Looking outside of myself

I turned 35 yesterday.  Funny how some ages hit you and others don’t.  35 hit me.  I have always been an overachiever, trying to prove to everyone that I am different than my parents, that I won’t be a victim and that I can succeed regardless of my circumstances.  In most things I never had innate talent, just a will to be better than people thought I could be.  I measured myself on whether I was working harder than everyone else, because I assumed that was the only way to set myself apart.  For many years I was right.  I ended up playing Division 3 basketball, but not because I was talented, because I worked my ass off.  Unfortunately, once you hit college trying harder can only get you so far – talent in addition to effort will surpass you (and size).  So I was 6th or 7th off the bench when I was used to being the star of the team.  This was my first lesson what worked for me in the past may not work for me now.  Life changes, perspective changes and what you put in will not always get you the same results.

I am having a similar experience in my life now, turning 35.  I have always been the young one in my peer group at work, always.  It felt good, to exceed people’s expectations, to surprise them.  My gift has been my intuition for people, how to connect with them, how to motivate them, how to help them uncover their best self, and my insights. I live for the moment that I would be sitting in a room full of executives in some seemingly important meeting.   I would revel in the moment that I would wow someone with an observation or insight.  I especially loved the moment when someone was there that didn’t know me, and would make small talk after and ask me my age and the look on their face would make my whole day.  I felt special.  Wow, they would say, you are wise for your age, or you are an old soul, or, where did you learn how to do that at your age.  The point is, I felt like an overachiever, I felt different.  I stood out.

Now, I am 35, and for some time now the things I have accomplished are no longer special.  The job(s) or roles I have held are now what could/should be expected at 35.  So yesterday, more than any other time, it really hit me, I look to others to validate my success, my worth, my being.  Does being the age that others are make me any less.  No.

So it got me to thinking.  In what ways am I looking outside myself for validation?  So I did a sort of meditation on my life.  And thought through everyday experiences (big and small) such as my bike ride to work and whether or not I looked like a tourist or a local (I live in Amsterdam) compared to the person next to me, or to being at the park with my son and comparing myself to the other parents or comparing him to other kids, and to having friends over for dinner, what would they think of the wine, the food, was my cooking better or worse than theirs, was I serving better or worse wine, and when I am at work, do I find value in my work if others don’t praise it, or what if they are the same age or younger than me and doing a similar level job, do I feel less special or like I am less valuable?

You get the idea.  Once I catalogued all these situations in my mind, I stripped the outside people the “others” away.  I started to imagine each scenario without someone else to compare to or someone else to praise or criticize me.  And I found that in most of my life I am looking outside as opposed to inside.  The funny realization for me is that I felt like i have been doing this work for years, uncovering neurosis, building self awareness, following my intuition, having a strong sense of self etc…and have been coaching others to do it themselves.  I laughed.  Sometimes you can convince yourself you are living the work you do, but really you aren’t.  Awareness is everything, almost.

Clearly the journey is never ending, what we think we know we can know again, in a different way.  The uncovering of self and who we are with others never ends.  So my new practice these days is to visualize a situation in which no one else had an opinion or judgement, and it was just me.  What would I do then?  What would I think of myself if there was no one to compare myself to.  Who am I, really?  I pick one a day and journal about it or just meditate on it, or sit with my coffee and think alone.

I encourage you to try the same.  In what ways are you defining yourself compared to others?  Who are you when there is no one?

Now, I realize that this is the other extreme, it is just an exercise, to create more awareness, to create more space for other possibilities.

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”   Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

An unexamined life

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I just finished a lengthy discussion with an old friend of mine about life and labels and sexuality.  The last time we saw each other we were talking about what it may have been like if she ended up with two daughters and a wife instead of two daughters and a husband.  She has been in the middle of the sexuality spectrum since I have known her, and it was a toss up as to if she would end up with a man or woman.  Her husband is significantly older than her and it is likely that someday she will end up back in the dating pool, and may end up with a woman.  It would be such a pity if people jump to the conclusion that her marriage was a sham, or that she has been dishonest with herself or them all those years.

Because if there is one thing I think humans love to do it is label people, and put them in a box.  It is safe, predictable, comfortable, that is if they stay in that box.  By like me and you, most of us don’t.  Sometimes even the box we agree to be in is defined differently by you than it is me.

For example, I came out as a lesbian just as I was finishing my freshman year of college, I was about to turn 19.  Unlike many people I know, I came out before I ever had a girlfriend.  That isn’t to say I didn’t have a crush.  At the time I was dating men, and I had a lot of first and second dates, but rarely more.  I had met a guy, let’s call him Dan.  He was great, a school nurse, smart, funny, handsome.  I went out with him a dozen times.  But something was missing.  Parallel to dating Dan I was fantasizing about my best female friend, we will call her Sarah.  For all intents and purposes we were having an emotional affair, but nothing physical.  So, like many times before, I just told myself it was a fleeting crush, a phase and that it happened to everyone.  One night Sarah and I had plans to hang out just the two of us.  I was really looking forward to it.  It had been a long week of school and work and I only wanted to hang out with her.  Go to a bar, drink a few beers, talk and laugh all night.  Just as we were getting ready to leave her phone rang.  It was Joe, the dud of a guy she had a crush on that had been stringing her along.  Suddenly he wanted to go out.  “Do you mind?”  Sarah says…”He hasn’t called in weeks and I really want to see him.”  I knew that they would get drunk and have sex.  Gag.  So I slumped off and pouted and decided to call Dan.  He had just gotten back from the city teaching sailing lessons and yes, he would love to go out.  He picked me up and we went to Fridays, I guess that was a big deal when I was 18.  I shudder at the thought now.  I decided that I was going to do the same.  Get drunk and have sex, after all, maybe I would feel better and Dan was a great guy, nurse, sailing instructor, he had a JEEP!  We drank the night away (he was 21 to my 18 and the server didn’t seem to think I needed to be carded) and ended up at his house.  Halfway through the “adventure” I started crying, got up, got dressed and went home.  Immediately upon arriving my friend Sue was sitting in the kitchen.  “what’s up K” she asks.  “I am gay.”  As you can imagine that led to a few hours of talking and more crying and a few more beers.

At that moment I had never been more sure of anything in my life.  I was gay, that was it.  I am now a few days shy of 35 years old, married over to a wonderful woman (together 9 years last week) and we have a two year old son.

So what does this have to do with examining your life and labels and such.  Well, it wasn’t always so cut and dry.  I have struggled as a gay person, as many do.  It is damn hard sometimes.  Other times I forget, because I am really just a married person with a beautiful family.  So I moved from one label, straight, to another, gay.  And people have a whole different set of expectations of you depending on which you are.  Everyone in my life expected I would have children from a very young age, I always adored them and am a natural caretaker.  The minute I came out almost every person’s response was “but I thought you wanted kids?”  Hello, I didn’t give up my uterus!  I am the same person, same values, same everything, except now I want to date women.

My wife is more feminine than I am.  So of course once everyone got over the fact that we still both had our uterus’ they assumed she would give birth.  When in fact she wasn’t sure about being pregnant and I knew it I wanted to with every cell in my body.

You get my point.  As humans we label people and we expect them to behave according to that label.  And when they don’t we may question their authenticity, their honesty.  When in fact we may have no idea who they are or what they set out to think, feel, or do.

As long as you are self aware, and examining your own life and living as authentically as you can, screw what others expect.  It is your life.

As a practice I try to end my thoughts about other people with “maybe”.  Maybe there are this, or maybe there are that…or maybe not.  Nothing is certain.

As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

Who are you, really?

I was recently asked who I was, how I define myself.  Not considering work.  I don’t know about you, but I always thought I was pretty clear on my identity.  But I was stumped, totally blank.  Then I started to rattle some things off, I am a mom, a wife, a foodie, an avid reader, a buddhist, an obsessor of modern art, furniture and architecture, an animal lover, a meditator, a passionate home cook, an aspiring yogi, a friend….and two thoughts stopped me – when was the last time I really made time for these things and was truly present doing them?  And, the list contains all things that a person does.  So, I didn’t really feel I had answered the question of “who are you,” and more importantly, I didn’t know.

We all do this to ourselves, or at least I think we do.  Once we graduate college we start to define ourselves our jobs, by our primary relationships, by our hobbies and we end up with a list.  What does that list really mean?

Mom – I have a 2 year old son, I nurture him, I love him, I feed him, I keep him clean and safe, I teach him, I play with him, I help shape him…

Wife – I have been with my wife for 9 years, we have been married over 6 (yes, legally thanks to getting in under the wire in CA).  I love her, I listen, I share, I support us financially, I nurture her, I make her laugh, I feed her, I am the cook in the house, she does the rest…we go on dates, we raise our son together, we try to stay open and loving and in touch, we try to have fun together, we plan for the future…

Employee – I have worked for the same Company for almost 6 years – I have moved 3 times for them, once internationally (we live in Amsterdam right now via NY, via Chicago, via LA, via Chicago).  I am in charge of Organization Development (ie how we keep people motivated, happy, and growing).  I used to spend most of my time doing executive coaching and running workshops on emotional intelligence, communication, leadership, etc…now I primarily run projects, which I hate.

blah blah blah…you get the picture.

I see myself as I am not…the things I identify with are not me…and in many ways many of the things I love I don’t even do anymore.  Time is of the essence, and for me, probably as for most people, I don’t have enough of it.

I am now on to figuring out how to discover, or rediscover me.

Some would say I am having a mid life crisis, albeit a few years early.

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