The Stories We Tell Ourselves

We have beliefs about ourselves to which we hold on tightly. We build a sense of identity around them as if they are truths set in stone. We tell ourselves stories that support our identity and behave in ways that support what we believe to be true, even if that truth is a dark one.

After high school I left home, embarking on a new journey. Many of my friends did the same, scattering to new places all over the country. The path my friend P took however could not have been more opposite from mine. While freedom and possibilities stretched out before me as I started college, P faced five years of imprisonment in the state penitentiary.

P grew up without much parental guidance. His father was often absent from his life. His mother struggled to make ends meet and to care for P’s much younger sisters. P helped his family out by stealing and selling drugs. He dropped out of school at an early age, opting for a street education instead. His lawless activities gradually escalated in nature, as did his mentality. It shaped who he was, who he believed himself to be.

P was a good and loyal friend, and he had a big heart.  While he was in prison, we corresponded through written letters. He always decorated the envelopes with intricate drawings, often of flowers intertwined together by vines of sharp leaves and thorns. I got one every couple of weeks and wrote him back almost immediately. His stories about life on the inside were minimal, but the darkness and hardness of the place emanated from all of the things he didn’t say.

More importantly though, were our philosophical discussions about human nature and being positive and optimistic. P’s life in prison was exposing him to time and experiences that made him seriously question who he was and who he wanted to become. In every letter I wrote, I poured out an immense bounty of positive messages, energy, and encouragement. I wanted desperately for him to change for the better, to emerge from prison with the intention and the willpower to turn his life in a positive direction, and I knew he wanted that, too.

His letters indicated that he was hearing me, taking our conversations to heart. But then he sent me a letter that woke me to the truth. P got a tattoo while in prison. It was of a demon, and it covered his entire chest. When P looked in the mirror every day, he saw his own face, and then he saw the face of the demon, reinforcing what he believed to be true about himself – that he was a bad person.

Sometimes we believe something to be true about ourselves for so long that it feels too hard to test that certainty and see if our belief is still true. It’s easier to simply go on believing and existing in the reality we have constructed for ourselves in our own minds. I could not change P with a handful of letters. I could not unravel the story he had been telling himself for most of his life. Only he could change that story.

The news of P’s tattoo broke my heart. I felt like I had lost him. I continued my letters of positivity and encouragement, however. Once he was released from prison, he never went back. I’m glad for that, but his internal struggle didn’t end there. After he was out, we talked regularly about his questionable ethics and morality evident by the choices he had made and was still making. Eventually it became too much for me, and as I pushed to keep that darkness out of my life, our friendship faded away.

What are the things about yourself that you “know” to be true? Ask yourself why you believe these things and question their validity. We should always be questioning ourselves and the truths we hold so close. After all, we are the ones that constructed them.

We decide what defines us and what we see when we look in the mirror every day. Some of us see a demon, like P did, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We decide our truths, the things that define who we are, and we can decide to change them. We can change the stories we tell ourselves and be better.

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High and Low

Sometimes a moment is all we have, and sometimes it’s all we need to bring us back.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the moment in this photo was a turning point. I felt strong and beautiful and free, and that was all that mattered. What came after was really hard.

For the next few years I struggled with a series of events, creating an internal turmoil that made me question much of what I thought I knew about myself. I gradually felt weak and ugly and trapped, and I felt lost.

But I remembered who I once was. I remembered how I felt in the moment of this photo and in millions of other moments in my life, strong and beautiful and free, and I knew I could get that back.

I did get it back.  And if you are lost, know that you can get it back, too.

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In response to the weekly photo challenge: Atop

7 Ways to Celebrate the Return of Spring

The days grow longer as the sun shines high above us, easing us from the winter season into springtime. The snow and frost melt, making way for greenery to grow and encouraging creatures to awake from hibernation. Here in the U.S., the northeast is undergoing the last of winter. Meanwhile at my home in the south, signs of spring have already appeared. We recently came across a squirrel nest in our yard, complete with three babies. Our evenings are cool and breezy, but most of our days are growing warmer.

The first official day of spring, the vernal equinox, is today! While the celebration of Spring takes many forms, here are 7 ways to celebrate the return of the season of growth, nature, and renewal.

1) Spring clean.
It’s called “spring cleaning” for a reason! Spring is the perfect time of year to toss out the old and make way for the new. It’s the perfect time to downsize and donate, recycle, or sell the things you no longer use. After freeing up some space, refresh your home as well with a little extra cleaning. Focus on those neglected areas such as the baseboards, the ceiling fans, and the space under the bed. Reorganize your closets and pantries to make better use of the space you do have. Introduce some new spring scents into your home with candles or essential oils. And don’t forget to open the windows and let in all of that fresh air!

2) Reflect.
Spring is the season that can sheds new light on the world around you. It’s a perfect opportunity for reflection. Carve out some time to think about all that you have accomplished in your life. Think about all the wondrous things that surround you every day and be thankful. Write down your expressions of gratitude. Express those feelings of gratitude towards your loved ones. Share your appreciation and love.

3) Plant something.blog
The earth supports life through the existence of trees and plants and the oxygen they emit into the atmosphere. Freshen the air around you by introducing new plants into your home. They will increase oxygen and add energy and spirit to the room. If you have the yard space, create a garden or tend to the one you already have, planting new things or old favorites. You can even plant a tree! Last year my husband planted a baby burr oak in our backyard.

4) Rebalance.
The vernal equinox is equal parts darkness and light, giving us 12 hours of each. For one day there is balance, and then everything shifts, as does life. Yet we continue striving to achieve balance, “work-life balance” being the most popular these days, though there are many types. What is out of balance in your life? Perhaps you are spending too much time with others and not enough time alone, eating too much sugar and not enough vegetables, staying up too late to watch TV and not getting enough sleep. Recognize the area that needs a bit more attention and make a change.

5) Enjoy the outdoors.blog
As we see the sun for longer stretches of time, the weather grows warmer, the birds sing their sweet songs, and nature beckons us to come outside. Make time to appreciate the shifting of the seasons and enjoy all of the beauty that the outdoors offers.   Spend an afternoon at the park and take a picnic lunch along with you. Visit some local gardens. Go for a hike. Spring is also a great time to go fishing, as my husband can attest. Enjoy the gorgeous weather now while you have the opportunity.

6) Start something new.
Spring is a time of renewal, and it is important to find time to renew ourselves. Are there projects that you’ve been meaning to start but have been putting off? Is there something you want to learn about or learn to do? Is there a personal practice you’ve been thinking about adding into your routine, such as running or meditation? The increase in sunlight as we move from the cold season into the warmer season has a rejuvenating effect on our senses and can revive our motivation.   Spring is the perfect time to start something new!

7) Take a trip.
Spring Break is a tradition for a reason! After hibernating all winter, we are ready for some fun in the sun! Take a vacation and get away from the stresses of daily life. If a long trip is not in the cards for you right now, consider taking a weekend road trip, or even a road trip. Sometimes a few hours in the car is all it takes to travel to new destination or to a place you love to visit.

Spring is a beautiful season, and especially for us in the south, it never seems to stick around long enough. So make time to celebrate, to enjoy the reemergence of nature and the warm sunny days. Take time out for yourself and have some fun!

Bound Together

Friends are as companions on a journey, who ought to aid each other to persevere in the road to a happier life.”
-Pythagoras

What is a true friendship? Aristotle believed that true friendship is rooted in goodness of character and equal virtue and is extremely rare. In the age on social media, we use the term “friend” loosely. We can easily connect with anyone and everyone, but those connections are often shallow and empty of real meaning. I, too, believe that true friendship is rare, and I am grateful to have firsthand knowledge of it in my life.

N and I met in 7th grade history class. I don’t remember the moment we met. She was simply and suddenly in my life. Our family structures were very similar. Our parents both married and split around the same time. Both of our dads remarried and were often absent from our lives. We were both only children and very close to our moms. It was our common ground.

We partnered on projects together, ate lunch together, went to school dances together. We made frequent treks to the grocery store to buy rolls of sugar cookie dough to snack on while binge watching MTV. We decided that when we turned 16 we would take a road trip to Seattle, the capital of grunge, and we started saving money for the trip by putting change in a jar. We asked kids in the cafeteria to donate their leftover lunch money to our cause, but we never saved very much. We kept buying cookie dough with it instead. We made up songs and games to entertain ourselves. We had (and still have) infinite inside jokes that no one else would ever understand. We roamed around our city, exploring and making our presence known.

N and I both have somewhat adventurous natures. We never daydreamed about our wedding days or settling down to have kids but instead focused our free spirits on really living life, taking advantage of opportunities, and experiencing everything we could. As we got older, this of course got us in trouble a few times. We snuck out, partied hard, got tattoos and piercings. But we took risks. We didn’t shy away from the world and never felt like we were missing out. We were in advanced honors classes all through school. I was in the internship program and N competed on the debate team. And we were both in math club (believe it or not).

In high school our friendship got more complicated, as many teenage friendships do. As our relationships with other people increased and became complex, so did our relationship to each other. There were rivalries, jealousies, and dramatic love interests intermixed with the white lies that we told each other for no real reason except that we were simply trying to find our ways through the world and didn’t know how to be honest with each other or ourselves.

Our bond was undeniable, but still we grew apart. Our friendship became too disjointed and frictional. On high school graduation day, we threw our caps in the air, hugged each other, and didn’t speak again for three years. N and I have taken a few natural breaks throughout our friendship, but our bond has always brought us back together. I think those days are behind us now. We have learned how to be better friends to each other. We have traveled across country many times to see each other, having lived in different states for more than half of our friendship. We message each other all the time, for vital reasons and for no reason at all except a desire to connect.

Here is a little bit about N: She is incredibly bright. It was easy to see that way back when we first met in junior high. I have always admired her quick wit. She makes me laugh longer and harder than anyone I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t let her wear her pretty long blonde hair down at my wedding because it would have overshadowed my whole bridal ensemble. She has a glamorous style that she never sacrifices for any reason. She is smart, bold, and brave.

N is stronger than she sometimes realizes. She is finally seeing that she deserves so much more in life than she has allowed herself to have. I have not been diligent in showing how much I admire, appreciate, and love her. In this way I have failed her as a friend, but I hope to have many more years of friendship with her to make up for it.

Relationships are complex, messy. N and I have grown up together, spending some of our most turbulent years together. True friendship is not about perfection. It’s about working through life together. We have seen each other at our worst. We have judged each other and carried each other. We know each other on multiple levels, and for that reason we can talk more deeply and laugh more honestly and whole-heartedly together than with anyone else. We are kindred spirits.  After more than 20 years, we continue on our journey through life bound together forever in friendship.

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Imposter

I am not who everyone thinks I am. And it’s only a matter of time before someone finds out.

When my manager told me she is expanding our department and hiring new people, I had a thought that maybe she was planning to fire me.  Maybe she had realized I’m not as good at my job as she previously thought and was hiring my replacement.

Last week I returned to work from vacation to find that my manager submitted my name for an award. Her submission said:

“Although I should be used to it by now as she is so consistent, Jamie is constantly surprising me by how she kicks every project up a notch and follows through with a countless number of requests and projects, completing them better than I would have myself. Jamie, not everyone could be able to handle as much as you do, especially with such poise and high levels of success. Thank you for all you do!”

I read it a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. My internal reaction was:

blog“Does she really believe this about me? My contribution is small, and my work is by no means amazing. If she really knew my work processes and took a closer look at what I’ve produced thus far, I’d probably be in trouble instead of being nominated for an award.”

My immediate reaction was to discredit the kind and complimentary words from my manager about myself and my work ethic. I began trying to reason away the award nomination in my head because what I read could not be the truth.

Does any of this sound familiar? This is Imposter Syndrome.

I first discovered the concept via author Brene Brown. Imposter Syndrome is feeling like a fraud.  You believe others see you as being better than you truly are, and you think that eventually people will find out and realize you are a fraud.

I experience this in both my professional and personal life. Realizing this is a phenomenon that many other people experience left me feeling less alone. During an office book club meeting, I mentioned Imposter Syndrome and everyone perked up, unfamiliar with the term. I explained the meaning and immediately saw the change in their faces. A few people spoke up. “I experience that every day.” “I thought that was just me.”

Imposter Syndrome sounds ludicrous logically, but it’s very real. Recent research suggests that both women and men struggle with this and that people from all walks of life are susceptible. Neil Gaiman, Maya Angelou, and Tina Fey have all opened up publicly about their own fears of “being found out.”

In learning about all of this, I realized I can tackle these thoughts and turn them around. There are a variety of tactics you can use to manage your feelings of being a fraud, but here is what helps me:

  • I remind myself that every day I aim to be the best person that I can be, and I am enough.
  • I remember that people are entitled to their own opinions. If my manager truly believes that I am doing great work, why discredit her? She is smart enough to make her own judgment.
  • I think about all of the compliments I have received in my profession and personal life. Not all of them can be wrong about me, so I aim to internalize those compliments and own my successes.
  • I remind myself to stop comparing myself to others.
  • I remind myself that it is the Imposter Syndrome talking, and I silence the fear-based, self-deprecating thoughts. They are not the real me.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. I am still reacting to the imposter thoughts rather than getting in front of them and heading them off at the pass, but I am making progress.

Do you experience Imposter Syndrome? How do you cope with and manage these thoughts?

 

Photo via VisualHunt.com