Hitting the notes on cue?  A work in progress.

Living life without fear of judgement?  Nailed it.

Happy Birthday, Me!

It’s my birthday today, and I’m one of the rare people I know who actually likes birthdays.  So yay!  Happy day to me!  It’s funny to me that at some unspecified point – after you can get your drivers license and before you are old enough to run for congress – people stop asking you how old you are.  Or they may ask in a hushed and somber tone, “May I ask …?”  At least I have seen this habit with the women in my life.  It seems to be somewhat less true for men.

People, I am 35 years old today.  I earned every darn year and age spot that I have thus far, and hope to get many more behind me before I’m done. (Well, more years.  And I can accept that age spots are part of the package.)  I appreciate why folks aren’t always comfortable sharing their age, especially if they happen to be an actress in Hollywood over the age of twelve trying to get a job.  For some reason I’ve never felt the need to be demure about it.  Perhaps it’s because I was always somewhat of a pipsqueak growing up and I couldn’t wait to tell someone proudly that I was in fact 13, not 12.  Over the years it just became reflexive to say my age.  Just as it seems reflexive to so many people I know to keep quiet about it.  So please understand that I am not saying I am better than anyone for being so open about my age.  It’s just a quirk about me, one of the zillion things that makes me who I am.  And with this quirk I have a heightened awareness about this funny cultural practice of hiding our age like that family secret about the dog going to live on the farm.

Over the years, when I would respond to the question about my age I would add, “Oh, I don’t mind telling you.”  And oh the responses I have gotten…

“Well that’s because you are still young.  You’ll change.”

“If I were old enough I would also say it, too. I’m so embarrassed being so young at this job.”

“Well, good for you.  That’s brave, I guess.”

Consider the Alternative

People, any chance we can stop acting like it’s cute to not say our age?  It has become an unexamined habit that sends unintended messages.

By not sharing our age, are we implying to those coming up behind us that there is something wrong with our continued existence?  Are we embarrassed that we dare to still draw breath after our first gray hair?  Or that there is more value in one age than another?   You couldn’t convince me to be 23 again for all the free shoes in the world.  I’m glad to have done it, but what a confusing time!

Age is what it is.  As we get older, our stories grow more complicated, filled with joys, and fill with regrets.  There is no way around it.  But here we all are.  We are all on this journey together.  And as trite as the next thing may be, I always get tickled by remembering that each and every one of us has never been this old before.  Everyone is new to the age they are now.  With each age and stage, things shift.  Some things get easier.  Some things get harder.  But that’s the deal.  Almost everyone who has ever had the chance to live is no longer here.  And here we all are, a beautiful mix of ages and faces and bodies and dreams and hopes and challenges and even the occasional moment of joy.  Life is complicated.  That is the nature of the journey.  And even if the journey feels just too much at times take comfort in knowing that this too shall pass.  For now, perhaps try to enjoy knowing that today is one more day that you can take a slow deep breath, hear the birds singing outside, and try again.

So happy birthday to me.  And a very happy unbirthday to you, unless you happen to be Richard Gere, Debbie Gibson, or my mom (Happy Birthday, mom).

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If you aren’t too busy, you might want to read this article about the traps we can set for ourselves by keeping so darn busy.

“The Perfected Self”

My attention was caught by two pieces in the media this week that, upon reflection, I find to be related.  First, The Atlantic has published a story called “The Perfected Self” about how to lose weight.  (It’s terrible.  I don’t endorse it.  But that’s a different topic.)  Second, the BBC this morning reported that British MPs are recommending children have mandatory body-image and self esteem classes because “girls as young as five now worry about how they look.”

Ugh.  Where to begin?

Here is a list of things:

  1. Comfortable airline seats
  2. An indestructible toy for my dog Zelda
  3. Your perfect self

Here is what these things all have in common:

None of these things exist.

Why Oak Trees Have Great Self Esteem

Yep, I don’t even know who you are but I know you aren’t perfect.  Why?  Cuz that just doesn’t even make any sense.  Can an oak tree be perfect?  Is there a particular way that all of it’s thousands of leaves can be arranged to finally reach perfection?  “Just move that one branch up a little to the left and….  Yes, perfect.”  No.  Ridiculous.  Doesn’t even make sense.  The same goes for you.

What on earth does being perfect even mean?  What if you spoke ten languages and were a master sushi chef?  You still could speak eleven languages and how do you do with soufflés?  And let’s be real.  When in the media we see the word “perfect” (or it’s favorite partner in crime, “better”) it almost always is talking about how you look.  Why is that?  It’s NOT because we owe it to our neighbors to make sure we always have ripped abs and perfect hair while we pick up our mail.  It’s NOT because Cosmopolitan wants to make sure you find happiness with yourself.  It IS because so long as we believe that we SHOULD be “perfect” or “better” by modifying our bodies then we are the “perfect” target audience for advertisers.

You are being lied to.  You are being manipulated so someone can make money off of you by ensuring you feel insecure about your self worth.  The truth is that you are enough right now.  Probably there are parts of you that you like and parts of you that you don’t like.  That’s what it is to be human.  This oak tree in my back yard lost a limb, but it’s still growing strong.  You too can continue to grow and thrive despite whatever your history or list of strengths and weaknesses.

You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know

Truth.  There isn’t a call to have schools teach children how to make their beds because children learn that at home (well, that’s what my friend’s told me).  Body image classes are being recommended because children are not learning how to love their bodies at home.  The reason is because so many moms and dads struggle with their own body images.  We can’t teach what we don’t know.

We owe it to ourselves and our friends, neighbors, and most importantly the children in our lives to start critically understanding that it is dangerous to believe in the “perfect” self.  Such a mindset makes us look at ourselves AND others and search for flaws.  Ridiculous.  You were not put on this great earth to wander around noticing when someone in your life gets a new zit.  You were put on this great earth to do great (and no so great) things.  No go.  Do something.  Go do something for no reason other than because you want to do it.  Even though you still haven’t mastered your soufflé.  Even though you don’t like your upper arms.

The kids in your life will thank you, both for being a role model and from preventing them from having to learn about body image from their middle school health teacher (OMG – I can’t even image having sat through a class on body image taught by my middle school health teach who, looking back, I think was hung over about 50% of the time?  No thank you!).

Better Gets You.

May 4, 2012

Friendly Fire

One day I was hanging out with a really good straight male friend of mine.  I happened to mention that I was pretty sure I was going to get a tattoo.  Without missing a beat he grimaced and said, “Oh don’t do that.  I think women without tattoos are so much more attractive.”

I was a little caught off guard by his response.  I can’t remember what I said in that moment.  I think I stammered something like, “Well, I actually wasn’t asking your permission.”  And I’m pretty sure I threw in a light little laugh to let him know that I wasn’t trying to be aggressive by sharing my opinion, despite the fact that he had just shared his opinion without blinking an eye (some old cultured gender habits die hard). Something about his comment was unsettling to me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it so I left it alone.  I have come to better understand why I was bothered by his comment after a few days of reflection, and I think this topic is worth discussing here.

It’s funny that this beloved, sweet friend’s honest (if unsolicited) reaction to my announcement of getting a tattoo was to help me decide what I wanted to do with my own body.  What’s more, his help was to have me think about my body from his white, straight, male perspective.   News flash – I’m a woman in the United States in 2012.  The file in my mind on “What Others Think My Body Should Look Like” is so full that if it were printed out I’d need to rent a U-Haul to drive all of the paper to the dump.

Body Politic

These days I happen to be reading a lot about how our over-developed western culture shapes our thoughts about our bodies, and how we people in the culture play a role in this pressure to conform.  These readings helped me figure out what bugged me about my friend’s comments.  But honestly that is the only reason I figured out what was nagging at me.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.  Now that I’ve seen these toxic messages all around me I just keep seeing all the more ways we are told that we need to change our bodies in order to better ourselves….  or to be more attractive to others….  or to prove to the world that we can control our body so we must be in control of our life.  These messages come from popular media but it is important to see that they also can come from well meaning people in our personal lives.  This guy meant no harm.  In fact, he probably truly thought he was helping.

Oh, I can hear you now, dear reader, thinking “Oh wow.  Thanks for helping me see that my body doesn’t fit what my culture says it should be.  SOOO insightful of you.”  But wait!  That is just the thing.  I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what your body looks like. The odds are that you think your body needs to change to be better (maybe a little, maybe a lot).  This is also true of people I know in my personal life.  How can it possibly be that I have friends from so many different walks of life who all carry around this other, “better” image of themselves in their minds?  And what’s worse, they somehow measure self-worth based upon how close they are to this “better” them.    And let’s be clear – “better” is not typically anything about developing new skills, helping others, or being more patient with themselves.  My awesome, compassionate friends STILL carry the idea that “bettering” the self largely has to do with changing the body.  This is complete and utter poppycosh.  I am not laughing when I say this.  I am not happy.  In fact, I am angry!

Here is the extremely brief answer to why this happens:  we are awash in toxic messages that we need to “better” ourselves through changing our bodies. How this toxic culture came to be is a discussion for another time.

Here is what happens:  all of these messages coming into your poor defenseless ears blend with all of your fears and insecurities that tell you that you need to keep working on becoming something different before you are allowed to accept yourself.  And before you know it, there is a little beast known as the “better” you floating around in your head, like a mirage always just at the horizon.  Always visible but out of reach.  Always taunting you to keep trying to working on changing before you can be truly happy.

Freedom is within your reach

Here is the part I want you to remember.  Read this twice.  Write it on your hand in case you forget.  Call everyone over to the computer, for these next few paragraph are for the whole family to enjoy together.

What I want you to understand…  like deep in your bones understand…  is that you have a choice.  You can change this situation.  You can choose to find these toxic messages (sometimes from well meaning friends) and drop them in the waste bin.  If you don’t try to find these messages and discard them then these harmful “better” messages will continue to sneak into your head and control you from between your ears.

Time for Truth.

You are worthy now.    You are enough now.    You deserve love now.      And finally,  you deserve self-care now.

Self-care is not denying your body calories even when it feels hungry.  Self-care is not making sure that everyone around you will approve of how you look or how you act.  Self-care is taking the time to nourish your body and your mind.  Self-care is learning listen to your body and treat it with respect.  Self-care is making sure you always have at least one thing in your life that you are doing just because it gives you pleasure to do it.

And so here is your call to action.  Find that beastly “perfect” other you, hiding away in your mind.  She is probably hanging out somewhere near your Crazy Freak Out Voice*.  Right now they may even be conspiring to tell you that you are the exception to what I wrote above.  Most people are enough now, but YOU aren’t…    until you are “better.”  See her??  Great!  Now grab her by her judgmental arm and toss her out!  She’ll come back, so toss her again.  Learn to find her sneaking into your thoughts, then toss her again.  You may have to spend the next year throwing her out, but it’s worth the work to eventually get rid of her all together.

Truth:

You will never be perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist.  You will never be attractive to everyone, because each person is different from the next in what they find attractive.   You will never finally have everyone’s approval.

True freedom is taking the risk to do what you want to do now.  Today.  In the body you have now.  With the time you have left.  The rewards are finding genuine connection with other lovely beings in your life.  There are people out there who would love to know you.  Today.  As you are right now.  Really.  Perhaps those people even have a few tattoos.

*”Crazy Freak Out Voice” is from the wonderful work of Rachel Simmons and the Girls Leadership Institute.

Oh, I could write a whole long post about why perfectionism stinks so much because it tells you that if you are perfect enough then perfectionism will protect you but then it always turns out that perfectionism was the thing that was causing a lot of the trouble in the first place, and then I could talk about why it’s so hard to kick the habit of perfectionism, and then talk about the role of perfectionism in so much of our Stuff, like eating disorder behaviors and compulsive behaviors and addiction.  If I was feeling particularly wordy, I could talk about some of the research that shows what part of your brain gets caught by perfectionism.  Perhaps I could even throw in a case example, showing how perfectionism keeps us from being in connection with ourselves and others.  But I am not going to do any of those things.  I am just going to let this kid on Youtube show us how it’s done.  (And he’s from Durham!)

How Not To Create Behavior Change: Willpower

Somewhere along the way, it seems a lot of us got the message that the best way to change an unwanted behavior is to guilt and shame ourselves into action.  I like to refer to those nagging thoughts of guilt and shame as the guilt gremlins.  Recent research on behavior change tells us that using our guilt gremlins to motivate ourselves to change is actually one of the best ways to ensure that we won’t create any change at all.  Such a strategy is also a great way to feed the guilt gremlins and make them even stronger, thus making behavior change seem even more difficult.  “This is Why I Will Never Be An Adult,” a post on one of my favorite blogs called Hyperbole and  Half, captures the cycle wonderfully.   (WARNING:  some naughty words are used).  The good news is recent research is shedding light on a much more effective (and nicer!) way to help us change.

Let’s look at how believing our guilt gremlins can throw us into the cycle of struggle.  It all begins when a behavior that used to help, or at least not cause harm, now seems to bring problems of its own.  We find ourselves contemplating things like changing the way we treat our bodies, our family and friends, or our email inbox.  We want to change in a way that is healthy and more balanced.  Our desires to change are good.  But change is hard and it is natural to look for motivating thoughts.  And so the guilt gremlins roll into the scene.  The guilt gremlins are happy to provide some motivating thoughts.  They tell us that we are a terrible person for not “doing better” and we can’t possibly be worthy of love/respect/friendship until we change.  Often this thing that we want to change feels like a Really Big Secret, making us feel all the more isolated with our feelings of guilt and shame.  The more we think about how terrible it is that we do this unwanted behavior, the louder the gremlins become. Eventually they wear us down.  Exhausted, we decide we need to be a different person RIGHT NOW!  And so we tackle change like it is a fight to the death.  We throw ourselves into change, accepting nothing less than total reformation into what we think will make us a better, more functional being.

Trying to change habits in this way – completely and immediately – relies almost exclusively on willpower.  Willpower, it turns out, is a lot like your gas tank.  We know this it true because there is a lot of great research is being conducted to shed light on how willpower works.  Willpower is not an infinite resource.  The more you try to change all at once, the more quickly you will run through your resource of willpower.  Willpower is a biological fact.  Unless you are a cyborg then you cannot escape the annoying truth that you won’t get very far using willpower alone.  Soon you will be running on empty and when you run out of willpower you will likely fall back to the habits that you were trying so hard to change.  Meanwhile, the guilt gremlins know nothing about the science of willpower (they are too busy making us miserable to have time to read the latest psychological research).  The guilt gremlins will use this “failure” as evidence to tell us that we didn’t successfully change because we are just a loser all along and we aren’t capable of change.  And so what started out as an attempt to grow and change becomes another painful experience that we’d rather just forget ever happened.

So let’s recap.  We decide to change a behavior in the direction of living a more balanced healthy life.  We start the movement towards growth by telling ourselves that we should feel guilty and ashamed about ourselves until we “do better.”  The guilt and shame catapults us into using all the willpower we have to create change.  This willpower works for a little while, but eventually runs out because that is the nature of willpower, and so we return to familiar behaviors.  Suddenly our guilt gremlins are jumping up and down screaming, “I told you so! I knew you’d fail!”  The guilt gremlins may start screaming so loudly that we will do anything to drown out their voices.  And where does that push us?  Right back to our old behaviors.  In fact, often our very noble attempts at change end up pushing us even deeper into our unwanted behaviors.  It’s a cycle that is all too familiar to many of us.

How To Create Behavior Change:  Self-Compassion

Just as science can show us the pitfalls of using guilt and willpower, science can also show us a more effective way to create lasting change.  This way is to harness the power that comes from self-compassion.  Pause for a moment.  Did you hear the gremlins?  They LOVE talking about self-compassion.  They often say things like, “Self-compassion?  You mean accepting myself as I am now?  But I’m a mess!  The last thing I want to do is love myself as I am today.”  They often say things to therapists like, “You clearly don’t understand where I am at.  If I wanted this wavy-gravy stuff I could have found a mountaintop to sit on.  Remind me, just where did you say you got your degree?”  I certainly can sympathize with that sentiment.  I was skeptical myself when I first heard about the role of self-compassion in behavior change. But after reading some of the research, particularly the work done by Dr. Kristen Neff,  and working with real people with real problems I have come to understand that self-compassion is an essential ingredient in achieving long lasting change and growth.  It isn’t the ONLY ingredient, but it does need to be part of any attempt at behavior change.

Self-compassion is what allows us to set a goal of a big change, and then take small steps towards this goal.  Self-compassion helps us cultivate the patience that is needed to accept that changing long repeated behaviors takes time.  Self-compassion helps us gain the long view, helping us remember that occasional slips toward a goal is not a fall or a fail.  Self-compassion does not always come easy but it can be learned.  If you are having trouble knowing where to start how about try this.  The next time you hear your guilt gremlins chiming in, acknowledge that they are there, acknowledge that most people have them, and acknowledge that they might not be the best source of wisdom on how to take care of you.  Then take a moment to think about what you would say to help a friend in the same situation.  So often we already have the seeds of compassion within us and we use it to help others.  Now science can help us understand the value of also being compassionate with ourselves.