July 19, 2012

Is It Better to Be Good or Kind?

Image by Cary Bass

For years, in whatever community I was living, I had a gym membership and made regular use of it. I aimed for five workouts a week and if I met my goal , I'd say "I was good this week." I used the same phrase when I had meals that were low in whatever I was counting at the time--calories, fat, or carbohydrates. 

Unfortunately, this meant that when I didn't reach my exercise target or when I ate more than I thought I should, I was accustomed to thinking or saying that I'd been "bad."

Most of my female friends talked this way about themselves too, so I didn't give much thought to the terminology or to what it said about how we saw ourselves. I think now that, unconsciously, we were making statements about what we valued, what was important in our lives.

Today, when I say those phrases out loud, I cringe a little.  For starters, they seem like the words of a child, not a woman (that in itself is worth a separate post). But mostly, I find it sad that I judged myself so harshly based on how much I exercised or ate.

These days, I practice yoga. I don't visit the gym, but going to yoga classes isn't a substitute for a workout. It's more than a physical practice, although I'm glad that it's good for my body too.

After a yoga session, it's not unusual for me to notice how glad I am that I was kind to myself by coming to class. But it wasn't until recently that I noticed the actual words I'd been using.

I don't remember when I made the transition from being "good" or "bad" to the notion of being kind to myself. I do know that it feels very different from my old habit. When I thought of myself as being good or bad, my ego was in full force; I either felt proud proud about achieving or guilty about failing.

Being kind to myself, on the other hand, isn't ego-driven or boastful; it's a small, deep pleasure--an appreciation.

I'm being kind to myself when I take the time to meditate on days when I'm rushed and think I don't have a minute to spare; I'm kind to myself when I eat enough ice cream to feel satisfied but not so much that I feel full. 

And here's what resonates most strongly: treating myself kindly means accepting that I'm human, that my decisions will be better on some days than others. If I decide not to meditate today, I note it and move on. Tomorrow I'll have a new set of circumstances and a new opportunity to choose, and I suspect that treating myself with compassion helps me make wiser choices.

This was the main problem with my old way of thinking: there wasn't much room for compassion. The standard was perfection, so if I wasn't being "good," then surely I was being "bad." I was either a success or a failure. 

I've heard it said that our thoughts are who we are--or who we become--and that we reinforce these thoughts in the way we speak. What's important to remember is that we can use this to our advantage.

So consider: If your actions don't match your intentions, will berating yourself really help you behave differently? Or will it just strengthen your belief about how "bad" you are and reinforce a negative pattern? It's worth a thought.

Do you struggle with treating yourself kindly? What works for you?

Image by Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license.

July 12, 2012

When Talent Needs "A Little More Time To Bake"

I met Ana, a mixed-media artist, while I was managing a grants program for a municipal arts agency in Miami. The amount of money available from the agency for community arts projects was always—surprise!—much smaller than the total amount requested, so the application process was highly competitive.

Part of my job was to help artists make a persuasive case for their ideas in writing. My special talent was finding the angle that would seamlessly link an artist’s vision to whichever political scheme the city’s Commissioners were most enthused about at the time. With luck, this could up the the artist's chances for funding.

I’d helped Ana get a grant for a group show in an empty neighborhood storefront. Her intuitive arrangements of found objects on bright canvases were graceful, joyous and very beautiful. Ana experimented with everything: concepts, techniques, materials, and collaborations. “If you play it safe,” she’d say, “you’ll never know what you’re capable of.”

I learned that she had started painting only as an adult. Growing up as the child of a civil servant and a teacher in Chile, art was not in her sensible parents' vocabulary of career options. Ana was encouraged to study law or finance, professions that they believed offered a stable future. She graduated from a university in the United States with a degree in international finance. "I studied business to satisfy my parents," she said, "but I had zero interest in making a life of it."

She took the first job she was offered after graduation, as an assistant in an art gallery on Miami Beach, and soon found herself spending much of her free time painting. She started exploring mixed-media compositions soon after.

Over a cup of tea in Ana's studio one afternoon, we talked about her recent work. She'd spent the morning painstakingly weaving filaments of copper-colored silk thread into a small painted canvas. The delicate fibers and the size of the piece were a departure from her usual imposing work. "I don't know how I feel about it yet," she said. "It needs a little more time to bake. I'll keep working on it and see what happens."

The conversation turned to me and my writing. "I can't imagine not writing," I said. "There's something about it that's addictive--in a really good way. Still," I added tentatively, "I've also thought a lot about working with images."

"And...," Ana encouraged. "And nothing." I said, "I just don't have the talent for visual art. I tried, and I'm not good at it."

Ana set down her cup. "Talent, schmalent!," she said in an exasperated tone, adopting the vernacular of her elderly Jewish next-door neighbors. "How does anyone know whether they have talent--whatever that is--until they do something, and then do it again, and then do it again some more? You don't really think having talent means things are easy and perfect the first time out, do you?”

Her hands unconsciously mimed motions of gathering and placing as she described her frustrating early attempts to integrate three-dimensional objects into her paintings. 

I listened, but I didn't have the nerve to tell her that, yes, I did think that talent was innate and not learned. I didn't have to do and do again to know that it was something I lacked.

When she brought the subject up a few weeks later, I deflected it, telling her I was too busy to start anything new. "I really am busy," I repeated to myself. And I was, wasn't I?

How busy are you?


July 10, 2012

What Would You Do if You Had Nothing to Do?

I wrote recently here about my mania with to-do lists and getting carried away with how much we think we can accomplish. But what if there were no such thing as a to-do list? Yes, I know, the world as we know it would come to an abrupt halt because no one would remember to do anything. Yikes!

Well, maybe. That's probably what I'd think on my most hurry-hurry-ding-ding* days. And if your list is attached to you like one of those sad tethered children at the mall, you may be having similar thoughts right now.

But stay with me.

What if tomorrow the universe suffered a temporary bout of amnesia about to-dos in general?
What if as a side effect we also lost the ability to feel guilty, or anxious, or angry, or annoyed, about what we weren't "getting done"?

Even better, what if there were no repercussions for not crossing something off the list?

Your boss won't care that you don't turn in the weekly report; your mother won't mind that you don't call; your son's lunch will appear magically on the kitchen counter, nutritionally sound and artfully packed.

But wait. It gets better.

Your boss emails that she'd rather write the report herself and tells you to take the day off, your mother decides to take the initiative and call you, and your son asks to pack his own lunch. And so it goes for anything else that might have been on that pesky to-do list that no longer exists. 

So. You have an entire day to yourself. A whole day. To yourself.

There is nothing you have to do.

What do you do?

*from the 1968 film, Sweet November, in which free spirit Sandy Dennis vows to get Anthony Newley, a British businessman, to relax and to cure him of his unhealthy fixation with time. She refers to his problem as "hurry-hurry-ding-ding" because he's always looking at his watch and waiting for its alarm to ring.

July 5, 2012

Making Room for Yourself on the List

It's time I confessed. I have never, ever checked off all of the items on a to-do list. I am a midlife woman and I've been making these lists since I was a child (should I consider that last part pathetic?), yet I've never had the satisfaction of placing a crisp checkmark next to that final to-do. 

My husband, a wonderful man who hyperventilates just thinking of making a list, says that I'm too ambitious a list-maker. "It's not ambition, it's optimism!" I respond. Each evening when I make my to-do list for the next day I'm convinced that I can complete every single task in the next 24 hours. 

After all, if I didn't think I could get everything done, I'd be setting myself up for failure, no?

And why would I do that?

Set myself up for failure, that is.

I had a conversation with a friend about this a few years back. She said that she'd asked herself similar questions and had come up with a possible answer:

"If I make a list so full that it's impossible to complete," she said. "I must be incredibly busy, right?  And being incredibly busy is the reason I don't do have time to do the things I keep saying are important to me."  My puzzled look encouraged her to elaborate.

She explained that she crammed all manner of things on her to-do lists, from minor tasks that she could complete in under five minutes ("email my accountant to confirm our meeting this Tuesday") to major undertakings that would take much longer ("update my financial records for the quarter"). She also included activities that she loved and wanted to do more of, such as playing the piano and taking lessons to improve her skills.

"Because my list is long, I always have unfinished tasks that roll over to the next day," she went on. "It's a given that I'll prioritize the things that I consider most pressing, the ones that have deadlines or that involve commitments to others. So It seems I never get around to spending time at the piano or scheduling lessons."

She paused.

"I suspect there's something else, too. If I'm too busy to play or study, then I don't have to face my fears that I'm really not very good or that I won't get any better."

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It did to me. I'd occasionally had thoughts along those lines. Why was time for the things I was passionate about, like writing, for example, always so hard to come by?

That afternoon, as my friend generously shared that she might be sabotaging herself because she was afraid of not living up to her own expectations, I promised myself that I'd take a closer look at how I was choosing to spend my time each day.

What did I do? Well, one thing didn't change.

I still make to-do lists that have way too many items on them. I still don't know why. I've stopped worrying about this.

But I did modify how I handle my lists:

1. As I prioritize the "must-dos" on my list, I make sure I've included one thing that's there purely to bring me pleasure. Some days it's a small thing, like making sure I schedule an extra half-hour for reading a book I'm really enjoying. Other days, it's getting time in for catching up with a friend over coffee, or for starting an essay for my writing class.

Planning ahead and scheduling these on my calendar makes it easier to keep the commitments.

2. I pay attention to that which, like my friend, I have strong positive feelings for but have conflicting feelings about. For instance, I try to figure out why I'm hesitant to begin or to return to a specific writing project.

Whether or not I uncover the reason, I start anyway.  I let myself off the hook by committing to work for only 15 minutes. Usually I get so engaged in what I'm doing that I keep going after the 15 minutes are up.

The fact is, it's not about how long or short our task lists are. It doesn't matter whether we keep them on sticky notes, on our computers, or in our heads. What's crucial is that we hold a choice spot for ourselves in them. 

Each day merits a gift that we give to ourselves. If not now, when? 

Where and how do you put yourself on your list?

Image by Liz Henry, on Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.