Archive | Self-development

Happiness in Later Life

happiness

happinessLong ago and far away – back when I was still an academic – I once took a long drive home from a conference with a colleague. It was a two or three hour drive, the kind where you start off talking about work and end up talking about your childhood. About an hour and a half into the drive, I turned to him and asked: “Are you happy?”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t really do happy,” he confessed.

I knew exactly what he meant.

I don’t really do “happy” either. Content…animated…joyous…silly. I do all of those at different times. But “happy” feels more permanent. Like something you need to commit to. And I’ve never been good at commitment.

That Happy Feeling

Lately, however, having finally – 30 years in – fashioned a career for myself that feels right, I’ve started having this weird sensation in my body. I say weird, because it’s so unusual, I don’t recognise it immediately. I think it’s called happiness.

It’s like a friend of mine who – beginning therapy late in life after a divorce – confessed to me that one day in a conversation with her therapist, she felt this strange thing well up inside her. “And I was like ‘What is that?'” she recounted to me afterwards. “And then I realized: Oh, that’s an emotion!”

Damned straight, sister. I think a lot of us walk around for half of our lives carrying feelings inside of us that we don’t even recognize, possibly because we’ve forgotten they are there.

Lessons from Mindfulness

Which is why, among other reasons, practicing mindfulness is so useful.

If you’ve ever practiced any mindfulness, you’ll know that one of the key ideas it drives home is that we all have a “blue sky” inside us – a happy place where the clouds part and the birds chirp and the rays of sunshine fill our world. A lot of the focus is on accessing that blue sky feeling and realizing that it’s not something we need to reach for outside ourselves; it’s something that’s already there.

In my own case, I think I’d gone so long thinking about work as this stressful, difficult externalized thing that I’d forgotten that work could also be an extension of “happy me”… and fun. So when I’d deliver a workshop on public speaking, for example, and feel really great afterwards, I’d be like: “That’s odd; Why do I feel not just OK, but good?”

Escaping the Scarcity Mentality

It’s also the case that some of us just aren’t wired to be happy.

I grew up in a large-ish family where a scarcity mentality prevailed. If you got up from the dinner table to go to the bathroom, you risked having someone still the last potato off of your plate. So I think I have always approached life as if everything were a finite resource that was at risk of running out:  money, love, food, happiness.

Undoing that scarcity mentality has taken  a lot of work. One of the things that helped me most was reading Julia Cameron’s brilliant manifesto on creativity, The Artist’s Way. Cameron views creativity (which for her, comes from God) as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one. The idea is that whatever the origin of your creative process, it is an unending well of ideas and inspiration that never dries up. She encourages everyone embarking on a creative path to adopt this expansive view of how it works.

That has been s a struggle for me. Given my own hard-wired scarcity mentality, I come to the world with more of a zero-sum framework: if I get something, someone else loses something. There’s only so much to go around. But embracing Cameron’s “abundance” mentality with respect to creativity has enabled me to extend that idea to other areas of life.

As a result, I’m able to feel happier now without fearing that at any given moment, happiness might run out.

It’s still a work in process. Many days, I still feel off-kilter when I experience “that happy feeling.” But I’m learning how to live with it.

Image: Woman Happiness Sunrise Silhouette by Jill111 via Pixabay

Creativity, Random Words and Self-Definition

random words

random wordsI’ve started reading Tim Harford’s book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Its basic thrust is that creativity is fostered not by carefully organizing our time and ideas, but by allowing disorder to interrupt our routines. One way to induce this creative messiness, Harford argues, is by introducing random stimuli to trigger new ways of thinking.

So, for example, when I taught a workshop on creativity recently for a group of researchers out at Oxford, we did a “random word” exercise. I had them open to a random page of whatever they happened to be carrying  – a book, a magazine, instructions for a writing exercise – and select the eighth word on that page. I then asked them to use that word – whatever it happened to be – to help them generate new ways of thinking about a challenge they were facing in their lives:  personal…professional…in their research.

I myself did something similar yesterday. I was on a day out with a group of coaches and clients at The Writing Coach, where I work as a consultant. These periodic gatherings are a way to foster real life interaction among a community of writers that is otherwise largely virtual.

As the gathering was held at The National Portrait Gallery in London, our fearless leader suggested that we might also use this as an opportunity to do some writing. So she handed out a list of random words and invited us to use them as a prompt for some aspect of our writing – e.g., a character, a scene, a setting – as we gazed upon the pictures. It was your proverbial “artist’s date,” in Julia Cameron parlance.

My word was “resurfacing.” Here’s how the Cambridge dictionary defines it:

a.  Covering or adding layers (as in to put a new surface on a road)

b.  To rise to the surface of the water again

c.  To appear again after being lost, stolen or absent

As I strode through the early 20th century wing of the museum, I reflected upon this word and its myriad meanings. And I realized that “resurfacing” was a wonderful prism through which to think about the current stage of my professional life.

As I embrace a portfolio career,  I am in many ways “resurfacing” the different aspects of my professional self: the writer, the editor, the coach, the teacher…even the project manager. Just as I could readily detect where some of the modernist artists had applied new layers of paint to their renderings of, say, James Joyce, the original image was still visible underneath. Together, they yielded one person, rendered simultaneously through multiple angles.

At the same time, however, I also feel that I am reappearing to myself  – as my whole self – after being absent for a long period of time. And in so doing, I am rising to the surface of the water in a new, more integrated form.

I’ve long been an advocate of choosing concepts, not lists, to frame my New Year’s resolutions. As of yesterday, however, I think I’m also going to embrace the idea of choosing words as a metaphor for self.

Is there a word that’s helped you to redefine yourself? Have you ever used a randomness strategy to stimulate your thinking?

Image:  Random Words Make a Sentence by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr 

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New Year’s Resolutions: Choose Concepts, Not Lists

new year's resolutions list

new year's resolutions listWhile home visiting my family over the holidays, my sister mentioned a few of the resolutions she’d set for herself this year. They included doing more fiction writing (and, specifically, being willing to endure 100 rejections ), upgrading to varifocals so that she doesn’t need to hold a book within an inch of her eye to read, and a handful of other standard-issue resolutions.

“What are your goals?” she asked.

I paused to think it over.

“Thanks for reminding me,” I answered. “I need to set my concept for this year.”

Goal-setting: In Defense of Vagueness

As someone with a fairly strong Type A personality, it’s tempting to use the beginning of the year as an excuse to set even more goals for myself than I normally would.

But a few years back, I resolved that I wouldn’t do that anymore. Instead, I decided to embrace the idea of setting broad, overarching “concepts” to frame the coming year.

I’m aware of all the advice out there claiming that you need to set specific, actionable objectives if you want to get anything done. I’m also aware of all the research suggesting why if you go too far down the measurable outcomes path, you might end up abandoning your goals altogether.

To that end – and, let’s be honest, what good is research if you can’t cherry-pick the stuff that suits your needs? – I have anchored my defense of conceptual resolutions in a Stanford University study entitled In Praise of Vagueness.  Because of the way the brain processes negative information, this article suggests that we are actually better off motivating ourselves through a general principle (e.g., “I’d like to be more fit”) – or through an acceptable range of desired outcomes (e.g., I’d like to lose between 5-15 pounds) – than tying ourselves to one specific number ( e.g., “I need to lose 10 pounds by June 1st.”)

The basic idea is that presenting information in a vague way allows you to sample from the information that’s in your favor and choose the part that seems  achievable or encourages you to keep your expectations upbeat. That way, you are motivated to stay on track.

Goal-setting: Choosing a Concept

But I didn’t really start embracing conceptual New Year’s resolutions because of what the research said. I did it because I thought it would help me to bring greater coherence to the many different hats I wear, both personally and professionally.

I felt that having an integrated, “catch-all” concept would make me feel more comfortable being pulled in so many different directions. I also thought having a concept would encourage me to think more creatively about the different aspects of my life and how they fit together, rather than thinking in siloes.

So, for example, one year my watch word was “authenticity.”  That was all about bringing my personality out more in social media (principally blogging and Facebook), but also about choosing to read books that illustrated other people’s journeys towards self-discovery.

Another year, my watch word was “change.” That year, I knew in advance that I’d be laid off for my job and that I needed to be open to trying out different career options while I took time off.

Yet another year, I embraced slow living.

This Year’s Resolution

This year’s resolution, you ask?

It’s about balance. Not just the professional balance yielded by a portfolio career mentioned above.  And not just work-life balance if all that means is not being a workaholic.

But work-life balance in the sense articulated by author and entrepreneur Robert Glazer, which he defines as follows: …”an understanding that each day or week might bring different combination of things to attend to at work or in your personal life, but they total a portfolio of quality experiences. It’s not about the time itself, it’s about being fully present and engaged in each of the pieces…”

I like that idea. Balance as being fully present in each of the pieces of my life, whether that’s teaching or coaching or writing or swimming.

How about you? If you could pick a concept for 2019, what would it be?

Image: New Year’s Resolutions list via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Giving Up My Addictions in Middle Age

cell phone addiction

cell phone addictionI stopped using my cell phone for several weeks last summer. Ok, that’s an exaggeration. What I really did was to stop checking my phone incessantly.

I didn’t do this voluntarily. My house was burgled and they took all of our phones save one. Which meant that for a couple of months  – while we waited for the insurance claim to come through – I shared my phone with my two teenaged children.

Sharing your telephone with two adolescents is worthy of a blog post of its own. If not ten. But that’s not what captured my attention most during that period. What’s really struck me was how amazingly freeing it was to not be tethered to my phone all the time, because someone else was using it.

This shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve read Andrew Sullivan’s amazing account of what it was like when he cut himself off from technology for a year, including a stint meditating in the wilderness. I’m familiar with all the studies detailing why digital addiction is a real thing and exactly how it works. Just this morning, I heard a report on the BBC about the fact that theaverage British adult checks his or her smartphone every 12 minutes.

I’ve always smugly considered myself to be above that fray. When I write, for example, I keep the phone in another room. I can go hours without checking it. When my family goes to bed, none of us brings a phone upstairs. (Hence, the robbery…cough. They didn’t even need to leave our living room to make off with plenty of bounty).

But still, it’s been instructive to realize just how often I check my phone and how much happier – and relaxed I am – when I’m not on it.

Which got me thinking – pre-new years resolution season – about what else I might usefully abandon – or at least curtail – in the interest of personal wellness.

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50

Image: Rawpixel via Pixabay

How I Finally Came To Enjoy Work In Middle Age

molting

moltingI’ve got a confession to make:  For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying work.

I realize that’s not exactly a shocking admission for those out there who find their work to be fulfilling.

But I’m well into middle age and have been working for the better part of three decades. And it’s only in the past few months that I wake up and truly look forward to the day ahead.

 

Wearing a Costume to Work

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the various jobs I’ve held over the years. I feel privileged to have worked across multiple sectors:  academia, the government, the media, non-profits. Each job I’ve held has been an enormous learning experience, not to mention the source of life-long friendships.

But I never felt 100% myself in any of those jobs. It was always as if I were wearing a costume to work. And waiting for someone – possibly myself? – to rip off the mask and reveal the real me cowering underneath.

Taking time off for self-discovery

So after I was laid off from my last job, I made a determined effort to sort out this whole work thing for once and for all. To do this, I formed a sort of chrysalis around myself. Much like the butterfly, who needs to form a hardened, outer shell so that it can finish growing before it emerges, fully formed, into the world, so too did I feel that in order to properly check in with myself, I needed to check out with others.

So I stopped talking to other people about what I wanted to do with my life and spent more time pursuing a range of activities designed to help me gain clarity on my professional future. (I even uploaded the image of a chrysalis to my Facebook page to be sure people knew where I was “at” psychologically.)

It worked. One of the many things I did last year was to spend time as a visiting fellow at a local university. Mostly, this meant writing my book in a different environment. But it also meant attending seminars around campus on topics I was interested in, blogging here and there, (as well as fantasizing that I’d been cast in a remake of Brideshead Revisited…)

But the more I began attending workshops by assorted academics around campus, the more I would find myself subconsciously re-structuring these talks in my head. Why didn’t she start with that slide? I’d wonder. Or: Wow. This is a potentially interesting topic but I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes and I still don’t know why I’m here.

The same thing happened with blogs I would read by academics read that were written by academics from all over the UK. The content would be brilliant. But the blog would read more like a short essay or – worse – an academic article, footnotes and all. Somehow, all these great ideas weren’t translating into engaging content.

One day, sitting in back of a lecture hall, I realized I could help.

Back to the Future

Last spring, I launched my own communications consultancy . The goal is to help people write, speak and lead more effectively. To do this, I offer a combination of personal coaching and group workshops. So far, I’ve worked mainly with the higher education sector, although I’m beginning to branch out into the private sector as well.

It is, in many ways, a perfection combination of the assorted skills I’ve honed over a lifetime:  writing, editing, coaching, and public speaking, with a bit of improvisation tossed in for good measure. But my new business also draws heavily on all that social science training I got back in the day – the side of my brain that craves order, logic and coherence.

There’s nothing weird here at all except that  if you had told me 20 years ago when I left the higher education sector that I would be back teaching at the university level – and enjoying it – I’d have laughed you out of the room.  And yet, here I am, going to the library and preparing lecture notes and helping students of all ages improve their writing and communication skills.

More importantly – and to come back to the beginning of this post – it’s fun!

Molting into the Integrated Self

So maybe the punchline here – if I can beat the butterfly metaphor into the ground – is that molting in adulthood doesn’t have to be about a radical break with the past.

I thought that professional reinvention meant doing something I’d never done before.

It never occurred to me – although it should have – that for me to be happy at work, I’d need to do something that was not only authentic, but integrated. That the secret to professional fulfilment lay in integrating my manager and maker selves; to incorporating, as the saying goes, “something old and something new.”

One thing’s for certain: I’m no longer wearing any costume.

Image: Cocoon butterfly insect by GLady via Pixabay

Why Acting Classes Are So Hard for Grownups

acting class

acting classI’ve often wondered how many of us out there have fantasized that in another life, we’d all be professional actors.

I know I have. My mother was an actress when she was young, and I was one of those classic theatre geeks in high school, playing everything from Helen Keller to Elizabeth Bennett.

For whatever reason, once I went to college I became far too serious for acting (or so I thought), and abandoned it in favor of my studies.

For a long time, I was plagued by that dreadful “What if?’ that we all apply with increasing frequency to the roads not taken once we hit middle age. Now that I’ve returned to taking acting classes in mid-life, however, I’ve come to realize that I was never good enough to be an actress. And the reason I’m not good enough is that I’m way too protected emotionally to take the kinds of risks required to be a truly good actor.

I know this with 100% certainty because I spend three hours every Friday evening taking an improvisation class with a bunch of other adults. Our teacher is steeped in the Meisner tradition, which means that we begin every class doing Meisner’s classic warm-up, the Repetition Game.

For the uninitiated, the Repetition Game amounts to standing opposite someone else for what feels like an excruciating period of time (but is probably only five minutes) and “calling” the other person’s emotional state, in the moment. The other person repeats exactly what you said until something shifts emotionally in one of the two players and then that gets called out, repeated, and so on.

So it might start like this:

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

Until eventually that gives way to something like:

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

And so on…

Sound easy? It ain’t. Meisner apparently wanted “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

Wow. I don’t even know if “intellectuality” is a word, but Dear God, I cling to it for all it’s worth. It is SO hard to be truly “in the moment.” And that’s coming from someone who is an evangelist for mindfulness.

I know I’m not the only person who runs like hell from the nakedness of their emotions as a grown-up. I was comforted to read an account of the Meisner technique by a young, University of Chicago adjunct business school professor named Jean Paul Rollert. Rollert sat in on four acting classes in an effort to unpack the concept of “empathy.”

In addition to noting (correctly) that “acting classes tend to attract the same assortment of individuals who often congregate in adult education programs: the curious, the bored, the lonely, and the strange…,” he also goes on to observe that “Meisnering” is the equivalent of being “whipsawed, smacked, dunked, tripped, and kicked down a flight of stairs—all in the course of a scene.”

It is, in a word, brutal.

I’ve been doing this technique for close to a year now. And while I’ve had glimmers of success with the technique (though my teacher would shoot me for applying such normative judgments to the process), I find it incredibly hard to access my emotions on demand. My teacher tells me that even my body language betrays this truth about myself. Apparently, I tilt my chest backwards from my hips and push my head forward during the exercise, as if I am literally trying to run away from all feeling and lead with my brain.

I did have one breakthrough moment a month or so ago. I was doing the Repetition Game with a guy in my class who normally laughs a lot as a defense mechanism. All of a sudden, his own underlying sadness came through. And then mine did. And for just that one moment, the whole world seemed utterly and unbearably painful. Because it was.

It was – in equal measure – both an exhilarating and a terrifying sensation.

But after a minute or two, it was gone. We both retreated to safer pastures – he to his laughter and me to my brain.

I really want to challenge myself to feel more during these classes. It feels like the right way to live my life, in my ongoing quest for authenticity and all that good stuff.

But Damn, is it hard.

I wonder what Helen Keller would do.

Image: Miki_peleg_rothstein_in_Our_Class_2 via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Are Goals Good for You?

empty swingset

empty swingsetLate one night after a recent college reunion, I got to talking with a group of close friends. We’d had a few drinks. And having split our sides laughing over the course of two days about our shared pasts, we began to muse about our individual futures.

One of my friends suggested that we each set a goal we’d like to accomplish by the time we hit our next five-year reunion. He created a make-shift whiteboard out of our cardboard beer carton so we could write our goals down and hold each other accountable.

The reaction around the room was a tell-tale study in contrasts. The guy who proposed the idea said that he’d like to undertake at least one major creative project by the proposed deadline. Someone else – who’d endured a particularly grueling year – said that she couldn’t set long-term goals right now: she was just trying to live day to day. A third friend confessed that he knew exactly what his goal was, but that it was so deeply fraught and personal that he didn’t want to articulate it just then.

A fourth friend looked at us all blankly. “Honestly?” she said. “I can’t think of anything major.” She paused to give it a bit more thought. “Maybe to keep on improving in Crossfit?”

As for me, I piped up with one goal. And then a another. And then a third. I quickly realized that if I didn’t shut up, my personal goal list would completely dominate our whiteboard.

What are goals doing for you?

At first, I felt really smug after this discussion. “Yay, me!” I thought to myself. “I’m so focused and determined! I’m awesome!

I was particularly pleased that my goals extended into all aspects of my life. Not only that, I could name them and own them. I was proud of myself.

But after a couple of weeks passed, I began to question my complacency. Why was it, I asked myself, that I *needed* so many goals? Why couldn’t I be more like my Crossfit friend – who was apparently so satisfied with what she’s achieved thus far in life – that she could afford to focus on something as seemingly trivial as an exercise regime? (No disrespect to all Crossfitters out there. I know it’s grueling…)

And the answer is that goals provide me with an excuse for movement. My worst fear in life is slowing down. When I move forward – even in a frenzied state (which, if I’m honest, often characterizes my movement forward) – I feel alive. I don’t have to succumb – or even catch a glimpse of – that awful feeling I associate with stillness. Which is one of fear and sadness that the game is up and I am only me, warts and all. There is no more chance for self-improvement.

How dreams help

Not long after my reunion, I had a dream that I was back in college with that same group of friends. In the dream, I discovered that I had failed to write a term paper that was due in two weeks’ time. I’d had an entire semester to prepare for this paper, and yet somehow, I’d let it slide.

Panicking, I rushed to the library to do all the necessary research. But as I ran towards the card catalogue (yes, I went to college back in the day when we still had card catalogues…along with the horse and buggy), I noticed a bunch of people off to one side of the room. They were swinging on a swing set…in the library.

I’ve written before about the window my dreams afford into my psyche. On one level, of course, this dream is merely an apt representation of the person I was in college: someone who, as the phrase has it, worked hard and partied hard. (Hence, the dueling images of the library and the swingset.)

But I don’t think that’s really what this dream was about. I think it was about my current mid-life quest to integrate two halves of myself: to allow the manager and the maker to co-exist together, rather than one half dominating the other. That’s why the swing set is inside the library. The dream isn’t offering these images as stark alternatives. It is encouraging me to bring those two selves together.

In search of peace

Which brings us back to goals. What that dream told me is that I need to stop continually setting new goals for myself. Instead, I need to replace all of my micro-goals with one, over-arching macro-goal: that of achieving peace within.

If I can do that, then I won’t need the constant churn of goal-setting and goal-replacement. I will just be.

And maybe that can be my own form of Crossfit.

Image: Empty swingset by wsilver via Flickr

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My Midlife Search for Authenticity and Integrity

integrity

integrityI had coffee with a friend of mine in London recently. We talked about our joint desire to make our second half of life both meaningful and productive.

He’s in his early 60’s, and he told me that he had decided to organize the rest of his life around the principle of “integrity.” By integrity, he did not mean moral probity. He was referring instead to the less frequently used definition of integrity – unity, wholeness, coherence and cohesion.

I knew exactly what he meant. I, too, had recently come to the same conclusion.

Indulging One Side of One’s Self

For the last several years, my own personal “watchword” has been authenticity. Particularly in the professional realm, I felt that I had drifted too far in the direction of being a “manager” in recent years, and had lost touch with my “maker” self.

And so, when I found myself lucky enough to get laid off from my job last summer – with a generous severance package,I went 180 degrees in the opposite direction: I wrote a book, I took acting classes, I started swimming every day. I immersed myself in a creative life.

It was a corrective of sorts, and I reveled in the rush that came from focusing on the side of me that had been starved for so long. Ideas flowed. Writing Flowed. I felt like I was re-introducing myself – to myself  – and that was exhilarating.

Bringing the Manager Back In

Over time, however, that corrective began to need a corrective. As refreshing as it was to call myself a writer again – and to feel the truth of that identity wash over me every morning as I sat down at my desk – in the back of my mind, I knew that my manager self could not be entirely eliminated from the picture.

At first, I brought her in to accomplish small things, like cooking. Then I realized that I needed a safe way to incorporate my manager self into my journey of career change – not to dominate my maker self – but to co-exist with her on equal footing. And that meant fashioning a professional identity that would not miraculously render me the Director of a Musical Theatre revue (though a non-trivial part of me does pine for that identity.) Nor would it mean making a living simply by leveraging my most marketable skills. Rather, I would need to find a way to enable the writer, blogger and aspiring actress to co-exist with the social scientist, editor and project manager.

That sounds simple and obvious. But it isn’t. For me, anyway. For deeply psychological reasons that are far too complicated to go into here, I’ve always been more comfortable bifurcating myself into two halves. Being a fully integrated manager/maker -right brain/left brain sorta gal has been an incredibly hard thing to realize. My body, soul and mind want me to choose one side or the other, and I am using every fiber of my being right now not to do that.

I am resolved to achieve this however. I know, at the end of the day, that I will only ever feel myself when I enable all of the different voices inside me to surface and co-mingle, messy as that might be. I wasn’t born an engineer. Nor was I born an artist. I’m a bit of both.

In Search of Balance

Accepting that has been one of midlife’s biggest challenges.

But I’m getting there. As a big fan of mindfulness, I was delighted to discover a new series on my Headspace App called “Balance.” It is all about trying to identify those things in your life – not just your job, but what you eat, how you spend your time – that make you feel imbalanced. And once you notice them, you are then empowered to decide whether or not you wish to remedy them.

I no longer do any work on the weekends, for example. (Granted, I have the luxury of being unemployed right now, so it’s quite easy to fob things off until Monday.) But the change I see in myself over the past eight months is that I no longer *want* to work on the weekends anymore. Because that feels imbalanced. Whereas it used to just feel normal.

I don’t think this is the kind of thing that one can appreciate, let alone rectify, until we hit mid-life. When you’re young, you simply act on your impulses. You don’t examine them and try to do better.

How about you? Do you struggle to achieve balance in life and how does that manifest itself? What would an “integral” life look like?

Image: Integrity by Nick Youngson via The Blue Diamond Gallery

 

 

Why Bad Dreams Are Good For You

dreaming

dreamingI’ve long been an active dreamer. My dreams are lengthy, plot-driven and very detailed. I nearly always remember them when I wake up.

Nor are they particularly pleasant. From the proverbial math test that you haven’t studied for –  to the play you’re in where you don’t know your lines – I regularly experience some of the most common dreams in adulthood.

I’ve always accepted my troubling dreams as a sign that I am…troubled. Not massively so. But for those of us who lack the benefit of a “quiet mind,” I think it’s inevitable that the thoughts and feelings swirling around inside of us during the day are going to need some sort of outlet at night.

Lately, however, I’ve been re-assessing whether the fact that I have disturbing dreams might actually be a sign that I’m on a journey towards happiness.

What Are Dreams?

There are different theories on what dreams mean and how to interpret them. For Freud and others in the psychoanalytic tradition, dreams were a form of wish fulfillment. Even some scholars who don’t fully buy into Freud believe that dreams serve as a way of processing repressed thoughts and feelings (sexual and otherwise) that live in our unconscious.

Other researchers interpret dreams as a form of problem-solving. From this perspective, the brain responds to potential future danger by running – and responding to – a bunch of different scenarios while we sleep, just to keep us alert.

Still others believe that dreams help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the stories we construct in our help us to emotions attached to these experiences certainly are.

Being Lost in Your Dreams

In my case, the dreams I’ve had over the past few years very closely track some of my major anxieties – and personal evolution – during that time.

For a long time, I had dreams about trying to get somewhere. This sometimes took the form of an elevator, where I’d push a button to go to a certain floor and then the elevator would fly off in many directions, never landing at my destination. That dream has also, at times, taken the form of me driving or walking somewhere without a map. I try desperately to figure out where I need to get to but am increasingly worried about being late.

I feel like this is a fairly straightforward metaphor for the journey of professional reinvention I’ve been on, one that has intensified in the last year or so. It’s a dream about uncertainty…and movement.

Dreams About Parties

In the last few months, however, the “being lost” dreams have really faded. In their place have come a series of dreams about attending parties with other people: family, friends, strangers. In these parties, I can always see the fun going on in another room, but something blocks me from taking part.

If you google “dreams about parties” you’ll find interpretations range from social anxiety to needing to let your hair down to partying too much.

For me, it’s simpler than that: I’m on a path towards personal and professional fulfillment, but I’m still not entirely sure that I’m permitted to enjoy it. So the dream is very clearly reminding me that despite all the work I’ve done to construct a new narrative for myself, there’s still a bit of fear and possibly even ambivalence about seizing a life that is better suited to who I am.

Why Struggle is Good For You

I’m OK with that idea – that even as I feel ever closer to being at peace with myself – that I may continue to struggle for a good while longer in life. In this, I’m 100% with self-help guru Mark Manson, who argues in his new book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck ,that a certain amount of pain and darkness is the necessary and inevitable price of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

So I embrace my dreams. They tire me out. But they also remind me that I’m alive.

Image: Dreaming by Eflon via Flickr

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Things You Learn From Losing Your Voice

larynx

larynxI was invited to a brunch recently with a woman who happens to be a yoga teacher. In describing her practice, she noted that when she conducts retreats for families at her home in Notting Hill, she requires that everyone do a “silent breakfast” – one where you cannot speak. (Note to self: Family yoga retreat? Count me in!)

The silent breakfast is a real struggle, she said, for English people in particular, as the culture is so verbal and witty. But there is no talking whatsoever allowed during breakfast and ultimately, she says, everyone comes to appreciate it.

I’ve had my own version of the silent breakfast lately. I have nodules on my vocal cords – which means that I’ve basically had laryngitis since early November. It’s not a dangerous condition, but it does hamper one’s speech considerably. There was a point in mid-December when my doctor advised me not to speak. At all.

I’ll be having surgery later this month to correct this problem, which may come as more of a relief to some quarters than others (cough). In the meantime, I thought I would share five things I learned from losing my voice:

a. You listen more. Cultivating the art of good listening is thought to have all sorts of benefits for business, for teaching and for parenting. When you’re forced to stop talking for a couple of days, you also realize how much you interrupt, depriving others – especially children – of the ability to formulate their own thoughts. It also forces you to intervene less in family conflicts, which can only be a good thing. 

b. You invest in other forms of self-expression. As fate had it, the final performance for my improv acting class took place during one of the days when my voice was completely shot. So I had to go through an hour and a half of group exercises without saying a word. Boy, was that instructive! When you can’t speak, you have to rely much more strongly on gestures (including rude ones!) and to devise other techniques – like miming – for getting your point across. It’s a good reminder that speaking is only one of several ways to communicate. Indeed, deprived of the ability to speak, I am also pouring a lot more energy into writing my book.

c. You develop empathy. There’s a well-known journalist who anchors the BBC’s flagship morning radio show, The Today Programme, named Nick Robinson. Robinson is a veteran reporter, but a couple of years ago his vocal cords were severely damaged during surgery to remove a tumor from his lungs. When I first heard Robinson speak on the programme after he returned to work – still husky from months of voice therapy – I was a bit taken aback. However good a reporter he might have been, I was puzzled that the BBC would be willing to put someone with a voice impairment on the radio every day in such a prime slot. Fast forward two years and now I feel like a heartless fool. Not only is that *exactly* what the BBC should have done – in the spirit of fair and equal treatment of its employees – but Robinson is an inspiration. Whenever I hear him, I find myself thinking: “Well done, Nick! I’m so glad that you have a voice and are using it to make yourself heard!”

d. You take advantage of alone time. When you have a busy life – and especially if you have children – it can be really hard to carve out any time for yourself. And even when I do find that time, I always feel compelled to invite someone else along. But when you can’t talk to anyone, you figure, “What the heck?” I might as well go do something I enjoy by myself. When I was at the height of my self-imposed alone time, I saw two films and one play. All by myself. It was fantastic. Rather than feeling like I needed to “discuss them” afterwards, I just relished the feeling of assessing them on my own. Highly recommend.

d. You are reminded not to ignore physical pain. I have a tendency to avoid pain. That’s not always a good idea. In the case of my vocal nodules, the stress in my neck was such that it quickly spread to my upper back and before long, I could barely sit up. I’m now in physical therapy and things are improving rapidly, but this entire episode has reminded me why – when something goes wrong in your body – it’s important to deal with it quickly and thoroughly.

Homework: Pretend you can’t talk at your next family meal and let me know how you get on!

Image: File:Larynx normal2a via Wikimedia Commons