Give Yourself Permission…

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Sometimes we wait for everyone and everything–our parents, our peers, the media, tradition–to tell us what we should do, what we should think, what we should believe, and how we should feel. We let others direct our lives instead of granting ourselves the freedom to live as we truly desire. If that has been your story, stop right now. Reclaim the power you can rightfully wield over your own life. Stop waiting for others to validate your every move and do what you’ve allowed others to do for you for too long: Give yourself permission.

Give yourself permission to heal from the past.

Give yourself permission to forgive those who have hurt you.

Give yourself permission to apologize to those you have hurt.

Give yourself permission to love yourself.

Give yourself permission to love others.

Give yourself permission to love whomever you want.

Give yourself permission to have a good life.

Give yourself permission to believe what you believe.

Give yourself permission to question your beliefs.

Give yourself permission to live fearlessly.

Give yourself permission to be honest.

Give yourself permission to be thankful.

Give yourself permission to live according to your own values.

Give yourself  permission to validate yourself.

Give yourself permission to express yourself.

Give yourself permission to meet your needs.

Give yourself permission to not take everything people say personally.

Give yourself permission to have your own opinion.

Give yourself permission to make your own choices.

Give yourself permission to smile.

Give yourself permission to be happy.

Give yourself permission to learn.

Give yourself permission to grow.

Give yourself permission to be.

The Complex You

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You’re a labyrinth. There’s so much more to you than how you look, how you speak, how you dress, what you studied in school, where you work, who you’re dating, and even what your goals are. 

Because you’re constantly in flux, you can never describe yourself just one way. You’re always growing, always changing, always evolving. You’re not just an employee, a mom, a dad, a student, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a sister or brother. You’re more.

You’re a collection of hopes, dreams, interests, talents, memories, personality factors, beliefs, opinions, physical features, attitudes, skills, genes, and more. You can never be “just” anything. In a society that often tries to box people in impermeable little packages, isn’t it great to know that you’re more than what anyone can label you?

They’ll call you names. They’ll put you in a crate and smack a label on you. But you don’t have to believe them. Instead, you can believe that you’re too intricate to be so easily defined. You’re the complex, wonderful you. You’re like a tree with hundreds of branches twisting and turning in their own directions while forming one strong tower. Let that be your strength.

5 Things I Learned In My (Very Long) Undergrad Career

I have emerged from the abyss!

Well, it seems that way anyhow. I’ve been in the zone with finishing classes and keeping my head screwed on at work. I’m happy to report that I will be graduating on May 11! After all I’ve endured to get to this point–eight years of personal drama, family drama, financial aid drama, and more–it’s going to be one of the best days of my life thus far.

To mark this occasion, I’d like to share five things I learned on the long, winding, potholed road to my degree.

1. It’s not all about when you finish. It just matters that you do.

When I left college after a long bout of depression, I felt terrible about myself. It hurt me to know that I wouldn’t be graduating with my peers or that I had to tell people I was taking a break from school. Where would I work? What will my friends think? What if I don’t finish my degree until I’m 47 and everyone thinks I’m slow? I was, as you can probably see, very hard on myself back then.

Now, though, I realize that nothing anyone thinks about me can define who I am. I’m not in competition with high school friends on Facebook or with ambitious college classmates, nor is it my job to explain to anyone why I left school, why I’m graduating at 26 and not 22, or why I’m an English major. It’s only my job to make the best decisions for myself and live with the consequences. Am I graduating “on time”? No. I’m graduating in my time.

2. Recognize when something isn’t working. Then make the appropriate changes.

I hated my sophomore year of college. The journalism classes weren’t interesting to me, and to make things worse, I wasn’t getting good grades. Having done well in previous writing classes, I was dumbfounded at my struggle to write winning articles. So, after my long break, I decided English was a better fit for me–and I made the right decision. Something felt more natural to me about reading literature and analyzing it versus chasing sources and reporting stories. I looked forward to my classes.

Now, I’m not saying that not doing well on something means you shouldn’t pursue it. But it is important to be able to admit to yourself that your performance isn’t up to your standards. In my case, writing the right answer–I just needed to choose the right kind of writing for me. It’s satisfying to know you’ve finally made it to the right place.

3. Take the criticism, good and bad.

As an English major, I’ve had to develop a super thick skin to deal with paper critiques. When I thought I did brilliantly on an essay, for example, my professor would scribble a big C on it. While I didn’t always like or agree with some of the comments, I realize that my professors were only trying to make me the best writer possible. They wanted me to push myself beyond the comfortable box I built for myself. And for that, I can only be thankful.

Criticism isn’t always easy to take. If you don’t steel yourself for the fire, you’ll come out singed. So, instead of thinking everyone who nags on you has some vendetta to destroy your life, search for the nuggets of truth in their critiques. The people who really care about you will always make sure you find them.

4. Be you. 

The first few weeks of my freshman year at Howard University were a study in culture shock. First, Washington, D.C., looked nothing like my small coastal town in the South. My peers talked differently, walked differently, dressed differently. Feeling anxious and unsure of myself, I experimented with myriad looks. I wore sneakers when I’d always been a heels girl. I spent money on name brands just to say I was hip to the latest trends. I was a slave to the sartorial whims of the fly girls on campus.

It took me a while to discover the real me, the “me” who existed in spite of what magazines and campus chicks said and did. Learning to dress, speak, and think for myself gave the courage to be myself. Who else can be you if not you?

5. Keep learning. 

I’m still deciding whether grad school is worth it for me–and whether I have the strength to sit through more years of school (I’m fairly sure I do, but I want to take a break for now). Learning, though, doesn’t require a formal classroom: cliche as it sounds, life itself a good teacher. And anyone can be your professor–your best friend, your dog, your preschool-age nephew, so long as you’re open. Regardless of your age, you can make learning a priority–and you don’t always have to pay tuition for life’s lessons.

10 Great Quotes

Happy Tuesday!

The last time I wrote, I was deep in the winter blahs. I didn’t have much energy and didn’t feel like myself. Well, I am happy to report that I’m feeling a million times better. In addition to stocking up on multivitamins, fish oil, and iron, I bought a light-therapy box from Amazon–and I’m telling you, every day is a sunny one with this thing. Of course, nothing is perfect, but my regimen has been a big help for my mood.

You know what else puts me in a good mood? An inspirational quote. Here are 10 to inspire you today.

1. “Self love has very little to do with how you feel about your outer self. It’s about accepting all of yourself.” -Tyra Banks

2. “Confidence comes from discipline and training.” -Robert Kiyosaki

3. “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way.”-Les Brown

4. “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” -Dalai Lama

5. “Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.” -Og Mandino

6. “‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.” -Alice Walker

7. “Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.” -George Jackson

8. “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” -Benjamin Franklin

9. Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” -Oprah Winfrey

10. “Come forth into the light of things; let nature be your teacher.” -William Wordsworth

Let Light Pierce the Darkness

I talk about personal power a lot on this blog. A firm believer in mind over matter, I think you have the capacity to create joy in your life when you shift your thinking from rigid and negative to positive and flexible. Many times you can decide for yourself how you react to life’s unpredictable forces. You have the luxury to choose whether you’ll find the lesson in every situation or mope around in defeat, the ability to acknowledge that while not everything in your life is going the way you desire, you are generally in a good place.

Sometimes, though, it can seem that despite your efforts to be optimistic, you just don’t feel right, just don’t feel like yourself. You know you need to wake up on time for work or for class, but those extra five minutes of sleep–I’ll only snooze once, you tell yourself–become wasted hours. Slowly, the things you love to do lose their appeal. Feeling lonely, you paradoxically shrink away from family and friends. You hope for each day to finish quickly, which only means that the cycle of lethargy, loneliness, and confusion will begin sooner. That’s not the thinking of a happy, positive person, you tell yourself. Yet, you can’t escape those feelings. As a proverbial winter bears down on your spirits, you hate to admit it to yourself, but you can’t lie anymore: You’re depressed.

This is the revelation I’ve had to cope with for the past few weeks. I cope with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. When the trees disrobe, the temperature drops, and the sky remains dark more often, I want to crawl into a hole. Few things help for more than a moment–not getting my nails done, not wearing a nice outfit, not even going on a trip. I’m cranky and confused. My weight rises. My patience shrinks. I want to cry for no reason. I’m going under. But when spring hits, I’m usually better.

I think about the days before I let cognitive behavioral therapy change my world, dark days when I was very angry, pessimistic, covetous, and self-hating. I think about how my self-worth was so low–non-existent–that I thought no one would care if I were to disappear. I used to think I didn’t have a right to even live on this planet. I was so depressed that I lost a major scholarship and withdrew from school–I shudder at those memories of my former self. Combine that with SAD and you’ve got a real mess. So admitting to myself that I’m in low spirits has been very disconcerting because I try to think and act in ways that boost my well being. How could I be unhappy when I write a blog about happiness, feeling good, thinking positively, etc.? On paper, things are going very well for me, but smiling has felt like lifting a 300-pound barbell over these few weeks. Does that make me a fraud, a weirdo, a head case–or just human? I’m betting on the latter.

Depression can be painful, no doubt. It can rob you of everything you’ve worked for, leaving you feeling powerless and empty. Changing your thoughts sometimes isn’t enough. Sometimes it’s not enough to tell yourself to “snap out of it” or just slap a smile on your face. Sometimes, you need more help. If you’ve been feeling despondent lately, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does my low mood have a pattern? Once a month, once a year, a few times a year?
  • Am I grieving something? It could be anything you’ve lost: a loved one, a job, a significant other, etc.
  • Have I been eating a nutritious diet? Do I get enough serotonin-boosting exercise?
  • Does anyone in my family deal with depression or other mental health concerns?

After you’ve considered these questions, you may feel more empowered to not only be honest with yourself about your despair but to get help for it. Hopefully, you’ll see that you’re not abnormal: According to the CDC, an estimated one out every 10 adults reports depression. So despite what nasty, nagging voices in your head may say, you most likely aren’t “losing it.” You may feel down, but–especially in the case of SAD–you don’t have to be down forever. And while medication may be beneficial in more severe cases of depression, it’s not your only option. In my case, for example, exercise really helps. I can’t say that sweating is a panacea for everything, but when I look back over the last few winters, I see that my SAD was a lot less oppressive when I worked out a few times a week. Exercise–go figure–is one thing I haven’t done enough of this winter.

If you know something just isn’t right with you, don’t let another minute pass without finding out what that “something” is. You don’t want to lose your job, your loved ones, or your sense of human worth because of a temporary slump. I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty. Don’t think for one moment that you’re stuck with feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or powerless, because if you look closely at your life, you may discover that those feelings are just an illusion. Do your research. Speak with someone. Reclaim your essence. As trite as it sounds, you can look forward to your spring. You can’t precisely control everything that happens in your brain, but you can control what you put in it. You can overpower over depression and take back your thoughts. The hardest part, often, is resolving to do so.

5 Ways to Kickstart 2013

Yes, I’m sixteen days late, but I’ll say it anyway: Happy New Year!

Having rung in 2013 with the flu, I needed some time to get my head straight. Now  that I’m back to good health (minus the annoying throat-clearing, anyway), I’m ready to share a bit of wisdom with you. Here are five ways to kick this year off.

1. Get pumped. Just as life can’t survive on this planet without the sun’s energy, neither can you meet your goals without a well-powered body. Feeling sluggish? Analyze your diet, sleep habits, and overall health. Iron deficiency, for example, can thwart even sincerest of plans, and so can five hours of sleep each night. To get the best out of yourself, make sure you’ve got all the energy you need. That reminds me: I need to make a trip to GNC, stat.

2. Try new things. I’ve wanted to learn to play bass guitar for years, and I finally got my wish over the holidays. Sure, I’ve spent a lot more money than I thought I would on my hobby, but I’m loving that I have a new outlet through which to express myself. I’m challenging my brain and my body. Now if I can just get my fingers coordinated, I’ll really be making beautiful music.

3. Connect. What is life without relationships? Not much, I’d say. We need other people. This year, strengthen connections with the people around you. Call a relative you haven’t spoken to in years. Make small talk with an elderly person at the bus stop–you’d be surprised at how happy he or she will be to talk to you. And know when you need to break connections, too. People who abuse, denigrate, or drain you aren’t worth keeping around.

4. Get real. Few people like to admit when they’re wrong or when they need to change something about themselves. Imagine how confident you’ll feel, though, when you learn to be honest about your shortcomings, to be real about your not-so-good points. Spending too much money? Have a bad habit of  committing to something before you’ve thought it through? Admit it. When you do so, you gain the power to change yourself. You want that kind of power.

5. Express yourself. You’re unique. No one can express you other than, well, you. So raise your voice. Express the complex, intriguing person you are through your style, your words, your art, your music, your rhythm. You can never be anyone else, so why not let who you are shine through?

Thoughts for a New Year

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Happy New Year!

I wrote this piece for New Year’s Eve 2011, and I feel it remains just as true two years later. Enjoy!

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New Year’s Eve. The wrapping paper’s in the trash, the leftovers are somewhere in a sewer, and the gifts we didn’t like are stuffed in the back of the closet. Ads for diet pills and gyms flood our screens. This is the year we’re finally going to stop thinking Ronald McDonald is a personal chef and lose weight. We’re going to save money and remember every birthday. We’re finally going to reconnect with family, save money, or cut a persistent ex off for good.

Our Facebook and Twitter feeds brim with hopes for successful, inspired, drama-free new years. Some iron button-downs or shimmy into dresses to go to New Year’s service at church or the club. As the seconds dwindle, bad memories and habits shift into extinction. The first second of January 1, we’re brand-new.

Then comes the slump. Everything seemed to be going well, but we shirk even the most genuine plans for old routines. Tummies still lap over belt buckles and budgets implode. Peaches or Dayquan is still blowing up the phone at 3 a.m. The promise of a peaceful year evaporates as we fight with family, significant others, co-workers and ourselves. Nothing new happens in a year we were so sure was ours.

What happened?

We all do it: New signifiers in time — January 1, Monday, tomorrow — are the days we vow to do things differently. Many even think these new days drive the renewal we want in our lives, as if there’s some force in a specific day that isn’t in others. I’ve put off many tasks for the beginning of the week, month, or year, only to save them for another day that often never comes.

But in the late summer of 2010, I got fed up with fast food and sizing myself out of my favorite clothes. I decided I was going to eat smart and exercise and wasn’t going to wait another nanosecond. Not Monday, not the first of the next month, not next year. I hit the gym as soon as the urge struck — Thursday, August 19. My progress seemed dreadfully slow, but I kept working. After two months, I finally saw what I’d accomplished one day and was delighted.

That’s how change works — it’s not as simple as putting on fresh drawers. Growth and change are ongoing, fluid and imperceptible, like the minutes that fly or our lungs’ conversion of oxygen to carbon dioxide. Some events like getting saved or married may seem like instant transformations, but there’s still a long, often harrowing growth period to adjust to those new statuses.

You might immediately notice that things have changed one day, but only after everything required to produce that change happens. Whether you’re trying to get in shape, have better relationships, or clear out the drama in your life, just trust yourself with your plans, start them as soon as you’re ready, and prepare for a potentially tedious process. One day you’ll look at your life and see that a new day has, in fact, arrived.