Using Curiosity to Combat Fear

Social anxiety disorder: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life. The only time I can remember interacting with other people without hesitation or fear was when I was a very young child. It used to be so easy to go up to another child that I didn’t know at all and become friends with them in a matter of minutes. I miss those simpler times. The longer I’ve lived, the harder it has become for me to make new friends.

The last few years as a social worker have really inspired me to try harder when interacting with others. I see the way that my coworkers are so easily able to make meaningful connections to the clients we meet everyday. I’ve tried my best to mirror their social behaviors and improve my own ability to connect, but it always feels somewhat gross and fake. It’s impossible to make a real connection with another person when you are wearing a mask. Even when they don’t know you, there is a different energy that I think we are all able to pick up on whether we consciously realize it or not.

I used to make excuses to myself about why it wasn’t even worth my time to put in the effort to bond with new people. I had convinced myself that the vast majority of people just aren’t worth getting to know. Everyone is an idiot with nothing interesting to say. At least that’s what I used to believe. However, after meeting so many shockingly amazing people in the last few years, that conviction has all but eroded. Now I am happy to say that I truly believe their are still wonderful people out there for me to meet. The issue now is, how do I learn to put myself out there and keep my heart open to that possibility each time I meet someone new?

One thing I have been trying to work on is focusing on curiosity instead of fear. One of the most anxiety provoking parts of my job each day is sitting with the child while my coworkers discuss the next steps with the parent. I am always extremely nervous any time I am alone with someone I’m not close to, let alone a child that has just disclosed horrific abuse of some kind. Even though my time one of one with the children has always ended up going well, often resulting in a swell of admiration and tenderness toward them, I still can’t manage to placate my fears for each new case.

I’ve noticed that when I am faced with these types of situations, my initial instinct is to shut down. All I want to do is run out the clock or avoid the encounter entirely. I also struggle to avoid prattling on about myself instead of getting to know the person I’m talking to. I guess I find it easier to talk about myself because it’s always easier to talk about what you know. And what do we know better than ourselves and our own experiences? I think this is also a subconscious attempt to control the conversation and avoid being taken off guard. When asking questions, you can never predict where the conversation may lead. One of the hallmarks of social anxiety is attempting to plan out a conversation before it happens. Obviously this never works. It just makes you less able to immerse yourself in the natural flow of conversation.

I’m working on letting go of my need to control the situation and open myself up to discovering what/who is in front of me. I would consider myself a very curious person. I am always wondering about the way others think and see the world, what interests them and why, what their goals are, etc. However, my fear easily overpowers that natural curiosity under the pressure of meeting new people, especially in a work setting. It’s always been hard for me to toe the line between authenticity and professionalism. But I’m hoping if I can keep guiding my attention back to that curiosity inside of me, eventually it will become easier to overcome my fear so that I may learn more about the person I’m talking to.

I want to practice shifting my focus from myself, my fears, worries, what this person may be thinking about me, etc. I’d rather focus on the other person and finding out who they are. I’m sure that with enough experience I can teach myself that there is nothing to fear. Sure, maybe it will be an uncomfortable conversation, but it may also be a lovely, enjoyable interaction. Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d have to say the latter is even more likely. Either way, I am going to keep trying. This world is filled with so many fascinating people with minds as mysterious and unique as my own. I can’t wait to meet them. That is going to be my mantra from now on when we have a new family coming in: I can’t wait to meet them! I wonder who they will be.

A Look at Social Anxiety Disorder | Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health

Challenge

work-life balance: Men struggle as much as women to maintain work-life  balance - The Economic Times

I’ve never been a very competitive person. Growing up with an older sibling, you quickly realize that you’re more than likely always going to lose anything that isn’t purely chance. My odds were only slightly better even in those scenarios as I never seemed to be lucky either. I have always blamed this dynamic in my childhood for creating the largely apathetic attitude I have regarding any type of competition. I expect to lose. I don’t care much if I win. So what’s the point? I’ve always preferred to avoid any chance of failure.

Recently I’ve realized that my lack of a competitive drive has also bled into my relationship with my own personal challenges. I’m a huge quitter. I’ve never had any problem backing out or giving up if I believe I am going to finish short of my goal. In addition to that, academics have always come easily to me. I never had to struggle to understand or accomplish anything as far as my school work went. I got pretty used to being ahead of my peers. It felt good to always be the smartest person in class, even if intellectually I knew I didn’t attend a very good school. When I got to college and found myself actually having to study for my chemistry and biology classes, I was quick to change my major rather than put in the extra effort. Psychology came much more naturally to me than science, so I finished out my formal education at the top of my class, no studying required.

I still think back on those college science classes every now and then though. I take pride in the fact I still managed to get A’s even though it was hard. Whereas I don’t really care about the grades I got in my psychology courses, because in my mind, they were easy. I was more shocked that anyone managed to do badly. I’ve started to recognize this recurring theme in my life though. I’m so afraid of failure that I only allow myself to do things I know I’ll excel in. Yet, whenever it does happen that I find myself in a challenging situation, it seems I enjoy it more in some ways. I definitely take more pride in accomplishments that were difficult for me. Sadly, despite my many accomplishments, I only have a few that fall into this category.

I think in a certain way, society encourages this type of behavior. “Do what you’re good at” seems to be the message. There is this idea that we have natural gifts. Once we find out what those are, that is where we should focus our energy rather than wasting our time improving at something we may only ever be mediocre at. Only after learning about the 10,000 hour rule, did I really begin to question that idea. While it is still widely believed some people are simply born with special talents, the 10,000 hour rule explains that if someone devotes enough time to a certain art or discipline, they will surely master it, regardless of innate ability. This idea puts the locus of control back on the individual.

After spending the last few weeks absolutely obsessed and in love with my new electronic drawing tablet, I started to view this whole issue from a different perspective. At first, I was terribly intimidated by this new software I had no idea how to use. A large part of me wanted to quit and just go back to pen and paper which I already knew I was good at. However, knowing how much money I spent on this tablet, I pushed through the discomfort of being an amateur. In doing so, I ended up having so much fun learning something brand new.

Through this experience, I’ve begun to realize that I actually enjoy being challenged. Once I get past my initial fear of failure, once I overcome my massive ego telling me it will be the end of the world if I’m not the best at something, no matter how frivolous, I inevitably start to have fun. Sure there is frustration along the way as I struggle to do something new, but that makes it all the more satisfying when progress is made. Ultimately I don’t even care if I can eventually master whatever it is I’m doing. The enjoyment itself is all I’m after.

I remember hearing about how highly intelligent students may do poorly if their lessons don’t keep up with their ability. The smart kids get bored and lose interest while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up, causing them to lose focus and motivation, or even start to act out. This never made much sense to me growing up. I liked that school was easy. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want their lessons to be harder, even if they found them laughably easy. Now I think I’m finally starting to get it.

A happy mind is a busy mind. A bored mind will tear itself apart. In my opinion this is why we often see the most intelligent people also suffering with the most extreme mental illness. Being intelligent is simultaneously a gift and a curse. High intelligence demands high levels of intellectual stimulation. The brain was made to create, to investigate, to learn, and to solve problems. Without these healthy outlets for mental energy, the brain begins to make problems for itself.

When all I do is things that only require half-assed effort, my brain has plenty of extra energy to run amuck. Boredom breeds rumination. With nothing to occupy my mind, it begins to pick apart little details of the past or fret over the future. To me, this is the opposite of the “flow state.” When we are in that coveted flow state, our brains are fully engaged in what we are doing. The rest of the world falls away, and we are able to exist in the present moment. When nothing in the present requires our full attention, the mind is free to wander. With enough wandering, it’s only a matter of time until we find ourselves in the uncharted territory of our own mental illness.

The ego looms large over the mind with mental illness. The ego tries to keep us in our comfort zone, tells us challenge is too hard, that failure is painful. But if we can push past this flawed perception, if we can overcome our ego, we actually find that it’s fun to be challenged! Challenges are what help us to learn, to grow, to stay interested in our day to day lives. It’s new. It’s novel. It’s engaging. Challenges are true workouts for the brain. And just like physical exercise, it makes us happier.

Now my problem has become coming up with ways to challenge myself. My brain is quick to catch on to anything new I try. Therefore I’m constantly required to switch it up and try new things if I want to keep my mind engaged. However, just like with my workouts, it’s always hard to motivate myself to take things to the next level. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason. It feels good to be good at something. I’m going to work harder from now on to remember that it also feels good to be challenged and practice facing difficulties with enthusiasm rather than dread.

Default Mode Network

NeuroScience

If you haven’t heard the term default mode network (DMN) before, you’re not alone. Yesterday was the first time I did. Although I still am new to this concept, I wanted to talk about it today. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out first thing. I’m certainly not an expert on this. I hardly know anything about it. What I do know, however, is already enough to enthrall me and make me eager to learn more. So don’t take my words here as gospel. Go read about it for yourself.

I first heard about this term while continuing to read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. If you’ve read my other posts referencing this book, you already know where this is going. That’s right, psychedelics. Scientists have discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brains of people tripping on LSD or psilocybin. These psychedelic substances inhibit or turn off the default mode network in our brain.

So what is the default mode network? From what I’ve gathered, the default mode network includes many different parts of the brain that are active when we are “in our own heads” so to speak. These are the pathways we are using when we are ruminating, daydreaming, planning, remembering the past, contemplating the future, etc. Basically this is the network that is active when we are lost in thought, rather than focusing our attention on something in the outside world. In the book, it also specifies that this DMN kicks on when we are thinking about ourselves.

This aspect of self-awareness encompassed in the DMN is one of the reasons why we are able to experience “ego death” while using psychedelics, which switch off this network. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that ego death and transcendent experiences are both known to occur while tripping. The DMN, while useful, is also being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. People that spend a lot of time in the DMN are often less happy overall than people that spend less time in this brain state.

I find this very fascinating because it seems to reflect a lot of the advice you hear given to people that are unhappy. “Try to focus on someone else for awhile.” “Rather than ruminating, use that energy to help someone you love.” “Become a more active part of the community.” All of these shifts in focus are actually helpful, but now it seems science is getting a better idea exactly why that’s the case. And I don’t know about you, but I find it more easy to follow through on advice if I know the facts back it up.

Another thing I found interesting is the idea that social media tends to strengthen the DMN. When we are scrolling through Instagram or checking how many likes we got on our last Facebook post, our brains are in the default mode network. Apart from all the other reasons there are to disengage from social media, this one is quite compelling. No wonder I feel happier and less anxious now that I don’t use those apps!

If you’re looking for a way to experience the bliss of brain states outside of the DMN, but don’t want to take a drug to do so, you can try meditation instead. Surprisingly fMRI scans of experienced meditators and those of brains on psychedelics are remarkably similar. Training our minds through meditation can give us the power to focus. That focused attention in itself is another way to get ourselves out of the DMN. I believe that is why the “flow” state we experience when we loose track of time while working on a task that completely absorbs our attention is so pleasant. It’s a great feeling to “lose ourselves” in our work.

I have yet to see any research related to this, but I’m interested to know how the DMN functions in adolescence. I hypothesize that it may play a role in the unhappiness a lot of us experienced during this time in our lives. It also appears to be a time in life when we tend to be the most selfish. We’re learning who we are and what we want, finding our own identities. While this is an important and necessary part of growing up, it also requires a lot of self-centered thinking, which as we now know, can lead to a greater sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As we get older and start to think more about others, the emotional turmoil of youth also seems to subside somewhat.

As this term was only coined in 2001, there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about this brain state. A lot more research needs to be done. I’m excited to see what else neuroscience will discover about our brains and how exactly they work in the future. But as I said earlier, I am not at all a voice of authority on this subject. I just couldn’t resist sharing the concept and the things I’ve learned that have got me so excited about it. I highly recommend doing your own research and reading more about the default mode network for yourself. Feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the things I’ve shared about this network. Also Let me know in the comments if you find out anything interesting that I didn’t mention.

Missing the Point

I’m still rather new to the practice of setting intentions for myself. I’ve been trying to take a moment each morning to set daily intentions and then return to those intentions throughout my day in order to guide me back onto the path I want to take. Trying to set intentions so far has only really emphasized exactly how scattered I am throughout the day. It’s quite hard to focus on the energy I want to cultivate. Half the time I have completely forgotten what intention I’ve set before I even leave for work.

My experience with intention setting has still been able to serve me, albeit not in the way I thought it would. It has shown me just how often we lose sight of what really matters to us. Even though we’d all like to be kind, we can instead be very short-tempered and aggressive. Even though we’d all like to be generous, we still pass up dozens of opportunities to share our abundance each day. Even though we’d like to be closer with our family, we end up arguing over dinner instead. Even though we’d like to relax, we end up pressuring ourselves to do more.

This just goes to show why setting intentions for ourselves is so important. Rather than setting one for the entire day, at first it may be easier and more realistic to set intentions for smaller tasks. I think often we have been so pressured by society to embody goals such as productivity and progress, that we forget to ask ourselves if those goals are in alignment with what we really want for ourselves. For example, every weekend I get excited at the idea of having time to relax and unwind from a hectic work week. Yet somehow I end up being just as busy on my days off. Instead of giving myself permission to rest, I see this free time in front of me and immediately start to fill it with errands. After all, I don’t want to “waste” this time.

If you take a step back and think about it, wasting time is really a matter of perspective. What makes something a waste? Is it a waste of time to play catch with your dog instead of doing the dishes? Is it a waste to watch a movie with a friend instead of writing that essay due next week? It all depends on what you’d like to prioritize. If you want to prioritize a clean house, do the dishes. But if you’re prioritizing taking good care of your fur babies, playing with your dog is the right choice. If your schoolwork is most important to you, you’d want to take care of that right away. But if you find it more important to set aside time to bond with your friends, go ahead and watch that movie. We get to decide what the best use of our time is, not our parents, not our friends, and especially not society.

Most of the time when we do something we regret, it’s because we lost sight of what really matters to us. We say we want to be closer to our loved ones, but when we talk to them, we end up getting angry at every little thing they say, correcting them whenever we get the chance, or arguing about things that aren’t even that important to us. When emotions like anger or fear bubble up inside of us, that is a great cue to take a deep breath and try to remember our intention. What do I want to get out of this conversation? Am I trying to be right? Am I trying to be the smartest person in the room? Or am I trying to show this person I care about them and have a lighthearted chat?

I love the question: would you rather be right or happy? It’s a great model to use for whatever intention you may set for yourself. If you’re like me and you find yourself spending your only day off giving yourself more work to do, try asking: would I rather be productive today or would I rather give myself a chance to rest and recover? Usually both options are completely valid and valuable in their own unique way. It’s not about what you should be doing. It’s about what you’d like to do.

Try setting an intention for at least one small part of your day today. You might decide to set the intention to be calm and mindful on your drive home from school or work. Seems simple enough right? But notice if you still manage to become enraged when another car cuts you off or is driving too slowly. When this happens, as it likely will, gently guide yourself back to your intention. Was your goal to get home as fast as possible? Or was it to have a calm and enjoyable drive? No need to be hard on yourself for getting off track. Stay curious about your automatic reactions. Isn’t it fascinating how our minds are able to defy our best efforts? Keep practicing and it will feel even more rewarding when you notice your ability to focus become stronger and stronger.

Why do we set an intention at the beginning of a yoga class? - Yogahub

It’s Okay

You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.

Nightbirde

The other day my friend at work showed me this video from America’s Got Talent. At first, I was just watching to be polite. I didn’t have much interest until this small, beautiful woman began to sing. Immediately her voice struck a cord in me. I got chills all over my body. I nearly began to cry, her voice and her words were so beautiful. Then just when I thought I couldn’t be any more moved she said the words I quoted above. Absolutely perfect. I felt like it was a sign from the universe that I just so happened to hear her words and her heartfelt song that day at work.

Then just as the power behind those words began to fade from my mind, they were reinforced by a video I watched earlier today. I was learning about Fyodor Dostoevsky, since I love to read classic authors. Somehow I haven’t read any of his novels yet. The video talked about the morals of a lot of his stories. A reoccurring theme was the idea that suffering is something that follows us, no matter how “advanced” our civilization becomes, no matter how many ways we seem to overcome suffering in society as time goes on. A new type of suffering will always emerge to take it’s place.

This is quite easy to see all around us. Compared to most of human history, we are living in a magical age of ecstasy and abundance. We have found the cure or at least treatment for most of the diseases and ailments that have plagued humanity throughout our existence. We have technology to make every aspect of life more convenient. Advancements that wouldn’t have been thought possible even just a few decades ago. Yet somehow we seem to be suffering as much as ever. Now instead of physical illnesses, we suffer from mental illnesses. Rather than hunger pains, we moan about social injustice. No matter how many problems we solve, new ones arise to take their place. The more we try to “fix” things, the more clear it becomes that suffering is an inevitable part of existence.

The point of Dostoevsky’s stories isn’t that we should despair at this fact. Quite the contrary, in fact. Just like Nightbirde so eloquently stated, the point is that we can’t keep waiting for life to stop being hard before we allow ourselves to be happy. We are so easily distracted by the little issues that pop up along our journey. We delude ourselves into thinking, if it wasn’t for this, or if only that, then we could really be happy. We toil away in an effort to solve all our problems and finally reach that perfect life where we will be happy forever. But we shouldn’t fall for that intoxicating delusion.

There is nothing that can stop us from being happy. Happiness and joy are our birthrights. They are a part of us. They are as much a part of existence as the suffering we keep trying to avoid. Suffering does not disqualify us from also experiencing moments of bliss. In fact we can be joyous despite our suffering. And doesn’t that just make our joy all the more potent and delicious? We are so incredibly powerful in that ability to defy all that stands against us. Just as we can always find something to be upset about no matter how great our circumstances in life, we can also find happiness no matter how destitute we may find ourselves.

Nightbirde’s song, “It’s Okay” is a testament to that inspiring truth. Our joy, as well as our suffering, comes from within. In this way we are all truly free. External circumstances cannot dictate our internal experience. I find one of the greatest challenges in life to be remembering that. No matter how many times we are taught that lesson throughout the course of our lives, we always seem to revert back to blaming the world around us for how we feel. In doing that, we are giving away our greatest power, our power to choose in each moment. It’s time for us to take our power back. We can choose happiness or we can choose suffering. It’s not always an easy choice, but it’s always there for us if we’re willing to look for it.

This Is It

Waking up. Cool morning air. Start the coffee. Hear the dripping as the hot water saturates and spills past the grounds. Feed the cat. Let the dog out. Brush your teeth. Walking back and forth, daily repetition, absent minded, heavy footed. These are the moments we rush to get through, moments we skim over and ignore. Our attention is focused elsewhere in these moments. Making to-do lists. Ruminations about the day before, the day ahead. Frustrated by monotony. Bored by actions repeated hundreds of times. Angered by the uncertainty of it all, the futility of doing something only to do it over again, and again…

Rushing back and forth between the meal I was preparing and the garbage can at the other side of the kitchen last night, I realized something: This is it. These “worthless” moments, the “wasted” time of washing, eating, using the toilet, cleaning off counters, sweeping the floor, opening and closing doors, these are the moments that make up our lives. How we spend these moments matters. Trying to rush through and gloss over these moments does not serve us. Rather, it trains us. How we perceive and live these moments becomes the way we live and perceive the rest of our lives.

Are these daily tasks obligations or are they opportunities? Are these experiences arbitrary or are they important challenges to be faced with curiosity and attention? Yoga has taught me the importance of repetition. It has taught me how to find nuance in the mundane redundancies of life. Though the different postures we assume with our bodies are limited, our experience of them is unlimited. A sequence of poses performed precisely at dawn each day will never result in the same practice twice. There are always differences, slight subtilties to take notice of if we have the patience to look for them, if we practice truly being there in our bodies from moment to moment.

It’s easy to be present in a new place or performing a new task. The mind is not clouded by expectations. It is unable to fall into auto-pilot. However, we are creatures of routine. The longer we live, the more deeply these grooves of routine become. Of course there is value in routine: efficiency, mastery, and many other wonderful things. Eventually the challenge changes from the task itself to maintaining mindful attention to said task.

We have been conditioned to view some parts of life as pleasant and other parts as meaningless, unpleasant, or simply maintenance. There is nothing enjoyable about waking up early and getting ready for work, doing the laundry, or mowing the lawn. This is the narrative that most of us recite unconsciously each and every day. But when it comes down to it, don’t these activities comprise the majority of our lives?

Enjoying life isn’t just about traveling, partying, playing, or whatever else we may label as “fun” or “meaningful” experiences. Enjoying life is something we practice in each moment. If we pay attention, there is pleasure to be found in even the most insignificant of activities. Pleasure is not derived from the experience itself, rather the attention we afford the experience.

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur to us only when we are not doing them. Once we are standing in front of the sink with our sleeves rolled up and our hands in warm water, it is really not bad at all. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have dessert, the time will be unpleasant, not worth living. That would be a pity, for every second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!

Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve found that the easiest way to be present is to get curious, to ask myself questions. The answer to these questions doesn’t really matter. What is more important is the focus my mind experiences while searching for an answer. Use the morning routine I mentioned earlier as an example. As you wake up, ask yourself: What does it feel like to be awake? How does the air feel this morning? Is it humid? Chilly? What do my sheets feel like against my skin? As you prepare your coffee, ask: What does coffee smell like? What is happening in my mind and body as I pour the grounds? Do I feel groggy, excited, calm, impatient? How are the hills and valleys of the piled up grounds different than they were yesterday?

It may be difficult to hold your interest in these kinds of mindfulness practices, especially if you’re in a bad mood. The good thing is, this disposition is also something we can take notice of, be curious about. Sometimes trying to be mindful feels like a poorly veiled attempt to force myself into a more positive headspace. This type of heavy handed energy can defeat the whole purpose, creating anxiety, frustration, and resentment, rather than patient acceptance of what is. It is important to remind ourselves of this and to constantly reconnect with our true intention: simply to notice, to observe. There is no need to judge or change how we are feeling. No need to feel upset or guilty about how we are feeling or what thoughts are coming up. Just notice, examine whatever is there with interest and equanimity. That is enough.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane

Thich Nhat Hanh
How To Make Washing Dishes More Fun & Enjoyable

FOMO

In case you don’t already know. FOMO is an acronym that means Fear of Missing Out. Until today, I never really thought of myself as someone who had this fear. I had only heard it in reference to more social situations. For example, being afraid of missing out on important milestones, dances, parties, etc. Today I realized that I do have my own slightly different FOMO. For me it’s more like I’m afraid of missing out on all of the different things I could do with my life. There are just so many options and choices to make in each moment. It’s usually impossible for me to decide. The anxiety I experience from contemplating all of the different options I have leaves me paralyzed, and I end up doing nothing.

What should I do with the very limited time I have each day? Should I clean out my fridge? Tend my garden? Decorate my yard? Paint my porch? Hangout with friends? Find new recipes and make a meal plan? Go shopping? Call my mom? Each and every one of these things is something that I want to do. It’s hard for me to prioritize one over another. I have a difficult time focusing my attention and ambition on just one thing at a time. But I worry that one day I’ll look back on my life and be full of regrets that I didn’t spend my time more wisely. I’d rather avoid thinking about it all together. It’s easier for me to just continue mindlessly going through the same motions that I went through the day before.

I keep trying to remind myself that ultimately it doesn’t matter what I choose to do with my free time. I could do all of these things and still be unhappy. I could do none of them and be perfectly happy. You’d think I would have learned this lesson last year when I cleaned and organized every inch of my house like I had been longing to do for ages. I felt quite accomplished and content at first. Since then that feeling of satisfaction has dwindled and disappeared. Despite my house being cleaner, I still feel like there are a million more things for me to do. But these external tasks have nothing to do with the quality of my life or my ability to be grateful for each day. I already do all the things I really need to do everyday. I don’t have to cause myself stress over deciding what more to do on top of that. Everything else is just extra. None of these things are necessary. I have to remember that all of these little things are insignificant in my life overall. Maybe one day I’ll get around to doing some of them, maybe not. Everything will be okay either way.

What matters isn’t that my backyard isn’t stylish enough, it’s that I am giving myself grief about it and overthinking it every day. It’s so tempting to externalize our discomfort and displeasure in life. It always feels like if we could just get every little detail in perfect order that THEN we could finally relax, THEN we could finally be comfortable and happy. The good news and the bad news is that this simply isn’t true. A much better way to achieve personal happiness and peace is to just be kinder to ourselves. Sometimes I think it’s not even the end result of these tasks that I truly desire, rather the peace and quite inside my head without that little voice constantly nagging me about it.

I’m the only one that can get that little voice to go away though. That is something that I have to resolve from within myself. Maybe the real thing I should be afraid of is living a life where I’m always so cruel and hard on myself. Wouldn’t I rather spend my time on this Earth showing myself unconditional love and support? Wouldn’t doing that be better than anything else I could possibly do? I would really like to find out.

Get Growing: If you're 'too busy,' start doing this - Bizwomen

The Importance of Play

One of the things working with children has taught me, is just how important it is to make time for play. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Play is an essential part of leading a happy and fulfilling life. It seems like once we reach a certain age we think we are “too old” to be “wasting time” on such frivolous affairs. We can often even be mocked or looked down upon by those in our peer group or older generations for not “growing up” or “learning to act our age.” For some reason, as a society, it seems like we find unpleasant, but necessary tasks to be more worthy of our time than tasks that actually bring us enjoyment or pleasure. The irony is, when we are doing mundane “adult” things, it is ultimately to preserve and ensure our future happiness. So if happiness is the goal no matter what we’re doing, why always put it off in some distant future if we are capable of having simple pleasures right now as well?

I think one of the reasons a lot of adults tend to enjoy spending time with children even if they are not their own, is because they remind us how delightful it can be to play and pretend. Even just watching them do so can have a calming, pleasant effect on us. We are sometimes able to live vicariously through these children. As a child, I loved to play with little figurines and have pretend adventures and scenarios with them. Some days I would fill up the sink and they would have a “pool” day. Or we would go outside and they would go hiking or camping in the weeds. I’d collect small flowers and berries for them. These were some of the happiest times in my life. Back then, time didn’t matter. It hardly seemed to exist. I didn’t ask myself why I was doing the things I did. It didn’t matter. I was happy. Wasn’t that reason enough? Things seemed so much simpler back then.

I distinctly remember one day begging my mother to play with me. She did her best, but was mostly just watching me. I asked her why she wasn’t doing anything. She told me that she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do. She had actually forgotten how to play. I vividly remember the confusion and disbelief I felt at the time. How can you not know how to play? It made no sense, but I felt sorry for her. It seemed impossible that I could ever forget something like that. Yet here I am over a decade later with no idea how I occupied so much time with my make believe. It breaks my heart each time I sit down with the kids I work with at a doll house and struggle to come up with anything to do. I want to weep for that inner child that has become all but lost to me.

I’ve learned that play is something that takes practice. Thankfully I am surrounded by children every day that can help me with that practice. Just the other day a little 5-year-old boy and I played robbers together. He had us talk in deep, gravely voices as we planned our heist. Then we ran around the waiting room, laughing maniacally as we clutched our fake money. It was a great time. Even though it’s hard to have such boundless, imaginary play as an adult, I have still been trying to implement more creativity and structured play into my days. Playing for me now mostly includes casual video gaming and art.

Even though I acknowledge that this play is worthwhile, it is still hard for me to justify the time I spend on it (even though it isn’t much.) I am constantly giving myself chores to do before I feel alright allowing myself time to just enjoy and have fun. Unfortunately, by the time I reach the evening hours I’ve set aside for it, I am too exhausted, stressed, and listless to really even enjoy my playtime. Another problem I run into is getting too serious about whatever it is I’m doing. When I began drawing (and even writing) everyday, my only goal was to schedule time for myself to explore my creativity and just have fun. But now that these things have become a habit, I have been feeling a lot of pressure surrounding these activities. It has started to feel more like work than play.

With so many gamers now available to watch online, even my casual video games have started to feel like a burden rather than a joy. I can’t help watching others play and then comparing my progress in the game to theirs. I feel rushed, inadequate, unhappy with where I am. Even though I know it’s utterly ridiculous, I can’t seem to help feeling this way. Often times this feeling is so strong that I give up on the game all together. I hope that by continuing to challenge these feelings I will be able to overcome them little by little. I hope I will be able to transform this playtime into something similar to meditation. Rather than focus on how my art compares to other’s or how far behind I may be in a virtual world, I will keep working to focus on my breath, on the pleasure I feel in the moment.

Living in a society so focused on production and outcomes, it can be hard to find the value in simple experiences. What once were things I looked forward to have started to become things I feel anxious about. I feel pressured to make each drawing better than the last. I criticize myself for not being creative enough or improving fast enough or consistently enough. I feel like what I write is just rambling nonsense no one cares about. That my art isn’t worth showing anyone. But even if those things were true, it wouldn’t matter! I must keep repeating to myself that the point isn’t the final product, it’s the pleasure of the process. What I create or work on doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be good. As long as I’ve enjoyed the time I spent working on it, that is all that matters.

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No Connection

The night before last, my internet connection suddenly stopped working at my house. Unfortunately my service is through Comcast, so it still hasn’t been fixed despite my attempts over the phone to receive assistance. At first, I felt utterly lost and helpless without YouTube and Netflix. While I do have data on my phone, I live in the middle of the woods so, as you might imagine, I don’t have great signal.

While this all is very inconvenient and frustrating, it has also been a blessing of sorts. Being forced off of the internet for over a day has been therapeutic. Initially, my stress level went through the roof, but after a while, I adapted. I dug out my old laptop with all of my saved music and video files to supplement my normal background noise. (Some habits are hard to let go of.) However, despite using my computer for ambient noise, without the internet offering up unlimited possibilities, I didn’t feel as tethered to my screens as I normally do.

In fact, it actually allowed me to spend a lot more time outside, where I want to be spending my time. Normally there is an internal struggle as I try to decide whether or not I want to pause my internet browsing to go do my yoga and meditation practice outside, or go for a run, or do yardwork. Even though I know how much I always end up enjoying myself when I am in the fresh air and sunshine, there is still a lot of anxiety around the act of putting down my technology to do so. Yesterday that struggles was gone. Why shouldn’t I go outside? Finally, there was nothing holding me back from the reawakening world outside my door.

It felt so good to feel the warm sun on my skin and smell the wind. I pulled up all the weeds from my flowerbeds, which I was surprised to find brought me great enjoyment. It was so delightful to feel the cool, damp earth and the soft, green leaves between my fingers. It’s easy to forget just how immersive the outside world can be. There is so much to explore and examine even in the relatively bland nature surrounding a house. No matter how much time you spend in the garden or the woods, there is always something new to discover. Yesterday I was overjoyed to come across a strange long blade of what appeared to be grass with a small plump green bulb dangling off its tip, as if barely connected at all. I have no idea what it is, but I’ll definitely be checking back in on that plant to try to find out.

For days now I have been anxiously dreading the chores I had to do in my yard, but somehow without the internet to beckon to me from inside, I had one of the best days I’ve had in awhile doing so. I was even enjoying myself so much that I ended up doing more than I planned on. I got out my weed whacker. I started some seeds for my garden. I set up some simple d├ęcor on my back porch. I cleaned off my trampoline and swept the sidewalk. I even strolled through my yard and collected patches of moss to put in my potted plants. Something I have been wanting to do for awhile in the hopes it will help the soil stay moist and suitable for my succulents.

All of this time spent outside, especially gathering the moss, left me feeling so happy. It reminded me of being a child again. I don’t know where I got the idea, but I used to imagine one day I’d be a flower arranger or design landscapes for gardens. In preparation for this, I would gather moss, wildflowers, pretty stones, and any other attractive, interesting things I could find around my yard and create small little arrangements with them. I like to think they were the original fairy gardens that have become so popular now. Finding myself outside gathering moss again allowed me to reconnect with that childlike wonder and joy that has remained dormant in me for so long.

Thanks to my yoga and meditation practice, what once would have been an absolute nightmare of an experience, leading me to a total meltdown with lots of hysterical crying and complaining, actually turned out to be something to be grateful for. It has even been empowering in a way. It feels good to know that I don’t have to rely on the internet for enjoyment and entertainment. I have more than enough within me to make my own contentment. It also reminded me of the peace that this lack of technology allowed. Things seemed quieter before the internet. My mind seemed less busy, less distracted. And with that focus, with that stillness, came a simple serenity that now seems lost to us.

While the internet and our other advancements in technology have made the world a better place in a lot of important ways, it has also robbed us of a lot of what we once had in life. Somehow by providing unlimited possibilities we have surrendered our freedom. I can’t help but wonder what the world might be like if it had stayed the way it was when I was a child. I have to imagine that my, if not everyone’s, mental health would be much better off. Perhaps humanity would have been able to remain at least a little closer to nature and one another than we are now.

I’d like to say that this experience will cause me to take regular breaks from my devices in order to remember this newfound freedom, but I don’t know that willpower alone will be enough to break those chains that tether me to technology. As for now, all I can say is I am in no hurry to fix my faulty internet connection. I am more than happy to spend a few more days disconnected.

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What Is Vs What Could Be

Yesterday as I was preparing dinner, a powerful thought struck me. I was feeling very flustered and rushed because I have a quite busy schedule for the next week or so. I was going over everything I still had to do in my head, trying to decide just how much I would be able to pack into the few hours I had left in the day. I decided to go for a run with my dog rather than pull up the weeds in my flower bed or till my garden. When I got back however, I started to regret not having time to do all of it. I glumly imagined another life where I was able to do it all and how happy and successful I might be.

The thought that manifested from this internal dialogue was this: Stop worrying about how good your life could be and start enjoying it for how good it is. Yes! I am definitely going to be thinking back to this thought from now on. Because it’s true. Getting upset with myself for not being able to do all the things I would in an ideal world is a waste of time and energy. I don’t sit around and lament the fact that I am not rich or living in Sweden or an author, etc. There are an infinite number of lives that I might have lived. Millions of alternate realities where my life is different than it is now. It is just as silly to surrender my inner peace because my house could be cleaner or my yard more tidy, as it would be to spend every day mourning the successful singing career I never had. It’s fine to imagine how things might be different, but not at the expense of my happiness.

The next time I notice myself lost in “what ifs” I am going to recite that spontaneous mantra: Stop worrying about how good your life could be, and start enjoying it for how good it is. When I center myself in the present moment it becomes easy to let go of everything else. I already have so much. More than I could have ever asked for. This life is so beautiful and blissful and amazing. I get to learn new fascinating things every day, spend time with the people and animals I love, have new experiences, savor familiar ones. I get to live in this incredible body that does so much for me. I get to have this wondrous, intelligent, curious mind. I have so much in each moment to be grateful for that it’s almost hard to believe I am so easily able to take it all for granted and focus on what I don’t have instead.

This mentality applies equally to both my internal and external world. When I think about myself, hardly even is it anything positive. I ignore all that I am, all that I’m capable of, and instead wish for all the things that I am not. I am always kicking myself for not being able to do more, for feeling handicapped by my mental health, for not being pretty enough, thin enough, strong enough, flexible enough, etc. When was the last time I thought about everything I am grateful for about me? Perhaps I never have. Instead of comparing my body to pictures of strangers, I should be accepting it, respecting it, and adoring it for the way it is. I am so grateful to have this body, I couldn’t have asked for a better one. It gives me everything I need. It cares for me just as I care for it. Where would I even be without it? The same goes for my mind. Rather than use my time to think of all the ways it could be different, I want to celebrate it for being exactly the way it is. My mind is intelligent, caring, creative, curious, hilarious. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I keep focusing on the wrong things. Then the wrong things become everything.

– The Front Bottoms

You feed what you focus on. You give it energy, power, you attract more of it. If you are always looking for what you lack, you will never be satisfied no matter how much you have. However, if you shift your focus, if you begin to ponder your own abundance instead, you will discover that you lack nothing. It will never cease to amaze me, the double sided nature of everything in life. No matter what happens in this life, you have the power to make it serve you, to find a way to be grateful. We are so much stronger than we believe. We have more power than we imagine. It’s all about how we decide to use that power. And there is so much power in the choice to find gratitude for what we do have rather than remain bitter focusing on what we do not.

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