This is where the magic happens.
Z – Zestful living; zigzags are to be expected
There is but one reason to pay attention to who you are and who you want to be: because it makes your life better.
When I started this month of blogging, my hope was to inspire a few people to keep up the lifelong work of self-development.
I am proud of the changes I have made over the years and proud of where I think I’m heading, too. The changes I’ve made to become emotionally stronger and more evolved, to love myself and honor my good qualities, to be less judgmental and a better listener, all have helped me embrace a quality life.
I wish I woke up every day with a zest for life, flinging open the windows, and yelling, “I’m awake, world! Let’s do this!” That’s not realistic for my morning persona. But I do think my growth lets me remind myself constantly that today is the only today I get. No matter what is dished out, I had better find the reasons to embrace it. I can choose how I view and approach everything that comes my way, so I might as well find the best possible way to do it.
The great thing is that when you are looking for reasons to seize the day, they pop up for you to see.
Y – YOU are the best!
As we head into the last day of the A-to-Z Challenge, I want to say thank you to everyone who has been reading along. I want to say thank you to all of the new followers and blog subscribers. But I especially want to thank my friends and family who have been here long before we started.
I appreciate my daughter – the love of my life – who gave me some great feedback on topics and who has been mentioned frequently.
I appreciate all of my friends who have made appearances in some way in this month of writing, but especially Christine who I think got quoted multiple times. And I’m so excited about my new friend-by-proxy V., whose comments I get through Christine on the regular. I’m looking forward to meeting you in person and congrats on your big news!!
Thank you to everyone who encouraged me to just get it done in one way or another, even though life was getting in the way. I really appreciate the encouragement to just do something, it didn’t have to be great. That’s a struggle for me and a symptom of perfectionism, so I am thankful for the push to just do it. (Thanks, kid.)
I have really appreciated the comments left by new visitors and returning visitors. You really helped keep me going, as I could confirm there were people actually reading. You are so awesome! A big shout out to Afshan! Your repeated visits kept me motivated. I owe your blog a lot of reading time, which I will get to next week. I promise.
I am working on what the future is for this blog and website. I do plan to continue blogging on a weekly basis, perhaps twice weekly once the rhythm of my life allows for that not to feel burdensome. I am open for suggestions on what to write about. One of my plans is to take some of my favorite topics from this month and expand them in several directions.
I plan to start making companion videos as well, for those (like me) who are also addicted to YouTube. My friends keep joking that I need a podcast where they all can be featured guests. I love that thought and if I can get them to seriously join me, I will give that plan some strong consideration.
I’m glad to be writing again as it is both therapeutic and makes me feel like I have a purpose that I love. I also am thrilled I took this challenge to focus on a topic I’d never shared before in writing. Talking about how I improved myself was actually really hard for me, as I often feel like I’m stuck or have never learned to be an adult. As I struggle with imposter syndrome or feelings that I never do enough, it’s been great to talk about what I have done and have accomplished. I really have come a long way and I do like the person I am now.
Thanks to everyone subscribing who didn’t even complain about the days (like today) where I posted repeatedly, resulting in multiple emails, because I couldn’t keep up. I appreciate your patience.
Thank you again, all of you. You really are the best.
Join me tomorrow to wrap up this party, so we can start planning the next one!
X – xoxoxo
Admittedly, this title is a bit of a stretch. 😊
Here is what I want to say:
Love your friends. And if you don’t have friends you love, quit them and find new ones.
You don’t need many. One or two will do in a pinch.
Cherish them and work on those relationships. Be vulnerable with them. Ask them for help and offer them yours. Remember their birthdays. Cry with them on the phone. Drink wine and laugh with them. Be there for them when times are hard.
I don’t know how I ever would have survived this long without my friends. I xoxoxo them to pieces.
W – Welcoming big changes
I am not a lover of big changes.
I lived in my last home for 20 years, even though I was drowning in repairs and needed to downsize.
I stayed at my last job for 20 years, even though I should have been making a lot more money with my experience.
I’ve hung on to a few relationships for WAY too long.
When I do decide that I’m going to make a big change, it takes me a very long time to make it happen. I prefer having a lot of ducks in a row. Maybe not all of my ducks, but a good amount of them.
Change is HARD for me.
Imagine my resistance when my child was hurtling toward high school graduation, college, and adulthood; I was discussing marriage with my now-husband; and I was preparing for the sale of my house and subsequent move. Throw in the death of my mom and a global pandemic and I was in rapid-change hell.
I wanted most of those changes (not losing my mom or having a pandemic). I wanted to move my life forward in so many ways. I wanted to celebrate my daughter moving her life forward in all of the normal ways.
In those years, I had to breathe deeply a lot. I had to do the best I could and accept my limits. I had to focus on what was fun and celebratory. Even with the deep sadness of my mom’s death, my siblings and I threw a phenomenal funeral that was a true celebration of her life and allowed people to grieve, gather together, and toast her life. Even with the shitstorm of the pandemic, I was happy to spend so much time with my dogs and so little time in the car. Even with the hard, hard, hard work of decluttering, purging, and selling a home, I could embrace that each activity put me one step closer to a home with less maintenance and a much lower house payment.
Although learning to parent an adult child was new and hard at times, I could celebrate every moment that it was happening because we both had life-threatening health challenges we had survived. Every day I get to be here to be her mom, I am grateful. Every day of her existence is a gift I once thought would be taken away. So, learning to relate to her as an adult? WOO HOO! WE DID IT!
So, no, I didn’t embrace all of these changes, but I did allow myself to give most of them a solid side hug.
V – Valuing me
What is it like to really, truly value yourself?
It’s always been a difficult concept for me, but one I’ve worked hard to accept. I know very few people that really value themselves – which is not only having great self-esteem, but also taking care of yourself. I can think of one acquaintance who I think does value her own person and, in declaring it so, often comes across as a conceited know-it-all. That, I think, is the danger most women are trying to avoid when they really believe in themselves.
But my acquaintance isn’t conceited. I know her well enough to know she doesn’t believe she is better than anyone. She just believes she is great and worthy. And she doesn’t care what people think about her, so she is willing to say that she likes herself and she thinks she’s pretty awesome. It’s a symptom of our (my) own lack of self-worth that we can hear someone say that and think, “how self-centered!” The key to avoiding being conceited is to also value others.
Valuing me has meant trying hard to acknowledge the stuff about me that IS great. I have no problem whatsoever valuing other people. In fact, I’m quite good at staying focused on their positive qualities (often to my detriment – we have to see the whole person!) while self-reflecting only on my negative traits. One way to do this is to actually set aside time to take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally.
rather than beat myself up for missing work to go to physical therapy, I applaud myself for taking the steps I need to care for my body and the time I prioritize to do so.
rather than avoiding looking in the mirror because I feel haggard, I stop and admire how great I look under the circumstances. And sometimes I think, “I’d like to do my makeup.” I love my lipstick and making my eyes look “kapow!” That is an act of self-care to me.
rather than regretting the time lost on a Saturday afternoon to do other things, I take a nap because I need it.
rather than listening to the voice that says I’ve accomplished nothing at ___ (fill-in-the-blank), I silence that negative notion and tell myself three things I did achieve. Even if I’m scratching the bottom of the barrel (i.e. “I got out of bed”), I let myself celebrate that I did it.
rather than struggling with a resume or bio because I don’t think I have much to add, I review what people I know have on their resumes or LinkedIn. I let myself see that I have done the same or even more than what they have shared!
It’s an ongoing struggle for me and I sometimes rely too much on other people to help boost my self-esteem. Over the years, though, I’ve learned who I can trust to be my surrogate “me” voice in my head. When I’m feeling worthless, I reach out to them and ask for the support I need. In a matter of time, I am back on track allowing the voice in my head to be the support I need for myself.
U – Understanding my limits … for now
I’m not a person who knows my limits. And when I hit those limits, I get really frustrated. Especially if they are physical limits.
Frustration breeds two things in me: depression or anger. That means I either feel sorry for myself when I hit a limit or I get angry and try to keep going anyway.
Sometimes, when I keep going, it works out great. Most of the time, I just do dumb things like pull a muscle, get into something over my head, or cause myself far more work than necessary. Objects have been known to get broken.
I do work to understand my limits and have gotten better at this recently. A knee injury a few years ago placed a lot of physical limitations on me. Although I continued to push myself hard, it was extraordinary how much the constant aching slowed me down. I hated it.
But knowing my limits – and allowing myself to understand that I was actually very limited – opened the doors to finding other ways to deal with it.
Rather than continuing to struggle (with the hard breathing, exhaustion, and slowness that came with it), I learned to ask others to do tasks that were easy enough for them and save me some energy for later. Rather than constantly falling into walls, I learned to use a cane which made things better. And rather than continuing down this path of knee problems, I pursued physical therapy and weight loss surgery.
Had I continued to fight against the limits, I would have just grown more angry or wallowed more in my restrictions.
But by facing those limits, I opened up to new solutions. Now, I’m experimenting with new limits and seeing where that takes me.
T – Try a little bit
Originally, I had planned to write about travel for today. However, I hit a little wall again and couldn’t find it in me to finish these posts for a few days. When I confessed this to my wise-beyond-her-years daughter, she suggested writing about “trying a little bit.”
Boom. That’s exactly what I need to do right now. Just try a little bit.
Life has been … hard. I can’t really find a better word. Maybe complicated would work. After months of caring for my dad* on hospice, I’m mentally and physically lagging. Of course, I’m still working on everything I can for my health (see A-S and later letters), but it’s predictably one of the most difficult times of my life.
(*Splitting primary care with my sister and having a lot of regular family and friend help.)
My sweet dad is 96-years-old and has lived a phenomenal life. He is well-loved and deserves the very best, most dignified treatment in his final months. I believe we are giving him that – and doing a really good job at it. For myself, though, I also have to work full-time. My “shifts” at dad’s are overnight (after work until morning) and parts of most weekends. I’m not seeing my husband, my dogs, or my home very often. And I’m working daily on telling my beloved father goodbye.
I know what you are thinking: that’s enough! Take care of yourself! Don’t do anything more! While I understand that sentiment and partly agree, my life feels on hold, especially with the the things that give me peace of mind: gardening, home projects, reading, writing. This blog, for example – I know I feel better when I write, but I also hit walls where I can’t think for one more second of the day.
So, I’m trying to find the balancing act of what helps me without feeling like an obligation. What brings me joy and soothes my mind without causing yet another tasks to pop on the list.
This is where trying a little bit comes in.
Have I started all of my seeds for my garden (which should get started in about 2-3 weeks)? Not even close. I started two things: broccoli and eggplants. I killed the broccoli the first day I put them outside. I still have high hopes for the eggplant. The tomatoes, peppers, and other early starts are just going to have to be started when I feel like I can try just a little.
Writing blog posts? It’s happening now. It might not continue to happen as planned. They might not be very good. That’s ok. I’ll try a little and call it good.
When I haven’t seen my husband in two weeks, he drives 40 minutes to my office and we have lunch, sitting in the car and talking like we are dating. It’s fun. It’s not what either of us would rather be doing (napping being the correct answer there), but we are trying to do a little something and that keeps us going.
If you are overwhelmed or just depressed, give it a shot. Try a little bit and see what happens.
S – Strengths training
I have been really fortunate throughout my career to have been offered plenty of development tools. One such tool – the CliftonStrengths assessment – came along at the same time I was working with my therapist using a Positive Psychology lens. The kismet alignment of this work both professionally and personally really reinforced the lessons and usefulness of the tools.
Let’s back up a moment and talk about each tool. CliftonStrengths (called the Clifton StrengthsFinder when I first encountered it) is an assessment tool that evaluates your performance to determine your strengths. By taking a deeper dive into learning those strengths, you can uncover what makes you unique and what skills you should lean into. Rather than focusing on improving areas where you may not be skilled, the assessment helps you learn how to use your strengths to accomplish goals in a way that fits you better. The program was developed in 1990 by a psychologist Donald Clifton, referred to as the “grandfather of positive psychology.”
See why they fit together?
Positive Psychology isn’t exactly what it sounds. It’s not about staying on the sunny side of life or taking a Pollyanna approach to living. Positive Psychology is the study of strengths that allow people to thrive. Rather than focus on what needs fixing in your life, you focus on what is working, what are the best parts of you. By leaning into those things, you are happier and more fulfilled, which opens the doors to building new, related skills. By building upon your existing strengths, you bring along the weaker parts of you until they, too, are stronger.
Both my experiences working with my Positive Psychology therapist and learning about the CliftonStrengths in a professional setting were a revelation. No longer did I feel like I had so much work to do on self-improvement. I was a whole and complete person just the way I was! I even had qualities that were stronger than others, qualities that people I knew wished they had. And by using my strengths to their fullest potential, I could find ways to work around my weaknesses or improve them enough to be useful.
(If you are wondering, mine are Strategic | Learner | Woo | Ideation | Positivity.)
I’ve found the CliftonStrengths to be incredibly useful in working with and managing others – far more so than any other professional tool that seems similar. This isn’t a commercial for CliftonStrengths, but it could be! It has helped me through some difficult working relationships. It helps me often balance the work on our team. I have found that it gives me insight into how a staff member could be inspired to work better. And, yes, it lets me stay more on the sunny side of life.
I don’t think anyone needs to use CliftonStrengths or have a therapist who specializes in Positive Psychology to benefit from this research. There are some great books and tools available. (The Positive Psychology Center where this research started is probably the best place to begin.) The best part of all is that it’s truly fun! For me, it felt like the first time ever I could focus on what was great about me and not dwell on what wasn’t.
R – Reading 100 books in a year
In 2013, aka “the year I almost lost my mind completely,” I decided to read more books.
I actually started around June 1 with an idea that I would sign up for my library’s adult summer reading program. The prize pack offered was for any adult who read 1,000 pages in the 8-week program. I didn’t really do the math, but when I made it through 294 pages by day two, I realized this wasn’t much of a challenge for me. I soon collected my prize pack (I think there was a bookmark, a pencil, and coupons to local businesses) and had to up the goal for myself.
My terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year started Christmas Day of the prior year and escalated to total misery by the time the New Year rolled around. I threw myself into therapy and self-help books to get through initial shock of everything, but by June, I was tired of working on myself, especially when I realized I wasn’t most of the problem.
I shared with my friends, “In an effort to give myself something better to do than self-torment, I have decided to throw myself into reading. Oh, sure, I always read, but I mean READ read. Actually finish all of the books I’ve started. Get through a book in a day or two. Pick books I WANT to read rather than ones I HAVE to read or think would be good for me. Touch paper. Dog-ear pages. Tell people how awesome ‘this book I’m reading’ is.”
Earlier in the year, when I was in the throes of “what is wrong with me? how did this happen,” a friend took me aside and said, “I have some unsolicited advice for you. Read.” I responded, “Oh, I read all of the time. My therapist gives me book assignments. I’m trying to learn how to meditate. I’m reading Pema Chodron.” She stopped me and said, “no, read fiction. Anything you want, but just read fiction. It has helped me so much. Has gotten me through some really bad times.”
I was puzzled, but said I would give that a try. And, hoo-wee, baby! Let me tell you how that changed my life.
I upped my challenge beyond 1,000 pages to read 100 books within the year. I counted backwards to January and was around 25 books or so at my starting point in June. My friend’s advice had come to me around May, so I had just started to dip my toe into the “only read fiction” waters. But with an aggressive reading goal before me, I dove into my fiction reading list and started whipping through pages.
A few books in, I got it. I saw the complete wisdom of her advice.
I could learn innumerable life lessons in fiction writing and none of it had to be about me. None of it was homework to change or improve myself. I could learn without feeling pressure. I could identify with these fictional characters without having to dissect their problems. I could just be in the book and absorb the story.
My mind relaxed. My overall mood improved, while my moment to moment mood would ebb and flow with the storylines in my books. I could read about complicated and sad scenarios, but not feel too overwrought, knowing this were creations of the author’s mind. I could feel things without feeling too hard.
I also discovered and rediscovered fiction genres. I learned that I LOVE LOVE LOVE young adult (YA) literature and historical fiction. I had no idea, as I hadn’t explored either as an adult. I rediscovered my love of Victorian and transcendental writers, and found a few I didn’t like at all. I appreciated a few trashy novels for the quick and easy reads that they were, and found subgenres of chick lit that were very light and fun, like hanging out with a friend.
My introduction into historical fiction has turned into something of an obsession. These days, I have to make sure I read outside of that genre. And I no longer read self-help books. Occasionally, one will sneak in, as it seems work-related, but I rarely can finish them or only do so begrudgingly. They just no longer hold any appeal to me.
I do read non-fiction, typically in the form of a biography. It’s people sharing their stories that attracts me: this is me, in all my messiness and glory. I’m like you more than you realize.
I have been so glad for the adventure of ditching self-help and turning to fiction to help myself in a kinder, gentler way. Over and over again, I have learned that people share similar struggles and joys; mine are not unique and that is very comforting.
Q – Quiet time
Are you a blog subscriber who received four emails from me today? My apologies! I’m catching up on the A-to-Z Challenge. I had to take a little break, but I’m back at it and ready to finish the month strong.
I am a meditation failure.
I have been trying and failing at meditation for probably 20 years.
I know all of the tricks to refocusing your mind, using mantras, or focusing on certain images. My buzzy bee brain flits from one thought to the next before my mind even finishes thinking, “ok, focus on this …”
But quiet time is significantly important to resting your mind and your body. I have the body resting part down pat; it’s the mind resting that evades me.
15 years ago, a therapist introduced me to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and I forever gave up on meditation. Ok, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic. I do occasionally still try to clear my mind, but I stopped pressuring myself to learn how to meditate. I fell in love with MBSR and haven’t looked back.
MBSR is a technique – a type of meditation (although my failing ass won’t ever call it that) – that makes you aware of the moment and fully present. (Whereas I see meditation as making you blank to the moment – blissfully separate and calm, without a need for attachment to the present.) Wikipedia gives this definition:
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploration of patterns of behaviour, thinking, feeling and action. Mindfulness can be understood as the non-judgmental acceptance and investigation of present experience, including body sensations, internal mental states, thoughts, emotions, impulses and memories, in order to reduce suffering or distress and to increase well-being. Mindfulness meditation is a method by which attention skills are cultivated, emotional regulation is developed, and rumination and worry are significantly reduced. During the past decades, mindfulness meditation has been the subject of more controlled clinical research, which suggests its potential beneficial effects for mental health, as well as physical health. While MBSR has its roots in Buddhist wisdom teachings, the program itself is secular. The MBSR program is described in detail in Kabat-Zinn’s 1990 book Full Catastrophe Living.
While I have not yet experienced a full 8-week course, my therapist at the time was a devotee to Kabat-Zinn. She walked me through a number of exercises and gave me homework to practice. I read Kabat-Zinn’s book and followed some videos online. Soon, I was able to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life.
This skill has served me very well and it is my #1 tool for calming anxiety, racing thoughts, or other distress. I can exercise a mindfulness routine in a matter of seconds and feel calmer, more centered, and more clear-headed. Sometimes, it even makes me feel more awake. I will use it when starting a new project, as a way to downshift from one and clear my head for the next. I’ll use it if I’m in a moment of misunderstanding with someone, feeling my blood start to boil (and possibly entering a fight or flight response). It will slow my heart rate, soothe my mind, and get me back into dealing with the facts instead of uncontrolled emotion.
For me, mindfulness can be summarized in action as focusing so intently on something that all other parts of your world are momentarily shut out. I will do it with intention – not as an escape from a moment, but as an opportunity to recenter myself into the moment. I picture it like grabbing a hold of my brain and saying, “stay put. Here. Right here.”
I do it at my desk frequently. In that case, I will walk myself through acknowledging all of my body: my feet on the floor, my butt in the chair, how I can feel the chair pressing against the back of my legs, straightening my spine to press into the chair back, and how my wrists rest on the table. I would focus intently on a key on the computer or the woodgrain in my desk. All of the while, I will walk myself through everything I see and hear without moving a muscle: the cars outside, the hum of the HVAC, the smell of my flowers, the feel of the keys under my fingers. After a few moments, I will remind myself to breathe properly, to sit up straight and be comfortable in my chair, and that I am safe and all is right with the world.
I can change my attitude in these few seconds or rejuvenate my mind.
As I mentioned yesterday, gardening is a favorite meditation for me. When gardening, I can mindfully focus on the tiniest things in front of me, acknowledging all of the ways my senses are engaged, and truly relishing the moments. I don’t even have to work at doing a mindfulness exercise when I garden. Gardening IS a mindfulness exercise for me.
I would highly recommend to anyone to try MBSR. It’s been a total game-changer for me!
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