7 Strategies for Staying Afloat During a Major Life Transition

7 Strategies for Staying Afloat During a Major Life Transition | Whether you're graduating, moving, getting married, or just feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, I've got seven strategies to help you infuse more joy, meaning, and simplicity into your crazy days.

So far, 2017 has been the Year of the Major Life Transition (or MLT, a totally unofficial acronym I invented just now). In January, within the span of just a few weeks, I received and accepted a job offer, moved from a medium-sized town in north central Indiana to the most populated city in the state of Texas (#cultureshock), and started my first full-time position out of graduate school. In many ways, I was so ready for the change–ready to be done with resumes and cover letters and actually launch my career, ready to live 15 minutes rather than 15 hours from my boyfriend, and ready for a new beginning after two physically, mentally, and emotionally draining years of school. And since I had left most of my belongings in boxes when I moved back in with my parents last fall, I was even ready in the practical sense.

And yet, nothing can truly prepare us for the ways in which an MLT will transform our world, nor can we fathom the range or patterns of emotions we may experience throughout the process. In the months since the move, I have felt excitement, joy, peace, and conviction that I made the right decision, as well as loneliness, overwhelm, exhaustion, and doubt–sometimes within the span of a single day or even a single hour. Throughout all these ups and downs, a few key tools and strategies have helped me to stay afloat, and since many folks are undergoing MLTs this time of year, I’d like to share them with all of you. And even if you’re not graduating, moving, and/or getting married in the coming months, think of the following as ways to infuse more joy, meaning, and simplicity into your days. 

1. Decluttering in every area of life

Back in December, I wrote about my discovery of Joshua Becker’s book, The More of Less, and my subsequent mission to pare down my material possessions. Since then, I’ve continued exploring what it means to live a more minimalist lifestyle, and I’ve gotten rid of a ton more stuff in the process. I’m by no means a hardcore minimalist, but I can now attest to the incredible freedom that comes with allowing yourself to let go of things that no longer serve you and merely take up your time, space, and attention. And during periods of rapid change and perpetual uncertainty, it’s so much easier to find peace of mind when your surroundings are simple and uncluttered.

This “back to basics” mentality has begun to spill over into other areas of my life as well. For example, I’ve started taking a hard look at my technology-related habits in an effort to reduce digital clutter. I gave up social media for Lent after realizing how many of my precious after-work hours were spent mindlessly scrolling through newsfeeds, and once I survived that first painful week or two, I found myself actually enjoying the break. And by the time Easter rolled around, I noted significant improvements in my ability to focus and remain patient and present. Now that Lent is over, I’m slowly adding social medial back into my life so that I can find the balance that works best for me. The free iPhone app Moment has been really helpful in this regard, since it allows me to track the total amount of time I spend on my phone, the amount of time I spend using specific apps, and the number of times I pick up my phone each day.

I’ve also tried keeping my personal calendar as decluttered as possible. In high school, college, and graduate school, I maintained a pretty busy schedule–I worked, volunteered, played instruments, and joined a number of clubs. These activities brought me immense joy and introduced me to some of my best friends. Right now, though, I’ve found that what I need is massive amounts of margin–white space in my calendar to allow me to breathe, rest, and do things on my own terms. I’m still recovering from the move and feeling its aftereffects in waves, and quite honestly, I think I’m still recovering from the intense anxiety of the past two years. At some point, I’m sure I’ll be ready to get more involved at my new parish, join a book club or yoga studio, or start volunteering again. But right now, I just need time, space, and stillness. And that’s okay.

2. Revitalizing my workouts

I’ve been doing yoga on and off for years, and I’ve always cherished its numerous physical and mental benefits. Recently, though, my practice was feeling a bit stale and in need of a little somethin’ somethin’. Thankfully, one of my lovely readers introduced me to the Yoga with Adriene Youtube channel, and y’all, I am in love! Adriene Mishler, the yogi behind it all, is incredibly talented, encouraging, funny, and real, and she has created dozens (hundreds?) of free workout videos for all levels and purposes, including losing weight, relieving anxiety, improving digestion, and healing a myriad of injuries. (She even has holiday yoga, yoga for when you’re angry, and yoga for hangovers!) Her motto is “find what feels good” and her emphasis on personalizing your practice based on what your mind and body need on any given day has completely rejuvenated my workouts. She’s also so good at helping you retrain your brain to notice negative self-talk and replace it with more positive and accurate messages. This month, I’m making my way through her 30-day Yoga Camp series, so I’m sure this won’t be the last time you’ll hear me gush about my new YouTube bff. 

3. Meal planning

I first discovered the beauty of meal planning in college, but now that I’m working full time, I have an even greater appreciation for its benefits. I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen; however, when I arrive home in the evenings, the last thing I want to do is dream up what to have for dinner. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’ve reached decision fatigue for the day. And that’s where meal planning comes to the rescue! On the weekends, when I’m more rested and less rushed, I take some time to find a few fun yet relatively simple recipes to make the following week and then head to the grocery store to get everything at once. It’s so much more appealing to prepare a homemade meal after a long day when you’ve already done the thinking and the shopping! And because I’m #human and don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen, I also leave room in the menu plan for using up random leftover ingredients in an omelet, salad, etc, or simply heating up a healthy-ish frozen meal. Balance, simplicity, and flexibility, y’all. 

4. Starting the day with a creative and energizing activity

As you may know, I took a little blogging hiatus during the move so that I could focus my time and attention on the 1.67 million tasks that apparently come with relocation. And while I’m grateful that I allowed myself this space, I quickly began to notice that not having a regular creative outlet was draining in its own way. However, when I was ready to start writing again, I faced a bit of a dilemma–I was always too tired and braindead to produce anything noteworthy or even grammatically correct in the evenings, and I was already waking up pretty darn early for work. I used this conundrum as my excuse for a while until I realized that if I didn’t actually do anything about it, I might use it as my excuse forever. So I began tracking my time (using the free web service MyHours) and analyzing the data in search of opportunities to streamline and/or rearrange my schedule. I ultimately concluded that mornings were my best bet and figured out how to free up about 45 minutes to write before work. Yes, I now get up really darn early, but I’m kind of loving it. I feel so much more energized and alive when I start my day with a creative activity, and writing has been an invaluable way to express and process all of the thoughts and emotions that this MLT has triggered.

5. Consuming lots of great audio content

During the workday, I get by with a little help from my friend Pandora radio. I’ve created artist-based stations for deep concentration (e.g., Explosions in the Sky), chilling and contemplating life (e.g., Ben Rector or The Head and the Heart), and rocking out/powering through projects (e.g., Smashing Pumpkins or Bleachers). And when I’m cooking, cleaning, or commuting, I’m almost always listening to one of my favorite podcasts, which range in topic from minimalism to productivity to Catholicism. These podcasts inspire, challenge, and entertain me, while also getting my mind off whatever might be stressing me out at the moment.

6. Being honest with others

Every time I finish exchanging pleasantries or remarking on the weather with someone, I feel like I ought to be awarded this shirt (#introvertproblems). But I also understand that it’s not always the right time and place to discuss life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I have learned the hard way that many people just want you to say “okay” or “fine” when they ask how you are. As a result, I often end up erring on the side of caution and promoting the very small talk that I despise the most. Recently, though, I’ve tried to find a balance and take advantage of opportunities to dive a bit deeper. When someone I feel I can trust asks me how the job/move/etc. is going, if it seems like the right setting to provide more than a one-word answer, I’ll try to be honest; there is a lot I love about my new life, but there are also times when it’s stressful and exhausting and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The results? Family members, friends, and even several new coworkers have shared amazing words of encouragement, advice, or wisdom, not in a shallow or dismissive “you’ll be fine” sort of way but in a compassionate “I’ve been there” manner. Simply knowing that I feel overwhelmed because I’m human, and not because I’m lazy, inadequate, or incapable, can go a long way.

7. Enjoying the little things

By which I’m mainly referring to my regular practice of enjoying a delicious bowl of ice cream. Because even with all the above strategies in place, sometimes you just need to plop down on the couch, dig into some mocha-Oreo-cookie-dough-swirl (which is totally a thing, and a beautiful thing at that), and remember that everything is okay, you’re going to make it, and by golly, you deserve to enjoy the ride.

Do you have any MLTs on the horizon?

What strategies do you find helpful for maintaining health, happiness, and perspective during stressful or uncertain times? 

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Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can’t Be Answered With Just a Google Search

 

Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can't Be Answered With Just a Google Search | Is my anxiety a #firstworldproblem? Have I "suffered enough" to be depressed? What if my anxiety actually drives me to perform better at work or school? Thoughts on these tough questions + more in today's post!

In the year or so since my diagnosis with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I’ve had a lot of questions.

What exactly is GAD?

What causes it?

How common is it?

What are the best strategies for managing it? 

And in this Information Age, a simple Google search or a “Hey, Siri” can go a long way in shedding light on these types of data-driven inquiries. However, the experience of mental illness also raises many questions that are far too delicate, complex, and individualized for this method of answer seeking– questions that can’t be sufficiently addressed by examining “just the facts, m’am.” These are questions that require us to draw upon additional sources of knowledge, including personal and collective experience and intuition, to formulate an adequate response– and questions to which an “adequate response” may look a bit different for each of us and may shift over the course of a lifetime. These are the questions that come to mind again and again and tug on our psyches until we finally decide to face them.

Today I’d like to share three such “nagging questions” about anxiety and depression that have posed a particular challenge for me in my mental health journey. I’ll also discuss some of my thoughts related to each one in hopes of sparking an open, honest, and productive dialogue. I’d love to know if any of you have had these same questions, and if so, what insights you can offer. I’d also love to hear what other “nagging questions” you’ve faced in your life, regardless of whether you’ve experienced a mental illness. 

So let’s get this soul-searching party started.

1. Do I “deserve” to feel this way?

As most of us are acutely aware, our world is brimming with pain and suffering. Far too many of our fellow humans experience hunger, poverty, violence, homelessness, debilitating illness, persecution, and other direct threats to their wellbeing on a daily basis–and in comparison, my worries seem pretty darn petty and meaningless and my “struggles” practically scream ease and privilege. What do I really have to be anxious about? Have I really suffered enough to warrant depression? Do I “deserve” to feel the way I do? Shouldn’t I just shut up and be grateful?

This is a difficult thing to explore from the inside without spiraling into guilt, shame– and as a result, further anxiety and depression–so I find it helpful to step outside my own experience and think about what I would tell a loved one if he or she came to me with these same questions.

I would first clarify that no one chooses whether or not to experience a mental illness. These conditions arise out of complex gene-environment interactions, not because people wake up one day and decide they want attention or special concessions. Some people do, in fact, behave in certain ways because they want attention or special concessions, but this is not mental illness.

Secondly, when we look at issues like poverty, we have to remember that just as mental illness isn’t directly caused by a lack of material goods, it isn’t prevented or cured by simply acquiring more of them. There are plenty of people who “have it all” and still suffer from anxiety and/or depression, as well as plenty of people who own very little and do not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the real issue isn’t whether someone “deserves” to be anxious or depressed, whether he or she has “suffered” enough to warrant these experiences. As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of guilt- and shame- inducing questions don’t serve to alleviate the anxiety and depression– in fact, they’ll likely make it worse, and no one benefits from that. On the other hand, owning and accepting one’s experience and taking the actions one can to manage symptoms and strive to lead a healthy and productive life is a far better response. The more we take care of ourselves, the more we’ll be able to give of ourselves to others and contribute to the betterment of the world–and everyone benefits from that.

2. What if my anxiety drives my success?

As someone who has undoubtedly experienced anxiety for most of her life (long before any official diagnosis was made), I can look back and see a lot of worry and stress–and also a considerable amount of “success” in terms of good grades, leadership roles in extracurriculars, etc. Which leads me to wonder, what if my anxiety was actually a key factor contributing to these achievements? What if being tightly wound drives me to perform better? What if I start taking steps to reduce my anxiety and find that I’m no longer “successful”?

Thankfully, as any good scientist knows, correlation does not equal causality. (In fact, if you’re ever in need of a good chuckle, check out Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations. Good news for Nicolas Cage fans and cheese lovers alike!) So just because I’ve experienced anxiety and success at the same time does not mean that anxiety directly causes success.  In fact, research supports what most of us already know from experience– that a moderate level of psychological arousal contributes to the best performance. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be motivated to do your best–but being totally freaked out will send you into overdrive and inhibit peak performance. 

It’s also important to examine how we’re defining success here. I mentioned things like grades in school and achievements in extracurriculars, but what about the even more important things, like relationships, health, and spirituality? I would argue that my periods of highest anxiety have most definitely not correlated with my “best successes” in these arenas. Just ask my family, my doctor, or, well, God. 

And finally, even if I did somehow determine that my anxiety was an important driver of  success, the real question is, at what cost? Is getting good grades or a strong letter of recommendation or an award or a scholarship really worth the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social toll that anxiety takes on us? Is it worth the headaches, the stomach pains, and the heart palpitations? Is it worth the paralyzing fear and constant feelings of scarcity–that what we have isn’t enough, what we do isn’t enough, what we are isn’t enough? Is it worth the opportunities missed because we couldn’t pull ourselves together and the joy lost because we couldn’t get out of our own heads and just be in the moment?

Now, of course, my answer would be no, but I have the benefit of hindsight. If you would have posed these questions to my overachieving high school self who hadn’t yet experienced the worst that anxiety has to offer, I would have been like, “Yeah, but…SAT scores/college applications/MY FUTURE.” So I think it’s something I needed to learn the hard way, otherwise, I never would have believed it. 

3. How will I ever “repay” my loved ones?

As I mentioned to above, anxiety always comes at a cost. During my time in grad school, it definitely cost me my ability to fully show up in my relationships and be the daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, classmate, coworker, etc., that I wanted to be. I didn’t set out to become a selfish, angry, or distant person, of course, but I got so caught up in my own thoughts and problems and stresses that that’s essentially what I became. My tank was constantly empty, leaving me with nothing to give to anyone else.

Now that I’m in a much better place, I often wonder how I will ever “repay” these individuals for the love and grace they extended to me during this dark time in my life. I use quotation marks here because I know that strong and meaningful relationships are “give and take” and that my loved ones aren’t expecting to be showered with gifts and praise in exchange for their support. However, when you’ve just come off a long period of take, this question doesn’t feel unreasonable. Furthermore, despite the massive improvements I’ve experienced, I still have GAD, and it’s a lot like walking with a tiny pebble in my shoe–it’s always there, but there are days I don’t really notice it, days when it’s just a minor annoyance, and days when, seemingly out of nowhere, it lodges itself in just the right place and pain shoots through my entire body. And during those latter days, I can be pretty pathetic–like lying on the floor unable to move pathetic. Cancelled plans pathetic. Call my mom and cry pathetic. But now I’m honestly kind of hesitant to go to loved ones, because I feel like I’ve already used up all my “pathetic anxiety time” with them for now. To continue with the financial analogy, I made some major withdrawals from my relationships during my time in grad school, and I haven’t rebuilt my savings yet. 

I don’t really have a great response for this one, because I’m still struggling to figure it out for myself. My loved ones have assured me that they’re not keeping score, and I’m learning how to believe them. I’m also learning how to take care of myself so that I can show up for them–on a day to day basis as well as during those times when they’re in a low place and need that same kind of unconditional love they gave me. 

For those of you who struggle with anxiety and/or depression: Have you asked any of these same questions before? If so, what insights do you have to offer? What other questions tend to nag at you? 

For those of you who don’t necessarily struggle with these issues yourself: There’s a good chance that you know and love someone who does. What insights might you provide if they came to you with these questions?

Preparing for Takeoff: Finding Peace + Making Progress When You’re In a Waiting Period of Life

Preparing for Takeoff: Finding Peace + Making Progress When You're in a Waiting Period of Life | Regardless of what you're waiting for, viewing life's "in-betweens" as opportunities for learning and growth can help you make the most of these trying times.

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, then you’re familiar with taxiing–the part where your plane leaves the terminal and begins its slow crawl toward the runway for takeoff. The part where you pretend to listen as the flight attendants give their synchronized Vanna White-esque safety demonstrations, knowing full well that if a sudden loss of cabin pressure or an emergency water landing actually occurs, your plan is to panic and pray for a miracle. The part where you realize that you definitely should have used the bathroom prior to boarding, because now you have to wait until the plane reaches cruising altitude and the pilot turns off the “fasten seatbelt” sign. The part where you either awkwardly make small talk with the passengers around you or pretend to sleep in order to avoid such a horror. (Hey, no shame in my introvert game.)

Taxiing.

It’s a necessary part of flying, a crucial step in the journey from Point A to Point B, and yet it’s hardly the highlight. Compared to the rush of takeoff or the thrill of sailing through the clouds at hundreds of miles per hour, taxiing is pretty slow and boring. And if you’ve ever been on a plane that seemed to take quite a while to reach the runway, you know that people tend to get worried and impatient during this time. 

Recently, during one of my own air travel experiences, it occurred to me how much this current phase of my life feels like an in-between, like slow motion–like taxiingI have been staying with my parents since the lease on my grad school apartment ended in late July, an arrangement that was intended to be a short-term fix until I secured full-time employment. I didn’t even unpack most of my things; I simply piled the bags and boxes in a corner in the basement so I would be ready to move the moment I got that coveted offer letter. Yet here I am, five months later, still applying to jobs, still sleeping in their guest bedroom. Still taxiing. I know I’ll reach the runway at some point, but I don’t know precisely when, and so worry and impatience have begun to creep in.

The more I’ve thought about this taxiing metaphor, the more I’ve begun to wonder whether this period of my life might be about something more than just finding a job. Perhaps there are other preparations that need to be made, other lessons that need to be learned, in order for me to be truly ready for “takeoff”–i.e., moving across the country, launching my career, and generally becoming a Real Adult Who Pays for All the Things.

Of course, I can’t know for sure what God has in store, but after a lot of reflection and prayer, I can venture a few solid guesses as to what He might be trying to subtly (or not so subtly) teach me during this time.

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I recently deposited my entire childhood state quarters collection into my savings account, so I’m fairly certain that financial planning isn’t one of His concerns. I’ve totally got this!

First and foremost, I think I’m getting a crash course in Chilling the Heck Out.

If you’ve read any other post on this blog, or talked to me in real life for more than 5 minutes, you know that I’m a planner, a list maker, Preparedness Girl! My Myers-Briggs personality type is INFJ, emphasis on the J. As 16personalities.com so aptly explains:

People with the Judging (J) trait do not like to keep their options open – they would rather come up with five different contingency plans than just go ahead and deal with the challenges as they come. They prefer clarity and closure, always going with the plan rather than the flow.

Like, guys, the above paragraph so perfectly sums up my life that it should probably be engraved on my tombstone someday. I hate not knowing what’s happening five minutes, five days, or five years from now, so I plan things in my head and on paper to ease the discomfort, to give me some sense–some illusion–of knowledge and control.

So all of this waiting and uncertainty? Excruciating–yet so incredibly important for someone as tightly wound as me. I need to learn to find peace even in the face of unpredictability. I need to learn to be okay with answering “I don’t know yet” when people ask about my future plans. I need to learn to say, “Okay, God, you’re the pilot. Help me to be a faithful passenger.” Over and over and over and over.

I’d also venture a guess that I’ve been inadvertently enrolled in a second class: Introduction to Self-Worth. Because until recently, I had no idea just how much I tend to base my self-worth on my accomplishments, particularly those in the academic realm.

I’ve been a student for over 75% of my life, and almost 100% of the years I can actually remember. So in conjunction with my natural people-pleasing, over-achiever tendencies, I’ve simply become accustomed to using my performance in school as a proxy for my success in life. And to make matters worse, somewhere along the way, the line between “success in life” and “worth as a human being” got extremely blurry, until the two concepts merged into one. So if Good Grades = Success in Life and Success in Life = Worthy Human Being, then by the transitive property of equality, Good Grades = Worthy Human Being.  Math, yo. 

If I had gotten a job right after graduation and dived straight into the working world, I may have never questioned this flawed line of thinking. I may have simply swapped teachers for supervisors and grades for performance reviews and went on my merry way. But in this post-grad, pre-employment waiting game, no one else is setting the standards for what my life should look like. No one else is telling me to jump so that I can ask, “How high?” APPARENTLY THERE’S NO SYLLABUS OR REPORT CARD FOR LIFE, GUYS. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GO FROM HERE?

Although I still haven’t figured out the answer to this, the mere realization has been a huge wake-up call. If I were to write one of those cliche letters to my younger self, I would totally include this nugget of wisdom.

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“Dear Little Paige, Don’t wear choker necklaces with t-shirts, don’t waste so much of your time pining after boys who don’t know you exist, and oh yeah, don’t base your self-worth on your grades. Love, Big Paige.”

And finally, I think God has thrown in a little bit of recess to balance out the difficult coursework. Because this waiting period, viewed through a different lens, has also been a rare and beautiful gift of extra time. And in these past months, I’ve done my best to make the most of this offering. I’ve used it to read, write, and rest. To learn new skills and reconnect with family and friends. To do yoga to my heart’s content and take long walks around my parents’ neighborhood. To fly across the country and drive all over the state–as well as enjoy entire days of not leaving the house. To take care of myself, physically and mentally. To remember what it’s like to feel alive, and to remember all the wonderful things I have to live for–things that anxiety and depression wanted so desperately for me to forget.

So if you, too, feel like you’re in a waiting period, I encourage you to stay strong, dear reader. I know it’s hard. I also encourage you to look for ways–big or small–in which you’ve actually moved forward during this time. You might find that your world hasn’t been standing so still after all.

Faith, Fear, & the Five-Year Plan: Re-Examining the Notion of Staying “On Track”

Faith, Fear, & the Five-Year Plan: Re-Examining the Notion of Staying "On Track" | My default approach to new opportunities tends to be fear and trepidation rather than excitement and curiosity. In today's post I explore why--as well as what this mindset says about my faith (or lack thereof) and desire for control.

The highlights of this past Thanksgiving were many: delicious food, Christmas shopping, more food, Christmas crafting, even more food, a family Mannequin Challenge–and did I mention that we had a few things to eat? Perhaps my favorite part, though, was getting to catch up with loved ones, many of whom I don’t get to see very often. It can be challenging to carry on a conversation in a group as large as ours–we totaled around 45 people, even with over a dozen family members unable to attend–but once the meal was over and the younger children ran off to play, the adults gradually broke off into smaller groups, and the real discussions began.

During one such conversation, the topic of my blog came up. As one of my relatives opened up about her own experiences with anxiety as a younger woman, she made a statement that really resonated with me:

“I used to approach everything with such fear and trepidation.”

Fear and trepidation–what a simple, succinct way to sum up my own default reaction to new opportunities and experiences. Fear, a word that makes me think of running away, of hiding. And trepidation, a word that brings to mind tip-toeing, whispering, constantly doubting.

All of this begged the question: Why do I tend to approach life in this way? Sure, I may just naturally be on the cautious side and sure, I’ve experienced some tough times. But overall, my past really doesn’t warrant the darkness and gloom that I so often cast on my anticipated future. So why is this my response?

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You’d think my life was a horror movie, given how I tend to tiptoe up to new situations and jump at every unfamiliar sound.

At first, I reasoned that perhaps I tend to expect the worst so that I’m never disappointed, so that situations always either meet or exceed my expectations. But this explanation didn’t quite fit. I’m not a cynic; on the contrary, I tend to be an idealist. Even amidst the pain and brokenness of the world, I see how beautiful things could be–how beautiful things were meant to be–and feel called to make that vision a reality. Sure, I’m often disappointed along the way, but my light hasn’t been totally snuffed out yet. So I don’t think my fear and trepidation come from a place of inherent negativity.

Then I thought that maybe I approach everything with caution because I simply like to be prepared. After all, I adore plans and lists and lists of plans and plans to make more lists. I practically carry an entire Walgreens store in my purse just in case I–or anyone in the vicinity–need a Bandaid or a cough drop or a Tylenol or a snack or some cash or a library card or an expired coupon for hummus. I recently had a phone interview for a job and wore a nice outfit just in case the interviewer changed her mind at the last minute and asked to do a Skype call instead.

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I also Googled “How to answer the phone for a job interview” right beforehand just in case my mind went blank and I forgot how to, you know, people and stuff.

But, I wondered, if I truly like to be prepared for everything, then why do I only brace myself for the bad stuff? Why do I never try to anticipate what might happen if things go well? If I succeed? If I actually make a difference or a new friend or a recipe that looks just like the photo on Pinterest? What then? I don’t know, because I’ve never actually thought about it.

Just ask my family members and friends–for the first few years months that my boyfriend and I were dating, I felt excited, sure, but also totally freaking confused because I had never actually imagined myself being in a relationship. After my comedy-sketch-worthy dating life in high school and college, I had adopted this mindset in order to prepare myself for the very real possibility that I remained single indefinitely. I had even begun to feel kind of okay about it! So when the potential for a relationship seemingly dropped out of the sky, I kinda panicked. Wait! I’m not ready for this! I don’t even know what to wear on a second date, let alone how to be someone’s girlfriend! I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Sometimes I still can’t.

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When I finally stepped down from my role as the Mayor of Friend Zone City, I was wholly unprepared. What is this “dating” of which you speak, and where can I find the instruction manual?

So the preparation hypothesis didn’t quite hold up, either. I thought about it for a few more days, and I think the answer finally came to me as I was driving to church last Sunday.

My default approach to new situations and opportunities tends to be fear and trepidation because I’m constantly scared of making a mistake that will lead me off track from where I’m “supposed” to be. I worry that because of my own failures or poorly informed decisions, I won’t get the job I’m “supposed” to get, live in the place where I’m “supposed” to live, meet the people I’m “supposed” to meet, and have the experiences I’m “supposed” to have, and as a result, I won’t end up as the person I’m “supposed” to be. It’s like FOMO on an existential scale. And to make matters worse, I tend to view my past as a series of detours and missteps that have only served to postpone my arrival at some elusive destiny, which further fuels my anxiety about making these types of mistakes in the future.  

As I mulled over my newly discovered fear of somehow screwing up my fate, I realized 1) how irrational these thoughts are and 2) how weak my faith is. For the record, I don’t actually believe that we are all just puppets on a string, enacting some pre-scripted drama as God sits back in the wings, taking notes on His Almighty Clipboard. I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason,” especially in times of loss and tragedy. I do, however, believe that God can bring good even out of the worst circumstances, and that sometimes we do need to go through hard things in order to grow as individuals and better relate to those around us. Coping with my anxiety disorder, for example, has been more of a grueling trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (a la Reese Witherspoon in Wild) than a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. But at the same time, I can identify a number of ways in which I’m better for the journey because of what I’ve learned along the way about life, love, and the freedom of vulnerability. And there will likely be even more good and beautiful things to come from these struggles in the future, some of which I may never fully realize.

So rather than label so many pieces of my past as detours from the “right” path, what if I viewed more of my experiences as important, even necessary, stops along the way? And rather than perceive my future as a laundry list of targets and deadlines to meet, what if chose to see it as a series of opportunities from which I can learn and grow–and who knows, maybe even find some unexpected joy? And what if I made peace with any mistakes, past or future, by knowing that God can still work with these decisions? That God can still work with me?

I will probably always be a planner and a list-maker to some extent. It’s part of what makes me who I am. My goal now is to jot these ideas with pencil, not carve them in stone, and know that if things don’t go according to my 5-day, 5-month, or 5-year plan, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it may actually be the beginning of something great.

P.S. This past week I had the privilege of publishing my first-ever guest post on one of my favorite blogs, Nina Kardia. If you’re striving to create a life and career that align with your passions, strengths, and grandest goals, then hop on over to Kamina’s awesome corner of the Internet and read the post here, my friend. (And when you’re done, be sure to follow Nina Kardia via e-mail, Twitter, Insta, Pinterest, etc., to infuse your inbox or newsfeed with a regular dose of wit, wisdom, and captivating honesty. You can thank me later!) 

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses | I recently discovered that many of the sensory and emotional experiences I've had throughout my life are indicative of a trait known as high sensitivity. Understanding what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has helped me to better understand myself, but I also recognize the potential for danger if I use this label--or any other label--as an excuse for avoidance and complacency.

Recently I was trying to explain to my boyfriend why I have such a strong aversion to violence and gore in TV shows and movies.

It’s not that I’m some delicate flower who can’t face the harsh realities of the world, I tried to say. It’s that I literally feel these things. When I see someone get shot or stabbed, I experience physical pain. When I see blood, even fake blood, I feel like I’m bleeding.

As I said these words, I felt frustrated, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making any sense, and partly because I wondered whether I really was a delicate flower and just didn’t want to admit it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my unusual sensitivity extends far beyond on-screen violence. In real life, if someone is in physical pain–whether from a gaping wound or a simple sore throat–I feel it. Heck, if someone is in emotional pain, I feel that, too, even if they’re trying their best to disguise it. I soak up the vibes of those around me like a sponge.

Well, folks, it turns out that there’s a psychological term for this stuff. I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which author Susan Cain discusses scientific, historical, and sociological perspectives on introversion and provides advice on how introverts can leverage their unique strengths. I just finished a particularly interesting chapter pertaining to a personality trait that is often associated with introversion: high sensitivity.

When I first heard this term, I kind of brushed it off, probably because I envisioned a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who loves babies and puppies and cries every time he or she watches The Notebook. But according to Dr. Elaine Aron, a California-based psychotherapist and leading researcher in high sensitivity, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) affects 15-20% of the population (including some extroverts) and has as much to do with responsiveness to physical stimuli as to emotional stimuli. And the more I learned about the trait, the more I thought, Oh my goodness, this is me. And I’ve never even shed a tear during The Notebook.

On her website, Aron offers a quick self-assessment to gauge if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. As I went down the checklist, I couldn’t believe how many of the items I was able to tick off (including, of course, “Other people’s moods affect me” and “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”). A few other examples:

“I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.” Some of my most vivid early memories involve unpleasant sensory experiences. Once upon a time, I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to purchase a sparkly Little Mermaid costume from the Disney Store–only to find that the sequins sewn all over the outfit made it unbearably itchy, and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Another time, I participated in a day camp in which members of a local high school dance team taught us some simple steps and then led us in a performance during halftime of one of the school’s basketball games. I was so excited to show off my moves–until the other participants and I filed into the gym and the noise from the crowd, the court, and the speakers nearly knocked me off my feet. My hands flew to my ears for protection, and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. I hated that I wanted to cry, but everything just felt so incredibly loud that I could barely stand it. Luckily, some of these sensitivities have lessened a bit over the years, but others remain. For example, I sleep with both earplugs and an eye mask because apparently even at night, the world can be too bright and loud for my liking.

“I have a rich, complex inner life.” You may have heard of “resting b*tch face”; I have “resting zoned out face” because, as I mentioned in my last post, I tend to get lost in the La La Land of my own thoughts. If you’re talking to me, I’m listening intently, but the minute the discussion stops, farewell, friend! I’m off to another dimension. My vivid imagination is a blessing as well as a curse, because the same creativity that enables me to dream up new and exciting ideas also allows me to think of every possible bad thing that could happen, ever. But either way, there’s always a lot going on up there.

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My brain 95% of the time, with approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all thoughts being totally irrational worst-case scenarios.

“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” It’s a good thing that I’ve been able to slowly adapt to louder and louder noises over the years, because one of my favorite things to do is attend concerts. (I still try to avoid being right up near the speakers, though, and it often takes me quite a while to wind down after such sensory overload.) Music isn’t just a fun diversion for me, it’s practically a spiritual experience. The right song at the right moment (or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” anytime) can easily give me goosebumps, bring me to tears, or both. 

“Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.” This is SUCH a first-world problem that I’m trying to overcome, but I am literally the reason why “hangry” became a word. So out of concern for those around me, I pretty much always have a granola bar with me just in case.

“When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” Just ask anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat when I’m trying to park a car. Or sometimes even turn on a car. It’s bad, guys.

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My brain the other 5% of the time, when people are watching. What is this “driving” of which you speak?!

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

As you can probably tell, I love learning about personality, temperament, and what makes people “tick,” especially when it provides valuable insight into my own thoughts and experiences. For example, studying introversion has helped me to better understand how to take care of myself and leverage my strengths in both personal and professional situations. It’s also helped me to feel less ashamed of my weaknesses–and realize that, as Cain argues in her book, some of my “weaknesses” are actually just neutral personality traits that feel like flaws in our extrovert-oriented society. And discovering that my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ) is shared by less than 1% of the general population has certainly helped to explain why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.

Similarly, finding out that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has helped me to make sense of so many experiences I’ve had throughout my life, from racing thoughts to intense feelings of self-doubt to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and muscle tension. Researching the condition has enabled me to manage it more productively and communicate my struggles to others. And perhaps most importantly, by embracing my diagnosis, I’ve been able to separate my illness from the essence of my being. I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.

And now, I may have another piece of the puzzle–I’m likely a Highly Sensitive Person, and that’s not the same as wimpy, picky, or just plain weird. I mean, I totally am weird, but there’s a lot more at play there than my sensitivity.

I do realize, though, that there’s a fine line between using labels to better understand myself and using labels as excuses, and I’m still trying my best to find–and avoid crossing–this line every day. I want to know and take care of myself so that I can better know and take care of others, not so that I can live in a bubble free from anything that makes me feel anxious or overstimulated and totally ignore the needs of those around me. This might be my first instinct, but I don’t have to let my instincts become my actions.

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My first reaction to pretty much any situation involving people, places, or things.

I’m constantly presented with opportunities to enter into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve a greater good. Most of us are. And I don’t intend to let my introversion, anxiety, or high sensitivity stop me. Rather, I hope that by developing a greater sense of self-awareness, I will be able to find a balance between leaning into the discomfort and respecting my limitations. Maybe I need to leave a party or event earlier than everyone else. Maybe, after a particularly impassioned discussion or difficult confrontation, I need to take some time to be alone and restore my emotional equilibrium. Maybe I need to arrange my home or office to reduce the likelihood of sensory overload. Maybe I simply need to dive in headfirst to the situations that scare me the most just to prove to myself that the world won’t end as a result. 

What do you think about the concept of high sensitivity? Do you think that you or anyone you know might be a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you like learning about personality types? Why or why not?

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It’s Taught Me About Managing Anxiety

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It's Taught Me About Managing Anxiety | Inspired by fellow creatives, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and added gratitude journaling to my morning routine. And I'm so glad I did! But even though the practice has helped to reduce my anxiety and bring more joy to my days, it has also taught me that the relationship between gratitude and anxiety is more complicated than I originally thought.

I recently started a gratitude journal, and oh my gosh, you guys.

But before I launch into a discussion of the many benefits I’ve experienced, I should point out that I was initially pretty hesitant to adopt this practice. I participate in a number of online communities for writers, bloggers, and entrepreneurs (hey, a girl can dream), and even though it seems like everyone in these groups is constantly singing the praises of gratitude journaling, the whole thing sounded a little too “kumbaya” for me at first.

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Let’s all gather ’round the campfire, friends, and write in our gratitude journals!

Plus, being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I was always concerned that I would, like, do it wrong or something. I puzzled over questions such as How many things should I write about each day? Should I use numbered lists, bullet points, or paragraphs?  Do I simply state the name of the thing I’m grateful for, or do I write a brief description of why I’m thankful for it? Can I repeat items, or do I have to come up with unique entries every day? And so on and so forth until I began to wonder how I manage to accomplish anything on a regular basis.

So in summary, between the perceived cheese factor and the Great Formatting Dilemma of 2016, I avoided jumping on the gratitude journal bandwagon for quite some time. More specifically, I avoided it until I started feeling like my morning routine was missing something.

I’ve discussed morning routines here before and how overhauling mine has improved my mood and ability to handle stress in so many ways. For example, getting up extra early allows me to savor some quiet time and gear up for a full day of people-ing (#introvertproblems), and engaging in an activity I love (like yoga or writing) first thing gives me the energy I need to tackle the not-so-fun items on my to-do list later on. But even though my morning routine has greatly improved over the past few months, I felt that it was time to take things a step further. Everything I was doing was very “me”-focused, and I wanted to incorporate something that would turn my attention outward a bit more–to others and to the world around me.

Then I read Kate Wilkinson’s post Why I Write a Gratitude Journal (And You Should Too), and I couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon any longer. Kate helps creative entrepreneurs turn their passion into a successful business, so her take on gratitude journaling was very practical and actionable. I loved how she described the practice as a tool for “training your brain” to appreciate the goodness in your life right now–even as you strive to achieve bigger and better things in the future. Plus, she totally annihilated my lame excuses and resolved the Great Formatting Dilemma by providing a free downloadable template. I’ve since deviated from this outline a bit as I’ve grown in my own journaling style, but it was totally the jumpstart I needed to initially get going.

So now every morning, before I dive into writing or exercising or any of my other pursuits, I pause, pull out my notebook and pen, and reflect on three things I’m feeling especially thankful for that day. Sometimes these are Big Important Things, like my faith or my family or a recent experience that really moved me. Other times they’re silly little things, like the cup of coffee I’m drinking as I write. (Actually, most mornings it’s the coffee, but I force myself to write about something else instead so that my journal doesn’t turn into one long Ode to the Greatest Beverage on Earth.) 

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

I also jot down my prayer intentions for the day, since my prayer life has definitely gone down the toilet this past year and this is part of my effort to fish it back out. (But that’s a whole other post for another day.)

And you know what, guys?

The results have been amazing. Team Kumbaya all the way. I’m considering making t-shirts, really.*

Taking just a few minutes to deliberately practice gratitude each morning truly impacts my mindset throughout the entire day. For one thing, I simply notice more of the blessings in my life–and for someone who’s constantly lost in the La La Land of her own thoughts, this is a big deal. Simply observing the many good things in my life brings me back to the present moment much in the same way that repeating a mantra does. Instead of being haunted by worries of what might go wrong, or enticed by daydreams of how much better things could be, I’m able to focus on what actually is. And more often than not, this reality offers a number of blessings, even if I have to dig through some pain and disappointment in order to unearth them.

Secondly, when I truly appreciate something, I tend to treat it with a bit more care and respect. This has proven especially important when it comes to the people in my life. When I consciously think about how grateful I am to know them–and, conversely, what my life might be like without them–I’m much more likely to seek ways to better love and support them, to truly cherish our time together, and to overlook small annoyances in favor of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

All of this kumbaya business got me thinking about whether starting a gratitude journal sooner would have benefitted my anxiety recovery process–or even prevented my anxiety from getting so out of control in the first place. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but what I realized is that the relationship between anxiety and gratitude is more complicated than a simple “increase gratitude, decrease anxiety” formula. Based on my own experiences, I think it’s possible to be so deep in an anxiety disorder that truly appreciating anything is nearly impossible, and other steps must first be taken to reign in the fear and apprehension and create space for gratitude.

Six months or a year ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I could rattle off all the “blessings” in my life like a kid reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I knew that I had a roof over my head and food in my fridge and people who loved me, and at least on an intellectual level, I recognized that for those things, I should be grateful. Yet thinking about what I should be thankful for didn’t do anything to ease my anxiety; in fact, at my lowest points, it only made everything worse. It made me feel both intensely guilty for being unappreciative and totally alienated from everyone else who was able to experience genuine gratitude. I truly think that I needed to get to a certain point in my recovery process before a practice like gratitude journaling had a place. I needed to take medication and get all those neurotransmitters back in order. I needed to see a therapist who could help me give my ugly thought patterns a much-needed makeover. And I needed to allow my exhausted body and brain to soak up some genuine rest. All of these steps have enabled me to feel something other than worried, isolated, guilty, and hopeless.

And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

Have you ever tried gratitude journaling (or any other method of practicing gratitude)? Share your experiences in the comments below!

*Darn, it looks as though someone beat me to it.

The Worst Thing to Tell Yourself When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

The Worst Thing to Tell Yourself When Life Doesn't Go As Planned | None of us are completely in control, and it's important that our internal dialogue reflects this reality.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things just really, really don’t go your way.

Sometimes it’s a relatively minor inconvenience–like when you’re attempting to navigate a new city and end up driving in circles and paying $14 to park for 23 minutes in a garage 4 miles from your destination. (Shout-out to Google Maps for that little adventure.) Or when you really need to make a phone call at 4:45 pm on a Friday, but your service provider is experiencing outages in your area and you’ll have to wait until Monday. Or when you douse yourself in bug spray for a quick walk with the dog and still end up getting bitten on your eyelid. Your eyelid

Sometimes it’s a moderately discouraging event—like when you receive an email indicating that you’re no longer being considered for a job that you were really excited about, or that the position you applied for was simply cancelled due to The Powers That Be. Or when you never hear back from the company at all and are left to assume you didn’t make the cut.

And sometimes it’s a rather life-shattering realization–like when it hits you that your 25th birthday is in a few weeks and you’re unemployed and living with your parents and getting really tired of explaining to everyone you encounter that yes, you’re trying your best to get a job and yes, you’ve tried X, Y, and Z strategy–and still watching the tiniest hint of judgement, skepticism, or just plain confusion flicker in their eyes. I’m an INFJ, yo. I have radar for the things people try to hide but inadvertently show anyway.

The past few weeks have been filled with these moments and more. On one hand, it’s been kind of emotionally draining, and on the other hand, I’ve had some great opportunities to reflect on what it means when things don’t go “my way” and how I can best respond.

For me, things not going “my way” is often a huge source of stress and frustration, especially when I feel that I did everything I could to plan and prepare for a particular situation. I find myself second-guessing everything, including my own capabilities and self-worth: Did I not actually prepare as well as I thought I did? What was I missing? Do I just really suck at life? Does this happen to other people, too? Will things always be this way for me? And on and on and on….

The more I think about why I typically respond this way, the more I realize that in today’s highly individualistic society, it’s so difficult to remember how many aspects of life are actually outside of our control. We love to think that we determine our destinies–if we dream it, we can do it, amirite? But while this type of sentiment may look nice on a motivational poster at the local gym, I think it’s a dangerous mindset if taken too far. It gives us a false sense of authority over a whole host of factors that aren’t really up to us, thus setting us up for disappointment and placing a lot of undue pressure on us to make sure that things turn out a certain way.

The stress and frustration of derailed plans, then, often stems more from a mismatch between our expectations and reality than from the nature of events and circumstances themselves. As a result, we can manage a lot of pain and anxiety by bringing ourselves back to reality. One thing that I have found incredibly helpful in this regard is repeating a mantra in my head– a word, phrase, or sentence that helps me reframe my thoughts. I first learned about mantras through yoga and have used them to regain focus when I become distracted during my practice. But I’ve found that mantras aren’t just good for yoga–they’re good for everyday life, too! And repeating one is something you can do anytime, anywhere when you’re in need of a reality check.

The key to a good mantra, then, is that it does indeed reflect reality. I used to rely on telling myself “I am in control” to calm down my racing mind when I was feeling powerless and stuck. But as you can probably imagine, instead of imparting peace and perspective, repeating this misleading statement over and over only served to feed my frustrations. It’s actually the worst.

Instead, my go-to mantra is now “I have a say.” This is a far more accurate and helpful statement, and to me, its meaning is twofold:

First, in spite of all the factors outside of my control, I always have a say in how I react to a situation. I can be positive or negative; I feel sorry for myself or I can figure out what I’ve learned and what I can do differently next time. I can become angry and bitter and act like the universe is out to get me, or I can acknowledge that crappy stuff happens to all of us, let myself stew over it for a few minutes, and then move on with my day.

Second–and here’s the kicker for a people-pleaser like me–I often have more say than I might think in the parameters of my situation–if I am brave, open-minded, and resourceful enough to actually exercise my volition. How many times have I invited unnecessary stress into my life by not voicing my needs or by always saying “yes”? How many times have I set myself up for feelings of failure and disappointment by approaching a situation with unrealistic expectations of myself or others? How many times have I practically welcomed frustration, inefficiency, and stagnation into my world by not exploring alternate ways of doing things when my usual method no longer serves me? So many times, y’all. So many times. In the wise words of P!nk, “I’m my own worst enemy.”

So today, no matter how many times I get lost, no matter how many job rejections I receive, and no matter how many quarter-life crises I experience, I will remind myself that I have a say. Not total control, but an important influence. And that’s a distinction worth remembering and repeating.

Do you have a word, phrase, or saying that helps you get through challenging situations? Share it in the comments below!