Someone Else

“I have said that he has the power to deliver a compliment and make it hurt. So, too, he can say something that ought to be insulting and deliver it in such a way that it feels like being truly seen.”

~Holly Black, The Wicked King

You know when someone’s about to say something sweet about you. Their eyes light up, the corners of their lips curve, and a light emanates from their face. Meanwhile, your skin feels like it’s trying to crawl away from you, and your stomach drops out of your body. Your shoulders hunch up around your ears, and you drop your gaze to their feet. Maybe (just maybe) if you avoid eye contact they’ll stop talking.

Nope, too late – they spout that compliment.

Now you’re left standing in an awkward hunch, curled inward and mumbling incoherently in protest. If you’re lucky, the person’s a friend or acquaintance who’ll give you an odd look and move on. If the stars are misaligned, the person’s a boss or superior who’s going to continue to stand there and stare at you – wondering if you suddenly took leave of your senses. Because who in their right mind doesn’t love getting a compliment?

It makes sense, right? Compliments are positive statements made to buoy a person’s ego and heighten their day. The bulk of the population walks around collecting them with a fervor that matches PokemonGO. You can almost see the trophy case they install each statement inside, the time and care they invest in polishing the best ones. Bored? Ask a person to trot out their best compliments, and you’ll get entertained with hours of details and perfect recitations. That’s how normal, functional people behave. Because compliments are GOOD things. They’re meant to be treasured and enjoyed.

And then there’s the rest of us.

People like me treat compliments like bombs. We start hunting for the closest fallout shelter as soon as we detect that upbeat tone of voice. Excuses bubble up from our throats in a desperate attempt to head off those words. Anything, ANYTHING to prevent the other person from speaking. Is there a glass wall nearby we can dive through? A cliff we can jump off? A hole we can fall into? (Laugh if you want, but we honestly look for any escape route we can find) Compliments twist up our minds and bodies into knots, leaving us feeling beaten and broken.

It’s not because we’re wired wrong (although people with depression have that working against them). The problem comes from deeper in our pasts. See, not every compliment is spoken with sincerity. Girls, in particular, like to wield sweetness as a blade. Girls are MEAN (if you aren’t one or haven’t been one, you have no frame of reference). They’ll speak words they don’t mean, then turn around and laugh when you straighten your spine. Over time, your trust breaks. You assume every compliment is a lie, a joke. It’s another way for people to laugh at you behind your back.

So you stop accepting compliments.

Your brain teaches you to curl up in defense. You build walls and seek a way out. And it cripples you down the road. To this day, I flinch at compliments – even from the people I love the most. I look away and turn my head when my fiance’ tells me I look beautiful. (I rarely ask him if I look nice – so I guess he wins there) I cringe when clients praise my work – though I luck out there as most of our communication happens via messaging and email, so they never see. I dismiss family members, insisting they have to say nice things due to the familial bond. Friends? My teeth are always clenched (which is super awesome for my TMJ, incidentally).

I’ve never figured out how to accept a compliment. I parrot the expected “Thank you” in an effort to end the conversation. I scoot away. And in my mind (at least, I hope it’s in my mind), I roll my eyes and dismiss every word. I have never fit in to any group, and so I’ve always found myself the target of jokes. THAT I have no problem accepting (crazy, right?). And so even when a part of me screams that the words are true, I can’t accept them. I make excuses and the rest of my brain tells me it’s just people being polite.

Not a great mindset for someone getting married in 11 days.

People don’t think about the damage they cause with their pranks. And people don’t understand those like us. They think our reaction is rude, egotistical, or backward. Instead of looking beyond our awkward response to the motivation behind it, they sniff and walk away (or question our sanity – always fun). It isn’t fair – on either side. Speaking up and admitting you don’t know how to take a compliment helps. It lets the other person know you’re struggling, and that you’re uncomfortable. If no one says anything, the miscommunication continues. Opening a dialogue can help you lance the wound, at least. Not everyone will get it, but some people do.

There’s nothing WRONG with you. Damage takes time to repair. Hell, I’m still struggling, and I’ve been fighting to fix this problem for YEARS. But knowing that I’m not the only person makes a difference. And even if my brain spends hours arguing after the fact, at least I’m not searching for that bomb shelter anymore.

The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

Check the Fertilizer

Wasn’t exactly intentional, but I’ve stumbled onto a theme this month concerning dreams and goals, and this post circles around that same concept. When you sit down and start to figure out how to break down your dream into goals, it’s natural to look around at the people you love and admire – especially if they’re successful and living their personal dreams. It makes sense, too, since they’ve achieved a lot of their goals and climbed higher on their ladders than you. I’m not saying this is a bad idea by any stretch. The problem comes in when you start to compare and contrast them against yourself.

The grass is greener on the other side for a reason.

You are NOT that person. The two of you don’t have the same pedestals, don’t have the same ladders, and you aren’t even standing on the same level ground. Comparing yourself to them is going to start a round of self-defeating thoughts and behavior that will guarantee one thing: you aren’t going anywhere. You don’t know how many goals they’ve checked off the their list to get where they are today. How many sacrifices have they made? How much work have they invested? What kind of commitment are they putting in every single day? And how long have they been at things? You’re not even at DAY ONE – expecting brilliance is asking too much of anyone (not even superheroes save the world on their first day).

Yes, they make it look easy, and it’s depressing. When you reach that stage, you’ll get to depress everyone watching you from the ground floor – so there’s that to look forward to (don’t make that a goal, please). As soon as you sit down and FOCUS on what steps you’ll need, you’ll figure out it isn’t easy and gain some perspective. Whatever the dream is that you’re chasing down, there’s work involved that demands your attention, blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing that requires those things is easy. Anyone that tells you differently is selling something – usually at a steep price.

Are there people out there willing to sneer down at you from their ladder? Of course – people are shit. They live to make you feel bad because they aren’t secure on their own journey. Maybe they didn’t plan very well and are stuck without a new rung to go to. Maybe they realized what they were chasing wasn’t their dream (NEVER follow someone else’s dream!). Or maybe they’re just an asshole – those people do exist out there. Yeah, they’re standing above you, but if they aren’t doing any work, you need to stop and think before you try to compare yourself to them.

Sometimes the grass is green because it’s full of shit.

Is it hard to stop comparing yourself with the successful people around you? Of course it is. I spent years hearing my parents tell everyone who would listen about my sister being the only one in the family who used her college degree (newsflash – I’m not using any of my degrees). I watched my brother move up through the ranks of his military career (you get medals there, too). Then my other brother got a job where he was PAID to go to movies and got free tickets to ComicCon – I mean, come on! Meanwhile, I was sitting in a career that didn’t really offer advancement and wasn’t exactly thrilling me – yay.

I was embarrassed, I was depressed, and I avoided family functions whenever possible so I didn’t have to admit that I was a pathetic nothing in comparison to my fabulous – younger – siblings. It took me YEARS to realize that my siblings didn’t feel they were any better (or worse) than me, nor was there really any comparison. None of us are even in the same REALM as one another when it comes to our dreams and goals!

Comparison can get your nowhere – FAST!

What I DID finally get was a blueprint for my own success: I stopped being an idiot and realized what I wanted to do with my life. I thought over how my sister followed what she wanted to do – I could do that (and I have). I looked at how my brother has continued to pursue his dreams despite all of the changes in his life – hell, I could do that (and I am). I admired my other brother’s commitment and constant genuine self – yeah, I could do that (and I figured out how to). I picked out the RIGHT comparison to get myself moving forward, instead of continuing to stagnate.

Pick out the elements of those people you admire and decide how they benefit you. If they don’t, dismiss them and move on. If those people look down on you – get rid of them, because you don’t need that kind of negativity. Compare, don’t contrast; you can find the right model to help you adjust your goals and planning appropriately.

Remember: the only person you’re in a race with is you and where you were yesterday.

A Bar Too High

Seek No Approval

Everyone has their own interpretation of success based on their career or personal goals, whether it’s a promotion, a weight achievement, publication, or sale of a piece. Each of those things represent approval from someone outside of ourselves, usually someone we have placed upon a pedestal in admiration. They’re the person we’re going to go to with a smile when we deliver the news, and we’re going to expect them to smile in return and cheer that success; more than anything else, it’s their approval we’re chasing. And no matter how fantastic we feel about that achievement, nothing makes us feel worse than dancing in front of them and watching them stare back without any emotion whatsoever. That’s when it really hits us:

We failed.

The excitement runs out of us, the delight collapses, and the achievement turns to disappointment. We slink back to our drawing board with our tails between our legs and re-examine everything from square one. We didn’t accomplish anything after all, and we struggle to figure out where to go next, how to actually achieve something…gain that much-needed approval. The problem is that we’re setting ourselves into an endless loop of hope and disappointment broken up with gopher-pops, checking to see if that person has cracked so much as a grin yet. We become completely blind to the fact that we are accomplishing SO MUCH in the process of chasing that smile.

Why? Where is the breakdown?

It would be really easy to blame ourselves, and, a lot of the time, that’s exactly what we do. In fact, those people encourage that belief, usually because they know it’s a weakness of ours. They know full-well that we suffer from anxiety, that we desire perfection, and that we want their approval. And they sit back and laugh hysterically as we chase down imaginary checkboxes and turn ourselves inside out, trying desperately to impress them. They play on our insecurity, telling us they’re providing coaching and advice that will “improve us” and “push us toward success.” The truth is that they’re steering us in circles, pushing us away from ourselves, and setting standards that are impossible – all while encouraging us to jump for that bar.

The problem was never with us, not really; the problem was we chose the wrong person to set on that pedestal. We chose a person we might have admired (for various reasons) without doing our homework. Did we REALLY know them? Have we ever seen them actually mentor someone else? Have we seen them encourage other people? Was it done the same for each person, or did they exhibit favoritism? When they speak, do they provide equal amounts of positive and negative feedback? Are they excited when you reach a milestone – any milestone? Are they invested in everyone’s success, or just their own? If any of the answers are “No,” then you’ve chosen the WRONG person.

And, honestly, the best people to seek approval from are going to seek YOU out. These people come to YOU cheering before you even have a chance to tell them a word. They don’t have expectations, they don’t set any bars for you, and they don’t make ridiculous hoops for you to jump through. They love you, for you, and they never waver; they are the people who cheer for EVERY single accomplishment – even if all you managed to do today was get out of bed.

The End of the World

Rejection SUCKS. There’s no way I’m even going to try to deny that fact, and I’m sure that Dame Rowling, The Beatles, and Mr. Jobs wouldn’t have bothered to deny it, either. Getting rejected sends a shrapnel-covered ice spear straight through to the very core of your soul that sits there, slowly melting away and reminding you – day in and day out – of its presence. Even worse, you swear that everyone around you can see the damn thing; everyone has to somehow know that you were rejected. Pull that monstrosity out and eliminate the pain sooner? Are you kidding? That shrapnel acts like barbs, and you’re just going to shred everything in the process, and who wants to endure TWICE the pain? Even worse, there’s all of these “flavors” of rejection: professional, personal, relationship, even casual (remember when that taxi driver drove straight past you like you didn’t even exist?). At any given moment, you could be carrying around over TEN spears at once!

Insanity!

There’s an easy solution, of course: never put yourself out there. If you never ask any questions, if you never try anything, if you never lift your head, that spear assassin will never get you in their sight. Well, sure, that removes the anxiety of rejection pain, but it also guarantees that you are never going to get anywhere in life. In fact, you may as well start checking out real estate options for a cave and pricing out plastic bubbles to live in, but that’s basically your future. I’m not positive that will stave off all depression, but you won’t be depressed that that particular someone you’ve had your eye on will turn you down. You won’t have to worry about being turned down for your dream job (or, well, probably any job), and no one will ever tell you, “No,” because…well, you’ll never ask any questions (I’m guessing there isn’t a big demand for living in caves – just don’t pick a nice one). I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a really bleak existence, to me.

Why endure that kind of madness?

This is why taking the risk of rejection exists. Yes, it hurts like hell to get rejected. You feel like you’re entire world is collapsing, you feel like a complete failure/ idiot/ loser (insert your insult of choice), and you slink home to your blanket fort to hide in shame. That “melting time” from the ice spear grants you something, though: reflection. The majority of the time (I’m exempting the relationship section here because some people really just are assholes), there is a reason behind the rejection, and it’s a useful bit of knowledge you can carry forward. Read through or mentally review whatever conversation took place and find keywords or phrases – they’re likely in there, and they likely weren’t personal. Use that information to apply towards the next time.

Writers, artists…well, all professionals do this all the time. Your work gets rejected CONSTANTLY; it’s considered a badge of honor (sometimes, it’s funny – very famous authors were rejected and called hacks by publishing companies). You develop a thick skin (or you give up because the rejection overwhelms you), and you learn to look for those clues. No, you don’t listen to everything, because you don’t necessarily agree with everything, but there are notes you can use to make your work better. The same applies in your life, once you get past that initial wince of gut-wrenching pain. You don’t need to over-analyze (that’s an entirely different kettle of fish), but run things through your head at least once, and ask, “Does this make sense?” It pulls the sting out of the rejection, and it redirects you to a new direction. With luck, that new pathway will get you an acceptance.

Even if it leads to another rejection, just remember: at least warm and safe in your blanket fort, eventually, that ice spear is going to melt; you just have to give it a little time.

Mirror, Mirror

Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially construed ideas of beauty.

My favorite time of year: resolution time; that glorious period when everyone spews list of changes that they intend to make and which end up being kept for all of, on average, five days. Most of those fantastic claims center around the body: attending the gym more frequently, eating better, attempting one (or more) fad diets that have yet to be discredited by science. And why not? It’s not as if our entire social culture were structured around norms of expectations of beauty, right? Oh, wait, it is. We have entire channels of YouTube that explain how to contour your face, dress appropriately for your age, shop thriftily so you can emulate the looks of the stars. Don’t get me started on what you can find on Instagram (and, yes, I’m old enough that I had to research both because I don’t actually utilize either one on a regular basis).

I don’t believe in resolutions, in general, but I really avoid the ones in relation to the body. Why? Because I have major body image issues, the same as most other people who suffer from depression. The crazy part is that I probably shouldn’t, at least according to logic. After all, I weigh a solid 100 pounds less now than I did even ten years ago when I was in a terrible relationship; that equates to 10 sizes smaller (and the real annoyance of having to buy new clothes every time I lost a significant amount of weight). Instead of reveling in the loss, though, I freaked out. I kept pushing against newly-appeared bones and ligaments, trying to figure out what in the world the protrusions were; I ended up with a lot of bruises. And I continued to avoid mirrors at all costs – because I still saw the same girl in the mirror as always.

And I still do.

This past year, everyone was posting their 10-year challenge photos to show the difference a decade can make. Now, I hate having my picture taken (see above in case you were under some delusion as to why that might be), but I finally caved to the pressure and found an old picture as well as one from this summer. It was the first time I was able to see the difference in weight, mostly because the evidence was sitting in front of me. The shock was overwhelming, but the bigger shock was walking to the bedroom, looking in the mirror and seeing that same enormous hippo staring back at me. Nothing had changed, not even moments after glimpsing the truth! My mind insisted that I was still an unattractive blimp. All of the broken thinking came right back: the taunting from school, the embarrassment from the playground (you know – when no one else can lift you on the see-saw?), the humiliation of walking past women your own age as you go to the Plus section while they traipse to the Juniors section, all while your much thinner friends insisted that size is just a number and prance around in crop tops, skinny jeans, and bikinis. So I put my sweats on and went back to avoiding the mirror – standard procedure.

The grip that thinking has on a person is insane. I’ve continued to lose weight, I’ve toned my arms and legs some more, and I STILL see the same horrible image in the mirror. Every now and then, I catch a brief glimpse of someone else, but I don’t know who she is. And the really crazy thing is, if I just look at my arm or my leg, I see changes (we won’t talk about my stomach – that’s insanity); but the entire picture…it falls apart. Trying to rewire my thinking has failed every attempt I’ve made. Those hurtful remarks are embedded deep in my psyche, along with every rejection.

If I were to consider making any resolution this coming year, it would be to root out all of those horrible sentiments and banish them from my way of thinking. Because, honestly, I would really like to look in the mirror and at least see MYSELF, as I am.

Confidence and the Invisible Army

They win by convincing you that you’re alone.

— STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

The invisible army.

I never realized the impact of the invisible army until recently or how much power it has over a person. I think we’ve all encountered the invisible army at one point or another in our lives: someone uses a line similar to, “everyone else feels…” and BOOM! the entire Imperial Army is ranged against your lowly, crippled X-Wing. There is no response to those statements, no way to defend yourself when everyone shares an opinion opposite to yours. It’s an instant blow to your entire system, leaving you stunned, and the only thing you can do is quietly accept your fate and limp home, never realizing the full impact of what’s happened until later.

Your confidence is shaken.

Before those words were spoken, you thought things were going pretty well; your spine was intact, you held your head up high, and you felt a measure of pride in yourself and your work. Now, knowing that EVERYONE is ranged against you, you’re cowering, you can’t look anyone in the eye, and you doubt everything you’ve ever done. That person robbed you of your confidence, shattered it (hopefully didn’t erase it entirely, but that is a possible outcome, too – it depends on the size of the invisible army), and the worst part is, that was their intent from the beginning. People use the word “everyone” because it has impact, because it’s difficult to argue against, because we know that majority rules. Now, that person has the upper hand, while you’re left slumped in defeat in front of them.

It’s a cruel trick, and it’s one I’ve experienced many times – surrendering pieces of my confidence over and over again. I would slink home, sit on the couch, and analyze every life choice I had ever made, wondering what led me to be such a screw-up. To be honest, I’m doing it right now – it’s what prompted me to start this blog, to consider a new path (I’m not even sure the Empire ever had an army this big). My confidence is currently being held together with a couple pieces of old tape and sheer force of will. Why? I know my worth; I can recite all of my best qualities, all of the positive things I bring to the table, and I have a hefty list of accomplishments. I have a list of people reminding me on a daily basis of my talents, reassuring me that I can do anything I set my mind to. So why am I trying to hold my shaky confidence together with fraying string?

Because an invisible army said I was wrong.

It looks ridiculous when it’s written out, but that’s exactly how much power that invisible army HAS. It’s a throw-back to elementary school when kids told you no one liked you on the entire playground, and you spent recess sitting on a corner of the blacktop making patterns with the rocks. It’s a reminder of asking a guy to senior prom and hearing him proclaim, loudly, that no one was stupid enough to go with someone as ugly as you. “No one” and “everyone” are hulking beasts with fists and mallets that hammer away at your self-confidence, and every blow leaves a bruise on your psyche. People use those words because of the power they convey, because they know you’ll cave when you hear them. If they can break your confidence, they win. They win, and you’re sitting at home analyzing every choice you’ve ever made in your life.

And it has to STOP.

So now I’m sitting here, wondering why I let those people do that to me. Why did I surrender my confidence to bullies? Why did I compromise a part of who I was because I was afraid of an invisible army? How many people were REALLY in that army? What were their strengths? Their stats? Their ranks? Was there even an army at all or was it a foil to “keep me in line?” I wasn’t brave enough to ask the questions, to plant my feet and show some of that spine. Which is how I ended up here, looking at a fissured self-confidence and hoping I have enough glue and staples to repair it.