Petal by Petal

“There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t even started wondering about yet.” Roald Dahl 

When I first read this quote, it stopped me in the middle of my whole day and tears filled my eyes. It hit me right in the perfect smack middle of this season of growth I’m in, which has honestly been my favorite season yet. I’ll be 29 in a month, and I always thought I would exit my twenties white-knuckling the last remnants of my youth. But as it turns out I truly cannot wait for my 30s. Turns out, I actually wouldn’t want to repeat my 20s even if you paid me. All those endless days filled with self-doubt, and doing things I didn’t want to do because I didn’t know myself, and laying awake at night thinking if I made one wrong move I would irreparably screw up my life.

This no-margin-for-error, no-breathing-room way of living was killing me. And the added pressures to perform and “keep up” only increased exponentially when I got married. Suddenly there was someone there with a front row seat to all of my anxiety and all of my crazy, which incidentally only made me crazier. I knew if I didn’t get help I would likely destroy my marriage and myself.

So that’s what I did: I got help. I cannot stress the importance and benefits of counseling enough.

Asking for professional help is not only for those with “daddy and mommy” issues”, as the unkind jokes and stigmas normally go. After going to counseling once a week for over a year-and-a-half, I now honestly believe everyone needs counseling. Yes, everyone. Yes, you.

Because the thing is, life is like that bleary-eyed essay you put off until the last minute back in high school and it’s now 2am, and you are desperately trying to edit out all the grammatical and technical mistakes. But guess what? You can’t see them anymore. You are literally blind from looking at that essay for so long. And when the teacher gives it back, you wonder how you missed all those places now marked in red.

A counselor can take an objective look at your life and see the root causes for things like why you can’t sleep at night; why you are overeating even though you hate yourself for it; why you aren’t brave enough to begin the thing you really want to do; why your life feels empty; why you can’t connect with your spouse; why you can’t ask for the things you need; why you are hung up on something that happened half a lifetime ago; why you get explosively angry over the smallest things; why you carry that ball of dread around in your chest without being able to pinpoint a reason.

None of these are good or healthy ways to live, and counseling has the power to set you free, if you are willing to accept that help. I know, because I am not even the same person I was even 1 year ago.

Each week, after every counseling session, my husband and I go to Trader Joe’s to buy flowers. Because, honestly, counseling is hard. Some days significantly more so than others. It’s raw. It’s vulnerable. And sometimes I cry until my eyes feel like sandboxes. So, flowers. To remind me that with every secret and vulnerable thought voiced, I am slowly—slowly—gaining the tools to become free. Each week I pluck off a petal, dry it, and save it. I have quite a lot now. And all of the individual petals together have created something beautiful all on their own.

Bit by bit, little by little, petal by beautiful petal, I’ve turned a complicated, debilitating haze of depression and self-doubt into something new, freeing, and wholly unrecognizable from who I used to be. I’ve slowly learned I can ask for what I need and feel empowered to take charge of things that I previously felt powerless over.

A few weeks back I heard something profound on a podcast (changing subjects, but this is related I promise). It was one of those rare moments that utterly switched the direction of the tracks in my life (picture a suspenseful Western where a train is headed over a cliff until someone pulls the switch to reroute the train to safety). It was on the Annie F. Down’s podcast (which I highly recommend) and she was talking with writer Jon Acuff about a new book he released called Finish. While talking about his book he mentioned one reason people have such an impossible time finishing anything is because they live by what he calls “secret rules”.

According to Acuff, these secret rules are strict, unspoken guidelines we live our lives by that are actually completely nonsensical and misery-making. For example, a secret rule a mom might live by might go something like, if I’m not devoting 100% of my time to my family then I’m a bad mother/wife. Therefore this overworked mother may give up on any personal dreams or goals she has because she is mistakenly labeling them as “selfish”. Or maybe you are trying to get in shape and you think the only way to do that is to run three miles at 5 am and eat salads. But if you hate to run and hate to wake up early and hate salads, how long do you think that will last? Stop living by the secret rule that says “this is how other people do it” and find a way to accomplish something that you are actually excited about. If you hate to run, STOP RUNNING. Dance to lose weight instead, if that’s what you like to do.

I’ll give you a secret rule from my own life. If you know me at all, you know it’s my highest dream to be a writer. But every time I sit down to write a short story or something fictional, the words just won’t come and I literally make myself sick with the pressure to write. One time I stressed so hard I literally lost vision in my right eye for about 5 minutes. It was terrifying. Yet I still pushed myself and forced myself to hammer out words, thinking that’s just what a writer does.

Because from a young age, I think a secret rule I’ve lived by is this: Real Writers Write Fiction. Not nonfiction. Not memoirs. Not cookbooks. Not anything but bona-fide fiction.

But you know what I realized with sudden and pristine clarity after listening to that podcast? I’ve never been able to see my fiction writing through because I actually think I HATE WRITING FICTION. At least right now in this time of my life.

There. I said it. And I’m still reeling from the realization. But it felt SO dang good to let myself off the hook from forcing myself to write something I just didn’t want to write, and realize it’s not because I’m a hopeless untalented failure; it’s just that I don’t like doing that kind of writing.

It’s taken me years to realize this because I adore reading fiction so much, and so it just stands to reason that if I like to write, then fiction is what I would write. But you know what? Turns out I like nonfiction writing more. Like what I’m doing right now. I like writing to people about struggling. I like writing to people about issues they may also struggle with so they don’t feel so alone. And if ever I am published one day, it will be because I did the kind of writing that energized me and carried me to the finish line rather than laboring under the secret rule of “real writer’s write fiction”.

So I say to you: If you don’t like it, it’s not because you just need to try harder or have more discipline. It’s because it’s sucking the life and creativity out of you. If you hate something but continue to do it, chances are there’s a secret rule festering in there somewhere. Dig it out. Heal. Begin again…this time with something you know brings you joy. I have a feeling it will change the entire direction of your life.

Which brings me back to Roald Dahl: “There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t even started wondering about yet.”

Oh, is that good or what?

What have you not started wondering about yet? What have you buried in yourself for fear it isn’t “sensible” enough, or you feel too powerless to reach it? If you do not love your work, ask yourself what you do love and if there’s a way to make that your life, or at least into a hobby that brings you back to feeling like you are living authentically.

Stop doing what makes you miserable. Unearth the secret rules in your life. Get some counseling. Cut out the toxic things. And start wondering again.

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Adding “Selfish” to Your Vocabulary

Yesterday, I was stuck. Not only with an assignment I didn’t want to be doing but also just stuck in my head–which is the WORST kind of stuck to be.

It’s that mental kind of stuck where you feel like each thought is drifting up through molasses. It’s a place of doubt. A place with no air. A place where panic begins to seep in and steal all of your truth, where lies will settle over you one after the other if you let them. And they’ll take you down so fast.

I think we can all agree that that’s a bad space to be in. So I decided to get up and leave the toxic thoughts that had started to pile up around my computer, get in my car, and drive to that little place of heaven we all know and love– Target.

I went to Target with the express purpose of buying a large and overly priced candle. Because yesterday, I needed to tell myself I deserved something that would bring me joy.

Here’s something about me: I LOVE candles. But very, very rarely do I buy them for myself because they aren’t toilet paper. Or groceries. Or batteries for the smoke detector. They just aren’t a need, per se, and money spent on them can feel wasted.

I do allow myself to pick up a couple candles in Dollar Tree now and then, because they are so cheap. But let’s face it. They are tiny, measly little wimps that hardly smell like anything. So yesterday I set out to buy the big, honest-to-goodness, yummy smelling real thing.

And let me tell you something. It felt SO GOOD to march over there, linger over all of them, evaluate each one by smell, design, and that “whimsy” factor (you know the one) before finally selecting the perfect one. Because sometimes you just have to buy that “frivolous” thing for yourself. You have to take notice when you are parched for joy. You have to tell yourself you deserve good things, the kinds of things that may serve no other purpose for no one else but you.

Too often, it’s far too easy to tell yourself that you come last. Because there’s so many other people to think of before yourself, like a sick or aging parent, or a coworker going through a crisis, or your kids, or your spouse. We label any sort of pleasure-buy for ourselves as selfish, causing us to go through our days feeling like a neglected, drooping house plant desperately in need of a little water.

But thanks to (an extensive) amount of counseling this past year, I’m learning to get more comfortable with the word “selfish”. As an only child, I’ve developed a sort of paranoia about people automatically assuming I’m selfish and self-absorbed. So when my counselor talked to me about learning to incorporate the word “selfish” into my vocabulary, I shrank back in disbelief. Selfish? Really?? The very thing I’ve always tried to avoid? 

But since then, I’ve learned that by “selfish”, my counselor didn’t mean self-absorbed. Or arrogant. Or narcissistic. Or rude. What he meant was simply learning to listen to my body and my mind and learn to discern when I need to slow down, or to tell someone no, or to place boundaries in relationships when I’m feeling overwhelmed. And also to dispel the lie once-and-for-all that merely wanting something does NOT make me selfish.

I am not selfish for wanting a candle. I am not selfish for purchasing something “frivolous” simply because it brings me joy.

This, people, is a radical thought.

Sometimes it’s necessary to listen to your soul when you are in a parched and dry place. What is it that brings you that silly, secret joy? A bright pad of Post-It notes? That set of calligraphy pens at Michael’s? A sparkly bath bomb? Buying flowers for yourself?

Or how about this one: How many of you ladies have been raking your legs over with a dull razor for months because those expensive, 5-blade razor replacements don’t benefit your entire household in some way?

Well, you listen to me.

BUY THE DAMN RAZOR BLADES. YOU DESERVE TO NOT CUT YOURSELF EVERY TIME YOU SHAVE. YOU DESERVE TO FEEL LIKE A GODDESS. And NO, that does NOT MAKE YOU SELFISH. GOT IT?

At this point I also feel like it’s important to point out that this is not permission to bring financial ruin down upon your household by grabbing every home decor item in sight like some crazed, throw-pillow grabbing loony. I’m just asking you to ask yourself what that little something is that might honor the starved and weary place inside yourself.

Maybe it’s a kid-free trip to Starbucks. Maybe it’s a new, full-priced book that hasn’t hit the bargain bin yet. Maybe it’s the $16 bottle of shampoo you smell every time you go to the store before begrudgingly placing the economical $4 one in your cart. Whatever it is, it’s OK to want it. And to enjoy it freely, to its full extent, without guilt.

Not everything in life has to be about guilt. Isn’t that just the best news?