Tag Archives: control

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 Unpublished writing?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.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

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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Unconditional Love

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I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.

One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.

I was wrong.

Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.

But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.

You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.

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Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.

In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.

Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.

A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”

Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.

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Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.

When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.

On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!

I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.

My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!

Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.

Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.

Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.

Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.

Sometimes unconditional love requires the hardest thing of all—letting the loved one go.

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My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.

Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.

As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.

We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.

Practicing unconditional love. My daily crime.

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The Breakdown Lane

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I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.

We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?

Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.

Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.

I still regret that I did not have the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed—and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.

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I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans for them have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.

A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.

Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.

I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.

Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

That doesn’t mean it’s not present.

I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me that nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:

Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)

Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.

Except that we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?

It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!

At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcome. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.

What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are—and life is.

It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.

So, now, what do I mean by a friend?

A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.

(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)

When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine that each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering that the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience, hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear and disconnection.

I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.

On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.

Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.

My daily crime.