Empathy for Bridezillas

Liz and I continue to beaver away at wedding planning, tackling some new aspect of the event nearly every night. Our loft is filled with reply cards, flower vases, and various sizes of ribbon. Our inboxes alternate between guest questions about plus-ones and responses from a fantastic collection of vendors. Our calendars are filled with events like trial hairdos, venue walkthroughs, and just one more trip to Michael’s.

More than once I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the details. Which forks should we use? Will the cake be cut at 8:20PM or 8:35PM? Do I want blush or bronzer? While I value (and perhaps overvalue) the importance of nailing the details, it is certainly not my strength. Instead, I’m constantly surprised about the volume and specificity of the choices that need to be made. Wedding decisions are like matryoshka (Russian nesting dolls); you think you are seeing the entirety of the question, but then you open it up to find that there are infinite layers of decisions nestled within the high-level decision you just made.
wed_linensWhile all this planning stresses me out, Liz, on the other hand, brings an operational fluency to the whole process, grounded in her military background and healthcare expertise. I may be emotional about the fifteenth decision about flatware, but she has the capacity to see the overall vision and also manage the component decisions to achieve the plan. She is unsurprised by the level of planning needed and unfussed about making it happen.

In some way, I’m surprised that these decisions stress me out in the first place. True, I’m not naturally good at dealing with the details, so I may feel incapable. But I also would not be stressed if I didn’t think these decisions were important. Why does this endless parade of decisions matter to me?
wed_napkinOn some level, I believe the efforts we put into orchestrating a gorgeous event – from finding the right forks to arranging the tables – serve as a proxy for the love we’re giving to our guests. If we can control the event and get it all right, then people will enjoy themselves and know how much we love them. If I’m honest with myself, it’s like every other dinner party I’ve thrown in the past; if I make it perfect, all will go well. It’s a lot of pressure to put on picking flowers and candles and desserts; if they’re not exactly right, then people won’t feel loved and we won’t be okay.

Reflecting on my own control issues around our wedding has helped me empathize with the bridezilla trope in a new way. In addition to endless questions around event details, weddings confront us with questions around many of our core values: family, religion, community, beauty, self-worth, tradition, love, gender roles, commitment, and meaning. As the bride (or one of two brides), it’s easy to pretend to control over all those questions by controlling the details of the day. Society tells us that it is ‘our day’ and we can do whatever we like, so why not dictate all the details, avoid the most difficult questions, and ensure the logistics perfectly conform to our vision?

I’m trying to unplug my controlling tendencies here. I’m trying to dissociate the precise linen selection with the love that we have for our guests. I’m trying to I’m trying to channel a bit more of Liz’s capacity for making these decisions without becoming stressed. And I’m trying to not control the world in order to increase my own sense of comfort. It’s not easy to do this, particularly as each vendor comes with question after question about decisions that apparently matter. But my hope is that by letting go of a bit of my wedding, an even better, co-created celebration can grow up in its place.

With love,
Meredith
wed_vase

How I Felt When Love Won

I left the States earlier this month for a combined business trip/vacation to Frankfurt, London, Windsor, and Sussex. In addition to the highly useful work parts, Liz and I took a week in the middle to put wedding planning on hold and travel the UK. In the course of eight days, we hit the Royal Ascot, the Harry Potter Studio Tour, Abbey Road, and over two dozen pubs. After pint upon happy pint, Liz returned stateside, and I hung around for work.
big ben harry p ascot
I arrived back home on Friday, leaving Heathrow mid-morning and landing in San Francisco mid-afternoon. As wheels touched down, I casually fired up my iPhone. Before texts or emails had a chance to load, I opened Safari and searched for “Supreme Court.” I knew in the back of my mind that the ruling might come out, but I honestly didn’t expect it. (I was secretly planning to have some sort of SCOTUS breakfast next week: get up early when the courts announce, invite over some sympathetic friends, and provide lots of coffee and bacon.)

The first headline I saw was CNN’s simple and factual truth: “Supreme Court rules for same-sex marriage nationwide.” The announcement was so fresh that my newsfeed was not yet subsumed by opinion articles and teary pictures of couples kissing. It was just a simple fact.

I showed my seatmate. I took a breath. And then I started bawling on the airplane.

Even now I’m surprised and self-judgmental about my reaction. I haven’t been fighting this fight my whole life. While I lived for years with questions and uncertainties, they didn’t subsume my ability to live as myself. Today I’m more likely to feel the oversight of someone’s assumption (“Your fiancé, what does he do for a living?”) rather than the bone-pain of overt discrimination. And though I was hurt by not being able to marry in Michigan, preparing for our California marriage looks and feels a lot like our opposite-sex couple friends.

In my head, my emotions were not qualified by the discrimination I experienced. I didn’t deserve to react the way I did. Crying like that? Who did I think I was?

Beyond external pains, reflection tells me that there was more subtly meaningful happening when I read that decision. This is well-illustrated by what happened on the rest of my trip after Liz left. So let me tell you a little story:

One of my major failings in life is a complete inability to put myself to bed. I loiter on Facebook, linger over work, and dally over emails. But more than anything, I troll the web – from HuffPo articles to Buzzfeed links. Happily, when I’m home with Liz, I follow her nightly routine and, blessedly, go to bed by 10PM. However, when I’m on the road by myself, like the last week, I end up plummeting into a late-night clickhole. It’s such a problem that one of my colleagues once gave me a book that she used to read to her child: The Going To Bed Book. I needed it far more than her toddler.

I bring this up because it’s during those wandering, lonely nighttime hours that I’ve been circling this issue – at 1:28AM at the Piccadilly Meridien, with piles of white hotel pillows around me and a computer screen illuminating my face. It’s then that I’m knee-deep in the National Organization for Marriage, Savage Love, Huffington Post’s Gay Voices, Focus on the Family, Marriage News Watch, and even the SCOTUS site. I read the smart arguments about equality, but reflect even more over the voices – both explicitly hateful and lovingly dissenting – who question my rights.

When life is private and secret and lonely, I step into my quiet, underlying question of “Am I really okay?”

We all have reasons why we might not be okay, why people might not love us, and, most scary of all, why we might not be deserving of love. While my waking life abounds with love from family and friends, I find plenty of lurking evidence to feed my fears during these nights. Here are all the reasons I’m unlovable, writ large in a national political debate.

Maybe that’s why I was so casual about searching out the SCOTUS answer in the daylight. My daytime self is strong; I know my worth. My daytime self smiled and shared the SCOTUS decision with my seatmate. But after a moment, when the truth filtered through to my fragile, nighttime self, I cried with relief. There’s something at the vulnerable core of me that’s validated by this decision – not because it makes my marriage legal, but because it makes me okay.

What is Friday about to me? It is primarily about the love within same-sex marriages and, specifically, the love that I share with Liz. But, beyond that, it is also one more step towards better loving myself.

With all sorts of love,
Meredith
us at pride

Courage? What Courage?

This past weekend I was in a coaching workshop focused on creating a greater capacity to process your emotions. There was plenty of sharing and plenty of crying. And in the midst of that, there was also a lovely gentleness. When one person would get vulnerable, another person would thank them for their courage.

Courage. The Oxford English Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.”

Definitionally, courage is all about me facing my fears. It is about looking them in the face, moving through them, and emerging out the other side. When I feel myself facing my fears, I demonstrate courage. (See my post on fears here.)

But what happens, like I observed so many times this past weekend, when someone else calls me courageous? When I was called courageous this weekend, it didn’t resonate. I felt mislabeled and, frankly, a little phony. I had simply shared my feelings and shown vulnerability about who I am. For whatever reason, those didn’t seem to be big challenges at the time. And they certainly didn’t seem to deserve the grand label of “courageous.”

So what’s going on here?

I think that when we label someone courageous we’re making not making a statement about them so much as we’re making a statement about ourselves. What we see as courage tells us more about our own fears than it tells us about the character of the person we’re talking about. In short, what we label as courageous often indicates what we fear most.

For example, if I am not afraid of spiders, then shooing a creepy-crawly out of the house feels quite trivial. For someone who hates spiders, however, I’ve done a courageous thing. My courage is really just a reflection of their fear.

What do you see as courageous? And what does that tell you about your own fear landscape?

With fierce love (and periodic courage),
Meredith

Goodbye Perfect

San Diego, CA

It was only an off-handed comment, but I remember it so clearly.

It was around 1997 and I was in high school. Specifically, I was hosting a dinner party at my parents’ house (as one does at sixteen). I set the table with china and crystal, carefully arranged the linens according to my recent studies of napkin-folding, and cooked up three different pasta dishes as a sort of ‘pasta bar.’ I was chatting with one of my guests when she turned to me and delivered bluntly: “You know, Meredith, if not for one thing, I would want your life.”

I felt wonderfully validated by the compliment. “You want my life?” I thought. “Well then I must be doing something right!” But beyond that, I became immediately fixated on this one exception: “Wait, what part of my life could she judge and find wanting?” I reflected. “I should definitely fix that right away.”

Much of my early years were spent striving to perfect myself. I worked hard in school for academic achievement, certainly studying more than necessary to get along. I poured myself into an appropriately diverse and engaging set of extracurriculars. Yet my definition of achievement wasn’t focused on resume-building alone. In addition to being the smartest and most accomplished I wanted to be the most well-rounded too. I journaled about my experiences and build a strong sense of self-reflection. I spent time with my family. I built emotional intelligence skills around listening and connecting. I committed to reading the Bible every morning and night as I plumbed for spiritual depth.

While I had a broad view of life, I had only one metric to measure every dimension against: excellence. Was I getting A’s on tests, devotedly going to the gym, cultivating both breadth and depth in my relationships, calling my parents, and taking on leadership roles? Was I being the best? My goal was to do everything required to become a ‘complete human being’ and to do it all well. Like my friend’s comment, I would know I was on track if people looked at my life and said “Gosh, I want what she has.”

There are plenty of issues with this worldview. To begin, this perspective set me on an endless quest with predictably unsatisfying results. I learned that there will always be someone who is smarter, funnier, more empathetic, better-read, more well-rounded, etc, etc, etc. It’s tough to be good at one thing, and much it’s harder to be the best at all things.  Given that I didn’t always find myself at the top of the heap, I also had to become an agile mental gymnast to preserve my sense of self-worth. I looked for ways to reestablish my identity when I lacked hard proof of relative superiority (like test grades). One trick was to subtly reframe and recontextualize what types of excellence really mattered. “Yes, it’s important to be smart and emotionally intelligent like me,” I would think to myself, “but it’s not that important to have a great fashion sense or win at chess. So, in a way, I’m still the best.” I picked the constellation of things that I would judge on; it meant that I could still define myself as comparatively excellent in any range of situations.

Though this worldview drove my achievements and gave me worth, it became clear that these subconscious patterns didn’t help me connect with others. It’s no fun to sit in a room silently cataloguing the reasons why I’m smarter than this person, more engaged than that person, and more emotionally aware than that other person. I didn’t want to be constantly striving for more – or perpetually reframing why my slate of achievements are just as good as the next person’s.

So I’m working on giving up those old habit patterns. I’m redefining success away from ‘excellence, comparative superiority, and enviability’ to simply ‘authenticity.’ I used to make authenticity a sub-goal of my overarching quest to be the best (i.e., “Goal 283: Be the most authentic person around”). But I know it’s far more powerful when authenticity becomes the dominant lens. Who am I? What is innately valuable about me? And how do I sit with all the parts of me instead of trying to perfect them?  Frankly, I don’t want you to covet my life. Instead, I want you to live your life fully, just as I want to live my life fully.  With all it’s real messiness and imperfection.

This focus on authenticity neuters my reliance on external validation. I began my journey with a sense that if I made myself good enough then others would want my life; they would like me and I would have done well.  But you remember my friend from high school and her one reservation about wanting my life? She said she would love to be me except… “you worry too much.” And so, as I throw out the idea of perfecting my life, I’ll also throw out my biggest worry about doing so: the fear that unless I make myself better and better, then I might not be worthy of your love and approval. Hopefully, striving for authenticity means that love and approval don’t need to come from you anymore; I should be able to find them independently.

It’s so easy for me – for any of us – to present only the Facebook veneer of a sublimated life: the travels, the engagements, the meals, the beach days with impossibly beautiful Californian weather. But regardless of what you see on your smartphone, here is the truth: I am not perfect. There is messiness and brokenness and not-all-put-together-ness in me. And far from being something I need to polish and perfect, I am more and more embracing those imperfect parts and loving myself even more. It has taken me until my earlier thirties, but I have learned that I don’t so much want to excel at life.  I just want to live it.

With love,
Meredith

goodbye perfect

Saying yes to fears

San Francisco, CA

This past weekend I was lucky enough to catch up with a good friend who lives on the other side of the world.  He mentioned that a friend of his was afraid about many things.  Afraid about things happening.  Afraid about things not happening.  Afraid about being liked.  Afraid about not being liked.

When my boyfriend passed away unexpectedly in 2010, I found myself scared of so many things.  I was afraid of never falling in love again, afraid I would fall in love again, afraid I would fall in love and then that person would pass away, afraid I would forget him, afraid I would always remember him, afraid of being judged for grieving in my own way, afraid that what I felt was real, afraid that what I felt was false.  The list went on for pages in my journal.

Writing down the list of fears helped immensely.  I found that the first step in moving through the fear was simply to name it.  Give it form and substance.  Put words to it.  I didn’t worry about the ‘why?’ behind it; tracing each fear back to its psychological source wasn’t the point.  The point was getting rid of the fears.  And to get rid of them, I needed to know what they were.

My list of fears was very long.

Then, I had to face them.  By facing, I do not mean doing the thing you’re afraid of or overcoming it in some forceful way (e.g., intercontinental flights for those afraid of flying).  Instead, by facing, I mean just that:  turning my face towards the fear.  The point was to look at each fear instead of hiding from it.  I needed to accept them.  And most of all, I needed to say yes to them.

So, for each fear, I just said “yes” to it.  This was not a “yes” that I wished the fear would materialize, but instead an acknowledgment of its possibility.  “Yes, I might end up alone.”  “Yes, people may judge me.” “Yes, I might never be able to move past this.”  I just said yes.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Yes, that might happen.  Yes, this might happen.  Yes, yes, yes.  I said yes.  I cried yes.  I kept going with yes until there was nothing left.

yes bold
And soon, I moved to a place of:  “Okay.  Yes.  But so what?  So what if it does happen?  If that’s what’s going to happen, then I’ll deal with it.”  And at that point the yes turned into a sort of acceptance of possibilities.

What I realized was that before I found yes, I was running from every fear.  I was doing whatever I could to escape them.  Trying every tactic.  (It felt something like this.)  I was exhausted.

But when I stopped running, turned to face my fears, and said yes, the fear passed right through me.  I always thought that once it caught me (like Coyote catching the Roadrunner), I would be destroyed.  But instead, when I stopped and let it catch up with me, it evaporated, ghost-like.  It’s almost like my fears passed through straight through me.

When I started saying yes to fear, I also saw that the thing I feared and the fear itself were distinct (FDR got this one right; in the very first paragraph of his First Inaugural Address).  If the feared thing happened, whatever it was, I could deal with it.  Step-by-step, I would figure it out, because that’s what humans do.  But there was no use in being afraid of it.  Why work myself up emotionally for a possible situation in the future?  Saying yes allowed me to let this go instead of ducking, dodging, hiding, and running to avoid it.

My mental image of running from and then facing fear is that of Bugs Bunny.  He runs away from Yosemite Sam, that creepy monster or some other cartoon villain with all his might.  But what actually diffuses the situation is stopping and facing the bugaboo.  Stopping and facing lets us see that the villain – the fear – is laughable and inept.

If you are looking to let go of fear (or simply anxiety or nervousness), you can take the same approach:

  • Make a long list of the things you’re afraid of.  It can be anything.  Fear of things happening, fear of things not happening, fear of the judgment of others, fear of how you’ll perceive yourself.  Keep writing until you have no more fears to share.  (“I am afraid of not having enough money,” “I am afraid of my kids not going to the right school,” “I am afraid if I speak up people will think I’m too assertive,” “I am afraid that if I don’t go to PTA meetings, people will think I’m a bad parent.”  Whatever it is.)
  • Go through the list.  Say yes to each one.  Keep on saying yes until the fear loses its magnitude
  • When you’re feeling afraid again, come back to the list or repeat the exercise anew.  Write down your fears, say yes to each one, and let them go

Wishing you all love without fear,
Meredith

 

"Fear Monster"

The Courage to Begin

May 10, 2014
Outside of Arenberg, Germany

I’ve been hoping to start a blog for a while. Yes, it’s been a long while that I’ve been wandering in the wilderness of thinking, planning, deliberating, deciding, motivating, re-deciding, and, ultimately, failing to follow through.  It’s a familiar (and somewhat annoying) place to find myself, especially because I see myself as an energetic and enthusiastic person – you know, one of those people who can easily follow through on their intentions.  So when I finally got serious, I realized the only way out of the wilderness of waiting was to catalogue, digest, and move beyond the fears that were inhibiting my ability to start.  Included among them were:

  • There’s vulnerability in expressing myself authentically.  What if people (and by people, I mean you, dear reader) don’t like the me that you see expressed here?  How does that impact our relationship in ‘real life’?
  • I am used to doing things excellently. I don’t want to write anything unless it’s good. And I mean really good.
  • I have both fear and excitement about the public and permanent nature of the internet.  I’ve always been comfortable disclosing my thoughts and feelings to those around me, whether intimate acquaintances or new friends.  But posting these things publically opens up a lot of questions that I don’t fully know the answer to:  What’s the long-term implication of having all these things published?  What if I inevitably grow, evolve, and come to regret my views?  How is the complicated by the fact that I’ve shared them with you?
  • And my strongest fear of all is my fear of judgment.  What if you think I’m silly, stupid, or too much of a hippie?  What if you think I’m too pragmatic, too intellectual, or not intuitive enough?  That fear of judgment touches on a deep-seated need for approval, which is hard to battle.  

I approached these as I approach any fears. I took each statement one-at-a-time and simply said yes to it.  “Yes, I might write a horrible blog.”  “Yes, people may not like me after they read my writing.”  “Yes, I may be judged positively or negatively.”  “Yes, I may regret what I write in the future.”  I simply said “yes, yes, yes” to each fear until they lost their power over me.  There is a lovely saying that “what you resist, persists”; when I stop resisting and simply let the fear be, I find it ‘passes through me’ and I emerge on the other side, unafraid and unharmed.  The fears are real, the answers are uncertain, and yet I’m able to move forward with strength.  

It took a solo retreat holed up at a cloister in Germany (yes, a real cloister with nuns wandering about) to finally say yes to each of these fears and dedicate the time needed to tackle the logistics of launching.  But I’m glad to be here.  And I’m glad to be in dialogue with you about all the crazy and important topics we’ll tackle together.

Thanks for joining me on the journey.  I’m looking forward to your company along the way.

Meredith