Note to Self: A Life I Feel Good About

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that humans love to give advice. Which is equal parts “Okay, enough! I’ve heard “sleep when the baby sleeps” from two hundred people now.” and “Isn’t it great that we’re all so connected in mutual experiences that we can share advice and empathy with each other?”

Yesterday morning, I was thinking about marriage and some general advice I’ve heard and suddenly, my brain felt like a tumbling Bingo cage that has been going on for years came to a stop and someone called out “B twenty-three!” and I got it. Bingo.

For years, I’ve been trying to rationalize my people-pleasing nature with a desperate need for peace of mind. I’ve had advice (of course) from friends, family, and my therapist tumbling around my metaphorical Bingo cage as I’ve tried to figure out what is valuable and how this actually all fits together in a life I feel good about. And that, right there, that’s the thing: a life I feel good about. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out all this time and it turns out, I’ve been defining a life I feel good about using other people’s advice and expectations.

Am I a good spouse? Well, let me use the advice I heard at so-and-so’s wedding luncheon as my benchmark. “Fight naked”, “Never go to bed angry”, “Go to bed angry”, and on, and on. Besides the obvious issue that a lot of the advice contradicts other advice, it’s a huge problem for me to make this advice my benchmark without first determining that the advice is, in fact, useful to me.

Am I a good mom? 270 blog posts later, I never feel like it. It’s not that there isn’t valuable information found online. It’s not that there isn’t great connection in knowing that someone, somewhere has been there before (thank goodness for the healing power of that). The issue is that no blog post, nobody else’s experience, and no baby milestone tracking app can define what being “a good mother” means to you or me or our children.

The Bingo moment is this: I define what it means to live a life I feel good about. I choose how to be a mother. My husband and I have created a partnership that allows us to define what a “good marriage” looks like to us – what we want it to be.

A couple years ago, I spent a lot of time talking to my therapist about what my “job” is. He helped me to see that I was living a lot of my life thinking that I had to meet other people’s (real or arbitrary) expectations for me. I was living a life of “shoulds” and he explained that I was going to “should myself to death” if I didn’t figure out what my real job is. We spent quite a few appointments talking about what my job is not: fixing other people’s problems, doing things simply because I know or think they’re expected of me, and making other people happy… just to name a few.

Then, he asked me what my job is. I asked some close friends what they thought and we all came up with an answer along the lines of “to be a good person”. And my therapist shot that down fast. Eventually, he helped me understand that my job is to live by my own, personal code of conduct. If I’m going to feel like I’m a good person – if that’s my desire, I have to define for myself what that means. My therapist taught me that the only true way to be happy and to feel free is to know that you are living your personal code of conduct. Because when you’ve decided what your code of conduct is, you get the freedom of living only by your own standards. And that feels so good.

So, I mean, I got that. We worked hard for me to get that. And I’ve been working on defining my personal code of conduct ever since. But the people pleaser in me has been fighting back and trying to make my personal code of conduct look like what I think other people think my personal code of conduct should look like – which, you know, completely defeats the purpose. And that’s what I’ve been wrestling until the Bingo moment yesterday where I felt like things started settling into place. My job is not to meet other’s expectations or accept all advice. To create a truly freeing personal code of conduct, I need to sort through the advice I’ve heard, the beliefs I have, and anything expected of me to decide what truly fits in a life I want to live.

For me, I value kindness. I find joy in my relationship with God. I heard once that making your spouse a priority is an important part of being a good parent – and I’ve decided that that’s advice I agree with and want to include in my life. These are all elements of my personal code of conduct, which I’m refining all the time.

Bear with me while I milk the Bingo metaphor just a little bit more. I really like it. Picture those balls rolling around in the Bingo cage as advice from other people. They all have a place, they all belong somewhere, but only some of them have a place on your card. It’s up to you to decide what has a place in your life. Even this post. If it’s not a Bingo for you, please consider this simply a fun flashback to elementary school Bingo days (or a flash forward to life in a retirement home, perhaps. 😉 ) But, if you’ve found any value in this, leave a comment and let me know! I’d love to hear your perspective.

Note to Self: You are Valuable.

I was never asked to a dance in high school. Looking back, it’s definitely not a big deal. But then it was. I remember watching my friends get asked to dances and wondering if anyone would ever ask me. One dance, Homecoming maybe, I remember sitting at the computer near our front door the night before. Just in case someone decided to ask last minute. The phone rang, my parents told me it was for me, there was a male voice on the other end of the line who said “Elise. This is Harry Potter. Please stop being so obsessed with me.” Click. Needless to say, I didn’t get asked to Homecoming at the last minute. (I also didn’t stop my Harry Potter obsession.)

Like I said, in retrospect, those dances weren’t a big deal. I turned out pretty alright even without a pretty prom dress. But if I could go back in time and hang out with 17 year old me on the night of the dance, I’d bring her a giant bag of caramel kisses and we’d have a heart-to-heart where I’d hopefully convince her a little bit earlier in life that her worth wasn’t defined by how many boy’s choice dances she was asked to.

That’s the cool thing about perspective, looking back, you understand a lot more than you did in the situation. I like to go back and read my high school journals sometimes. I’ve learned to skip over the pointless pages of American Idol updates (although it is kind of fun to remember how many times I managed to vote for Clay Aiken and Carmen Rasmussen in a single night.) My favorite pages are the ones where I was convinced that I was “in love” with so-and-so for whatever reason it was that day. It would be embarrassing to admit how many last names I’ve sampled my first name with. (In gel pen, naturally.)

I’ve come to love writing an awful lot. I also like to think I’ve become a bit better at writing since my high school days. My notes app on my phone is full of half-completed blog posts and stressed-out word vomit sessions. I’ve also learned to write when I’m feeling happy or grateful, so that I can remember those things when I’m not feeling that way later on.

Anyway, here’s the point of this post.

Months ago, I went on a really good date. There actually wasn’t anything particularly special about it, mostly just that I had a good time, felt comfortable with my date, and felt some sense of potential. I try to begin and end dates with a prayer so, when I got back from this one, I was expressing gratitude for the date and felt like I should write what I was feeling. I pulled up my beloved notes app and wrote something that has been a real blessing to look back on since I wrote it:

“I think this is what hope feels like. A moment of believing that everything I’ve always dreamed of could actually come to be. I feel like spinning and screaming, the lights all seem brighter, I feel like every part of me is smiling. 


I also feel this fear of ‘what if I’m wrong?’ and ‘what if I get my hopes up only to get them crushed?’ But something tells me that no matter what happens, this feeling of bliss and hope and ‘maybe so’ has a lot more to do with truth – it doesn’t all rely on ‘what if yes’ or ‘what if no’. I am valuable not just because tonight I feel valued, but because I am.”

I actually feel really vulnerable sharing that note. Because, spoiler alert, not much more happened with that guy. And since nothing happened, it seems kind of silly that ‘every part of me was smiling’. But I’ve had this note on my mind all day and I’m kind of impressed by what I seem to have understood the night I wrote it. Today, as I’m writing this blog post, I am valuable. Even though nothing progressed the way I hoped it would when I was all twitterpated that night, that simple date taught me something that had always been true all along.

And it’s true for all of us. We are valuable. We have infinite worth that is not defined by whether or not we are going on dates, or our marital status, our employment/education status, or anything like that. That’s something that has taken me a long time to understand. And somehow, separating those things in my mind has made all the difference.

You’re Really Not the Only One

I have this conversation nearly every day: “Hey, Elise, how are you?” “I’m good! Busy, but good!” And the other day, as I said that, I realized just how monotonous it is. I seriously say that every time. And yeah, I’m totally busy. In fact, every night as I fall asleep I think “Does everyone else do fine with just 24 hours in a day? Maybe they’re not sleeping. Do people really get bored? Maybe they only sleep four hours a night?” and then I fall asleep before I can finish that conversation with myself. So, hey, I’m busy. And I’m stressed. And I’m never sure I’m doing enough. And ‘real life’ is tough.
And this is where I’ve lived mentally for the last year or so.
So, last Sunday, as I rattled off my “Busy, but good!” answer about my life, I followed it up with, “Maybe I should stop saying that. Maybe right now is normal and I should just embrace it and let this be normal and let more than this be ‘busy’.” And then within a matter of hours I was feeling overwhelmed about life again. That night, I went to the Christmas Devotional that the LDS church does every December (it’s a favorite) and all the talks were about the silent night when Christ was born and the peace that can come into our lives when we rely on the Savior and the promised blessings that come from His teachings and His life.
And I remembered that the message I have continuously received over the last year or so is this:

“Be Still”

So, I’ve been studying peace. And I could probably write novels about all the cool connections I’ve found and things I’ve learned (and probably, someday, I will) but I’ve also found some other cool things as I’ve read articles and talks about peace.
Everybody is seeking it.
Each article seems to have a story that goes like this: “There was a time in my life when I was struggling with (sin/loss of a loved one/divorce/heartache/medical challenges/etc.) and my life felt like it was in turmoil and everything seemed wrong and I didn’t know what to do and I had unanswered questions and I felt really alone.” And those are the stories that are used to illustrate peace.
I’m not finding stories about people who have lived a struggle-free life. I’m not finding stories about people who just have never had reason to worry about anything. And I’m definitely not finding stories about people who didn’t ever doubt or have questions. The more I blog and the more I open up about insecurities or questions on my blog, the more people I meet who say “I went through the same thing!”
I’m pretty sure this study of peace is going to be a lifetime thing. I kind of think that the blessings of peace come more from continuously learning than from mastering it. So, don’t expect me to be an expert any time soon. But here is something I definitely know: peace is available to everyone. Always. And some of that peace comes from realizing that you aren’t the only one. You’re not that “mistake” who has all the questions and the doubts, you’re one of us. And none of us are mistakes. We’re humans who are learning and I’m pretty sure the learning is the beautiful part. Opening up and letting others learn with you – that takes talent, because vulnerability sure likes to feel scary. But on the other side of that vulnerability is a life filled with peace.

 

Dear You

Hey! Just thought you might need a little reminder of how great you are. You’re doing a really good job at this whole “life” thing, you know? And that thing you’re going through that’s really stressing you out? Have you thought about how much better you’re handling it this time? You’re doing a really great job. I just wanted you to know that your efforts don’t go unnoticed. You really are trying, and sometimes you’re not perfect. That’s totally okay! You’re still learning. Have you ever thought about how good learning feels? What feels like the tiniest baby step right now is going to feel like an entire mountain you climbed when you look back a year from now.

And think about last year. Remember all those things you were worried about then? Most of them seem silly now, don’t they? And the things you’re still stressed about – that’s because they’re not silly. They matter to you. Let them matter, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Those things matter because you matter.

Take a deep breath and let yourself smile a little bit. Because you are awesome.

Dross to Consume, Gold to Refine.

Summertime has been blissful so far. And by blissful, I mean, I’m having the time of my life and staying up way too late and kind of not even feeling bad about how perpetually tired I am. I’ve recently had a couple nights of driving back to my apartment after midnight. There’s something about driving when the world is a little more quiet and the roads are empty. I often drive without my radio on because I like having the “me time” to think. Sometimes I even talk out loud, mostly praying, sometimes to myself. Late night drives alone are my happy place.

The thing I love about these drives is not just that I have the time to really think, but also to listen. Sometimes, I think we pray, or start down a train of thoughts in our minds, and quickly get distracted by something. When you’re driving, it’s much easier to stay on that thought because you really don’t have much else to do until you reach your destination. I’ve had a few great a-ha moments during these late night drives recently.(But not of the “Take On Me” variety, the radio is off, remember?)

I don’t really know how this train of thought came about, but one night I got to thinking about how good I feel about my life right now and thinking about how rough things felt just a couple months ago. I want to understand what made the difference, to know how I was holding myself back, to figure out what I was learning… my mind often works in images, and the “picture” of my life a few months ago is of me clinging for dear life to a rope. Like, one of those awful gym class ropes. The “picture” of me now is of me standing on a solid, cement floor.

I’ve let my mind play with these pictures for a few weeks now, and I’m kind of putting the pieces together. The clinging was just that – clinging. The more I imagine about that picture, the more I realize that I felt like I had to hold onto that rope with everything in me. I thought that letting go meant falling. I didn’t think I had anything to land on. In fact, in my mind, I imagine giant alligators in a big, yucky, bottomless swamp. And in my mind those alligators have names like “what if” and “you’re not good enough” and “nobody wants you”. The rope, in my mind, is multiple things – things like writing thank you notes, going to the temple, reassurance from friends and family, prayers (lots and lots of tear-filled prayers), etc.

I learned a lot from the clinging. I’ve never read my scriptures quite like I read them during those really rough months. I craved them. I needed more knowledge and more peace and I was starving for it every day. I talked to friends and family often. They reassured me and I often wrote down things they said so I could go back to that and rely on that when I had moments where I didn’t feel so reassured. Things changed when I felt like all I had was that rope.

And then one day, I loosened my grip on the rope. Not to let go, not to give up, but to breathe. Because I realized I hadn’t been breathing. I was white knuckling it and terrified. On one magical day, I finally loosened my grip just enough to step back and look at my surroundings. That’s when I found that solid cement. It had been there underneath me the entire time, right below my feet. It wasn’t moving, it wasn’t going anywhere, it was firm.

Maybe this is feeling cheesy to you. I realize it might seem silly, but in my mind, it’s a beautiful, visual representation of what I’ve learned. Things got hard and I didn’t feel like my feet were on the ground. I clung to the best things – I needed to. But more importantly, I learned that you don’t have to spend your entire life clinging. At some point, you have to loosen up enough to recognize that foundation that’s been there the whole time. There are things you already know, solid ground to rely on – and often that solid ground was built from the very things you were clinging to.

Letting go of the rope felt wrong. Because clinging to the rope was about doing all the “right things”. And I knew those things were blessing my life, I knew they were! But there is a difference between doing “what you’re supposed to” and actively making choices that you deeply feel are right. It turns out that sometimes actively making your own choices is hard, really hard. Sometimes there are hard questions to ask, sometimes other people won’t understand, and sometimes you may even feel like you are stepping away from all of those things you’ve relied on your whole life. The secret is in where you’re stepping. There are murky waters with alligators and there’s a solid cement foundation that’s been built all your life. Trust the foundation, trust what you know, but take those steps and ask those hard questions.

The ropes are always there for times you need to cling – sometimes, you need to cling. But that foundation is also always there too. Trust your foundation enough to stop clinging when it’s time to stop clinging.

Interestingly enough, this song is one of the ropes I was clinging to:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

If you take anything away from this blog post, take this: Sometimes, our pathways take us through fiery trials – it is meant to be that way. But the flame will never harm us. “All these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good.” Our deepest distresses will be sanctified to us and we will never be forsaken. Hold on to what you know, trust your foundation, make choices that feel right to you – not based on what you’re “supposed” to do. Walk through that refiners fire with the confidence that you are gold – you are already gold simply being refined to something even more precious and beautiful.