Feeling Judged and Controlled? Question Your Inner Cruise Director

When Jonathan and I went on a cruise to Bermuda with my family several years ago, the piped-in, controlled voice of Cruise Director Carlos drove me crazy.

Now, this was a lovely cruise. It was a privilege to relax and have my towels folded into animal shapes every night.

However, the oft-repeated, overly-enthusiastic announcements just did not work for me. (I’m an introvert who jumps like a startled deer at the sound of a ring tone.)

Several times a day, Cruise Director Carlos would blast over the loudspeakers, reading the rundown of social events with forced good cheer. After a few days, it really got on my nerves.

Here he was trying to make sure we didn’t miss a single opportunity for happiness, when we were so much happier left to our own devices.

By the end of the trip, I’d clench my fists at the sound of Carlos’s voice. But why was I ticked off at this upbeat guy who was just doing his job?

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School Lunches (and the Path of Liberation)

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that, if you’re not sure what to write, you can start with school lunches.

And so today I am remembering the sound of crinkling brown bags, and the insecurity of youth. Lunch was a litmus test. Would you fit in? Were you acceptable?

Lunch at College

Lunchtime at Vassar (much less stress)

I remember being harangued in elementary school having whole-grain bread on my sandwiches when white bread was all the rage.

One girl would say, “Ew, what are those weird things in your bread? Are they bugs?!” She was referring to sunflower seeds, but it was pointless to explain. She was going to make fun of me, and I was going to writhe in humiliation.

***

My school lunches — and my family — were ‘unusual’. When I started packing lunch, I brought what I ate at home: a salad, with an apple and whole-grain crackers and real cheese and turkey pepperoni. It was food that made me happy, and also self-conscious.

It wasn’t a safe bet like a sandwich, or the cafeteria’s hamburger and fries. It was different, and therefore suspect. (Nowadays, my lunches would seem even ‘weirder’ and healthier too. Viva the Whole30!)

So even though I ate with friends, I kept my food inside its brown bag. I would assemble bite-size mouthfuls ‘under cover’, then quickly pop them into my mouth, as though people couldn’t judge me if they didn’t see the food. (Yes, this was almost as neurotic as having an outfit calendar.)

It sounds silly now, but those of you who remember middle school and high school with any kind of honesty can understand. Socially speaking, it was all about judgment. Did you measure up, or were you too ‘weird’ to be accepted?

But I grew tired of being so timid, and one day, I took my lunch out of the brown bag for all to see.

***

After that, an interesting thing happened. Another girl who sat at our table started bringing … salad, whole grain crackers, cheese, and turkey pepperoni. I was all astonishment. The lunch I’d feared was ‘uncool’ was actually being copied. Not just accepted, but imitated.

The veil had lifted. In that moment, I realized how arbitrary and ridiculous it all was. We feared other people’s criticism and tried to be ‘normal’, but in reality, everyone was longing for acceptance. The people we were trying to impress were trying to impress us.

So what if we just gave ourselves permission to be who we were?

***

Laughing together

Sharing wild laughter, the best ‘currency’ there is

If you’re struggling with how others perceive your choices, remember school lunches and take heart. If you feel self-conscious about, say, admitting that you love hanging out with your friends with special needs, listening to Fleetwood Mac, and re-reading Jane Eyre for the thousandth time, know that you’re not alone.

Beautiful things happen when you stop trying to ‘get it right’ and start being yourself. A weight lifts as you release the burden of trying to please everyone. You’re liberated. You get to laugh, and take yourself less seriously. And you free up others to do the same.

As is said in Almost Famous, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” We can’t connect with one another while we’re trying to be what we’re not.

But when we meet each other as we are? Magic can happen.

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What was in your school lunches? Join the conversation in the comments!

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5% of proceeds from the first month’s sales of my new Kindle* Single, I Was a Stranger to Beauty (ThinkPiece Publishing), go to support the vital work of L’Arche DC. The month is almost up, so be sure to get your copy today!

*If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry! You can read Kindle books with Amazon’s (free) Kindle Cloud Reader.

AWCC Around the Web:

Upcoming speaking engagements – if you’re in the area(s), I’d love to see you there!

  • Florence Lauderdale Public Library, Sunday, February 24, 2013, 2-3pm
  • Living Spirit Church, Florence, AL, Sunday, March 3, 1:30pm
  • Redeemer Presbyterian, Florence, AL, Sunday, March 10, 10:30am
  • Faith Inclusion Network, That All May Worship Conference, Norfolk, VA, Friday-Saturday, March 14-15

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What To Do When ‘The Less-Thans’ Strike (Hint: Do Not ‘Try Harder’)

Feeling less-than? You get the thumbs-up from me.

“Sometimes, I feel like such a failure,” my friend confided. “My house doesn’t look as clean as my friends’ houses do. I have a job, and two children under the age of three. But I think I should be doing a better job keeping the house clean.”

I wanted to interject, but I had a feeling there was more to the story. She continued, “After feeling that way for so long, do you know what I found out?”

“What?” I asked, leaning forward.

“Almost all of my friends who have kids … ” She paused for dramatic effect. “… also have housekeepers! As in, cleaning services!”

“Seriously?” I said, laughing.

“Seriously,” she grinned. “All this time that I was judging myself for not cleaning more …”

“… When you were probably doing more than any of them,” I finished.

***

This conversation was an excellent recounting of what I like to call, “an attack of the less-thans.” Caregivers are particularly prone to these attacks. Though everyone’s “less-thans” will sound different, here are a few identifying characteristics:

  • Seeing something in yourself or your environment that you want to change (“My house is so dirty.”)
  • Comparing yourself to others, or to an invisible, internal, and elusive standard of success (“My friends’ houses are cleaner.”)
  • Getting a sinking feeling of failure in your stomach, and a simultaneous shot of self-recrimination, while holding that comparison in mind (“I’m such a slacker for not having a clean house, like my friends do.”)
  • Feeling helpless, like all your efforts are futile (“Why even bother picking up?”)

“The less-thans” seem obvious when someone else is going through them, but they’re much more difficult to identify from within. For example, when I used to get down on myself for not achieving my goals, my thinking seemed perfectly reasonable. However, when I’d see a friend go through the same process, I’d sense immediately that she was being way too hard on herself.

“The less thans” are insidious. They are pervasive. And they are lies.

***

However, ignoring “the less thans” doesn’t work. Neither does trying harder … in fact, “the less thans” would love for you to try harder to prove your worth. If you run yourself into the ground trying to be a flawless caregiver, you’re playing their game, and you won’t win. Instead, what’s needed is compassionate listening, either from your wiser self, or from a trusted friend.

For example, writer and special needs mom Amy Julia Becker told the story of a time when her daughter, Penny, felt ‘less than’ at school. As Amy Julia wrote in a recent post, ” I wanted to cry. For [Penny]. With her … My little girl had been carrying around this burden of knowing what she was supposed to be doing and yet feeling totally incapable of doing it, and I hadn’t known.”

We carry around secret feelings of failure when what we really need to do is share them aloud. We think, “I don’t want to burden anyone,” but speaking truth about our perceived failures makes our load lighter right away. When we give voice to these thoughts, we can figure out a constructive action to take (my friend, for example, is considering hiring a housekeeper!), and/or move toward greater acceptance of where we’re at.

Bootsie in her box

Today, when I felt a wave of “the less thans” hit, I stopped and took a break from my work. I considered the thoughts I’d been thinking, thoughts of judgment and scarcity. I listened to myself with the compassion of a friend, and said, “Hun, those thoughts are not serving you well. And also, they aren’t true. Let’s let them go, and find better things to think of.”

With that in mind, I walked over to Bootsie, who was sleeping nearby, in her little box-bed by the window. As I stroked her warm fur, I thought about how the kitten I dreamed of since childhood was finally here with me. I thought about how I was sitting in the writing room I’d always longed for, working for myself. I thought of my husband in the next room, of the love I hardly dared to dream I’d find.

I started to feel better. Better, and also a little silly. I’d been listening to these fatalistic thoughts, when all the time I was surrounded by evidence that dreams can – and do – come true.

The antidote for “the less thans” is gratitude. The cure is listening to a different story: the story of what you’re thankful for and how far you’ve come.

Because when you change your story, you change everything. 

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How do you cope with the less-thans? Join the conversation in the comments section below!

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