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Peeking under the hood: on avoidance

I have a friend going through divorce right now, and the money thing is really messing her up. So much so that she finds herself falling asleep inches from her laptop with The Sopranos playing because she’s terrified of giving her mind any space. Give that thing an inch, she thinks, and that core fear, that horrible anxiety, those whispers about security and scarcity will turn into an impossible roar.

We are so afraid of What’s Down There that we avoid looking at ourselves at all costs.

We think we’re irreparably damaged, filled with violent, chaotic pain that’s waiting to consume us. We’re terrified we’ll drown.

Oddly enough, this is how we know we’re getting somewhere.

If your ego (that sage, but stunted Protector Of The Status Quo) has the rabid dogs barking this close to your conscious mind, you’re closer to a breakthrough than you think. Remember the ego fights dirty and it fights to win. It will do anything and everything to survive because its survival means keeping everything the same. The big trouble is, your default impulse is growth. Progression. Evolution. Expansion.

This makes the ego really, really uncomfortable. So it blows up your core fears into giant fun house mirror monsters and goads you into turning away from change.

This cannot and will not work. You’re built for transformation. You are wired for spreading your freaking wings and taking flight. But, you’re also human. And our species has gotten a lot of mileage out of backing the eff away from suffering.

Let me set the scene.

So, your ego parks this barking, rabid dog by the door marked Obviously Where You Should Go Next. And you walk up to the door, get terrified, and walk away. Maybe you try again the next day, maybe you put if off ’til the weekend. But then weekend comes and you’re busy with kids, so you think: Monday, Monday. And you do sincerely, earnestly glance at that door again on Monday, but ugh, that dog is still there, and workstufflatelaundryblah. So you walk away. And you walk away. It really doesn’t take long, like a week maybe, before the walking away becomes stone-cold avoidance and you’re binge-watching Nurse Jackie, unable to deal with your life (*raises hand).

This will-I-or-won’t-I dynamic takes a lot of time and energy. It’s layered in with shame, self-recrimination, and accumulating feelings of failure. It’s sitting on top of a nice foundation of whatever core fear your friendly ego has poked and inflamed. Avoidance bleeds outward from the original problem or situation and takes over everything. And the net result is a massive and painful disconnection with yourself.

Because, my darling, you are all of these things. The transformation, the fear, the urge, the avoidance, all of it. And it’s okay.

The solution is not a large thing. (It never is, by the way.) It’s a tiny, tiny thing. It’s to sit down right now wherever you are (and okay, if you can’t sit, just do it standing in line at the bank or hanging one-handed from the monkey bars) and take five big, beautiful, mindful breaths. Right now. Do it. I know “it’s stupid” but do it anyway.

Good. Thank you.

And now I want to you to do The Next Small Thing, which is probably something like Drink A Glass Of Water or Rip Your Eyeballs Away From Instagram And Get In The Car Because You Are For-Real Late. Do that thing and then there will be the next one, which is Eat Something Green or Notice The Blossoming Trees As You Walk or Respond To That Email Where You Have To Say No To Someone.

Start to notice that your day is full of these moments and micro-choices.

And that the dynamic of stuckness and panicking on the other end of stuckness doesn’t have to run your day. It doesn’t have to be insurmountable. You can dismantle avoidance by pressing gently on the gas when you feel your body or your intuition or your alarm clock say, ‘It’s time.’ You can soften its edges by busting out five big-ass breaths. You can allow yourself to fail at these small things and live to tell the tale. You can bring an element of curiosity to the whole gig and ask, ‘What if?’ before, say, letting yourself go for an aimless meandering walk instead of timeboxing your life into efficient oblivion.

And once you’ve built up a nice résumé of accomplishments like Ate Lunch Before 3pm/Contemplating Murder and Responded To Passive-Aggressive Text Message, you can glance over at that door again. And that dog.

Oh! I should tell you. That dog isn’t actually there.

Take a pink rubber eraser and squeak-squeak-squeak that thing out. Imaginary dog. Made-up bullshit. Never existed. Good, okay. Now, look at that door. The one marked Obviously Where You’re Headed Next. And contemplate this idea:

Whenever you approach a new level of development, you must pass through a threshold.

This threshold might require you to jettison some old belief structure that doesn’t jive with the incoming new world order, or you may need to address some old fears or traumas that have held you back. This is a rite of passage, pay-the-piper kind of thing.

It’s not the funnest thing in the world, I recognize. But this is Growth in a nutshell. You outgrow a skin, and you have to shed it. Old pain, outdated beliefs, unworkable fears…these are the skins you peel off as you progress.

All this to say, while there is no frothing canine guarding the door, there may be a bit of discomfort ahead. But, you’re good for it. Because it’s no more discomfort than some of the other line items on your résumé: Setting Boundaries With An Unreasonable Five-Year-Old, Going To That Divorce Mediation Meeting, Looking The Cashier In The Eye While Paying With Food Stamps.

Avoidance is an attempt to escape pain.

But, we are humans, so pain is inevitable. It’s just that our imaginations get out of control and we imagine our pain to be much larger and more overwhelming than it needs to be. We can practice taking tiny doses of discomfort one at a time, and witnessing ourselves succeed at them. Sitting Down To Meditate Even Though It’s Been Two Weeks Months. Turning Off Netflix And Going To Bed. Making Actual Dinner. Using Your Hand To Pick Up A Journal Instead Of A Smartphone. Trying Just Trying To Forgive.

These are not tiny, pointless things in the face of some massive ordeal.

This is movement and momentum. This is building strength. This is witnessing your own power. This is loving the wholeness of yourself. This…is progress.

What are you avoiding right now? What skin do you need to shed in order to grow? Share in the comments below.

Make a mess

Whether it’s out of fear or a crystal-clear vision that came to us on a mountaintop, we often hope our dreams maintain a kind of hermetically sealed perfection. You can come in, we tell them, but don’t mess with my relationships, my schedule, my clean kitchen. Don’t freaking change anything.

Dreams are, by definition, harbingers of change.

They are the coming attractions of where your life, and your heart, is headed. They are the way we as individuals evolve, grow, and progress down our life’s path.

Change is inevitable and constant.

This is the part we conveniently forget. And try to control.

I’ve tried to tell Change how to operate in my life, how big of an impact it’s allowed to have. It never listens. But, when I let Change do its thing, when I allow it to unfold, it’s a much gentler process than you’d think.

It’s just messy, that’s all.

Change is not a linear process. It’s not contained. It’s sprawling and its tentacles get everywhere.

The rubber hits the road when you embrace the mess.

I had an artistic mentor who told me again and again to “stay messy.” I didn’t understand what she meant. I thought she was saying “let your creative project change,” but it was far more all-encompassing and DNA-level than that.

She was asking me to inject so much air into my process and practice that everything I made had a loose, sketched-in quality. Scenes were slightly off-hand, drafted, not clean or pretty. As a recovering perfectionist, this felt like being lazy or sloppy.

But, giving my work this much space allowed for happy accidents and surprising revelations. It let me throw things together just to see what happened, not because I was hoping for a certain outcome. It freed me to make scenes and songs that were “stupid” or ridiculous—which meant I had actual fun in the making. Work became delightful, revelatory, fresh.

(Before, my creative work was very much “work,” which seems sad to me now.)

I developed a practice with myself. Whenever I felt myself getting tense or pressured or scared, I’d intentionally make the worst version of something. I’d write a scene so operatically terrible, I made myself laugh. Then, like a miracle, I’d be joyful and in a flow state again. I freed myself to create.

Messiness is not a cute trick. It’s a necessary antidote to perfectionism.

Perfectionism and the need to be good or right squeezes the life—and the humanity—out of whatever you do. It sucks out all the air and light. It turns us into productive robots instead of the fluid, warm, adaptable love-machines we are.

Don’t forget. We are not here on Planet Earth to Get Things Done. We are here to love and be loved. We are generative. We are vulnerable, organic creatures subject to all the laws of the universe: gravity, thermodynamics, change.

Pour cream in your coffee and watch it spiral and swirl. Watch a flock of birds wheeling through the air. This is the profound beauty of messiness. This is the perfection of allowing, of letting life flow through you.

You are here to spiral and dance with the world. This is who you are.

How has messiness (intentional or unintentional!) created surprising results in your life, your work, or your dreams? Post your experiences in the comments below.

Start now. Start badly.

When I started creating this site, I was so excited. I was finally coming out as a teacher, which for me was A Very Big Deal. But, I got stuck writing the copy. I knew I wanted to be of service, but I also knew that something felt wrong. The text felt off somehow, and I couldn’t figure out why. I stopped writing, sent the draft to a friend, and waited for their feedback.

When it came back, it brought my worst fear to life.

My friend called out my writing for privilege. They showed me how my unexamined power as a white, straight, educated, middle-class person alienated and excluded the very people I’d intended to serve. They showed me places where I was just plain wrong.

This was a powerful, painful moment. I could have pushed it away. I could have made them the bad guy and kept doing what I was doing. But, I didn’t. Because I knew my friend was right.

I also knew that I’d been trying to avoid a moment exactly like this for a long, long time. I’d been on the run. I felt my privilege dangling above my head like a guillotine. I knew intuitively it would fall one day, so I spent my time hiding out, guilty, and afraid. I sent my writing into a void, blogging on a Tumblr account maybe ten people knew about or followed. If I keep out of sight, I thought, I won’t cause any harm.

(I was wrong about that, too.)

I was also withholding what I have to offer. I have a perspective I know people need, because they’ve told me they need it. I know people’s dreams are the source of their power and authenticity. I know the profoundly transformative power of radical self-care. And if I kept those things to myself out of fear and self-protection, I’d be doing a great disservice to those who needed what I have to give.

So, I stepped out exactly as I am and that guillotine fell.

It fucking hurt. It was also deeply and profoundly healing. My secret fear had come true and there was nowhere left to run.

I got myself to an undoing racism workshop where I learned how white supremacy operates in me, and how I’m complicit in keeping oppressive structures alive. I learned to see myself as a responsible part of something much larger than I am. I started a lifelong process I’m just beginning to understand—and I committed to making sure my work, this work, doesn’t leave anyone out in the cold.

This site sat, half-finished and waiting, for three months while I did this necessary self-education. This wasn’t a detour from my dream. It was work my dream demanded.

Dreams transform us by asking us to grow.

And most of us learn by making mistakes.

But there is something deep within us that says when you make a mistake, you are a mistake. And that keeps us from progressing. It keeps us from falling on our faces and feeling ashamed, sure, but it prevents us from gaining the skills and awareness to do better.

I want you to start now and start badly.

I want you to make mistakes. I want you to trip over your feet and fumble and fail. Not because I want to embarrass you or cause you harm, but because I know of no other way to improve. Because I know you have something in you that people desperately need. And unless you’re willing to suck hard at the beginning, it’s never going to get to those of us who need it.

When you were small, did you learn to walk by thinking about it really hard and strategizing the perfect approach? No—you fell on your ass. You fell down hundreds of times. That was okay and expected, but when you become “old enough to know better” (whatever that means), you stopped failing forward like you did as a kid.

Making mistakes stopped being okay.

Well, I call bullshit. And I swear with everything I am: you must start from exactly where you are, right now, because this is no parallel universe where you are already perfect at whatever it is you want to do.

The mistakes you’ll make are the ones you need.

They’ll draw you to the exact lessons and the specific skills you have to master to get where you want to go. I don’t know why this is the case, but I know implicitly that it’s so.

It is okay to suck. It’s more than okay—it’s necessary.

But, it’s not okay to keep waiting and hiding. Because those ideal conditions you’re waiting for aren’t really a thing, and that magical self-preparation that you hope will happen won’t. You have to get in the ring, shaky and wobbily and out of shape, and do your goddamn best.

Stop trying to be perfect, for all our sakes, and just let ‘er rip.

Do the most terrible, half-assed, no-freaking-clue version of that thing you want to do. Ask them out. Make the phone call. Write the play. Have that difficult, necessary conversation, suck at it, and ask to start again. Be honest. Cry in public. Get called out. Get rejected, so what? Go bomb at an open mic (like every great comedian has). Write something awful. And then walk home, draw a bath, and cry on the phone with your best friend. Nurse your beautiful broken heart until clarity arrives, and it will. Wake up to a brand new morning. And do better next time.

How have you started now and started badly? What painful learning experiences have helped you move forward in your dreams? Share in the comments below.