Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Downside of Looking at the Upside...

One of the tritest phrases in the English language is “look for the silver lining.” As in “yes, the stock market wiped out our retirement savings, but the silver lining is that I still have my health so I can work until I’m 80.” Or, “True, my husband cheated on me, but the silver lining is that at least he didn’t cheat on my with someone like that woman from ‘Fatal Attraction.’” Or, a personal favorite that I actually heard with my own ears: “I know he stole the client from me and stabbed me in the back, but the silver lining is at least I’m assisting him on the account.” True story, from my days contracting at PR firms in San Diego. The girl who said it was a wide-eyed, sweet-souled junior account exec who by now has either saved her sanity (and that sweet soul) and abandoned the PR field altogether, or has in the intervening years shaken off the mantle of optimism and replaced it with clear-eyed, hard-edged realism (in other words, she has since thrown offending client-snatcher under the bus.)

Until very recently, I have been the master of looking for the silver lining. Always. In every single situation. When the walls crumbled around me, I’ve been the one to say, “Well, hey, yeah, I know life is caving in on us, but working together to rebuild it will bring us closer.” I’ve been that benighted-eyed optimist who refuses to let “stuff” get me down. The Annie of attitude. Perhaps even annoyingly so (one of my dearest friends, who loves me and knows me best, has said that on more than one occasion).

But over time. I’ve started to alter my perspective a bit. It’s been more than the economic meltdown (which to be fair, with the stock market nearing the 10,000 mark again, may be on the beginning of a recovery—of course, we’d sold much of our piddling remaining stock we had prior to the upswing, natch), or even my wild overindulgence in volunteering, which left me feeling slightly dizzy and almost hung-over with do-gooder-ness. It’s more been the dawning realization that my tendency to always look at the bright side of life was in part a way for me to hide my true feelings about a particular situation. I’ve realized that looking at the silver lining isn’t always the right thing to do. Sometimes seeing and acknowledging that a situation has gone awry is what you need to do.

By immediately jumping on the “let’s think positive” I’ve been denying myself the opportunity to feel the disappointment or frustration that was inside. I felt bad about being angry. As if anger was a nasty boil that needed to be lanced, less someone see me angry and –gasp!!—think bad of me.

I’m not advocating embracing anger and beating everyone over the head with it. That’s no way to solve any problem. That just alienates people and makes you look a little off-balance. But what I am saying is that it is okay to feel anger, or frustration, or disappointment, and not force yourself to gloss over your feelings, as if those emotions had no validity. Those emotions can give you clarity, whereas denying them will only give you ulcers.

I know of what I speak. The last month has been a trying one. In fact, the whole year has been—I can’t remember ever hoping so fervently that the year would just hurry up and end, as if by changing the calendar from 2009 to 2010 will magically change circumstances. I’ve told myself hundreds of times over the last months, “Look on the bright side!” and “Everything’ll work out.” And that ol’ chestnut, “Everything happens for a reason.” And of course the ever-wise “It’s all good.”

So if that was so “all good”, why did I end up one day collapsing on the kitchen floor, hugging my dog and crying hysterically, all because I broke a casserole dish? Obviously, my “out-of-the-blue” crying attack was more than the dish that had slipped from my hand. It was then I realized that faking it might fool some people—but not the people who knew me well. And I especially couldn’t fool myself, at least not for long. My poor dog. She’d probably thought I’d lost my mind.

I’m still the generally positive person I’ve always been, but I have been allowing myself to feel the emotions—disappointment, frustration—I’ve been holding at bay for so long. At least a little. I’ve found that these emotions have galvanized me to take the initiative to get myself into a better situation, rather than wait, look for the silver lining, and hope everything will get better. So I guess…I’m being positive about being …negative? Not really. But at least, at last, I’m being realistic.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

An Obvious Lesson it Took Way to Long for Me to Get

Yesterday, I clicked the "follow" button for Tony Robbins on Twitter.
Tony Robbins, you say? Tony Robbins, the toothy, tall-haired self-help guru of the '90s? He of the ubiquitous life seminars, personal growth tapes and Personal Power workbooks? Yup. Him.
Years ago, his face, with its long-tooth, almost predatory smile, was inescapable--it peered out at passersby from bookshelves, billboards, and late night infomercials. Tony Robbins was part of the background landscape of my life, like the Mazda Miatas that zoomed around on the freeways and the self-consciously sarcastic TV shows like "Roseanne" that were so popular at the time. Back then, I always smirked at him. I was in my 20s in the 90s, Tony Robbin's heyday, and was pretty certain I already knew everything. I figured anyone who'd buy into the change-your-life schtick he was selling was a loser and I had no use for them anyway.
Now that I actually have some real life experience under my belt, I'm a gentler judge of character than I was back when I thought everything--relationships, career, the world--was all about me. I realize now that many people do find themselves stuck at various points in their lives. Learning techniques to move forward is far better than wallowing in inertia. Some people take community college courses. Others go to therapy. Still others find a guru, ala Tony Robbins (actually, I believe he goes by Anthony Robbins these days). And people like me, try to muddle through it on their own.
For about a year I've been muddling. The girls are older and don't need me as much, my frantic days of volunteering are mostly behind me (I have taken a sacred, cannot-under-pain-of-death-be-broken vow to never be the committee head of a silent auction/dinner dance again), and I can only have so many lunches with friends before feeling useless (not to mention bloated). I do have things going on--I'm co-authoring a cookbook, plus working on a spec article for Runner's World about youth running clubs--but I've still felt that I haven't moved forward with my life for a very long time.
I suspect, from the casual and sometimes intense conversations I've had with friends, that many people are in a similar situation. At least, I'm reassured, I'm not alone.
So what to do? That is the questions I've been wrestling with for the better part of a year. How to move forward. Then, last night, in a rare conversation with my husband (the man is so busy at work he rarely has time to eat dinner, let alone engage in long conversations with the likes of me) the answer--at least, what I think may be the answer--revealed itself.
Acknowledge your strengths, and build upon them. Let everything else go.
Seems obvious, I know. But let's delve into it a little deeper. I'll be the subject. My greatest strengths are writing and interacting (on both a social and professional level) with people. I'm also pretty good at art, public relations, and marketing. I make a fair pass at decorating and design, too. And therein lies the problem for me--and for most people in my situation, I suspect. I'm pretty good at alot of things--but don't really excel at any. The reason I don't excel in one particular area is because I haven't focused on developing any one talent. I've been all over the board--I've taken art classes, writing classes, I've made abortive attempts at re-starting the public relations consulting business I had when I was in my 20s, I started a less-than-successful mural painting business. And the result is that I haven't made any forward progress. I've been floundering around in a mess of my own creation.
And last night, Dave gently suggested I let it all go--and just pick one thing, one thing, to strengthen. And once I'd pick that one thing, I'd need to commit to it. So that's the decision I've made. And when I brainstormed by list of strengths, the top one was writing. And since I have already started (albeit a short way) down that path, I will (try to) let the other things fall to the wayside and put my effort into building my writing muscle. That's not to say I won't still paint the mural or two. But instead of scattering my efforts around in alot of places, I'm going to pull them in and focus on the main thing.

Sort of like Michael Jordan. I know--not exactly a right-on comparison, but it will do to underscore my point. Basketball legend. Tried baseball--not as good. Tried golf. Not his true thing either. So it was back to basketball, where arguably he should have stayed all along.

And as for Tony Robbins--ahem, Anthony Robbins--while you won't find me at any of his seminars any time soon, I have to admit that the daily affirmations that come across in his Twitter feed are pretty encouraging. And I guess when it comes down to it, when you're stuck in a rut, sometimes one of the most important tools to get yourself out of it is a belief in yourself--and a bit of encouragement from others.

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