Clarity

A little over four years ago, I moved to Boston from Portland, OR. At that time in my life, I had a lot of questions about identity and self-worth. I was a woman in search of something. On a superficial level, I was looking for better job advancement and an adventure in a new place. I had never lived on the East Coast, and having spent eight months in Italy during college, I was filled with a desire to see more of the world. When I moved, I had lived in Portland for almost ten years: my friends had experienced adventures and traveled while I stayed still. So I sold my car, quit my job, and traded rain and an incredible community of friends for snow, humidity and solitude.

Over the four years that I have lived in Boston, I have learned a lot about myself. I have learned that I need community to feel happy, healthy, and motivated. Left to my own devices, I will hide in my room gorging myself on some “feel good” snack (e.g. chips, ice cream, popcorn, candy, junk food) while bingeing on Netflix. When I lived in Portland, I had countless people encouraging me to get out and run, bike, swim, hike, etc. Since moving to Boston, I have been the heaviest I have ever weighed, and I am also kind of lonely.

But at the same time, I am also the most confident I have ever been.

I have spent most of my life feeling like a fake. In high school, I was an honor’s kid who procrastinated and still occasionally pulled off A’s. In college, I somehow managed to talk my way out of a Public Relations internship, which would have given me good experience and knowledge about whether I wanted to work in that field. In Italy, I rarely applied myself to learning and speaking Italian, even though I was in a language intensive program. And even training for an Ironman triathlon, I did the minimum and still somehow finished two races. I have gotten by in life, so when I moved to Boston, I was determined to spread my wings. I had a professional vision: I wanted to work in fundraising and I wanted to work at Boston University (BU) or Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I had no connections, no family here, and I successfully weaved my way through several positions until landing my current job at BU. I have gained so much confidence in my ability to achieve and focus on a goal. But now that I have achieved my goal, I am still left wondering whether or not I am happy. Did I pick the right goal? Am I good enough? Can I actually do this work and do I really want to?

Something is still not right with my soul. I am “successful” professionally but miserable personally. I am plagued with more questions than I have answers. Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? What am I good at? What brings me joy? How do I want to spend my days? Who do I want to be surrounded by? The worst part is I am not taking time to journal and reflect. I am surviving and not thriving. Some of that is just life: professional success has brought an increase in demands and responsibility while I am working on a master’s degree, balancing a romantic relationship, and trying to build friendships. I have been so busy “doing” and being industrious that I have lost touch with who I am at my core. And while I am busy being industrious at work and in graduate school, I am not exercising and I am eating to emotionally feel better (mmmm, donuts! Oh hello more dopamine, I missed you).

I also think I have been searching for happiness, as if the concept is some sort of destination that I can get to if I just do the right thing. If I just apply myself a bit more and stop faking my way through life, then I will be happy. If I just find the “right” relationship, make more friends, or lose 50 lbs, then I will be happy. If all my friends move to Boston, then I will be happy. If I become independently wealthy, then I will be happy. If I find the right job with the right coworkers, then I will be happy. But I came to Boston seeking professional goals that I achieved and I am still not 100% happy.

The year 2017 has been dubbed the year of “clarity” for me. Clarity on who I am and whether I am being true to my person, regardless of career success. Clarity on what I actually have in life vs. what I am missing. Clarity on my talents. Clarity on my relationships. Clarity on my health and fitness goals. Essentially, I want to take a hard, long and honest look at my thoughts, behaviors and feelings. One of the first pieces of clarity I have gained so far is that I am an emotional eater. In the moment, I am learning to name the emotion that is sparking a need to deep dive into a bag of Lays potato chips. I am also learning that to increase my physical activity, I need to increase my community. I need to make more friends who will get out and walk, bike, run, go to the gym, etc. with me because having good people in my life and doing active endeavors makes me happy.

This morning I was listening to the Science of Success podcast on the paradox of happiness. Dr. Tal Ben Shahar talked about the importance of gratitude and exercise in feeling happy, which makes a lot of sense to me as I look at my own life and behaviors. While I was Googling a link to the podcast to share on this post, I stumbled upon edX’s free course on the Science of Happiness. I signed up for the course, feeling like the Universe was giving me a nod that I am heading in the right direction toward my goal of clarity.

Ultimately, it feels really good to name 2017 the “year of clarity.” It gives me focus and takes some of the pressure off of finding the “right” answers. I might find that I enjoy being overweight and active. I might find I enjoy solitude while I am overwhelmed with responsibilities and that building a community will come in due course. The point is that my clarity is based on what I want and need to be happy, not on a set of societal pressures or expectations, and this year I want to find a way to separate the social influence in order to get at what I truly believe and want.

Pause and Reflect

I have been thinking a lot lately about anxiety. Everywhere we look right now, there are more than enough reasons to feel anxious. In an article from Psychology Today, which was actually published in 2012, Dr. Chapman lists two reasons why Americans have a high rate of anxiety: the normalcy bias and achievement motivation. The normalcy bias is the idea that we live beyond our means, the “keeping up with the Joneses” type of mentality where we will have more value and be happier if we accumulate more money, stuff, etc. Whereas the achievement motivation is a social need to pursue excellence, strive for success, achieve influence, etc. Doing a quick Google search for anxiety produces the following definition: “anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Right now many Americans are feeling anxious over the uncertainty of where the country is headed, which is another type of anxiety that is more externally based.

I don’t know about you, but even saying the word anxiety makes me feel anxious.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has so many wonderful tools to help break down our troubling thoughts, challenge them, and move toward a more peaceful state of mental existence. Depending on the cause of anxiety, such as if we feel like we are in control of our future or if we feel like the external world holds greater control, Narrative Therapy is also another great tool. Narrative Therapy challenges the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that are told about us from an external, political, sociocultural perspective. For those feeling anxious from oppression, Narrative Therapy can help people reclaim control of their personal stories (more to come on Narrative Therapy in a future post!).

So let’s get down to the heart of the matter.

First off, I highly recommend therapy if you are feeling deep levels of anxiety. Getting help is always a courageous act. Sometimes in this disconnected world of fast pace living, social media, smart phones, ear buds, and more, we do not engage and fully listen to each other, so having someone give you full, undivided attention and care can be healing in and of itself.

Now that I have given the counseling plug, I think there are definitely some tangible ways we can work on our own anxiety on a day-to-day basis.

Challenging your thoughts through a CBT lens:

There is a lot of chatter these days about journaling. You can buy journals to help you get organized, journals to help you dream and outline your passions, journals to remind you to focus on gratitude, and so much more. Journaling is a powerful tool. There is a great article on PsychCentral on the health benefits of journaling. So how can you use journaling to combat anxiety?

CBT focuses on the principal that our thoughts and actions are connected together with our feelings. Becoming more aware of how our thoughts, feelings and behaviors interact can help us make the changes we desire. For example, someone is anxious about making a life change, like going to graduate school. When this person thinks about graduate school, all these thoughts snowball, like “I cannot afford it; I do not have time; I will have to quit my job,” which lead to feelings of anxiety that cause this person to completely avoid graduate school all together.

cbt

Journaling can help us become more aware of the interconnection between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

For example, start by writing down something you feel anxious about. Then define why this thing is important to you (why does this thing preoccupy your thoughts or cause you anxiety?). Then start listing all the fears and thoughts you have about this aspect of your life. Once everything is written down, then go back and see if you can challenge your thoughts. Is there any evidence to the contrary of your thoughts? What would a friend say to you (or what would you say to a friend expressing these thoughts)? If you look at the situation positively, how is it different? Will this situation really matter in a year or in 10 years from now? What strengths and resources do you possess that might make this situation better?

Example of a journal from someone anxious about graduate school:

journal

Looking at the examples in the journal above, as the person moves forward, there could be results that affirm her fears, such as maybe her HR department offers no resources for school, or maybe her boss will not allow her to have a flexible work schedule. This process of challenging our thoughts and behaviors needs to be a continual process. And sometimes challenging our thoughts does not work. When that happens, we can start with changing our actions, knowing we might still have to act while we feel anxious. For example, maybe the person above decides to go ahead with graduate school regardless of not getting any financial aid or help at work with a flexible schedule. As she acts, she might find that her worst fears were not even close to being true (e.g. maybe she is getting straight As, maybe the university offered an affordable payment plan to avoid debt, maybe she makes a career connection that leads her to her dream job, which makes the stress of time and money worth the anxiety because she can redefine the entire situation in light of this positive outcome). As she faces her fears and acts, she is building an internal resouce that she can draw strength from for any future worries. Next time when she is faced with a big life change, she can reflect back to her experience of going to graduate school and remind herself of her resilience, strength, and capability.

Not into journaling? 

There are all sorts of ways to try to calm our nervous system: yoga, deep-breathing, meditation, coloring, exercise, just to name a few. Another great idea is to just get outside of yourself and help someone else. There is a movement called One Kindness where essentially you focus on doing one nice thing for someone else during the day. To get inspired, you can hear the founder, John Wang, talk about the movement and the power of kindness here.

When all else fails? Find something that makes you laugh. Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine.