On Approval

Question: How many of us walk around carrying an imaginary burden– the burden of other people’s approval? This burden is SOOO heavy, despite being invisible and somewhat imaginary, or at least self-created. My mind can drive me almost mad with this moment-to-moment play-by-play in which I envision and take on the thoughts and opinions that other people might be having about me as I move through life.

Of course, these are stories that I’m making up, and the tone of these stories is very specific. These are not bedtime stories, not success stories. Each story, when followed to its end, has the not-so-surprise ending of, “and then I was judged to be lacking.” I used to take on a lot of these thoughts without question– just believing them as real: “People will think X.”

The part of me that makes up these stories and believes them, apparently believes way down deep that I’m not good enough. Ouch.  And because it is so stark and painful to acknowledge this belief from myself about myself, the voice cleverly pins it on someone else: “That person over there thinks you look ridiculous and have no right to be here.” The voice even finds “proof” in the expression on the person’s face or other convincing clues.

The Judging Voice

This judging voice is scared. All that she wants is for me to be good enough and for people to like and approve of her/us. By telling me all the time when I might be stepping out of line, talking too much, going beyond what I am capable of, she thinks that this helps me to adjust my behavior in ways that will ensure approval from everyone. She’s like a sheepdog nipping at my heels, trying to direct me follow the herd to the safest pastures. She believes that by anticipating the judgments that might come from the outside, she is helping me, she is protecting me.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. For one thing, it isn’t helpful for me to believe these stories and live with them as “truth.” It affects my quality of life negatively, sending a ripple of worry and pressure winding through my days, when this isn’t needed or helpful. What’s more, I’m not actually protected by these stories and the behavior they encourage! If I went through my life behaving so safely, so considerately to those around me, so tied up in always being perfectly appropriate…I’m sure there would still be times when people would get annoyed at me or judge me for something that I’m not even aware of, or even just disagree with me. So the “help” and “protection” offered by this judging voice isn’t any kind of assurance that others WILL approve of me…and what’s more, it really bums me out.

Nowadays, I tend to recognize this voice a bit more readily when it chimes in. To a certain degree, I can see how these stories are not facts. They are literally tales that I am making up about all the things that could be true or not. So as I acknowledge the stories, I start to challenge them.

The Voice of Reason

This other voice that comes in to challenge sounds more like reason, a voice that is open to many possibilities and most of all, to the possibility of not knowing. As sensitive as I may be to the body language of others, I can’t really know what they’re thinking. This voice hears the conclusion of “and then I was judged to be lacking,” and rejects it. It asks: Who is doing this judging? What is the criteria? Are you really sure that this is true? Would that even matter anyway? What if their opinion is none of your business?

This questioning and challenging of the “stories” I’m telling is a big step in the process. And at the same time, it can feel like the two voices are warring. The judging voice feels primordial– ancient and deeply-rooted. She can pop up without me even knowing it. Sometimes she sounds like me, sometimes she sounds like the honest and objective truth. The reasoning voice is newer, lighter. She’s like a young warrior with plenty of weapons at her disposal, but in need of some strength training and battle experience.

How do we train and strengthen this voice of reason? I think it has to do with addressing that kernel hidden deep within– that belief about whether or not I’m enough. There was a quote that I read recently on the Facebook page of Project Happiness: “When I accept myself just as I am, I am freed from the burden of needing you to accept me.” What a beautiful and true statement. This judging voice is looking high and low, seeking approval and acceptance from the people surrounding her. Why? Why look externally for acceptance rather than internally? Because she doesn’t accept herself…and also doesn’t know if she can trust her own opinion of herself.

kdshadowDo I approve of myself?

When I feel myself looking outward, feeling persistent thoughts like a clouds of gnats: “Is it okay? Was I okay? What does she think? Is she mad at me?” and on and on… I catch myself there and I flip the question. Instead of continuing to imagine whether someone else approves of me, I ask, “Do I approve of myself?” Really, do I? What do I think of how I have behaved in that situation? Did I act with kindness and awareness? Did I try my best? Is there anything that needs to be remedied; are there any amends or corrections to make? And if all is well, then okay. I rest there, I sit with this. Sure enough, the buzzing thoughts may return, but with patience, I can again turn inward to find my own approval and acceptance of myself…as many times as necessary.

How does this help? Beyond helping me to figure out what I need to do, what this practice does is to reinforce within me that my opinion of myself matters. It matters whether I behave in ways that I feel show integrity and congruence with what I value. The more I strengthen this belief– that it matters what I think about myself– the less other people’s imagined approval will matter.

Don’t ask for permission if you don’t need it

On the same theme of self-approval, I sometimes find myself asking other people for their opinion on a decision that I want to make. I’m not talking about a situation in which I need advice– I’m talking about a decision that probably has no correct response, and one that I can only make myself. Instead of going with my gut, I start “checking” my decision with others to see if they approve. Of course, it often happens that they don’t! Or they just don’t get the situation. Then I’m in the situation of arguing about my own dilemma that I could’ve just gone ahead with on my own.

When I see this behavior, I’m trying to head it off at the pass. I try to identify when I actually need input and opinions from others, and when I’m just wanting external approval. The times when I don’t really need to check in are when I am really just wanting the other person to say, “Yes, good job, I approve of your decision.” In these situations I tell myself, “Don’t ask for permission if you don’t need it.” Does this decision feel right to me? Am I at ease when I imagine moving forward with this? Okay, then. Again, this addresses that kernel of “I’m not enough” by training me to actually be enough in my life. I am reminded of the bureaucracy in a workplace where three signatures on a form are necessary: the employee, their boss, and their boss’s boss. My life isn’t a bureaucratic workplace! I can make an executive decision on my own stuff without requesting additional approval from outside, and the more I do this, the more comfortable it becomes.

What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?

Finally, there are these times when I just feel uneasy in my own skin, in my own body. I feel a low-key and yet lingering fog of not-okay-ness surrounding me sometimes. At these times, I ask myself, “What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?” What would happen if I just assumed that all will be well, unless I see any true signs that there is an issue to deal with? And that if there were any issues or problems that arose, what if I trusted that I would deal with it? I would gather up my skills and strengths and do whatever was necessary, but until then, UNTIL THEN…what if I behaved as though I was okay and everything around me was okay?

This thought can feel almost dangerous! What?! You mean let down my guard? But what is actually being guarded anyway? Again, walking around slightly anxious doesn’t actually protect me from anything. For me, the answer to this question, “What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?” usually means I letting go of the tension that I’m holding throughout my body. My shoulders melt a little lower and the cords of my neck ease. That slight forward-leaning tilt to my torso relaxes back, and I take a deeper breath. My mind moves differently, too. Rather than constantly scanning forward through my day to see where worry might be needed, I realize that I can trust that I’ll work with it when I get there, and for now I can just be HERE. Here is usually pretty good.

So for me, these questions can help lead me from external to internal, bringing me to a place of more peace and self-assurance:

  • Do I approve of myself?
  • Do I really need permission?
  • What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?



Tips to Create Habits that Serve

Today is February 19…the 50th day of the year. How do I know this? Because today I’m celebrating 50 days in a row of meditating, doing yoga, and walking. Woo hoo!

Why make an effort to do something everyday? At the beginning of this year, I got to thinking that over the years I have glimpsed different practices that really work for me. By “work for me,” I mean that these practices help me to feel good inside and out, and when I’m feeling better and stronger, this make me more able to handle my life and whatever life throws at me. Meditation is one of these things. Tending to my body regularly by stretching and moving is one of these things. Getting lots of time outdoors is one of these things.

So clearly, I have a sense of the types of practices that help me. And yet there are times when I find it really hard to keep consistency. The very times when I MOST need these practices in my life, the times when I am MOST in need of the peace, grounding, and strength that they give me, are the times when it feels like like I have no time or energy to do them.

I had the thought that I would like to see what it feels like to live in my optimum state. What would it feel like to be taking care of my mind, body, and spirit in ways that are healthy and beneficial…and sustainable? I need to make a note here– a note that I have needed to remind myself all along the way: I am not talking about perfection. Perfectionism leads me to set really high expectations and throw myself into them in a way that is not sustainable in the long term. I have a sneaky tendency toward perfectionism, and knowing this, I am cultivating self-compassion, lightness, gentleness, and patience all along the way. I’m simply setting my intentions toward wellness and following through to the best of my ability.


I’m not an expert on habits, but I can share what I am learning. Some of these “tips” are personal, but a lot of them show the truth of the common wisdom that we hear about habits and resolutions.

Are you wondering how I know it’s been 50 days or that I walk 5,000 steps? Monitoring is very helpful when habits are forming. For steps, I use the “Health” app that is built into my phone. For my other habits, I use the app, “Productive,” which is free to use for up to five habits. It’s simple and satisfying to use, and it keeps track of things for me. Is technology essential here? No. This is simply what feels easiest to me right now, and keeping track helps to motivate me because…

Streaks can be powerfully motivating. Doing yoga from time to time gives me constant choices to make– is this the day that I will do yoga? Am I too tired? Is there something else I should be doing? Gretchen Rubin talks about this in “Better than Before,” the idea that habits eliminate the need for self-control and reduce the fatigue of decision-making. Setting the intention to do it every day helps…and then once I’ve done it a few days in a row, a kind of momentum is established. A week in a row! 15 days in a row! The longer it goes, the less I’m inclined to break the chain.

If you want to build a habit that you can do every day, small and consistent is better than large and impressive. Large and impressive is fun for when things are going well, when you have plenty of time and energy, when you’re feeling excited about your brand new habit. But then you wake up late, or you’re sick or injured…and it becomes overwhelming. Guess how many minutes of yoga or meditation “counts” for me? Ten minutes. That’s it. That isn’t a very long time, and that’s the point. I can always find a way to fit ten minutes into my day. Even if I don’t really feel like doing it, I can convince myself to spend just ten minutes. And lots of times, I spend a lot longer than ten minutes…but the promise of “just ten minutes” is enough to get me started. This protects me again the dreaded “all or nothing” mentality that says, “30 minutes of meditation is great, and less than that doesn’t count.” John Berardi, PhD, wrote, “The ‘all or nothing’ mentality rarely gets us ‘all.’ It usually gets us ‘nothing.’” Along the same lines, with walking, people have really been talking about 10,000 steps lately as a daily goal. Guess how much counts for me? 5,000. Last January I tried 10,000. I made it into February, and it was difficult! I often found myself walking around my neighborhood in the dark just before bedtime when I realized I hadn’t done my steps. This got really annoying and maybe I went on a tip or got sick or something…but the next thing I knew, I was barely walking at all again. So for me, for now, 5,000 is my baseline. Sometimes I do hit 10,000, but my goal works for me– it feels good and is manageable for me.

Find a time that works for you. Morning is my best time, period. I am a morning person, so I feel excited to start the day. Because my husband isn’t a morning person, it also means that morning is a quiet and focused time of the day for me to do my yoga and meditation. And when I start the day with these calming practices, I feel better going into whatever comes next. Finally, when I don’t do these practices in the morning, I find it a bit harder to find time later in the day, or I risk forgetting about them until bedtime. So for me, morning is when I gravitate toward these practices. I’m not trying to push for mornings, just for choosing a time that works well for you.

img_9367Know what’s important. I have other habits that I am working to build as well. I’m making more mindful food choices, I’m hiking, biking, and swimming somewhat regularly, and more. But I can’t do everything all the time. So, when I can’t do them all, I focus on yoga, meditation, and walking. I keep building these three core habits. Again, I’m not trying to convince anyone that these are the three most important habits to build. I’m saying that whatever is MOST important to you…know it. Know what your baseline is, what practices you will pare down to when time and energy and motivation are in short supply. (Again, this is a rejection of the unhelpful “all or nothing” mentality.)

Know why it’s important. There are many times in the past 50 days that I’ve needed to come back to the why of all of this. Why am I doing this? One was when my back was injured for a few days. Before that, I had been doing a LOT more yoga and when I hurt my back, all of a sudden I thought I might need to quit because “how can I do 30 minutes of ‘serious’ yoga” with an injured back? I didn’t like the idea of quitting, and I also knew that pushing through pain would be dangerous. So I went back to why. What made me want to do yoga every day? Because I am tired of ignoring my body. I’m tired of being in pain with muscle tension, trying to ignore the pain, and just continuing to let the pain and tension increase day by day. I want to take time every day to listen to what my body needs and address these needs. Once I reiterated these thoughts, the question of “do I need to quit?” was simple. Yes, I needed to quit doing 30 minutes of “serious” yoga while my back was injured. But no, I didn’t need to quit tending to my body with gentle stretching and movement. This kind of careful movement is highly recommended to recover from back injuries, and the honoring of my back injury is a big part of listening to the needs of my body. (This goes along with the idea of adjusting our idea of what an accomplishment is.) Same with walking. I had to quit doing longer walks for those few days, but with more frequent short walks, I was able to continue walking 5,000 steps and stay attentive to the needs of my back. In the past, an injury like this would totally derail me from my habits because I refused to adjust the habits at all. But going back to the why of it helped me to respond wisely when obstacles arose.

This brings me to my last thought: be nimble. Don’t let yourself get frustrated and blocked by made-up limitations. This is just life, after all, and everything changes. Have the mindset of a scientist or an anthropologist who is just running some different experiments to see what works. If you’re seeking to learn and grow, don’t be afraid to make some changes. Sometimes, on a really busy day, I find myself pacing around the house before bedtime to get in my steps. This is annoying. And when this happens, the next day, I remember to pack my walking shoes, to take the stairs, to park further away…whatever. I don’t let myself get frustrated about how today went, I just move forward. Sometimes I find myself meditating late at night when I feel half-asleep. It isn’t ideal, and the next morning I am more motivated to get up earlier and meditate when I’m fresh. Like Aaliyah sang, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”

img_9369And finally, to use the words of a friend, wallow in your accomplishments. We find it easy to wallow in a sense of failure, but what will help here is to congratulate yourself! Celebrate! Brag to someone who cares about you! Let yourself enjoy what you’ve done. There is a particular sense of joy in following through with something– that feeling of congruence between what you WANT to do and what you DO. Savor it. Here’s to you, and here’s to me!




Expanding Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

Ever since I received a diary for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I’ve had a journal in my possession. There have been times in my life when I wrote less or more frequently, but I have always loved taking the time to note what’s happening in my life and in my head. I like the idea of having a record to look back on– to see what the struggles and triumphs were of a certain age. It’s like reading a book whose ending I already know– I get a sense of perspective. The writing itself helps me in the moment, too. Writing down my thoughts and feelings helps me to work through things, to puzzle things out. In the past couple of years, I have been writing much more regularly. I’ve been paying much more attention to my internal self– the way that my mind and heart work, and the ways that I grow. I write at least once a week, sometimes every few days.

As we came to the end of 2016, I realized that my current journal was about to be finished, and that it contained just over a year’s worth of writing.  I was about to leave on a long trip for the holidays, and I decided to read through my journal– my year in record. As I read, I took notes at the beginning of my new journal to synthesize (I am, at heart, someone who would like to be in school all their life– hence, the assigned reading and notetaking!).

I noted what I learned over the year, and as I did this, I soon realized that I need to expand this category to “What did I learn and/or struggle with?” Saying “What did I learn?” made things feel a bit too finished, when actually, I am still learning and working with the things I began to learn in 2016. I’m going to dig into these learnings, one post for each. So here we go!

Expand Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

I am drawn to (driven to?) productivity, as many of us are. It comes through our culture, this emphasis on doing, doing, doing. It feels good then, to be productive and to accomplish a lot in a day. It feels gratifying, as if all of this doing means something. If I dig way down deep, achieving seems to mean that I am enough– good enough, hardworking enough. At the same time, this can feel like a kind of tyranny– that I MUST accomplish a lot, and if not, it could mean that I failed in some way– ethically or morally by being lazy. (Usually, these feelings are really vague and fuzzy, just under the surface and unconscious, yet permeating everything. When I really start spelling out this if/then logic, it doesn’t hold up. But so it goes.)

But what if I’m tired? What if I’m not feeling well? Well, I already made the list of what needs to be done today, so time to get cracking! And if it turns out that I am not able to do all of those things on this list? Perhaps the list for the day wasn’t even realistic? Now it’s time for me to feel guilty about what I didn’t accomplish. Add those tasks to the long list for tomorrow. Writing this out, it seems so sad. What an inescapable, unsustainable rat race.

I spoke about this with my therapist, and we kept coming to somewhat of a barrier. It felt like she was saying (in a really oversimplified way), “Stop doing all those things. Relax. Just rest and be happy.” I responded to this sentiment with disbelief and maybe a little scorn. Sure…I’ll just not get things done then. (Getting things done is part of my identity!) It just didn’t seem possible, desirable, or wise to take this approach. I can’t change on a dime to think that accomplishments are NOT important, and I feel that getting things done is part of what makes me successful.

And yet…my default way of doing things doesn’t feel so wise either. That feeling of never being able to get quite enough done (because you can never get it ALL done) puts a bit of a dark cloud over life. It robs some of the joy. It’s unsustainable, and because it’s unsustainable, it eventually breaks down and I turn to food or excessive phone use– something to distract me and numb me from the painful fact that I can’t get the whole list done at once, and that I need to rest.

So clearly a different approach is needed. What we eventually came to was this: yes, accomplishments are good, and yes, I value accomplishing things. It will do no good for now to deny the value of accomplishment. But (and this felt revolutionary) what if I expand the idea of what accomplishment means?

What if what I got done today was to grieve? What if what I achieved was making art? What if my accomplishment was feeding myself well and taking a walk?

All of these things actually do have their benefits. Taking time to grieve releases the pressure that builds imperceptibly when we’re holding sadness at bay. Making art feeds the soul. It is play and wonder and beauty…all of these things that we need so crucially, and yet which are not so concrete. My physical health is the building block on which everything else rests…and yet, why does taking care of the body often feel like the last priority?

Allowing these areas of life (and others) to “count” as areas of accomplishment lets my life have a sense of balance where all is included, nourished, and valued– body, mind, and spirit… or work, play, and rest.

Too often, mind and work take the top spots in what is valued, and this is reflected in how time is spent. When only work is seen as a desirable and necessary accomplishment, any time spent in play, or in maintaining the body and nourishing the spirit is seen as “stolen” time, guilty pleasure. When the amount of work done is the only measure that counts, any time spent resting is seen as weakness.

Conversely, this new learning is a more complex understanding of myself and how I function– that body, mind, and spirit are all part of me, and that wellness and “accomplishment” in only one area is incomplete. Body, mind, and spirit each have their mysterious role to play in the functioning as ME– a healthy and flourishing human.

For me, this shift in perspective is huge. It’s still something that I’m learning and working with, and it has already made a difference for me. I’ll give a couple of examples of how this  shift shows up in my life:

I prioritized going to a physical therapist for my chronic neck/back/shoulder pain. For years, I let it fester, suffering and working hard, approaching my life with tension and trying to ignore the pain that resulted. Now I’m making time for this– two hours a week at appointments, plus exercises to do at home regularly. This can feel, every once in awhile, like a waste of time. But each moment that I spend on this is an investment in the health of my body– which I will need my whole life! And just like it was worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my brain to college, it is worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my body to physical therapy.

Another example is in how I’ve been spending my mornings. Rather than get up and get straight to work on emails, I now start with yoga, meditation, and breakfast every day. (I used to do this in theory…but mostly work took over.)  It doesn’t have to be long, but what it reinforces every day is that I can prioritize the care of my body, mind, and spirit– that the rest of the world can wait until I am charged up and nourished. Guess what? The world can wait.

So my learning is that life with only one kind of accomplishments is an unbalanced life. By expanding my definitions of productivity and accomplishment, there is a sense of more freedom and wellness– I feel better, period.