Accountability matters–here’s an example why.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Troy, NY.

Dear Friend,

I had an interesting exchange on Facebook recently about personal accountability, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

I’m in a private group for Recovering People-pleasers. (There’s a Facebook group for everything isn’t there? If you’d like to know more, reply to this email.)

A group member—I’ll call her Jane—posted that a close circle of friends had excluded her from a party at which everyone received an inscribed gift. The friends then plastered social media with pictures of the party and the gifts. It seemed clear to Jane (and to me) that the group intentionally ousted her, and they wanted her to know (in a passive-aggressive way, if you ask me.)

Jane asked for advice about how to respond.

I rarely give advice unless it’s requested, but since Jane asked, I started working on a reply. I was going to suggest that she mourn the loss of her “friends,” and then move on, as it was clear they didn’t value her friendship.

Before I had a chance to hit “post,” another member—I’ll call her Sue—replied with a much more direct and assertive suggestion. Sue suggested Jane contact one of the friends and ask up front why she had been excluded.

It was an aha moment for me, and immediately, my planned reply seemed lame. It was way too victim-y. I realized I had stooped to my people-pleasing fallback–to avoid confrontation, walk away, accept whatever people dish out. As much as I’ve grown in standing up for myself, avoiding conflict is still my default response to the world.

As a people-pleaser, avoiding conflict is my default response.

In contrast, Sue’s reply felt empowering. It held people accountable for their actions, a position I’ve not often taken in my life.

Personal accountability is the impetus behind my memoir. When I looked back on the saga of my son’s brain tumor, diagnosed over twenty years ago, I realized how much my people-pleasing hindered me from fighting for him. It was and is a horribly humiliating awakening.

I realized the only way to make sense of what happened was to hold myself accountable for my actions, or lack thereof. Doing this in a very public way–here, in my other writing, and especially my memoir is how I will finally overcome my people-pleasing. And I know that others who read my truth and see themselves in my story will experience their own accountability, and grow as well.

Personal accountability–owning our truth–demonstrates respect for self.

Holding myself accountable for my shortcomings required me to hold others accountable, too. My intent wasn’t and isn’t that anyone would change their ways or apologize, as that’s not within my control. And I don’t expect that someone else will see the story the same way as me. My purpose is to acknowledge how someone’s actions, words, and/or attitude impacted me and my story.

It’s a sign of respect for my self, showing that I had confidence in calling out the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

Confronting others about their behavior is hard for people-pleasers because it carries the risk of rejection. It’s less scary to pretend negative things don’t happen.

A friend excludes you from a party? Pretend you didn’t know and don’t care.
A romantic partner ignores you? Ignore it.
A colleague fails to complete their part of a project? Do their work for them.
A boss passes you over for a promotion? Lick your wounds in private.
A doctor fails to return a call/order a test/identify a serious diagnosis? Don’t make waves.

What we fail to see, however, is that being accountable–owning our truth–is a path to personal growth. Only when you’ve named the problem can you fight the problem. And opening up an awkward conversation may lead to new insights for both parties. It’s another opportunity for growth.

Being accountable is an opportunity for growth.

In the Facebook group, Sue suggested that Jane invite a member of the inner circle to coffee, talk about what happened, and explain how it made her feel. It would be gentle, caring accountability.

Once my conflict-averse floodgates were open, however, I imagined Jane calling one of the “friends,” and demanding to know WTF was going on. Sometimes, being all nicey-nice just doesn’t work. Often, though, aggression backfires.

I ended up posting my initial comment in the thread with a caveat that I changed my mind and liked Sue’s idea better.

Jane didn’t report back to the group, so I don’t know how she handled the problem. But I’m curious what you think.

What would you recommend to a friend who was ousted or “ghosted?”

If you’ve worn those shoes, what did you do?

Speaking of my memoir, I’ll be sending an update in my quarterly Newsy Letter soon, which includes book recommendations, and an embarrassing (G-rated) photo with a fun or funny personal tidbit about me. Wouldn’t you like to be in-the-know? Just scroll down or over to find the “Subscribe via email” box. If you can’t find it, click here. (If you’re already subscribed, don’t worry, I’ll weed out duplicates.)

I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you are safe and well.

All the best,

Karen

Pandemic Brain

Pinball machine image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Dear friend,

I recently had an aha moment about the pandemic. It came after days of typing and clicking on my laptop without producing or accomplishing anything of value. I had zero energy and wondered if I was depressed.

Do you have those days?

Many writers have struggled to practice their craft after COVID-19 hit. I had been fairly productive for several months, but lately, I’ve felt my enthusiasm wane. During this period of writing sloth-dom, even this short blog took me three four five days to finish. (Below, I list of some of the topics that bounced around my head in the process. It’s kinda funny, actually.)

I was pretty discouraged, as I get sometimes. Building a name for oneself as a writer is not for the faint-of-heart. And the pandemic adds another layer.

The pandemic adds to our already-full plates.

I think it’s because every day—every hour and minute, for some of us—we’re facing existential questions about our lives, the future of our country, even the future of humanity and this planet. My husband and I have gone so far as to give each other “if I get COVID” instructions above and beyond our advanced directives.

Many of our deepest existential questions have no easy answer, if they have an answer at all. The whys and hows just bounce around our brains until they fall in a black hole, only to pop up again the next time we ask.

This intensity of unknowns creates… (and here’s my aha moment)…Pandemic Brain.

Pandemic Brain is caused by an overload of existential questioning and the intensity of the unknown.

When I realized I had Pandemic Brain, I already felt better. Funny how naming a problem can do that.

Imagine a pinball machine. If you walk past it, it’s quiet. But as soon as you engage with it by pulling the plunger, you’re trapped. There’s so much pent-up energy in that tightly coiled spring, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to let it snap back. And when you finally release it, bedlam ensues.

With Pandemic Brain, the plunger is engaged by the news, a Facebook post, a comment from a friend, or even a thought you have in a quiet moment. You may have felt on top of things, but as soon as you release the plunger with a sproing, your thoughts zig zag in a million directions with a gazillion different trajectories all at at once, and you try frantically to create some semblance of order, knowing you’ll have little control.

Pandemic Brain is like a pinball machine

Yup. That about describes it for me. So whatami gonna do about it?

What I’m going to do is return to the strategies I use anytime I feel overwhelmed, distracted, unproductive, in a funk:

  • Give myself permission to be imperfectly human.
  • Look for and articulate the lessons I learn from every struggle.
  • Meditate–even five minutes helps.
  • Look for moments in the day when I am not in overwhelming pain or discomfort, nor under extreme pressure. For many of us, there are more of those moments in a day than we realize. I revel in the calm of those moments.
  • Practice gratitude of the little things. Of course we’re all grateful for family and friends, but don’t forget to appreciate curbside pickup at the liquor store, plentiful rolls of toilet paper again available, and programmable coffee makers.
  • Laugh. I’ve never watched the Ellen Degeneres show, but her funniest moments Youtube videos are fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

And for some roll-your-eyes humor, here are some topics that dinged around in my Pandemic Brain for this months blog:

  • Why I call my husband Michael “Mike” in my book, and my son Matt “Matthew,” and what it’s like to be “Karen” lately now that the name is infamous, and do you even know that “Karen” is a thing, and what’s really in a name?
  • My book proposal is almost done except the marketing section, which is the thing I dreaded most about writing a proposal and I think I’m having a major flare of imposter syndrome.
  • I’m such an introvert that even virtual engaging like on Twitter and Facebook is exhausting so I take breaks for a few days but then I think about what I should be posting and tweeting and I’m going to coin the phrase “the vortex of engagement,” and that would be a great essay if I ever have the time or energy to write it.
  • And what authors can I ask to blurb my book, but the real question is, do I have the nerve to ask?

One thing I failed to mention in my list of “treatments” for Pandemic Brain is writing. It may be hard to generate intelligible prose with a blur of ideas and questions and fears buzzing around in my head, but when the words come, they help me understand myself and the world I inhabit.

So writing is another thing for me to be grateful for. And I’m grateful to you for reading this today. Thank you, my friend.

Now it’s time to get back to work.

Vulnerability, humility, and ego.

Kitchen in disarray.
My messy kitchen after a coffee flood.

Dear Friend,

Last week I shared a post on Facebook and Twitter that began, “Guess what Miss Brilliant just did?” You may have seen it—the picture of my kitchen after I brewed a whole pot of coffee without the carafe in place, causing a small flood that soaked through to the basement.

Two of my favorite comments from friends were “You are wonderful,” and “I love you.” And there were many comments to the effect of “I’m glad I’m not the only one who does stuff like that.”

It struck me how much people relate to each other’s vulnerability. How much, even, they crave it. Brene Brown—you may have heard of her?—said this about vulnerability:

Vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.

Vulnerability is inevitable–no one and no life is perfect. But it’s the act of sharing our vulnerability that keeps us humble. If all I ever wrote and talked about was what I did well, my successes, what’s going right in my life, how could I possibly retain a sense of humility? How could I not start to think I was better than others? How could anyone possibly relate to me, and why would they want to?

Brene Brown achieved astronomical success through her research and insight on vulnerability, shame, imperfection, and other frailties of the human condition. But I wonder—how does one retain a sense of humility when fame and fortune of that magnitude come calling?

By making a conscious decision. Because owning our vulnerability and retaining humility are choices.

Humility is a choice.

Early in the coronavirus, my dad sent me this link about the Washington State lieutenant governor who left office to pursue the Priesthood.

The New York Times reported that Cyrus Habib, a political rising star, said “he could feel himself being sucked into a ‘celebrity culture’ in American politics that had nothing to do with public service. He could feel himself being swallowed by pride,” so he walked away before that happened.

A politician choosing humility over ego? How was that not splashed all over the headlines?

I was so impressed with Habib’s story, I planned to write about it, but then the coronavirus took over our lives, and it took our lives, and then racism took George Floyd’s life, and those events seemed so much more important than writing about vulnerability, humility, and ego. (Although I believe ego is at the root of both our pandemic fiasco and systemic racism, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Then an ego-boosting thing happened to me and I realized the universe had given me an excuse to tie the threads together.

Tying the threads together.

Last year, I had a Tiny Love Story–My Son, the Homeowner–published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. (If you click on the link, scroll down to the 4th story.) It was a thrill, but I kept my ego in check, as it was only 100 words, not a full-blown personal essay. Yes, it was the New York Times, but my words were a blip.

Out of the blue last week, I got this email from an editor at the Times:

I write with exciting news from Modern Love: We have partnered with Artisan Press to publish a book of Tiny Love Stories. Of the hundreds of Tiny Love Stories we have published, we plan to include roughly half of them in the book, including yours. It will be in bookstores late in 2020 and is available for pre-order online.

“Including yours.” Including mine.

Whoa, ego. Fame and fortune haven’t found you yet. It’s still just 100 words. It’s not like it’s a best-selling memoir.

The gist of my memoir—that I’m a people-pleaser, that the compulsion to keep the peace at all costs prevented me from advocating for my son in his hour and months and years of need—keeps a lid on my ego.

It’s not a premise to brag about. It’s not something to be proud of. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” a part of me cringes.

But I tell my story because I believe my vulnerability will be someone else’s grace. I believe others will see themselves in me, in my timidity, my fear of conflict, my self-doubt, and the recognition will open them to personal growth.

My vulnerability may be your grace.

Will my story achieve astronomical success? Will my memoir become a best-seller? Unlikely. I may never know if I can maintain humility when fame and fortune come calling. But that’s not the point.

Vulnerability…[is] having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.

~ Brene Brown.

The point for me is to continue on the journey, even without knowing where I’ll end up. On the way, I’ll continue to tell you of coffee floods, and buying the wrong milk, and my people-pleasing backfiring, and other silly and not-so-silly trials of life.

It will connect me to you and you to me and remind us both to keep our egos in check. Brilliant, don’t you think?

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