Category Archives: Power

Chocolate or Vanilla?

When I underwent emotional intelligence training, my coach asked me the question, “Chocolate or vanilla?” over and over. Now, my partner and I use that phrase frequently as we live our life together. It always makes me smile.

Life is ridiculously complicated. At other times, it’s ridiculously simple. Our experience lies in the heart of this paradox.

Chocolate or vanilla is about choice, and the recognition and reclamation of our ability to choose is the core of emotional intelligence.

Choice is about power.

One of the many seeds that inspired this post was this article that appeared in my news feed from The Guardian: “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer if You Can Afford It.” It caught my attention because my reflex now is to question all these kinds of assertions, whether they are a result of my own beliefs or someone else’s.

Is that true? I asked myself.

Upon reading the article, I discover the author is making a point that earning a living by writing is difficult. Agreed. Does that mean one is not a writer if they don’t earn a living writing? That depends on how one defines what a writer is. This circles around to identity. What is a writer? What is a real writer?

Why does it matter? If a person is compelled to write, they do so. Debating what a “real” writer is, making rules about what “counts” as writing (Editing? Tech writing? Poetry? Published writing? Unpublished writing? Writing for money? Blogging for free?). Gathering statistics about the high costs of publishing, editing, hiring an agent, advertising, etc., seem to me distractions from writing, even if it’s only for twenty minutes a day.

Is the issue about choosing to live creatively or about managing our expectations about such a life and feeling disempowered by the attendant difficulties in earning a living via our creativity?

The tone of the article bothers me because it’s focused negatively. It’s about being creatively disempowered because the world is the way it is. It’s all the reasons why writers can’t be successful (whatever that means) unless they have a certain amount of money.

I don’t accept that.

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Why not think about what is possible? Where is our power? The author states that space and time cost money. Is that true? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We make hundreds of choices about how we spend that time. Some of our choices are unconscious, and some are not. The minimalism movement speaks to this. If our lives are so busy, noisy and cluttered that we don’t give our creative longings (or whatever else matters most to us) time and space, we’re the only ones who can fix that. And make no mistake, we can fix it. We have the power to simplify our lives and identify what matters most to us. If we want to. If we consent to.

As I observe myself and others navigate through their lives, it’s easy to pick out those who feel powerless from those who acknowledge at least some power. Note that power does not mean control. Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” Control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” (Online Oxford Dictionary) Power is intrinsic. Control is extrinsic.

It strikes me that when we feel disempowered about one thing, we frequently expand that feeling to our whole lives. We feel victimized, stuck, fearful, hopeless and helpless. Often, we’re enraged by the unfairness of life. We desperately try to find a sense of control. Our default is to stay focused on all the places we have no power, no matter what the situation.

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That focus is a choice. It might be unconscious, but it’s still a choice.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I know we each have obligations, complicated lives, and most of us need to earn a living. As a single mother of two boys, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, did volunteer work and took online courses to complete a college degree. Believe me, I know about being overwhelmed in life. During those years I also danced, told stories, wrote, and created visual art, because that’s who I am. I didn’t earn money with my creativity, but it was what kept me going in all the other areas of my life.

I understand that sometimes we are disempowered by addiction and/or other health issues, and we are unable to make choices because of it. In that case, we need help, and we can choose to get it. Or not.

Chocolate or vanilla?

As for space, writing can happen on a bed, on the floor, on a park bench, in a car, or in a Starbucks. In my life, I’m not at all sure where the boundary is between writing and living. I seem to always be doing both, whether or not I’m actually at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand.

Being creative is not the same as an ambition to get rich and famous via our work. If the goal is riches and fame, we’ve stepped out of our power. Then we’re going to need money, influence, professional support, and a lot of luck. Even if we do achieve fame, financial security and glory, however, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll still need to manage our money and time, and we’ll still have exactly as much time as everyone else does.

We’ll still have to choose between chocolate and vanilla every minute, and if we refuse to choose, somebody else will choose for us.

We can’t reclaim or effectively hold onto our power unless we’re willing to question everything, and questioning everything is not supported in this culture. If we’re not living the life we want, there’s one important question to ask:

If we feel disempowered, do we want to feel differently? Do we consent to change?

Most of us will immediately say yes, of course we don’t want to feel disempowered! What a stupid question! BUT we can’t, because we have no money. We have no time. We have health limitations. We can’t find work, or we have work, but our boss hates us. Our commute is too long. We don’t have the space we need. Nobody loves us. Nobody cares. We’re alone. We’re too old. We’re too young. We’re too tired. We’re the wrong color or sex. Nothing and no one is the way we need them to be in order for us to live in our power.

The truth is that our personal power has nothing to do with the people around us or the way the world works. Only one person can fundamentally disempower us, and that person looks back at us out of the mirror.

Another unwelcome truth is that many people who feel chronically disempowered are getting some kind of a payoff for staying stuck in that place.

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This hidden payoff is a hard, hard thing to admit and excavate, take it from me. Our defenses rise, our feelings boil, our beliefs become more fanatical, all our old wounds bleed. Hidden payoffs are buried deeply in psychic war zones. Many of us never go there unless we’re forced to by some kind of a catastrophic, life-and-death situation.

I started this post on a Tuesday morning. I was sitting at my little workstation in my attic space next to an open window. The air was fresh and cool. It was misty out, and I could hear the spring song of birds. I opened my laptop and skimmed headlines about politics, COVID-19, and overnight killer tornados in Tennessee. There was the seductive content on my screen, manipulated by the media, Google, and advertising. Then there was the world outside my window, gentle, lovely, moist, and promising the new beginning of spring.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I shut the laptop, picked up a clipboard and pen, and began this post long hand, the old-fashioned way, in my chair in front of an open window.

Choice. Personal power. I am a writer. My daily crime.

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Mindful Acquisition

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I recently read an article on The Minimalists blog titled “Prepared to Walk Away.” The Minimalists is a blog about simplifying all aspects of our lives by reducing our physical, mental and technological clutter. For most who embrace this way of living, the first challenge is to declutter. The flip side of decluttering is mindful acquisition, and that’s the part of the essay that really caught my attention.

Some people think of minimalism as something practiced by wealthy elites who live in large, white, coldly antiseptic, ultra-modern spaces. It’s trendy right now to declutter and organize, an interesting push back against the relentless consumerism of the twentieth century. I hate clutter and love to be organized, but that isn’t what most attracts me to the practice of minimalism.

What I have my eye on are the intangibles in life, the stories, beliefs and habits that accompany us through our days. How and why do we acquire such things? How much of the acquisition is conscious rather than unconscious, and how heavily are we influenced by the people around us and their stories, beliefs and habits?

Minimalism, when I discovered the movement in the last months, seems to synthesize many of the ideas and thoughts I’ve discussed on this blog, including letting go, quitting, boundaries, the failure of money, being right, outcomes and rewriting our stories.

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It seems to me that the vast majority of our mental clutter is carelessly acquired or thrust upon us as an obligation. We humans are powerful in our ability to absorb influence, and we’re fatally prone to addiction. Our consumer culture has exploited these weaknesses mercilessly, from alcohol, sugar and cigarettes to video games, social media and the Internet. The media grooms us from childhood to be mindless recipients of stimulation to buy, to believe and to comply.

Critical thinking is unfashionable, to say the least. I look around me and see shriveled attention spans. Fewer and fewer people seem to respect or even recognize peer-reviewed, verifiable, fact-based science from the idiotic and ignorant ravings of malcontents, manipulators and madmen who peddle hatred, bigotry and misinformation to the masses from television, radio, the internet and social media.

Thus, we’re positioned, mouths agape, eyes reflecting the sparkle and shine of baubles and distractions, minds numb, stumbling through life with one eye on some kind of a screen at all times, while words and assertions assault us from every direction from thousands of gaping mouths and talking heads and millions of busy fingers.

Mindfulness? You’re kidding. Who has the time, quiet and space to even think about what mindfulness means, let alone practice it? How many people feel that the only way they can face their life is to avoid mindfulness at all costs?

Decluttering a closet is one thing. Can we sort through our ideas and habits and discard what’s unattractive, outgrown, outdated or worn out? It’s agonizing to consider a piece of clothing, especially a costly one that seemed like such an exciting deal when we got it, and realize we don’t wear it, don’t like it or it doesn’t go with anything else we wear. We’ve invested money in that item. It’s in good shape and of good quality. We can’t just discard it. What a waste! We’ll never get our investment back out of it.

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Ideas, habits and beliefs are even harder to walk away from. We might not have spent money in acquiring them, but they tie us to our tribe, our workplace, our church, our family and our community. They influence our favorite social media platforms, our news and radio purveyors and our identities. Our addictions cement us into communities of other addicts, or at least into communities that enable our addictions.

We know everything about holding on: holding on to power; holding on to identity; holding on to our beliefs; holding on to stuff, either because we want to or someone else expects us to; holding on to grievance, outrage and fear. What we don’t seem to understand is how holding on locks us into place. We can’t grow. We refuse to learn. Fear has killed our natural curiosity and drive to explore.

On the other hand, a willingness to discard any object or intangible in our lives, if necessary, means we consent to grow, change, learn and be flexible and resilient.

Mindful acquisition is a conscious activity, an agreement we make with ourselves to buy that new item or explore a new idea or relationship, fully prepared to walk away if the item, idea or relationship become, at any time, a detriment rather than an asset.

It’s easy to think about objects in terms of money. Beliefs and habits are less concrete, yet our habits cost us far, far more than what we lose when we discard an expensive coat we just don’t wear. Talk to anyone who has tried to be in relationship with a workaholic or a substance, screen or gamer addict about the cost of our behavior. Money is, after all, only a symbol of value we agree to use. Our intangible clutter costs us relationships, connection, our health and sometimes our lives.

At first look, it seems that being willing to walk away from relationships weakens our ability to connect. In fact, I think in the long run it strengthens healthy bonds. If I know both I and the other party are prepared to walk away, I’m responsible for making a choice, over and over again, to stay, nurture and invest in a healthy connection—for both of us.

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Practicing mindful acquisition requires me to pay close attention to the thoughts, beliefs, ideas and habits I give time and energy to or consider adopting. Do they increase my power and joy or diminish it? How does my mental and emotional clutter interact with my relationships and ability to communicate and contribute? How do these intangibles affect my heath and energy?

The irritating thing about personal power management is that it takes work and mindfulness. We can’t stay asleep at the wheel. Sure, reclaiming our stolen, lost or dormant power is a rush, but then we have to be responsible for our needs, priorities and choices, choices about what enters our lives and choices about what we discard or walk away from.

Our lives are limited. At 55, I’m beginning to feel the edges. I want to minimize my clutter, from items to intangibles. I want to let light and space into my home and serenity and clarity into my head and heart. I want to feel the flow of energy in the form of money, love and creativity without distraction.

Mindful acquisition. My daily crime.

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Releasing Outcomes

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I think of myself as a goal-oriented, disciplined person. Most of the time I know what I want (at least I think I do). Some of the time I’m intentional and present with my choices. I like routine and can be both dogged and stubborn.

Outcomes have always been important to me. I’ve set my sights on what I want to happen and started trying hard to achieve that desired outcome.

I don’t remember ever being taught that creating certain outcomes is the way to live successfully and happily, but that was a belief around which my choices and behavior were structured. A desired outcome was success, and therefore good. An outcome I didn’t want was failure, and therefore bad.

I didn’t consciously notice for much of my life that trying to create just the right outcome never worked that well for me.

When I came to Maine and learned emotional intelligence, I started thinking about personal power and I finally really looked at how strongly desired outcomes motivated me. I was furious when I first came across the idea of letting go of outcomes. What I heard was invalidation and rejection of my ability to make long-term goals and plans and steadily, a step at a time, work toward them. I also thought I was hearing it was inappropriate to have dreams and desires. How could one navigate through life without caring about outcomes?

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It took time, a lot of exposure and a couple of difficult and painful events, but eventually I understood that investment in outcomes was the problematic piece, not needing, desiring or the degree to which we are disciplined and can tolerate delayed gratification.

We do not have complete power in the way things work out because our goals and plans inevitably include others.

By others I mean other people (the job, college or mate we want), whatever our conception of the Divine might be, and influences like the weather, the stock market, the tax return we counted on, the housing market, the weather, our state of health, and a thousand other variables.

Outcomes are as unpredictable as a loose cannon on a rolling deck, yet I based my happiness and sense of worth on them for most of my life.

For the most part I was unhappy, anxious and felt like a failure.

Then, somewhere I read or heard this little phrase: “However it needs to be, it’s okay with me.”

When I first came across it, I felt angry. It was a blatant lie. I was reluctant to think it, let alone say it. On the contrary, I was deeply invested in outcomes.

But it didn’t work well to live that way, and I kept noticing that.

For some time I watched myself using all my energy in the tension of trying to create specific outcomes that eluded me.

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In my usual buttheaded fashion, I hung on grimly. If I wasn’t seeing the outcomes I intended and wanted, it was because I didn’t deserve them. Or I didn’t work hard enough. Or I was so broken and stupid nothing would ever work for me. Or the world was against me.

It was much easier to hurt myself and hate myself, both old habits, than consider the possibility that none of us can really control outcomes. It was easier to blame others than change myself.

What we can control – the only place our personal power resides – is what we do with ourselves in terms of our beliefs, choices and behaviors.

Deciding how to think about outcomes is part of our personal power.

I formed a conscious intention of experimenting with letting go of outcomes. One of my very first explorations into that was this blog.

One of the biggest problems with attachment to outcomes for me is that the outcome looms so large it overshadows the hundreds of small pleasures in life, as well as my delight and curiosity in the journey I take through each day. I’m too busy trying to get to an outcome to notice or appreciate anything else. Attachment to outcomes means there’s only one very specific way I can feel successful or happy, and in order for that to happen all the stars must align just right and everyone and everything around me must behave exactly as I want them to. Otherwise I’ll be resentful, depressed, discouraged, hurt, or some other kind of miserable.

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Attachment to outcomes is also a relationship killer. Whatever it is that we want our children, parents, spouses, colleagues, bosses and friends to do or be (or not do or be), the fact is they are not pawns on our chess board. They are not paper dolls. They are not (hopefully) ours to control.

If we cannot accept our loved ones (or ourselves, for that matter) for who they are, we will lose them.

Attachment to outcomes comes with a heavy burden of fear and anxiety. As long as an outcome is “good” or “bad’ in our minds, both hope and fear attach to it. We invest energy in trying to avoid certain events and foster others. We try to figure out how to manipulate and influence the situation so it turns out the way we want.

We lose sight of the others around us very quickly. If we have our hearts set on a job, for example, even though we’re not well qualified for it, we do whatever it takes to get hired, never considering someone else might be a better fit. Someone else might be more desperate than we are for the job. The organization might need a specific set of skills and talents we do not possess. Another job opening we’re not yet aware of might be the place we’re most needed and will be most happy.

Attachment to outcomes can make us small and rigid, selfish and resentful.

So what does it look like to let go of outcomes?

Change and the unexpected are no longer fearful, but interesting. We make space for them. We have increased room for others because we’re not trying to control them. We take life less personally. We are confident and clear in our own power.

To let go of outcomes is to let go of distractions. It frees up space and energy to consider our own integrity, expression and needs. If we want to give a gift, we do it without worrying about how it will be received, if it will be reciprocated or how it will be judged. We give because it makes us happy and gives us pleasure to do so.

If we are artists, we create because it gives us joy, because it’s what we were born for. We don’t use our talent as a tool to leverage fame and riches. That doesn’t mean fame and riches won’t come or our art is not worth getting paid for, it just means that’s not an outcome that drives us.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of feeling victimized, resentful and betrayed. We don’t take disappointment personally. Life is not all about us.

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Letting go of outcomes makes room for cooperation and collaboration. We see others more clearly, lovingly and respectfully. We’re a more elegant team player. We enjoy working with others without the need for competition or power and control. We look for ways to share and nurture power. We give up the blame and shame game.

Letting go of outcomes means letting go of regrets. We make space instead for all outcomes, whether intended or not, comfortable or uncomfortable. We go forward with our best, most honest and heartfelt effort and have fun, letting the rest take care of itself. We use our time and energy to cultivate curiosity, wonder and gratitude for whatever happens.

Letting go of outcomes starves our anxiety, depression and insomnia. If we can position ourselves in life with confidence, surrender and acceptance, we build resilience and joy.

Let me hasten to say releasing outcomes is hard work. I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that at times I’m invested in my resentment over the way things work out and my sense of betrayal. I don’t want to be soothed, comforted, or challenged to consider my experience from a different perspective. I want to be left alone to suck my thumb and pout, my version of a tantrum. Managing my expectations and attachment to outcomes is a work in progress.

I also do not deprive myself of the pleasure of making and achieving personal goals that have to do with exercise, building skills, playing, relaxing or learning new habits. Those kinds of outcomes are well within my power to pursue.

When I feel frustrated and as though nothing ever works out for me, I’ve developed the habit of saying that phrase aloud to myself: “How ever this needs to be, it’s okay with me.” If it feels like a lie in my mouth, I start poking at the situation and asking myself why I’m attached to a particular outcome. I put my energy into taking a step back and reevaluating the situation until I really am okay with whatever outcome occurs. I summon my curiosity, warm up my gratitude, invite my sense of humor to awaken and go forward.

It’s the difference between rolling out of bed and telling the day how it must be in order for me to be happy or rolling out of bed wondering what the day will bring and choosing to enjoy whatever that is in advance.

It’s the difference between arguing with what is and acceptance.

It’s the difference between feeling disempowered and standing firmly in my own power.

However I need to be, however you need to be, however this day needs to be, it’s okay with me.

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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