Fixing your Frame : How to get rid of Limiting Thoughts

Ask a five year old to sing and dance in public, chances are she will do it in a heartbeat, in front of a crowd. Fast forward ten years, and ask the same person to do the same thing. Forget dancing, she’ll probably not open her mouth to sing even.

It is the same person being asked to perform the same activity. But, something has changed. She has been subjected to Social Programming.

Social programming tells us that we are judged by everyone at every moment, in everything we do. It asks us to be proper. It asks us to shrink our selves, to encapsulate and to build walls. It isolates us, builds a ‘me vs them’ paradigm where  the ‘me’ needs to conform to our perception of  ‘them.’

Social programming makes us docile members of the herd.

I came out of a long marriage a few years ago. My newly attained single-hood has since been an adventure in self-discovery and growth. I have learnt more in these past few years than in any comparable period of my life, however, looking back I see that my greatest achievement has been unlearning much of the social programming that was instilled into me since childhood.

My mantra today is : “who gives a fuck?”

Really, who does? And, even if someone does, how much will that affect you?

Surveys reveal that our fear of public speaking is second only to our fear of death. Yet, as individuals in private and comfortable settings we are often eloquent. When we are with friends we do not fear being judged, we are comfortable. We express ourselves freely.

We all live inside a box. This box is created by ourselves. It is a boundary that we impose on ourselves based on how we think others will perceive us, and based on what we think our own worth is. The higher our perceived value, the bigger our box is.

Think of a corporate organization. Who has the biggest ‘box’ there? The CEO. She is the boldest, and cares least about being judged by her employees. Inside the organization she has the highest perceived value. She makes demands of other people in the organization, she is not afraid to make herself heard.

A corporate organization has a hierarchy. The size of the boxes we create for ourselves there conforms to this hierarchy. Social interactions are different. There is no previously laid out hierarchy. We meet as equals, and yet a hierarchy creeps in. This is what we create at that moment. Some people are always the center of any party, others live in the periphery.

The amount of attention and respect we will get in a social interaction depends on the size of the box we carry ourselves in when we walk in. Some people call it our ‘frame.’ Most of us carry small boxes, with rigid walls, and at the first sight of judgement we shrink it further till it is so small we become invisible.

Our personal boxes are filled with our own limiting thoughts. Limiting thoughts are self-imposed boundaries. These are the result of social programming and the amount of validation we have received from others in life. Studies have shown that children who were validated and praised in their childhood grow up with a higher sense of self-worth. However, it is possible to break out of limiting thoughts in adulthood too. The way to do it is to start loving yourself as much as you can, being proud of yourself.

Think of all the qualities you have that make you a desirable person. Think of all the awesome things you have done in life, all the obstacles you have overcome. Think of all your friends who cherish you. Convince yourself that you are great. Internalize it. This will grow your box.

We may see an attractive person across the room, but our box is so small we cannot muster the courage to walk up and talk to her, introduce ourselves confidently. We are frozen by the thought of rejection : “what if she rejects me and doesn’t reciprocate my advances?”

What then? Really, who gives a fuck? Will you lose your shirt, your pants, or your job? Will the whole party laugh at you? Think that you’re loser?

Chances are, nobody will even notice.

As you will keep on expanding your frame you will find that you’re doing things that you never even considered doing. I used to have terrible anxiety approaching and talking to groups of strangers. I would think that my approaches were unwanted, and that I would interrupt them. Once I started doing it I found that in the vast majority of cases my approaches were very welcome, and most people did not consider me as an interruption but as a welcome and fresh relief.

No matter how good you get at socializing and attraction you will never be correct in judging the mood of your recipient all the time. Even the best attraction experts succeed only half the time. You will make errors. However, it is always better to err on the side of excess than on the side of shortage.

If you’re a guy who just met a woman at a bar and are having a nice conversation and you feel the time is right to steal a kiss then go for it. She might turn her face and offer her cheek instead of the lips. No big deal. Chat with her more and try again. And again. If she’s still hanging out with you then she’s attracted to you, she might just not be ready to make out with you yet. So, make her more comfortable till she gets there. In the end, you might never get the kiss, maybe not on that evening, but that’s better than leaving without trying.

It is important to not appear creepy in your advances though. What distinguishes creepiness? It’s sneaky and insecure behavior. The guy who brushes past a woman on a dance floor and gropes her is creepy. The guy who looks her in the eye and pulls her in for a kiss is bold. He carries a large box around him. He takes it for granted that people will be attracted to him. It is surprising how much you can get if you look someone straight in the eye and go for it.

So yes, be that person who looks others straight in the eye, doesn’t give a fuck, and does whatever he wants. Be the person carrying the largest box in the room. You are entitled to it.

Remember, much of the reality you live in is created by you.

NRE Forever

We are all aware of NRE, New Relationship Energy. Those heady days when we’ve just met our new partner and can’t seem to get enough of her. The excitement of discovery, the anticipation and the wait. The frequent messages shared back and forth, the all night discussions punctuated by sex. Or, the other way around.

Most relationships start with this. The driving force in this phase is the unknown and the discovery. Many call this the ‘honeymoon phase.’ For many of us the fondest memories of a past relationship stem from this time. Typically, this phase lasts three months to a year, and then reality strikes in, and we either settle into a solid stagnancy or break off.

Decay in most relationships start right after the NRE ends. Even in stable and well-established relationships the later times are never as good.

I am not aware of any scientific studies that have been done between the correlation of the length of the NRE period against the life of a a relationship but from personal experience and from observations I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it is quite high. That is, the longer NRE lasts the better it is for a relationship.

What causes NRE to end? The answer is overexposure.

Those of us who dabble in photography are too aware of the pitfalls of overexposing a shot. Even a slight overexposure can flatten a photograph. It is the shadows that bring out the depth. My camera controls are permanently set to underexpose by half an ‘f’ stop. I find that makes the most interesting pictures.

Overexposure in relationships takes out the mystery and leads to enmeshment. Enmeshment leads to loss of our individuality and the emergence of couple identity. It has been observed that couples in long-term relationships start mirroring each other’s mannerisms and develop shared tastes and values that are antithetical to their individuality.

All this is good, but only to an extent. We have to remember that what makes us attractive is our individual identity, not our collective viewpoint. That is what drew your partner to you in the beginning, and you to her.

And, once we get to know everything about the other person she becomes predictable. Sometimes too much. This is comforting, but boring too. When we know what to expect we cease to be amazed.

So, the only way to lengthen NRE is by limiting the enmeshment. By having our own identities, our own visions and passions, and not giving in to the demands of a relationship at the expense of these. We also need to limit how much we disclose our inner selves and be careful of preserving boundaries. It is tempting to spend every free minute with our partner, but we have to understand that each additional minute we are spending today may steal several minutes from the future.

This is a fine line to walk. We get to know our partners by spending time with them. But, we cannot let that steal away from the time we need to spend with ourselves. We cannot grow the relationship without growing as individual selves. And, time apart may be as important as time together.

Underexpose your relationship. At least by half an ‘f’ stop.

Today is the Day

door

I am addicted to making lists. I was a scatterbrain growing up – forgetting to do things, to make submissions in school in time, and all the rest. One of my earliest memories is of a little strip of paper my dad would keep on top of a cabinet where he would jot his to-do list down and strike them off as each task was done.

Maybe I picked it up from him. Often, I would make lists on a post-it note while at work  and then bring it back home in the evening and go down the list doing the chores. Sometimes I’d use a bigger piece of paper, a notepad, to make a list for multiple days. Sometime ago I graduated to the Notes app on my smartphone and have recently started using the Reminder app. Now, I can make to-do lists anywhere : in the grocery store, while riding an elevator or while waiting in line for my bus to arrive.

While to-do lists are great, they can be overwhelming too. I am a big procrastinator. Sometimes when I wake up on a Saturday morning and see that my to-do list includes doing laundry, writing bills, cleaning my office room, getting my car serviced, buying grocery,  blowing leaves in my backyard, running to the post office to ship parcels and cooking I’ll often mumble to myself, “none of this is urgent, all of this can wait till next weekend,” and roll over into bed again.

But, next weekend is no different from this one, and while my list will undoubtedly grow in size by then, elves will not magically appear at my door to take care of things for me.

In one of its definitions Merriam Webster defines ‘chore’ as ‘a dull, unpleasant, or difficult job or experience.’ Little wonder I tend to procrastinate on getting to the ‘dull’ and ‘unpleasant’ stuff.

A few weeks ago I visited a friend who lives in Northern Jersey. She has recently added a bedroom on the second floor in her house above the garage and while the addition was complete the inside still needed some touch-ups before she could transfer her furniture and move in. There were spots on the walls that needed to be fixed, the trim, the doors and the windows needed to be painted. Being a single lady she did not have much help so she requested me to help her with painting the doors while she worked on other parts of the wall.

In truth, I’m not particularly fond of painting doors. I view the task as a chore. I have painted doors in the past but try to avoid doing it as much as possible. I have a door in my house that needs a second coat to match the finish on the trim and I’ve been ignoring it for the last couple of years. However, her eagerness to be able to move into the new bedroom was so obvious that I agreed to help her.

She handed me the roller, the paint, the mixing tray and a liner and I started work. It was white paint and I was using a foam roller which made it easier to paint into the ridges and valleys on the door without a brush. I finished the first coat, worked on the trim while letting it dry and then went back for the second coat. Painting a door white can be tricky, you want the grains to show but you also want the finish to be uniform. You use the roller on the flat part and the ends of the foam to go into the crevices, making sure there isn’t excess paint.

As I worked, it was fun to see the old color disappear and the new shine take its place. It was a challenge to achieve uniform texture throughout. After working on several doors and windows I found that not only a great deal of time has passed but I was also enjoying the work.

That came as a bit of a surprise. I wasn’t yearning for breaks. I wasn’t looking forward to getting the job done, I was actually enjoying the process of performing the chore. I was involved in the tiny details, my whole attention focused on the paint droplets that needed to be smoothed out, on the excess paint on the roller, on the areas that weren’t dry enough to paint over yet. I was fully inside that room, by the door, not thinking about work, not thinking about my next overseas trip or the upcoming dinner invitation.

I was then and there. I was giving my full and undivided attention to the task that needed to be performed. Not glossing over the little stuff but enjoying the little challenges. The mundane and boring had suddenly become challenging and exciting.

I was experiencing every moment of my immersion. I had no other goals at that moment but the successful completion of this ordinary task at hand. This is very contrary to my nature. I get bored with mundane stuff easily and thrive in the excitement of big challenges. I have chosen a profession that is fast-paced, high strung and packed with adrenaline. I thrive in such environments. I love extreme sports, I skydive, zipline and fly sports planes.

And yet on that day, the very ordinary task of painting doors provided me with as much fun as anything else I’ve ever done. What was different? Why hadn’t this ever happen before? Why was I constantly seeking fun when it was present in each moment already?

It happened because I was there, at that place and time, and I had allowed my full attention into the task. I was experiencing the immediate reality around me, permitting myself not to drift away. Like a cheetah on the African Savannah, her ears picking up the slightest sound, her nostrils the faintest scent, her skin fully aware of the wind blowing against it, her eyes intent on the slightest perturbation in the grass. A being that is fully present in its immediate reality, not thinking, not ruminating, not reminiscing. Just being.

There are two ways to look at life : as a series of hops between destinations that need to be arrived at. Mega destinations like getting into a good college, landing a fabulous job, getting married, buying a house… Or smaller destinations like getting a pay raise, the next vacation, the weekend dinner party… With this approach life becomes a steam of boring and mundane days punctuated by some fulfilling ones.

The other way is to look at life as a journey. Where the journey between the stops is as important,  or even more, as the destination itself.  Where each moment is an opportunity, an offering to us, to be relished, lived and above all experienced, with every last drop of juice extracted from it.

Then, magically, every moment becomes a moment of joy. Anonymous chores become memorable experiences. When we are fully immersed in the reality around us we cease to seek a greater reality. We marvel at how beautiful and how exciting every moment and every little thing is. Life becomes a steam of never ending joy, sourced by the fountain of wealth that is around us and our capacity not to ignore, but to experience every iota of it.

But, we have to be here, and now. Physically as well as mentally.

So, when I go back home today I will run down my to-do list and do as many task as time will permit. Not as chores, but as events to be experienced. I will look at the creases as I fold the laundry, smoothing out the fabric while feeling its texture. I will observe the spots while scrubbing my pans, feel the warm water between my fingers, enjoy the warmth, look at the beauty of the bubbles forming on the surface.

Today. Not tomorrow, not the day after. Today is the day.

Why are we so afraid of death?

trees_and_sky

Tomorrow morning when my alarm clock will ring, and after I’ve snoozed it several times, I will wake up to rays of the Sun filtering in through my window. If it is an overcast morning I will know that the Sun is still out there somewhere, hidden behind the clouds. I know that will be true no matter whatever happens today.

That is called a belief.

I also believe that fifty to a hundred years from now I will no longer wake up to see the Sun. I will no longer wake up. My body will either be ashes spread somewhere or buried deep inside a hole. I haven’t decided on that part yet.

Neither will the seven billion or so inhabiting this piece of rock today, or the billions that roamed before them. There will always come a day in every person’s life when she will not wake up to see the Sun any more. I have a very strong belief about this, stronger than the Sun rising tomorrow.

If I were religious I would happily believe that my eternal spirit will carry on its ethereal existence, divorced from flesh and blood, unable to drink wine, make love or ride in the subway, either waiting for its turn to reincarnate or frolicking in heaven, hopefully. But, I’m not religious. I don’t think about my spirit too much.

Should I be concerned that I won’t be here forever? Does that diminish what I am today? Does a part of me have to live on forever, or go away somewhere exotic after my body stops working, to make the life that I’m living today meaningful?

Is something meaningful only if it is eternal? Can fleeting things be meaningful too?

I used to love this woman deeply. I would drive over to her place in the evening, we would order pizza, or Chinese,  sit on the couch and talk, listening, saying, watching each other’s face, and at some point we’d realize it’s morning. Hours would fly by. We enjoyed every moment with each other. Our trips together, visits to museums, gardens. I used to write poetry for her. It was a relationship where happiness peeked out from every corner.

We broke up one day.We are still friends and still fond of each other but not in love. We have both been in other relationships since we broke up. Ours wasn’t the eternal love that we thought it was.

Does that make any of those moments less? Sometimes I walk along paths that  I have never taken in the past. I am not sure if I will ever take that path in the future. What I know is that I love the breeze flowing through the trees, the chatter of the birds, the shimmering on the surface of the water alongside, and I know that what I enjoy for that moment is all that will matter, independent of what the next moment will be.

My daughter will be going to college in a couple of years. There was a day when she would come running into my arms in her toddler steps when I came home. Nowadays when she’s with me she keeps to herself most of the time. I know we both care fore each other deeply, but the nature of our relationship has changed. She is a young independent woman about to set foot into the world by herself. I don’t know how far away her college will be, how many times she will visit me or call me. Where she will be after she graduates. I just know that no one will ever come running into my arms with toddler steps the moment I open the door.

Does the change make the past experience any less? Would I prefer she stay a toddler for ever?

In our search for eternity we often miss the beauty in the ephemeral. Society programs us to believe that if something ends it is not good enough. A consciousness that is not eternal is less. We are more obsessed about our afterlife and having a good time there than our life that is right here and right now. Death is either an ultimate annihilation, making everything we experienced meaningless or a gateway to a better life that we must strive and always prepare for.

Death is neither. It is an inevitable event. Like growing hair and subsequently losing it. Birth and death are the two bookends that hold the treasure of life in the shelf. We can avoid neither. But we can enjoy every moment we live between these two, knowing that each moment of our experience is true, undiminished in its transience, eloquent in its exposure, and that these moments individually add up to what we call our life.