Can Ambition and Happiness Coexist?

Canva - Shakespeare, King Lear, Ancient, Classic, Romeo

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the root of betrayal, dishonesty, conspiracy — what makes these narratives tragic, in other words — is ambition.

In the first scene of King Lear, the elderly, semi-senile king decides it is time to divide his realm up among his three young daughters, declaring that he’ll offer the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him most. Lear’s biggest tragic flaw is his blindness to others’ flaws: it doesn’t occur to him that any of his children might be driven by greed or power — that they might have ambitions of their own. He can’t imagine that Goneril and Regan would deceive him with flattery for personal gain — that they might love power and money more than their own father. Lear banishes Cordelia, his stubborn but only loyal daughter, and the tragedy is set in motion.

In Julius Caesar, Cassius, one of the central conspirators planning to assassinate Caesar, convinces Brutus to betray Caesar by manipulating his perception of ambition. First, Cassius describes Caesar’s thirst for power as despotic, suggesting that it has Romans “groaning under this age’s yoke.” Immediately, though, Cassius invites Brutus to consider his own ambition for the first time, tempting him with the image of power: “I have heard,” Cassius says, “Where many of the best respect in Rome/ … speaking of Brutus.” Who wouldn’t be flattered by such a remark? 

Moments after Caesar is slain, Brutus stands over his friend’s dead body and announces, “ambition’s debt is paid.” In other words, acting according to ambition always involves paying a price. In this case, Caesar’s death is a consequence of ambition — Brutus’ own, as well as a cost of it — Caesar’s.

I could bore you with more examples but I’ll be nice. Consider the above an epigraph for the following question that I’ve been noodling on recently: is it possible to focus on ambition and support your happiness at the same time? 

I’ll start by unpacking my own relationship to the word AMBITION. Obviously the way we understand and define it is different today than in Shakespeare’s context. But I started with these dramatic examples for a reason: they show how blind we can become when ambition takes center stage, and how quickly.

I began thinking of myself as an ambitious person in high school. At that time, ambition meant achievement, though I wasn’t yet mature enough to know what it was I wanted to achieve (or why). I was, however, self-aware enough to know that I was obsessed with school (grades, yes, but if I’m trying to be less cynical, I was genuinely focused on academics). But yeah sure, I also wanted to study my ass off for the SATs and do too many extracurriculars like playing guitar and painting and writing for the school newspaper so that I seemed interesting on paper. As an anxious child, I’d begun the habit of compulsively cleaning my family’s home by the time I was only 10, and I guess my penchant for control stuck around. Color-coding my closet, making to-do-lists, studying — these were all activities that soothed me, like a child clutching a blankie or watching cartoons with a string-cheese in hand. I could input effort and see output rendered. I equated ambition and control.

In my teenage years, I learned quickly that the “ambition” I brought to my school work could be applied to my body. If I restricted my calorie intake, that was ambitious, right? To me, dieting felt like an exercise in virtue — doing the same amount as everyone around me, but with less fuel. Pleasure was inefficient. Hunger felt morally upstanding — a constant reminder of my self-control, composure, even pragmatism.

This mythology — my conflation of ambition, control, and self-denial — only got more extreme when I went to Harvard for college. For better or for worse, Harvard tends to be a petri dish for students just old enough to identify their ambitions, but not mature enough to ask “why?” It was at Harvard that I became obsessed with G-cal and developed a toxic, hyper-compartmentalized relationship to time, one that continues to plague me today. Just as J. Alfred Prufrock laments “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” I often fear that I literally measure out my life in G-cal “events” — most of which are personal lists and reminders rather than actual appointments or plans.

In my junior year in college, I developed a terrifying addiction to the amphetamine-based stimulant Adderall after realizing that it sharpened the edges of my self-discipline in ways that felt supernatural. I could go days without eating or talking to other people, but I could still write papers for graduate seminars (I wanted to be an academic at the time) and clean my room until my floor was clean enough to eat off of. Fortunately, I got off Adderall before my senior year started. 

Also fortunately, I abandoned my fantasy of a career in academia quickly after graduating college. And yet, for the past 6+ years, I’ve still held tightly onto similar narratives about what it means to be an “ambitious” or “successful” person. Conditioning is powerful, no? (And it’s not just my own neuroses — our culture does not make this easy for anyone. I’ll say more on that in a second). It wasn’t until I was sitting in therapy just this year that I realized just how much I rely on self-judgment as a source of motivation. The word “should” has long existed at the center of my vocabulary, and anything I “want” to do quickly, almost automatically, becomes a chore. At times, I don’t know what it feels like to live inside of my body — to want to do something (and to do it!) because I am in the mood. To eat something because I am craving it. To experience time as anything but a vehicle for getting something done.

Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself (in therapy, through journaling, by reading or practicing yoga and meditation, among other forms of healing), I’ve learned to identify and nurture other desires, emotions and needs — beyond “ambition” — all of which I’ve ignored for most of my life.

For example, I want to feel a greater sense of freedom and expansion in my writing work — but I’ve become so well-practiced at repressing that desire in order to devote myself to infinite to-do-lists disguised as G-cal events. I love cooking and baking and eating adventurously — but often feel scared of indulging these desires, having rehearsed self-denial for long enough to judge them as unworthy or frivolous. I want to create time and space in my life for painting, an activity I adored during my childhood (and a bit in college) — but have been facing some resistance as I try to carve away time for something that I have no “future” in.

In this last case, please consider the irony. My self-defined concept of “ambition” is not an engine for taking action, but nothing more than a major wet blanket weighing on my creativity, curiosity, and motivation. With each revelation, I am beginning to thaw, to see more and more that self-hatred is not that heroic after all.

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A painting I made this winter upon realizing that I could let myself paint simply because it brought me joy. RADICAL!

Currently, our culture encourages notions of ambition like the one I’ve been seeking to redefine in my own life. That is, ambition as an external, measurable achievement. An idea, a concept (I want to be a writer so I can be famous) — rather than an embodied feeling (I want to be a writer because I love writing). Ambition as number of Likes or followers, clicks and views. 

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I mean, really?

Social media has “empowered” us (or perhaps imprisoned us, depending on your opinion — you can probably sense mine) to turn what once may have been fun, spontaneous hobbies into opportunities for “influencing,” entrepreneurship, elements of public identity. (This opinion piece in The New York Times, “In Praise of Mediocrity,” really resonated with my thoughts on this matter). It’s not enough just to care about something — you have to show you care about it, and get the validation to confirm that you care enough. What a great culture in which to find inspiration! Amirite? 

Let me stop for a second to remind us all that the word “inspire” is etymologically derived from the Latin inspirare, to breathe into. You can literally think of creative inspiration as a respiratory action, one that is often involuntary just like breathing. We tend to think of ourselves in a state of being “inspired” or of others as “inspiring” — adjectives — rather than the action, “to inspire.” But with the proper sense of space and safety and freedom, we can inspire all of our experiences — people, poems, paintings, foods. We can allow ourselves to daydream. We can see a color we like and decide to draw with colored pencils for an hour. We may even find that with a little exploration, we unlock a well of motivation for hard work. We can take action — lots of action! — from a place of joy.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything we do in life should be born from desire or instinct, nor do I think that’s even possible. Obviously we live in a fast-paced capitalist society and sitting around strumming “Kumbaya” on your guitar isn’t going to get you a book deal. While I’m trying to move away from a crack-the-whip mentality about my own goals, sure, I know hard work is still necessary, and that sometimes hard work requires you to make a to-do-list or G-cal event.

But what I am trying to suggest that ambition and happiness can not only coexist, but hopefully can even encourage each other — if and only if your idea of ambition doesn’t threaten your sense of safety. The core feelings and desires that you may be inclined to ignore  — where are they? Are you accounting for them? What about the needs of your inner 5-year-old? How does he/she/they feel about whatever goal it is that you’re after? 

The idea of safety might seem a little out of left-field, but let me explain.

In a recent article I wrote for The New York Times, I examined the psychological underpinnings of procrastination and explained how, at its core, procrastinating is about managing our emotions, not our time. Quick synopsis: we procrastinate because of difficult feelings that come up for us around a given task — insecurity or dread, self-doubt, boredom, you get the gist. Evolutionarily, our brains are wired to perceive these feelings as dangerous — threats to our safety, in other words — so we avoid the cause of these feelings in order to “survive.” Yes, procrastination is a survival mechanism gone awry.

Similarly, if our personal definition of “ambition” requires us to deprive ourselves of adequate sleep, food, social interaction, or whatever the needs/feelings/etc. are, we will likely feel a sense of danger or unease at our core. This doesn’t mean that we won’t still be wildly successfully — plenty of entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, writers, etc. have been known to work very hard, and very successfully, at the expense of their well-being. But most of them have not been able to boast of happiness, which is up to each and every one of us to define for ourselves.

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I have been reading this and find Julia Cameron’s insights about “the inner artist child” and the importance of play ESSENTIAL.

By “happiness,” at least for myself, I don’t mean to conjure images of glittery, buoyant blonde women doing yoga poses in front of waterfalls on Instagram. Frankly, I am often put off by much of the self-help-slash-wellness rhetoric around questions like “How to be happy” or “What does happiness mean, anyway?” Much of this content doesn’t address the difficulty of the journey toward feeling good — the anxiety of developing new habits and facing fear about change; doubt about whether new habits will even make a difference; whether it’s even possible not to judge self-destructive behaviors when they become so frustratingly repetitive.

What I do mean is something resembling contentment, groundedness, a sense of I-am-OK. Safety, really. 

Finding the pathway to contentment isn’t easy. Acceptance of “what is” is at the core, and we all know that is easier said than done. But being able to take a breath in (inspire!) and feel our feet beneath us is a good starting place, and most of us can get there. From there, we can practice what it feels like to trust ourselves. Ask, What do I need in this moment to feel safe? Do this on your way to work, at the start of a big project, in the shower each morning as you consider the day ahead — wherever, really.

I know the notion of the “inner child” is abundant in the self-help world, but I prefer the image of my “inner children” — multiple! — as I definitely felt anxious and wasn’t able to “parent” myself at various stages of childhood. When I ask this question — What do I need in this moment to feel safe? — I consider my vulnerable inner 5-year-old, my rambunctious inner 8-year-old, my bratty inner 12-year old, and so on. I show them, and myself, that I can trust myself. I am accounting for their safety, our safety.

From this foundation of greater trust, we can experiment with taking action in a new way. We continue to strengthen the muscle of self-trust. We can be ambitious — we can achieve things, great things — without paying our happiness as the price.

Am I Practicing Self-Acceptance or Being Lazy?

Despite my successful memorization of New Age-y aphorisms about being present and loving oneself, I struggle quite a bit with self-acceptance.

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I may have a mugwort sprig next to my bed, but I’m not perfect.

Our culture celebrates clenched fists, tightened jaws, fierce competition, and, to a certain extent, self-judgment. If you’re “pushing yourself,” an undeniably virtuous thing, you’re presumably having to judge your behaviors, and your definition of what it means to be doing “enough,” that artfully amorphous term. 

This framework is what encourages many of us (hi!) to lock ourselves in a cycle of self-loathing.

I didn’t do enough today. I ate really gross shit last week. I don’t work out enough. My writing sucks. I procrastinate too much. &c.

The intention behind self-loathing for many of us, I think, is protection. Beating up on ourselves can become a convenient refrain, a way of reminding ourselves of the desire to fulfill [x goal] Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (Daft Punk!).

e.g. If I beat up on myself for how many french fries I ate last night, I will prove to myself that my goal is to be healthier. Hopefully, I will even choose to eat a salad instead today.

Of course, feeling shitty about yourself is a shitty motivator. Myriad studies have actually proven this (such as this recent one), and have also proven the benefits of self-compassion. When we meet ourselves where we’re at—no matter how “successful” we are in practice—we enable ourselves to achieve more. IT’S SCIENCE.

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From now on, let’s pretend a “B+” means BE POSITIVE.

But truth be told, the line between self-acceptance and laziness isn’t always clear. My ongoing struggle in therapy is to figure out when I’m enacting positive behaviors, and when I’m rationalizing self-destructive behaviors. I can be quite convincing, I’m afraid. #DENIAL.

For instance, this question comes up a lot in my meditation practice. I like to meditate every day, and consider it an important ritual for my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But because I also have a tendency to over-schedule myself and hold myself to too many standards, my “requirement” to meditate every day sometimes feels like a chore. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not—and it’s something I have to “push myself” to do.

Say I get caught in the rain during my commute after a long-day at work. Upon arriving home, I may not want to meditate. I may want, instead, to drink a beer and binge eat french fries. While that decision may not be capital-H Healthy according to some static definition of Self-Care, it may be a healthy decision for me in that moment.

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Sometimes, you just want to read Keats and drink tequila—and that’s OK!

But, alternatively, say my long day at work involved a lot of ruminating, and stewing in negative thoughts. Meditation might be exactly the thing I need upon coming home—either in addition to the beer and french fries, or instead of it (plus some other dinner option). The hard thing is that it really depends on the situation, and my specific FEELING about what would be self-caring in that particular moment. Unfortunately, living in an EMBODIED WAY and trusting our intuition isn’t something our culture applauds us for, either.

Long story short, sometimes “pushing yourself” is an act of self-care, and sometimes it’s the stark opposite. “Pushing myself” to meditate when I’m tired might be a fantastic idea on one day, and an unnecessary form of “punishment” on another. As I have said before, can sometimes be an insidious coexistence of self-awareness and denial in the mind.

The most important thing is taking a step back from all the mental clutter, owning your shit, and making decisions independent of it.

What do I mean by “your shit”? Well, put simply: our thoughts—our sense of what our experience is like outside of what it feels like in our bodies. Ask yourself, “What are my go-to ways of narrating my life?”

In my case, I tell myself the story every day that I am Type-A, hard on myself, and overly-analytical. This narrative is pretty accurate, factually-speaking, but it has also led me to some pretty destructive behaviors. For example, I spent many years smoking pot around the clock, because “I deserved it.” “It made me chill out—and even made me smarter.” If I could achieve everything I wanted (straight As, regular visits to the gym, social interactions, etc) while still being stoned all the time, I was deserving of self-acceptance.

In hindsight, I was rationalizing a bad habit. Whether or not I dismiss my many years of denial as “lazy” isn’t really the point (experts would probably suggest avoiding negative labels). The more important takeaway is the power of storytelling. We are capable of creating the right dramatic scenario in our minds to support our behaviors and thought-patterns. And it’s up to us, too, to recognize that—and make changes anyway.

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Look at me following my own advice (NOT!)

What I’m saying may not sound particularly encouraging, but the bottom line is that the knowledge we hold in our bodies often has way more wisdom than what is in our minds. When I actually allow myself to feel EMBODIED, rather than relying on a story of what my experience is like, my sense of what self-care means is flexible and intelligent. Sometimes, self-care is running. Sometimes it’s smoking weed. Sometimes it’s simply saying “It’s OK that I smoked weed even though I am trying not to self-medicate.”

Rarely, if ever, is self-flagellation a productive decision.  

So, if you’ve eaten too many french fries and feel like shit in your body, perhaps you’ll eat something green tomorrow. But I would hazard the guess that saying “It’s OK that I binge ate french fries” will make you feel much better in your body.

It takes quite a bit of courage to say “It’s OK.” Try it. Push yourself.

Acknowledge Your Shit (+ Say No Thanks)

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Week after week, day after day, I wonder about the origins of my self-loathing. When did it begin? And why? The answers remain unclear, hence asking all the time.

When I refer to “my self-loathing” in everyday conversations—with random people at parties, friends of friends, colleagues, etcetera—I’m always amazed to find that so many people seem to really hear it, and express some kind of relief—as in: You hate yourself on a regular basis? You mean you feel the thing I thought no one else felt?

It’s like a more positive version of the feeling I have when I read WebMD message boards about hypochondriacal scenarios I’ve conjured for myself and see that everyone is bugging the fuck out. Like, oh yeah, we’re all crazy and typing in our bizarre psychosomatic symptoms into Google on a Saturday night. NBD.

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Story of my life.

Anxiety is one of those feelings that is addictive because it’s recursive. It’s cyclical. First there’s the rumination— on habits (or habits of mind), rhetorical questions, obsessions, behaviors, other self-referential objects. Then comes a “bad” feeling. Anxiety, of course, then wants to solve the feeling, because we’re wired to survive. And then more unanswerable questions pile on. Then more feelings. Usually “bad” ones.

(FYI: I don’t mean “bad” or “shitty” with self-blame. I get that any feeling is “just a feeling” but I’m trying to bevel the edges of my Buddhist ideologies by writing with more raw and colloquial language.)

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, there is a word—papancha—that refers to this recursive, addictive, cyclical process. Sharon Salzberg, who is my meditation teacher and friend and colleague (and the amazing author of a new book, Real Love), once defined papancha as “the imperialistic quality of the mind towards negativity.” Anxiety, to me, is imperialistic. It somehow always feels like it conquers you. To add insult to injury, you always seem to want to fight back.

Exhausted by this pattern,  I’ve spent the past month or so experimenting with seeing my various judgments and obsessive thoughts differently—and deliberately. For sake of contrast, below is the “before” part of my work-in-progress “before and after”:

Usually, my thought patterns look something like this.

  1. I feel thirsty.
  2. I must not have had enough water today.
  3. I should’ve had more to drink earlier.
  4. Well, just go fill your water bottle, it’s not that hard.
  5. Why do you buy water bottles if you don’t use them?
  6. If you weren’t thinking so much about this, you would just drink water.

It could go on and on.

The irony here is obvious. Anxiety tends to preclude me (you, anyone) from taking a proactive approach to dealing with the very object of the anxiety. It’s often self-sabotaging. For instance, if I’m so anxious about thirst, the best and most pragmatic choice would be to drink. But over the years, I have gotten so used to my habit of rumination as a response to anxiety that I typically lose sense of what I am actually wanting, what my body feels, and what’s best for me in a given moment.

What I have referred to as the “after” stage is a process. But the shorthand is that I am trying to practice welcoming “bad” thoughts, checking in with how they make me feel, and then choosing to say “no thank you!” to them, if that seems self-caring.

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This was a to do list of mine for a recent Saturday. I obsessively make lists, as they keep me feeling bad about my productivity. #dysfunctional

Let me give some context.

A couple of years ago, I was in one of those bad, donation-based yoga class where the teacher kept encouraging us to “not think about our fear.” I remember thinking, “That’s not rly that yogic.” Shouldn’t you acknowledge and accept your fear? The same way you should acknowledge anything that happens in the present moment—even if it’s realizing that you are spending 10 minutes berating yourself about why you don’t drink enough water? Because by acknowledging it, then you can at least be like, OK, now I’m going to release that. If you don’t pay attention, the feeling (and its effects on you) have to go somewhere.

Meditation is the first and only tool I’ve encountered that has enabled me to begin developing a more productive relationship to anxiety. I no longer want to eradicate it, but want to kindly let it know that it’s not welcome as much as it has been in the past. I don’t ignore it (“I don’t hear you knocking on my door!) but rather say something to it like a, “Hi. I see you’re here, but I’m busy at the moment. Sorry!”

I think meditation seems to be so uncomfortable because people (myself included) don’t want to watch what their minds do, and where they go, if without significant distraction. It’s unpleasant to be honest about what we’re capable of making ourselves feel. We’re confronted with watching our mind do things as unproductive as my thirst and water bottle dialogue—and constantly. But it’s only when you notice these things that you can pull yourself out of them. The process REQUIRES that you first acknowledge what’s happening—and that is courageous and useful in and of itself. Even if it feels shitty and seems like it’s showing a part of yourself you don’t want to see. Bottom line? You can’t not think about your fear. It will be there no matter what you call it, or don’t.

Fear is just one emotion in the camp of feelings most of us hate, and that often encourage us to act in ways we don’t like—acting out “our shit.” Maybe you’re feeling loss or are going through a life transition, and, like me, spend 954,334,549 hours on your phone for no reason and then hate yourself for it. Or maybe you drink too much alcohol or have gained weight or sleep too much or are a compulsive online shopper. You get my point.

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Sometimes, I like to drink Campari but I don’t think it’s destructive.

Somehow, I’ve found that calling “my shit” what it is—my shit—has given me both some emotional distance and a sense of relief. In many self-help slash wellness contexts before, I’ve heard that you should “treat yourself like a child” or to “pay attention to your inner child”—that being nurtured like that is self-love. But I’ve never wanted to create that dynamic with myself; it just doesn’t appeal to me, and I think that’s OK (though I’m sure it works for many, and that’s great). In my case, a mix of cynicism and kindness is mesmerizingly comforting: I notice that there are elements of me that can simply be shitty (to others, to myself, etc.), but also that they can probably change. To start that process, I make the observations I need to make, and then experiment with saying no thanks! to some patterns. The notion of this being an “experiment” has also lowered the stakes for me. I feel less pressure to “succeed” in being less self-critical.

#innerchild

No thanks is kind but clear, direct but open-ended. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be having the thought, or denouncing its existence through avoidance. It’s not shutting it down. It’s strangely a technique to objectify the thought as something Other, so that you re-situate yourself in an empowered position. Like, do you want to feel horrible now? the aftertaste of self-criticism may intimate. And your answer can sure as fuck be no thanks! 

I wish more self-help books said fuck and shit and didn’t pretend like change was actually something that feels tenable when you’re urgently seeking it. It will never feel that way! At least I don’t think so.

BUT if you treat your thoughts like little offerings you can take or gently say, “No thanks!” to, the project becomes far more relatable—like politely turning down an offering for fresh ground pepper at a restaurant. You’re neither rationalizing nor criticizing your behaviors. It’s a conversation, and during it, it’s possible to feel change happening, just with one decision.

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Offerings in my bedroom. OBJECTIFY YR THOUGHTS.

Can irony and acceptance coexist?

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art 4 art’s sake (hat tip 2 the mobil mini mart :D)

Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.

What do I mean?

To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.

If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.

I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:

  • If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
  • If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
  • If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.

We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.

As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.

Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.

Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.

Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.

Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.

I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.

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HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.

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While I like green juice, I don’t think I feel grateful for it.

When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.

Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.

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That’s Wayne Booth.

But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.

Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.

Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.

 

A Valediction Forbidding New Year’s Resolutions

As someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I admittedly adore the times when external structures in the world validate my itch to find and secure order.

Let me give you an example.

I find the morning to be, categorically, the best time of day. In the morning, the day is clean. It is new. It is discrete, and in its discreteness, it is full of potential—the potential for order.

The morning says, “Get the fuck up. Start fresh,” even when my brain chemistry wants to drag me back to laze indolently in the dust of yesterday. There is discipline in the voice of morning, but it is looking out for me. That kind of discipline is radical.

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Yet despite my arguably dysfunctional love of compartmentalization, I have always thought the notion of setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit.

WAIT: I’ll revise that to me an “I-statement”: I have always felt that setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit for me. 

While my OCD-brain tells me to be fucking cray about cleanliness and list-making and other things I don’t even want to admit (e.g. organizing my anxious thoughts into imaginary Punnet-square-like grids), I also am deeply committed to trying to be a happier and less anxious person. Sometimes, my impulse towards happiness pushes me to rebel against my OCD, and it’s awesome.

Today, I am realizing that one such enduring act of rebellion has been to resist New Year’s Resolutions.

According to several reports, approximately 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions; and according to another, only 8% of folks report successfully achieving their resolutions. We live in a culture that loves to slather capitalistic values onto holidays, and those values include extremism and, often, the supremacy of self-improvement trends. If and when there is an opportunity to tell ourselves that we are not enough (or that we don’t work enough, that we don’t make enough, etcetera), it seems the patriarchy / capitalism tells us, “You’re right!”

I should stop here to clarify that self-improvement is a noble practice—one I am after, and think others should be, too. I am also ambitious, and I believe that no one should feel shame in claiming ambition as a personal value. Especially not women. Seeking greatness in whatever form does not make you a Machiavellian biatch. At the same time, wanting to be happier is not LITE or less important than having a million bylines or being on Forbes’ 30 Under 30.

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But recently, my sister and I listened to a podcast about goal-setting (#LOL), one that I found particularly inspiring. The lesson was about setting goals from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. In other words: what if we set goals by FIRST considering that which we have already created for ourselves and brought into our lives, celebrating those achievements, and articulating further goals that support us in building on our positive change?

It’s a crazy way to rewire the emotional underpinnings of goal-setting. Instead of being like, “I am a fat, lazy, idiot and my goal is to be a skinny, motivated pubic intellectual,” you can be like, “I started a blog this year, and my goal is to continue writing content and building my audience.” I don’t have to call this “abundance,” make a dumb hashtag, or write a love letter to myself and my blog for my gratitude jar. But it feels so good to recognize that I started this blog even when, last week, I felt like a depressed and bloated slob. Already! There is so much power in that word.

It all sounds abhorrently cheesy, and I assure you that I detest New Age platitudes about “abundance” and “gratitude” much as the next “guy.” But I think there is power in the age old adage of “faking it till you make it”—OR: stopping to consider AND directly articulate the stuff you’ve already done, and seeing it as evidence of your in-progress goals.

With that, my M.O. this year is to CONTINUE all of the sustainable shifts I’ve already brought into my life so that I can avoid slipping into the ideology that everything from 2016 is over and shitty, and that I will achieve enlightenment in 2017 simply because January 1st marks a new calendar year. That is fucking stupid.

*~*Life is always ebbing and flowing*~* (a quote by me if you want to gram it or something).

Or, as Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant.”

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Here are a few of the self-caring changes I have already begun making, and that I will continue in the New Year:

  • I have already learned to drive, and I will continue practicing when I have the chance so that I can feel more empowered and independent!
  • I have already begun a regular free-writing practice to help me feel more joy around my work, and I will continue to do this so that I can let go of the idea that published work is the only work worth writing.
  • I have already gotten better about noticing the times when I am abusive to myself in my head, and I will continue to catch myself when I do it, and to try to be kinder.
  • I have written many poems in the years I’ve been alive, and I will continue to find a place for poetry in my life  even if it is different or less prominent than it used to be.

I have already, and I will continue … POWERFUL SHIT, n’est-ce pas?

I will close with the virtuous final stanza of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” because I am a terrifying dork, because the image of the circle seems apropos for the message of this post—and because I played on the title of this poem here, and I am self-satisfied about it.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

  Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

  And makes me end where I begun.”

Do what thou wilt: My attempted motto for this blog

Often, I feel I am confronted with personal writing that is cynical and acerbic—and stunningly articulate—but that makes me feel like vulnerability is a sin. There may be moments of self-deprecation, sure, but they can still feel guarded and impenetrable. There may even be allusions to Walter Benjamin. Perhaps you know the kind of personal essays I am talking about.

Other times, particularly when I’m reading extra-personal writing about intimate issues like sex and relationships or mental health (topics I care endlessly about), I find that there is no place for irony. Narratives about self-improvement guide us from the writer’s dissolution to their dharma, and the notion of being self-critical or wry isn’t part of the equation. I find this can be especially true for “women’s issues” writing, much of which is urgent, essential and empowering, especially for female-identified readers. After all, there are so many issues that are, indeed, women’s issues.

But I also think there’s an opportunity to bring the cutting nature of humor and irony to the coziest attitude, and the most vulnerable writing. My goal is to try and check myself. To be funny and candid, but also grave when the moment is right. To find the humor in my moments of self-loathing. To alchemize the micro-traumas of everyday life into opportunities for laughter and self-compassion.

That is why I am starting this blog.

Today, I scoff at the idea of dieting even as I often feel like shit about my body, and feel jealous of other people who appear to have more self-control than I do—the people who uncritically look on menus for salads dressed with fat free balsamic vinaigrette, or a comparable example. 

Sometimes, I get mad at myself for being critical about my body, arguing in my head that feminists should resist the paralyzing effects of self-hatred. But over time, I’ve learned the value of letting myself be—allowing myself have the feelings of self-loathing when they arise and noticing them, rather than hating on my own self-hatred. The word for that in Pali (the language of the original Buddhist texts) is papancha. Sharon Salzberg has translated papancha to mean “the imperialistic tendency of the mind toward negativity.” I try, each day, to stick with the singular island of negativity in my mind, rather than allowing negativity to proliferate into an imperial empire.

Sometimes, accepting the times when I hate myself feels paradoxical, wrong, unreasonable. But why add insult to injury? Why not try to find at least a little bit of freedom in shitty moments?

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I am reminded this evening of the mantra “DO WHAT THOU WILT” or “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT” from François Rabelais’ Gargantua (translations vary). This idea guides a group of monks living in an abbey called the Abbey of Thélème in a parable at the book’s end. “Their whole life was lived, not in accordance with laws, statutes or rules, but by their own choosing and free will. They got up when they felt like it; they drank, ate, worked and slept when they so desired… In their rule, there was only one clause: DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”

Since I can’t live this way at all times (can you?), I will try and write this way. At least when writing on fat free balsamic … because guess what? No one’s telling me what to do!