Past vs. Current Dreams: Discerning Which To Chase and Which To Leave Behind

Grapple is a great word. It’s kind of like a simple hybrid for “Granny Smith Apple,” like the whole word was just smashed together. Grapple.

Recently I’ve been grappling with letting go of past dreams to make room for new dreams. I feel like a juggler who bought a new set of juggling balls, but who refuses to let go of the old ones. I am juggling more than I can handle.

I toss around old and new questions, circling in the air around me. I want nothing more than to just put a few of the balls down, but then what kind of juggler would I be? Letting go of old dreams feels like regression to me.

I’ve recently been strongly considering pursuing a Masters in Social Work. And yet my brain screams in caution about academic degrees, What about your Masters in Public Health you’ve always dreamed of? What about pursuing an English degree? Couldn’t you just be a nurse practitioner and maximize use of your degree?

And too – it screams about cities to live in: What about Seattle? What if you go your whole life without living in Washington state? Can you ever forgive yourself? 

And also – it screams about leaving: What if you leave Milwaukee and feel lost? What if you get so homesick you can’t function? And the worst of all – What if you leave Milwaukee and never move back?

My brain has figured out that if I never leave, I never need to worry about being homesick because I’ll never have left. The anxious mind craves safety. In the screaming storms of anxiety, I have been appealing to my brain’s desire. It wants to be safe.

My brain screams about the thing’s I’ll miss – What if you leave and something happens to Terese? Or you don’t see your family for years. Or you want to visit your mother’s grave and you can’t because you are plane rides away. Or what if you relationship crumbles because you’ve moved away?

My brain juggles the past dreams of International Aid. What if you never become a Peace Corps volunteer? What if you never live abroad? And in the next breath it screams the opposite, Do you you really even want to go live abroad? You could be unsafe. You’d have little to no community. Are you doing this because you genuinely want to or because the past version of you wanted to? Are you forcing yourself to do something unnatural for you? Are you throwing away the stability you’ve worked so hard to create?

Anxiety is a beast, and it rages in the midst of discernment. My discernment process feels like walking forward in the middle of a Sahara desert sandstorm. The wind is my anxiety, pushing against me, pushing me back. My journey is forward, yet anxiety makes it radically difficult.

I believe I am destined for something great, and yet, I am so scared to take a step. I am terrified for what this life has in store for me and yet, I fear deeply not becoming my best self.

I have made brave choices in the past – at age 22, I solo traveled for eight months living in strangers homes and working in the dirt. At age 25, I flew alone across the globe with a broken cell phone and throngs of foreign people. I have stood on a stage in front of thousands of people to deliver a university commencement address. I have chosen to dive deeply into my emotions by admitting that I needed professional therapy. At age 17, I chose to keep showing up to my life after I watched my mother die.

If I am brave, why am I so scared? Am I scared because this is the biggest decision I’ve yet to make? Am I scared of my own potential? Or am I more scared of loss? Both I think.

I am terrified. Something is changing, and I do not know where it will lead me or what I will do in the aftermath. I do not know who I will become, and I do not know what I will lose along the way in getting there. Do I want a life of extremity? Or do I want a life of satisfying comfort?

I do not know yet. And I am trying to be gentle with myself in the process. I idealize extremity – why be average when I could be remarkable? Why settle when I could have it all? Perfectionism is fuel and also, shackles. Perfectionism is a train on a track, not a car on an open road with freedom to swerve and turn.

Anxiety wants me to be a train. My soul wants me to be a car.

Thank you, reader, for getting this far. My brain is energized and lost. So, so very lost. Do you have advice? Any/all is welcome.

Another Mary Oliver reflection to close:

“I want to be improbable, beautiful, and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.”


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.

Untangling: Why Dealing with Messy Emotions is the First Step Toward Personal Growth

Have you ever attempt to unravel yarn? It is a Sisyphean task. Every time you make progress unraveling one section, it seems another section has knotted itself up in the process. So you tackle that section…only to have a different section tangle even tighter. And so it continues – untangle, untangle, untangle.

This is life, for we emotional beings. The process of emotional unravelling is necessary, important, frustrating, constant. We are never fully done.

With yarn, we have the luxury of eventually giving up and buying a new skein. But Little Fighter, you cannot do that with your emotions. You cannot buy a new emotional self. It’s not how human beings work. We do not have replaceable parts. Our emotions are always with us, woven throughout every arteries and sinew. We cannot compartmentalize emotions and set them aside in the process of growth. Instead, we must recognize they are integral, the key to personal growth.

You and I know well that emotions, as necessary as they are, are also extremely messy. We need to remember then, why putting in the effort to untangle is necessary. We show up to the untangling process because we are committed to growth, committed to being our best selves. Even when you have a six-figure job, the best Fantasy Football team in the league, stunningly Shellac nails, biceps even Michelle Obama would envy, a cohesive nuclear family, a cozy house, an aesthetic Instagram, a balanced diet, and the cutest Goldendoodle on the planet, you still will not be your best self until you are emotionally intelligent, too.

Emotional growth is not a neat linear path we follow, like the steps up a corporate ladder or the instructional guide on how to assemble your IKEA furniture. Emotional growth can feel like this post’s picture – a messy swirl of back and forth and up and down and new experiences and do-overs.

So, Little Fighter, we are here to honor the excruciating process of unraveling. We honor how innately frustrating, dynamic, turbulent, messy, tear-inducing, trying, and constant it is. We recognize that unraveling is hard. It takes energy to unravel!

And also, we are here to honor the beauty in success – in developing the toolkit to dig through the messy emotions to begin to change our emotional patterns. We honor how rewarding, gratifying, necessary, and freeing the process of emotional unraveling is.

Cultivating emotional strength is a skill we learn, it is not something we stumble into. Emotional strength does not simply arrive at major life milestones – it is not an organ that you grow when you’ve reached a monumental birthday, when you’ve landed your dream job, or when you’ve had a child. You cannot order emotional strength on Amazon. You cannot write emotional strength onto a resume, because it is unquantifiable. 

There are no awards for unraveling, though the process is undoubtedly one of the most grueling experiences of your life. The only person who recognizes the unraveling is you.

And that, Little Fighter, is significant! Because once you honor the emotional strength you are capable of, once you take ownership of your own resilience, once you understand that you can now harness that strength and use it to propel you, you can do anything. This blog, The Winnowing Year, is where we honor that unrewarded achievement; it is a space that we recognize the very hard emotional work you’ve been doing and that you will continue to do. I see you. More importantly, you see you.

This morning I woke up frustrated – frustrated that this process of unraveling is seemingly unending, frustrated that no matter how much emotional resilience I cultivate, there is always more room for growth. It made me wonder once again if facing emotions head-on in this way was worthwhile.

I glanced over to a letter on my desk. My friend Emmanuel recently wrote to me, encouraging me to turn to a familiar poem, “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. One stanza in particular always speaks to me:

“you are a child of the universe / no less than the trees and the stars / you have a right to be here / and whether or not it is clear to you / no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should”

The words are beautiful, because they is true. The universe is unfolding as it should

This weekend, let’s think about unfolding, about unraveling our emotional yarn. Let’s take a moment to be gentle with ourselves – to honor the messy, hard, and necessary emotional work that we are doing.  We are trying, and quietly, slowly, gently, we are growing. The universe is unfolding as it should. 

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