Why You Should Quit the Toxic People in Your Life, Pronto

You’re only as good as the company you keep.

You’ve heard that before, I’m sure, and probably took it to mean what most people take it to mean: If you hang out with losers, you yourself are more likely to become a loser. If you hang out with winners, you’re more likely to become a winner. And etc. You know, the sort of stuff your parents told you when explaining why you could hang out with your straight-A-student friend as often as you liked, but your black-eyeliner-wearing, rumored-to-be-a-smoker friend was off-limits. (The joke was on them, because your straight-A-student friend was actually the one who got you into all sorts of shenanigans.)

But there’s a spinoff to the old cliche, and it’s one most people don’t always take into account, although they really ought to:

 

Your Life Is Only As Good As the People You Allow Into It

(Tweet!)

Surround yourself with amazing, supportive, loving people, and your life will be happier. You will feel inspired and encouraged. You’ll have fun doing nothing on a Saturday night just because you love the people you’re doing nothing with. When things get tough — as things will, from time to time — you’ll have a support system to lean on that will make everything a little less lonely and painful.

Surround yourself with downers, drama magnets and doomsdayers, and you’ll find yourself feeling resentful, anxious and irritable. Your energy will be sapped and your good vibes kiboshed. You’ll find yourself complaining more even when things are basically alright, and hard times will hit you twice as hard. Everything will just kinda suck more in general.

Negativity, just like positivity, has a tendency to seep throughout your world.

Most of us realize this, at least theoretically. We seek out and are drawn to the people who make us laugh, make us feel good about ourselves and make us glad to be around them. But sometimes we find ourselves stuck with the other sort of people, whether by chance (relatives, in-laws, coworkers), bad decisions or a moment of weakness when we thought we could “fix” someone and eventually realized we couldn’t.

The people in category A (those you’re stuck with by circumstance) you can’t always chuck, but you can limit your time with them and develop ways to mitigate their life-sucking abilities so they don’t harm you as much.

The people in category B (any and everyone who is in your life simply because you allow them to be), you can — and should — chuck, plain and simple. Here is why.

 

1. They Will Only Bring You Down

You may think you can bring them up with your injections of fresh perspective and invitations to optimism. You may naively think they just need a hug, or someone to give them a smile, or a kind gesture to erase their memories of being picked on in middle school (or whatever it was that turned them into a prickly forcefield).

And occasionally, once in a very great while, you can do this. I won’t tell you not to try, because it’s a brave and kind and generous thing to want to help other people, and because giving up on that would go against everything my spirit animal Anne Shirley stands for.

But once you’ve tried, and failed, innumerable times and they’re still just as impenetrably prickly, it’s time to accept you may not be the one who can bring them out of their funk. Often no one can but themselves. There’s a critical difference you need to understand when it comes to people who are just stuck in a gloomy mood and people who have lived so long in their negativity it’s become a part of who they are: negative-at-the-core people won’t change because of any effort you or anyone else makes on them.

That’s not to say they can’t change. They can, but only if the decision to change comes from within. Whatever it is that made them the way they are, they’ve been stewing and festering and entrenching themselves in it for so long it’s become a part of their very DNA. Nothing you can say or do will make a significant dent in that armor; it will just wear you out and expose you to more of their negativity rays than necessary.

Save yourself. You have better things to focus your energy on.

 

2. Sometimes People Just Suck

I’m reminded of a certain Popeye’s drive-thru incident in which the husband and I had a terrifying run-in with a person whose toxicity was so fierce and inexplicable I still to this day find myself idly musing over what life events must have led her to become someone who would act the way she did.

I muse on this not because I think there’s any answer to it — or at least not any answer I can ever get to the bottom of — but for the sake of my own mental exercise, the way you’d muse on the “one hand clapping” koan. It’s intriguing to imagine the different factors that may have gone into creating this person’s extreme reaction in this particularly un-extreme situation. Sometimes it helps me loosen up my synapses when I’m suffering a bout of writer’s block.

But the trouble with the run-ins we have with the toxic people in our lives is that we often feel we should be able to get to the bottom of them. We secretly wonder what we’ve done wrong to cause or exacerbate this person’s awfulness. And in the vast majority of cases, the answer is, “nothing.”

The simple truth — and I hate to say this because I do believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to see the good in everyone — is that sometimes, people just suck. Maybe, like the Tootsie Roll goodness at the center of a Tootsie Pop, there’s a heart in there somewhere that’s been shellacked over with layers and layers of unbreakable anger and resentment and hostility. And it’s incredibly sad to think of whatever must have caused that.

But you, yourself, are not responsible for the task of chipping away at that veneer for however many attempts it takes to get to the center. It’s a long, hard job to get there — sometimes one that takes a lifetime and the kind of professional experience that comes with a high billable hour rate — and, as aforementioned, the effort will only bring you down rather than them up.

Some people can’t be fixed by you, and some people can’t be fixed at all. It’s not your fault or your responsibility to fix them, especially not if all you get for your effort is pain and suffering. Be a good person. Be kind and patient. Then know you’ve done your best, and move on.

 

3. You Should Spend Your Awesomeness on the Things That Are Worth It

Your life is short, and your days on this planet are numbered. You have gifts and talents and love and awesomeness the world deserves to know about and benefit from, and wasting those things on people who only repay you with soul-sapping is not only a crying shame, but a slap in the face of the universe that gave you said gifts, talents, love and awesomeness.

If you’re kind and positive and forgiving and generous, it will radiate outward. It will affect those around you, whether you see it immediately or not. It may even affect people you’ll never meet, in ways you’d never imagine, including some of those toxic people you thought were beyond hope.

But only if you disengage from them so you can do you to the best of your ability.

Your mission on this earth is to be the most kickass version of yourself you can be, and you can’t be that person if you’re surrounded by people who consistently bring you down. It’s like trying to be a race car driver when your pit crew is quietly loosening your wheels and filling your tank with water every chance they get. Choose a crew that’s got your back. Be on the crew of people you admire. You’ll do a hell of a lot more good that way.

 

4. You Deserve Better

Is this one a selfish reason? I suppose so, and I have zero guilt over that. So should you.

For a society where selfie sticks are actually a thing and weddings have their own hashtags, we’re amazingly reluctant to allow ourselves to pursue the courses of action that will make us happy. Narcissism and navel-gazing are on fleek, yet we’re terrified of coming across as “selfish” for daring to make a life we love when the people around us insist on staying miserable.

But guess what? The shitty people in your life feel zero guilt about making your life shittier. They are black holes that get off on pulling everyone else into their vortex of suckiness, and if your good-faith efforts to reach out and help them are ignored or rebuffed, it is totally and absolutely within your right as a human being to rid them from your world.

Whoever declared it was virtuous to tolerate people who insist on acting like asshats was probably an asshat himself, trying to guilt-trip people into still hanging out with him after they decided they were finally fed up.

Fuck that noise, and fuck it hard.

You can still be a good person, and preternaturally kind to toxic people whenever they happen to cross your path, while also making a decided effort to keep them out of your path at all junctures possible.

It’s your life. It’s your energy. It’s your precious time on this planet. Don’t feel bad about standing up for that. Don’t feel bad for wanting to spend it on things that are worth the effort.

What toxic people do YOU need to evict from your life? 

Image:  JD Hancock / Flickr

35 More Inspirational Quotes on Happiness, Following Your Dreams & Generally Kicking Life’s Ass

From time to time, I share a quote on my Twitter or Facebook page I think will help make your day (slash-life) a little better. I’ve built up quite a collection of these quotes, so I like to drop them on you en masse occasionally — consider it my contribution to whatever goal you’re currently fighting for or obstacle you’re currently fighting against.

To make them easier to share with anyone you think could use a jolt of awesome, I’ve also included an easy click-to-tweet after each quote. (You’re welcome.)

 

Happiness

“Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” ~Margaret Lee Runbeck (Tweet!)

“I have decided to be happy because it’s good for my health.” ~Voltaire (Tweet!)

“If you want to be happy, be so.” ~Kozma Prutkov (Tweet!)

“Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” ~William Feather (Tweet!)

“Happiness is an inside job.” ~William Arthur Ward (Tweet!)

“Happiness is a choice.” ~Valerie Bertinelli (Tweet!)

“Happiness depends more on how life strikes you than on what happens.” ~Andy Rooney (Tweet!)

 

Blazing Your Own Trail

“I like things to happen, and if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.” ~Winston Churchill (Tweet!)

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” ~Walt Disney (Tweet!)

“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” ~George Bernard Shaw (Tweet!)

“I’ve never heard a bird half sing, a hawk half cry. When ready, speak your truth with conviction.” ~Dave Ursillo (Tweet!)

“We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” ~Max Dupree (Tweet!)

“Be a voice, not an echo.” ~Albert Einstein (Tweet!)

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” ~Richard Branson (Tweet!)

“Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” ~Jim Rohn (Tweet!)

“When in doubt, yell, ‘CHARGE!’ and then MOVE. YOUR. ASS. AND. MAKE. IT. HAPPEN.” ~Ash Ambirge (Tweet!)

 

Following Your Dreams

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” ~Zig Ziglar (Tweet!)

“Good things come to those who wait. Greater things come to those who get off their ass and do anything to make it happen.” ~@LifeCheating (Tweet!)

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” ~Thomas Edison (Tweet!)

“The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes (Tweet!)

“If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs.” ~Tony Gaskins (Tweet!)

“Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” ~Paul Brandt (Tweet!)

“The only thing worse than starting something and failing… is not starting something.” ~Seth Godin (Tweet!)

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” ~Wayne Gretzky (Tweet!)

 

Overcoming Adversity

“There are two things a person should never be angry at — what they can help, and what they cannot.” ~Plato (Tweet!)

“At the end of the day, no matter how many times the lawn is mowed, it doesn’t take it personally — it just keeps on growing.” ~Ash Ambirge (Tweet!)

“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get.” ~Ray Bradbury (Tweet!)

“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” ~Jim Rohn (Tweet!)

“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll (Tweet!)

“If it isn’t a little scary, it probably isn’t worth your time.” ~Ted Murphy (Tweet!)

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ~Nelson Mandela (Tweet!)

“Fear is not a bad thing, it can keep you alive. The trick is to make sure it doesn’t stop you from living.” ~@RevolutionsClub (Tweet!)

“It’s not the person who dodges the most bullets who wins. It’s the person who finds something useful to do with the bullets, after the shots have been fired.” ~Ash Ambirge (Tweet!)

“The darkest hour has only sixty minutes.” ~Morris Mandel (Tweet!)

“Learn to embrace fear, because it’s often the only thing that’s between you and what you want.” ~Paula Pant (Tweet!)

What are your favorite quotes? Share them with us in the comments!

Image:  Pink Sherbet Photography / Flickr

Mind Over Matter, As Illustrated By a Small Child Who Shamed Me At an Amusement Park

It was one of those moments where all the bravado that led you to that point suddenly drains from your being — but it’s too late to go back. The attendant had pulled down the heavy shoulder harness that would keep me from flying off to my death and was going through the standard safety announcements, and all I could think was, Holy shit, oh my fuck, why did I decide to do this?

I am 30-mumble-something and hadn’t been in an amusement park since my early 20s until my recent trip to Cedar Point with my (younger and more physically resilient) sisters. And if the way my metabolism has been treating my weight lately was any indication, I knew my body no longer handles things the way it once did.

I’d been relieved to find out I could still do roller coasters of all varieties, but spinny things — which I once loved — now made me sick. So when my youngest sister somehow dared me onto this whirling dervish of a machine, all bets were off.

The spinning/swinging/twirling contraption looked awesome to the 20-year-old inside of me (which I think is what got me on it in the first place), but the 30-something body housing that inner 20-year-old was fairly certain it was about to pass out, get sick or scream for her life like a terrified child who thought the kiddie coaster would be cool but then spends the entire ride shrieking to mom to stop-the-ride-I-wanna-get-OFF-make-it-STOP!* (*Actual embarrassing anecdote from Cordelia’s childhood.)

The announcements stopped and there was that moment of dead silence before the storm hits something awful happens the ride starts to move.

I was shitting my metaphorical pants.

Then a tiny little voice from a boy who must have been 6 months old (read: probably between 5-7 years in actuality) piped up next to me:

 

“This Is Gonna Be Awesome!”

I couldn’t see him around my enormous shoulder harness, and he couldn’t see me, but I felt instantly and utterly burned.

“It totally is!” I called back, too fragile in my state of panic to realize a show of bravado to keep an unseen elementary school child from thinking I’m a lame-o is in itself pretty lame-o.

“My brother wouldn’t come on this with me,” the small voice responded. “He was too chicken!”

“Well then, he’s gonna miss out!” I replied cheerily, resolving deep within myself that I would not let this little boy know I was a chicken too. I would. not.

So, as the ride gained momentum and my stomach gained some not-so-great sensations, I whooped and hooted with a right good will along with the small boy next to me. We traded “This is so cool!”s and “We’re flying!”s until an odd thing happened:

I realized I was actually enjoying the ride as much as I was pretending to.

It did kinda feel like we were flying, and if nothing else, it felt pretty awesome to have conquered something I’d been petrified over. I felt a wee bit dizzy afterwards, but I was more exhilarated than anything — both at the outcome, and at how it had come about.

 

It’s All About Your Perspective

If I’d kept stewing in my pants-pooping fear and nervousness as the ride got into full swing, no doubt my worst-case scenarios would have come true and I would have felt ill, scared and extremely PO’d at myself for having agreed to go on that stupid ride. But since I’d made up my mind that I was going to enjoy it, dammit, I actually wound up enjoying it.

Funny how that whole “mind over matter” thing works.

I’ve written before about how the stories we tell ourselves matter — how the frames through which we view the world color the way that world looks to us. That’s a big-picture thing, and it’s something I try to keep in mind on a grand scale when it comes to things like my business and my relationships. But this was the first time it really clicked for me that you can play the same game with little-picture things, like the scary ride you’re about to go on or the presentation you’re about to give or the room full of strangers you’re about to walk into.

As James Clear so brilliantly put it, your mind is a suggestion engine. You can choose the way you want to experience things, and you can psyche yourself into situations as much as you can psyche yourself out of them. So why not use that force for good rather than evil? (Tweet!)

Later, feeling emboldened by my newfound Jedi mind trick, my sister and I conquered this bad boy, which shoots you from 0 to 120 mph in 4 seconds, then straight up and down a 300-foot incline in the span of about 17 seconds (that’s me waving in the tan sweater, if you can see it):

 

[KGVID width=”568″ height=”320″]http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Cedar-Point-video.mov[/KGVID]

It’s the sort of ride so ridiculous it has an actual row of bleachers next to it for people to watch it run. It honestly happened so fast I remember nothing but the sensation of mind-numbing speed and feeling, again, proud that I went through with it. I went through with it because I told myself I could. And I found it was pretty freakin’ fantastic — as you’ll find many things are when you decide to decide they are.

 

An Aside

That’s the happy ending to this story.

The extended ending is that when I emerged from my harness on that first ride and went to give the little boy next to me a high-five, I discovered there was another little boy sitting on his other side to whom all of his comments were more likely directed. This made me just some random crazy old lady stranger seemingly talking to herself.

But whatevs. I didn’t promise this method would remove deeply ingrained social awkwardness. Just fears and other bad mental juju.

How can you use this mind trick to make your daily experiences awesomer?

Image:  Tara Faul / Flickr

QUIT: My Abusive Relationship

[Part of my mission to “live deliberately” involves ruthlessly cutting out anything that saps my time, energy or money to no good end.  I call these things my “Quits,” and this is one of the many items that have found themselves on my Quits List.]

I’ve been in an abusive relationship for… well, more years than I’ve really been counting, especially since it took a while to see it for what it really was. Abusive relationships are like that. You find lots of ways to justify them, explain them away, make excuses for why they make sense and why you deserve precisely what you’ve been getting.

It’s sick and twisted, and deep down somewhere, you know that, but it’s hard to muster up the full-on realization it takes to walk away.

I’ve known this girl for a long, long time, and our friendship seemed awesome, at first. She inspired me to do some amazing things and had my back during some ridiculous escapades. She was the first person to laugh with me when I found something funny and the first to hand me a tissue when something broke my heart. She knew me better than anyone else, hands down, and she still does.

But she’s also a stone cold bitch to me an awful lot of the time.

And I’m finally beginning to realize that’s just not cool.

 

The Way We Were

In the beginning, I liked her because she challenged me. She was always spurring me to be better, smarter, kinder, stronger, to reach for more and accomplish more, to not go easy on myself. I loved that about her. I loved that she called me on my B.S. and wouldn’t let me listen to my own excuses.

I’m also a contrarian person. I like to prove people wrong. When people say I can’t do something, it makes me that much more driven to show them I can. I respond well to the boot camp style of coaching. And that’s what I thought she was offering me, at first: tough love. If it felt a little too tough at times… well, that must have meant I was being particularly soft that day and I needed the spurring more than ever.

Her challenges inspired me to start this blog, quit my day job and do plenty of other things I never would have dreamed of doing without her. She held me to my guns. She wouldn’t let me wuss out. She kept my nose to the grindstone. And it paid off.

 

Then Things Started Shifting

They were small things, at first.

An “Are you sure you want to do that?” when I stopped attending my masterminds because I found they were only making me unhealthily obsessed with keeping up with the entrepreneurial rat race.

A barely noticeable eyebrow raise when I said my only plans for the evening were to read a book and cuddle with the husband.

A quietly muttered comment about “commitment” when I announced I was no longer forcing myself to put in 60-hour workweeks.

She meant well, I reminded myself. Maybe she was feeling cranky that day, or maybe her tendency to want the best for me came out wrong that time. So I let it slide. I forgave and forgot and kept striving to live up to her expectations

But more and more, I began to realize that her expectations were no longer helping me. In fact, they were kind of tearing me to shreds. Something had changed in our relationship — in her — and her input was getting less and less “You can do better!” and more and more “That’s not good enough.”

I put in a marathon workweek to get a big project done by Friday, and she ruined our Sunday Funday by going on and on about how Richard Branson probably doesn’t take weekends off and Robert Herjavec says anyone who needs more than 4 hours’ sleep won’t make it as an entrepreneur.

I turned down a project request because it paid well but didn’t fit my interests, and she reminded me how there was once a time I would’ve been happy to take on anything and everything, and if I got too picky I could wind up regretting it.

A reader emailed to tell me how much my blog had touched them, and when I told her about it, she sniffed and said, “That’s nice, but you can’t monetize compliments. How much has your blog actually made you this month?”

All that pull-no-punches, let’s-be-real-with-ourselves brazenness I used to admire in her had become twisted, somehow. It had morphed from being motivating and energizing to being downright cynical. Maybe I’d let her push me around too much, and the power got to her head. Maybe she’d always been the negative kind of taskmaster, but I never saw it before because it took a while for her to wear me down. Maybe we’d both lost sight of the difference between tough love and just being an asshole.

Whatever the cause for the shift, I started dreading the times she came around. Her comments lingered with me long after she left, giving me headaches, stomach aches, anxiety attacks whenever I thought of them. I started staying in bed at night binge-watching bad TV rather than risk hanging out with her or doing anything she’d be sure to pounce on and tear apart.

I could anticipate her cutting, snarky remarks before they even came, and what was worse, deep down I’d begun to believe them. I’d come to see myself as the screwup she clearly saw me as. I was was damned if I did, because it was never enough, and damned if I didn’t, because that meant I was slacking.

 

So, Why in the &%$* Did I Stick With Her?

There are all sorts of excuses I could give for why I’ve kept her in my life long past the time she was a positive addition:

It’s easy to fall into negative patterns.

It’s hard to let go of a long history together.

I still believe that, in her heart of hearts, she really does want the best for me, even if it comes out in a way that sounds harsh.

But the biggest reason I’ve put up with this abuse (because, let’s be honest, that’s what it is)?

It’s because I can’t get away from her.

It’s because she’s in my head.

It’s because she is me.

I’ve always been my own worst critic, but I’ve been kidding myself into thinking I’m only being hard on myself because I’m driven, because I’m disciplined, because I want more for my life than the average bear. I’ve confused pushing myself with beating up on myself. And it’s turned my inner motivator into a monster whose sole purpose in life is to smash down anything I try doing out of a perverted idea that being a heartless drill sergeant is the same thing as being driven and ambitious.

So I think it’s time we break up, for reals.

 

Inner Critics Make Shitty Coaches

The thing about being driven to improve yourself is, it can get you to lots of great places. Holding yourself to high standards can produce some amazing results, and pushing yourself farther than you think you can go can be empowering and enlightening.

But it can also drive you into the ground, if you’re not careful to make sure there’s plenty of love to go along with all that toughness.

For all the posts I’ve written like this one, this one and this one, hoping to show you that you can do more and be more and still be kind to yourself, I’ve written an equal number of posts like this one, this one and this one, which — if I had been looking close enough — were telltale signs I was in an abusive relationship with my own inner critic-coach

I wasn’t pushing myself past my limits Jillian-Michaels-style, believing in an awesome end result and giving myself the motivation to get there; I was playing a ruthless game of “Bombardment!” on myself every time I tried to do something, whether that “something” was write a post or hang out with my friends or try to take some much-needed time to relax. (Did you realize you can fuck up relaxing? You can, quite spectacularly, according to my inner critic-coach.)

If a real friend had treated me this way, I’d have dropped her without thinking twice. I have no place for toxic people in my life. But toxic people in my head? I somehow trust that they know what they’re saying, because I know me, right? I’m my own worst critic because I’m the only unobstructed witness to all the things that are the matter with me… right?

Not so much. That inner critic, those demons, those lizard-brain reactions, whatever you want to call the voice inside your head that tells you you’re not good enough, not smart enough, and gosh darn it, people hate you — that voice is a Mean Girl (or Guy) of the highest caliber, and just because she’s a part of you, that doesn’t mean she’s right. There’s a part of me that would love nothing more than to sleep all day and subsist on Little Debbie Zebra Cakes, but I’ve learned to ignore and override that part because it clearly doesn’t have my best interests in mind. The same goes for your inner critic.

There’s a difference between challenging yourself (super-awesome) and being a complete and utter bitch to yourself (super-not-awesome). (Tweet!) When you challenge yourself, you push yourself to go further and be better, but you realize you’re only human and if you fall short of your goal, you pick yourself up, pat yourself on the back and tell yourself it’s OK; you’ll get ‘em next time.  You also realize that challenging yourself 24/7 only leads to burnout, and it’s not only OK but necessary to spend some time just being alive and being happy about that.

When you’re a complete and utter bitch to yourself… well, you end up writing veiled Quit posts that make you sound like you’ve got borderline personality disorder.

Don’t end up writing veiled Quit posts that make you sound like you’ve got borderline personality disorder.

Learn to ask if the gauntlet you’re throwing down for yourself is one that will help you go farther or simply make you feel like shit. Learn to recognize that your inner critic isn’t your coach, but your detractor. Stop piling “tough love” on yourself when it’s really just abuse in disguise.

Be kinder to yourselves, guys. I promise you can still kick ass and do amazing things while being nice to yourself. (It actually helps you do it better.)

Is your inner coach really an inner critic? How can you break free from the abuse?

Image:  Nicki Varkevisser / Flickr

The Way Things Are Isn’t The Way Things Have To Be

Recently, I wrote about the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. The way we cast ourselves (victim, reject, center of the universe) affects the way we experience the world. If we think everyone’s against us, we’ll keep seeing things that reinforce that story. If we think we’re better than everyone else, people will constantly let us down. We react to things based on the story we believe about our world, and as a result, we wind up perpetuating the story by playing along with it.

But there’s a bigger story, a story so hulking and omnipresent it warrants a post in itself. It’s a really shitty story our whole society has deluded itself into believing. That really shitty story is the ridiculously depressing notion of “The Way Things Are.”

You may not realize The Way Things Are is a story. That’s part of what makes it so devious (and powerful). Most people just accept that it really is… well… the way things are. As a result, they play along with it without realizing they have any other choice. They take it as a given rather than one way of seeing things.

And since the majority of people are going along with it, it really does become the way things are.

 

So, How Are Things?

Pretty damn crappy, if you believe the story.

If you subscribe to the general belief in The Way Things Are, life is a pretty grim set of circumstances you can’t control and probably don’t like. Here are some elements of “The Way Things Are” mentality:

  • You have no choice but to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for pretty much most of your life.
  • You have to do this because you have to have a car, a house, 10 credit cards and a steady stream of stuff and distractions at all times to keep you happy.
  • You need to be kept happy because you probably hate the job that takes up the majority of your waking hours.
  • (Lather, rinse, repeat the above 3 phrases as needed. It’s a nice vicious circle.)
  • You deserve lots of things you can’t afford because you put up with the unfairness of the above circle. Future You can deal with paying for these things.
  • Debt is something you only need to think about when the bills come each month. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying off that flat-screen TV for the next 30 years, because they’re probably going to be 30 miserable years anyway, and the least you deserve is to be able to watch Dancing with the Stars in high-quality HD.
  • What you do doesn’t matter.
  • Dreams are for the naïve and the misguided. Resignation is the mark of a real, functioning adult.
  • If you don’t already kind of dislike your spouse, you probably will after enough time together. Kids will only make this worse.
  • You should still have kids anyway.
  • No one is where they want to be. That’s just part of growing up.
  • No one likes The Way Things Are, but they can’t be changed. Suck it up, have a drink, go out and buy something. It’s almost the weekend.

I could go on, but it’s too depressing. And I think you probably recognize the story by now.

 

If We All Hate This Story So Much, Why Do We Keep Telling It to Ourselves?

The thing is, no one is really happy living according to The Way Things Are. Any story you have to constantly resign yourself to is not a good one.

So why do so many of us resign ourselves to it?

Because we don’t realize we have any other choice. If we did, we think, more people would be doing something different, wouldn’t they? The fact that everyone around us seems to be keeping their heads down and trudging along makes us think that must be our only option. So we all put our heads down and keep trudging, and this grim picture of the world continues to be the way things actually are because no one realizes it can be any different.

It’s not surprising most of us don’t think to question it. Everything around us reinforces the story.

TV shows give us characters who live neatly in The Way Things Are: dysfunctional families, disgruntled cube farm workers, harried moms and overworked suits and couples who communicate in nasty one-liners. We find these shows funny or moving because they portray things we recognize. They make us feel better about our own shitty circumstances by delivering the reassurance that “we’re all in this together.” You don’t see many shows about minimalist, location-independent lifestyle designers living life on their own terms. (And if you did, people would probably argue that they’re completely unrealistic.)

Commercials sell us products to help us escape from The Way Things Are. We deserve that big SUV with dual heat zones and seat-back DVD players because nothing else in our lives is going right, and the least we can do is give little Johnny the comfort of knowing we’re keeping up with the Joneses. (The money we put towards that SUV could fund part of little Johnny’s college education, but what matters is pleasing Johnny, and ourselves, N-O-W.) We need energy drinks because we’re exhausted after 8 hours at a desk and only have an evening of drudgery to follow, and it’s easier to guzzle a little bottle of something than find a lifestyle that actually energizes us.

We’re inundated with ways to work around The Way Things Are, to distract ourselves from The Way Things Are, to make The Way Things Are a little easier to live with. But The Way Things Are, in itself, is considered a given. And if everyone around you is operating under the notion the earth is flat, you have no reason to stop and wonder if it’s not. You just go on living the best little flat life you think you can.

 

What You Don’t Know

What you don’t know could turn everything upside down.

Did you know it’s possible to sell all your stuff, pay down your debt and be free to live literally anywhere you want, at anytime?

Did you know you can visit every single country in the world in 5 years?

Did you know playing it unsafe is a viable option?

It’s time to free yourself from The Way Things Are and instead create The Way Things Ought To Be. (Tweet!) Poke around the blogosphere long enough and you’ll find that more and more people are doing it — real-life, ordinary people who are, in their own ways, rejecting the mass delusion and creating the lives they’ve always wanted. Start reading just a few of their stories. It’s like someone flipping the Technicolor switch after you’ve been watching black and white all your life.

I’m not gonna lie to you. It takes hard work and some serious faith to pursue a life on your own terms. Another reason The Way Things Are has such a stronghold on us is because, shitty and completely miserable as it is, it’s oh so easy to fall in step with it. But you’re always sacrificing something, whichever story you choose to live by. The choose-your-own adventure stories take discipline, hard work and a willingness to stand out and be different. The Way Things Are story takes your soul, your dreams and your day-to-day and long-term happiness.

Guess which sacrifices I believe are the better deal?

It’s your choice. It’s your story. Which road are you going to take?

Image: Eamon Brett / Flickr

Why We’re Scared of Being Happy (And How to Get Over It)

Recently, I’ve started waking up with a feeling that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

It’s a strange feeling, a foreign one, and I’m more than a little nervous to be having it.

That feeling is something I suspect might be called contentment.

And apparently, I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

 

One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here

After a year and a half freelancing full-time, several serious breakdowns and a heck of a lot of rebuilding, I’m finally at a place where I can almost dare to trot out the “H” word when it comes to my general mindset on a day-to-day basis.

Things aren’t perfect, mind you. My husband’s a year and a half into waiting for disability benefits that could take 5+ years to come through, we’ve racked up more debt than I care to admit as a result, and there are still days I wonder how long it’ll take the rest of the world to realize I’m a fraud masquerading as a professional writer (hello, Imposter Syndrome).

But on the whole, if I’m looking at it objectively, most days I find myself not really minding the things I’m doing with my time. My clients are awesome, I get paid to write (from home, whensoever I please), I wake up most mornings feeling pretty “alright” with my overall situation, and I go to bed most nights feeling productively satisfied with what I’ve accomplished.

I’m almost — if this is what the word means, because I never really got clear on it — kind of happy.

And that scares me shitless.

I don’t know what to do with this new feeling. I’m used to struggling and fighting and enduring and scrambling, and somehow the lack of all that tension makes me feel as though I’m getting away with something I shouldn’t be — I’m not challenging myself enough, I don’t deserve it, it can’t last, something horrible must be waiting just around the corner to pay me back for this brief moment of calm… and so on and so forth. You may know the drill.

Happiness, for any extended period of time, makes me want to knock on a wooden surface, then verify that it is in fact a wooden surface because a decent amount of our furniture is prefab, faux-wood stuff and this isn’t the sort of thing I want to take chances on.

 

I Know I’m Not Alone

Ask anyone you come across throughout your day how they’re doing, and their answer is likely to range from “Fine” to “Hanging in there.”

Very rarely does anyone answer, “Amazing!” or “Best I’ve been all year!” because that’s just not how people are supposed to answer that question. Unless we’ve recently gotten engaged, received a clear bill of health after a long bout with illness, or experienced some other life-altering event, we tend to downplay our answer to the “How are you?” question because… Well, why do we do it?

Because we don’t want to sound like we’re bragging?

Because we think upbeat people are annoying?

Because we don’t think whatever happiness we’re currently enjoying is big enough to be worth celebrating?

Any and all of the above. We’re not, as a neurotic and overly stimulated society, used to the concept of being OK with where we are and freely admitting that.

And that’s just plain sad.

 

Why We’re Scared of Being Happy

As a culture, we’re obsessed with the idea of the pursuit of happiness. It’s why life coaches and self-help sections and Oprah exist and rake in millions. It’s why you decided to read this post. It’s important enough the Founding Fathers saw fit to include it as one of our inalienable rights when they drew up the Constitution.

But for most of us, while we pay lip service to the pursuit of happiness, we have no fucking clue what to do with happiness if it actually comes our way.

If we find ourselves suspecting we’ve fallen into a state of being happy, we activate all sorts of avoidance techniques and superstitious invocations to hedge our bets and protect ourselves. We doubt our happiness, second-guess our happiness and try not to think too much about how happy we might be in case the Powers That Be are waiting for some silly chump to enjoy himself too thoroughly and need to be taken down a peg.

For something we’re seemingly so obsessed with obtaining, we’re awfully bad at actually possessing it. I suspect there are several reasons why this is:

 

1. We Don’t Think We Deserve It

Many of us are our own worst critics. (Raising my own hand here.)

We think we’re challenging ourselves, humbling ourselves or trying to better ourselves by being so tough on ourselves, but in reality, we’re just treating ourselves like big, bad bullies.

We would never speak to a friend or loved one — or even a random stranger on the street — the way we talk to ourselves: Why the hell did I just do that? I’m such an idiot. No wonder he dumped me. I screw everything up. Nothing I ever do is good enough.

Too many of us have a nasty, self-defeating dialogue like this running through our heads at all times, reminding us why we’re not pretty enough, brilliant enough, smart enough or successful enough compared to everyone else in the world. And it’s really hard to allow yourself to be happy, over anything, when you’re only used to seeing yourself in such a critical light.

You get an awesome new boyfriend or girlfriend, and you immediately start sabotaging the relationship because they seem way too good for you.

You get that big account at work, and you spend so much time second-guessing your ability to handle it, you eventually screw it up just like you suspected you would.

You lose 20 pounds, but while all your friends are complimenting how great you look, all you can see is those extra five pounds you still haven’t lost yet.

But beating yourself up won’t solve anything — whether you really do have something to address or you’re just being hard on yourself. We need to start learning to love ourselves the way we love the people who matter in our lives — by being patient, caring, empathetic, and forgiving. By celebrating the wins and being supportive during the losses. By being gentle. By chilling the fuck out.

 

2. We Feel Guilty for Having It

This can be a direct result of the above, or a separate factor in itself. We fall into this trap every time we answer “How are you?” with a humble little shrug.

We feel bad about advertising our own happiness because there’s this collective notion that it’s rude to be happy when others are not.

But happiness is not a zero-sum game. It’s not like there’s only a certain amount of it in the world, and if you take too much, someone else will get none. Anyone who views your happiness as a direct affront to theirs is someone who is not willing to be in control of obtaining their own happiness.

Of course, if your coworker is going through a rough divorce, you probably shouldn’t spend all lunch break raving about your awesome new s.o. If you’re up for a promotion against someone else and you wind up getting it, you don’t want to crow over the person who lost out. There are times when you need to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, especially when the thing that makes you happy is something that will pointedly make the other person unhappy.

But that doesn’t mean you should feel bad about that thing making you happy. And it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy that thing to the fullest without rubbing it in another person’s face. You have a right to be happy. You’re not hurting anyone unless they’re looking for ways to be hurt, and if they are, that’s not your fault.

 

3. We Think Struggling Is More Admirable

Entrepreneurs and hustlers will nod along with this one with particular vigor, but really, anyone who lives in modern Western society should relate.

In our up-by-the-bootstraps, Get Things Done society, we tend to glorify the dignity and discipline of the struggle. We admire fighters, workaholics, people who overcome insurmountable odds. We respect those who give it all in the shittiest of circumstances. We worship the cult of busy. We think success equals always striving for the next bigger, better thing.

The idea of being generally at peace with our world and our circumstances feels wrong to us — like we’re being shallow, lazy or unrealistic about the unfairness and turmoil in the world. Like we’re taking the easy way out. Like we don’t have a fire under our ass.

But there’s a lot more to being a successful human being than being stressed out and exhausted all the time, humble-bragging about how stressed out and exhausted we are as if that somehow means we’re doing this whole “life” thing better than everyone else.

Work/life balance is such a popular buzz topic because we’ve begun to realize that all work and no play makes us miserable little Something-Somethings. More people are getting back to the earth, back to the home, back to family because they realize all this busy-ness and chasing after things isn’t making us any happier. We’re starting to suspect life can be easier than we’re used to making it.

 

4. We’re Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

I’m especially good at falling into this crappy mindset.

I make an awesome new friend, and I wonder how long it will take before the shine wears off and we’re both bored with each other.

The husband and I get through the month with a little cash left over, and I wonder how long it will be before something big breaks and needs pricey repairs.

I secure a new project I’m excited about, and I remember all the times past projects have fizzled or clients have turned out to be nightmares.

I am always in a state of bracing for the next big disaster, especially when something good has just happened. I tell myself it’s because life will throw me for a loop if I’m not prepared for the worst. I tell myself happiness is temporary. I most likely also suspect I don’t really deserve any good thing that’s come my way, and sooner or later life will realize its mistake and over-correct for it.

But life doesn’t have to be hard-knock. Does it naturally have ups and downs? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you need to chase an “up” with an immediate welcoming party for a “down.” Why not celebrate the good while you’ve got it, knowing it’s made all the more precious by the fact that sometimes things are not so good?

 

How to Get Over It

So, the ultimate question at the end of all this becomes: How do we stop being scared of being happy? How do we learn to get comfortable with happiness — to welcome it, even — instead of squirming and looking over our shoulder like we’ve just put on a wool sweater with a big, scratchy collar tag?

Here are some good places to start:

 

1. Redefine What “Happiness” Means to You

Many of us have in image of “happiness” in our minds that’s akin to a commercial for a new miracle drug (or yogurt, which is inexplicably advertised as creating the same sort of euphoria as a miracle drug): people romping through fields, holding hands in bathtubs on the beach, smiling like morons as they ride double-bicycles in matching cardigans.

But this isn’t what real happiness looks like in action.

Real happiness is a quiet, subtle thing. It’s not an abundance of excitement or elation; that’s joy, and it’s a fleeting high that don’t come all the time (think: weddings, athletic triumphs, etc.). Joy is vibrant and noisy and impossible to ignore. Happiness is softer. If you don’t look carefully, you might not even notice it.

Happiness is waking up in the morning ready to face the day and going to bed that night happy with what you’ve done with it.

It’s the absence of sorrow, anger, frustration and resentment.

It’s the feeling you get curled up on the couch with your significant other watching some silly TV show in your PJs — not the kind of thing that would qualify as “spectacular,” but you know in your bones there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing in the whole wide world right now.

Real happiness is easy to overlook or take for granted if you’re not prepared to see it. So learn to start watching for it, then cherish the heck out of it when you notice it.

 

2. Stop Feeling Bad About Being Happy

David Cain (whose blog you must read if you’re interested in living a mindful life) dropped a wonderful line a while back that’s stuck with me ever since. He was talking about the way we feel guilty for wanting to find a job we love when so many people would be happy just to have a job at all (can you relate?).

I don’t remember the exact wording of his response to this feeling, but it was something like, “That makes about as much sense as neglecting your health because there are people in the world who don’t have access to healthcare.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing “take one for the team” about being miserable just because other people are miserable.

Should you do everything realistically in your power to help the less fortunate? Absolutely.

Should you be mad-crazy grateful for the blessings you have in your own life? Damn skippy you should.

But should you ever restrict your own happiness out of “respect” for those who are, unfortunately, unhappy right now? Hell to the no. That would just be stupid.

Limiting your own happiness does nothing to help those less fortunate than you. If anything, holding yourself back from a life you love prevents you from giving your best to the world — including those who are struggling or in need. You owe it to the world (not to mention yourself) to live the best life you possibly can. Your playing small helps no one.

 

3. Accept That You Do Deserve Happiness (No Matter What You Think)

No one is perfect. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes, some of them whoppers. We’ve all had moments in which we haven’t been the best human being we could have been.

But no mistake you’ve made or weakness you have is unspeakable enough to warrant a life sentence without happiness. In fact — and here’s where the mind-bending part comes in — embracing the happiness in life can actually make you a better person in a way doing lifelong penance never could.

Happiness opens your heart. It makes you generous. It breeds empathy, charity and a host of other awesome things that lead to positive repercussions in the world around us. And whether or not you think you deserve happiness (which you do), doesn’t the world deserve the best you can give it?

 

4. Realize Doomsdaying Doesn’t Accomplish Anything

My crazy doctor has a great line he delivers whenever I start spinning out on “What if” scenarios about a situation: What does this do to help you?

I can kid myself into believing that bracing for the other shoe to drop will somehow prepare me better in the event of said shoe-dropping — but in reality, all it does is steal the joy from the present moment on behalf of worst-case scenarios that might not ever happen.

Worrying over a grim future that may or may not come is not being proactive; it’s being stingy with the present you have for certain right here in front of you. It’s a waste of energy and heart. It’s the least productive way to spend your time.

 

5. Know That Choosing Happiness Is a Bold, Brave Decision

In a world where our most common form of self-expression is complaining, where “meh” is the dominant attitude and the stories that make headlines are the depressing, fear-mongering ones, making the deliberate decision to choose happiness is a wildly brazen act. (Tweet!)

It takes courage to believe in a better situation. It takes strength to embrace the positives in spite of the negatives. It takes determination to continue to pursue the things that will lift you up when it’s so much easier to just fall victim to the things that drag you down.

It also pays off way better than the alternative, which is living a stunted, closed-off life full of monsters in the closest and enemies at the door.

Optimists have power.

Positivity is a muscle.

Happiness is one of the fiercest things you can strive for, because it takes a lot of guts to both go after it and to live gracefully with it when you have it.

I’m trying to work on my own ability to let happiness live in my life. It’s not easy; I have years of second-guessing it to overcome, but I think it’s time I start reprogramming myself.

Because waking up without dread each morning? It’s kind of a nice feeling, and I’d like it to stick around for a while.

How are you when it comes to accepting happiness in your life? Have you struggled with any of these mindsets? (And, more importantly, what can you do to get over them?)

Image:  kelsey hannah. / Flickr

 

Your Happiness Depends on You

We all want to be happy, yes?

We all want to make changes in our lives to that lead to more happiness than we currently have?

(If not, then you may be on the wrong blog. Might I suggest this instead?)

But, no matter how much we all want to be happier, how many of us are allowing our happiness to be dictated by things that are completely arbitrary, unimportant or out of our control?

I’ll make it easier for you—I am currently raising my hand. I have been an expert at letting my happiness fall to the whims of all sorts of external factors that have no right having anything to do with how much joy or satisfaction I get out of life.

It’s extremely easy to do. It’s also extremely easy to fail to realize you’re doing it. So, in the confessionalistic spirit of this blog, let me show you how many stupid mistakes I make in the hopes that it helps you see how not to make them yourself.

 

The Dumb Things I’ve Let Control My Happiness

Here are some of the things I’ve allowed my happiness (or lack thereof) to hinge on over the last few years (annotated list, as full list is redonk):

  • The weather.
  • The amount of sleep I’ve gotten.
  • My dogs getting sick/scared of thunder in the middle of the night and disrupting said sleep.
  • My husband’s social plans.
  • Other people’s social plans, and whether or not they include me (sometimes being invited is an annoyance, sometimes not being invited is an affront. Depends on my hormones and level of current craziness.)
  • How many comments my various blog posts are or are not getting.
  • How many emails I’ve received. (Sometimes too much is bad, sometimes too little is bad. Depends on my mood and the size of my to-do list.)
  • How much I’ve eaten/had to drink recently.
  • What I’ve eaten/had to drink recently. (Both bullet points, incidentally, being totally within my control.)
  • The amount of money I’ve billed clients for.
  • The amount they’ve actually paid me.
  • The amount of bills due at the current moment.
  • The size of my to-do list.
  • How quickly doggie fur balls take over my house.
  • The songs Pandora is currently choosing to play me.
  • How many @mentions I’ve gotten on Twitter.
  • The general tone of the Facebook posts my friends are posting today.
  • Whether my stomach pudge seems to be trending upward or downward.
  • What has come in the mail that day.

None of these things are important enough to have a say in how happy I am at any given moment. But it’s so easy to let them have control, because being reactive is easier than being proactive. Rising and falling with the waves in a dead float is easier than paddling doggedly in one direction, despite the tides and the choppiness.

But who wants a roller coaster of moods that rise and fall randomly based on which way the wind is blowing? You’ll never really be “happy” that way—at least not for very long. But if you take control of the reigns and resolve to choose your own happiness, then… well, then we’re talking.

Because happiness isn’t a mood; it’s a choice. (Tweet!) And it’s one you have to get to make every single minute of every single day. You can always reset. You can always right the ship.

 

The Way to Play It

Your happiness, like so many things in your life, is completely and totally up to you. No, you don’t have all-encompassing power over everything in your life, but you have power over how you choose to react to things.

External circumstances will influence your mood. We’re human. It happens. If you get sick and feel like poo, of course that’s going to bring you down. If some jerk on the road smashes into your car because they weren’t paying attention, you’re gonna be pissed. It’s only natural.

But, regardless of whatever shit is circling around your general vicinity, you have the power to frame your outlook. You have the power to say, “Damn, this sucks, but there’s no point being miserable over it” or to crumple into a ball in the corner and decide the rest of your day (slash-week, slash-life) is going to be crap.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For me, one of these choices comes out the clear winner. It may not be easy to look at a shit storm and say “Fuck it, I’m going to be happy anyway,” but if the alternative is being miserable, then guess what?

 

I’ma Choose Me Some Happiness

So maybe we’re in the red this week because I no longer get steady biweekly paychecks. But you know what? I also don’t fall into a deep, day-long depression around noon every Sunday because I’m dreading the week ahead down to my marrow. That’s worth being happy about.

Maybe I’ve got too many to-dos and not enough time to to-do them in. But that means business is growing, and this whole cockamamie scheme to work for myself really is proving itself viable. That’s worth being happy about.

Maybe my husband’s Fibro is flaring up, but at least he’s got the chance now to rest whenever he needs to rest, to not have to push himself to the breaking point. If he needs several days in a row, it won’t destroy us because he doesn’t have a job to lose anymore. And—ups and down and all—we’ve found a way to keep the bills paid in spite of that. That’s worth being happy about.

There will always be shit storms. There will also always be those constant little gnats of annoyance and disruption that can make a day fluctuate wildly up and down on the “Am I happy now?” scale.

But when you see happiness more as an attitude you choose the face the day with, a deliberate reaction to your circumstances instead of an elusive “mood” that depends on them, then it becomes less elusive. Then you’re onto something.

Who are you depending on for your happiness?

 

Image:  Flickr

Are You Chaining Your Elephant?

I bet you don’t know how elephants are trained.

I didn’t, until I read the method in a book recently and was floored. Here’s how it works:

A baby elephant is placed on a chain that is staked to the ground. The chain is substantial, and although baby elephants are not small by any means, they’re also not quite mammoth enough to pull a big chain from the ground.

So, every time the baby elephant tries to roam, or wander, or (more proactively) break the hell free from its restraints, it can’t. It’s stuck. And after enough times of trying and trying and getting nowhere, eventually the little trooper gives up and realizes he’s beat. That chain ain’t lettin’ him get anywhere. So he stops trying.

Fair enough. Seems like a logical conclusion.

But here’s the kicker: When that little pachyderm grows up into a big, hulking, people-crushing adult, it still thinks the chain is stronger than it is.

At this point, it could very easily take an angry running start and yank that puppy clean out of the ground, setting itself free and trampling any trainers, circus-goers or other smaller mammals that try to get in its path.

Just a yank or two. And it’s free.

But it doesn’t even try, because it’s learned that being chained means being trapped. Never mind the size of the chain. It doesn’t even try to break free, because in its (admittedly not mammoth-sized) mind, “chain = stuck.”

If it tried? It would pleasantly surprised.

But it doesn’t. And it won’t. Because elephants, as they say, never forget.

 

You Are Not an Elephant

This whole training process seems ludicrous, right? (And more than a little sad?)

I mean, this big, wild, super-strong animal is held captive by a tiny little chain simply because it’s been trained to believe the chain is stronger than it is. It’s the equivalent of you being fixed to one spot in your yard by a rope of Silly String, because someone when you were 5 once told you, “That thing will hold you in place, no matter what.”

Except, it’s not so ludicrous.

Because every day, we’re held in place by equally flimsy chains, courtesy of negative training much like our floppy-eared friends.

We don’t bother trying for that dream or that position or that gorgeous guy or girl, because we know we’re not good enough. We’ve been told so. We’ve failed before. Failure seems to be our thing, so why bother?

We’re glued to our miserable cubes for 40 hour a week because we don’t see anyone else trying to break free, so we assume it can’t be done. There must be no other options. This is just The Way Things Are. We learn to deal because that’s what good, well-adjusted grownups appear to do.

We let ourselves be bound and limited by fears, anxieties, insecurities, anger we’ve been holding onto all our lives, because they’ve become internal narratives we don’t even realize we’re telling ourselves. Like subliminal messages, they influence us without our even realizing it, and we never think to fight back because we don’t realize there’s anything to fight against.

The trainers have got us.

Whether it’s our own inner hang-ups, cultural expectations or bad things that have happened in the past, we tend to operate in the same tiny little patch of life, never imagining it’s possible to move further, let alone that we have it in us to do so.

But we do. More than we may realize.

 

 Break Free

We have in us the potential for infinite progression.

When we were little, we were wise to this. We knew we could become astronauts, or doctors, or prima ballerinas because we saw the world for what it was: a playground of possibilities just waiting for us to start experimenting with our options.

So we experimented. We tried a million different things and learned about ourselves and didn’t let grownup silliness limit us because the adults were still letting us have our fun before “reality” hit.

But as we got older, we got the chain training. We learned the parameters of what could and could not be done– what was acceptable, what was expected, how to operate within the confines of the world as it had been parceled and boundaried out for us.

We learned to fit in — to boxes, to predefined expectations, to our own biases about our faults and weaknesses, to what “the average person” did in “the real world.”

Except the real world has always been much bigger than we’ll ever be able to explore, and none of us is as small as we’re led to believe “the average person” is. We just stop seeing that after enough training to respect the chain, no questions please.

 

Well, Fuck That. Fuck It Hard

You are a mammoth, people-crushing ball of possibilities, and you have the power to roam wheresoever the hell you choose in this great adventure called life.

Are you really going to keep puttering around your same little circle, thanking life for the peanuts it throws you while you’re one good lunge away from infinite possibilities?

I don’t think you should. Because you know the secret now. You know the chain has no power except the power you give it in your mind.  (Tweet, tweet!)

And once you know that? It’s awful hard to keep respecting the chain.

What’s keeping you bound to the same tiny circles? What can you do to break free?

 

Image:  Flickr

What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

When I was a little kid, one of the funnest games to play was “let’s pretend”: “Let’s pretend the living room is the ocean, and the furniture is islands, so you have to swim to get to them!”… “Let’s pretend everything is opposite, like we can only move backwards!”…  “Let’s pretend I’m a really rich person and you’re my butler!”

(O.k., so you usually can’t get your younger siblings to go along with that one, but it’s worth a try.)

The awesome thing about the “let’s pretend” game was that it made the boring everyday things around you seem suddenly new and exciting. In the blink of an eye, you weren’t stuck inside with nothing to do on a rainy day; you were on a cool adventure, and everything you saw was part of that adventure.

Banisters were trees. Trees were giants. The world transformed around you, just because you said so. (It’s a handy trick to use if you’re babysitting, too. You’d be amazed how excited a kid can get about brushing his teeth or helping clear dishes if you make it into a race or a secret ninja test.)

 

The Power of Frames

The way we frame things matters. When we get older, we may stop intentionally imagining the world around us into something different. But while we’re no longer saying “let’s pretend,” we’re still telling ourselves stories that change the way we view things — and not always for the better.

It’s way too easy to cast yourself into a role. You’re the overworked, under-appreciated martyr. You’re the only nice person left in a world of jerks. You’re no good. You’re too good. Everyone else is no good. You’re hopeless. And, like magic, everything around you seems to fall into place to support that role.

Self-stories have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. If you look at the world through whatever-color glasses, guess what? Everything will look whatever-colored. (Tweet, tweet!)

But that doesn’t mean that it is. (Or that it has to be.)

 

Red Flags

I’ve begun to realize there’s one surefire to tell when I’m operating based on faulty self-stories. Any time I find myself thinking in terms of things that “usually,” “always” or “typically” happen, I should learn to stop myself right there, because I’m probably telling myself a story that won’t lead to anything good.

For instance:

  • This guy’s gonna cut me off. SUVs usually cut me off…
  • Of course she dumped that project on me. People always dump their projects on me. I’m the only one who ever does any work around here…
  • One more load of dishes to do. Typical. The chores never end…

Can you tell which sad, sorry stories I’m telling myself about my life in these examples? Here are the underlying (/unattractive) assumptions:

  • Everyone else drives like an idiot. Everyone is only out for themselves. SUV drivers are obnoxious. Woe is me. [Cordelia note: I personally do believe that the ratio of obnoxious SUV drivers to obnoxious small car drivers is considerably high, but an assumption is still an assumption, so I’m trying to be more charitable. Apologies if you’re one of the nice ones!]
  • Everyone wants to take advantage of me. No one appreciates how hard I work. Everyone else is just goofing off playing online poker or updating their Facebook status. Woe is me.
  • My life is ruled by chores and errands and I’m helpless to do anything about it. I’ll never have any time for myself. It’s all on me. [My husband is actually perfectly willing to help out if I ask him, but I rarely ask anyone for help because I’m too busy doing everything myself and then stewing over it.] Woe is me.

In summation: Not good, folks. Just plain Not Good.

 

Bad Story. Bad!

(In Which Cordelia Confesses She’s Not Always That Great)

In case you couldn’t tell, way too often I tell myself the “woe is me” story. I cast myself as the harried Girl Friday who does everything for everyone and never gets a break.

And what happens as a result? I’m stressed. I resent things. I dwell on petty inconveniences. I’m inundated with stress because I’m approaching the world stressfully. I’m easily irritated because I’m focusing on all the things that irritate me.

It’s not pretty, and I don’t like it. Actually, I feel pretty awful admitting to it. It’s a horrible way to approach a life. I’m not sure how I acquired it, but it’s time for a redo, stat.

 

Self-Story 2.0

(New & Improved!)

I’m deliberately trying to teach myself a different story now. For all my Cordelian ideals, I still find myself defaulting to the old story when things get hectic or I’m not feeling particularly strong. But I’m learning to catch myself when the bad self-casting kicks in and to start the new story playing instead.

The new story is infinitely better:

I’m taking control. I’m on my way to something better. I’m Cordelia, and I’m calling it quits, because there are better things to do with a life.

Are the same stresses and petty inconveniences still there? Yep. Of course. But I don’t mind them as much. The world seems a little rosier in my new role, which means I’m reacting to it better, which in turns makes better things happen.The story perpetuates itself.

Is this sort of self-narrative a little too golly-gee-whiz perky? Damn straight it is.

Sort of a silly “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me” affirmation? Might be. What of it?

I’ve takenthe opposite approach, and personally, I think it’s crap. If I’ve got a choice between stories to believe in, you bet your sweet tail I’m going for the happier one.

I’m done bemoaning the world I think I’m stuck in. I’m ready to start creating the world I want to live in.

So, what kind of story are YOU telling yourself?

Image: Flickr

Screw the Game of Life. Here’s the Real Way to Play It

I never played The Game of Life as a kid. Count it among the many random ways my childhood was deprived of things most normal American children experience (including getting something from the ice cream truck, seeing The Goonies and going to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese).

Maybe if I’d played it back then, when things like jobs and life insurance policies seemed cool because they were “grownup,” I would have enjoyed it more. But when my husband introduced me to the game recently (I’m trying to make up for lost experiences), I have to say I was disappointed —  and also oddly disturbed.

I was expecting the game to be more of a choose-your-own adventure, something that lets kids role-play being an adult by making various choices and then seeing what the consequences would be. And there is some of that.  (Don’t want to buy that auto insurance? Guess who just got into an accident!)

But for the most part, I felt like I was being moved along on a conveyor belt, collecting things as I was told to based on random numbers generated by a little plastic spinner arm.

It didn’t feel like fun; it felt like obeying orders.

 

I Have to Do What, Now?

What if I didn’t want three little peg-headed children? What if I wanted two  (Or none at all, for that matter?) Or what if I wanted to wait until I had a little more money to properly support them?

And did I really have to buy a helicopter on my modest teacher’s salary just because that’s the space I landed on? What if I didn’t want a helicopter? I already owned enough things I couldn’t afford, including a house, a business, two horses, and apparently all of my dead aunt’s 50 cats.

Being told what to do and when to do it, and then doing it, isn’t my idea of a super-fun time. When I reached the “Day of Reckoning,” I had the little family of five that had been assigned to me, a collection of ridiculously pricey items, and a life insurance policy to cash in on. But I didn’t feel any sense of triumph or accomplishment.

All I’d done was check off the boxes I was supposed to, exactly the same as my opponent (although I have to admit he’d done it much more successfully than I had). And now that I’d reached the end, I had nothing to show for it but a bunch of stuff I didn’t want to begin with and the sense of having been pushed through a series of events I’d had no say in.

Woo. Hoo.

Quite frankly, I was hoping for a little more out of Life.

 

So This Is What It’s Like to Be a Grownup?

I think the reason I disliked the game so much (I found myself actively resenting it by the end, and not because I’d lost) was that it’s actually an all-too-accurate depiction of what it’s like to be an adult. And I don’t agree with The Way Things Are in real life, either.

I can accept that sometimes random events (fire, lottery windfall, etc.) happen to you when you least expect them. I can also accept the notion of a giant spinner arm of fate/God/what-have-you that grants certain people “luck” and other people misfortune on a seemingly random basis. I may be an idealist, but I understand that sometimes the good guy doesn’t always win in the end. (I don’t necessarily like it, but I can begrudgingly accept it.)

The thing that bothered me about The Game of Life wasn’t these random ups and downs, but how compulsory it felt. Just like my actual grownup life, I didn’t feel like I had much input into how I went about living. I was simply following a preset line, doing what I was supposed to do whenever I was expected to do it.

I may have more say in the real world over whether or not I buy a helicopter, but there are still plenty of spaces along the road of life where you’re expected to do or acquire certain things just because that’s the way most people normally go about it. There’s a generally accepted blueprint for living, and most of us follow it without thinking twice.

You can tell because other people are guaranteed to notice when you’re not following this blueprint. You reach a certain age, and people start asking you “when you’re going to” do various things: When are you going to get married? Start having kids? Buy a house? The implication is that you either should have done these things by now, or you’re about due to, because the typical life goes along a continuum just like the board game, with certain actions you take at certain stages.

Everyone’s board looks a little bit different, but the basic layout is the same: go to college, get a job, get married, have 2.5 kids and a 2.5 car garage house, work 9 to 5 five days a week, keep doing that till you’re 65, and then (if you’re lucky), you reach the end space, where you get to finally relax and just live life (if you have the money and health left to do so). You move along the winding, colorful spaces with everyone else, collecting things at the points you’re supposed to, and that is considered a “life.”

 

Break Free of the Board

Personally, I have a problem with that. A big problem.

I don’t have a grand master plan for the future, but I can tell you I’m not too enthused about the idea of living my life as a series of checkpoints and to-dos. Especially when they’re someone else’s. (Tweet, tweet!)

I have a to-do list of my own, thank you, and only so much time in which to accomplish it.

I don’t care what I’m “supposed to” have done or “supposed to” have gotten by my 28th year of living. I don’t care where everyone else’s little plastic cars are on the board. This is my life, and there’s an awful lot I’d like to do with it. And none of it will get done if I waste my time trying to make my life conform to the usual pattern.

Which is why I’m taking my little plastic car off road to see what kind of adventures I can come up with beyond the board. I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like a lot more fun.

What’s your take on the game of life? Are you ready to off-road it, too?

Image: Flickr