Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pushing Beyond Expectations

Remember that person in your lifetime that always picked you last for basketball, or the teacher whose comment contained a thinly veiled reference to you being stupid?

I do. Oh boy I do.

Expectations for our lives come from a lot of places, and we frequently don't even know why we carrying the expectations we have for ourselves, or where they come from. For example: in spite of being an excellent student with very good grades and some involvement in organizations, my high school self fully expected to be rejected from competitive colleges. The result was applying to colleges requiring no writing samples (my strong suit, by the way), and transferring more frequently  than a person on the DC Metro.

What on earth caused me to even have that expectation? My fourth grade teacher. Some part of me internalized the idea that I wasn't that bright at a very young age, and even though I worked my tail off, learned the skills necessary to thrive in a non-kinesthetic learner's world, and had huge amounts of academic success, it wasn't until my last year of college I realized I ain't no dummy.

I could get angry at said fourth grade professor (and I do, every once in a while), but I've had to realize it was my decision to live with in this expectation. I missed a lot of opportunities because I thought I would never have a shot. To this day, even with having proof of my academic ability, I let myself be limited by this idea I wasn't smart enough (I wrote an essay to apply to MSU's Epidemiology program two years ago. I only just submitted it, after realizing I wasn't applying because I expected to be rejected. Guess what: I got in).

Are all expectations bad? No. I expect my fiance to help around the house, and he expects the same from me. The result is a nice little balance of work and play. If we have children, I expect him to actively engage in their upbringing. Once again, he has the same expectation of me. These aren't the expectations I'm contemplating though. I'm talking about the expectations that stop us from doing things, being something, or simply improving our lives.

How does one push beyond the expectations we've absorbed? The first step is identifying what is stopping you. This could be stopping you from trying something, learning something, applying to something... whatever. If you think it would be a good thing, and for some reason you can't bring yourself to go after it, digging for the root cause is going to be a big step.

So maybe every time you go to do something, let's take my Epidemiology application as an example, you say "I'll never get in to the program. I'm not smart enough". Ask yourself "Is this true?" If it is true, what makes it true? If it isn't true, what is the point in continuing to say it? You are also allowed to ask yourself "What makes me say I'm not smart enough each time I think about this?" You can come up with a million supports for the statement. I've done plenty of dumb things in my life, but we are looking for that one thing we can hang the statement on, and leave it there to admire as we sail on past. The first time I suspected I wasn't smart enough was fourth grade, so I chose that teacher as the nail to hang up my dunce cap.

Okay, so now we know where this expectation originated. What have we done to prove ourselves wrong? In the case of Epidemiology, I completed a 12 credit certificate through the University of North Carolina. If that isn't proof I can be successful, I don't know what is.

Sometimes our successes aren't so obvious. Sometimes, we have to look for the smaller indicators. I get asked a lot if I am crazy because I've undertaken some pretty strenuous races this year. I say probably, but aside from that, I'm pushing myself beyond my normal expectations. In the face of a 50 mile race, running a marathon seems a bit short. But I ran a marathon, and at the start of that, I didn't know if I could finish it. It is a little victory I get to count. Before that, I had finished a half marathon. The year before that I hadn't run farther than 6.2 miles. I used to tell myself that was the farthest I ever wanted to run, because I didn't know if I could run farther.

Most of us aren't charitable with ourselves. When we look in the mirror, how many people jump up and say "I like me!" Most of us start picking at our blackheads, and contemplating the circumference of our thighs. Counting our successes can be hard. This is where a really good, honest friend can come in handy. One who can say "I remember the time you took on this challenge, you came through it", and you'll believe her.

This year I am expanding my expectations for myself. I'm running a fifty mile race, I'm starting a graduate program, I'm getting married... oh, and I'm turning 30. My challenge is to continue to say "I'm going to try" instead of "I can't do that". 

Your challenge: start finding the expectations that set your edges, and see what you can do to move beyond those edges. When we can move past our perceived limits, we can start to see where our next success is going to come from.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Resolution 9-2012: Get Passionate

I'm reading "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains is the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, his organization Partners In Health, and the amazing work this group managed in the health care of desperately poor people. The first time I read this book, I thought I wanted to become a doctor. Revisiting the book has reminded me I want to work for something I believe in.

I'm not ready to go traipsing off to a developing country right this moment. I think there are plenty of opportunities to make a difference in our communities. I do some volunteer work, but I feel like I've been giving the bare minimum. I've been giving just enough to make myself feel like I'm making some sort of impact, but I know in my heart of hearts, I'm fooling myself.

I am looking forward to starting my masters program in fall. Going into Epidemiology feels like a great choice, because it is going to give me all the theory and data crunching skills I need to get really involved in public health work. And maybe it is because it seems so close, and yet still far off, I'm seriously impatient. Reading the story of Paul Farmer only feeds this sense of dissatisfaction. By the time Farmer was my age, he was eradicating infectious disease from Haiti (and Peru, and Boston...).

I don't feel the heavy burden of the word "should" in this case. I feel this deep stirring, a sense of longing for believing in a cause bigger than I am. Where I live, the answer for most people is to go to church. I'm not cut from that cloth (if you decide to judge me here, I'm going to bet you don't know my history with organized religion, so judge away, but remember, he who throws the first stone). When religion is removed from the equation, what else is there to believe in?

Personally, I'm drawn to improving the lives of the people around me. When we get involved in the lives of others, we tend to realize our problems aren't so insurmountable. Like I said earlier, there are places to get involved right here, right now.

When I start school, I expect to be busy enough improving the lives of others. I have a zillion ideas for research, and a zillion other ideas for implementation. I will get it all sorted out with my adviser. But the right here, right now piece of me is screaming. It has been yelling at me for a while, and try as I might, I haven't been able to find some outlet for it.

I marched for women's rights in 2004. I support legislation to legalize gay marriage, the ability to make choices about reproductive health, and the right to an education (there are other things too, I promise). I'm burned out on those issues though. I'm tired of feeling like politics boils me down to a pair of ovaries and a vaginal canal. I'm tired of seeing the happiness of my friends used as political fodder. But I'm tired. I'm not on fire about these things any more. I wish I was. I really, honestly, truly wish I could care about the way I'm being used in politics. I can get righteously pissed off, sure, but it doesn't feel like the route I need to take right now.

I'm running in the "Race for the Cure" this weekend. I did some fund raising, which made me feel like I was building on this idea of wanting to live passionately. Reaching a fundraising goal was the shot in the arm I needed to realize there are ways to get involved with the structure I need to do it.

So here are my thoughts for building this way of living.

1. Go big or go home doesn't have to be the rule. Sometimes, the small differences we make in the lives of individuals spreads in ways we don't expect.

2. Find an organization I really believe is doing good work with out being totally embroiled in politics (remember, I'm exhausted by the politics). Most big organizations are involved, but some still manage to do the good work at the same time. I'm running the Detroit Marathon in October. I just emailed Team in Training through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to see if I can fund-raise for the organization even though I am already signed up. I'll let you know what they say.

3. Start getting involved in the work I want to do ultimately. Contact the County Health Department to find out if I can do some shadowing and volunteering with the Epidemiology team this summer, and possibly even into my masters work.
4. Figure out what areas of my life need to develop, change and do little things daily. A friend of mine calls these daily tasks "The Daily Dozen". Twelve things I can do every day to reach my ultimate success, which I am defining right now as finding ways to make the changes I believe need to happen in the community.

And who knows... maybe a community massage clinic would make an enormous difference in the lives of others. Staffed by members of the community who don't have a lot of other options for work...

I need to learn to write grants.

Get passionate!


Friday, May 4, 2012

Upon Beating One's Self Into Submission

I am really hard on myself.

This is probably no surprise to most of the people who read this with any regularity, as I'm pretty certain most of you know me. Every now and then, I take it upon myself to really beat the crap out of me. If I was another human being, I would have a pretty good case for emotional abuse. I caught myself at the gym, staring into the ten different mirrors, viciously attacking every flaw I could find. Fortunately I caught myself, because 5 miles of self-abuse (and I'm not referencing running when I say abuse), can lead to an ugly mood.

On any given day, I can find at least 10 things I would shave off 5 years of my life in order to correct. My mental state (resiliency and reserve... we've talked about them), really makes the difference if I dwell on these 10 things, or if I decide to let myself off the hook for being imperfect. Some of these things really don't matter all that much: I have a zit in the middle of my forehead today. It will be gone in two days. What is the point of getting crabby at myself, and I rarely have perfectly clear skin.

There are a few things that almost always send me flying off into self-berating mode: my weight and my work. I've written about being gentle with myself, and practicing self-kindness, as well as general kindness; it was one of my first resolutions this year. The best part of practicing self-love and gentleness: it is a way more effective motivator for getting out of bed each day. Who wants to wake up to someone immediately bringing them down?

So I'm revisiting this resolution right now. My weight has been up and my work has been down (correlation, boredom eater?). I've been considerably more nit picky at myself, and I'm starting to get on my own nerves. Here is the kicker, we are what we think. If we constantly hear from ourselves we will never be good enough, guess what? We will never be good enough. I've always wondered why it is so easy to be mean to myself, and so hard to be nice. I think it is the same reason why it is hard to eat healthfully, and it is easy to eat ice cream. I am one of those people who can find the good in just about any one (carefully note the just about part). This week, I'm going to practice finding the good in me, and acknowledging it.

Step one: Find anything I like about myself first thing in the morning. Even if it is simply the shape of my thumbs (I have nice thumbs, what can I say?).
Step two: Look in the mirror and tell myself I love that thing. I love my thumbs!
Step three: walk away from the mirror. Remember periodically through out the day that I love my thumbs.

Sounds easy. I start first thing tomorrow.