Feeling Tangled? A Go-Getter’s Guide to Anxiety

Remember that L’Oréal hair detangler spray for little kids? That potent pear-smelling spray you’d spritz on tricky knots of hair, and work through with a comb until the hair is orderly again?  I want a grown-up detangler spray for my life. I would spray it all over my room, my car, my job, my relationships, and then douse myself in it.

I need an adult detangler. I need it to help me undo all these balled up, knotted emotions, these hardwired emotional responses that are buried so deep in my emotional core. In this intentional examination and rewiring of my core beliefs, I want a lubricant to help me slip and slide my way through the process.

Sometimes those emotions feel too deep to untangle on our own. When we are anxious, we need to do some subterranean uncombing, unraveling of those underlying emotions that are so hard to reach and work through. I know that the only way to make it better is to work through it…but an emotional detangler be SO much easier.

I wonder what the equivalent of an emotional detangler would be. Writing? Talking with friends? Going on a run? Taking a hot bath? Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. You know what else though…? Those can also look avoidant.

The thing that I have to do – that I absolutely I do not want to do – is sit. I hate sitting quietly. Really. As an oldest-child, highly-motivated pitta & nurse, sitting is my least favorite activity. I don’t even like to sleep that much, because it stops me from moving.

I am very, very good at trying to force a solution. If I am unhappy at work, I will become a search engine queen, planning ten different future careers for myself in the process. If family relations are strained, I will pour energy into repairing & reworking them. If my romantic relationships are struggling, I assume the answer is talking things through over and over. I fix, fix, fix, always moving, moving, moving.

For we determined, solution-seeking go-getters, the solution is counterintuitive to what we believe. Whether we like it or not, we have a core belief that actively designing solutions is the key to change; this core belief can be detrimental, sometimes contributing to the anxiety instead of aiding it.

No matter how anxious I am, there is one solution that has always proven to be true: In order to begin to work through those super-speedy anxious thoughts, we first need to slow those thoughts down. We need to act less. We need to breathe, grounding ourselves in the present moment. Instead of pouring energy (lighter fluid) into those anxious thoughts, we need to sit quietly with them, simply observing the fire.

When we are anxious, we live in our heads. Anxiety is always about the future. To counter that then, we need to focus on the present.

When I am anxious, the most helpful solution is to find a quiet place and to focus on my body.  If you’re feeling anxious, I recommend setting aside just five minutes for a grounding exercise. Here’s my go-to guide to get out of your head and into the present moment:

Take three deep breaths. As you take a few deep breaths, place both feet on the floor. Wiggle your toes. Now begin to rotate your feet, pressing into the ground with the ball of your foot. Move your feet up and down – pushing into the floor as you pump your feet. Notice that your calves are moving to. Continue this pattern as you work your way up your body. Focus on your thighs, contract and release your glutes, contract and release your core. Twist your spine to the left, then the right. Roll your shoulder as you move your way up the body. Gently shake our your arms, working your way down to your fingertips. Stretch your next as you move your head in circles. Finally, with straight spine, inhale and exhale deeply, releasing the tension that you just unworked from your body. As you begin to feel the energy move throughout your body. Feel yourself here – in this physical world around you.

Feel a little better? Focusing on the present is not the end-all solution to anxiety. However, it is an extraordinarily helpful and go-to tool to use when you feel anxious. By focusing on your body, you focus on a central truth: You are present. You are here. As we continue our journey of working through the emotional untangling process, we begin here – grounded and centered.

What Birthday Candles & Deepak Chopra Taught Me About Becoming a Writer

Do you make wishes? I do. I am a wish-maker-die-hard. I wish when the analog clock reads 11:11. I wish when I blow out birthday candles. I wish when I see a shooting star. I wish when I pluck a white-headed dandelion, blowing its seeds away as they swirl off on a breeze. That is my favorite form of wishing.

I believe in wishes, in part because I’m a six-year-old at heart, in part because I truly don’t see the harm, and perhaps most realistically, in part because I believe in visualization and its correlation to manifestation. If you wish something, and then not just wish it but really begin to concentrate on it, you begin to pour energy into that wish becoming a reality.

One of my favorite recent reads is Deepak Chopra’s The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire. Deepak’s work discusses the mind-body connection of health. In this book he explores coincidence, synchronicity, and the power of intention to change our lives. His metaphors are grand, and his syntax lyrical. However, even with my science-based bachelor’s degree, Deepak’s scientific reasoning is a little heady for me. I live in a very artistic feeling-based world, where sometimes physics data and neuroscience information doesn’t appeal as strongly as the lyricism of his spiritual teachings. Those I cling to.

In the book, Deepak quotes an ancient Vedic text, called The Upanishads, which state, “You are what your deepest desire is. As is your desire, so is your intention. As is your intention, so is your will. As is your will, so is your deed. As is your deed, so is your destiny.”

Stunning, isn’t it? It traces the path from desire to destiny.

In this year of immense change, I’ve been thinking frequently about where my next step is. I end up swirling in anxieties about how to get from Point A to Point B. I am impatient, and I am hungry for the manifestation of my career. In Point B, I want to be sitting at my local bookstore signing copies of my memoir. It is so easy to visualize! What is harder to visualize is the scrappy, gritty, daily grind – the practice of writing daily, the networking with other bloggers, the desire to build readership one person at a time. It is not as pretty to visualize. In one vision, I am in my favorite linen pants and funky jewelry, addressing a small group of readers interested in buying my book. In the other vision, I am holding my early morning coffee mug like a security blanket as I huddle in my old gray sweater, typing away at the keyboard. Point B and Point A do not look the same at all, and it feels like a quantum leap across an unknown middle ground.

I find this proverbial section of The Upanishads helpful because they emphasize the process, which does not easily lend itself to patience. We reach the finish line one step at a time, as frustrating as that truth is. We follow the process – first understanding our desire, then setting the intention, then focusing our will, then performing the deed, then becoming our destiny. It is a process; it is all a process.

Wishing, then, becomes more than wishing. If we take off its mask and strip away connotation, wishing is really desiring. To me, there’s nothing wrong with wishes. Because each wish, followed by intention, will, and deed, brings us a few steps closer to our destiny.

Little Winnowers, for us today, the challenge then is to move past the first step – past the step of desiring and onto the next step of intention. If I desire to be a writer, I set an intention for myself: I am going to write every morning.

Honoring the process moves us one step closer to actualizing those desires. Today’s reflection, this glimmer of The Upanishad’s Vedic wisdom is something I will keep close to my heart.

Keep what is necessary. Let go of what is not. Today is a step toward clarity.

Denial vs. Ownership: What a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Breakup Taught Me About Change

“So what caused your break up?” Melissa asked me.

“I wasn’t balanced,” I replied.

My own response shocked me. For the first time in answering the question, I didn’t say Adam’s name as the subject; I said my own. For the first time, I didn’t describe the break-up as something that happened to me; I described it as something I was responsible for.

Historically, when someone asked me the question, I placed myself in the object of the sentence. Adam broke up with me. Adam left me without saying goodbye. Adam wasn’t taking care of his mental health. Adam moved home to Michigan. Adam, Adam, Adam. Adam was the reason.

But yesterday, in a nearly out-of-body experience, I watched myself describe our breakup in a way I never had – with the focus on me as the subject. Before my mouth uttered a sound, in a completely radical, quiet moment, I watched my heart admit to my brain, You don’t have to protect me anymore. Start the story the real way. Your story of the break-up does not begin with Adam. The story of your break-up begins with you.

My own admission felt seismic. Without an intentional decision to do so, I noticed myself change. As the conversation unfolded, I watched myself describe the ways I was responsible for the downfall of our relationship. For the first time, to my friend and to myself, I admitted that the reason we broke up was because I wasn’t me anymore. In the last months of our relationship, I constantly spiraled in anxiety, driving down to Chicago to see Adam as a way to escape from my life in Milwaukee. I emotionally poured into him, saturating his ears with my chronic family issues and personal worries and what’s-the-plan, what’s-the-plan, what’s-the-plan conversations. When things went wrong, I put pressure on our relationship – deciding that we both needed to change. The efforts were futile, sometimes detrimental.  The more energy I poured into Adam and into our relationship, the more I felt hollow, empty, incongruent. And the more incongruent I felt, the more I mentally insisted the issue was the relationship, not me.

How on Earth could I expect my partner to handle that constant pressure, that constant feeling of me needing him to fix me, of me needing to put more effort into our relationship, of me also telling him that his efforts are not enough? He couldn’t. No one could.

It is true that Adam was also not himself. However, throughout the end of our relationship and in the acute aftermath of our breakup, instead of critically looking at my own life, I only partially acknowledged my own role in our relationship and instead placed blame externally – on long-distance, on Adam, on life circumstances.

Denial is an excellent defense mechanism. After my mom died, my family structure began to wilt away, like petals falling backward off a flower. I learned to be fiercely independent.

Unfortunately, part of such fierce, young independence included a denial that I could be wrong. When you are your only reliable support system, you certainly don’t want to fail yourself. I couldn’t mentally afford to be wrong, because then I’d feel beaten, defeated, hopeless. Protection of yourself is survival; admitting to yourself that you are wrong causes you to lose that protection, your shell.

It is so much easier to be reactive, to operate with a mentality that things happened to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. I often criticize my dad and brother for their passive approach to life. The tend to choose the path of least resistance, telling white lies to themselves to others, keeping other people at a safe distance. After my mom died, they both adopted a victim mentality, and the results have crippled them. If you ask them, nothing ever seems to be their fault.

I never understood myself to have a victim mentality until recently. It came as a result of deep reflection, self-work, and this focus on internal change. The realization that I too was playing a victim was mirror-shattering. And honestly, very humbling. In that moment, I realized how deeply my own narrative was constricted me.

It is true that all those hard things happened. My mom died. Adam left. Will feels lost. John moved away. My dad emotionally checked-out.

You know what else is true, though? I choose a victim mentality, over and over again. I am the subject of the sentence. Finally, I feel ready to take ownership of these realities for my own sake. I am ready to acknowledge that these realities are challenging and raw and impactful, but more importantly, I am ready to acknowledge that I have the ability to keep myself as the focus. I am ready to develop the tools to strengthen myself, to understand that I have a choice on how to proceed from here.

Yesterday, for the first time, I changed the narrative about the breakup. I took myself out of the victim role. The decision scared me to my bones. And also, it is one of the most freeing decisions I have ever made.

In this Winnowing Year, I am trying to look at myself more honestly. Here, we learn to let go of an idea of ourselves that may not be true, an idea that we created as a defense mechanism or as a result of our upbringing or as a survival tool. Here, we learn that looking at our lives honestly is the groundwork for change.

And you know what, Little Winnower? It is freeing! We are the ones holding our basket. We are the one determining which parts to keep and which to send away in the wind. Examining our lives with honest eyes is the most pure form of learning to let go.

Keep what is necessary. Let go of what is not. Today is a step toward clarity.

Positive vs. Negative Idealization: How to Stop Idealization from Weighing You Down

“It is not Daisy herself who is beautiful; rather the beauty in The Great Gatsby is in Gatsby’s idealization of Daisy, in the beauty of his dream.” This was my thesis statement on a 2008 literary paper in my sophomore high school English class. My teacher, a stunning writer and woman, verbally guided me through my messy thoughts to construct a statement of eloquence and clarity, one I surely could not have constructed independently. That thesis statement has always stuck with me for its poignance, and more importantly, the universal truth it holds.

Sometimes the dream of something is more beautiful than the manifestation of it. It’s why we hear the cliche “Never meet your heroes.” We idolize people, and sometimes the idealization of them does more for us than the reality of who they are. Our imagination constructs a whole world around them. The beauty then, is not in who they are, but in our brain’s conception of who they are.

Our imaginations are a powerful tool for sculpting a worldview. And this world can kick us in the balls. It can be gritty and hard and challenging. And so, it’s not all that bad to find arbitrary things to idealize.

Do I think Cheryl Strayed and I could be best friends? Yes. Does it make me better thinking so? Yes, it inspires me and lifts me higher. Her writing, her career, and her general way of outwardly moving through the world resonates with me. My idealization of her is a positive influence in my life.

Conversely, do I think that an idealization of Cheryl Strayed’s career should be the standard for my current career as a writer? No. Does it make me better thinking so? No, it would feel defeating because the reality is, though Cheryl Strayed produces prolifically, it is always harder than it appears. Plus, I have been a writer for half a long as she! Such an idealization would detrimental and crippling. My idealization of her career would be a negative influence in my life.

Do you see? There is a time an a place for idealization. Idealization is healthy when it inspires and uplifts us. Conversely, idealization is unhealthy when it creates an unrealistic comparison, which weighs us down.

Reader, it is time to let that go. Let go of the idealized parts of your life that hurt you. Why are you holding onto them?

Does wishing you have a bigger house distract you from loving the house you have? Does your peer’s instagramable days make you feel worse about your own uniquely darling, dazzling, daring life?

Our imaginations are a powerful tool. We have the ability to use our imaginations to create weighty comparisons or to use them to propel us forward. Which will you choose? Will your imagination make you feel stuck in the life you have? Or make you feel inspired to achieve the life you want?

The Winnowing Process

Winnowing begins with a mess.

It begins with a jumble of seeds and husks and dust particles, laying broken and haphazard in a sorry burlap sack. These plants have been threshed – gathered together in a sack and beaten with a stick or smacked against the ground until any semblance of order among the grains and husks is destroyed. Winnowing begins with destruction.

Sometimes we too have been threshed. We have been emotionally broken, beaten, defeated, smashed to pieces. The structure of our lives looks nothing like it once was. We have faced change, either intentional or not. Sometimes, before we realize it, our schedules, worldviews, families, homes, lifescapes look so different than what they were, they feel schismatic. Our little life on this planet has changed, and we are left holding fragments of a life in our hands. How do we make sense of the newness? How do we move on from the oldness? How do we find order after destruction?

In the process of agricultural seed saving, there are two ways to glean seeds from the mess: (1) You can pick out the seeds by hand, a time-consuming and ineffectual process in which your bleeding fingers pick through the abundant jumble of grainy skeletons or (2) You can shake the mess into the wind, letting the unnecessary components blow away as you let the seeds fall cleanly around you. Option (2) is called winnowing.

One of my favorite parts about the word winnowing is that is has the word “wing” right in its name, as if begging us to stretch out our arms and take off into the air. The o and w’s are soft, and harken to familiar, soothing words: willow, spring, sparrow. The name winnowing is inviting, and if we look at the etymology, it derives from the word wind. There is much to unpack in a word.

And too, there has been much to unpack about this year. It has been a year filled with constant change – career, home, family structure, romantic relationships, friendships, worldview, self. That last one’s the real kicker: self. I am changing – quietly, internally, constantly, more than ever.

Constantly, I feel myself tugged between change and familiarity. Like a burr stuck on soft denim jeans, I cling to the past, hooking myself into the fabric of my life and clinging until something rips me away. Logically, it makes no sense to hold to the past as we try to move forward. We cannot complete the monkeybars until we let go of the first wrung, no matter how far we stretch out our other arm. Emotionally, letting go is so much more than that. It is a deep undoing of our emotional selves, of our framework of being.

Winnowing is equally a process and more importantly, winnowing is a lifestyle. It is a practice we adopt, like hygge or vegetarianism or minimalism, a broad worldview made of many tiny choices. Winnowing is a way of being.

And so, The Winnowing Year is a space dedicated to that – the process of learning to letting go. Winnowing is a practice of honoring the things we hold in our hearts and of setting aside the rest. It is a space for change, but more importantly, it is a space for sorting – for learning what to keep and what to let go.

Winnow: “to separate the heavier and lighter with a current of air.” – Wiktionary