A different kind of self-help

geeseWe live in a me, me, me world. Or as the Beatles said, “I me mine.” Often, when “the me” isn’t getting its way, isn’t losing weight, getting rich, finding true love, or gaining more confidence, it turns to self-improvement products to make things better. You know what I’m talking about, the books, audio recordings, and classes that lead to an even greater focus of attention on “me.”

Recently, I read about a different kind of self-help in an article by Gregg Krech, ToDo Institute, which in this country is the main champion of  Japanese Naikan therapy.

The article lists skills that are the foundation of Japanese psychology.

*Acceptance. We’ve all heard this one.  If you can’t change an unpleasant situation or experience, stop focusing your attention on it . Easier said than done, but Krech makes it seem more doable when he says, not to let go “is to fight against reality.” When stated that way, do any of us really have time to invest in a fight like this?

*Coexisting with conflicting feelings. Krech says, “accept them and take them with us as we do what we need to do in our lives.”

*Shift our attention away from ourselves. “…self-focused attention is associated with psychological and emotional suffering.” When we stop obsessing about our problems and shift our attention outside of us, the problems lose their power to make us miserable.

*Courageous self-reflection. This involves focusing attention on all the people who have supported or cared for you in some way. If you consider all you’ve received from others, whether in the form of a friendly smile, a cooked meal, help making a purchase, or clean teeth, it’s easier to spend a little less time in a me, me, me world.




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Homage to dilettantes


knitted scarf, collage, accordion book, necklace, two-ring book, polymer clay journal, Polaroid transfer print

Clearing out years of accumulated stuff is like shining a spotlight on your past.  As part of my current focus on de-cluttering, I have found all the evidence I need that I’ve been a lifelong dabbler. And I’m certain I’m not alone. So here’s to all you dilettantes out there.

My mother’s critiques of my elementary school drawings told me early on that my path would never take me toward a career in the visual arts. But that doesn’t mean the wish to create has ever left.

I’ve tried everything. Sewing was my first hobby and it turned out less than fulfilling. Nothing I made fit. And then there were the zippers. Knitting was a little better. Despite the sweater I made for my dad, which would have looked fine on a man five times his size, I did manage to knit a nice-looking sweater and plenty of scarves.

I’ve stamped greeting cards, carved rubber stamps, marbled paper, and created books with different kinds of bindings, as well as one paperless book, and journals.  I’ve made jewelry, taken zillions of photos and even had my own bathroom darkroom. Most of these hobbies required taking a class, which pulled me away, physically, from work or home and my normal routines. They also took me away mentally. How can you fret about what might happen tomorrow, when you’re busy trying to follow someone’s directions while designing, cutting, gluing and coloring and glancing nervously at the clock that is telling you class time is almost up and you haven’t finished. Plus, unlike in many jobs, you leave with a product, a sense that you have something concrete to show for your efforts.

Having been such a committed dabbler for so long, I was curious as to whether dabbling was a sign of some deep and permanent psychological flaw. So far I haven’t found anything but positives. Pursuing hobbies is a known way to relieve stress.

In retirement, I’ve become less of a dabbler. Writing is now my creative outlet. Occasionally, I return to paper crafts that don’t involve putting words on a page. This summer, I took a class to learn how to make Japanese-style travel journals. The teacher prepared all the materials we needed ahead of time and loaned us the tools.

One drawback: to recreate these on your own you have to buy more stuff.  I bought paper, a couple of punches, string, and a few beads. Moral of the story:  In the process of cleaning out and reflecting on your past, you could find yourself buying more stuff to take up the space you just emptied.

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Putting early learning to work with literary agents

PNWA 2015 Conference Program

PNWA 2015 Conference Program

Recently, I had a chance to do what I do best, namely, read aloud in front of an audience. Not exactly a big claim to fame. Since I was attending the annual Pacific NW Writers’ Conference at the time, reading was of no help in getting a book contract. However, the experience did save me from public embarrassment, as well as provided me with happy childhood memories.

When I was four, my dad taught me to read.  I asked him to, so he came up with a system similar to what teachers used back then:  flash cards. These were little index cards on which he printed a word. He’d hold up the cards one at a time and make me pronounce the word.

(I once saw a case where a child taught by this method could read aloud, but had no idea of the meaning of the words she was reading. Her parents wanted her to skip a grade, because she read so well. Oops. So I understand that learning how to recognize and pronounce English words is not always enough. But this method worked fine for me.

Friends from first grade still tease me about our teacher, Mrs. Carlson, whom they remember as the one who kissed us all goodbye each day as we left her classroom — another practice not current in today’s elementary schools. She had me read aloud in class often and sent me to read to third graders.  Not a good strategy for encouraging other students to become better readers, I’m sure, but one that got me oodles of attention.

One of the sessions at the writer’s conference involved having a panel of four agents critique query letters submitted by members of the audience.  I turned mine in with the others.  According to the rules, the letter writers’ names were confidential, so a conference volunteer was to choose and read a letter aloud for the agents to comment on.  He read one and I cringed. He was not the reader to present our queries.  When he stumbled over the protagonist’s name in the second letter, its author jumped up and said, “Would you like me to read mine?” My query was the third chosen, and I wasted no time racing to the stage and grabbing the mic. I looked out at the crowd. As an audience to perform in front of, they were no different from the first and third-graders of my past. I filled my reading with emotion and energy. The critics all said, “Good letter.”

I noticed after I left the stage that the most enthusiastic among them was reading my letter to himself, and had begun critiquing again. He suggested shorter sentences and fewer clauses, and complained that one sentence was in passive voice.

Maybe I read aloud with too much fervor. I might have to look for an agent willing to listen to my novel being read to her (agents are almost always women) or one who specializes in audio books.



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The joy of getting rid of things

My bookcase

My bookcase

Clutter drives me nuts, yet other than occasionally going through my closet and sending a few bags of clothing to Goodwill, I don’t do much about it.

Someone who believes she has the answer to clutter is Marie Kondo, a professional tidier.  She’s written the book, “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” When I first put a hold on the book at my library, I was number 143 on the list. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one with the problem. The end goal of Kondo’s work in helping people get rid of things is to bring joy into their lives, the joy that comes when the clutter is gone.

I like much of what Kondo recommends.  Her approach does not call for more shelving, bins to store more things, or extra closet space. She’s merciless in telling her clients to get rid of stuff.

Her first piece of advice is not to take one room at a time, because you soon stop before you’ve accomplished anything. No, she says, Get in there and discard it all at once and do it by category, e.g., clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous items. I’m currently ignoring the “don’t try to deal with a whole room” advice, because I have one room that needs my full attention for as long as it takes.

Begin with what you want to keep. But what if you want to keep everything? Kondo says, if it gives you joy, keep it.  You pick up each item, examine it and ask yourself, “Do you give me joy?” If you can’t answer yes, dispose of it. My advice: If your neighbors can see you quizzing each of your possessions, you might consider drawing your blinds.

I’m not sure how the joy rule applies to items in the kitchen. Few spatulas give me joy; but I do see how the basic de-cluttering ideas work with clothes, books and other personal possessions, which is where she focuses.

After you group your possessions by category, work on them in that order. Clothing first, books second. Don’t start the process with the beat up Raggedy Ann doll your grandmother made for you when you were a child. When you get to a sentimental item, say a high school dance program, think back to the dance, who you were with, how much fun you had, and then move on.  The program isn’t doing a thing for you now. Same with your elementary school report card. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past.”

What are traps that prevent us from getting rid of stuff?  1)We think that one day we might still use it; 2) it contains information we might need at some future date; and 3) it is hard to find parts for.  This doesn’t mean you have to keep out-of-date warranties, manuals, cables and cords. And as far as paper, Kondo’s tongue-in-cheek recommendation is, “discard everything.”

Unread books?  Give them away.  If, ten years from now, you really, really wish you had read one of them (and that means you remember which books you gave away), you can always get one from the library or even buy it if it’s that important.

I recommend this book to anyone who dislikes clutter.  I appreciate Kondo’s arguments that there are only benefits attached to getting rid of things we’re no longer using.  She says, “Letting go is even more important than adding.”  And this could be said about more than our possessions.

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How much money do you need?

origami money

Origami heart dollar bill

How much money do you need? Recently someone told me that twenty million dollars was the current number being tossed around in a local football player’s contract negotiations. If you earned twenty million over a course of a few years, would you think that was enough? I’d hope so. But if the athlete is comparing himself to another player making more, it might not be.

No matter how much we earn, we always know of others in our field who earn more. And these comparisons lead to crazy-making thoughts and behavior. In “The Soul of Money,” global activist and fundraiser Lynne Twist says, “redesigning our relationship with money will be the key that transforms the condition of life, both physical and spiritual, for all of us in the twenty-first century.”

Twist thinks a lot about money, since much of her work focuses on ending hunger on a world scale. The belief that all resources, such as nutrition resources, are scarce, even though we know we pay farmers not to grow more food or to plow it under before it’s harvested, guides us to the conclusion that there is not enough food to go around. We worry we don’t have as much money or stuff as the next person. That accounts for some of the success of stores that sell products in bulk, which leads many of us to use our garages as storage containers for everything but cars. (If you looked in my garage you’d think I had anxieties about running out of toilet paper; honestly, the problem was not making a Costco shopping list…twice.)

Talk about scarcity brings to mind descriptors such as “fear, competition, greed, mistrust, envy,” winners and losers, successful and unsuccessful.  In addition to fear of scarcity, another cultural belief we hold is that the more money we earn, the more successful we are. The more possessions we have, the more we identify with them.  I remember as a child connecting with a pen pal in England.  I started my first letter with a list of worldly goods, as in dolls, toys and pets. Years later, I’m thankful that my parents convinced me to come up with a different opening.

According to Twist, the opposite of scarcity is sufficiency, a sense that there is enough. “Sufficiency is a context we bring forth from within that reminds us if we look around us and within ourselves we will find what we need.” Words aligned with this perspective include “gratitude, fulfillment responsibility, resilience, and inner riches.”

One nice thing about retirement is that you no longer have to compare yourself to others, though sometimes we do. Admittedly, for some retirees, scarcity is still an overarching and legitimate fear. In my case, I have too much, which is leading me to spend time each day going through closets, cupboards and drawers looking for items to get rid of. It’s a harder job than it sounds. Today I came across a few zillion nylon stockings.  I haven’t worn nylons for more than five years. Still, I ended up saving them. I can’t predict when I might get an invitation to Buckingham Palace, and I feel certain the Queen will expect to see me in stockings.






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"Triple dead-heat" by Unknown - Gooreen collection. Licensed under "Triple dead-heat" by Unknown - Gooreen Triple  Triple Dead Heat, Gooreen collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Licensed under “Triple dead-heat” by Unknown – Gooreen collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

In my last blog, I quoted researcher Brené Brown, from her book, “Daring Greatly,” on the subject of the scarcity many people feel about not having enough money, and not being good enough, perfect enough, smart enough, or successful enough. Connected to this, she says, is a fear of being ordinary, “never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

American storyteller and radio personality Garrison Keeler, always reminds us that in his imaginary hometown of Lake Wobegon, “All the children are above average.”

He’s not the only one to open our eyes to our cultural reluctance to accept the ordinary.  Enter what’s wrong with ordinary in your search engine and you’ll find many references to this topic, such as this one from a blog called pinetribe: “In the back of our minds, we all strive for the extraordinary. We live in a culture which doesn’t celebrate the ordinary, everyday victories.”

I once had a boss, who didn’t have time to write an evaluation of my first year on a new job. Instead, she asked to meet and talk about my performance.  She opened with, “You were average. That sounds about right, doesn’t it?” She laughed while she said it, so I knew it was a joke.  “Eeww,” I thought. Joke or not, I never want to be average.

The problem with not wanting to be ordinary is that, “We engage too much in comparison, and we desire to be considered special in comparison to others.”

What happens when we compare ourselves to others? We can always find someone who does something better than we do. This brings us to the topic of self-compassion, which, compared to self-esteem, doesn’t involve comparing ourselves to other people and feeling like a winner or loser.

Kristin Neff is an author and researcher on the subject of self-compassion. She gives a TED Talk in which she describes self-compassion as treating ourselves with the same kindness we might treat a friend. For example, if I make what I consider a stupid mistake, I might say to myself, “What an idiot,” but I would never say that to a friend. Self-compassion means accepting our humanity, i.e., accepting that each of us is imperfect and not beating ourselves up about it.

When we have self-compassion, we don’t have to search for someone who does something worse than we do, puff ourselves up so we can maintain a sense of superiority, or — when we find evidence of our imperfections — produce more of the stress hormone cortisol to ward off threats to our egos.

You can find advice urging you to appreciate the ordinary and urging you to aim for extraordinary. I like this quote from novelist Peter Hoeg in support of the former. “We all try to camouflage the monotony, But it takes a lot of energy. To insist on being special all the time. When we’re so much like one another anyway. Our triumphs are the same. Our pain. Try for a moment to feel what relief there is in the ordinary.”




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How much is enough?

How much of anything is too little, how much is enough, and how much is too much?  It sounds like a question out of the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” But I’m not talking about the temperature of bears’ oatmeal or the size of their chairs.

Two writers, one a research professor and one a global activist, argue that the perception of scarcity goes beyond environmental issues, such as lack of water to sustain crops, or life-and-death concerns such as the absence of adequate nourishment. They say that the perception of “scarcity” is a state of mind which affects every aspect of contemporary life in our culture.

Dr. Brené Brown, research professor, therapist, and author of “Daring Greatly,” has heard enough stories from students and clients to know that we often define ourselves in terms of what we lack. One way she asks clients to tell their stories is to fill in the blanks to complete this sentence:  Never____________enough. Typical responses include: “Never good enough, never perfect enough, never thin enough, never powerful enough, never successful enough, never smart enough, never certain enough, never safe enough, never extraordinary enough.”

In fact, many of us let the “never enough” belief control our lives from dawn to dusk.  Brown quotes global activist Lynne Twist, author of “The Soul of Money,” as saying that scarcity is “the great lie…” Many people wake up telling themselves “I didn’t get enough sleep,” followed by “I don’t have enough time… Before we even sit up in bed…we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something…This mind set of scarcity lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice…”

So how do we gauge when we have enough? Within most countries, it’s  easy to realize, objectively, that some groups of people have too much and others too little. It’s more difficult for us to view our own situations without prejudice, and consider when we have enough and when enough is enough.

Dr. Brown reminds us that our culture of comparison drives our beliefs that we lack something — or many things — that we must have. Why? Because someone else has them.  Advertisers, many television shows and movies encourage this culture by featuring beautiful people, who have too much and live thrilling and extraordinary lives. The effect of seeing them is to make us feel certain our lives are lacking in money, fame, excitement, fun, and attention.

Dr. Brown shares tips to combat fears that we are lacking something important, including:  1) “Pay attention to ordinary moments, because these are what cause us joy; and 2) Be grateful for what we have.”

She suggests that another way to avoid the psychological scarcity trap is to tell ourselves, “I am enough.” This only works if we believe it.  These days, more often than not, I do. Yet another good thing that comes with age.

These topics will continue in the next few blogs.




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