The Intersection of Logic and Ridiculousness

Recently, I had the most amazing conversation with a friend. Imagine this conversation as if it were a route on a map. It started out at the corner of vulnerability and suspense. Then, it rounded the corner into an open lot of questioning and wonder. It meandered to a land of thinking deeply and differently. The conversation took a perplexing turn toward striving to understand contrasting and complex perspectives. Hours later, we contently (and brake screechingly) arrived at the intersection of logic and ridiculousness. One the lyrics in the song Maps – Fun Home says, “maps show you what is simple and true” (Click here for another great Broadway song about maps: A Map of New York – If/Then). However, in this conversation nothing seemed simple and true. The adventure we jumped into did not have definitive boundaries or expected outcomes. Even so, despite the many twists and turns, I didn’t feel lost! That’s how I know it was a conversation worth having!

I was (and still am) swimming in my thoughts. But, the accompanying feeling of drowning or going off course wasn’t overwhelming; it was exhilarating! I was thinking so quickly my whole body was engaged. I was craving that!  It was like a switch turned my mind on and things lit up! My brain was entertained and invested in this discourse for hours contemplating the multiple pathways I might contend with as I navigated through this thoughtful, meaningful exchange. For those hours, I recognized myself. I felt comfortable and confident. It was as if life was breathed back into me. il_570xn-704413268_4vxg

I have to believe that’s what it means to be truly connected to someone else (speaking of connections… click here to read about “Jew-ography”!). The whole world could be moving on but you’re right there committed to that moment, that interaction, because this is so real and so personal. It’s that synchrony, that energy, that is so influential! I was reminded of what it feels like to be me. I miss that. I miss the space to think so intentionally and to be truly connected. I loved listening, struggling with, and accepting each perspective simply for how it moved and shaped the discussion. This was an inexplicably redeeming,  special, allows me to breathe deeply and smile authentically (even if everything else that day sucked) opportunity. I’m so appreciative!

Calling All Beautiful Brains!

Every year around the holidays, the body image/food banter begins. There are the fitness/health magazines that flood you with ways to cut calories before, during, and after the holidays so your family doesn’t “ruin” your diet. There are the online support and communities for individuals who face eating disorders and are challenged in a different way by food each day. And of course, let’s not forget, while many of us are worrying about how many calories we’ll eat and making sure we get in those extra workouts before the holiday to mitigate the damage, there’s the very real fact that food insecurity and poverty is rampant in our world. How ironic  (or disappointing, disgusting, humiliating, etc.) is it that while we’re attempting to limit ourselves and we’re faced with the “problem” of overeating on the holidays there are individuals and families who are, rightfully so, more preoccupied with wondering where or if they’ll have a holiday meal at all?

Untitled (Recovered)

A few months ago I posted a new profile picture (above) on Facebook (nearly days before I deleted my Facebook – still SO happy with that choice!). I posted the photo because I had a great day! The sun was shining, I felt strong, confident, and HAPPY! I was surprised because this photo received nearly the most likes I’ve ever had on a profile picture (second only to my Brown University acceptance post). Not only did it receive so many likes but also there were a lot of comments. Initially the positive vibes felt so good but after a short while I was perplexed. I didn’t post this photo to receive high praises. I definitely didn’t post it for people to comment on my body!

I already wrote about why I quit Facebook but one aspect of this is still on my mind. When we post things, who are we posting them for? Why are we posting them at all? Are we looking for approval? Are we sharing information/resources/insights/thoughts? Are we hoping one specific friend will see it but too nervous to send it directly to them? Regardless of our rationale, does it really matter? Once we put it out there, others decide how it resonates with them and so even if we posted something literally because “we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time” (shout out to Taylor Swift) that doesn’t really matter.

I said something to my mom about my concern regarding the overwhelming positive attention the photo (ie. my body) was getting. She told me (and her words pierced my mind) “if you gained weight they would still be talking. Just, they’d be saying it behind your back”. Ahhh, my body is for me! I don’t understand how it became anyone else’s prerogative to police of approve of my body. I don’t know why people feel that they have the right to fixate on another person’s body. Why they feel compelled, and they feel good about it too, to tell you how “great” you look! Clearly skinny is beautiful and fat is shameful and shameful things are discussed in private while beautiful things are praised publicly. Why did I have to look  “holy skinny” so that others would “like” my photo? GOSH!

At this point, I want to share a resource: How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body. The most poignant thing I’ve read recently about “body positivity” and “self love” came from this article, “How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.” Bottom line, beauty is far more complex than what we see on the surface. In this piece, Sarah Koppelkam gently encourages us to “Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.” In fact, when I read that, I felt like I’d heard something of a similar sentiment before!  I was right! One of my favorites, Cristina Yang (shout out to all the Grey’s fans – for more quotes click here!)  said, “Oh, screw beautiful, I’m brilliant. You wanna appease me, compliment my brain!” YESS YOU GO GIRL!  Except one caveat, can’t I have a beautiful brain? Why does our perception of beautiful have to always relate to the outward appearance of our bodies? Why can’t we compliment each other about things that have nothing to do with our bodies? Furthermore, why can’t we separate our self worth (or other people’s perception of our self worth) from the numeric value that appears on the scale or the clothing tag?

Recently I saw this tweet from Realize Your Beauty in response to a twitter chat about maintaining health & happiness over the holidays. The question was: “Why are the holidays sometimes triggering or stressful?” The response: “Seeing family & friends you haven’t seen for long periods of time-Feeling you have to look or ‘be’ a certain way around them. This really resonated with me. I noticed that I was worried about that too. I just hadn’t been able to articulate it.  [side note: I sort of feel like this twitter chat in itself was triggering or stressful – or could have been] Going home means that I will have to endure questions and comments like “you’re really keeping the weight off!” or “how much weight have you lost?”.  AND obviously we can’t leave out the drama and hassle of Black Friday shopping. At this point, these are the last things I want to hear or do over the holidays. I want to draw attention AWAY from my body, not toward it. It’s frustrating and it makes me worried to go home. In fact, I didn’t notice the stark difference in my own body until a good friend brought it to my attention. These two photos are pretty telling, to me, but what I don’t feel they indicate is “beauty”. [side note: remember, I’m great at keeping up appearances, so while I may appear happy in these photos the contrast, and the reason I’m sharing these images, is more important than the emotion they seem to portray]

My point here, is simple. No overthinking involved (I wish!). My body is for me. It is not for anyone else to comment on unless I give them explicit permission. My body is not for you to approve of or to disapprove of.  Furthermore my body is not for you to speculate about “how I did it” or for you to judge or envy. I am not your success story. I am not your inspiration. [side note: watch this because Blythe Baird says ALL this way better than I could] For just a moment, please consider how telling someone they “look good” or inquiring about their weight loss can be triggering or challenging for them. It’s just uncomfortable. While likely it’s meant to be a kind gesture, a compliment, it can be harmful, embarrassing, or upsetting. Instead, focus on complimenting that person on something that has nothing to do with their body. Perhaps, their mind!

All I ask is that we cultivate the space, time, and the intentional energy to recognize how each person is different and how each person is perplexingly beautiful in their own way this day and every day.


Distracted Days

Oh My Gosh! I think too much! Lately, I’ve been getting so lost in my own thoughts I have barely been able to do anything else. I try to read and find myself flipping through the pages arbitrarily highlighting, giving the appearance of reading, but not reading at all. I’m so unfocused. All too often reading becomes “reading” and I find myself hopelessly wrestling with my own thoughts while simultaneously encouraging myself to focus. Always.

Sometimes it feels like I’m in a room and the walls are all my thoughts. If I could find some way out, a way to break down the walls, a way to push past the barriers that are my thoughts, I’d escape into fresh, crisp air. I’d be able to breathe again. Breathing fully, breathing deeply would feel SO good! I miss that.

I’m just thinking too much about everything! I spend too much time reconsidering a conversation with a friend, trying to decide when to send a text so it won’t interrupt people, rereading sent emails for typos and potential misinterpretations that cannot be rectified anyway, worrying that what I submit is barley good enough (that I can only fool people for so long – so therefore rereading and questioning myself until I make myself literally sick), observing and responding to my perceptions of social dynamics, I could go on and on (clearly)! I’m distracted. In one word, #done.

I want to slow down. I want to pull up on the breaks and tell my head “STOP”. I grapple constantly with this paradox, when I’m not working (and I’m doing something for me) my mind is spinning thinking about all the things I need to be doing.  And then I start thinking faster, allocating every minute and attempting to convince myself it will be okay. It feels like a frenzy, like if I don’t harness my thoughts I won’t be able to turn off the anxiety. Conversely, when I start working I can’t even focus on what I’m working on because I’m thinking about a million, minimally important, other things.  So, I think I should flip a switch in my head then maybe my brain will flip-flop.

However, this overthinking isn’t all bad. I’ve realized that I want to “think” for the rest of my life.  I want to be a researcher. I want to explore, question, seek to understand, make mistakes, try again, discover, disprove, and learn every day. That’s what researchers are, they’re professional intellectuals (but we’re not getting caught up in terminology). Researchers think. They wonder. So, it seems only natural, pretty fitting, that I would arrive at this aspiration. So, then, how do I get there?

Making Sense of This – Labels

Recently, I read Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender  (twice – yup that good!) and since then, I’ve had a lot on my mind. Well, admittedly, I always have a  lot on my mind but reading this text came at an aptly appropriate time. I’ve been grappling with words like “labels”, “identity”, “recognition”, “reality”, “acknowledgement” (different from recognition), “ownership”, and “desire” and this text just happened to put all these influential words in conversation with each other. Butler’s words, and subsequent discourses I’ve had about the text, said a lot of what I needed to hear and also hoped to hear. It’s been exhausting and cyclical to contend with and attend to these complicated thoughts. What follows will be my best attempt at making sense of this all. Most likely, I won’t resolve anything in the next ~1200 words and I’ll probably conclude with more questions than answers. But, that’s the beauty of wondering!

One quote in particular from the text has been ringing in my ears: “life histories are histories of becoming and categories can sometimes act to freeze that process of becoming”.  I might not need to say anything else about this quote. I could just leave it to simmer and settle with each person how they feel it best resonates with them. But, let’s think this through. Initially, (I’ll comment on this quickly because I could write forever about this) I understood this quote in relation to meaning and value associated with understanding how where you’ve been and where you’re going align. Basically, realizing for yourself what you’ve accomplished, experienced, and learned is instrumental to understanding who you are and why you’ve become this individual. Our experiences shape our future decisions and those decisions in turn shape us.

Moving on, in my interpretation of this quote, I regarded the word “categories” as synonymous with “labels”.  Writing about National Coming Out Day was my first stab at I grappling with the difficult but also empowering nature of labels.

Here are a few highlights from that post:

“We question “are our identities valid enough to be recognized on this day?” or “have we struggled enough to deserve to participate in National Coming Out Day?” Here’s where it comes back to labels. We decide the meanings we attribute to these words and then we judge. Why should one person who identifies one way fear so violently speaking their label? Owning their identity?”

“Our labels are both constricting and empowering when we first speak our truths. However, once society gets a hold of them, we’re leaving our words to be interpreted differently with each repetition of who we are.”

As I was reading Butler’s text, I was really caught up in this idea that all too often, our labels aren’t for us. Rather, they’re for others to make sense of or, frankly, cope with something that they perceive is different from the norm.  Lately, I’ve been feeling like labels and categories act to regulate the unfamiliarity that is associated with identifying as anything that is perceived as “other”  since we cannot locate other identities in the confining, typically binary, categories we are accustomed to. This is particularly interesting to me since many of my intersecting identities are both invisible and categorized as minority identities. [side note: I want to be careful here about how I represent and use intersectionality. I just want to note that the word “intersectionality” is often tied up in white feminism. Not a bad thing. I just want to consider and attend to thoughts about who is included and what assumptions accompany the use of that word.] In so many ways the responsibilities and opportunities available to us are aligned with society’s expectations for us based on our identities. This can have so many unintended and detrimental consequences.

And now, the question must be asked. To what extent do we really define our identities for ourselves?

Simply (although it’s not simple) all we really want is to be recognized for who we are. We have a desire to be acknowledged for who we are. Even the possibility of being seen for who we really are (maybe “becoming”) is desirable. What’s hard to grapple with is that for some people whose identities “violate” the norm their desire, and their wants and needs, are effectively put on trial. This trial, of sorts, serves to both normalize what is seemingly not normal and to assist or compel those individuals to ascribe to societal norms that most closely match their identity so they can gain access to services. I’m thinking here about transgender individuals who must submit to a diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID). It’s really a way that others deal with what is unfamiliar to them.

Mental health is great example of this. Often when people seek out services for mental health they report feeling relived even if initially the task of seeking support felt insurmountable. I think this relief comes from knowing that what they’re not alone. The possibility of fitting in even through the act of feeling or being ostracized is comforting. The existence of a community is enticing and soothing. Even just the fact that someone “gets it” or “believes them” can be relieving. The anxieties they anticipated feeling often diminish with the presentation of a diagnosis or the potential for better days (maybe this is a different type of validation?). But, at the same time, I can’t help but think about how accepting, announcing, or even seeking out, labels and consenting to this type of “normalization” (as in, it’s okay to struggle with mental health as long as we can call it something) and this categorization is one way an individual’s desire (also feelings/experiences) are simultaneously tested and validated. It is ironic to me (but really I want to use the word infuriating) that the “reward” or “accomplishment” for successfully proving the reality of your experience by subjecting yourself to someone else’s conclusion that your desire, or even prior to that your struggle, is authentic and persistent enough, is to be granted a diagnosis that qualifies them as disordered.  In a way, and sort of on the other hand, this diagnosis makes the person “intelligible” and grants them access to services and allows them to function in society. Their life is now understood in society’s terms and that makes their life “okay”.  This text exemplified for me how exclusionary practices, ie. a diagnosis (I ALSO MEAN HERE LABELS AND CATEGORIES) can be masked as inclusive and even medically necessary. I am troubled.

And to my point about who defines our identities, all too often it feels like autonomy is taken away from an individual and a person’s life is qualified and determined for them by restrictive practices that are contingent on an individual’s desire being qualified by someone else! Like, we have to convince people in power that certain aspects of our life are REAL. Because, if they aren’t real then how can we “find” ourselves in this world?

Another question I have then is, what about those whose struggle isn’t as easily visible? By this I mean, what about the minority identities we haven’t even TRIED to ignore (or oppress) and “normalize” yet because we haven’t even recognized them (think like hierarchies of minority identities here)? So, for those individuals, the possibility of being recognized at all is the more pressing issue at hand. That’s a different struggle.  If those people can’t see themselves in our world (ie. media, books, music, etc.) and find their community and if their struggle has yet to be recognized how might this persistent inferiority and feeling of being “unreal” or unrecognized make their oppression, their struggle, their voice that much harder to see and hear? And finally (for now) how does our own self-recognition factor into all of this? If we cannot “find” ourselves in the categories currently assembled and a remaking of the categories doesn’t seem possible then our quest for existence, figuratively, must lay dormant until others determine our eligibility for recognition. If others, society, won’t recognize us then how much more impossible might it seem for us to recognize ourselves and feel confident (rather than shameful) about our identities and who we are?

So, back to that quote… if “categories freeze that process of becoming” how can we overcome this debilitating desire (I would even argue necessity) in our lives to realize our true selves and recognize and respect each person for who they completely are?

So many thoughts! So many questions! I’ll keep thinking about it…

Confessions of a State School Ivy Leaguer (Part 1)

Some notes that I think should precede this post:

  1. I have been trying to write this for a while but I can’t seem to “finish” the post. It’s making me anxious to keep editing and rewriting so there will likely be a part 2 (at least). This is a starting point. We all have to start somewhere.
  2. I never thought I’d amount to anything better than state school (whatever that means). I feel like I was always “expected” to go to a public university. That being said, I LOVED UConn. My entire undergraduate experience was truly incredible and unexpectedly unbelievable. I learned SO MUCH! I grew so much. I’m incredibly proud to be a UConn alum and wouldn’t change a single thing about my experience.
  3. A part of me feels like there’s a lot of expectation for me to succeed here and not only represent myself well but also represent UConn well. It feels like any performance that is less than exceptional is unacceptable. I carry this burden (partially unwillingly) but also proudly. A part of me wants to prove I can do this. But it’s also a lot to deal with, especially when things aren’t going nearly as well as expected.
  4. Brown University isn’t a bad school. This writing is reflective of my experiences here NOT the institution itself.

When I was first deciding to come here, I had to confront a lot of my own insecurities and worries. I had to convince myself that my experiences and my aspirations aligned with the program I was accepted into. Essentially, I had to convince myself I was good enough, smart enough, intellectual enough to be here. Impostor Syndrome is real ( I didn’t know that then). Impostor Syndrome makes you work harder at everything you do while simultaneously forcing you to undermine and question your accomplishments by comparing yourself to your own perceptions of who and what is worthy of an “Ivy League Education”.  Basically , it makes you feel like all your accomplishments are a consequence of luck or circumstance. Basically, it makes you feel like YOU didn’t earn or deserve your opportunities or recognition. It makes it easy to prefer to be acknowledged as “mediocre” because then you don’t have to confront the disconnect between how you view yourself and how others perceive you to be. The best example of this I can recall, from my experience, is when an outstanding TA once said to me, “It started from my confused reaction to seeing such amazing things in you and also seeing that you didn’t see those things. I wondered to myself how things might change for you if you could see yourself the way I saw you.”  These words were super powerful for me!

Surprisingly, everything that challenged me about coming to this school (with regard to my own intellect, ability, and how “deserving” I was of this opportunity) became mostly obsolete (I realize that’s an oxymoron) once I got here. Admittedly, now (hindsight is 20/20), I NEVER could have predicted the real disappointments and challenges I’d face at this “elite” institution. That’s super frustrating! An advisor once told me that in life there are no counterfactuals (YAY economics!). He was super correct. Even when we think we’ve played out every alternative and every “what if” the truth is, we can never anticipate what we might experience and that reality coupled with the daunting feeling that once we choose we can never look back makes these decisions even harder.

In my opinion, Brown University oversells the name and undersells the quality. It’s one of those things you’d never know or think of until you’re here. No wonder I didn’t consider this! That’s the beauty of the signaling power of Ivy League universities. We find ourselves in these privileged spaces that are conceptualized as incredible and exceptional. [side note: taking a second to acknowledge there is privilege here regardless of how it’s created and maintained] This privilege is reinforced by how others think about and imagine “Brown University”. The thing is, I feel like this is a front. Because, the education I’m receiving doesn’t much different (certainly not better) that what I received at UConn. In fact, I recently found out that the professor I was so exited to do research with is collaborating with some of my professors at UConn on a few projects! So, in the world of academia everything is relatively interconnected. The name holds power and is desirable to employers BUT that’s probably and mostly because they don’t know any better.

I have yet to experience conscious conversations across or between difference. The kind of conversations where we separate the message from the messenger and critically consume what people are saying with the intention of crafting a collective learning space. I have no problem being challenged or having my perspective better (or differently) informed by additional viewpoints, opinions, experiences, or questions. I’m pretty sure that exchange is called learning. What I do have a problem with is feeling small. I have a problem feeling like I am constantly being judged, like my worth is decided before I speak based on anything I’ve said before, based on how others have interpreted my contributions, or what my peers believe to be my experience, intentionality, or privilege.

I absolutely realize the policy world is messy and challenging! I get that. What I didn’t expect was to confront this environment in the classroom. I expected to be exposed to a constructive, collaborative, communal, safe, eclectic learning space. Instead, what I walked into (and keep coming back to) was a condescending, unilateral, opinionated, inflexible, tense environment that is dominated by a select few voices that we’ve collectively put on a pedestal and allowed to be privileged in our space.

I’m tired of talking myself out of participating or preemptively convincing myself that my contributions are worthless (so others don’t do it for me). I know that I’m smart enough and intellectual enough. Those concerns may once have been my foci but that’s not the problem here anymore. Now I’m more preoccupied the toxic space we’ve created where I feel small and insignificant. It’s a space where I feel like my opinions don’t matter and my contributions are only considered to the extent that they can be criticized. The thing is, nobody is asking me my opinions – hence this blog! I realized recently, if I didn’t put myself out there, I’d never be heard because I’d never be invited to speak. Why is that? What does this say about our class dynamic? What does this dynamic indicate about whose voices and who, specifically, is respected, privileged, heard, or acknowledged?

I feel like I left what I knew and where I felt entirely comfortable. When I left, I jumped, deep, into something that was built up to be so amazing and stimulating. That basically left me with farther to fall. And I went because they pushed me! [side note: I’m really trying not to be mad about how forced this all felt] I left something so great for what I presumed (and certainly others presumed) was better.  I guess you can’t know or truly appreciate what you have til it’s gone.

Overwhelmingly, Brown University hasn’t met my expectations.

Today I Could Breathe!

I  feel like most of what I write is critical or negative. I want to take space to acknowledge the positive when I can. That’s important. That’s probably called, or may resemble something like, balance.

So, today was a good day!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about “owning this” and talked, generally, about how I’ve been experiencing some tough stuff and what that feels like. Those challenges are still incredibly real. They’re pervasive and unbelievably difficult. They’re even a bit dangerous in the ways they present themselves. [It’s a huge accomplishment for me to recognize and state this – just saying] Since then though, I’ve had some amazing conversations with friends and mentors.  I realized the utility of a support system in a different and more meaningful way than I have in the past. I appreciated my friends who created a space where I could articulate how truly miserable, scared, and uncertain I’ve been feeling. I privileged honesty and speaking my struggle in spaces where I felt safe.

I really hit a low point (I’m sill very much there) where I felt out of control. It’s like you know rationally that the behaviors you’re exhibiting aren’t healthy but you can justify them, contort them, and separate them from “you” right up until the moment when you can’t anymore and then the reality, gravity, and urgency of the situation feels so heavy, so crushing, it’s unbearable to attend to or face. I didn’t have the words to argue when my friends suggested I needed some support. It also wasn’t a time that I was asking for support. [you know you have amazing friends when you don’t need to ask] I’m pretty sure that when you get to such a defeated place, the arguments against seeking some help don’t hold water anyway. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to face it. I felt like if I did nothing in response to their concern that it wouldn’t be real. If I could keep avoiding it then, maybe,”I” wouldn’t need help. Turns out, the effort I spent avoiding all of this was, perhaps, more cumbersome than facing these struggles head first and bringing them into the light.

This past week, I heard a lot of things I really didn’t want to hear but I also realized the importance of both seeking out and receiving support. Throughout all these conversations two statements have been super influential for me: “I believe/hear you.” [validation] and “What do you need [from me]?” [support]. However, aside from just hearing these words, what’s been essential has been how I’ve responded to these statements. I accepted my friends’ feedback, their care, their warmth, attention, love, and guidance. Previously I didn’t want to respond to their outreach. I didn’t want to acknowledge their concern. What was different this time was that I shared my space, made myself vulnerable, and felt the true reciprocal nature of friendship. Specifically, I learned how necessary it is to allow or welcome [I tried “let” but it seemed too tied up in oppressive language, like laying down and “taking” their help] others’ supports. You don’t have to face this all alone. Asking for help or accepting it represents a different type of strength. It more closely resembles self-awareness and demonstrates that you know how to harness and leverage your resources in a way that lets you present your best self each day.

So, this week I did some evaluating and made some important, necessary decisions  (with the help of some amazing friends and a little motivator called accountabili-buddies [in other words, my friends getting on my case – because they care]). The interesting thing is, when the clouds parted and the sun shined through [that’s my interpretation of  how it feels the moment you experience relief – when you realize everything is not hopeless and things will in fact be okay, with some work and a whole lot of “next steps”] I acknowledged how seriously deep and detrimental this struggle has been.

Acknowledging and naming this, owning this, has been one of the most difficult and also inspiring and empowering things I’ve done in a long time. So, today was a good day. Today I did something so incredibly scary but also so necessary. I did something specifically for me. And many of the anxieties I had were lifted when I realized it was okay to not be “okay” and that for even an hour I didn’t need to spend all my energies on keeping up appearances. I could be genuine and admit my personal truths. Recognizing myself in this moment [even when this version of “me” feels so unrecognizable] had a positive impact I wasn’t prepared for. Embracing support didn’t feel as scary or weak as I expected it to feel. Rather, it felt reassuring. I felt like I could finally breathe today, like I could focus today. Today I felt worthy and (recently) uncharacteristically energized.  I felt light and most importantly I felt safe.

Thoughts on Relationships and Validation

Today, I’m tackling one of the topics on my “Things I Want to Write About” list: relationships and validation. This post isn’t about how great it feels to be told I’m right or consistently needing my ego stroked.  It’s about recognizing the power of and my appreciation for the friends in my life.

Months ago, I wrote the following important (to me) sentences:

“Relationships are among the many tools in your toolbox. They serve a purpose and they’re necessary to build your complete self”

That’s where I’ll start. This past year, I’ve learned a lot about relationships. I’ve learned to let people get to know me and I’ve started to understand and truly appreciate the necessity of reciprocity in friendships. I’ve allowed myself to be just vulnerable enough that I can accept others investment in me. Rather than pushing them away or putting up high walls, I’ve shared pieces of myself to add to the foundation of our relationship. Together we built something wonderful and soon I was able to feel how influential these investments were. In a year, I learned the meaning of true friendship and I’ve found my “people” (because why shouldn’t we reference Grey’s Anatomy wherever we can?!). I gained friends who likely know me better than I know myself and somehow, they always know the right thing to say to make everything better (or at least manageable for a moment).

Twice recently, I’ve had friends thank me for allowing them the space to “get enraged”. That’s the reciprocal part! That’s when I realized again that validation, active listening more precisely, is an essential aspect of friendship. I didn’t have to have the answers. I just needed to listen, acknowledge, and then ask what they needed from me. That shift from trying to “fix” the problem to simply supporting a friend has meant so much to me. It means that we can admit that sometimes the solutions are hard. We can respect and acknowledge each individual’s needs. Sometimes “I hear you. That sucks.” and saying or hearing nothing more is more powerful than whatever advice you could spew or pretend to listen to in the moment. Other times, our friends are our first line of defense where we can leverage our networks and share experiences and resources (when they are asked for of course. Consent is important!).

An interesting element about validation that I don’t think I initially realized is that in order to be validated, you have to share parts of  yourself – introduce people to the “real you”.  That means, you must have the tough conversations and sometimes let down walls or cross boundaries. You have to move past small talk. The benefit is, when you let the right person “in” you can experience the beauty of feeling truly cared for and important to someone. And, that’s all we can ask for some days. All we can hope for, all we can expect, is that we are important enough to someone and that our relationships are dynamic enough and salient enough to weather the storm and anything we might encounter.

This year, I’ve learned to love and rely on these relationships. The first time I realized how influential these friendships are was when a mentor, advisor, teacher, and now friend said to me “I hope you get everything you want”. That was one of the first times I felt genuinely supported without any external expectations. After I heard that, I smiled and felt like I could do exactly what I wanted without letting anyone down.  I can’t explain why that interaction touched me so significantly but, (at the risk of sounding cliché) it changed my life. So, since then I’ve been seeking out more meaningful moments like that. I’ve been searching for the spaces where I am heard. I’ve been wanting more friendships that change my life and warm my heart.

So, yes, validation feels good. It reminds me that relationships are necessary and that I’m not alone. It reminds me I CAN ask for help and, I don’t have to put up a front or appear to always be “okay”. Together we can share the true privilege of supporting each other – a privilege I like to call friendship. 

I Believe You – Color The World Orange Day

Today is November 2, 2015. It’s also Color The World Orange Day! Color The World Orange is an annual event held the first Monday of November to spread awareness of CRPS/RSD.

RSD, which stands for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, is something I’ve lived with each day for more than 10 years. It’s a chronic pain condition. Basically, my nerves constantly (that means all the time) signal to my brain that I am experiencing pain in both of my legs from my toes to my thighs. The cycle never stops. That means, I live in pain all day, every day.  When I tell people this, I usually get the following questions/reactions:

  • “So how Reflex-Sympathetic-Dystrophy_1024x1024can you do ALL those things?”
  • “Wow that’s so impressive that you’ve accomplished so much even with this condition”
  • “Does it really hurt all the time?”
  • “Is it a psychological thing”/ “Is it all in your head?”
  • “It must not be that bad.”
  • “Can’t you just take medication?”
  • “You don’t look/act/seem sick.”

These statements are so incredibly frustrating to hear! My illness does not define me but it6c8e3bea9c73a0237d96592aaa02a506 is a huge and REAL aspect of my life. Instead I’d rather hear “I believe you”. Living with an invisible illness means that if you choose to tell people about your condition you constantly have to convince people that you’re struggling. Why is that? Why do I need to prove myself to anyone else? Similar to mental illness, chronic, invisible, physical illnesses are challenging to confront each day.  And when you identify with so many other things (yay intersectionality!) in addition to your chronic illness those who judge have a hard time fitting the pieces of your life together. Apparently, if it doesn’t make sense by their logic, it must not be real.

For a9490d6128d485966fed12d135823d23so many people living with chronic illness, we put up a front. Each day we go out into the world attempting to convince others (and ourselves) that we’re “fine” or “normal”. We have to, because we cannot allow our condition to control our lives or confine us. We can achieve and be excellent despite of or in the face of our chronic condition. Each day, we face a demon that wants us to stay down. It’s a demon we have to overcome. But what’s challenging is that even when we give off the appearance of being “fine” we’re struggling.  And then, if we’re successful, people assume we are fine. What complicates this is that once they assume you’re fine they have a difficult time hearing that you’re not. And when they do, their disposition toward you turns to pity or astonishment. The truth is, if I were to be honest about how much pain I feel each day it would likely make others uncomfortable. When I do tell people, they’re impressed by me. Don’t be impressed by me. Please. This is just who I am. We all have things that challenge us and shape our identities. This is one of mine. Instead, please accept my story and take this as an opportunity to learn more about the multiple dimensions of me. I live in pain each day and I’m incredibly good at putting up a front. Sometimes this gets me in trouble because I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring my physical (and sometimes mental) obstacles in order to live a “normal” life and do everything I expect for myself. Sometimes that makes me work harder and push myself more. I can’t allow my pain to rule me. I have to literally triumph over pain and then some each day. The extra bit is to prove to whomever that I am more than my diagnosis and that my accomplishments are above and beyond simply “in spite of my condition”.

As I mentioned, when people find out you have a chronic illness their disposition toward you changes. Your accomplishments (the ones others use to craft their opinions of your success or worth) are elevated because we extend sympathies to those who “own their struggle” or because we can’t relate and we feel uncomfortablewhat-is-a-spoonie so we attribute praise. I’m just me. I’m one ordinary person with this specific challenge and I’m here to say it’s a constant part of my life but it’s not the only part of my life. I’m a Spoonie. In some ways, I need to be constantly aware of my daily obligations so I don’t burn out. Burn out is real. Running out of spoons is why I often “quit” at 9:30 PM these days. But that’s my reality.  And, all you get to do is accept that and support me. You don’t get to judge and decide for yourself based on my actions how severely I’m suffering or how real my pain is. You don’t get to decide for me if I’m making this up. You get to listen and validate. And gosh! Validation feels so good! Validation sounds like “I believe you”. It sounds like “what do you need from me”. It presents like genuine understanding.

Two Words: Personality and Authenticity

There are two words that I can’t quite wrap my head around recently: “personality” and “authenticity”. When I googled these words, I got the following definitions:

Personality: individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving

Authenticity: the quality of being authentic. So then authentic means, genuine or real.

So now let’s think this through. Individually first and then together. Warning: what follows is the epitome of overthinking. This is about to get messy and incoherent really fast. Be prepared!

The reason I’ve been thinking so much about personality is because I’ve been hearing two phrases over and over recently: “that wouldn’t work for me” and “you do you”. This has been important to me because both responses seem really dismissive and minimizing to the other person. Personality is tough to navigate and it’s always changing. People judge our personality the minute they meet us. (More about this when authenticity is brought into the conversation.) And then, when we think about the definition and consider our patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving it’s hard to delineate which informs which. In an intense moment we might respond impulsively and then be reminded later (by ourselves or someone else) to “think before we act”.  Sometimes we’ll blame this kind of behavior on temperament. Conversely, we may think (possibly too much) about a choice before we behave but no matter how much consideration and attention we give to a decision we may not feel confident or like we made the “right” choice. And all these things (yes, feelings too) create our personality. We likely all can recall a time where we felt like our actions were in conflict with our values or what we thought was correct. It’s like your insides, your personality, are splitting and that’s partly because we all have a conscience and rational thinking. So then, how does consciousness or morality or even mindfulness play into the equation?

ENOUGH! When I googled “personality” I got 305,000,000 responses in under a minute. I also realize people write entire books, courses, etc. on this and I could reasonably go on and on confusing myself in my own negotiations and wonderings forever if I wanted to (it happens ALL the time!). Moving on…

Now for authenticity. Being genuine. If you were to look up genuine, you would find words like “real” or “honest”. The first things this makes me think of (aside from the retail industry) is Brene Brown. However, that’s not what we’re directly talking about today. Authenticity is doing what’s best for YOU and recognizing how you feel, what you’re thinking, and what you need. It’s also about acting authentically. Do you know anyone who you feel like is always acting “so fake”? And you can tell can’t you? Sometimes I do that too. When people first meet me, I’m enthusiastic to a nearly off-putting degree.  It’s a front. Because, when people get to know me they realize I’m actually less dynamic than that most of the time. A more accurate depiction of me would be complacency. For example, I am known to say “that sucks” and “that’s great” with the same inflection. When people get to know me they also get to know about my experience, aspirations, morals, and obviously my thoughts (including what’s important to me). At this point (if they REALLY know me) they can begin make associations between me and my actions. It’s also when they can better understand my intentionality and (hopefully) correctly judge my behaviors. In fact, even if they don’t know the “real” me, they’ll be conjuring up their opinions of me. Authenticity is really hard. It’s especially difficult in new environments where social anxiety is typically at the forefront and when good first impressions feel imperative.

So how do these come together? You have to know yourself to act authentically. That’s first. The sassy comment “you don’t even know me” that we’ve all heard could perhaps be turned inward and be point a self-criticism or reflection too.

Before we get too deep, a side note: in the act of attesting that we feel people don’t know us or drawing attention (subtly or not) to our differences (we are all different, as we know), we’re also not inviting people to engage with us. Rather than taking the opportunity to create conversation and bolster relationships we’re too often deepening the crevices between ourselves in the vein of “personality”.

This is also interesting because our personalities are always changing and being challenged every day. Lately I’ve been feeling like I don’t even know myself anymore. I’ve quite literally lost sight of who I am in this program. Graduate school challenges you and makes you super vulnerable. So what complicates this is that while we attest that others don’t know us, we also likely don’t know ourselves as well as we think. Or in some regards, at all. You have to be honest with yourself and that’s part of knowing yourself. So recognizing there’s work to be done is a huge first step. I am also temped at this point to question myself and exclaim “you just said we’re always changing so how could we know ourselves?!?” But I think instead I’ll just say, personality is super complicated. At a simplistic level, our experiences inform our values and actions which shape our thinking, feeling, and behaving ie. our personality.

So it’s a bit cyclical (isn’t everything?). And that’s why I can’t wrap my head around it all. It’s like what comes first, authenticity or personality? Is the act of being authentic how you represent your true personality? Does being attuned to your personality allow you to be authentic and act authentically? Anyway, I don’t have all the answers but I know these words are important in nearly every interaction and every sphere of our lives. In an effort to attend to more self exploration and self learning I’m going to be paying close attention to these words. If I’m quick to reply with “oh, that wouldn’t work for me” I’m going to try to ask myself why.

Likewise, I am practicing owning my experiences, thoughts, values, feelings, etc. Being authentic means answering even the hard questions or problematizing (my favorite not-word word) your inclinations and behaviors. It could also mean just attending to your tough thoughts. Then, acting in a way that is authentic and aligns with your personality rather than the role it seems like you’re expected to play out in daily life.

To conclude: You’re better than conformity. If you’re lost, be lost until you find out who or what is authentically YOU. And do the work to figure it out! Then act accordingly. Don’t settle for the prescribed trajectory people have carved out for your life. Challenge assumptions (yours and others). Be okay with not knowing.

Explore. Live. Find you. Be you.