Personal Development

5 Ways to Silence Your “Thought Bullies”

A sign caught my eye the other day as I drove by a mom-and-pop paint store. It said, “THE WORST BULLIES CAN BE YOUR THOUGHTS.”

I love this kind of roadside wisdom — it pops up in the most unexpected places and sticks to you like Velcro.

This sign especially resonated with me because there has been no bigger bully in my life than my own thoughts. On the one hand, I’m fortunate that I haven’t ever been seriously bullied by other people. On the other, having my own thoughts bully me every day of my life has been just as debilitating. The Thought Bullies — otherwise known as Inner Critics — follow me around 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they know all my weak spots.

Most times the Thought Bullies come find me in the middle of the night, when I’m most vulnerable. As a kid, they would whisper in my ear that robbers and murderers could break into my house any second. They planted worries about school, too, how it would affect my future. My mom tells me that when I was in third grade, I was studying for a math test one night and suddenly broke into tears. “If I fail this test, then I won’t get into a good college,” I sobbed. “And then I won’t get a good job, and I won’t have any money, and my children will staaaarve!”

It’s kind of funny now, the thought of an eight-year-old having a major crisis over providing for her future children. But at the time, the anxiety was very real. More than two decades later, I still have these kinds of episodes and easily work myself into a panic. Nearly every night since the baby was born — and really, since I was pregnant with him — I’ve been up sometime in the wee hours, and inevitably the bullies come a tauntin’.

These days, they berate me about the past, about things I’ve done and failed to do. They rattle off a litany of sins for which I should repent. Why did you act so huffy with Darren the morning before his big presentation? Why did you post something whiny on Facebook that does not reflect your best self? Then they twist the knife the way they do night after night: Why have you let the Reschool Yourself project collect dust for so long? Why haven’t you finished your book already? Pretty soon I’m wide awake with my heart pounding, instead of getting the sleep I need so desperately. There are a lot of names for this behavior: worry, anxiety, rumination, perfectionism, catastrophizing, and generally being hard on myself.

It’s not easy to reason with the Thought Bullies, so these are 5 strategies that I use to cope with them:

1. Snap myself back into the here and now.

It’s so easy for my thoughts to drift into the past or future and go around and around endlessly. The best place to start is to snap myself back to reality by doing something that gets me out of my head. In the middle of the night I can grab my phone and read The Onion or look at photos of Evan. During waking hours, I bake — which requires me to measure and mix and taste — or play guitar and sing, which helps me breathe easier. When I lived in San Francisco, I’d lace up my running shoes and sprint up and down the hills for 15 minutes. These days I’ll do a couple of quick yoga poses or stretches. Having a child around helps, because whether they’re screaming or giggling, they are very much in the moment and require you to be, too.

2. Give myself the advice I’d give a friend.

One of my greatest challenges is to treat myself the way I would treat a friend. I would never, ever say the things to a friend that I think about myself. NEVER! When the Thought Bullies say, Why did you screw that thing up? You’re so stupid!, I tell myself, Cut yourself some slack. You did the best you could with what you had at the time. Things turn out the way they do for a reason, even if it’s not clear right away. This is what I would say to a friend who was beating herself up, yet so rarely do I think to say it to myself, especially in the middle of the night.

3. Talk it out.

Darren has encouraged me to share with him what’s on my mind, which I was hesitant to do at first for a lot of reasons. I didn’t want to burden him or sound unreasonable; I also thought I’d be feeding my fears by verbalizing them. But the opposite ended up being true. Talking out my worries gave me a pressure release valve, and often just naming them out loud took their power away.

4. Write it down.

Darren suggested that I tell him every single thing that was worrying me, and he would write it down. “Get it out of your head,” he told me. So we made a long list. Getting rid of the critters we hear in the walls sometimes (squirrels, we think). Eating more vegetables. Repainting the bathroom. And so on. It felt good to have to stretch for items to add. “Now we can start knocking them out and checking them off, one by one,” Darren said, pragmatic as always.

Journaling, too, helps immensely every time I make time for it. Even a page at the end of the day allows me to be completely honest and process some of the worries that would otherwise haunt me.

5. Channel the anxiety into positive action.

I ask myself, “What would resolve this thing you’re worried about?” and then, “What’s one step you can take to get you closer?” When I was upset about getting so many late fees, I put recurring reminders on my Google Calendar to pay the bills. When the clutter around the house was driving me crazy, I bought new fabric boxes at Target to organize it. Anxiety can be productive when harnessed and directed toward a goal.

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Schools today generally have some kind of anti-bullying curriculum designed to increase tolerance and compassion, and to teach kids what to do if they’re being bullied. Maybe one day it will include strategies for coping with your own Thought Bullies, who can be the worst of the bunch — and the ones that can follow you around for a lifetime, if you don’t know how to silence them.

What strategies do you use to deal with your Thought Bullies? Leave a comment!

New Haircut, New Chapter

Although I’d had long hair for five years, one morning last week I looked in the mirror and decided that it really had to go. That’s the way it is with me and my hair. It kind of sits there for months and years at a time, and then suddenly, just like that, I can’t stand it anymore.

This time I was fed up with having long hair in the hot and humid Mississippi summer. I loved the way my hair looked when someone else styled it, but that someone was rarely me. I simply don’t have the patience to blow dry my thick hair for 20 minutes and then curl it. Instead, I pulled it into a loose ponytail and called it a day. Every day.

I was just as unadventurous when getting my hair cut every six months or so, only when it became absolutely necessary. I’d ask my stylist for the same long layers as usual and would think, “When I’m old and gray, I’ll regret not doing much with my hair when I was young.”

Given that I wasn’t doing anything useful with my hair, I had moments where I considered cutting it and donating it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit that makes hairpieces for low-income young people suffering from hair loss. Several of my friends had donated over the past couple of years, which I thought was awesome.

During the Reschool Yourself elementary school phase, I watched two kids get their hair cut for Locks of Love during an assembly, which brought tears to my eyes. One of the kids, Alex, was a 10-year-old boy who had been growing his hair long, at the risk of getting teased, so he could donate. The other donor was a younger girl, no more than seven years old, who was inspired by Alex and volunteered on the spot to cut her hair, too. The Locks of Love website says that more than 80 percent of donors are children. That blows me away.

So when I decided that my hair needed to go, it was a no-brainer for me to donate it. Here I was, cursing my hair daily for being tough to manage, and a kid with alopecia (an auto-immune disorder that shuts down hair follicles) or cancer could be making much better use of it.

I let my decision sit for a few days to make sure I meant it, and then I scheduled an appointment with my stylist, Ashley, at Smoak Salon. I arrived with a Ziploc bag for my hair and printed instructions to cut rubber-banded ponytails at least 10 inches long. The receptionist said, “You’re the one who’s cutting your hair off today! Are you nervous?” I said no, not at all; I was just excited. Ashley and her sister Suzanne, who owns the salon, were excited, too. I showed Ashley three pictures I’d printed of textured bob haircuts, and she said, “Oh, that’ll look great on you!”

On went the smock. Ashley measured my hair with a comb that doubled as a ruler and tied off seven ponytails around my head with rubber bands. “You ready?” she asked. “Yep,” I said. Snip. Ashley smiled and held up the first ponytail. I grinned back at her.

As Ashley continued cutting off the ponytails one by one, I thought about what I wanted the haircut to mean for me.

  • Breaking out of old habits that weren’t serving me.
  • Taking more risks (positive ones).
  • Letting go of old grudges and gripes that were weighing me down.
  • Snapping less and laughing more.

This year marked a major new chapter in my life: I got married and will soon be buying a house. I’m an official grown-up now. There’s nothing like a new haircut to commemorate this kind of change.

Ashley carefully evened out and layered the cut. “What do you think?” she asked, handing me a mirror so I could see the back of my head. “I love it,” I said. It was chin-length, shorter than I’d expected, but it was bouncy and summery and light.

Now, by running my fingers through my short hair or pulling it into a palm-tree half ponytail for exercising, I remind myself every day not to do the same old things I used to do.  Just because I acted a certain way last week doesn’t mean that I can’t change this week — or at least try. I just have to look in the mirror to see evidence that I’m different already, new and improved.

Must Read: Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”

I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, and in Rubin I have found a kindred spirit. I resonated with her writing from the very opening of her book:

I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations.

One day I’d stop twisting my hair, and wearing running shoes all the time, and eating exactly the same food every day. I’d remember my friends’ birthdays, I’d learn Photoshop, I wouldn’t let my daughter watch TV during breakfast. I’d read Shakespeare. I’d spend more time laughing and having fun, I’d be more polite, I’d visit museums more often, I wouldn’t be scared to drive.

Doesn’t that grab you immediately and make you say, “Yes, me too!”, substituting your own particulars for “twisting my hair” and “Shakespeare”?

Over a period of twelve months, Rubin set out to become happier in the key areas of her life, including marriage, work, money, and friendship. She sought out the wisdom of ancient philosophers, the latest scientific research, and the sound advice of her friends. In The Happiness Project, she recounts her experiences, the successes and failures and ways that she changed.

As I’ve exclaimed to Darren more than once, “She is me!” (OK, I know that “She is I” is grammatically correct, but come on.) I read him excerpts like this one, in which she takes the words right out of my mouth:

Why does it often seem more tiring to go to bed than to stay up? Inertia, I suppose. Plus there’s the prebed work of taking out my contact lenses, brushing my teeth, and washing my face.

She says it more eloquently than I do. I usually wail from the couch, “I hate getting ready for bed!”

Rubin has provided the most motivation yet for me to write the Reschool Yourself memoir. Reading something that I could have written, if only I’d had the right words, makes me feel deeply understood and relieved that I’m not alone. It gives me hope that I can change in the ways I want to, just like she did, equipped with the tools to make that happen. I want to give my own readers the same gift.

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

What have you read that makes you feel deeply understood?

Oh, the Inertia

It’s the moving boxes that have never gotten unpacked. It’s the cracked windshield that you keep meaning to replace. It’s the blog post that doesn’t get written…and gets harder to start with each passing day.

It’s inertia, “the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest.” And that physical object, oftentimes, is me.

The worst part about inertia, in my experience, is that the more time that passes without change, the guiltier I feel. The inertia gets even stronger, and I know that when I finally just do the thing that I’m putting off, the little surge of relief and pride I get for finally crossing it off my list will be overshadowed by deep self-loathing for not just doing it when I was supposed to. Now who would sign up for that?

It’s helpful when there are outside forces that push inert objects into motion. In our last apartment, Darren and I couldn’t let dirty dishes sit in the sink very long because we had a total of three spoons and three bowls to our names (you can guess that it was a bachelor pad before I moved in). If we didn’t wash them, we’d have to resort to pouring our morning milk and cereal directly into our mouths. Even worse, there are cockroaches in the South that invade even the cleanest of homes, and it’s unwise to tempt fate.

Loved ones and coworkers are also good for nudging, or shoving, you through the inertia. Reminders and deadlines help. So does the exasperation of a partner. I’ve gotten so fed up with a couple of Darren’s old boxes that I’ve just dumped their contents on the living room floor. He has to help me sort through them if he wants to rescue items like his beloved Daredevil action figure from the giveaway pile. (Darren just said to me, “We did save that, right?” Yep, you did!)

For me, the thing that builds the most inertia is this very project, Reschool Yourself. It’s been nearly six months since my last post, and it’s been two and a half years since I finished the RSY experience. The book has been knocking around the inside of my head since then. To gear up for writing it, I’ve read other project-based memoirs like Julie and Julia for inspiration; I’ve gone to creative nonfiction workshops; I’ve written a proposal and bits and pieces of narrative; I’ve made contact with a few great literary agents.

So now it’s time to stop preparing to write the thing and just do it already. I hope it’s published. But even if it’s not, it will free up a lot of bandwidth that’s currently tied up in thinking and fretting and feeling guilty about it. Best of all, once the book is done, whether the big publishing houses love it or not, I can share it with people who have said that they could really use it. One told me, “This book needs to be in the world,” which was just the kind of loving nudge that I needed.

So here’s to blowing the dust off old projects and breathing new life into them. With each breath comes another step forward.

Top 10 Themes of My 2011 Vision Collage

The reason that I look forward to the New Year isn’t champagne, or the national holiday. It’s the chance to make a fresh start with a new vision collage.

Last year Darren, my friend Jamie, and I got together to make collages and presented them to each other. On New Year’s Day this year, we shared our 2010 collages again before explaining our new ones. There’s something about cutting out a picture of what you want to create in your life and gluing it to posterboard that brings you closer to it. I found it fascinating how we’d achieved most of our 2010 goals (see mine here). Jamie found the man she wants to marry, and I got engaged to mine. Darren launched Creative Distillery, our creative agency, and he ate a steak (yes, that was actually one of his goals).

It’s also fun to see how each person’s collage reflects his or her personality. Darren’s was so graphically stylish that it could hang in a modern art museum. Jamie’s was organized and precise. Mine was colorful and filled the entire canvas.

Darren's vision collage is a work of art

Darren's vision collage is a work of art

Here are this year’s Top 10 Themes of my vision collage:

1. Blessings. The words in the center are from “Real Simple,” which asked its readers to name what they were grateful for, then compiled their answers. Glancing at these words remind me to be thankful for blessings like my family, laughter, Friday, and chocolate.

2. Personal strength. I’m committed to taking up more space in a room (figuratively, not physically!). We could all learn something from Oprah. She is a role model who capitalizes on her own power and uses it to help other people become their fullest selves.

3. Pitching and publishing. I’m pitching the “Reschool Yourself” book at the Writer’s Digest conference in New York tomorrow. I’ve decided that 2011 is the year that I make the book happen.

4. Personal finance. It’s an ongoing challenge for me to manage my money. Look at George. He’s happy. I will be happier, too, when I become better friends with him.

5. Healthy lifestyle. This has vastly improved since I moved to Mississippi, but I still could enjoy the outdoors more often, have coffee with my girlfriends, laugh about my kittens’ antics, stretch, sleep, and smile.

6. Explore the South. I often travel outside the state but haven’t explored many nearby destinations. This year I’d like to take scenic drives to Natchez, Oxford, Memphis, and the Gulf Coast.

7. Appearance. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to wear at least one accessory per day, even if I’m working from home. Dressing up a little makes me feel good about myself and more pulled together.

8. Organization. “Declutter Your Life” is another ongoing challenge for me. I’ve invested in Rubbermaid tubs and filing cabinets to clear clutter from surfaces, and I usually abide by my friend Sara’s “touch mail once” rule. Dealing with it right away prevents those dreaded stacks of old mail that stick around for ages.

9. Volunteering. The picture of the little girl represents my desire to volunteer. Those of us who work for nonprofits tend to think that our paid work takes the place of volunteering, but there’s something different about giving one’s time for nothing but the joy of it. I think I’d like to read to children. I miss being around them.

10. Training my brain. With all the distractions I deal with every day, my focus and memory have suffered. I firmly believe that you can get a flabby brain into shape, so I’ve bought new books of crossword puzzles and brain teasers to do just that. I’ll be refreshing my Spanish to help scale up IDEA’s education work in Puerto Rico. There’s nothing like learning a foreign language to exercise one’s mind.

I’m going to hang the collage above my desk, as I did last year, to put me back on track when I lose my way. I’m already looking forward to next year’s collage so I can see what I was able to manifest in my life.

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Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

Have you done a vision collage or a vision board? What was your experience like?

Unraveling the Anger Ball

It might be the Southern summer heat, or the way it’s kept me cooped up inside, but I’ve been a bit of an anger ball lately. “Anger ball” is a wonderful term from a wonderful movie, “Playing by Heart,” and it perfectly describes the way I’ve been feeling for the past week or so. My general irritability reaches a boiling point quickly, at which point my blood pressure hits the roof.

I’m generally content with the path I’m on in life. But recently I’ve had minimal patience for life’s little hassles, which can instantly trigger some very black moods. Today it happened when I was writing an email to a client of Darren’s and mine and asked for his editing help. This turned out like it did when I used to ask my mom to edit my high school essays, and they came back marked up with red ink. Much scowling ensued.

Me to Darren: Will you take a look at this email before I send it?

Darren: Yeah! (Reading the email) I think that you could emphasize X here instead of Y….

Me: (Giving him the evil eye) Well, why don’t you send it yourself, then? I’m late for yoga. (Storms off)

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Reschooling Tool #23: Vision Collage

As much as I’ve intended to blog regularly, life has gotten in the way since last November. One of the main obstacles is that I’ve been doing writing and other communications for a living, and I don’t have a lot of energy left for my own writing. Plus, when too much time passes between posts there seems to be too much to say, so I don’t say anything at all. C’est la vie. Here I am now.

The months since December have been so wild for me that I can best explain them in terms of my vision collage. This is an exercise that I like to do around New Year’s, to visualize what I want for my life in the coming 12 months, and to set my intentions accordingly. And guess what? It seems to work.

Here’s what I put in my collage, and how it’s showed up in my life since January.

1. Play. The photo in the upper left corner shows children puddle jumping, with the words “Youth is in your genes. Reactivate it.”

I’m lucky that Darren and I work from home and can be goofy with each other throughout the day. He loves five-year-old potty humor almost as much as I do, which helps.

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Journaling for Life

I haven’t written too much on the Reschool Yourself blog yet about the key role journaling has played in my life, so I wanted to share this post. I was pleased to have it published on Create Write Now, a website by the journal therapist Mari McCarthy, who is healing her Multiple Sclerosis with the help of journaling. I’ve included an excerpt and linked to the complete post below.

Since I was around five years old, my journal has been my closest confidant. I was still getting used to holding a pencil at the time when someone gave me a little hardback journal with a metal lock and key. Even though my secrets weren’t any juicier than “I went to Disneyland. It was fun,” the important thing was that I had a place to keep them.

As I grew older, my journals changed along with me. In middle school and high school, I used thick 8 ½ by 11 college-ruled Mead notebooks. As a preteen, I filled them with boy gossip and inevitably ended entries with “I heart so-and-so forever.” Often, I listed two or three names of boys that I loved deeply. In high school, I documented my teenage emotional highs and lows, my severe school stress, and the rare fights with my best friend. My journal let me vent and cry, even when I had no one else to talk to.

Read the rest of this post.

Interview with Roger Fishman, Part Two

This is part two of my interview with Roger Fishman, author of What I Know. Roger traveled around the U.S. interviewing 10-year-olds and 100-year-olds from around the country about universal aspects of life. As I mentioned before, I’m publishing my Q&A with Roger here because the themes and values of the book match those of Reschool Yourself.

Roger is the founder of the ZiZo Group, a creative multimedia company. He is married to actress Courtney Thorne-Smith, with whom he has a 21-month-year-old son, Jack, and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

What was it like to interview for the book? Who are a few of the centenarians you interviewed?

My colleague, Joe Rohrlich, and I literally zigzagged across America, Northern California, to Southern Florida, to Atlanta, Georgia, to New York, to Crow Nation and everywhere in between. It was 38,000 miles and a lot of red-eyes, and a lot of coffee. It was literally on the go nonstop.

I remember I took a red-eye into Charlotte, and Joe picked me up and we went over to see Bill Werber. He was the last living (major league baseball) player at the time—he just recently passed. He played with Lou Gehrig on the ’27 Yankees. It made me feel connected to a whole part of history. He was telling me about being on the train and playing cards with Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey and Babe Ruth. I’m thinking, “The guy I’m talking to had firsthand real-life experience with (them.)”

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Interview: Roger Fishman, Author of What I Know

Even if they’re not always recognized for it, children and senior citizens are some of the wisest people you’ll meet. Children still have a fresh perspective on life, and seniors have seen it all and tend to give sound advice.

Author Roger Fishman decided to collect the wisdom from both sides of the age spectrum, interviewing 10-year-olds and 100-year-olds from around the country, for a book called What I Know. He wrote down their thoughts on the universal aspects of life, such as change, integrity, and longevity. The small gift book was released online and in stores just last month.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Roger, who is authentic, inspiring, and passionate about life. The book, he says, is about “The importance of human relationships, the importance of human connection, and leading an authentic life with yourself and with others.”

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