar and caffeine. Tryptophan rich or complex carbohydrate snacks are okay.

Drink alcohol before bedtime. Drinking alcohol close to bedtime lowers melatonin production, increases adrenaline and disrupts sleep throughout the night.

Stay in bed if you can’t sleep. Get up after 15-20 minutes, go to another room and engage in a non-stimulating activity such as reading, meditation or body relaxation. Return to bed only when you feel drowsy.

Watch the clock. Estimate the amount of time passing without sleeping rather than continually checking. Set the alarm if you’re worried about not waking on time.

Nap until you’ve improved your sleep schedule. A 20-minute nap halfway through the day can refresh without interfering with nighttime sleep, but only when your sleep schedule is in line.

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Now it’s your turn. Use the comment space below to let us know how these tips have worked to treat your insomnia. And feel free to suggest other Dos and Don’ts you might have come across in your search for the perfect night’s sleep. We’re all in this together, people!

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Conquering Our Inner Toddler – Letting Others Help

When my children were young, my husband and I often used a trick to get them to accomplish a task that was important to us but somehow distasteful to them. The trick (stop me if you’ve used this one) went something like this: “Do you want me to help you put on your coat, or do you want to do it by yourself?” To my now adult children’s embarrassment, this double-bind ruse always worked like a charm.

So did timeouts initiated while riding in a car seat, by the way. I think my kids were a little slow on the uptake.

The double-bind trick worked because toddlers, as a group, possess a strong independence streak, an often annoying but developmentally appropriate attitude that assists them in accomplishing the startlingly large amount of learning presented to them during their early years.

help“I CAN DO IT MYSELF!”
Parents of any child in or beyond the toddler stage will be familiar with this assertion of independence. And, if we are honest, we will also admit that we too are sometimes guilty of insisting, with the same indignant attitude, that we do not need help, thank you very much.

I was reacquainted with my own inner toddler in a very surprising moment last December. I had just received a new sewing machine for Christmas and wanted to explore it a bit while my mother, an experienced costume designer and seamstress, was there for a visit. So I took it out of the box and began reading the instructions while poking around at the various buttons and levers. My mom stood just behind me, looking over my shoulder and offering suggestions now and then.

No big deal, right? So I thought. But to my total surprise and embarrassment, I found the experience excruciating! Even in my late 40s, even though I had asked for her help, every pore of my body was secreting an almost overwhelming urge to scream to my mother to, “GET BACK AND LET ME DO IT MYSELF!”

Thankfully, I stifled the tantrum and made it through the moment with both my ego and my relationship with my mother intact.

Many of us seem to believe that it is our job to take care of everything in our lives by ourselves – including healing. This is not really very surprising, given that in the United States we live in a do-it-yourself culture where people take pride in mastering all of the various aspects of their lives without assistance.

We grow up believing that if we don’t do it ourselves, it won’t get done, or it won’t get done right. And we also believe that an unaided accomplishment is somehow more valuable than one achieved with a little help from our friends.

Unfortunately, if this describes you and you are in need of healing, then you’re in trouble. Because sometimes we just can’t do it all by ourselves. Sometimes, it makes more sense, reveals greater strength, and results in a more profoundly positive outcome, to accept help from someone else.

ACCEPTING HELP
Shortly after our move to the East Coast ten years ago, my family experienced a devastating personal tragedy when my husband’s sweet brother – who was also my good friend and my children’s beloved uncle – died by suicide.

Our subsequent week back in Omaha was a messy blur of activity, connections and feelings, all overlaid by a hazy, but almost unbearably heavy, mantle of shock and grief. Practical tasks, time with family, the concern of friends, the bittersweet wake and, finally, the funeral – there was a lot to get through, a lot to soak up, a lot to remember and sort through later.

Primary through it all was our worry for our two young children, who had been really struggling with the upheaval of our recent move and now had to suffer through this new loss. It was all my husband and I could do to keep our own needs at bay so that we could take care of theirs, but we sucked it up and gave it our best effort.

Effort being the operative word here. In our profound grief, we were barely able to put on our own oxygen masks, much less help our kids with theirs.

In retrospect, the most significant experience of the week for me occurred during the funeral when, having tried (and spectacularly failed) to hold my seams together one last time, I looked down through copious tears to see my 9-year-old son offering me a clean, white handkerchief, the one he had, unbeknownst to us, so thoughtfully and carefully packed in his small suitcase, and then placed in his pocket before the funeral, so that he would be ready to offer it in the event that someone in his family should need his help.

We were ravaged by our grief, all of us. And my husband and I were trying desperately to stay strong so that we could be there for our children and help them through this tragedy, as we felt our parental roles demanded.

But my little boy turned the tables on all of that. He helped me.

And, in doing so, he learned that he could, even as he worked to manage his own grief, be strong and kind, and offer real adult-type assistance to the mother he still turned to for so many things in his young life. And I was reminded that I didn’t always have to be strong, that it’s okay to accept help when I need it. Even from my youngest child.

My son’s thoughtfulness and strength at this moment just slayed me. I was so proud of him. And I was, and still am, so grateful for his help. Because, at that moment, despite extraordinary resolve and effort, I just couldn’t do it by myself.

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What about you? Have there been times in your life when it was difficult to accept help but you did it anyway? Tell us about it in a comment below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Beyond Brokenness – Living With Disability and Every Fall Makes You A Better Rider.

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