Giving my Harsh Inner Critic a Name

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Realizing some hard truths about myself recently. My Enneagram Type 1-ness has really been apparent. My harsh inner critic is constantly talking to me about what I could do better, what should be done, how it should be done, how my family should behave, etc. It’s exhausting. But, it’s so clear to me now how The Happiness Trap and ACT are so impactful for me. I’m never going to silence the inner critic, but I sure can defuse the thoughts and not believe everything she’s telling me. I really ought to give her a name…

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Another layer of this dichotomy I’ve come to recognize in my life – surrendering versus controlling; being “in my head” versus present in the moment; paying attention to thoughts versus feelings, etc. – is trying to improve my loved ones versus just loving them. It’s ironic, I’ve had “Only Love Today” popping up on my phone as a daily reminder for over a year. But, what does that mean in practice? It probably means not commenting on everything Sienna could do better or differently, from her room cleanliness to her choice of words in a writing assignment. Probably looks like not criticizing the way Dennis talks to the kids. Like I’m so good at only speaking lovingly to them?! Probably looks like giving Mateo comfort when he’s sad at night, instead of being irritable that his emotional outburst is throwing off my “plan” for the evening. Yep, probably all of those things… and more.

Last week, as Sienna and I drove downtown for a mother/daughter date, I talked to her about my struggles to let go of needing things to be a certain way. I asked her if she feels like things are never good enough for me, when I comment on her school work, bedroom cleanliness, or anything really. She agreed that those moments do hurt her feelings. I then joked that we needed to give that unhelpful voice a name. She giggled and suggested: “How about Nutzo Butzo!”

I cracked up and replied, “That’s perfect! I love it. It’s silly so I can easily dismiss her. Then, when I criticize something you can say, ‘Mom, did Nutzo Butzo tell you to say that?’”

I’m reading and journaling through a devotional this year by Shauna Niequist called Savor: Living Abundantly Where You Are, As You Are. Today’s devotion is called “More Love, Less Hustle” and her definition of hustle is the “voice that says you’re never done, you have to push harder, think ahead, plan ahead, hold it together, go, go, go.”

Oh, the voice that tells me to hurry up, get something done, rush, rush, rush. Her name is Nutzo Butzo and she tells me that everything depends on me – my efforts, my planning, me, me, me. When I ignore this voice and focus my awareness on the people I love, the people I meet, our church and school families, life is infinitely fuller, richer and more connected. What ultimately drives me to hustle? A feeling that things aren’t quite right, not yet perfected, and needing to be changed or fixed. This side of Christ’s return, our fallen world will always be broken. It’s much wiser to accept this fact and spend my energy loving the people God puts in my path during this particular moment. There I can do some good, there I can fulfill a need or lessen someone’s burden. Hustling doesn’t facilitate connection. Love does.

You Are What You Love

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The beginning of a New Year is the highpoint of self-actualization rhetoric in American culture and I typically jump in with both feet.  The idea that we can change our habits and routines so everything stays in perfect balance and we’ll be thinner, fitter, happier and more productive this year than last year is so enticing!  But, for a reformed hyper-planner and self-aware Type 1 perfectionist, this time of year is a very slippery slope for me.

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Sure enough, the past few weeks, I’ve been “in my head” and less in touch with my heart; relying on myself instead of God, expecting everything to work out just right if I plan properly, and missing the moments of connection all around me.  However, simultaneously I’ve been reading a very interesting and helpful book: You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith.  Our pastor, who recently moved across the country, preached from this book for several weeks before he left last year.  I loved the sermons and looked forward to deepening my understanding of how our loves are shaped by liturgical practices, both inside and outside the church.

Dr. Smith argues: “In ways that are more “modern” than biblical, we have been taught to assume that human beings are fundamentally thinking things.”  Most of our efforts toward discipleship focus on collecting information as if “we can think our way to holiness – sanctification by information transfer.”  This approach is diametrically opposed to biblical wisdom, where Jesus continually refers to the human heart as the center of our being.  Of Christ, Smith states, “He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”

This argument really hit home when Smith asked “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?  Have you ever found that new knowledge and information don’t seem to translate into a new way of life?”  I imagine everyone who’s currently struggling with maintaining a health related resolution has experienced just this gap!  We know what is healthy, but that doesn’t mean we always do it!  Smith goes on to suggest: “What if it’s because you aren’t just a thinking thing?”  Indeed, what if our “epicenter of human identity” is what Augustine articulated when he said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you…”?

Smith goes on to describe the Augustinian alternative: “…since our hearts are made to find their end in God, we will experience a besetting anxiety and restlessness when we try to love substitutes.  To be human is to have a heart.  You can’t not love. So the question isn’t whether you will love something as ultimate; the question is what you will love as ultimate. And you are what you love.”

If loves aren’t cultivated by information transfer, in other words, we can’t collect ideas in order to transform our loves.  How are our hearts oriented?  Smith explains that loves are shaped over time by the liturgical practices in our lives.  Rival liturgies are the habits we have, which over time shape what we perceive as the “good life” or the end to which our life is headed.  The book includes a lengthy metaphor of the shopping mall as the modern “church” in America; illustrating how everything from the cathedral style architecture to the economic transaction at the altar of consumerism.  It’s really interesting and comical too.  I could relate to the feeling of aimlessly strolling through a mall (or more commonly Target!) looking for something that I “need”.

The biggest takeaway from this book, for me, is the idea that what we ultimately love and desire is shaped, over time, by our daily habits.  If our family routinely spends the weekend shopping, then being a consumer is what we cultivate as “the good life”.  If we watch television each evening, our worldview is shaped to mirror that which we see in popular culture.  If we read classic, wholesome books with our children, then their desires are shaped by things that are good, true, and timeless.  When we pray before dinner, attend the Divine Service each week, read before bed, and spend time as a family, our loves are oriented toward God and family.  These little daily habits shape what we value, desire, love and ultimately you are what you love.

Here’s What Happened: January 13, 2019

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I’m writing this from a train, headed north to Oxnard for a work visit. I wrote a blog post on Sunday, but haven’t posted it yet.  I had some stories to share, but what came out was more like a book review or scholarly article.  It didn’t lead into the story I hoped to share.  I tried to make it work, then gave up.

This is something I battle regularly.  Most of my writing experience is scholarly.  Give me texts to read, a topic to research, evidence to site, and a thesis to defend and I’m golden.  But, I want this blog, and my writing in general, to be about life, feelings, what’s most important.  When I’m in the “figure things out” mindset, it’s very hard for me to connect with my emotions.  The same day that I abandoned the post referenced above, I continued reading my first Anne Lamott book – Almost Everything: Notes on Hope.  So, in addition to wanting to read everything by Anne Lamott, I’m now inspired to write what I see, what is happening around me.  She advises that writers need to pay close attention to their surroundings.  This presence enriches both our writing and our lives.

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So, here’s what happened.  On Sunday morning, we got up early for church as usual.  Dennis had the idea of encouraging the kids to get ready quickly by suggesting a Starbucks visit on the way to church.  We have a drive thru Starbucks less than a half mile from our house, it’s dangerous.  It worked; the kids got ready in record time!  Mateo started whining about wanting the “big hot chocolate” instead of the kids’ size.  I reasoned that the kids’ version is cooler and more reasonably sized, so he’ll be able to drink it on the fifteen minute drive to church.  He relented eventually and I didn’t think anything more of it.

Also, in the drive thru, I noticed my Dexcom (continuous glucose monitor) reported that my blood sugars had been “in range” 89% of the time this week.  That’s a great improvement over the prior week when I was still in holiday celebration mode and eating a lot more carbohydrates!

A little later, we were sitting in church.  I had one child on each side of me and was cuddled up with Mateo just before the sermon started.  Out of the blue, he whispered to me, “Mommy, I’m sorry I got so upset about the hot chocolate.”  Oh my heart.  I started to reply when he continued, “… and good job on your diabetes, Mom.”

Tears sprung into my eyes and I had to swallow hard.  Telling him he was forgiven, I then took a deep breath and thanked God for this precious moment of connection.

Personally, I was coming out of another cycle of feeling disconnected, being fused with my thoughts, and generally not present in the moment.  Over the previous several days, I’d been relearning lessons about the joy that comes from acceptance and presence.  Moments of tenderness are the pinnacle of joyful connection.  Mateo reminded me of that so poignantly.

Immediately after the sermon, is the collection.  While I’ve been using our monthly bill pay to electronically submit our giving for several years now, I usually give Sienna and Mateo a few dollars to put in the collection basket.  It satisfies the theological dynamic of giving within the service.  As I started to hand Mateo two dollar bills, he suddenly said “Mom, I want to give my fifty dollars.”  His grandma had given him $50 for his birthday the week before and I was carrying it in my wallet for safekeeping.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay.  Really?  You’re sure?” I said once more.

“Yes.”

I handed him the fifty dollar bill and he promptly deposited it into the collection basket.  He then smiled at me so sweetly, I could hardly stand it.  I leaned down and whispered in his ear: “You humble me with your generosity.”  He smiled and hugged me.

The book review that I haven’t posted yet (still deciding whether I will!) is about a great book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith.   In it, Dr. Smith argues that our loves are directed by our habits.  When we cultivate habits that orient ourselves toward God, then we will seek God as our ultimate love and end.  Any other secular liturgies become rivals and orient our loves towards worldly things that ultimately don’t satisfy us.

I immediately thought of the liturgical habits that we’ve slowly, over time, instilled in our children.  The weekly giving of a few dollars into the collection, routinely confessing to one another, and forgiving one another.  Our faith tells us that Jesus did everything to accomplish our salvation and we live under his divine grace.  As such, we aren’t big on punishments or shaming the kids when they fall short.  We’re big on hugs and loving one another.  I apologize to my kids for sinning against them all the time. We are hoping to cultivate hearts of love, hope, joy, and service to others.  Within these twenty minutes last Sunday, I felt such peace.  Within twenty minutes, Mateo’s behavior and words felt like confirmation that his heart is being shaped toward loving God and relying on grace.

I am hard on myself and often feel like I’m falling short in many areas of life.  These tender moments with Mateo were a reminder that God is the one doing the growing and shaping of my children’s hearts.  I don’t have to do everything just right.  Instead we can simply orient our family toward Jesus Christ, and practice faithful liturgies. God will take care of the rest.

All the Good Things.

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Every time I come back to this blog after a prolonged silence I want to start by explaining that life has been full the past several weeks or months.  It’s once again true!  Life for me and my little family has been exceptionally full and very good the past couple months.

IMG_0973We’ve all been growing and learning by leaps and bounds.  The kids in their new wonderful school, Dennis and me as we guide them through this educational transition!  The classical Christian education at The Cambridge School is exceptional, but also a lot more work!

I’m also undergoing yet another transition at work.  My career at CBIZ has been full of growth opportunities and periods of transition.  Currently I’m training a replacement for the scheduling function as I take over management of the Admin Team, all by myself.  I had a great co-manager for the past year, but her recent promotion allowed me to grow into this role of sole manager over a team of 25 people across six locations!  I’m so excited for the opportunity to focus all my work time and effort on management, but it’s not without growing pains.

In 2018 we remodeled our living room, master bedroom and entire backyard into an outdoor living space.  At one point late this summer Mateo lamented, “Why does everything in my life have to change?!”  I could see his point and relate.  As a kid I hated when we changed things like a sofa or a car.  We sought to spend lots of time as a family cocooning the kids during this period of so much change.

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November was a packed month.  Once we got through fall “busy season” at work, my personal busier time kicked in.  I helped chaperone Sienna’s field trip to Medieval Times just the day before we left for five nights in Anaheim with my mom and my sister’s family.  We spent 4 full days at Disneyland!  Five kids and five adults was a good ratio.  They never outnumbered us and everyone had a hand to hold!  We headed to San Diego for Thanksgiving dinner at our house.  It was relaxing to kick back after all the days of Disney fun.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I headed out for a four day/three night work trip to visit offices throughout Southern California.  My mom helped Dennis hold down the fort while I was gone.  My coworkers kept asking me if my kids we’re missing me, to which I replied, “No, my mom made everyone fried chicken and Teo is getting to sleep in my bed, they’re happy!”  It was good timing to be away, since we’d just enjoyed a long span of intense togetherness. 🙂

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December truly seems to fly by faster and faster every year (as Amy Grant wisely observed)!  We enjoyed my office holiday party, Christmas on the Prado in Balboa Park, two weekends of All Star soccer tournaments, and I ran a half marathon with my friend, Leslie.  We’ve also spent many evenings watching Christmas movies and relaxing as a family and with our dear friends.

Earlier this fall I dug into The Enneagram, an ancient system of personality types, and learned that I’m undoubtedly a Type 1: The Perfectionist (or, The Improver).  This realization has been very helpful as I continue to embrace a growth mindset and let go of my need for control.  I’ve had a few episodes of painful growth, including losing it over Teo’s performance in a soccer tournament.  Not my best moment.  That’s an understatement.  I felt relatively balanced and present as work became busier this fall, but eventually I started fusing with the thoughts “I’m overwhelmed!” and “I don’t want to be this busy!” a couple weeks ago.

When I start believing my thoughts, I retreat into my mind and away from the present moment.  Fortunately, I’m more in touch with my feelings and can fairly quickly identify the problem.  The solution is always the same: pray, acknowledge my weaknesses and sinfulness, surrender, look around me at what matters most, pray some more, be intentional with my actions.  Repeat. Repeat again.

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This past Friday I attended my first Lessons & Carols program at The Cambridge School.  The kids each performed a carol with their class and Sienna also performed with the choir.  The lessons and music were exactly what I needed to slow down and focus on the advent season more fully.  My dear friend Michelle arrived for a holiday visit the same evening.  It’s always such a joy to reconnect with her!  She asked the kids about their new school and teachers.  Sienna explained that her favorite thing about the school is “…they don’t stifle my creativity.  They let us talk about myths and legends!”

When Teo and I tried to describe his teacher, I said, “She’s so wise, poised, loving and incredibly gifted with communicating with the kids…”  Teo chimed in, “She is all the good words.”  I loved the sweet, simple honesty of that statement.   It truly describes not only Teo’s incredible teacher but all the gifts we enjoy in this life.  As Christmas and New Year are upon us, I’m so thankful for all the grace and love we have through Christ Jesus.  As we all grow and change, He is constant in providing all we need for this life and the next.

Merry Christmas!

The One About Sewing Four Dresses.

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Recently I renewed a prayer that helped me learn to trust God and be more present in the moment: “Lord, please keep me on this path of growth and help me learn the lessons you want me to know.” God is faithful and he’s been teaching me lessons at every turn the past couple weeks.

When I’m in a period of growth, I often recall the expression “growing pains” because usually there’s some pain or discomfort in the process. I’ve also recognized that a lot of self-awareness can be learned and growth opportunities found when you step back to ask yourself: “Why did I behave that way? What was driving me?” Then, if you’re brutally honest with yourself, you’ll discover areas that need to be surrendered to God and hopefully improved in your life.

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I had this type of moment recently, while in the fabric store with my family. Sienna has been very excited about writing, producing, and performing a play with her friends. She wants to perform it in our newly renovated backyard, where the fit pit resembles a stage in her imagination. I’d been encouraging this idea, until she announced that she wanted to sew dresses for the four main characters. This sounded very labor intensive to me!

Some backstory: my mom is a talented sewer and she got Sienna a sewing machine and all the accessories one year for Christmas. Sienna loves sewing clothes for her dolls and being creative with making pillows and other small projects. She doesn’t follow a pattern, but she is happy with her creations.

Okay, back to Joann’s. We’re in the fabric store and finding little accessories for the play – headbands and fake flowers. I explained to Sienna that we didn’t have time to pick out all the patterns or have fabric cut that day, but we’d come back another time. Then, I tried to dissuade her a bit. “Love, I’m not sure we can make four dresses. I’m not a good sewer and won’t be able to help you very much.”

“I don’t need your help, Gaga taught me to sew,” she replied.

“Yes, but it’s going to take a lot of time and I don’t know that we have the skills between us to take on this project,” I continued.

This type of reasoning went back and forth between us until we got in line with our purchases. I knelt down to talk to Sienna and she stoically said, “It sure would be nice if I had a mom who supported me.”

Ouch.

I got angry and tensely replied, “I support you all the time.” Then I turned away.

That afternoon and into the next day, her words haunted me. Sure, there’s an element of manipulation that she was employing, but I started to ask myself: “Why did I behave that way? What was driving me?”   I called my mom and she said something very helpful: “Why don’t you buy the pattern and material for one dress and let her try to sew it? She’ll get to experience how challenging it is and then you can decide whether to make more?”

“I never would have thought of that, Mom. Of course, that makes perfect sense. In my mind, we’re either going to make four perfect dresses or we’re not going to try at all.” Hello there, fixed mindset!

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As the kids have begun this wonderful new school, that’s more rigorous and challenging than they’re used to, I’m finding my old fixed mindset popping up. I believe in having a growth mindset and allowing people the grace to learn and grow. But, when the rubber meets the road, I fall back into old patterns of perfectionism or avoidance.

During this very same time, I’ve begun casually studying the Enneagram. If you’re not familiar, the Enneagram is a model of nine personality types. The first test I took told me that I was Type 2, The Giver, but I had a distinct feeling that my true type is Type 1, the Perfectionist (or, most positively, the Reformer or the Improver). This experience at the fabric store caused me to dig into the information, including a couple podcasts on Enneagram Type 1s. Oh, man. All the comments hit so close to home! I could relate to so much of what other Type 1s said about their life experiences. We tend to have a sense of “how things should be” that is over emphasized. Our “attention-to-detail” is on steroids!

Returning to my comments about sewing the dress, I recognize that my need for the dresses to be made “right” is part of where Sienna and I disconnect. My artistic daughter doesn’t need the dress to be made “how it should be”. She’d happily throw a sash around the dress or cut a hemline in an asymmetrical design and call it done! I need things to be done “right”. It wasn’t Sienna’s frustration or disappointment that I was trying to spare, it was my own. With a fixed mindset, I would have hovered over her project, trying to “fix” and “help” while only succeeding at hurting my daughter and sending the message that she wasn’t capable.

I can write about a growth mindset and intellectually understand it, but man, it’s challenging to really embrace it in my daily life. I’m praying that God will help me use this Enneagram realization to recognize my tendencies and find new ways to grow. My children are such amazing teachers! I told Sienna that I appreciated her comment that she’d like a mom that supported her: “God knew I needed a daughter like you to help me grow.”

I’m Never Going to Have it All Figured Out.

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I’ve been holding on too tightly to my thoughts and trying to control my feelings recently. This always leads me down a path toward distraction and anxiety. I could sit here and think of all the potential reasons that this is happening right now – kids starting a new school and the unknowingness of this big change for our family, for one. Also, I spent a lot of time imagining the future this summer, dreaming of things that could happen. It’s hard to transition back into the real world from the dream world.

When I’m feeling contented, fusing with my thoughts isn’t a problem. In fact, it makes me feel in control. This lasts for some period of time, during which I further retreat into the inner world of my thoughts, otherwise known as “being in my head”. I spend a lot of time thinking about how things should be, what I should eat, when I should exercise, how my children should behave. Notice how many should thoughts are going on?!

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A symptom of this pattern includes my being frustrated and angry when things don’t go the way they “should” – according to me. When my son is sad and crying, it’s very inconvenient; we have places to go and must be on time! When my husband has an idea for our Saturday afternoon that doesn’t coincide with mine, I become irritated.  I spend a lot of time internally debating what I’m going to eat, since every food has a judgement attached to it. Thank you diabetes.

Eventually, my need for control and “being in my head” combine forces and turn their attention to sleep. I have come to believe that this battlefield in my life is sort of perfect. Sleep is the ultimate surrendering. When I’m struggling to be in control of my emotions, I cannot surrender and trust God. Anxiety flows over me while I’m lying in bed. I am not in control. These emotions are real. I’m struggling with my thoughts and feelings because  this is not what should be happening!

Because, I’m obviously the one in-charge, right?

The truth is, this pattern keeps repeating in my life, and is likely to continue.

Why? Because I’m a sinner. I’m prideful. I try to fill the God-sized hole in me with my brilliant thoughts, with collecting new ideas, with figuring it all out on my own. With me.

However, God is stronger and bigger and way more powerful than my thoughts and feelings. He is using this sin to show me my sinfulness and need for Christ. Martin Luther called the second use of the Law, the Mirror: The Law serves as a perfect reflection of what God created the human heart and life to be. It shows anyone who compares his/her life to God’s requirement for perfection that he/she is sinful. When I strive to remain in control and these symptoms start showing up in my life, I imagine myself struggling in God’s loving hands. He’s always there, caring for and sustaining me. But I so often fight and wrestle with myself, instead of surrendering into His embrace.

I’ve been praying about my desire to write a book on my awakening experience, specifically how mindfulness and trusting God work so beautifully together. It’s on my heart to share how embracing growth and not having it all figured out is a much more fulfilling way to live. But, I’ve been struggling to start the writing process. My procrastination is driven by the need to have it all figured out! Oh, the irony. On some level I know that my words will be refined and revised through the writing process. But, when I’m unable to experience the feelings of frustration, fear, and potential failure, I become trapped in this thought pattern: I need to master these lessons before I can write about them.

So, here I am relearning lessons that I want to share with others. Returning to acceptance, commitment, and mindfulness as a daily practice to release control and trust God. I’ve been here before and will likely be here again. I will never master these lessons. I will keep growing, with God’s grace and guidance.