Changing Habits: All It Takes Is An Orange

My daughter has been learning about patterns in school this year.  It’s a topic she really seems to enjoy.  We’ve spent evenings going over homework assignments, trying to guess what the next item in a certain pattern is, and she’s getting pretty good at it.  So good at it, that when she sees a pattern on a brochure, or on the wallpaper at the store, she shouts in delight, “Mom, it’s a pattern!”.

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Patterns seem to be the topic of a lot of my discussions lately online and elsewhere.  It originally came up during a Facebook discussion about coincidences and miracles – one person mentioned that coincidences are simply a result of our inherent wiring to see patterns.  For example, when you buy a blue Ford Edge, you suddenly start seeing blue Ford Edges everywhere.  You might conclude, “Geez, a lot of people are buying blue Ford Edges lately!”, but, in fact, your brain just has a propensity to identify and assign meaning to patterns.

And, as usual, leave it to me to take a relatively simple concept, tear it into a million bloody pieces, and then duct tape it back together again.

To See Patterns is Human

According to this article, as well as other studies I’ve heard quoted, our brains are hardwired to see patterns.  It’s a simple part of our nature.  This doesn’t mean that every chain of events or objects our brains identify as a pattern actually is a pattern, it simply means our brains are constantly on the lookout for them, without our permission.  What this means is that our brains can convince us that a completely unrelated chain of events is a meaningful pattern when, in fact, it isn’t – our brain simply has a bias to conclude that.  On the other side of the coin, our brains can view a chain of events that on the surface appear to have no similarities whatsoever, and see a meaningful and realistic pattern (think any five-seconds-until-the-bomb-goes-off moment in any movie in the Die Hard series) that is truly existent and can help us solve a problem.  Seeing patterns is an incredible skill we’ve inherited.

The Reality of Pattern-Seeking

I wonder about this.  I wonder how much this actually contributes to so many major human depravities as well as mind-blowing discoveries.  I wonder how much this has to do with our racism, sexism, and stereotyping problems.  Perhaps series’ of negative experiences drive our brains to seek the common element in hopes of averting future pain. It all just comes down what pattern we decide is responsible.

  • A boy experiences abuse from his mother and concludes that parents are naturally mean
  • A woman has 2 or 3 negative encounters with a foreigner and decides to avoid people from that country as often as possible
  • A teenager is mugged at a Motel 6 and can no longer stay at that particular hotel without experiencing high levels of anxiety
  • A girl gets yelled at by a certain teacher several times and develops a fear of people with the same hair and eye color

My sense is that our brains our wired to see patterns as a means of self-preservation.  And once upon a time, that’s probably all we really needed that capability for.  Considering that every species’ first goal is to survive, and that recognizing the enemy is a key element to that end, that would explain why this tendency is so uncontrollable!  But I think in our day and age (and in our first-world country), we can use this for much, much more.

So….uh….How Does Knowing This Help Me??

I’m constantly on this strange long journey for self-actualization.  I know the day will never come, but I have found that the closer I come, the happier and more comfortable I am in my own shoes.  So putting a small amount of energy towards an awareness of the patterns I seek and attach meaning to seems like a worthwhile endeavor.  There’s so much we can learn about ourselves and change about our thoughts and behaviors if we can harness our propensity for pattern recognition.  It’s a fairly simple matter from a birds-eye view: identify the patterns our brains are attaching meaning to and determine if they are true or false, helpful or detrimental.

Luckily, we can use an age-old psychological litmus test to help determine this: If it leads you to do good or improve, it’s probably good.  I have my own RealGirls version of that: if it leads you to value and love yourself authentically, it’s probably good.  That’s pretty much it!  So let’s start looking out how to analyze your own patterns of thinking and behaving.

Take a Mental Inventory

There’s no need to walk around all day obsessively watching every word you say and every thought that crosses your mind.  In fact, that’s a really great way to drive yourself crazy (I suppose if that’s your goal…go for it!).  But it helps to make a small mental note to look out for those patterns as you experience them in daily life.  Since your brain is already wired for pattern recognition, finding the pattern of the patterns should be easy!

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Identifying Positive Patterns

Positive patterns are the ones we’re least likely to notice and most likely to disregard.  Why?  Because they aren’t necessary for surviving another day!  They’re fluff!  But in this day and age where mental strength is paramount, recognizing positive patterns is just as important as improving negative ones.  In fact, if you’re only identifying the negative, you could easily wear yourself out.  The positive ones may be small, but they’re still important.  Here’s some examples of some positive patterns you might see in your daily life:

  • You always eat breakfast in the morning – seriously, this one has taken me ages to develop
  • When you see someone who looks sad, you automatically feel empathy for them
  • You react positively towards yourself when you accomplish something good
  • You’ve learned the kinds of people that you tend to connect with quickly and you seek them out

Figure out what these are, pat yourself on the back, remind yourself that you’ve got a really good foundation to work from, and keep it up.

Identifying Negative Patterns

Negative patterns are probably easier to recognize, but of course, hard to change.  But they need to be acknowledged without judgement to even begin the process of improving. Here are some negative patterns you may have:

  • You groan every time you think about exercising
  • When you get upset, you immediately look for candy or chocolate
  • When you talk to a friend who sounds a little down, you automatically assume it was something you did
  • When someone offers criticism you immediately take it personally

Remember, this process is all about recognizing the negative pattern without judging yourself.  That’s very important.  Put on the most objective glasses you can, look at yourself the way you would a dear friend, and give yourself a comfortable amount of space to less-than-perfect in!

Changing Your Patterns

This is the hard part, of course, but it’s probably not as hard as you think.  See, the bad news is that you have an established pattern that your brain is wired to follow.  But the good news is that once you change the pattern, your brain will shake up its old ideas and begin to establish a new pattern.

There is one change agent that I have seen to be almost universally effective in changing behaviors and thought patterns, and we can use my daughter’s example of pattern recognition to exemplify it: When my daughter is looking at her worksheet and sees a picture of a strawberry followed by a banana, then another strawberry, then another banana, she very quickly concludes that strawberry-banana is the repeated pattern.

What would make her change her mind?

There is only one thing: a difference in the pattern.  She will be utterly convinced that strawberry-banana is the pattern until somewhere down the worksheet, she sees an orange.  Oops!  Well maybe strawberry-banana wasn’t the pattern after all!  Or maybe it was part of the pattern, but it’s a different pattern than she initially imagined it to be.  See, you could spend all day explaining scientifically, philosophically, or metaphorically why strawberry-banana is NOT the real pattern, but until she sits there with her hands on the paper and her eyes staring at that orange, she will not be convinced that she is wrong.

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Experience is the Best Teacher

So it is with everything (assuming this is a true pattern).  Experience is the best teacher.  If you want to change a pattern, be it a belief or thought process or a behavior (habit), you have to experience something different.  The best way to do this if you want to shake up as many patterns as possible, is to simply have lots of different experiences.  Live in different states and countries, make friends with different kinds of people, eat different kinds of food, experience different types of entertainment.  Talk to people who look angry at you.  Ask for criticism.  Building variety of experience into your life will help kill many of those untrue and unhelpful patterns or biases without you even needing to recognize them.  And for those that need a little extra work (usually because the pattern has repeated itself for years upon years), you have to repeat that different experience until your brain learns a new pattern.

Here’s an example.  I read somewhere (I apologize, I can’t find the reference right now, but I will post it here when I find it) that the chemical dopamine, which is known as the “reward” chemical in our bodies, is primarily released by responding to habits.  For instance, when you exercise your body releases dopamine, so if you continue exercising over time your brain will learn to release dopamine when you think about exercise because it recognizes it as something that will produce a reward.  So what’s the best way to teach your body and your brain to start exercising?  Just start doing it.  Look, you won’t get it right immediately – it typically takes me a year of attempting an exercise regime on and off every other month before it sticks – but every time you exercise (even if it’s been 6 months since your last workout) you’re giving your body and brain one more piece of evidence that this could be something it wants to reward you for ahead of time.  (For a little extra boost, take the advice from another article, and try changing your thought patterns as well).

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Don’t Give Up

This is just one more reason to not give up even when you can’t keep a new routine established.  I know, I know, all the fitness and self-help and “positive thinking” junkies out there are telling you that you’ve got to COMMIT and DO IT and GET IT RIGHT immediately or you’ll end up fat, lazy, and depressed.  And if that motivates you then stick with it, this article probably won’t help you much.  But for the rest of us, we just need to know that the world doesn’t end when we fall and that the small effort we were able to make made a difference.

It does.

Even if you are only able to replace one positive thought each day, it makes a difference.  Even if you can only motivate yourself to socialize once a week, it makes a difference.  Even if you can only manage to work out for two weeks and then you lose motivation for the next two months, it makes a difference.  Even if you only get one vacation each year to visit a new place, it makes a difference.  Each one of those efforts adds another orange, teaching your brain that perhaps the pattern is not what it initially appeared to be.

Your brain will take care of most of the heavy lifting; just throw it an orange as often as possible until you achieve the new perspective, schedule, or attitude that you desire.

And maybe eat an orange too.  Cuz, ya know, they’re good.

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The Perspective On Suicide You Haven’t Heard

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I’ve found that I tend to approach these huge celebrity news stories a little bit differently than most.  Like every other human being on the planet, when I found out that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I had my normal knee-jerk reaction of empathy, sorrow, and even some confusion.  I was never the biggest Robin Williams fan, but I did enjoy his movies so it was devastating news as I believe anyone can attest – a comedian, a seemingly happy man shouldn’t have any desire to kill themselves, right??

As I started working through my own thoughts and feelings, I noticed that I made a switch pretty quickly, as I often do.  Into observation mode.  I perused the news articles, blog posts, and social media arguments and listened to how people process and react.  Unlike the whole Miley Cyrus debacle last year, this news was actually quite devastating so naturally people feel very strongly about their viewpoints and a lot of people are walking away both angry and hurt by some of the discussions.

What I find curious about our evaluation of a tragic incident such as this is that we tend to talk about it in terms of what is a valid reason for killing oneself, and what is not a valid reason to kill oneself; as if we’re trying to find a way to resolve our shock as quickly as possible.  If their reason for killing themselves is not valid then we can be angry at them, reassure ourselves that it was a deliberate choice and not an accident, and close the book on the “why” question. 

Perhaps so we can move on?  Perhaps so we can avoid the emotional asymmetry of contemplating something as complex and nuanced as suicide?  Maybe.  This would appear to be a result of human nature.  In a world of survival of the fittest, it is incumbent upon any human being to deal with emotions and move on quickly as a matter of survival.  But while this is natural and instinctual to jump to the quickest conclusion we can find and move on, it does us a disservice because it distorts the picture.  In an world where thoughts and feelings are of exponentially higher value than physical safety, it doesn’t matter so much anymore that we complete as many puzzles as possible; it matters that we complete the puzzle correctly.  

So I observe.  I analyze.  I try to understand.  And I begin putting together the pieces of this mysterious puzzle.  Because what I typically see is that a lot of people are trying really hard to understand this thing called suicide and in an attempt to find a comfortable answer quickly, they end up haphazardly mashing two pieces of the puzzle together that look like they fit, but in reality distort the entire picture.  

PUzzleAnd this ends up leaving a lot of people confused, hurt, or misinformed.

So let’s find the bits of truth scattered throughout the canvas and see if we can’t line some of them up together.  

Suicide Is Selfish

The most common and upsetting argument I’ve seen so far is that Robin Williams’ choice – and yes, it was a choice, however it was informed by mental processes most of us can’t even fathom – was selfish.  Okay, I admit, I find this upsetting as well.  So here’s what I have to say to all of you who assert this opinion: you’re right.  It was selfish.  From a completely objective point of view, committing suicide is a selfish act that causes great pain and anguish to those left behind.  Let’s make sure we understand that.  But it is not motivated by selfishness.  I can’t emphasize this distinction enough.  Depression causes the state of a person’s emotions and logical brain to be out of whack in these situations.  Selfishness is not even a consideration; escape from intense pain is.  You might compare it to a person who is being tortured as a POW and asks his torturer to kill him to put him out of his misery.  Do you think he’s in a sound state of mind to contemplate how that choice might effect his family?  No.

It’s a place few of us go, some of us return, but leaves us mourning for those who don’t make it out.

Suicidal Tendencies Can Be Cured With Faith

Another argument I’ve come across is this idea that somehow the person who commits suicide was not spiritual enough, or didn’t have a strong enough faith in God, or should have prayed more.  I have a REALLY hard time with this one.  I don’t see much logic in it at all.  But, if I dig really deep, I can maybe find a place for this puzzle piece.  I suppose that if we’re seeing “God” in this context as a spiritual/emotional/mental connection to the value of one’s inner self (through whatever type or image of God one believes in), then yes, I guess we could say the connection to “God”, or awareness of one’s own personal value, was broken.  But no amount of praying, going to church, or worship can fix something borne of a physical ailment.  I know some people believe in miracles of healing and I think that’s wonderful, but even in that context, 99% of the time you can’t spiritually fix something that is borne of a physical ailment.  And let’s particularly avoid calling this a moral deficiency.  It’s not.  In fact, suicidal people are sometimes described as being exceptionally moral.

Suicide Is a Result of a Chemical Imbalance

Which brings me to the next argument: suicide is the result of depression which is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain.  This is TRUE!  This is the one puzzle piece that I love seeing placed on the board because this one is in the right spot.  Science has proved it, and if you don’t believe science, then believe the millions of people who have gained a higher quality of life through slight alterations of their chemical makeup.  It’s not that they didn’t have the desire to better themselves before, it’s that the medication allows them to finally be in a place where they are able to face the thought processes, angry feelings, and self-loathing that they’ve always experienced.  And they can begin to heal.  It’s no different than a person who takes medication for high blood pressure or thyroid issues or any number of other physical ailments.

Suicidal People Should Just Be More Positive

And then there’s this lovely one: suicidal people just need to start thinking positively.  Well, okay, I suppose technically this is true.  A more positive outlook on life would certainly alleviate much of the suffering.  The problem is in the assumption that this can be accomplished without help. Or that it can even be accomplished easily, or in some cases at all.  I don’t care if positive thinking is easy for you; that doesn’t make it easy or even possible for others.

Suicide Happens to People With a Difficult Childhood

And the last argument we’re going to look at: suicide is a result of a difficult childhood.  This is certainly a possibility but by no means true across the board.  There are many whose depression is triggered by abusive or traumatic events in childhood (or adulthood, quite frankly), but not all depressed people had a difficult childhood.  Many have lovely families and lovely lives but were simply born with chemical levels that result in a propensity for depression.

There are other explanations that can help us understand suicide, but let’s be sure to debunk these popular ones now.

Now I’ll be frank: I’ve never been seriously suicidal.  I’ve contemplated it, but never been anywhere near to taking action.  But I did spend a good chunk of my life in high school talking friends off the ledge, or comforting them after they survived the jump off the ledge, so I’ve seen this stuff pretty up close and personal.  And I will be the first person to admit: I don’t understand it.  I don’t.  I can’t imagine myself being in a place of such misery that I’m prepared to give up everything in my life to stop the pain.  The difference between me and a lot of other bloggers out there is that I don’t attempt to understand it with my biased eyes; I take the word of those who have been there.  If you believe that suicide is motivated by selfishness or a poor relationship with God or a lazy lack of effort to breed positive thoughts, just listen to what depressed and suicidal people are saying/have said.  Because this is a fact: you can’t understand it.  Even if you’ve been depressed before, or felt really low, or contemplated suicide, you can’t understand the person who fell so far that they were willing to pick up a gun and pull the trigger.  So stop trying and start listening.  

Once you start listening you will hear things like this: they were so lost in their misery that they couldn’t even consider whether or not suicide was a selfish choice.  They prayed and prayed and prayed and God never took away their sadness no matter how much faith they exerted.  They fought tooth and nail for years to change their thought processes and be more positive – they fought so hard that they believed themselves to be a failure for not being able to achieve happiness.

That is the real picture we’re looking at.  So let’s hold off on the idea we can understand this, stop applying our own mental processes to other people, and stop making snap judgments.  This subject is huge and vast and meticulous and unforgiving.  There are no easy answers.  And the only answers we can trust are those of the amazing people in our lives that we are grateful to call survivors.

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The Five Motivational Drivers

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Last week, RealGirls had the amazing opportunity to hold an online Facebook event to get to know other RealGirls around the world.  What a success!  We had a great group of participants and we all learned a lot about each other and also discussed some concepts to help us enhance our self-knowledge and self-improvement.  You can still view the event and discussions here.

One of the major topics of discussion was motivation.  Motivation is such an important part of everyday life and determines what we accomplish and what we don’t.  So one of the first things we can do to bring more meaning and accomplishment to our daily lives is to identify our top motivators, and find ways to incorporate them more frequently in our daily lives.

To bring more clarity to this conversation, I chose two definitions of “motive” from dictionary.com that I found to be most accurate and most positive:

“the goal or object of a person’s actions”

and

“prompting to action.”

I’m particularly fond of the second one because it gives a layman’s view of what motivation looks like: you know you are motivated by something when it catapults you to action.  Which means there may be things that you find inspiring or enjoyable, but not necessarily motivating.  It’s an important distinction!  So a few years back, one of my bosses gave me and my co-workers a list of 5 motivators to rank.  The 5 motivators purposely didn’t include anything of charitable nature because the belief was that everyone, right down to the guy that owns a business that sells printer cartridges, is motivated by their ability to contribute to the world in some way.  Here they are:

Freedom/Autonomy

Challenge

Personal Growth

Financial Gain

Recognition

The goal is to then rank these motivators in order of their ability to drive you to action.  That can be a pretty difficult distinction, so here are some more detailed descriptions of each one:

Freedom/Autonomy – this is the ability to pave your own path, make your own decisions, and be the master of your domain. It doesn’t *necessarily* mean you have no schedule to live by; rather it means that you are the one who gets to decide your schedule or lack thereof.

Challenge – this is very closely tied to risk. How important is it to you that you are challenged on a daily basis in some way? How willing are you to step into the deep unknown and take a big risk to attempt to overcome or surmount a major obstacle? Challenge usually involves high levels of stress for a large payoff. Your tendency to be motivated by challenge is probably highly related to your propensity to navigate stress and a lot of not-knowing. It’s fueled by a drive for accomplishment.

Personal Growth – this is the ability to feel yourself stretching and changing and enduring through pain and difficulty to come out on the other side better than you were before. I think it’s safe to say that though a lot of people are motivated by extensive personal growth, a lot of people are simply content with who they are and where they are in their life. And that’s okay! In fact, many of us could probably use a little more contentedness.

Financial Gain – well, everyone needs money, right? We all need to support ourselves and our families! This goes a little beyond the survival factor to being motivated by increasing one’s financial state. Being a person who is motivated by financial gain usually has a very negative feel to it, and I suspect this is due to the reputation of major players in the business world to “do whatever it takes” to make a buck. But I think there are lots of ways to look at the reasons for financial motivation. For some its the fun of the reward for hard work; for some it’s having a little extra spending money; for some it’s feeling like they are contributing to the economy; for some it’s simply being able to buy cool stuff. It’s a perfectly legitimate motivator and a very common one!

Recognition – this is typically viewed as a “bad” motivator, but, like these other motivators, it’s not good or bad. Some of us are simply driven by recognition. I would go so far as to say that ALL of us are driven by it to a certain extent, but I think for many there is an extra strong “buzz” associated with seeing our name in the paper, or a degree next to our name, or our face on TV, or to hear we are being discussed in other circles (not in a gossipy way, of course, although that typically accompanies recognition without our permission).

What is the order of your motivators?  Still having a hard time?  Here’s a short online quiz that I found to be accurate and helpful in determining your motivators.  It includes 8 motivators, but many of them can be sub-categorized into these 5.

Once you’ve worked out your motivators, what next?  Well, I believe its always helpful to look at the positive – the ways you are doing things right – before delving into areas of improvement.  So take a look at your life and identify the areas in which your top 3 motivators are already playing a primary role.  Where are these motivators already built-in to your daily life?  Write your thoughts down if that helps.

Now brainstorm ways you could build those motivators more intrinsically into your life.  It’s usually best to start small, but if you have the ability to make big changes, go for it!  Perhaps you could talk to your spouse about giving you more recognition for your efforts and accomplishments.  Maybe it would be helpful to arrange your schedule so you have more free time for yourself.  Why not buy a self-help book or take a seminar to help you grow spiritually or emotionally?

Then make some plans to take those steps.  You might call them goals – this word typically sends me into an anxiety spin, so I don’t particularly like it, but call it whatever words for you – or steps or plans.  Start small, or big, or medium – whatever makes you feel both inspired and confident in your ability to accomplish them.

The basic formula to using motivation to your advantage is this:

1) ENHANCE the motivators that are currently at play on your life and

2) BUILD more of your motivators into your everyday life.

It may surprise you how much more real and satisfied you feel when you’re stimulating the best parts of your core self.

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Second Real Girls Giveaway Winner: Poetry

I am SO excited to announce our next Real Girls Giveaway winner: Sarah!  This fantastic lady sent us a brief glimpse into her life and her talents by submitting a poem – all the way from Dubai!  Inspired by the last Real Girls Giveaway winner, she wanted to share this poem she wrote on being real.  

A few comments before I post the poem: I am so unbelievably inspired by this poem.  It is so eloquently written and uses very sensual visuals to illustrate the raw reality of being “real”.  Poetry has such an incredible ability to express things that we cannot say in any other way, and it takes real talent to be able to bring together the harsh reality of our everyday lives with the beauty and subjectivity of the written word.  I am also in LOVE with her handle: Desencajada, which, according to her blog, means “out of her place”.  I believe it is Spanish (Foreign languages have such an amazing way of conveying meaning we often can’t express in English!).

You’ll love this read – 

What’s yours?

Link to the original poem on Sarah’s blog:

 

To stop resenting others for their happiness,
to unclench the knot in your throat that forms when they smile, 
pouring out their joyous abundance.

To start sculpting your own happiness, 
with bare trembling hands and tears in your eyes.

To dig deep in the dirt of your own secret garden 
and bury deep in the fertile soil 
all of your own dreams and hopes 
and grow and care for that garden, 
not allow the winter nor the beaming sun 
to either freeze nor burn your desires and destinies.

To gouge your own ditch 
to let the countless little streams of your heart flow 
until they form the thirst quenching sea 
and to have the courage to jump into it, 
not be afraid of its depths nor shallows 
and swim all the way through it 
to get to know its tide and temperature.

To untie all the strings that your fears have woven around your ankles,
keeping your feet from walking 
away from this house, this backyard, this fenced garden of deafening monotony.

To embrace the pain of growing wings, 
of tearing open your best guarded box, 
that chest, treasurer of that little throbbing muscle, 
and let the sunlight undisclose all the hideous secrets,
yes, 
to live and not dread the honesty of being real, 
range of possibilities exposed, of steps untaken and peace unmade. 

And yet to love, deeply, freely, guiltlessly, oneself…

To Love Freely Oneself

My favorite line is:

“To start sculpting your own happiness, 
with bare trembling hands and tears in your eyes.”

What’s yours?

Thanks again, Sarah, your gift will be arriving soon!

If you have a story, poem, experience, thought, piece of artwork, photo, or anything else that tells us about who you really are, please email Real Girls at BeaRealGirl@gmail.com and you’ll have a chance to win the next Giveaway!  

 

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Just This: Know Your Mind

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I have some amazing people in my life.  People that love me to the core; people that bolster me up when I’m down; people that lovingly turn my head when I’m facing the wrong direction.  There is nothing like meeting a good friend over hot tomato soup after a tough week – catching up on each other’s lives, sharing inspiring stories, crying together, and reminding each other what makes each of you wonderful, unique, and valuable.

I feel strongly about what I’m going to write about tonight.  I have had the opportunity to know some incredibly strong women and men in my life.  They exude a strength that I always felt alluded me.  A resolve, a self-confidence, a solid rock in the center of their being that never allows them to waver in their self-worth.  Now they are not perfect, of course, everyone has their issues, but I’ve always greatly admired this part of them; it’s a part of me I am belaboring to build and develop.

(Don’t worry, I will get to the part where I tell you what it is!)

I think I’ve always had a stubborn streak about me.  I recall times in my younger years when I was unafraid to argue or step up on my soapbox when I felt injustices were being committed.  But I always had an awful time making decisions.  I did NOT like to decide!!  It ties back directly to my perfectionistic tendencies and fear of making the wrong choice, but it crippled me in many ways, especially when there were those around willing to make the decision for me.  Be it a parent, a friend, a teacher, an authority, God, or a spiritual mentor, I always preferred to let someone take the responsibility for the final decision.

Though I have grown in this area throughout my life, I’d like to dispense the advice I would LOVE to go back in time to give myself in my teen years:

KNOW YOUR MIND.

Know what you think.  Know your opinion.  Know the decision you would make it if were up to you.  As a teenager or young adult, you are often in a situation where you don’t get a lot of say.  It’s easy to throw your hands up in the air in frustration or simply enjoy the lack of responsibility that comes with being young.  But no matter the situation, know your mind.

Even if it’s not your decision; know your mind.

Even if you know others will disagree; know your mind.

Even if you never express it because you are afraid of the response you might get; know your mind.

Even if you decide to default to someone else’s opinion; know your mind.

Even if you decide to leave the decision in God’s hands; know your mind.

No matter the situation, take the time – even if a few minutes is all you have – to think it through.  Weigh the good and the bad, look at the logical and emotional consequences, consider how you feel about the situation, consider what you’ve been taught by your parents, your education, your religion, your mentors.  And begin learning how to sort through, weigh, combine, and contrast those things to come to a conclusion that you feel confident about.  Know what your mind wants. Know what your mind needs.  Know what your mind thinks.  Even if you find out it’s wrong.  Even if you find out it’s right or good, but what you wanted was not an option.

There will be many times in your life when the better solution to your problem comes from the advice of someone else, or from putting your faith in God (if you believe in one), or from leaning on the teachings of your upbringing despite your reservations.  That’s OK.  Do what you feel is right; follow your instincts.  But I wish that, when I was younger, I would have spent more time thinking things through first.  I wish I had made my own decision and formed my own opinion before approaching someone else for advice, or asking God for guidance, or defaulting to what I knew and what was most comfortable.

And then what?  Own your decision.  Own that you decided to follow someone else’s advice, but never forget what you wanted to choose because you NEVER KNOW the right answer or decision until after the decision has been made and the action is complete.

Knowing your mind is about two things:

1) Taking responsibility for your opinions and your final decisions.

2)  Knowing yourself, what drives you, what you value, and what you are willing to sacrifice to get it.

The day may very well come when these skills come in handy because you will have no one but yourself to rely on to make a given decision (don’t be confused – you are always the only one you can rely on in decision-making; everyone else is simply an information provider or a spiritual guide, but the final decision is always yours – However the day may come when you have no one to turn to for advice or direction).  But don’t do this for any other reason but for yourself.  Do it simply because you are valuable, your opinions are valuable, your decisions are valuable (right or wrong), and you have intrinsic worth that deems that you can think and believe whatever you choose.

And if you already do this – that’s awesome.  Find a friend to share it with.  Discuss your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions – even your wacky ones.  Find friends like I have: that love you, embrace who you are, and see your incredible potential.  You are doing wonders for your own personal development and inspiring others to the same.

Be Real.  Be You.  Know Yourself.  Know Your Mind.  Embrace it.

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….And Then My Daughter Was Born

I remember my life well several years ago. I was pretty happy, I’d say. Me and my husband had just moved to Minnesota. We made some wonderful friends and were discovering the beauty of lush, lake-filled Minnesota as well as the nasty mosquito and tick-infested side of our new stomping grounds. We loved being out on our own, creating our own space, exploring new adventures, living a simpler small town life (well, small for us).

I was pretty satisfied with the fairly rose-colored (naive as some would say, I’m sure) lens through which I viewed the world. I’ve never believed naïveté was a bad thing. Take life one step at a time and learn as you go i say – you’ll always be naive to SOMEONE!! And I was pretty satisfied with the architectural construct that was my view of the world, myself, and my family.

…and then my daughter was born.

The first couple of months were a blur of chaos, as they tend to be. But soon she started doing some fun things. Smiling. Laughing. Crawling. TALKING….UNDERSTANDING….

Uh oh. I started to realize that she was going to be a person. A person who understands, believes, knows, can be influenced, and can be an influencer. I started to see in her eyes the amazing potential she has. I realized the sky is the limit for her, she will have the opportunity to change the world, lead people, influence people, live happily and joyfully!! And who will be her biggest, most important influences in that journey?

Me and her daddy.

I started to look very closely at myself. The greatest influence i could personally give her in her life would be my example. If I wanted her to be a strong, confident, self-assured, giving, and ambitious woman then I would need to be those things too.

And I wasn’t.

At least not like I wanted to be. What happened, I wondered? What happened to the snarky, girl-power, charitable, argumentative, stubborn, ambitious girl I was deep down? Where were the lessons I learned from my independent, determined mother, and the example of my father who embraced and supported others wholeheartedly no matter their background, belief system, or future endeavors? Where was the girl that fell in love with my sarcastic, rebellious, incredibly kind-hearted husband who wanted nothing but to see me achieve the lofty goals I dreamed of? She was still there; she wasn’t gone. But somewhere down the line she had stagnated. She had stopped trusting her instincts. She had ceased to grow in confidence and self-belief. And I didn’t know why.

I think that’s pretty normal. I think that happens in life. Life is a journey with many stops and marshes along the way. But it wasn’t going to work anymore. If I wanted my daughter to achieve whatever goals she set for herself, I needed to start working towards mine. If I wanted her to believe in herself, I needed to believe in myself. If I wanted her to trust her own brain, instincts, and conscience, I needed to do the same.

Something had to change. I could not, would not raise my daughter to harbor the insecurities, perfectionistic tendencies, and self-doubt I had come to encompass (not in a boat, not with a goat! Not in a house, not with a mouse!).

And so, I started working hard on myself. I started to ask myself what I wanted, who I wanted to be, where I wanted my life to take me. I asked myself the kind of mother I wanted to be. I left parts of my life behind, and adopted new influences. I reduced negative thought patterns and focused on the positive. I dug around to figure out the roots of who I am and began to build.

I gathered up my daughter, held the hand of my husband – a person who has never apologized for being who he is and stands by me as my greatest example of living without guile – held my future baby boy close, stepped through the door to a lighter, more authentic me, and let it close behind me.

Thank you, Alyssa, for inspiring this journey. Thank you for looking at me with trusting, believing eyes and showing me how much potential I have. Thank you for existing and being my greatest inspiration.

Thank you for being born 5 years ago today.

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What It Means to be a Woman

It bothers me that this post even needs writing.  But I recall all too well those years of high school on into young adulthood when my identity seemed so skewed and so hard to grasp.  Most teenagers of any gender probably deal with this, and there are certainly social expectations for both girls AND boys, but I believe it’s particularly difficult for you young women because of all the mixed messages that are received from social experiences, pop culture, religion, parental teachings, school, etc:

Girls are told by the media that because their bodies are beautiful they deserve to be ogled at, and they are there to fulfill the desires of men.  They are told that sexy is ideal, prude is bad, they must be pretty, they must be happy because that’s how they will gain male admiration.

Girls are told in the religious sphere that their bodies ought to be covered up as a means to preserve the sanctity of male thoughts.  They are told that sexy is bad, prude is good, they must be pure, they must be calm because that’s how they will attract the right kind of men.

Girls are told in social situations that being bold and assertive is overbearing, and that being smart is being a know-it-all.  They are told that sexy is trashy, prude is boring, they should be understanding but not a doormat, they should be independent but not “wear the pants”, they should achieve but not become too powerful.

It feels a little bit like this

Attractive Woman with Her Books

How is a girl to find herself when she is constantly surrounded by people and institutions not only attempting to tell her who she “should” be, but giving her impossible standards to live up to?  And how is a young woman to begin to understand how to value herself as an independent being when all the messages she is receiving are centered around securing a relationship?

This is the big chore for young women and those who support young women.  And I want to attempt to break down some of the confusion by helping you girls understand what the requirements are to be considered fully and completely a ‘woman’.

First, let’s look at the definition of ‘woman’ by dictionary.com:

Woman: “the female human being.”

…….

Um….that’s it.

Seriously.

Don’t get me wrong – that’s not “all” – there is so much more to being a woman.  That’s simply the end of the restrictions, requirements, and limitations to being a woman.  You simply have to be female.

You get to decide the rest.

YOU get to decide what characteristics you develop, what personality you have, what road you take, what kind of person you want to be, what career you pursue.  And all of the options can make you an incredible woman.

So, girls, let’s change the conversation.  Let’s forget the conversation everyone else is trying to have with us and start a new conversation.  A better conversation.  Instead of discussing all the qualities and attributes that women should have, or that are common to women, or that make women appealing, let’s discuss the myriad of amazing, unique, inspiring, and either orthodox or unorthodox ways there are to BE A WOMAN!

The sky is truly the limit!  There is no “right” way to be a woman, there is no special formula to follow.

You can be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company and be 100% woman

You can be a truck driver and be 100% woman

You can be a sexy cowgirl and be 100% woman

You can be a robe-donning religious leader and be 100% woman

You can be a stay-at-home mom with 10 kids and be 100% woman

You can live in a shack in Harlem and tutor inner-city kids and be 100% woman

You can be a police officer and be 100% woman

You can be a wife, mother, and entreprenuer and be 100% woman

You can be a hermit, lesbian, doctor, sailor, Christian, Atheist, Jew, American, Greek, or Russian and be 100% woman

You can be an Alaskan underwater basket weaver who enjoys Croquet and playing the kazoo and be 100% woman

Do you see the the great power you have?

Ever changing teenager

I’ve done a fair amount of world travel in my lifetime (actually, by today’s standards it may not be considered “a lot”, but it was for my generation!), and I have met amazing women from all walks of life that were kind, endearing, bold, courageous, assertive, practical, sweet, skillful, artful, giving, demanding, merciful, just…. And any other adjective you can think of!  All of these qualities are good and all of these qualities are accessible to you.  Simply find the ones that come most naturally and build on them.

You’re allowed to do that.  You’re allowed to be the person your heart tells you to be.  You’re allowed to follow your own path.  You’re allowed decide to be a person that others don’t like, or agree with, or support, or that others love, cherish, admire, and envy.  Because if you simply work to become more YOU every day – the REAL YOU – you will always feel connected to the world around you, and you will always feel fulfilled in the path you choose to take.

Others will tell you who they think you are supposed to be.  Believe you me, people love to control the world around them and construct organized containers to fit people into because it helps them feel more in control of their lives.  You don’t need to function within that paradigm.  The world isn’t meant to be controlled or even fully understood.  Have faith in yourself and take the steps forward that feel right, moral, and most beneficial to you, and you will end up on the right road.

You wonderful girls are so loved.  You are so appreciated.  You are so NECESSARY.  We need you.  The real you.  We know you are strong.  We know you are wise.  You will find your way.

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You Are A Greater Leader Than You Think

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Let me tell you ladies something about leadership: it is intensely skewed these days. From what I’ve viewed and experienced in my life, the MOST CAPABLE leaders in the world are often highly unaware of it, and highly underutilized. Leadership has, in recent years, taken a very unfortunate form. I’m aware of this because I have experienced it in almost every job I’ve had leading up to the current position I’m in (which, thankfully, has excellent leaders and a fantastic work environment).

Leadership today is largely defined by bad behavior. The people that yell, belittle, patronize, complain, and place impossible expectations on others are the ones that make up a large portion of management in the workforce these days.

If you are a Real Girl, and you believe in who you are, this can be rather discouraging. Because true leadership has nothing to do with these qualities. Being assertive is not the same as being overbearing. Being confident is not the same as being cocky. Being a delegator is not the same as being a dictator.

The latter of each example seems to be the norm these days, and it leads to very difficult work environments where it’s extremely hard for the TRUE leaders to stand out and make progress to the position that fits them best. And it’s especially difficult for you girls. Because both men and women exhibit these poor behaviors, but for women in particular, oftentimes being assertive is perceived as being overbearing. Sometimes when a woman is appropriately confident, she is said to be cocky. When she is effectively delegating, others call her a dictator.

Please understand that you have no less capability than anyone else in this world to find that line between being a dictator and a pushover. In fact, you likely have far MORE capability to be a great leader than most people in your life have ever credited to you. This is why it’s so important OWN and BELIEVE in who you are. Because once you reach that point, the interpretations of others don’t matter anymore, and you can begin to grow, interact confidently as your true self with others, and show them why they are wrong. The opinions of others may never change, but knowing who you are can give you the ability to make strides beyond the limitations presented to you by others.

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So focus your mind and your energy on positive leadership qualities. The ones likely already brewing naturally inside you, and which will simply take some attention and nurturing to reach their full potential.

One of my favorite bloggers in the ENTIRE WORLD is Erica Andersen who writes for Forbes.com. She is a brilliant leader and currently runs a consulting business where she works with other business executives to help them see how many of their more self-focused and bottom-line-focused behaviors are actually stunting the growth of their organizations. I find her perspective and insight to be a breath of fresh air.

In her recent post, “3 Qualities That Define The Natural Leader – Do You Have Them?”, she gives a short laundry-list of the top qualities of fantastic leaders:

Far-sighted
Passionate
Courageous
Wise
Generous
Trustworthy

Amazing, wonderful girls. There are those in the world that would have you believe that you cannot develop these qualities. That they are not natural to women, or to people at your level in the workplace, or to people with your income, or people your age, with your upbringing, with your level of education, blah, blah, blah…

IGNORE THEM

It is important to acknowledge to yourself when one of these people is attempting to limit you by one of these factors. Then tell them either vocally or to yourself that they are WRONG and remind yourself of all the reasons why you have the incredible ability to emulate every single one of these attributes. Then do it. Practice it. BE the person you dream of being.

And make some mistakes along the way. Every trustworthy person was once untrustworthy. Every wise person was once naive. Every far-sighted person was once impulsive.

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Begin your journey today. If you feel you are destined for leadership, or for mentorship, or for changing the world, embrace that courage and hold it strong inside you. No one else can take it away; they will only lose the opportunity to gain greater perspective, love, and confidence by underestimating a person willing to achieve their unlimited potential.

Be You. Be an Amazing Leader. Lead with boldness, courage, and passion. And don’t let anyone convince you that you are anything less than limitless in your endeavors.

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