mental health

The Pause Button

“I second-guess and overthink and rethink every single thing that I do.”

~Taylor Swift

There are two camps of thought when it comes to achieving your dreams. On one hand, you ride off into the sunset, blissfully happy. But on the other, you realize it wasn’t quite what you thought. At least, that’s what the predominating themes of Hollywood and literature would have you believe. Reality throws a third wrinkle into the mix, though. You can climb that mountain and feel joyful and vindicated – and then realize the work isn’t FINISHED.

There’s another peak hiding in the mist.

The problem isn’t that you didn’t aim high enough. And you may not even need to set a new goal. You’re not upset or disappointed with the accomplishment. But there’s a negative in there, all the same. Because you’re wearing a rut into your little mountain paradise. You kind of settled into home base and switched off your brain. And in the process? Your ambition went with it.

There are gradations and levels to a dream. And, yes, additional mountain peaks. They’re not as difficult to scale (usually – everyone’s different), but they exist all the same. And when you finally stop dancing around over victory, you have to look at them and take stock of things. It’s time to rethink where you are, what you want to do, and how you get to the next stage of things. Or even if you WANT to. Maybe that rut’s so comfortable you DON’T have any desire to leave it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you are content and satisfied.

But pretending that you don’t have to think anymore? That’s dangerous.

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other day. I was writing out my work assignments for the new month, when I sat back and realized I haven’t looked for new work in AGES. Of course, I haven’t needed to. Clients have sought me out and added to my plate. (And don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty awesome) My schedule is comfortably full, too. So it’s not like my dream isn’t realized. But it’s also not GOING anywhere. And my anxiety climbed onto my shoulder and started poking me in the brain. A writer’s only as good as their next assignment. And if you’re not constantly bettering yourself, you’re not really a writer.

I started rethinking everything. And then I started making a new plan for myself. No need to throw out what I’m doing (that route leads to madness), but I DO need to get out of the current rut – at least a little bit. This means dividing up my time to allow for researching new writing possibilities. I also took a critical look at my speculative fiction (following a helpful critique) and realized it needed an overhaul – and devoted time, rather than the “as I can manage” time.

Same mountain, different view.

I’m not any less satisfied with what I’m doing. I wake up, amazed that this is my life. But there are still tiny checkmarks in the back of my mind that I haven’t crossed off. And that’s where rethinking comes in. It’s a little like stepping back from a painting you’re working on and realizing you could add a touch more shading. The image is fine, and most people would probably consider the painting acceptable. But your eye? It knows there’s a touch more you could do to achieve perfection. (Bearing in mind I know perfection is never achievable)

Every so often, you need to step back and look at your life with a critical eye. Have you missed something? Is there a “more” you might want to consider? Are you content with that rut, or do you want to step out of it? And you have to remember, there aren’t right or wrong answers to those questions – especially if you’re where you want to be. (If you’re NOT, then you want to really pay attention to your answers)

mental health

There IS a Try

"I Tried" in cement
Photo by Umit Y Buz on Unsplash

By now, most of the populace is falling off their resolution wagon. Excuses are cropping up everywhere. All of the new gym equipment is finding its way into closets and basements. (Thank you so much, you inconsistent twits. I really needed to go up to 15 pounds on my dumbbells, but can you find them anywhere? NO!) Junk food is climbing into grocery carts, allowing you to find rice cakes and peanut butter on the shelves again. (Why? Why do people always take the crunchy peanut butter? Some of us need crunchy peanut butter to live) And we won’t discuss the alcohol situation.

Resolutions are stupid and pointless.

However, there’s a different option for the year that I DO embrace: a word. Every year, I settle on a single word that I hold onto throughout the months. Sometimes it relates to goals (“write” has come up in the past when I wanted to focus on my short stories and novels). Other times, its something deeper and more personal (last year, it was “explore” – and sort of an epic failure, courtesy of the pandemic). But I sit down, sort through the dictionary in my brain and decide what word I want to tack to the front of my mind. As the weeks and months progress, I remember my word choice. It’s a grounding exercise – and more effective than a resolution. (When lockdown doesn’t prevent every travel plan you’d originally laid out)

For 2021, I settled on “Try.”

I took a lot of risks last year. Hell, I jumped into my dream job with both feet! But I also hemmed and hawed for close to four months before I did so. And I bit my lip and hesitated on the keyboard over a lot of decisions. Fear of the unknown, of making a mistake, of failure held me back A LOT. (In case you’re unaware, that comes with depression and anxiety. They’re nice little side effects) Not everything worked out, but most of my decisions DID. And I need that “try” to keep pushing me forward – without the fear.

It’s my reminder to move forward. Maybe the chance pays off, maybe it doesn’t. If I don’t try, though, I won’t know. A tiny little flicker of rebellion against those dissenting voices in the back of my head that insist on beating me down.

Does it correlate with my goals – professionally and personally? Sure. I want to try to continue to grow my writing presence. I’d like to try to land a newspaper or magazine article. And I’m always trying to sell my short stories. But you can’t resolve to do those things. They’re based on chance. If I made them a resolution, I’d disappoint myself. Building them around a single word makes more sense. I feel more empowered and determined chasing after that word “try” than assigning a specific goal. (See how it works?)

But there’s more to this word thing.

I want to try to take our delayed honeymoon (stupid COVID-19). At the moment, trying to find new bookcases for the house is proving a challenge. I missed my reading goal for last year by TWO books, so I want to try to smash the goal this year. I was going to try to avoid a major health issue, but I’ll be facing surgery later this month, so I kind of missed that one (and I think adding any hopes after that might tempt the Universe).

There’s so much I can do with the word “try.” It opens so many doors for me – in every possible area. Without the disappointment of a resolution. Trying something doesn’t carry the risk of disappointment. You MIGHT fail, but you gave it a go in the first place. THAT’S the important part. It’s energized me for the year and given me hope.

Ditch the resolution (if you haven’t already) and find a word, instead. You have an entire massive dictionary to choose from. You’ll be happier, in the long run.

mental health

Never Ever Stop

Image by J Garget from Pixabay

Things are always easiest when they’re rolling along smoothly – no one doubts that. When you can check boxes, climb rungs on the ladder, or even just cruise along down the freshly-paved sidewalk with a smile, you feel good and the world is at it’s brightest. It would be amazing if life stayed that way, but the universe has entropy at its heart (and no one is that lucky, regardless of what they might tell you).

Enter the complication.

You end up staring at something you can’t check off the list. The rung snaps under your fingers (or, worse, your feet). An earthquake breaks the sidewalk in front of you, leaving a chasm. You’re left feeling down-trodden, miserable, defeated, and all you want to do is circle back around and go home to hide in a blanket fort. While I am a big fan and supporter of the blanket fort, they aren’t the answer. Life doesn’t persist and continue or become interesting in a blanket fort – not for more than a couple of hours. You have to keep moving forward if you want to reclaim that high of accomplishment and success.

You have to persevere in the face of adversity.

Of course it’s hard, and sure, no one ever enjoys pushing against obstacles. It requires work, you’re going to sweat (sometimes literally), and you’re going to need a hefty dose of motivation – constant, driving motivation from deep inside yourself. Every day, every moment, you have to grit your teeth (maybe not literally – that’s bad for your jaw) and push forward. That obstacle isn’t going anywhere unless you do, and until you remove the impediment, you won’t make any progress toward your goals, your dreams, or even just your everyday life.

Perseverance comes in a lot of different forms, all depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe it’s continuing to write, edit, and submit your work for publication – refining your style and voice with the notes you receive in response. Maybe it’s marketing your particular skill set to potential employers/clients in order to obtain contracts, adjusting your pitch to attract the highest quality and most beneficial work. Perhaps it’s practicing speaking in front of a mirror until your voice no longer shakes so you can stand up to someone, demanding a right you’ve earned. Or it could even be something as simple as getting up every single day and reading five pages of a guide or manual for something you’re interested in. Forward momentum is still momentum, and it’ll get you across the chasm when you build up enough speed.

You just have to be willing to keep going.

In the face of thankless work (the finish line is likely still miles down the road – this is just a hurdle), with detractors on the sidelines, and with the knowledge that future obstacles are going to arise, you have to be willing to keep going. How important is your dream? Your goal? Your happiness? If it’s worth it, you’ll find it easier to persevere against the brick walls, and you will get through them.

mental health

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.

mental health

Write It, Mean it

“Aim higher in case you fall short.”

~Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

So we’ve set out our dreams, and we have that finish line clear in our minds. Odds are even fair that you have some goals in mind that will provide the rungs on the ladder you need to ascend the pedestal to achieve that dream (at least, I hope you aren’t one of those people sitting on the floor and expecting the dream to just fall in your lap). A reasonable checklist is perfect, and it breaks down the journey into manageable “bites” that makes that dream feel achievable. But there’s a critical problem people tend to forget when they set goals:

They leave those goals in their head.

I have a great memory (not bragging, just stating a clear fact), but even I lose things into a black hole at times. Guess which things are usually the first to go? Everything really important – like that super-important checklist of goals I worked so hard on. (You know that super-safe place you put things in and then promptly forget? Same concept) It’s self-sabotage at it’s best, and you end up shrugging and waving at your dream.

I’m not advocating you share your goals on social media, because I’m not – that’s stupid. Never share your goals with other people. People will sabotage you, too, especially if you start doing well. Share your goals AFTER you’ve accomplished them, when people can’t do anything to interfere. However, you have to get the checklist out of your brain and commit it to reality (not that I’m suggesting your brain doesn’t exist in reality, but…well, you get the idea).

Write your goals down!

Whether this means writing it out in a notebook, writing it across a whiteboard you keep in your work space, or even painting it across a wall – so long as it is printed out in your hand somewhere you can see it EVERY SINGLE DAY. What does this do? This wonderful concept called self-responsibility. It’s hard to avoid working on those goals if they’re staring you in the face day after day (seriously – can you avoid a cat or dog sitting in your face? No). Guilt will start to build up if you put things off, and it will drive you forward.

Plus, hello? Checklists!

How can you resist the lure of getting to mark off an empty checkbox? I certainly can’t! I love getting to put an X in that box, and it feels AMAZING. Even if it was for something simple (i.e., a work assignment), I get a shivery feeling of accomplishment. You get the same sense when you write out your goals and check off each step. Then you get to look back and see how far you’ve come – bonus feeling!

You create the ladder toward your own success, and you see your journey of accomplishment. It boosts your confidence, it boosts your sense of self, and it brings that dream within reach. With that checklist drifting around in your brain – a nebulous concept – you don’t have the same feeling. Did you come up with that step a month ago or yesterday? Did you remember to do that step yet? Did you think about how to break down that goal into individual parts? It’s just more difficult, and it can become more frustrating – to the point that you skip it entirely.

You want that dream – you know that – so sit down and write out how you’re going to get there. Write out every goal, every step you need to get there. Then make sure you can see those goals every day. Otherwise, your dream is going to stay on that pedestal forever, and you’re going to stay miserable.