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Self-righteousness is the enemy of self-respect

I started reading Brene Brown’s most recent book, Rising Strong, recently. I am a die-hard fan of her work, so really the only surprise there is that I waited as long as I did to get around to reading this one.

Rising Strong is, as all her books are, wonderful and enlightening. I’ll be sure to post a complete review once I’ve finished reading it, but for now — here’s a passage that grabbed my attention:

“I am clear on the fact that self-righteousness is a tremendous threat to self-respect… I must accept responsibility for my own life and my decisions. When I was finding fault with everyone who walked by that day at the airport, my self-respect was suffering. That’s why things felt so dark.”

Brown, Brene (2015-08-25). Rising Strong (Kindle Locations 1998-2000). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I have had a thing about self-righteousness for a long time. It’s an emotion I don’t like when I recognize it in myself and it’s an emotion that I struggle to deal with when it shows up in other people.

Basically self-righteousness makes me grumpy.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t fall victim to it just like everyone else. Sometimes people behave in ways I feel are inappropriate and that pisses me off and I get all self-righteous and uppity about it.

But I don’t like the person I am when I’m being so judgmental.

And those few sentences from Brene Brown put the finger on exactly why I find self-righteousness so irksome.

Self-righteousness is the enemy of self-respect.

(My hunch is that what follows is reasonably universal — but if it’s not true for you, feel free to skip to the end and let me know your thoughts in the comments. I love a dissenting view!)

We get self-righteous when we’re upset — and interestingly, as Karla McLaren points out in her book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, anger is the emotion that helps us set and maintain healthy boundaries. For a more detailed look at McLaren’s view on anger, try here.

So we get angry, and then we get self-righteous, but usually the reason we’re angry in the first place is because someone violated a boundary.

It seems to me that the self-righteousness itself is the product of that anger — except instead of looking at how we played a part in allowing the violation of our boundaries, we choose to take the easy way out and blame the other person for “behaving badly” and not respecting boundaries we didn’t tell them they were crossing.

They shouldn’t have been mean to us. They shouldn’t have laughed at us. They shouldn’t have done that. They should have behaved more appropriately.

We get self-righteous.

But the self-righteousness is the product of a loss of self respect.

The problem began when we didn’t stand up for our boundaries, when we didn’t speak up about our needs, when we didn’t give them an honest no and when we settled for a resentful and dishonest yes.

And now we’re angry and we’re making it their fault because it’s easier than admitting that it is we who were at fault.

I invite you to do it differently as you move forward — I will certainly be paying more attention to this!

I invite you to notice self-righteous feelings as a signal that a boundary violation has occurred. That in some way you didn’t stand up for yourself when you should have. That instead of anchoring your words and actions in self-respect, you disrespected yourself — and now you’re angry because the other person followed your lead and disrespected you, too.

Notice, and then do it differently.

What would have been respectful of yourself, your needs, your boundaries in that situation? What was it you really needed to say, to do, to insist upon? What should you have been unwilling to tolerate or settle for?

Your turn! What’s an experience which left you feeling self-righteous? Do you think it was the result of a boundary violation? Was self-righteousness easier than the shame of admitting you didn’t stand up for yourself? Let me know in the comments below!


Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

Is your “bubble” big enough?

Remember how when you were a kid and you had a “bubble” of personal space around you that the other kids were supposed to stay out of?

I remember fighting with my sister in the backseat of the car, scraping lines down the fabric with our fingernails, dividing the car solidly into “my side” and “her side”.

(Much, I am sure, to my parents’ dismay.)

I haven’t thought about my “bubble” in more than a decade at this point, but I’ve been reading Karla McLaren’s fascinating book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You and suddenly I find my “bubble” is all I’ve been thinking about.

McLaren’s book is about bringing your emotions into flow and about the helpful messages your emotions are trying to bring to the surface (for example, anger is the emotion that helps you set healthy boundaries).

She suggests that part of setting healthy boundaries is about maintaining energetic and emotional protection and definition between ourselves and the world around us.

She writes, “Luckily, this boundary already exists. In the metaphysical community, it’s called the aura, and while it has had a lot of wacky metaphysical connotations attached to it, your aura is simply your personal space. In the neurological community, this personal space is now understood to be your proprioceptive territory, and it is created by specific neural and muscular networks throughout your brain and body. Your proprioceptive system maps your body and your position in relation to everything around you; it helps you stand, balance, move, and understand your body’s relationship with its environment.”

McLaren goes on to suggest than in most people the proprioceptive space your brain lays claim to is roughly the area that exists within the reach of your arms — i.e. your “bubble”.

But here’s what blew my mind.

As I was trying out McLaren’s boundary-setting, proprioceptive-space-claiming exercise I suddenly found myself feeling much larger in the world than I usually do. My breathing deepened. My stomach unclenched. I felt my internal self unwinding to expand out into the world around me.

I realized in that moment that at some point growing up I stopped getting bigger and instead started to become very small.

I don’t know when it started — maybe when I was in first grade and my space was defined by the small carpet square I sat on or in high school when the boundaries of my bubble could extended no further than the borders of my desk and my limbs were expected to remain neatly confined in close proximity to my body, not spread helter skelter to hither and yon.

Regardless of how or when it happened, at some point my bubble seems to have shrunk so small it no longer takes up even the space occupied by my physical body. At some point my bubble shrank until it was nothing more than a leaden knot that sits in my stomach and makes me feel anxious and sick.

And so here’s the question that just about broke my brain.

Is this how big I’m supposed to be?

I’ve thought a lot in the last year or two about what it means to be “playing small”. In many ways I’m playing small with this blog — I’m not doing the outreach I should be if I wanted to grow my small community of readers into something “big”.

But what if it’s not just about “playing” small? What if I’ve been being small, instead?

And what about the corollary: What if I’m allowed to be as big as I am? What if I’m really as big as my proprioceptive space?

Because what I know is that when I imagine my edges expanding out to fill the inside of a big oval-shaped shell arms-width out from my body, I *feel* bigger. I feel more allowed to take up space in the world, more allowed to be who I am, more allowed to want what I want and need what I need.

I feel like, just maybe, I’m allowed to become as big as I can reach.

And after so many years of shrinking, it’s a very odd thing to be so large.

I’m still not sure yet what, exactly, this means which is why I’d love for you to try it out and let me know your experience.

Here’s what you do (adapted from The Language of Emotions):

  1. Ground yourself before beginning. Focus your attention on your feet. Feel them growing heavy as if your shoes had turned to concrete and feel your energy settling low in your body and then sinking down into the very center of the earth.
  2. Stand up and reach your arms out to either side of you. Move them front and back and over your head. Get a feel for the space your body occupies.
  3. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a bubble extending out to the edges of your reach and flowing down under the ground to close beneath your feet. Imagine the boundary of this space in a way that is natural to you — you can imagine a color, a sound, a texture. I personally like to imagine mine as a shimmering, like heat.
  4. With your boundary clear around you ask yourself the question, “Do I claim this much room in the world?”

I’d love to know what you find — how much room do you claim in the world? Is your “bubble” teeny tiny and neglected like mine? Who would you be if you took up as much space as you could reach? How might you behave differently if you claimed all that space as your own? Let me know in the comments below!

Please note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. This means that I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This commission does not affect your price.

How do you feel about saying no?

It occurs to me, perhaps belatedly, that I may have a dysfunctional relationship with the word “no”.

The topic came up this week as I was tasked to some new projects at work and while, on the one hand, I don’t mind (I like it when other people ask me to help and the tasks are useful, just not interesting), on the other hand, some of the tasks that I was asked to do aren’t things that make me feel zippy inside. Some of them feel more like a weighty ton of bricks.

There’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps I shouldn’t have said no.

This state of self-inquiry is particularly acute because I have been reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and it’s been really useful for crystallizing a lot of the ideas about priorities that I’ve been toying with for a while.

The basic tenant of his book is that we should do “less, but better” — i.e. say “no” to more things in order to focus on that which is essential. It’s a great idea, a great theory; I found myself nodding along with something on nearly every page as I read.

And yet this week I didn’t think to say no when asked to do things that I already know will not be my highest contribution.

There’s a lot packed up in this idea. On the one hand, I think saying no is just hard: it is an act of rebellion, a distancing of oneself from the rest of the tribe.

On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of my personal baggage wrapped up in it, too.

I wouldn’t bother to share my baggage, except that I’m beginning to learn that it’s all the same baggage — we use different words and have different reasons, but our issues are usually the same: at the end of the day we’re generally insecure, worried that there’s something wrong with us, and that the rest of the world might find out. We therefore conclude that our wrongness means we’re not worthy of whatever good the universe offers to us.

For me personally, this means I’m often overly-eager to play the drudge. I operate from a place of “it’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it” and because of my feelings of unspecialness (my own particular flavor of unworthiness), I feel like that person might as well be me.

The consequence of which is that I wind up working on projects I don’t love and feeling like everyone else gets to solve problems that are cooler than mine.

My rational brain knows that to some extent “the grass is always greener”, and other people’s problems probably aren’t any more exciting than mine. But then I wonder — is that true? Or do I just think that’s true because I believe that important work is often unpleasant and has to be done anyways?

Our thoughts get slippery when we try to work our way around them.

I don’t know my answers yet. I know that it’s easier to agree than to say no when I’m at work. And I know that it’s easier to say no than to agree when someone invites me to a social outing (even if there is a part of me that wants to go).

And I know that, as Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, “When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us… We often think of a choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice — a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.”

This week I felt myself not-choosing, rather than sincerely saying yes.

The point of this blog is not for me to whinge on about my inability to set boundaries around my time at work. The point of this blog is to perhaps help you think a little more critically about what it is you are or aren’t saying “no” to in your life.

My hope is that by shining a small light into my dark and nebulous corners, you might find the shadows a shade lighter in yours.

Where could you do “less, but better” in your life right now? What would you need to say “no” to to make your highest contribution — whether at work or at home? Let me know in the comments below!


Some thoughts on faith

This week I had the pleasure of reading Glennon Melton’s Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. The book is series of short memoir essays that read similar to blog posts (unsurprisingly, since Melton blogs at Momastery.com). The book is a quick read and delightful — honest and wise and laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The book is also rather Christian. Melton makes many references to Jesus, to God, and to her faith — unorthodox as her faith may sometimes be. (Her position, I believe, is that as a recovering “ex-everything” she really has no right to judge). But her faith is very much front-and-center in this book and I was surprised by how triggering I found that.

Not because I was unaware that religion makes me uncomfortable, but simply by how much it bothered me to have someone be so candid about it. And so I think reading this book was really important for me (and I’m very glad I did!) because it forced me to reconsider a lot of my beliefs around religion and about faith.

I wasn’t raised in a religion or with a faith. If I was raised with a faith, it was probably “logic” or “science” or “reason” — and in retrospect these things make miserable faiths because they leave no room for our perfectly imperfect humanity. But I did not know this until I was much older and I never questioned these ideas of faith because organized religion does a terrible job of marketing itself and so I really thought that I was better off.

From where I stood, the advantages of a religious faith were invisible. In my admittedly limited experience, religion usually seems to do more to make people anxious and narrow-minded than to create space for more kindness and compassion in the world.

While I know that, in practice, this is not true, and that there are many people (perhaps even most) for whom faith is a comfort that increases their ability to extend kindness and compassion toward others (the “Christian feeling” of the 19th Century), the truth is that these days, from an outsider’s perspective, “Christian feeling” seems often to be more about hatred than kindness. (And I’m picking on the Christians here a little; I think the same is true of many of the world’s religions.)

So I don’t love religious doctrine or institutions, but what I realized in reading Carry On, Warrior is that Glennon Melton and I share a lot of the same ideas about faith.

Because as much as I don’t ever see myself participating in an organized religion — in the past few years I’ve been busy reinventing my idea of faith. And that idea doesn’t look much like Melton’s Jesus. But increasingly I think that faith is important, and a faith in Jesus seems to me no worse than any other.

My faith is not so well defined as any religious symbol — it is a faith in nature, in beauty, in goodness. I believe that nature is good and beautiful and that, as part of nature, we are good and beautiful, too. And perhaps this is not so different than what Jesus would have us believe — but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever worship in a church.

I prefer my worship out beneath the open skies or here, upon the altar of the empty page.

But I do believe we all need a little faith. Without faith we cannot trust or hope, and without hope we have no reason to act with kindness and compassion in the world.

If there is anything I feel certain of, it’s that the world today needs every drop of kindness and compassion we can bear to part with right now. We’ve spent the industrial era moving away from these ideals, I think.

The industrial era asked us to sacrifice our humanity in order to better play the part of the machine and we’ve done so. But now the machines are taking over and the only thing we’ll have left to call our own will be the strength our humanity. (Check out this article from The Atlantic if you want to know more.)

So I don’t know much about faith and nothing at all of God — but if I have to believe in something, I guess I choose to believe in the power of compassionate humanity to save the world. To believe in anything else seems just too dang scary right now.


I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a monologue! Do you have a faith? If so, how does your faith impact your experience living in the world? Let me know in the comments below.


Please note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. This means that I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This commission does not affect your price.


The systems that make your dreams come true

Here’s a problem I’ve been pondering lately: when you have big dreams how do you make them come true?

There are obvious, unhelpful answers like “you pursue them!” or “you don’t give up!”. There are more practical, but still unhelpful answers like “you just write” and “you just do it”.

Because here’s the thing, often just wanting the dream isn’t enough to get it done. Lots of people want to write books, but very few of them ever do. You need more than just desire, you need systems.

Systems are like magic.

At their most basic, I think that systems are just habits that help you make progress on what’s important. Ten minutes of journaling before bed is a system that might help you get clear and accountable on how your actions that day have furthered or hindered your goals. Turning off your email notifications is a system that helps you remain focused on what really matters.

Systems can also be more complicated, the structures and scaffolding from which your sculpt your life. They can be complex creations with moving parts that flow throughout your days and help keep you on track.

And the system I want to talk about today is like that. It’s your productivity system, your calendar, your to-do list, your inbox. It’s the clutter in your house and the mess in your closet.

I’ve been deeply engrossed in the work of Anna Kunnecke for a couple of months now, and she places a lot of emphasis on how clearing up and clearing out one’s physical environment can have a huge positive impact on one’s internal world. Having tried it out for myself, I find I couldn’t agree more.

And yet the change that has made the most significant impact on my life isn’t so much to do with my physical world; it has to do without I keep track of all the moving parts that make up a life.

And my system is based heavily on Anna Kunnecke’s recommendations and on David Allen’s suggestions in his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

If you’d told me two years ago I needed to improve my personal productivity, I’d probably have laughed at you.

I’d have pointed to my two degrees from MIT and said “me?!”. But the truth is that MIT didn’t teach me good productivity habits — what MIT taught me was how to fight fires with incredible efficiency. At MIT every assignment was a crisis, every week was overloaded and I raced about in a kind of dazed panic from problem to paper to exam without a moment to gasp for air.

Which means that when I graduated I didn’t have any skills for getting things done in a less-stressful environment. In real life there aren’t so many deadlines. The book I’m writing doesn’t have due date. There’s no teacher leaning over my shoulder, fingers shifting restlessly in anticipation of each completed chapter. There’s really no reason to finish writing my book except that I want to.

The truth is that it’s very hard to find the time to write.

This is a truth that so many writers seem to gloss over and so many aspiring writers can’t seem to move past. So much writing advice boils down to “just write” including the oft-cited quote from Neil Gaiman to “write one word and then another”, or this recent post from Chuck Wendig. And this advice is not untrue — it’s perhaps the truest advice there is — but my quibble with such advice is that it also doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help the aspiring writer finally start writing the novel they’ve always dreamed of. And it doesn’t help them keep putting down words every day, even when the story takes a left turn somewhere on page 50 and suddenly they haven’t got a clue what the story even is anymore.

I’ve spoken about some of the tricks I use to help make my writing feel effortless, but when we get down to the nitty gritty of it, no amount of desire or effortlessness is sufficient to help me prioritize my writing over all the other things that need to happen in my life. Should I do my writing or my cooking first? Well… I’d really rather not starve. Should I do my writing this morning or be on time at my job? Well… I’d really rather not be late.

So in order to actually get my writing done I need to find a way to hold myself accountable to actually doing it — otherwise, I can say I’m writing a book till I’m blue in the face but if I’m not actually putting words on the page then (as Anna Kunnecke would say) “it’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?”

And the system I’ve found myself turning to with great efficacy is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

On the surface David Allen’s system is simple.

It really boils down to just five steps:

  1. Capture. This is where you identify and catalog all of the things that you need to do from the mundane (empty the dishwasher) to the complex (finish the first draft of my book).
  2. Clarify. What is the very next physical action I need to take to move forward on this? This is where you determine what actually needs to be done next for each of the tasks you captured in step one.
  3. Organize. This is where you organize the actions and projects you identified in steps  one and two into a system that presents them to you at the appropriate time and prevents things from slipping through the cracks.
  4. Reflect. David Allen suggests we need to take time weekly to reflect, to capture any new tasks from the week, to look ahead and make sure nothing is sneaking up on us, to look behind and make sure there’s nothing pending we should follow up. It’s also a moment to take a look at the bigger picture and reset one’s priorities.
  5. Engage. This is where the rubber hits the road and you act on all those next actions.

As David Allen says, there’s really three kinds of work: the work we plan to do (the stuff that is on our to-do lists), the work that shows up (emails, bills, etc.), and the work we do to define our work. After MIT I was fantastic at doing work that shows up, but not so fantastic at doing the work I’d planned to do and I’d never really learned to do the work to define my work at all. My next actions had always been decided by due dates and professors.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve been increasingly thorough in implementing David Allen’s system, I can tell you that being able to take control of defining the work you do is one of the most powerful systems I know for making your dreams come true.

Suddenly I’m finding time to write because my lists keep me accountable and they help me understand everything else I might also need to be doing so that I know that if I sit down to write for 30 minutes or an hour on a Tuesday that I’m not suddenly going to find Wednesday morning I don’t have any food for breakfast. And it turns out simultaneous accountability, security, and a deep honoring of my priorities are just the things I need to make my dreams (and this book) come true.

Now it’s your turn! What tools do you use to make your dreams come true? What systems support you in your life? Let me know in the comments 🙂