Life and Health

2021 – Finding the Right Key

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Time for the obligatory year in review and looking at the year ahead post. As I look back on 2021 and wonder what I’ve learned or done; honestly, I don’t even know. Who knew that 2021 would shape up to be simultaneously better and worse than 2020? There are some bright spots as we moved through whatever wave of the global pandemic we’re in at this point (why are we still in the pandemic?) and some really difficult ones.

In the course of 2021, we surpassed 800,000 individuals in the US who have died and that doesn’t include all the individuals that have passed because of unrelated complications brought on by the pandemic. We have had to constantly “pivot” (oh how I hate that word) our lives. My family went through 4 quarantines during 2021 before we were vaccinated and luckily avoided any more until my 5-year-old could be vaccinated. Now as we close out 2021 omicron is taking hold for what will probably be another difficult beginning to 2022. As I look back over the year it seems like such a strange mix of survival and thriving that I feel like I’ve come out at the end of 2021 with a lateral shift. Not necessarily any forward momentum but more like a sideways jump in this journey called life.

Over the course of 2021, my priorities and my focus had to transform. During 2020 it was a crash course in changing priorities but by now I thought some of the things that I was missing because of the pandemic would be back into normal rotation (spoiler alert: they’re not). And through this extra 12 months of contemplation and reflection I got another chance to decide what served me in this life and what didn’t.

In 2021, I crossed that magically line of 40 years old; in some ways I don’t feel any different but in other ways it’s like everything has changed. I’m not having a mid-life crisis, per se, but there definitely seems to be the feeling of “ok, I’m REALLY an adult now so what am I going to do with it?” mentality. I’ve spent a lot of time this year looking at what it means to be the adult in the room and what I need to do to be the best version of myself so I can continue to be that person. I want to be the grown-up that models for my kid and my students what being an adult really means and I’ve come to realize that being a good role model doesn’t mean I’m perfect or the epitome of responsibility.

Sometimes being a good role model for my daughter and my students means I fall apart or have bad days. It means doing something completely (within reason) irresponsible like sitting on the couch and watching Netflix all day while the dishes pile up in the sink. Occasionally being a “good” adult means checking out and taking time for myself. A good role model finds the things that bring them joy and allows them to be happy because that in turn allows them to be better for everyone else.

We’ve all heard the oxygen mask analogy (put yours on before trying to help the others) but in the current culture, what really does that mean for people? Especially women, wives, and mothers? What does applying my own oxygen mask look like when the world has lost its mind?

The term “self-care” has always sounded tone deaf and incredibly patronizing to me because it usually comes with a list of “shoulds” that can add to our list of “to dos” which makes it less like self-care and more like another responsibility laid at our feet to accomplish to feel good about the face we present to the world. One example is taking a bath. People will highlight the “Calgon take me away” idea of locking the bathroom door and getting a nice long soak in peace and quiet to practice some much-needed self-care. Just look at the explosion of bath bombs on the market. But what about individuals whose mobility limits the use of a bathtub or those of us that cannot fit into normal sized bathtubs?

At 5’10” (on a short day), getting in and out of a bathtub is much more difficult for me and while I have a lot of things going for me, the ability to remodel a bathroom to provide me with a giant soaker tub is not in the cards any time soon. And this year, finally, after years of regretting my inability to enjoy a bathtub and feeling shame over my body size limiting me in that way, I have finally let go of the need to enjoy self-care as prescribed by others.

During 2021, I have really been able to lean into what is self-care for myself and not based on anyone else’s. That is the true meaning of self-care because it is centered around what I personally need and fulfills me; not based on anyone else’s needs. My self-care revolves around writing — I have recognized over these tumultuous months of 2020 and 2021 writing is really my go to for grounding and understanding. Whether it’s in this blog, a journal, or creatively, writing is what makes me feel the most at home in my own head and body. By being able to drown out the noise of everyone else I can really focus on and hear my own voice.

Writing for me is the epitome of self-care and opens the door to other activities that help in other ways, but writing is really the key that unlocks all those other doors. For some people those doors might be opened by exercise, they might be opened by taking baths, or reading; who knows? 

The trick is finding your own key and not taking other’s thinking they’ll fit in your locks.

By finding your own key you’ll have access to a wonderful array of doors that enhance and satisfy you in ways that no other person can give you. That is the secret to self-care, not trying the list of dozens of activities that just feel like “shoulds” but taking the time to find the one (or ones) that really ground you in your own life that make it easier to feel present and accounted for instead of just trying to go through the motions to survive until that elusive “when it’s all done and I can take a break.” Take that break now, take it regularly, and take it doing the thing(s) YOU want to do, not ticking off some arbitrary, fake list of someone else’s recommended activities.

Life and Health, Tips and Tricks

Shut Up Brad – Silencing the Judgement in Your Head

Do voices keep you up at night? Are there voices in your head that constantly pick on you or call you out on things that really aren’t problems but the voices in your head think they’re problems? Does your brain tell you that you can’t do something or shouldn’t do something for whatever reason?

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

I’d like to introduce you to Brad. A few friends and I have taken to naming that voice “Brad.” Most of us have a “they” in our heads that are constantly judging us and questioning everything we say or do. Sometimes it comes in the form of the hamster wheel of late-night thoughts that keep us from sleeping, sometimes it comes from the ruminating and replaying something we did or said during the day that we just wish had gone differently. There are a million reasons why these voices take up residence and can keep us stuck perseverating on whatever. I have often found that Brad is linked to societal expectations of who I am supposed to be as a forty-year-old woman, wife, and mom.

Regardless of where those voices or words have come from giving them a name gives me the ability to emphatically yell “Shut up Brad!” (I personally am envisioning Brad from Rocky Horror Picture Show) and for some reason or another that stops the thoughts in their tracks. It gives me a chance to take a breath and really think about what the voice is saying to me — is it worthy of keeping me up at night? Usually, the answer is no because all this rumination on the hamster wheel is the stories my mind is telling me about scenarios that simply aren’t true.

The brain is a funny thing; we understand so much about it now, but we are still fighting it. In some ways our brains haven’t caught up with the inputs of modern life and the constant influx of extra stimulus social media provides or the myriad of interactions we have now that weren’t part of our evolutionary development. Our brain also treats us like we’re the most important thing in the world and all our words or actions carry such weight that we must analyze and overanalyze them constantly. While it’s good to be the center of our own worlds to a certain extent, we often forget that everyone is the center of their own universe so many of the things we say or do are not nearly as important to them as they are to us. I still think about some of the embarrassing things that I said or did in elementary, middle or high school but I bet almost no one I went to school with probably thinks of even remembers them at this point; so why do they take up residence?

Many times, I find myself deliberating or rehashing an event like a director trying to look at it from all the angles to decide exactly how bad I screwed it up and then I remember that is Brad talking. He’s the one that feels this event needs my attention even though there were plenty of amazing and beautiful things that happened during the day.

It’s getting stuck on this negativity loop keeps me from moving forward some days. It keeps me from being present in the moment and sometimes keeps me from being able to fall asleep at night.

Photo by Pablo Gentile on Unsplash

I have found that by naming the voice in my head that wants to keep me stuck I can instead tell it to shut up every now and again. This lets me jump off the hamster wheel; by jumping off the wheel Brad loses his power, and I can move forward with whatever needs to be done or by staying present and enjoying whatever I’m doing now.

Sometimes I really do screw up and need to atone for a wrong-doing but most of the time Brad usually opens his mouth when I haven’t really done anything wrong but there is some perceived notion that I didn’t play by the rules or “they” might judge me for something.

If you’ve watched Luca from Pixar, you might remember Alberto telling Luca about Bruno. Bruno is the name Alberto has given the voice that says you can’t do something. Alberto tells Luca to say “Silenzio, Bruno” to shut that voice up. When my family was sitting and watching Luca a few weeks ago I was so amazed to hear my own Brad technique echoed in this animated movie for kids (although let’s be honest, Pixar movies are not just for kids). However, after the way Pixar handled the brain and emotions in Inside Out I’m not sure why I was surprised.

You can pick any name you want, whether it’s Brad or Bruno, maybe the name of the middle school bully that has stuck with you? 

Being able to give this voice of judgement, shame, and fear a name and then promptly telling it silenzio or shut up you can begin to take your own mind back and away from the stories your own brain is trying to tell you.

Life and Health, Tips and Tricks

Doing A Better Job in Just 10 Minutes a Day

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

The past 21 months (how has it been 21 months?) has completely changed many of our relationships with work. From the great resignation, having to work from home, or being more stressed out at work than ever before we’ve all experienced stressors these past near two years. People magazine has named teachers as “people of the year” along with Simone Biles, Dolly Parton, and Sandra Oh, pretty good company I think? While you may not feel that every teacher you’ve come in contact with has done a remarkable job (and that’s true during “good” years too) I know that many of my colleagues and friends have been working under extreme stress and trying to navigate the new norms and expectations that this situation has brought us.

I know for myself part of the job I love the most is connecting with and mentoring kids was extremely hard during the 2020–2021 school year. Trying to motivate most students was enormously difficult last year and the beginning of this school year brought in a whole host of issues. This year I think many of us, myself included, erroneously thought that students would be so happy to be back in “normal” school that they would just pick up where we left off in March 2020 and all would be well. Clearly that has not been the case — everyone has been changed by the past 21 months and the desire to return to normalcy clouded our vision and judgment for how to proceed. I know I took many missteps the first couple months of school both because of my own personal issues and a desire to “get back to normal” after what has seemed like such a difficult road for those of us in giving professions especially when the ability to build relationships and connections is so overwhelmed by all the “normal” trauma individuals experience coupled with the collective trauma of the pandemic.

I had to realign my expectations and almost start over with myself in November to turn both my attitude and my routines around to have a better year and really work with my students where they’re at instead of where I thought they were; part of that process was by becoming a calmer, more centered, and balanced person both in school and out.

The first two months of school I was almost constantly coming home with a headache and all I wanted to do was take that precious hour or hour and half before I had to pick my daughter up from daycare to watch some not suitable for children TV (currently “Criminal Minds” on Netflix). I was so burnt out from the day and all the mental and emotional energy I was spending to keep it together and be the adult in the room my levels crashed on the lulling ride home and I basically wanted to spend the evening being a vegetable.

And while that was what I needed in the moment, it was not productive or fulfilling and to a certain extent left me feeling worse at the end of the day. I brainstormed ways to change the narrative because functioning as a wife, mom, and teacher requires me to take care of myself first. I know we’ve all heard the airplane oxygen mask analogy (“put yours on first”) but why is it so damn hard to follow that advice? Why is it so difficult, mostly for women, to really set aside time or ways to take care of ourselves so we are centered, calm, and balanced? Even when you KNOW that it works? Even when you SEE that it works? But I slip into old patterns and try to put everyone (or everything AKA cleaning) first, so I end up irritated, short tempered, and miserable.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

As part of my brainstorming session, I created an “end of day” ritual for my workday, and I feel like many could benefit from this idea whether you’re working from home and have to shift gears or whether your work day is stressful and you need to not bring that stress home. Maybe you’re a retail worker during this “wonderful” time of the year and people are not necessarily treating you with holiday cheer, maybe you’re a teacher like myself just trying to do a better job, maybe you’re a mom who’s working from home and somehow has to flip a switch and become mom….who knows? I found that having this simple ritual has really helped me both end the day and be ready for tomorrow while also carving out a little mental space for me to a calmer, better, more balanced person. This ritual has really helped lift the weight that I had felt was dragging me down over the past couple of months.

My ritual has three parts:

1. Make my to do list for tomorrow — This is critical for feeling like I can leave work at work. I write down anything I need to do tomorrow so I can forget about it for the rest of the night. If it’s already written down some where my brain doesn’t have to try to remember it. If I don’t do this first the rest of my ritual is lost.

2. I use an aromatic room spray that gives me the olfactory cue that the day is over and time to mentally draw the boundary between work me and home me.

3. I meditate for usually 3–5 minutes. I really can’t last much longer than that but by taking those minutes to slow down and take a few deep breaths it really helps me end the day and transition.

I was incredibly surprised how instituting this small, ten-minute ritual really helped me be a better, less burnt-out person. It kept the stress from getting too overwhelming and ultimately coming home with me for the night. It is allowing me to use the time before I pick up my daughter from daycare in a more fulfilling way and then is also allowing me to be a better, more present parent once I do pick her up. It’s also giving me the ability to stay on top of my to do list at work so I am (usually) not overwhelmed with all my responsibilities.

I look forward to when the last bell rings, the bus change announcements are made and I can shut down my laptop and complete my ritual because it means that the rest of the afternoon and evening has possibilities again instead of just wanting to lounge on the couch and ignore everything else.