Breathing Deeply

Note: This year I was accepted into a doctoral program in psychology. The blog had to be put to the side for a while, and won’t be a priority for a while. That being said, I still want to engage with these topics and explore them, particularly in moments when I need self-reflection.

This is an anxious moment.

I’ve held off on completing my weekly coursework for my doctoral program, knowing that I would have quite a few hours of the day to work on it today. Today has come, I’m sitting at my desk, my noise-canceling headphones on, my desk free and clear of (most) distractions. I’m dressed, showered, coffee in hand. Everything is prepared and ready for me to work. But when I opened up my university portal to begin this week’s assignments, my breathing started to get away from me. Anxiety started to bubble up as a physical manifestation in my body.

I paused. I am pausing. What am I feeling?

To pinpoint the emotions that are causing my breathing to devolve into anxious breaths, that are causing my chest to rise and fall deeply, that are even causing a little bit of a headache to start forming in between my eyes, I consulted a tool that I use with my students all the time.

This emotion wheel has been helpful when guiding students through socio-emotional learning (SEL) exercises. I push students to utilize the outer-most ring of the emotion wheel because it is the most specific. I pride myself on being able to accurately identify and manage my own feelings. Today, I was surprised to see that “anxious” as an emotion is actually in the second ring. Let’s dig a little deeper. Within the category of anxiety we have “overwhelmed” and “worried.” “Overwhelmed” seems a lot more accurate than “worried,” but then again, what else is there? Overwhelmed implies that I feel I don’t have enough time in the day to complete my coursework. I definitely do. So what else is going on here?

I may also be feeling a little embarrassed and judgmental – embarrassed that I waited until the day these assignments were due to start working on them. Judgmental because I’m labeling that procrastination in my head. My logical brain needs to work against that: if I have planned out time to do this assignment, and I have planned in fact the necessary time to do it, and it is done by the due date, then it isn’t procrastination.

My breathing is coming back down. Writing these thoughts out and reflecting on my feelings, rather than being reactive, or rather – trying not to be reactive – is a practice I have been very focused on the past few weeks. Meditation has become an important part of my day. Yesterday’s Daily Calm (a short meditation available on the Calm app) revolved around silencing the inner critic – breathing deeply and making sure that the part of us that judges, that criticizes, that is ready to jump in and blame, can be made smaller through mindfulness. We grow up seeking perfection and many of us as adults devote ourselves to self-improvement, but from a foundationn of a harsh inner critic. This inner critic says “You need to be better at _____. You need to stop doing _____. You need to start doing _____.”

You don’t need. You don’t need because you don’t want for anything. You don’t want for anything because you are whole as you are, perfect in your imperfection, as we all are.

Though I don’t know if I’ll be ever to silence my inner critic completely, I can turn down the volume on those thoughts, and instead react to myself with compassion. The same compassion that I extend to my closest friends, to my partner, to my family. Would I allow a stranger to judge my partner, my sister or my best friends the way my inner critic judges me? Hell no. Someone would catch these hands. Compassion isn’t making excuses for yourself or others – it is simply acknowledging that we are all flawed, and that to expect or demand perfection from any human being is fundamentally unreasonable, and ultimately harmful.

I am breathing deeply. I am breathing in confidence, competence, and a renewed belief that I am capable of accomplishing the tasks in front of me. I am breathing out judgement, self-judgement most of all. I am breathing out blame. I am breathing out the inner critic.

On Criticism & Perfectionism

In my last post, I talked about feedback and why it is a cornerstone of successful and purposeful personal growth. Today I want to talk about criticism and how it’s connected to perfectionism. But first – let’s define terms. What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a mindset that encourages people to focus on the minutia. It masquerades as excellence or success, and that makes it an attractive bedfellow. It’s something that we in the United States value and reward- we tend to believe that people who are perfectionists are trustworthy, intelligent, and dedicated. The problem is that perfectionism is not actually about excellence. It’s actually not about doing things well. It’s about doing things so seemingly well that the perfectionist is immune to negative feedback. At the heart of perfectionism is anxiety and insecurity. It is a defense mechanism against criticism.

There’s a tendency to prioritize perfectionism because it tends to translate to meticulousness. I’ve seen perfectionism rewarded and applauded in schools. I have received a lot of positive feedback whenever I’m in what I call “a perfectionism spiral.” A perfectionism spiral is when your anxiety takes over but instead of having an outward anxiety attack, you begin to fixate and obsess over minute details of the project you’re working on instead. You get almost nothing done even when you’ve worked all night. What is that about? If I’m such a perfectionist, why don’t I finish more things on time?

Perfectionism is not actually about excellence. It’s actually not about doing things well. It’s about doing things so seemingly well that the perfectionist is immune to negative feedback.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

Perfectionism is a form of procrastination! It’s the most perfect, most valid excuse in the world not to finish a task that you’ve started. You can rationalize it to yourself by saying that focusing on other aspects of this task will pay off in the long-term. That’s usually not true. If I know that my lesson plans are due at the end of the day, and I know that I’m behind, but I’m obsessing over font sizes and colors? That is procrastination artfully disguised as perfectionism – which in and of itself is disguised anxiety and manifestations of Imposter Syndrome!

So what do we do? How can we cultivate excellence while dismantling perfectionism? How can we support the perfectionists in our lives while also gently (and sometimes not so gently) pushing them to evaluate the true impact of perfectionism on their lives. It has a real cost – and I know because I have paid it, and had been paying it, for many years. Until I realized what perfectionism was taking away from me, I couldn’t put it down. It felt like a justified passion and zeal for my work. It wasn’t.

Perfectionism also creates an almost unbearable sensitivity to criticism because it removes the bulk of your exposure. Being a perfectionist (and being good at it) means that you’ll probably receive less negative feedback than you would if you didn’t have that mindset. Your supervisors will probably have less negative things to say about the quality of your work. That might seem like a good thing at first, but it isn’t.

Perfectionism also creates an almost unbearable sensitivity to criticism because it removes the bulk of your exposure.

Jessica @amorelovinglife

When we don’t continually have conversations that force us to be brave and bare (vulnerable), that socio-emotional skill atrophies. We become more and more defensive each time we receive negative feedback because the whole purpose of being a perfectionist is to avoid these conversations. So when we are confronted with one, and we have no way out, and our perfectionism has failed in this moment to save us from an awkward, embarrassing conversation – we shoot the messenger.

If we are consistently having conversations that force us to be brave and bare, then we are better-equipped to understand the key ideas being presented, process through emotions quickly, and move on. We are better able not to take those conversations personally when they aren’t meant to be taken as such. We are better able to actively listen to the concerns of the people around us. We are better able to accept our shortcomings and work to overcome them.

Letting go of perfectionism comes down to two key steps. The first to managing your ego. What I was not able to do for man years because of my ego was put down and de-prioritize things that mattered to me and to no one else. To really see that my insistence on devoting hours to these small, unnecessary parts of the job, was really hurting me in the long run. Something that has tremendously improved my anxiety around receiving feedback and my perfectionist tendencies is to align my work style and my personal goals for the year with my organization as completely as possible. Having two sets of goals means being disconnected and it means not achieving either in most cases.

Take stock of the perfectionists in your life. When you pay attention, you’ll start to notice that the aspects of their lives that they fixate on reflect intense anxiety.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

The second step in letting go of perfectionism is internalizing that done is better than perfect. If really want to obsess over font sizes, fine, that’s my prerogative. But what I will do is make sure that those plans are completed on time and submitted. What I do with them after I’ve met my deadlines and met my professional responsibilities is on me. What I’ve found is that once I’ve met the deadline, the anxiety that causes the perfectionism dissipates. I did the thing I was supposed to do. It is good enough. Now put it down, and focus on something else for a while.

Take stock of the perfectionists in your life. When you pay attention, you’ll start to notice that the aspects of their lives that they fixate on reflect intense anxiety. You can open up the conversation that way. “Hey, I notice that you’ve been really focused on your diet lately. Is there something worrying you about your health?” Calling people in – not out – and with love, will help ease the anxiety. It will also build relationships, which is what perfectionists need. We need someone who loves us, someone who knows us, someone who is invested in our wellbeing to say “Hey. It’s 1 in the morning. Whatever you’re working on, it’s good enough. Now go to bed.”

On Feedback

I work in an industry where feedback is essential. I’m a teacher. I get criticism and feedback constantly – from supervisors, colleagues, students, families. I am also fortunate that in my social circle, there are a lot of people who care enough about me to give me direct feedback when I need it. I’m using both words – criticism and feedback – but they are not interchangeable. Today I’m going to focus on feedback.

Feedback calls us in, not out.

Feedback is information you receive about you. It can be about your appearance, your work, your mindset, your actions, or your words. Feedback is constructive. The purpose of feedback is to support the person receiving it. It comes from a place of support. It urges growth. Quality feedback allows for the recipient to view a blind spot. It is essential for true self-awareness. We are so situated in our own subjectivity that we need others to help guide us towards better understanding.

The purpose of feedback is to support the person receiving it. It comes from a place of support. It urges growth.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

I started my career as an ESL (English as a Second Language – that acronym has since changed several times) teacher. There’s a reason why people have limited success when they try to learn a new language on their own without a class or a tutor. You can use all the apps and programs you want, but you need the feedback from a fluent speaker to tell you what you’re doing wrong before your errors crystallize and become a permanent part of your speech pattern. This is applicable to so many other parts of life!

The most meaningful feedback will stick.

One of the most important pieces of feedback I have ever received in my professional life was from a former supervisor and now friend. To this day, I can count on one hand the colleagues who I would drop everything and work for if the opportunity arose. Dillon is one of them. She is skilled not only at delivering feedback in a supportive way, but in truly holding her team accountable to being their best selves. At the start of the year I shared with her my struggle with being perceived as negative at work. This was a pattern that I couldn’t seem to break. In my own mind, all of the issues I raised – repeatedly, in meetings, loudly, talking over my colleagues – were important enough that any brashness should be forgiven. I asked her to help me with this issue.

The very first staff meeting of the year, Dillon sat across from me so she could see my face. I could make all sorts of excuses for that day – maybe it was late in the day, maybe I was tired, maybe I had heard the same refrain a few times already, maybe I had a headache.

After the meeting during our private check-in, she said “Jess. You gotta fix your face in meetings.”

“What do you mean? I didn’t say anything spicy today.”

“You didn’t have to.” She then modeled for me what my body language and facial expression looked like in the meeting. I was appalled! I was sitting slouched back in my chair, arms crossed, with the most hateful expression on my face. I wasn’t even really that upset that day!

I sat with the discomfort of realizing an awful truth about my life: I hadn’t ever thought about how my negativity was polluting the air around me and harming my friends and family.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

Some of you may be familiar with the affliction I’m describing: Resting Bitch Face. But this was worse. This wasn’t just my facial expression. This was my entire vibe! My RBF had gone untreated for so long that it had evolved into full-blown RBV – Resting Bitch Vibe. She then said something that I have not only remembered, but have since shared with others in a paying-it-forward sort of way.

“You have to be responsible for your vibe. You have to be responsible for the energy you bring to a space.” Now this was a show-stopper. At first, in my mind, I reacted defensively. What do you mean, my vibe? My vibe is cool. I’m funny, smart, sarcastic, and I’m a great teacher. What, are you trying to make me into some cookie-cutter Live Laugh Love type of teacher because that is not me. No way. It took literally less than three seconds for me to go into a defensive mental space and then I stopped. I took a deep breath. I sat with the discomfort of realizing an awful truth about my life.

I hadn’t ever taken responsibility for my energy the way Dillon was describing. I hadn’t ever thought about how my negativity was polluting the air around me and harming my friends and family. If I did think about it, I brushed it off as being unimportant. In that moment, my defensiveness was covering shame. Shame that I had gone what – 26 years at that time? – without really being mindful of how my emotions were impacting others. I was focused more on people seeing me as positive than actually being positive. No wonder I wasn’t successful!

Now, I’m sure Dillon was not the first person who noticed this quality about me. She’s just the first person who articulated it in a way I could hear and receive it. I could blame others for that too – I could say, If my friends really cared about me, why hasn’t anyone told me this before? There I went again, on the offensive. The reality is, I am responsible for how receptive I am to feedback. If people interact with me and think I’m going to react poorly to their feedback, then no matter how important or meaningful or well-intentioned it is, they won’t give it. And that’s on me.

If people interact with you and they think you’re going to respond poorly to their feedback, you will miss valuable insight from people who care about you. That is on you.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

If you know there’s an area of your life where you need to grow, ask for the feedback from people you respect. Directly ask them, and don’t be defensive when they give it to you. Don’t pick apart their method of delivery. Don’t blame. If people interact with you and they think you’re going to respond poorly to their feedback, you will miss valuable insight from people who care about you. That is on you. Use it as a moment of self-reflection.

We worked on it all year. She always tried to sit somewhere she could see my face in meetings, and if I was giving off RBV, she’d make a little gesture so I could fix it. I’m by no means cured, but I definitely do better than I used to. I started working at a new school this year and I’m thrilled to be able to say that I’m perceived as positive and solutions-oriented. What a change from just a few years ago!

It takes courage and vulnerability for us to name what we’re struggling with to the people we care about. It also takes courage to give feedback that the people in our lives really need to develop into better, more grounded humans. If you hear feedback that hits a nerve, lean into that discomfort because there is probably something there that you need to work through. If you find yourself jumping on the defensive, pause. Reflect. This is a person that cares about your wellbeing. If they believe this to be true, it probably is.

The nice thing about feedback is that it gets easier the more you practice. You can start by giving feedback about positive things in the form of appreciations. Then work up to giving feedback in situations where you feel that someone you care about needs to grow.

Quid pro quo’s are a big no-no.

A final word of warning. Do not give someone else feedback right after they’ve given you feedback. No matter how truthful or supportive your feedback may seem, it is going to come across as defensive and petty. Save it for a time when you can center your feedback in the conversation. It also makes it look like you were just waiting for an opening, and that deteriorates relationships. Try not to fight for the last word, because it just makes you look bad.

There is someone in your life right now that would benefit from your feedback and insight. Reflect on who that person is and how you will connect with them and support their growth.

Wu Wei – The Art of Effortless Action

Life is hard.

I say this to my partner’s son every time he’s disappointed by something. He’s 4. I don’t think he realizes what I’m saying yet, but I do think a lot about how much effort life takes. How much effort it takes to get up every morning, go to work, take care of my home, invest energy into relationships, take care of myself physically, emotionally, spiritually. Then I think about how fortunate I am that I live in a time and place where there are so many modern conveniences which allow me to save not only time, but effort. Maybe that makes me lazy. If I can order groceries from my phone, movies from my tv, and FaceTime with friends instead of seeing them in person… honestly? Sounds good to me.

What I didn’t realize is that I was making my life more difficult every day in tons of small ways. I was creating more pain points – specific patterns of problems that were impacting my life in a negative way.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

I grew up thinking that if I just worked hard enough, everything would be okay. That success and personal accomplishment were the pure, unadulterated results of the effort you put into your life. So, whenever a setback or challenge came down the road- I typically blamed myself on the inside and everyone else on the outside. It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t work hard enough and that’s why I didn’t earn that promotion. It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t get off my butt all day and that’s why my house is a mess. It’s embarrassing to admit that I forgot an important birthday or milestone because… I just didn’t put in the effort to write it down. So because I blamed myself for my own laziness, and then was ashamed about that laziness, I then turned it outwards. I started blaming everyone else. “That supervisor never liked me.” “No one ever helps me so why I should have the clean the house by myself.” (Which is blatantly false – my partner is extremely helpful around the house.) “They didn’t remember my birthday, who cares that I didn’t remember theirs!”

What I didn’t realize is that I was making my life more difficult every day in tons of small ways. I was creating more pain points – specific patterns of problems that were impacting my life in a negative way. I had to accept that my effort is limited. I actually can’t do everything. So when I try, you know what happens? Nothing gets done particularly well. (I’m sure some of you can relate.) That paired with a tendency towards perfectionism means that I wasn’t really doing as much as I thought I was, but it felt like I was busting my behind every day!

There’s a concept in Taoist philosophy called ‘wu wei.’ It literally means ‘non-doing’ but can be better expressed conceptually as effortless action or natural action. Think of it this way: when you are swimming in a river, if you swim upstream, you’ll swim slower. If you swim downstream, you’ll swim faster. That seems like common sense right?

What if the same is true in life? What if you could shift your choices, behaviors, and lifestyle so that you spend most of your time swimming downstream. When your actions reflect the natural flow around you, your efforts are strengthened. When your actions conflict with the natural flow around you, your efforts are diminished.

Now the purpose of this blog is to connect the spiritual to the mundane. We can read all the amazing texts and teachings we want, but if we can’t implement them in our lives today, then what’s the point? I want to help you proactively integrate aspects of healthy spiritualities and religion into your everyday life to make you happier. I’ve started doing that and it has made me so much happier. So what does this look like on the ground?

Maximize your effort by going with the natural order.

Some people are going to think that I’m just talking about nature here. I’m not. When I use the phrase “natural order,” I am referring to the natural, unperformed and unmanaged state of any environment you happen to be in. In order to understand whether or not you’re swimming upstream, you need to ask yourself three questions.

1. What is my natural order?

You need self-awareness to be able to do this work. In order to figure out if you’re swimming upstream, you need to figure out which direction you typically tend to swim. I want to use a really simple example to illustrate this process. In my apartment, I usually leave my shoes in the living room. They usually end up there because that’s where I take them off and collapse onto the couch after a long teaching day. That is the natural order of my shoes.

2. What is the natural order of my environment?

Now it’s time to look outward at your environment. In this example, it’s my closet. I used to keep my shoes in my bedroom closet with the rest of my clothes because duh – that’s where I’ve kept shoes all my life. Most of the time, there would be 4-5 pairs of untidy shoes in my living room because the bedroom closet is on the other side of the apartment. That’s the natural order of my environment.

3. How do I create harmony between my actions and my environment?

Here’s the part where you take some time to adjust your actions and behaviors so that they are in tune with your environment. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it is very difficult. For the shoes example, it’s actually pretty simple. I realized that if my shoes usually ended up in the living room, maybe I should just keep them there. I found a pretty decorative container big enough for the ones I wear often, and that’s where they live now. I’m no longer berating myself that I’m not a tidy enough person, and my shoes aren’t underfoot anymore. (Sorry, had to do it.)

What this does for our minds.

When we start to change our behavior to better suit our environment and ourselves, we minimize the meaningless effort we put into swimming upstream everyday. We create effortlessness in our routine, in our home, in our work, in our children. So think today about one pain point in your life. How can you shift your behavior so that you’re putting in less effort? So you can save it for what matters: special moments with family, milestones with friends, intellectually demanding work, and fulfilling passion projects. Think today about you will swim downstream.

Discretion vs. Dishonesty

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend about discretion. He and I were talking about how much of your personal life you should share with colleagues. This got me thinking a lot about how much norms of discretion and norms of sharing have shifted. In an age where most of us consistently share the vast majority of our lives in a virtually public space, it begs the question: where is the line between dishonesty and discretion?

The constancy of social media sharing has shifted those norms in various aspects of our lives. In workplace settings for example, many people find it difficult to strike the right balance between sharing enough personal information with colleagues to seem congenial and easy to work with, but not too much that it will reflect poorly on you. What a balancing act – and with high stakes at that! In other organizations which have a friendlier culture, the opposite scenario can be equally anxiety-inducing. What about colleagues who really want to be your friend and who consistently share aspects of their lives which you don’t want to participate in?

What about family members who want to know the minuscule details of your love life but who you just don’t feel that comfortable sharing with? Is it lying if you don’t tell people important things about yourself even when you’re close to them?

Social media created a baseline sense of entitlement in me about other people’s lives. It created in me an unchecked assumption that if someone wasn’t oversharing their life with, they were being dishonest.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

When I was a young professional, straight out of college, a first-year teacher with big dreams and big student loan debt, I used to complain all the time about people who I worked with that weren’t “open enough” – by my own objective and completely infallible assessment of course. I would harangue and side-eye colleagues who refused to attend happy hours. It would irk we spent the twenty precious minutes we had to eat our lunch in peace talking about the weather and nothing else.

How dare they not share their entire life story with me?

How dare they not connect with me as authentically as I’m trying to connect with them?

Social media had created a baseline sense of entitlement in me about other people’s lives. It created in me an unchecked assumption that if someone wasn’t oversharing their life with, they were being dishonest. They were lying. They weren’t being their authentic selves.

Wait a minute. What does this have to do with living a more loving life?

The truth is I’m not entitled to know more about people’s lives than they are willing to share. You are not required to share more of yourself than what you’re comfortable with. People don’t need to know about every part of your life. Guard your vulnerability. For young professionals, I’m speaking to you directly because sometimes people will use it against you. Your truth is a powerful gift that you get to bestow on who is worthy – not just on who is around at the moment.

Your truth is a powerful gift that you get to bestow on who is worthy – not just on who is around at the moment.

– Jessica @amorelovinglife

As a frequent over-sharer myself, I have been in this place. I have made my life more difficult by not creating and enforcing firmer boundaries on what I share and what I don’t. I made that mistake more than once at work, and I also made that mistake more than once with other important relationships. You cannot undo confiding a vulnerability to someone who doesn’t deserve it and it will almost always come back to haunt you.

Think deeply and critically about who you share your life with. Are those people supportive? Trustworthy? Affirming? When you have shared vulnerable and important truths about yourself in the past, how have they responded? With compassion? If the answer is no, keep in mind that even close friends and family members are not all things for all people. It is okay to be intentional about how you will connect with someone, and to set boundaries that create a more positive relationship for you both.

Introduction

This blog is meant to be a space where spirituality, philosophy and everyday life intersect. I’ve spent the past year reading and reflecting on many different belief systems from many different parts of the world. Everywhere I looked, in every book I read, I found pearls of wisdom.

I created this space to share them with you.

If you are a person who sometimes struggles to see the bigger picture, then this blog is for you. If you are a person who wants to believe that there is goodness in the world, but you just can’t seem to get there, then this blog is for you. If you take your introspection seriously, or you want to start to, then this blog is for you. If authenticity and vulnerability matter to you, then this blog is for you.

Join me as I make meaning and reflect on how to live a more loving life.