26 July 2013

Experiencing Personal Growth through Physical Spaces (Chapter 4)

Here's chapter 4 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
- Anatole France -

The physical spaces you occupy throughout your life can lead to profound changes and significant personal growth in your internal (mental, emotional, and spiritual) spaces, or they can hold you back. If you understand how these spaces are intertwined, you’ll have more angles from which to tackle areas of your life that you want to change. It’s up to you to look closely at the choices only you can make, and determine if any of your spaces are gently (or intensely) inviting you toward a different kind of experience that, whether you realize it or not, you are ready for.

Completely Revamping Your Spaces

When I met Jason, he was being kicked out of the apartment he’d lived in for the past 20 years (at a nice low rent, mind you). His landlord was planning on renovating it for his daughter and her husband, who were soon-to-be parents. Jason was self-employed and didn’t have a lot of money. Plus, one of the reasons we bonded was because we both had lots of unresolved issues from our childhoods—so besides depression, there were other emotions this eviction was triggering in him. One night after (a purely platonic) dinner, I ended up at Jason's apartment. Not only was it cluttered and dirty (from Jason’s things in the space), but it was also dark, dingy, dusty, and somewhat dilapidated. Jason had also implemented some interesting “workarounds” to make the space better align with his desires. For example, since the real bedroom faced the street and made it too noisy for him to sleep late, his bed was in the center of the dining room.
As Jason and I talked more about his impending move and what it triggered for him, we discovered lack of money as a really sore spot. Practically speaking, he didn’t make a lot and the low rent was a nice balance to that. But why didn’t he try to do something to try and make more money? Why did he feel comfortable living in a space that was in total disarray? That went deep, back to what he experienced growing up. At one point during our conversations—and somewhat for practical reasons—Jason decided that not only would he have to spend more money on his living space, but that he could; he even deserved a nice place to live. He could stop being loyal to his parents by choosing to live in filth. He would just have to make more money to offset what he had to spend!
Several years later, you wouldn’t recognize Jason as the person I just described. He has the nicest apartment in a quiet building with an attentive landlord. It is well organized; the bed is actually in the bedroom, and so on. More importantly, Jason has become a successful, self-published author and public speaker. Jason’s re-framing of this initially negative, unexpected situation about a physical space into a positive intention in his mental and emotional spaces impacted both his professional and his personal life in ways he never expected.
My friend Paige has a different story, but a similar result. She was living alone in a large house in the suburbs. Divorced with a grown son, she resented her living space. She didn’t like being obligated to pay for repairs (when she’d rather spend the money traveling or shopping) and hated that she was so far away from downtown Boston where she could potentially meet new people. Plus, it just didn’t reflect who she was anymore. She had changed, but her living space still reflected her old life, her old personality, her old dreams and fears. Like losing weight and still wearing clothes that were too big, the house didn’t fit.
It took a little while to work through some resistance in her mental and emotional spaces, but the dissonance she felt eventually pushed her to make a change. And once Paige decided to change her physical surroundings, boy, did she ever! Paige sold her house—along with practically everything in it—and started completely fresh with an apartment in a prime location in the city. She bought all new furniture, and decorated it to reflect who she is today and who she wanted to be tomorrow. Paige became a real city gal—walking to whatever shops or parks she pleased, enjoying the Boston skyline from her third floor window, making new friends, and thinking about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. In less than a year, she started studying to get certified in a new field, and one of her neighbors is now the (fabulous!) boyfriend, who she moved with to California the following year. While all the changes present some challenges, Paige is still happier than I have ever seen her.

Thought Experiments
  • What “big leap” is in the back of your mind that you’re fearful about taking? What is really holding you back? Try to dig beyond the circumstantial for what is really at the root of your resistance.
  • Are there changes you could make to your physical, mental, emotional spaces that would nudge you in the direction you ultimately want to go? Consider taking any step—even a small one—and being open to how it affects your life (and your feelings about your life).

Subtle Evolution through Space Changes

The first house I remember living in was in a town called Wapwallopen, in Pennsylvania. As you can probably tell by its name, this place was about an hour away from a grocery store, and our street address was a “rural route” number. To get to school, I had to walk to the bottom of my street, board a big yellow bus, and ride about a half hour before switching buses in a slightly larger town called Mocanaqua. After another half hour or so, I arrived at school (generally pretty nauseous). Aside from socializing with other children in school, this meant that most of my interactions were with my (mostly unavailable) parents, a dog, and a (frequently missing) cat. Whether I was playing inside or outside, I was usually playing alone.
When I was between the ages of ten and twelve, we squatted in an apartment my grandparents had upstairs from their own house, while a builder was working on a new house for us in a more populated town. While I had my grandparents around to play with for those couple of years, I still had limited interactions with kids my age; I never got together with any friends outside the classroom. So when we moved into the new place, and there were kids galore in the neighborhood, I was very excited at the idea of having regular playmates. That is, until I realized just how much I didn’t fit in.
Although I was the oldest kid on the street, I hadn’t been exposed to much that was popular, and I didn’t have any of the things others did (for example, a grown-up bike). I didn’t know how to play some of the games they played, and I didn’t know what Legos were. I hadn’t ever had cable, so I didn’t know what Nickelodeon was, or any of the TV shows that happened to be popular at the time. I flip-flopped between the foreign world of the one other girl on the street who was close to my age (who exposed me to Chinese food, makeup, sleep-overs, and boys as “interests”), and the younger boys and girls who were still riding dirt bikes, playing in the half-built houses on the street, and doing cannonballs into swimming pools.  I spent a lot of time trying to work through the way I was, and trying to resolve it with the way I was expected to be. Looking back, I believe my mental and emotional development was hindered in my first couple of physical spaces because they were so removed from communities. In this new house, however, I felt that gap distinctly, and rushed to catch up (likely missing some important lessons in my haste).
Perhaps my friend Jane provides a clue: she still lives in the same house she grew up in. When she talks about her home, she admits it hasn’t really changed much over the years. Jane has never experienced a drastic change in her physical space like Paige or Jason did, nor has she evolved through natural space “evolutions”, as I was forced to. Jane has experienced her share of suffering within the walls of her consistent physical space, as she’s watched several cherished family members leave this life and got laid off from her job. Yet she’s still there, in the same house (alone and by herself now), admitting that neither she nor her situation haven’t changed much either. Given these anecdotes, I’m becoming more convinced that people need some amount of movement through different physical spaces to start or accelerate personal growth in their mental and emotional spaces.

Thought Experiments
  • Think back to the physical spaces you’ve occupied over the years. Have you stayed in one place, or many? How do you think that movement (or lack thereof) among physical spaces positively and/or negatively impacted the development of your mental and emotional spaces?
  • What life lessons has your current physical space helped you experience? What transformations has it brought about in you? Are you content with how much you’ve changed and grown, or do you feel as though you could use a push? In the latter case, you don’t necessarily need to move. Brainstorm and explore some new aspects of your current physical space or community, and see what that does for you!
  • If you’re moving in the near future, take a moment to think about the potential opportunities this change to your physical space presents for your mental and emotional growth. If you have any fear or resistance to the change, does that provide you with any clues about the areas where you could really challenge yourself?

Rescuing Yourself from Toxic Spaces

A physical space I keep returning to in my mind and heart, the one I feel almost compelled to return to, is that house my parents built from scratch when I was between ten and twelve years old. There’s something inside me that says I need to do this to really process, accept, and forgive what happened there, so I can let go of my childhood pain and experience real joy in my life.
One evening I was feeling rather spent. I was recovering from one of those terribly clingy summer colds as well as babying a new tattoo, so when I sat down on my therapist’s love seat, I was willing to do whatever she asked as long as it didn’t require much energy. For a few years Bonnie and I had been talking about my parts (a concept from the Internal Family Systems model): for example, I have a part that gets annoyed and frustrated at my rate of “progress”, another part that comes out as sarcastic, thinking all these theories of “inner children” are bogus, and so on. But the theory says that underneath all those parts (which are created to protect a person at a difficult point in their life) is a wise and true Self—a Self that knows how best to take care of you now. So, if I could get all my parts to temporarily step aside, my Self could return to that house and really listen to and acknowledge the twelve-year old girl who suffered there.
Since I was physically exhausted that night, my parts seemed less active, and in my mind I started picturing that physical space. What did the rooms look like and how were they linked? What did the furniture look like and where was it placed? As I moved through my visualization of the house, I paused in a corner of the kitchen—probably because I recently found a photograph of myself at that very spot. What were my feelings? I know I had just stopped crying in the picture, but why? I made some guesses about that, and tried to imagine my Self approaching this little girl. I must say, the experience was a bit surreal; looking at myself from another time, in another place, as if I were someone else. I did something I never thought I’d be able to do—I embraced her, stroked her hair and told her that her parents were gone, and that there really wasn’t anything or anyone left in the house that could hurt her. I removed all the strict boundaries so she could freely play, explore, and just generally be a child. And if anyone did threaten to come in, she wouldn’t have to worry about it—I was there to protect her, and I would. She could relax and go to sleep at night, instead of feeling the need to be vigilant and overreacting to every noise. I would love her and keep her safe. When our visit was over, she (and I) felt a peace we’ve never experienced before.
In this case, a physical space from my childhood had made significant, negative impressions on my mental and emotional spaces, which continued to affect me in my adult life. Yet, I was able to use the strength of these same internal spaces to visualize and acknowledge what I experienced in that place and time. It took me a long time to accept the need and the courage to do this, but when I finally did, I felt more relaxed, confident, and at ease with life.

Thought Experiments
  • You don’t have to have had a challenging childhood to have impressions from your early physical spaces manifest themselves in your mental and emotional spaces today. What experiences from your past might you be holding on to? How do these experiences manifest themselves to you and others in your life who you now share physical spaces with?
  • If you accept the idea that your physical, mental, and emotional spaces are closely intertwined, does this give you any new ideas about how to deal with hardship you’ve experienced? If you’ve tried tackling an issue through an internal (mental or emotional) space, for example, can you turn your attention to a physical one to try and resolve it (or vice versa)? Listen to yourself, and try giving yourself what you need.

Establishing Balance in All Your Spaces

When my husband and I were newly engaged, we decided to sell our individual condos and purchase a single family home. We found a realtor, talked about our requirements, and started looking. After being disappointed by a few older houses that had small rooms or strange layouts, the three of us decided we should focus on new construction. After walking through a few more places, we found a street where three new houses were being built (by the same person who built my condo). When we explored the model home something just clicked—though it didn’t meet all of our requirements, deep down we both felt as though the house just fit us. I think that because the house was very similar to our condos, it felt familiar, and helped reduce the stress we were feeling from all the change we were experiencing in our lives. On some level, we probably feared doing something more drastic!
    Fast forward a few months, after the closing and our initial move into the house. We’d had lots of negotiations about space, and made almost as many purchases. Like many new homeowners, we had a plan to “finish” each room, replacing old sofas, adding accent pieces, and hanging pictures.
One day I was in the guest bathroom and happened to look out into the hallway. Something inside me whispered, “this isn't your home” and “this is someone else's house, what are you doing here?” (This was a disturbingly surreal experience I had been having off and on for several months, in different rooms. And it seemed odd to me, given how strongly I had loved the house before it was even finished!)  But when I looked out at the hardwood floor, and the French door that marked the entrance to the third floor, I somehow knew what I was really wondering: “who am I?” I had never expected to be married, or to have a house—like “normal” people. I was the one whose self-sabotaging relationships never worked out. I had gotten very used to being on my own, and liked my independent lifestyle. My very identity was being altered by this physical transition, and subconsciously I was asking myself that question every day. I don't think it was a bad thing; I wasn't feeling regret. I was starting to question my underlying beliefs about who I thought I was and where I thought I’d be.
    I also fondly remember one moment when I felt more at ease in my new life. Two summers after we moved in, we replaced our grill (a tiny, Weber Baby-Q I had bought for my condo) with a new one, worthy of the larger deck. My colleagues had given us matching Adirondack chairs as a wedding present, so we put those on the deck too. Then came potted plants—for some reason I got a wild hair to plant some lettuce in rectangular flower boxes, one of my staff gave me tomato plants, and I tried planting sunflower seeds. Finally, an impromptu trip to Pier One that day had us driving home with two little deck tables, the tops of which had colored mosaic tiles that (coincidentally) matched flowers we recently planted in the back. After putting those tables in their places, I sat in one of the chairs to rest with a glass of water, and felt this overwhelming feeling of “done” wash over me. I felt almost embraced, like I sort of belonged where I was. I tried to enjoy that feeling!
At the time, we’d been buying new things left and right, and my husband had given me pretty much free reign to decorate the house as I pleased. I think because my physical space now reflected more of my personality, I started to feel safer. I got really hooked on all the TV design shows and tried to be more adventurous with color, texture, patterns, shine. I collected lots of things to “improve” my physical space, thinking that it would help me retain that contented and happy feeling in my mental and emotional spaces. But in another six months or so, these things lost their power, and I ended up back at that original question: “who am I?
I initially drafted this section from my room at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, which I like to visit when I can. Like many things, the rooms one stays in there are minimalist in design. The beds are essentially mattresses on platforms, low to the floor. When you arrive, you’ll find on it a pillow, a folded flat sheet, a blanket, two towels and a wash cloth—all white. The walls are dorm-room like cinder blocks, and with the exception of a newly painted one in a dark brown accent and a single piece of art hung on one, they are also all white. There's a white sink, a few mirrors, an oak dresser and one nightstand between the two beds. The closet is a bar with wooden hangers, with some extra blankets and pillows on the shelf above it. That's it. And this (shared) room might be the size of some people's walk-in closets, or master bathrooms. Yet, it's perfect. I never feel like I need anything in this space. I feel relaxed and completely at peace. I have lots of space to contemplate things and just be. The fact that this physical space was in total contrast to my home, where I spent a lot of time and effort decorating, wasn’t lost on me.
There might always be one other piece of furniture, rug, work of art, or accent piece I will think I need to feel happy and whole in my home, but I understand now that acquiring nice things for my physical space won’t ever provide lasting satisfaction in my mental, emotional or spiritual ones. To find my true Self, and to love myself and my new life, I need to balance the time and effort I put into “decorating” all of my spaces.

Thought Experiments
  • How much effort are you putting into creating fabulous physical spaces? How does that compare to the time, money, and energy you spend improving your mental, emotional, or spiritual ones? Is there balance, or are things way out of whack? If there are imbalances, in what ways are they impacting you, and what steps can you take to even things out?
  • Are you using things, or the designs of your physical spaces, to help you avoid or to cope with necessary changes in your internal spaces? Pause for a moment to consider what will make you truly “happy”.

19 July 2013

Finding Growth Opportunities When People Move Out of Your Spaces (Chapter 3)

Here's chapter 3 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

"There are no goodbyes for us.  Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart."
- Mahatma Gandhi -
Throughout your life, people will move into and out of all your spaces—physical, mental, and emotional. It’s up to you to find the life lessons within your current and past relationships with others, and use them as opportunities to learn and to grow.

Random (or Regularly Scheduled) Comings and Goings

In my 20s, I was in love with a man named Evan. When I first met him he had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but had no intentions fighting the disease because he was not getting very far with a different battle: one he was waging to divorce his abusive wife.  Sadly, he didn’t see any point in living. Evan and I became friends, and then more than that, so he eventually had the tumor removed and received a sequence of radiation treatments. At the same time, he also took more aggressive actions to get his divorce finalized.
During the five years I was involved with Evan, he often moved into my apartment—and then back out. This happened about twenty times (and I’m not exaggerating)! The most memorable time he moved out, I was starting a new job in Boston. My company had flown me to their San Jose headquarters for a week to meet people and get the training I would need, and Evan was tending to my apartment. While we were on the phone one night, he told me he regretted pulling me into his whole mess, and how he should just leave because it was causing me all sorts of emotional trouble and stress. I told him I knew full well what I was getting into and that if we just talked openly about what was going on, we would be all right. From the left coast, I tried to reassure him and asked him not to go.
When I returned a week later, no one was at my apartment. Evan had gone mostly quiet since that phone call—but since he did that from time to time and I was busy with the new job, I assumed we’d made an agreement and everything was fine. I remember opening a closet door where his jackets and shirts had been, only to find empty hangers looking like they’d just stopped swinging from his pull. I can still feel that sinking feeling in my stomach—the one of total shock, emptiness, and loneliness. We re-lived this dramatic scene about twenty times (no joke).
When Evan was living with me, I felt loved and my apartment felt alive, although both these (emotional and physical) spaces were filled with fear and threats. Fear that he would die, fear that he would leave again…fear that his crazy wife would be outside stalking us, trying to gather some incriminating evidence. Looking back, our relationship was a perfectly orchestrated recreation of what I grew up with: his wife embodied all the unpredictable, violent behavior of my father, while Evan enabled the situation, but offered me some hope that things could be different and that he was protecting me, like my mother. And like my mother, he was inconsistent and never offered me anything remotely stable. Whether he was coming or going, Evan’s movement through both my physical and my emotional spaces left me reeling, and I had to keep adjusting.
When Evan was gone, much of my free time was spent on the sofa in my living room, the slats of the vertical blinds on the slider window drawn closed, the room almost totally dark. I was depressed, and looking back, I realize that I unconsciously changed my physical spaces (for example, my apartment and my body) to match my mood. In addition to removing light, I became uncharacteristically sloppy. If I changed my clothes (I worked from home during this time), the old ones remained wherever I had taken them off. Any discarded options were crumpled or left draped over open dresser drawers. I stopped exercising. If they were lucky, empty TV dinner containers made it onto a kitchen counter or to the stove top. Otherwise, the food-encrusted trays sat wherever I had eaten my last bite.
In June of 2000, when I moved to be closer to graduate school and Evan didn’t show up with his things as he promised (to come with me), I decided that was the last straw. I was a strong, independent woman with a lot to offer someone who was emotionally (and legally) available to me. Neither my physical, emotional, nor mental spaces could deal with his presence any longer. And once I made this decision, things really changed for me. I remember being in my psychiatrists’ office several months later, talking about how well I was doing getting off the anti-depressants I had been taking—when he flipped through his chart and mentioned things had started looking up for me in June, I smiled knowingly at the connection.
My life has changed a lot since then, but I did form some “spacial habits” from this experience that remain with me. For example, every morning I religiously walk around the house and pull up all the shades I let down the night before. The natural light fills me with hope about the day ahead, while closing them at night makes me feel safe and more secure. I experience anxiety when my husband sometimes leaves dresser drawers ajar or his jeans on the floor instead of on a hook or in the closet. Why? Probably because it represents my old “I don’t care” kind of attitude—one I easily associate with being unhappy.

Fortunately, there are some people who frequently come and go, but still positively impact one’s physical and emotional spaces. I have a colleague named Amanda, whose husband works in technical sales. He’s gone during the week, and home for the weekends. At the time we had this conversation, Amanda said something about “John coming home”, and mentioned being puzzled about what she was going to make for dinner. During the week, she only had herself (and the dog) to take care of, so dinner was usually something quick—whatever is around. But when John came home, she felt like she should cook, because by the nature of his needing to travel he eats out a lot. Having a home-cooked meal feels special to them both, and characterizes some of their limited, quality time together. Amanda didn’t sound at all resentful about this “should”, but clearly John’s regularly scheduled comings and goings influence how she behaves in her living spaces.

Thought Experiments
  • How do the people who move through your physical spaces affect it? What changes with their presence or absence, and how do they impact you physically, mentally, and emotionally? Look for both positives and negatives. Is there anything (within your control) that you would change?
  • Are there ways your current physical spaces follow the patterns of your past? If you want to break out of these patterns, what things can you change in these spaces to help you?
  • How do changes to your physical spaces (i.e. the rooms in your house, your office, your body) affect your internal spaces (i.e. your mind, your heart), and vice versa? Experiment with changing your outward spaces to encourage changes in the inner ones, helping to re-balance the negative and positive aspects of your life. For example, if you’re feeling down, adjust your physical spaces to reflect an opposite state of mind.

Coping with Losses through Spatial Control

I met Jane in an interior design class I took at a continuing education facility. Although on many levels we seemed to be from different worlds, our interest (and dare I say, similar good taste) bonded us during the three week course. After the class ended, we continued to trade emails about various design projects and links to interesting articles or web sites. One evening we went to dinner, and where I learned that Jane had been looking for a job for quite a while, after having been laid off. On top of that, she was still dealing with the loss of her mother, after what I imagine must have been a long, painful ordeal. Yet on the surface, Jane seemed to be handling the wrenches that were thrown into her life pretty well. Like me, Jane is super organized, and we talked excitedly about arranging the contents of closets, pantries and garages. Although she has to conserve money, she inherits various home-related items from her friends, and continues doing small projects whenever she can.
But then Jane said something that made me think that the projects she undertook in her physical spaces were serving another, larger purpose. Whenever she completed a project, she revisited it, and did it again. One example that stood out for me was when she mentioned picking up the maple keys that littered her yard as they fell from the trees. The construction guys who worked on the street outside her home even commented about her always being out there, picking them up. She thought they might even think she was a bit crazy. As she was telling me this story, I could see Jane also thinking more critically about her behaviors, and what they might mean. As we chatted, it seemed like we uncovered a familiar theme: control. Between how she watched her mother become sick and pass away and with her job (and interactions with colleagues) now gone, Jane had lost a lot of control over her life. By doing repetitive house projects and endlessly organizing her belongings in her physical spaces, she is coping with her emotions, comforting herself by attempting to control things in her life wherever and whenever she can.
Jane has lived in that same house, with her family, her whole life. With her slate now wiped clean, she can choose to remain alone and attempt to control that familiar environment (effectively ending her life as well), or she can use the strength and courage she’s acquired by enduring these difficult situations to finally take a risk, and step out into the world as a truly independent, alive person.

My friend Jason’s experience of losing a parent also affected his physical spaces in a dramatic way. I met him in my late 20s, when he was being forced to deal with a lot of change in his life. He had to move into a new apartment (for reasons not under his control), and around the same time, he watched his father pass away. In contrast to Jane, who kept a meticulous home to deal with the death of her mother, Jason’s physical spaces were in complete and utter disarray. This wasn’t just your typical bachelor-like sloppiness either—this was hardcore pig sty. Since I have a reputation for being organized, Jason would ask me questions about how to change his space, often citing he was overwhelmed with the mess but just didn’t know where to start. He wanted to put his living spaces in better order, but something equally (if not more) seemed to be holding him back.
As we talked, Jason shared that his parents had always been extremely neglectful of both their children and their home. Everyone in his family of eight had to fend for themselves, no matter what their age or ability. When Jason was five years old, he found a can of chicken soup and made it for himself while standing on a stool because he was so hungry. Bugs frequently plagued his home, stray cats entered and exited it at will, and food (or other treasures) was hoarded amongst him and his siblings. He wore the same tattered clothes to school for years, feeling guilty when his parents were occasionally forced to purchase new socks when the holes became irreparable. Essentially, he grew up in squalor. 
With this physical space was in his past, his father’s death encouraged him to come to terms with the fact that the mess in his house today wasn’t serving him. It’s partially true that did Jason didn’t know where to start, but what was really holding him back was that living this way was familiar, comfortable, and most importantly, loyal to his parents ways. Even taking small steps in a cleaner, more organized direction could mean the way his parents did things was wrong. And going against one’s parents (living or dead) means that as their child, one is taking a risk of being unaccepted and unloved. When a person has had a bad childhood, it’s almost incomprehensible think about taking such a risk!
Jason worked hard over the course of several years to process his father’s death, revisit the pain previously brought up by his mother’s death, and appropriately grieve his childhood. He read countless books, tried several holistic practices (like body- and breath work), and struggled through a lot of the sadness and shame he previously avoided. He’s accepted that with both parents gone, he will never have the possibility of a relationship with them that is anything different from what it actually was. Over time, all this work in Jason’s internal, emotional and mental spaces started to reflect outward into his physical ones. Although there are set backs and daily challenges, Jason now has an apartment that is relatively clean and organized, where he can work, live, and continue to grow.

Thought Experiments
  • The next time you’re working on a project, pause and think about how your physical space is influencing you internally. What will completing the project make you feel inside? Or, are you using the project to avoid feeling something in your internal spaces, such as inadequacy or grief?
  • Consider whether you might be working with your physical spaces in a way that’s too extreme, and whether you might regain some balance by being more mindful about the ways of living that have become automatic for you. Can you make more conscious decisions about how to handle difficult situations?
  • If you have trouble organizing or completing projects in your physical spaces, try to identify any inner resistance. For example, are you avoiding some undesirable feeling that would come up if you made changes? If you changed how you live, would you feel like you’re acting out against someone in your family?

Dealing with Difficult Friendship Transitions

In my late twenties I started doing a partner dance called West Coast Swing. Within a few years, I had a pretty tight knit circle of friends—including women—probably for the first time in my life. When I first met Vianne, for example, we became really close, affectionately referring to each other as “twin” because we were alike in many ways, such as being hypoglycemic and having difficult mothers. Soon after we started chatting, Vianne decided she needed a break from our sometimes dramatic little community, and stopped dancing. Over the next four years we did other things together, like having lunch, shopping, or going to local plays.
While our friendship deepened in these other physical spaces, I learned that early on in her dance “career”, there was a group of three women that Vianne accidentally incited. She had done this by talking (and possibly flirting a little) with a man who was paying her a lot of attention. Since she was new to the dance scene, she didn’t realize this man was supposed to be with one of the three women. Of course, being females with territory issues, the trio began to do little things to make Vianne’s life miserable. They would stare, talk about her, tell others all about her awful behavior, and so on. I think she left quite a few dances in tears.
A few years later, our friend Craig got involved with one of the other girls from the trio. (Actually, he followed Jani around like a puppy dog for years, until she caved and decided to finally move from being “just friends” to a real relationship.) I wasn’t wild about Jani for several reasons—not only was it painful for me to watch Craig beg her for attention over so much time, but this also impacted our friendship—for example, he would lie to me about being too sick to get together, only to do something (else) for Jani. I tried to be friendly, but Jani was cold toward me too, and after several tries I decided I was correct to dislike her. Vianne and I would chat about how rude Jani was, and how we wished Craig would find someone who truly wanted to be with him. After they officially started dating, however, I mentioned to Vianne that I’d made peace with his decision, and that as his friend I’d be civil to Jani. Vianne seemed intrigued by what she perceived was a change in heart for me—but while I agreed to be civil, I never trusted Jani.
In time, Vianne considered coming back to our dance scene. I had been trying to convince her things were not as she remembered; I had a good group of friends who weren’t cliquey, and we were planning on doing a routine for an upcoming event she would have fun being a part of. Vianne agreed, and came back in full force. I was thrilled to be able to see my friend more often and share one of our common interests again. But after a few months had gone by, Vianne mentioned she’d had a conversation with Jani, and that I was right—she wasn’t so bad after all. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jani broke up with Craig and to this day, he’s not recovered. What’s worse is that I hardly ever see Vianne anymore—except when I see Jani. It’s like they’ve become twins. Where one is, the other is never far behind. And I struggle to find one day a month to have dinner with Vianne. My theory about this is that now that I’m married, Vianne feels she has more in common with Jani (since they are both single). This is often difficult for me, for two reasons: first, I still do not like (or trust) Jani. Second, and probably more importantly, I never wanted to be the type of person who disappeared off the face of the earth when I got married. In fact, I tried everything I knew before my wedding to reassure my single friends that I wanted to still be there for them. This can be frustrating because despite my best efforts, this doesn’t seem to have worked.
Vianne isn’t the only friend who feels “lost” to me. Around this same time, my closest friend Paige moved to the left coast to start a new life with a new man, the only dance instructor I ever related to preceded her by a year and a half, and a couple my husband and I used to travel with to dance events never dance anymore. All these people whose friendship I valued so much in my early to mid-thirties, who changed and challenged me in all sorts of ways, have moved out of my physical spaces, and are really not in my life anymore. Naturally when I saw this starting to unfold, my initial reaction was to fight it: I had conversations with Vianne about things I hoped we’d do even after I was married; I tried to get Paige to agree to some regular schedule for chatting to maintain our a long-distance friendship; I tried to make sure my husband and I got together with the other couple at least once a month. These changes also brought up many questions for me—did I do something wrong? Did I somehow drive these people out of my life by being a terrible friend? Does the bickering my husband and I do too much? Though I didn’t want to be, I was often sad or angry, because the movement of these people out of my life brought up feelings of abandonment from my childhood.
Driving home from a dance one night after seeing the (new) twins, it occurred to me that being bitter is not hurting anyone but me. Since then, I’ve been discovering there are other ways to look at these situations—rather than feeling like these people have left holes in my emotional spaces, I can look back and consider what each of these relationships taught me, and how they were exactly the right people to have in my life during the times they were more a part of it. I can appreciate their contributions to my development and growth as a person, rather than resent them for moving on. I can try on feelings of acceptance, and trust that the Universe brought these people into my life for a reason. If this is true, I can also have faith that I will soon find new friends who are ready to help me fill up the newly created emotional space in my heart, and reach a new level of insight and understanding. By letting go of the friendships that have run their course, I may be better able to see the potential opportunities for new relationships that are all around me. And when I think of it this way, I can understand that Vianne and Jani might have been brought together for a specific purpose in their journeys that I can’t pretend to understand, and find some joy in having helped Vianne finally feel accepted into a circle she’d always wanted to be inside.

Thought Experiments
  • If you feel resentful or angry about a friendship that’s ended, ask yourself what your friend taught you, or what you needed at the time in your life when you were close. What gift might you have given to them by the act of your friendship? Are there ways you can see have outgrown each other?
  • Are you are clinging to a friendship that’s run its course, or contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy by acting out in ways that are contributing to its demise? Try practicing more acceptance toward your friend and his/her behaviors, and see how that impacts the relationship. At best, your adaptability might open up another chapter; at minimum, you’ll feel better about the act of letting go.
  • When friends move on, it’s easy to remember (and mourn) all the positive aspects of the friendship. Consider whether there also things about your friendship that drove you crazy, or where you found yourself needing some distance. Having a more realistic, balanced picture of the friendship might help you see more opportunities in the distancing, even if it wasn’t originally your choice.

13 July 2013

Discovering Yourself in Poorly Organized Spaces (Chapter 2)

Here's chapter 2 of the book I started posting chapters of last week.

 “Space is as infinite as we can imagine, and expanding this perspective is what adjusts humankind’s focus on conquering our true enemies, the formidable foes: ignorance and limitation.”
- Vanna Bonta -

More often than not, we are forced to work within physical spaces we cannot change. But when we feel uneasy in physical spaces we are usually not aware of the real reasons for our discomfort. To create physical spaces that are pleasing mentally and emotionally, we often first need to understand ourselves.

Overcoming Irrational Fears

I still have days when I believe that our newly constructed (and therefore presumably perfect) house has several design flaws. On those days I want to take a walk down the street, knock on the builder’s door, and ask him to share the rationale behind his decisions.
When the house was being built, my husband and I would drop by occasionally to check on progress, and I can remember our excitement on the day we first recognized the skeleton of a real kitchen: the doorless, topless cherry wood cabinetry punctuated by open spaces for various appliances. We were given an allowance from our builder to purchase a refrigerator, along with information about the height, width, and depth of the area allocated for it.
After several fun but tiring visits to both major home improvement stores, we eventually found a stainless steel, side-by-side model that we liked. Since it also fit the dimensions and was within our budget, we thought we were golden.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that the style of the refrigerator we had selected wasn’t great for the space, which is between a counter top and cabinets on the left side, and a wall jutting out to the right. Not only do the refrigerator doors open out from the middle, but the handles of these doors also bow out slightly. So whenever we try to open the right door, the arched handle hits the wall, and the door doesn’t quite open all the way. (Luckily we don’t order a lot of pizza, because getting a pizza box in there is next to impossible!) During our first few months in the house, the situation was further complicated by the fact that the builder had installed a phone jack on that same wall, reducing the space to open the refrigerator door even more.

 Closed Refrigerator Door
Partially Open Refrigerator Door
We’ve since removed and plastered over the phone jack, and cushioned the wall with a round protector where the handle still hits. The ridiculousness of this design still aggravates me though, because any style of refrigerator or door handle configuration wouldn’t resolve the issue (or would introduce new problems). The only solution is to remodel and move the refrigerator to the opposite end of the kitchen, which isn’t feasible in a house but a year old!
Another flaw in my kitchen is one many of
you can probably relate to: we have a nearly unusable corner cabinet. It goes so far back that you can’t reach to put much of anything in there, and if you do manage it, good luck getting those things out! A custom cabinet system can probably resolve the issue but they are expensive, and required measuring and installing. As a temporary improvement, we removed the shelf to make a larger, more open space—but this means the cabinet inside now has no structure, so items are stacked precariously, frequently falling over or out whenever we open the door. It is frustrating that a homeowner’s point of view seems not to have been considered, especially early in the building process when structural changes
Unmanageable Cabinet
could have been made. And even after I made the small changes to work around these design flaws, they bothered me a great deal, because I‘m unable to organize the contents of these spaces the way I’d like. After getting annoyed about it several times and fighting with my husband over it, I started asking myself why these things took so much of my energy, and what more I could do to fix these problems. That’s when I stumbled upon my real problems, as well as some more challenging solutions.
Turns out, the root cause lies in the house I lived in when I was twelve years old.  One of my many chores at that time was to dust. One time, I moved a knick-knack a half-centimeter from its original location, and my father easily spotted the discrepancy. He always could and would point out anything that was out of order, including minuscule scratches on cars you had washed, fresh marks or dents on newly painted, pristine white walls (which clearly you made), wrinkles in sheets that you folded, and so on. And my father would not gently point these things out either—he would erupt into sudden, violent rages, screaming and yelling, flailing his arms and pointing. He would ultimately dismiss me with a wave of his hand that might have caught me in the face had I been standing an inch closer, as I broke into tears for doing this wrong thing (which I initially didn’t notice until it was pointed out). Because having the house in a particular and perfect order was clearly very important to my father, it became critical to me to do the same, because making him angry was not something that I wanted to do.
As a result of this early conditioning, my default reaction is to get upset at the refrigerator, because the door issue prevents me from arranging items on shelves in a specific way. I’ve been known to get hysterical when I open that corner cabinet and things fall out in disarray. These disorganized spaces make me feel extremely fearful and anxious—my breathing gets shallow and my chest tightens up, almost like I could have a deadly asthma attack. I become laser-like focused on only one thing: organizing what I’m looking at as quickly and perfectly as possible. This can be tricky, since there are so many things that need to be put away or better organized, and there is no realistic way to keep up with everything. After about a year in the new house, I realized I was living a stressed out life, sometimes just because of Tupperware! I realize now that on some level I’m still worried that my father will see these imperfections and let me know about them. But this threat doesn’t exist anymore, except deep in the internal, emotional space of my memory. What once was a fear rooted in reality is now an irrational one that doesn’t serve me in my life as it is now.

Thought Experiments
  • Think about a physical space that makes you uneasy. What in particular makes you feel that way? Ask “why?” each time an answer comes up, to get at the deeper reasons for your discomfort. Notice when you’re thinking vs. really getting to the heart of the issue.
  • Beyond practical workarounds for any “design flaws” in your living spaces, what can you do to let go of the emotions you’re attaching to them? For example, try putting reminders in places you get anxious, to encourage yourself to react differently.

Making Courageous Choices about Your “Time Space”

Another example of a poorly designed space is our laundry area, which is a closet containing a stacked washer and dryer. The door to this washer/dryer closet opens out to the right, which is fine. In fact, it opens in the same direction as the door to the dryer that’s inside it (stacked on the top). Unfortunately, the door to the washer that’s also inside (on the bottom) opens out to the left. This causes a bit of “door angst” when I’m trying to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. But that’s not where the madness stops. This washer / dryer closet is also directly opposite a linen closet, which is the only natural location for the laundry detergents.
Laundry Door Trap
The door to this linen closet opens to the right as well. Because both the washer/dryer and linen closets are opposite each other in a small, hallway-sized space, opening both doors at the same time (which you need to do) traps you inside a small square, where you have to contend with the oppositely hung washer and dryer doors. One day I was trying to fit the chore of “doing laundry” into an already overbooked Saturday, and while working with the clothes in this space (in other words, having all the doors open), I leaned forward and banged my forehead against one of them. Instinctively, I pulled back and hit the back of my head against another. I felt my body getting warm with anger at this delay, as I leaned forward and hit the front of my head a second time. And then, visualizing my skull as a ping pong ball, I just started to laugh. After all, what else could I do?
When I first started speculating about why this design flaw aggravated me (besides the bruised head and ego), I thought it was because the builder of my house didn’t take my multitasking workflow for doing laundry under consideration. After all, I don’t have all the time in the world for this chore, and I want to be able to move freely and quickly to get at what I need! But this was a rational, surface-level explanation that offered no real solutions, and I suspected there was something deeper to be explored. So one day I asked myself: why do I need things to be so efficient? Well, because I’m so busy. And why am I always so busy? Hmmmm....
It’s true; I enjoy getting a lot done. Usually I feel very accomplished and proud of myself when my friends are exhausted just hearing about what I packed into a morning. But I also recognize that I struggle to give myself downtime—time to relax and just “be”, which on some level, I know is really important. I thought about the differences between the two lifestyles, and discovered I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with the concept of relaxing, for two reasons.
First, I got into the habit of extreme multi-tasking and working quickly because my father repeatedly told me I was lazy whenever I wasn’t doing something he deemed important. For example, if I sat on the sofa with a book (something my mother thought was valuable and relaxing), he’d come inside from working in the yard, call me a princess, and yell at me to “get off my butt and do something productive”. As a child, I had a whole list of chores I had to do around the house every day before I could even entertain the idea of taking time to play. As an adult, I’m always doing something, doing more than I should be at once, and working more quickly than I should be, all in a futile attempt to prove to my father that I’m not lazy, and that he should approve of me. Second, my filled-to-the-max “time space” (which I often visualize as a closet that’s gotten out of control because too many things have been stuffed inside) protects me from feeling any sadness, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, shame, and so on, because these emotions don’t have any room to get inside me. Staying continuously occupied how I cope with my childhood, and helps me to avoid reflecting on and accepting what happened. Inefficient designs like the washer/dryer closet mean that I have to slow down, which can trigger these difficult emotions I’d rather push aside.
But time is also a space I can now fill as I please. Like accents in a room, many things are attractive and pleasing in reasonable quantities, and too many end up looking gaudy and feeling cluttered. And like any hoarder, I need to work through the fear of letting go, so I can discover all the new possibilities for me in life. I realize need to take more opportunities to reflect, to think–-but more importantly, to feel. That’s what makes life truly joyful and rewarding!

I’ve learned that it’s important to be curious about my negative reactions to things because often what I’m feeling isn’t really about the thing I think it’s about. I still sometimes catch myself flying off the handle about my refrigerator door or corner cabinet, or rushing around with chores like laundry or walking to fast to meetings. But whenever I’ve been able to stop, breathe, and be curious about these reactions, I’ve found it both fascinating and rewarding. I can look at a problematic physical space, pass through all the surface-level explanations about why it’s affecting me emotionally, and discover deeper meanings deep inside myself.
I’m starting to see these connections more and more, but I’m not sure that many people do. So the next time something in one of your physical spaces upsets you, I encourage you to think more deeply about where your feelings are stemming from. This can be really powerful stuff, and with practice, it can change your outlook on not just your stuff, but on your life.

Thought Experiments
  • Consider whether there’s someone whose love or approval you might be seeking by letting things in your physical spaces upset you, and whether it’s really necessary to please that person at this point in your life.
  • Decide to do the opposite of what you normally would, even if it’s just for a few hours. Or, on waking in the morning, making a conscious decision to accept just one thing that normally bothers you.

08 July 2013

How to Redecorate Your Life

Yes folks. Several summers ago (2011), I started working on a book. I'm not sure it's finished, and I'm not sure it's not either. But I'm pretty sure it needs to see the light of day, either way.

So today is the first of a series of posts where I'll more publicly "release" this work, with the hope that it might speak to someone, somewhere. It's amazing to me how much I've changed since I've written this, and yet how much has remained the same.

With that, first the intro bits. Here is my working title page:

And my dedication, to a friend gone, but not forgotten:

To Paige, with love and appreciation for how you've helped me grow.

And my acknowledgements:
I'd like to thank several people in my life who have made the writing of this book possible.

To the faithful members of my "Reviewer's Circle" who read early drafts, asked questions, made suggestions, and encouraged me to continue writing (and, put up with all my emails over the course of several months): Amy, Deborah, Eric, Joan, Pam, Paola, and Paul. I may not have been motivated to continue in this pursuit without your help. To Sybil and the aspiring writers I met while taking continuing education classes in writing--the fact that my stories resonated with you all sparked new creativity in me and kept me going when I felt pretty lost. And to Paula who helped me with the cover art.

To my husband, for putting up with me when I felt anxious over not writing as much as I'd like, for all the hours I worked on this book instead of spending quality time with him, and for encouraging me to continue working when I felt like maybe I should stop.
And now for the heart of it, starting with Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 – Introduction

“Let go of the past and go for the future. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
Live the life you imagined.”
- Henry David Thoreau -

How this Book Was Born

I had a terrifying dream one night. You know, the kind that startles you awake. A room in my house had exploded, and I watched it happen. I slid out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom, not even sure I had to go. I noticed I was cold, and sweating. What does this dream mean? I wondered. I recalled the interior design class I attended the night before and thought it might literally represent changing a room in my house, starting from scratch. But I know that a house and rooms are typically metaphors for one’s psyche, and I had been doing a lot of work with my inner child lately—could this dream be about totally changing the landscape of my mind? That I was destroying and rebuilding my view of the world? On the Post-It notes I had just started keeping on my nightstand, I scribbled the words: "blowing up rooms—psyche or physical?", and went back to sleep.
When I woke up about an hour later, I went through my typical morning routine. I changed into my workout clothes, went downstairs and fed the cats, poured a glass of water and a cup of coffee, wrote in my journal, and then went upstairs to work out. When my workout was done, I sat on my meditation cushion and closed my eyes. After five minutes, I just couldn’t sit anymore.
I had one of those "flashes of inspiration" I’ve heard about other people having—yes, me! For a few weeks, I’d been wondering what else I could be doing with my life. What might bring me more creative fulfillment than the job I’m doing now? How might I contribute more to helping others who struggled with the same types of things I do, day in and day out? I’d taken the interior design class to see if this hobby was something I might be more interested in. At the same time, my belief in physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual improvement continued driving me to stacks of self-help books, yoga classes and meditation. Plus, I loved to write. I was struggling with these things, even emailing to my friend Paige: "When I grow up and retire, I want to be a self-improvement coach / best-selling author / interior designer. LOL!!" What a bizarre mix of things. And, of course, I assumed I had to pick one.
When I jumped out of that meditation (title already in mind) it occurred to me that I didn’t have to choose. I could write a book that explored how mental, emotional, and spiritual transformations (in other words, of one’s “inner spaces”) can happen when one changes outward physical spaces (and vice versa). I had many stories of my own, plus several examples from friends that could illustrate just how closely these concepts were linked. A quick brainstorm with my husband that morning as we were getting ready for work turned up more examples of situations fitting this theme than I could capture in a notebook at the bathroom vanity. Coupled with the fact that my best friend didn’t think I was crazy, my morning revelation encouraged me to write this book.

What to Expect from this Book

This book is intended to be one of many resources you use to guide your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth. In it, I share stories about myself and people who are close to me to help you increase your overall awareness of your relationships to all your spaces, and to give you ideas about how you might think differently about them to improve yourself and your life. I don’t claim to have resolved all my issues, but I do believe that being more mindful of how my spaces influence me (and vice versa) has been a helpful part of my journey. Plus, I do believe the first step toward anyone’s personal growth and opportunity is a solid recognition of the things that might be holding them back.
I use the word “space” broadly throughout this book, and I’ve tried to qualify it where necessary. It might refer to a physical space (such as a room, house, or the body), or what I label an “internal” or “inner space”, which includes mental (thinking / mind), emotional (feeling / heart), and spiritual components.
This book does not contain specific recipes for fixing problems you might have in these areas, because the truth is, there are no easy answers. Everyone deals with their issues and progresses in their own unique way, and one is always at a different stage in their personal development timeline. (I like to think we’re always growing and changing in a positive direction!) But I do hope that my stories and "thought experiments" will get you thinking differently about your spaces and your perceptions of them, and point you in a direction you may not have considered before.
Note that some of the things in this book might not make sense to you right away, or you might feel overwhelmed by the concepts in it. This is OK. I have personal experience trying to read books several times and feeling like they’re not resonating with me, then finding that years later, when I try them on again (sometimes for the fourth or fifth time!), something clicks and I’m ready to hear and process what they have to say. What doesn’t work for you today will work for you tomorrow, or maybe years from now—you have to be ready and open, and if you’re not, accept that and take in what you can, or revisit this book at a later time.