The Time of Self-Diagnosis

IMG_0653_1

Some time ago a friend of mine was happy to tell me that she had finally been diagnosed – she was suffering from dyscalculia, which explains why she was always struggling with math, or remembering important dates.

And last Summer, I listened to the radio while driving a car. The host of that radio station was excited to tell about this new diagnosis called dysmorphophobia, or body dysmorphic disorder – a mental disorder where a person believes one or several of his or her body parts are severely flawed which hinders the person from living a normal life.

In one way, my feelings towards these diagnoses were neutral. It’s a good thing to find explanations to one’s behavior and know that I’m not alone with these thoughts and feelings. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder: is it really necessary for us humans to diagnose every flaw, weakness and imperfection in human nature? Are we coming up all these names and diagnoses just because we have the need to have an explanation for everything we do, instead of just accepting that these traits are a part of who we are as people?

Instead of being called shy, we prefer the word introvert.

Instead of saying that you don’t like your nose, you say you suffer from dysmophophobia.

Instead of saying that you prefer quiet evenings in the company of a few, you describe yourself as a highly sensitive person.

Don’t take this the wrong way: I myself use these diagnoses to describe and understand myself (as you will see later in this post). But I’m critical to how much we should rely on and adapt to these diagnoses.

Should we take them as granted and make them an integrated part of our personality – or should we critically observe them and take in the knowledge without becoming the diagnosis itself?

An Intertwined Mix

During the past year, I’ve learned some things about myself. For instance, I’m a people-pleaser, which means I tend to put other people’s needs before my own. I’m also a highly sensitive person, a HSP, which is difficult to describe in a sentence but basically it means that I’m more sensitive to people and social events than many others are. Recently, I’ve also concluded that I’m an introvert.

And some weeks ago, my partner came across a book about who we fall in love with and why. It describes four different personality types according to what hormone your body releases the most, and there is a test anyone can do that will show you what two personality types dominate your body and mind. I did the test and got some more definitions to add to my ’personality diagnosis closet’. Now I’m also a builder and a negotiator.

So, let me introduce myself: My name is H.E.R. and I am a People-Pleaser, an Introvert, a Highly Sensitive Person, a Builder and a Negotiator. My horoscope sign is Cancer and my Chinese Zodiac Sign is Dog.

According to these definitions I’m clever and courageous but emotional and stubborn (definition of Dog), attentive and thoughtful (HSP), tend to prioritize other people’s needs before my own (people-pleaser), enjoy spending time alone and in that way recharge my batteries (introvert), and am imaginative, sensitive (negotiator), loyal and good at making lists (builder).

This. Is. Me.

Or is it?

Does It Really Matter?

As the science of biology and psychology develop further, the scientists come to understand us humans better and better. Today, our behavior can be explained through not only psychology, but also biology.

For instance, according to the Four Personalities Test, a Negotiator releases more estrogen than the other four personality types, while a Builder releases more serotonin than others. Highly sensitive people aren’t necessary people who are shy but because they have a more sensitive central nervous system than many others, it may seem like they are. And science shows that introverts react to dopamine in a different way than extroverts do.

The more we know, the better we get at giving biological explanations to why we are the way we are. In the olden days, our behavior was explained by words such as shyness, courage or being in love. But today, we have a biological explanation for these things. We can name these characteristics anew and call them diagnoses, explanations for why and who you are.

For scientists, this is a good thing because it helps them move on to the next human-related challenge and de-mystify many mysteries about us humans. But for us others who don’t do scientific research – does knowing about hormone balances really change a thing? Knowing what hormones we release or how our bodies receive those hormones – how much of it do we really understand? Just because affection is actually your body releasing oxytocin, does it change how we see it in real life?

Just because we have a different, more scientific description of something, changing the way we see and think about things takes a lot more time. So, why are we putting down all this effort to self-diagnose ourselves?

(In addition, isn’t it nicer to talk about our affection for someone rather than saying ”by the way, last night my body was releasing oxytocin like crazy, if you know what I’m saying?”)

Living Up To Expectations

In the age of self-diagnosis, these biological / psychological explanations of human behavior may give you reassurance and validation – but it isn’t said that they’re one hundred percent true.

Understanding yourself, how your body and mind functions, can be extremely helpful because you 1) get to know your strengths and weaknesses, 2) understand why you behave in a certain way in certain situations, and 3) have a better understanding of what you need and want in order to live a balanced life.

For instance, learning about my high-sensitivity helped me realize why I didn’t enjoy working as a local news journalist and why I often seemed to react more strongly to conflicts than other members of my family did. The definitions of introversion helped me realized that I need time alone – not because I’m weird and anti-social but because that’s one of the few ways to find the time and space to focus only on myself and my needs for a while.

Sometimes we need to see things from another point of view to understand who we are and what we want. These tests and descriptions can help open one’s eyes, help to see one’s personality traits from a different perspective.

Another reason for self-diagnosing is also the fact that life, in general, is pretty messy and complicated. There are so many challenges to face, problems to solve, complex things to understand. So, if we can make our own personality easier to understand by making tests about it (instead of asking ourselves those questions and seeking answers to them), why not do it? It’s like a weather app: instead of learning to read the clouds, the winds and the color of the morning sky, you can take a look at the app and it will tell you how many layers of clothes you need that day.

It might sound like an easy way out. You do a test and read what it says about your strengths and weaknesses. You take the information to your heart and start living your life according to those strengths and weaknesses.

But there’s a catch here: we humans have a tendency to ”live up to expectations”, whether we want to or not, and that can have dire consequences.

Read about how highly sensitive people easily get exhausted, overwhelmed and burned out, and you find yourself noticing those traits especially often, either in yourself or in people around you. Suddenly, the descriptions become self-fulfilling prophecies because we are quite likely to buy in everything the descriptions say about us or others. We see those traits around us because we want to believe that they actually exist.

We take these instructions in because we want to fit in, find our place in the society.

But in that case, can we still say that we are being true to ourselves, true to who we are?

Diagnosis as a Tool

For me, reading and doing these tests has been a way to help me understand myself. I’d say they have been extremely useful. But I’d also like to point out this: when doing these tests and processing all the information, it’s essential to remember that these tests don’t tell you who you are – they tell you some aspects that can be true with you. Just because something says this is a part of you, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are.

So, instead of taking these theories into your heart and making them a grounded part of your identity, you’ll benefit more if you see them as tools that help you 1) clarify to yourself why you react or behave in a certain way, and 2) understand how you can deal with these reactions in relation to yourself and other people.

Don’t see the test results as a set script for you to follow. Don’t choose the seemingly easy way out because it isn’t – if you wish to stay true to yourself.

***

How do you feel about all the tests and books that aim to help us understand ourselves? Has some specific book or website had an impact on how you see yourself? I’d like to continue the conversation in the comments.

The Additional 30

img_6877_2

What would you do if you were given thirty to sixty minutes extra to your day? First of all, would you need them? And second, how would you spend those minutes?

On Monday, like a fairy godmother, I gifted myself those extra minutes.

You see, after a few days of thinking, I decided to take a break from social media. Facebook but especially Instagram, to be specific.

For a few years now, I’ve lived my life consuming a minimal amount of time on social media and without sitting down to catch up on the daily news. Of course, in the society we live in today it’s almost impossible to live without some news coming in one’s attention or altogether without any information related to social media, but in my opinion, I’ve done pretty well.

However, when I started writing this blog in July last year, I decided to create an Instagram account to go with it. After all, many bloggers use Instagram as an additional media to share more details about their lives through photos and short captions, and it seemed to be a part of the whole thing.

Also, many writers are active on Instagram, sharing their writing related tips and experiences and in that way creating a community for writers, something I had been longing for. As I was on my own with the hushed mission to write my very first real novel, Instagram seemed like the perfect place to share and care about writing without having to keep the first draft as a complete secret.

Help, Tips and Inspiration

Being a writer on Instagram has many positive aspects. The community of writers on this platform is huge and many of the writers share actively their writing journey, describing the ups and downs, the achievements and the setbacks. In this way, I got support and perspective to the whole writing process. There is also a number of writing experts who are there to help you, answer your writing-related questions and cheer you on – for free!

In addition to this, Instagram has worked as a place for inspiration and especially motivation to keep on writing every day. It has also been a place where I’ve found many tips for fictional books, books about writing and helpful Youtube and Instagram accounts to follow.

In addition to that, I’ve used Instagram to get ideas for different meals and ways to do self-care. The platform really is great. I spent a good deal of time posting my own photos, writing captions, liking and commenting the photos of other users – and getting that warm and cozy feeling of a community.

But still, something with Instagram made me doubt if my efforts there were worth my time, thoughts and energy.

Time, Action, Trouble

When it comes to following people on social media, I’m quite picky. Especially on Instagram, I didn’t want to follow anyone whose content didn’t feel natural or similar to my own style and preferences. Therefore, I only followed approximately 90 different people on Instagram.

Although this isn’t that much (as many tend to follow up to 500 people), for me the feed very often felt like an information overload. There was so much to see, so much to reflect upon and maybe comment upon that after my morning scroll through Instagram, my brain felt fuzzy. And this was right before I was supposed to dive into writing a new blog post or continue writing Yellow Tails.

Also the amount of inspirational and motivations quotes, writing tips, book recommendations and thought-provoking questions became too much. Almost daily I took several screenshots of things I wanted to check up on later but that I always forgot until I every few days scrolled through my photos and wondered what all the screenshots were about. There was too much information, too many ideas that eventually led to more passive consuming rather than active creating of new thoughts and ideas. And stress because when was I supposed to find the time to go through all those books to read and videos to watch and skills to learn?

Instagram counts the minutes you spend on the app and tells you how much time on average you spend on scrolling, liking and commenting photos. For me, that number was somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes every day. On days when I published something the minutes ticked away quickly and especially after the New Year when I decided to put some effort into my Instagram Stories, I really started to spend time on the platform.

However, I saw few if any returns for the additional time I invested on spending on Instagram. Only a few more clicks to the blog, only one-tenth of my followers actually saw those Stories and I got no more followers, no matter how I tweaked and turned the content.

In addition to this, many of the principles behind creating a successful Instagram account don’t fall into my personal and beliefs which made it hard for me to get motivated to ”do the right things to get more successful”.

It felt as if I was wasting my time when I could have invested those minutes into doing something off-screen or learning new things. And this made me think if it was time to quit Instagram.

Peaceful and Productive

With these gut feelings and thoughts (what did I give to the platform – and what did I receive?), I decided to dig a little deeper into the social media detox and what the talk around it was about. I watched two videos, this and this, and read this post by Seth Godin. And in a nutshell, this is what I ended up with:

Social media is one form of entertainment but the platforms are made as addictive as possible, making them into some sort of personal slot machines you carry with you in your back pocket or your bag. The platforms invite you to check them every now and then, as often as possible, which leads to your attention becoming fragmented. And this attention fragmenting aspect of social media can permanently reduce your capacity to concentrate.

These facts sounded convincing to me. My attention span is one of the most important things to me as a writer and I certainly didn’t want to have it fragmented. And I wasn’t too excited about the thought of personal slot machines, either.

However, one of the reasons I got on Instagram as a writer (and a future author) was to create a platform through which I could market my book and share my journey. And I thought this: if I quit Instagram, will it have a negative effect on my future success? If I quit, will anyone find my book? After all, word of mouth is one of the most effective ways for a book to find its readers.

After a few days of thinking, I would like to answer my own question:

1) If I put my time and attention to post things on Instagram instead of investing that time in working on my book, I won’t have a book to talk about, and

2) I already have this blog which is month after month showing me that you people are interested in what I talk about (hi every 58 of you!) so why not invest more time on writing these entries instead of putting my energy in writing short captions few seem to read and react to anyway?

In other words: if you chase two rabbits at the same time, you’ll probably end up with nothing.

So, my worries of not having a Instagram account when I become an author are completely irrational and unnecessary. At the moment, at least.

Instead of spending time on these energy and time-consuming platforms, I can focus on doing things that I like and love (and get deeper into something called deep work which I hope to be able to get back into later on) and let the other things follow. Living without tiny but constant interruptions can help me be more productive and more peaceful. I have fewer things to divide my focus between, to check, to keep up with.

The additional 30 to 60 minutes per day I gain to my day when I’m not on Instagram or Facebook can be invested into learning new things, writing, learning to meditate… anything I can think of!

I mean, those minutes add up to 3,5–7 hours a week and 14–28 hours a month – that’s a good deal of time. It’s a huge amount of time. And I just gave those minutes, those hours to myself, like a true fairy godmother.

What would you do with those additional hours in your week or month?

Searching for Balance

sls_header_2

Hello, reader! As of this Thursday, we are ten days into the new year. How are you doing? Are you working towards your goals energetically, feeling motivated and positive about what the new year will bring to you?

I hope you are.

I’ve had a slow start, myself. I do have my goals, yes, and my mini-goals to mark the path. I have a timetable, an estimated deadline for every mini-goal I’ve decided upon. But I have found it troublesome to get back to my routines again after the holidays.

Therefore, as thoughts about coming back to my routines and rediscovering that efficient, energetic work flow from Fall have been active in my mind, I thought it could be a good opportunity to shed some light upon my goals for this year. Or actually, my main goal: finding balance. Finding equanimity, to be precise.

Calming the Surface

How often do you pause to think about the meaning of life, of what it is we are supposed to do on this Earth with the years we are given by nature?

How do you find that question? Is it threatening, terrifying, even a little bit scary to think about why we people have evolved into the beings we are today?

Does the question feel irrelevant to you, a waste of your time? Or is it maybe one of the most important questions to ask in this life?

For me, thinking about the meaning behind our existence is something I get back to regularly. I believe it is essential to us humans to think about why we exist in the first place because, in the end, it will be our ’why’ for life. I’ve talked about a writer’s why before, but there’s even an individual’s ’why’ that plays a role throughout life.

So, as a human being, what is your ’why’? Why do you live, what is the purpose with your life?

***

I know, I know – we are getting into deep waters here. Let me pull us back to the surface.

Sometime in the Fall of 2018, the thought about my meaning of life came to me. For every person the meaning of life is different, and for me it’s about finding balance. It’s about finding the right ratio in everything, the right amount of this and that, the yin and the yang. It’s about finding balance to keep me in good health, keep me happy and satisfied and with a balanced mind.

For me, the meaning of life is about finding calm in the storm, evenness on the ever-changing surface. For me, the meaning of life is about finding balance, finding equanimity even in stressful situations.

The Fault in the Existing System

As a person, I tend to be an overachiever, someone who pushes herself to the limits to finish or accomplish something. My barrier for what I think is good enough is pretty high which means I tend to work more than many others do and still find myself ending up somewhere in the neighborhood of ’quite good’ instead of awesome.

As an effect, this over-achieving nature of mine tends to come in the way of my physical and mental well-being. And that is something I’d like to change.

I feel like I need to find a balance between the need for successfully accomplishing things and taking it easy. There is a fault in my system: I don’t relax as much as I’d like to, as much as I believe I need to. I don’t know if I’ve ever really learned how to do so after I started working during the Summers and studying during the rest of the year (long gone are the days of youth when the vacation began and one had three months of freedom in front of her).

Instead of relaxing, I tend to have a feeling that I should continuously be doing something, like working on a project or researching or writing, anything that gets me onward, helps me to develop.

However, we humans need to take it easy. I need to take it easy, find time for myself and my brain to relax. Sharpen the saw. Enjoy a good book just for fun and not because it will help me become a better writer. Do yoga for its meditative effect and not because it helps me build and develop my core muscles. Enjoy a cappuccino in a café because it gives me a cozy, warm feeling.

But I don’t do those things. Not enough. My mind doesn’t seem to want to give me a break and simply let me enjoy the doing-of-nothingness.

(Oh man, I keep hearing the overachiever here as well. How does one quiet that voice?)

To come back to my goal: as this thought about equanimity hit me, I knew it would be the key word for the year of 2019 and onward.

For me, from this year onward, finding balance is what I will be doing with my life.

But how to find equanimity? For me, it has to do with following things: 1) perspective, 2) trying different things, and 3) being selfish. I’ll provide an example for all three things.

Changing My Perspective

Coming back to regular writing and exercise routines last week was tough. After Christmas (which for us lasted for more than a week – in the end of that week, we were exhausted) and New Year, I was tired and far away from having recharged my creative batteries – or any batteries for that matter.

One day after New Year, we had decided upon going to the gym in the evening. It’s something me and my partner did regularly last year when we lived in another city, so it is a routine familiar from before. However, that same day I was asked to do a favour (a favor with only one right answer, something I’ve talked about before) which took a few hours of my day and left me tired in the late afternoon. When the time to start packing gym clothes came, I was in no way feeling motivated and energetic about going to the gym. Instead, going to the gym felt like something I had to do, like only another thing off my to-do list. It felt like an obligatory job, not like fun.

Instead, I thought about staying at home. I thought about enjoying a piece of chocolate, listening to a good book or a podcast, maybe doing a yoga sequence. I wanted to relax, take it easy. Balance out the work and exhaustion of the day with some deep breaths and calm. Not go to the gym where I had to push myself to accomplish something.

However, my partner said to me this: how about looking at the workout as a different way of relaxing? Why see it as an obligatory thing, something I have to do, when I could look at it as a way of sweating away the thoughts running in my head?

And like that, my perspective changed. With this thought in mind, I packed my things and went to the gym with my partner. And afterwards, having cycled for 30 minutes, I did feel relaxed. Now, my brain felt tired in a good way, and so did my body.

I realized that if I wish to find balance, I need to learn to change my perspective about some things. I don’t have to see a workout as work, per se, but as a way to relax: to sweat out the day, reward my body with endorphins and a great feeling.

Re-Routing the Routines

I believe in having routines. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I do.

For the past six months, I’ve had a morning routine of the following: I get up, brush my teeth and then do a 10-minute yoga routine and a short muscle workout. After that, I shower, journal for two pages or so and eat breakfast. Then I drink coffee, scroll through Instagram and get to work.

This is how my mornings have been since last Summer, almost every morning from Monday to Friday.

However, for the past month or so, I’ve been feeling a bit stressed about my morning routine. It’s probably because my sleeping has been off and instead of waking up at 6 or 7 AM, like I usually do, I wake up at 9 AM. And as my best writing time is in the morning, this late sleeping routine of mine is affecting my writing and therefore, making me feel stressed.

The routine described above worked for me as long as my sleeping routines were the same. But now, as they’ve changed and I know getting them back to the regular routine will take some time, I’ve realized that my morning routine isn’t working for me anymore. It’s almost working against me by making me feel stressed.

Therefore, I’ve been playing with the idea of changing things around for a while. Maybe postponing the yoga routine to the late morning or writing the journal while I drink my morning coffee. I like all the routines I do in the morning – but maybe I could re-route them, change the order of things in order to make them work for me?

Because, as much as I talk about the importance of having routines, it doesn’t mean one has to stick to those same routines for the rest of ones life. A different every-day life needs a different set of routines which means that re-routing your routines may be in your favor, the best thing you will do to keep yourself free from stress and in that way, balanced.

Listening to Oneself

This third aspect of finding balance is a very personal one. By now, you probably know about my challenges with people-pleasing behavior and that I prefer living a conflict-free life – but it seems to come with the price of my own well-being.

Therefore, if I wish to find a way to balance this year, it means I need to be a bit more selfish than I usually am. It might sound wrong because selfishness comes with a negative emotional tag and tends to be viewed as a disadvantageous trait. But for me, being selfish means that I listen to myself more than I do to others. If someone wants my time and my energy, I ask myself if I want to give my time and energy to this person for this cause, instead of agreeing to what the other person ask without hesitating in order to avoid the conflict.

But being selfish doesn’t only include other people. The same goes for the different projects I do and the goals that I have. For instance, I need to ask myself how much time I’m willing to put into writing my thesis (do I need the best possible grade or can I settle for something more average?) or to my novels (how quickly do I want to have a publishing-ready novel?). I also need to ask myself how much time I want to have for myself, to relax and recharge.

Of course, this kind of egoistic thinking inevitably leads to conflicts, both inside and outside of my mind. But I believe it’s simply something I have to learn how to live with: if I wish to live a life that feels fulfilling to me, I need to be selfish and therefore, I need to deal with the conflicts my selfishness might lead to. I see it as a great practice to learn away from my people-pleasing behavior.

In Conclusion

Okay, so, I want to find balance in life. Most of all balance between things I have to do for others and things I have to do for myself.

But as long as I choose to live in a society instead of complete solitude, finding balance in life comes with oh-so-many choices and conflicts because of the environment and people around me. Therefore, finding balance is tough and requires a good deal of perseverance.

Balance is nothing I will find in only a year. It takes a lifetime to find evenness, calm even in the most stressful or unfamiliar situations.

But the fact that I’ve figured out what my meaning in life is (at the moment, at least), gives me an advantage already. I have the greatest end-goal not in sight but in mind, and that will help me make choices along the way.

***

How do you find balance in your every-day life? How do you choose between what you need to do for others and what you need to do for yourself?

 

 

On the Importance of Reading

bookspages

When I was little, books were my go-to whenever I had time. It was the life before smartphones, before screens were used to communicate, see, read and like. Instead, the minutes and hours were used to doing other things, and I loved to spend my time in the world of fiction.

To demonstrate this, I have an excellent example from my childhood that describes my love for reading:

In the end of third grade, everyone in our class were instructed to guess how many books they would read during the Summer. Our teacher wrote everyone’s guess down, saying that she would check with us in the Fall how many books we actually had read and compare it to our guess.

While others guessed something between two and ten books (no one was allowed to say ’none’ or ’one’), I estimated in a clear voice that I would probably read thirty books that Summer. It was an honest guess, I was dead serious about the number. I remember the look on my teacher’s face: the kind but doubtful smile and how she said, in a friendly voice, that maybe ”we won’t write down thirty books, but maybe ten or twelve?”

I guess you can guess the end to this story. In Fall, when we returned to school after Summer, I declared with a proud voice that I had read 35 books that Summer.

(It felt like a victory. And although this was supposed to tell about my love for books, I guess this example also tells you about my determination and perseverance.)

Fast forward to this day, my love for books continues to thrive and even though I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to (will I ever?), I’ve still had a book in the process most of the time. Reading is also something I’m hoping to be able to hold on to for as long as I live – and if my eyes get bad, I hope I will have someone who reads to me or then I’ll opt for audiobooks.

For me, books have helped me escape this world and enter another. They have given me the possibility to see a life different from mine and learn to know new people. Today, reading books helps me become a better writer.

But this weekend I found out what kind of effect reading books as a child and a teenagers has had. In addition to offering an escape route, reading books (especially fiction) has had a huge impact on my personality and on how I see the world around me.

Let me tell you more about this.

Alluring, Delightful, Gorgeous

My secondary school Finnish teacher, author of three novels, wrote an article about teenagers’ reading capabilities. He talked a great deal about the problems: the short attention span that hinders them from reading longer texts about unfamiliar topics; problems with analytical reading skills; difficulties understanding words they come across less frequently and so on.

But my Finnish teacher also talked about the good things, telling about the many benefits of reading, which I’ll now share with you.

Did you know, that the amount of fiction we read as children and teenagers has a huge impact on our vocabulary, our fantasy and the ability to feel empathy? Reading helps improve ones perseverance: the long-term attention span, a skill many let rust in the winter rain. Reading increases the reader’s understanding that one cannot get everything at once: reading a book takes time, it requires effort if one wishes to know how the book ends.

A fiction-reading teenager can have a vocabulary of over 70,000 words while a teenager that doesn’t enjoy the world of books manages only about 15,000 (my mind gasped for air when I read this). This means that for someone there is only one word for beautiful while the other sees dozens of alternatives to it, from alluring to delightful, dazzling and pleasing. The world presents itself in a whole other way to the person who reads: it’s full of colors, different nuances, and the book worlds tickle the reader’s senses in different ways. For the non-reader the world is more black and white, simpler.

A person who reads has also better skills to empathize with other people. Because books let us in on other people’s minds, worlds, feelings and thoughts, readers are also more likely to understand other people better. Understanding helps us feel empathy and brings us humans closer to each other – something that social media doesn’t always manage to do.

Reading is so  i m p o r t a n t . It’s not just something a nagging teacher tells us to do just because. It really has an impact, and I am beyond happy today that I had the opportunity to read as much as I wanted when I was a kid.

However, lately I’ve been thinking more about what kind of books I read.

Finding Good Books as a Writer

For a writer, reading isn’t only about learning about other people, about seeing the world in colors, or only about improving one’s vocabulary. It’s also about finding my own voice, the style of writing, and helping to realize what kind of characters I like, what kind of plot twists intrigue me the most. Reading books will help me write better books.

As a child and a teenager, I just wanted to find books I liked: books with exciting characters, desperately romantic eternal triangles, books with adventure and dangers. I loved Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Alex Rider series, and the books of Enid Blyton, Astrid Lindgren and Marianne Curley. I could read them over and over again (and I did).

But today, I’ve become more selective. I’ve paid more attention to what I read. I try to find books by authors with a similar style to mine, books that swallow me into the story, and tried to learn from these books. But what I’ve found is that there isn’t actually that many books like that out there. Or, actually, there probably is – I just have trouble finding them.

I actually have trouble finding books that I like enough to read them from beginning to the end. Usually, I give them a few pages, most often 50 pages or so before deciding if the plot, the style of writing and the characters are interesting enough. I want to read good books, books that give me a feeling of satisfaction – or even better, make me feel energized and happy.

This year, I’ve opened probably more than twenty books only to return them to the library after reading a few pages. I’ve picked up both classics and modern literature, female and male authors and different genres, only to realize that I would simply suffer if I forced myself to read these books. I can’t help but wonder: am I being too picky? Too selective? Should a writer read any books as long as she’s reading or is there actually a guideline to what kind of books a writer should read?

And at the same time, I’m convinced that I don’t want to waste my time reading a book with only an okay plot or a boring style.  I want those well-written, capturing stories!

But how to find them? How to find good books to read?

***

So please, readers: how do you choose what books to read? Any recommendations, book tips? And writers: do you think all books are worth reading, or only the ones that help you become a better writer?

 

A People-Pleaser’s Autopilot

IMG_7821_2

Question: Do you know what a people-pleaser’s biggest fear is?

(Hint: it’s only one word)

The answer: No.

The biggest fear of a people-pleaser is saying ’no’ when someone asks for something, may that be a favor or a meeting. It’s the fear of creating a conflict, of provoking the person who is asking, by saying the simple but oh-so-dramatic ’no’.

I haven’t written about people-pleasing in a while. That is mostly because my life has been pretty calm and there haven’t been that many requests or favors asked of me. And it’s been nice. I’ve been able to focus on more important things, on myself, on my writing.

However, now I have something to say, something to update you on. Progress, so to say.

The Autopilot

After I decided upon quitting my people-pleasing behavior (progress that has been going on for a year or so, but the active, conscious decision was made this Summer), I’ve done pretty well saying ’no’ to many things. If I haven’t felt like doing something or meeting someone, I’ve simply declined and moved on with my life. Of course, everyone hasn’t been quite okay with me saying no to them, but I’ve tried my best to accepted that.

Instead, I’ve focused on myself, prioritized my school work, my own interests, my own time and energy. They have come in the first place while favors and other things have come second.

However, there is a thing here: all the favors and meetings have been asked by friends and acquaintances. When the people asking for favors are part of my family, it’s a whole different story.

When they call and ask for something, it feels like I turn on an autopilot mode. I don’t even consider saying ’no’ to them because I’m already thinking how I can say ’yes’ to the thing they are asking. It’s insane – and still it happens.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, I was extremely focused on finishing the theory part of my thesis before the deadline on Friday. I invested huge chunks of time writing it in the library and prioritized the thesis over everything else (except my creative writing and habits). On Monday, my mother called. She asked if I could to do her a favor on Wednesday, two days before the deadline. It was something that would probably take a few hours of my afternoon. It would help her a good deal, she said.

While holding the phone to my ear, I already knew what my answer should be. I knew I should say ’no’ to her. I knew that I needed all the time I had scheduled for my thesis-writing that week and if I’d spend ”a few hours of my afternoon” executing that favor, it would definitely put me behind my work. I’d probably even miss my deadline. In addition to that, I knew the favor wouldn’t take only a few hours. I would put down energy and time before that favor (whether I wanted to or not), waiting for it to happen, and I would probably need a good deal of time for the after-effects of that favor, processing the experience and my thoughts about it.

In other words, the favor wouldn’t take only a few hours of my time. Instead of two hours, it would probably take five or six hours of my day, most likely the whole day.

While on the phone, I was aware of all this. I knew I was supposed to say ’no’ because it would have been the right thing to do for myself. It was my deadline, my biggest and most important essay for school, I needed to make that deadline in order to get onward in my life.

But here’s the thing: a people-pleaser never puts herself first. She always thinks of others before she thinks of herself. And this is why, while my mother explained something on the phone, my brain started going through these thoughts:

”Maybe I’d be able to get everything done before the deadline if I just re-scheduled my creative writing or postponed it altogether, prioritizing my thesis instead of Yellow Tails. After all, Yellow Tails doesn’t have to get done as soon as possible, even though I’d like to finish the first draft as soon as possible.”

”Even if I don’t make it to the deadline, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. I could probably ask for more time, say I only need a few days more if it were okay. I could finish the theory during the weekend. Yellow Tails could wait.”

In retrospect, what amazes me is that I had a one hundred percent valid excuse to say no to my mother’s request and I knew it. I knew it – and still I was doing some serious B-planning in that moment! I was actually considering putting a favor in the first place, and letting my thesis, my novel, my personal well-being take the second place.

Now, a week after that phone call, I wonder how could I even consider it. But I did. It was so close that I would have said ’yes’. However, I managed to say that I needed to check my calendar first. I’d call her later that evening.

So, hello. I’m H.E.R., a recovering people-pleaser who almost relapsed last week.

Two Realizations

That phone call last week made me realize that my family truly is the weak point of the people-pleasing side of me. The members of my family are the people who trigger that people-pleasing behavior in me and even take it to the next level, the insane level.

It isn’t any wonder that it’s my parents and my sisters who trigger the behavior in me. The people-pleasing habits of an individual are often created in one’s childhood. As children, we want to please the people we love in order to avoid conflicts and not add to the burden. I recognize myself there – I never wanted to add to my parents burden. Therefore, I was always the kind, trouble-free, helpful, well-behaving child. The one, who always had the time and energy to help others out.

And now I’m paying for that.

The happenings last week helped me realize another thing as well: my role in the family has always been to be that person who gives her time and attention to the other members of the family. I have always been that person who helps out, listens and does favors. I never ask anything for myself, in order to not add to the burden. I manage everything myself, but when someone needs my help, needs to lend my ears, my attention – count me in, I’ll be there.

Until now.

Saying ’No’

It’s a tough boggart to fight. It’s tough saying ’no’ to one’s family – after all, haven’t they done so much for you? Haven’t they always taken care of you, helped out when needed? Wouldn’t saying ’no’ be ungrateful?

The answer: no.

It’s tough to say ’no’ because you know it will provoke a conflict, questions about your attitude, your behavior. Your family will remember that you said ’no’ – and they will remind you of it later.

It’s even tougher to decline when I know my family doesn’t understand that me saying ’no’ is actually completely normal – they’re not just used to it.

Despite all this, the answer is: no.

Saying ’no’ is the only option I have if I wish to quit this kind of behavior once and for all. It was my family that brought up that behavior in me when I was a child and they are the people who trigger the behavior in me today. Saying ’no’ to my parents and my sisters, when it feels like I’m doing wrong towards myself in order to please them, is the only right thing to do if I want to stop pleasing other people.

It’s a battle I must take on. I want to be the kind of person who holds on to her own values and uses her time and energy on her own terms. A person who respects herself and who doesn’t recognize an autopilot mode when it comes to doing favors.

And that is why I told my mother I couldn’t do her the favor she asked for. I didn’t say it in the moment, on the phone, but later that evening as I had promised I would tell her when I got home. It was already late when I got home so I sent her a text message, explaining about my deadline and how important it was for me to use every hour I had to be able to meet it.

If she understood what I tried to say and if she respected my effort, I don’t know. She only informed me the next day that she had managed to get someone else to do the favor. I was left with mixed feelings, but in retrospect, I’m proud I said no. Because now I know it’ll be easier to do the same next time.

(And yes: there will be a next time.)

Still Life Sunday: A Goodbye Said in Silence

IMG_1190_2

19 A Goodbye Said in Silence

When he closes his eyes, he can see it.

He can see the grey rock he is standing on and the small guest harbor on the other side of the silent bay. He remembers how he and his friend rowed on a small boat to the other side one summer to pick up two girls who were curious to attend their Midsummer Night Party. It had been a good night: the other girl was a good kisser who hadn’t been afraid to use her tongue.

Now, he can feel the late August warmth on his skin, the setting sun coloring the view into pastels. He hears a bird – the crow of the island. The old grump keeps an eye on everything that happens, sitting on a branch high up in a pine tree.

Taking a few steps forward, he is now standing in the exact place where the five-year-old he fell into the water. It was his father’s favorite story to tell how he had jumped in the water to save his son, and chuckled at how only a few minutes later he had been drying his banknotes on the rock. The son lived and so did the banknotes after a moment in the sun, he’d say.

This island is filled with memories. Everywhere he looks he sees something that reminds him of a project long gone, a day or a social happening from a few years ago. He has spent thirty summers on this island with his family and friends.

He loves that island, the trees that sway in the wind, the fish that jump in the water, the smell of the wood-burning sauna. But he will no longer visit this place – the summers here have come to an end.

Not because his family is selling it or because he is moving away, but because it is time for him to set himself free from his past.

In his mind, he turns around to look at the red cottage they repainted the previous summer. He wonders if the credit cards cut in half and the keys to his childhood home, that he put in an envelope and sent to his parents, have arrived. He left no note, letting the contents of the envelope speak for themselves.

However, he isn’t curious to know how his family will react to his actions. He won’t answer any of the phone calls he knows they will try to make. He has set himself free from the traditions, the norms, the expectations and the people he used to call family.

He is letting go of something to gain something. What his family represents is keeping him in place, holding him from getting onward, keeping him from developing into something else that could be better and more fulfilling.

It isn’t exactly easy to do what he is doing. Sometimes he thinks it would be easier to live his life as expected, without too many surprises or plot twists. Then there would be no conflicts, not too many questions. Only silent and satisfied approval. But that isn’t a way of life he can accept. How can he ever learn how he wants to live his life if he is constantly hindered from trying to live it?

And that is why he opens his eyes and says goodbye to the island quietly in his mind. Life is revealing itself to him in a new way and he is ready to welcome it with open arms.

The Benefits of Writing a Journal

IMG_7863_2

I’ve adopted a new habit: writing an almost daily journal. Almost, because I try to write it every day but Sundays tend to become the exception to the rule. However, I still call it a habit because it’s ingrained in my system: from Monday to Friday I wake up at 6 AM and after showering but before breakfast, I write my journal.

I keep my thoughts to two pages per day – I’m afraid that in the modern world the hand muscles aren’t what they used to be. But it’s a 30-minute exercise in concentration and a great way to start one’s day. Let me tell you why.

(But first, I’ll shed some light on my history as a journal writer)

An On/Off Habit

Ever since I was little, writing a journal has been some kind of on/off habit for me. I can’t remember why I began writing in the first place – I was probably inspired by some character in a book that kept a diary and I wanted to be like him/her. The first journals I’ve kept are from elementary school when I was in second grade. The cute, pastel yellow Winnie the Pooh notebook has lost many of its pages and is barely holding together. But the important things, the diary entries about my dance practices and who of my class mates I liked the most, are still there.

After that, I’ve written a journal of some sort through the years up until this day. I’d like to declare I have something from every year from my life written down, with a date and a few thoughts about life, but I’m not quite sure. Some years might be missing. But in that case, it’ll only be a few.

For this post, I perused my old journals. There are three different time periods when I’ve written actively, i.e. on a daily basis:

  • In 2010: I wrote three pages every day for six months or so. I have no idea where the idea came from – maybe I wanted to prove something to myself or be able to tell everyone I wrote every day. But I did, and held on to the habit for an impressive amount of time, considering I was a teenager filled with angst and confusion.
  • In the Fall of 2016: one to eight pages daily. This was the time I spent in Ireland. Writing about my exchange period kept me sane and also had the function of making the time there more memorable.
  • Now, in Fall 2018 (which I guess we can start calling Winter as we just got our first snow in Southern Finland and it’s less than four weeks until Christmas): two pages on a daily basis. It is an effort to try to document my thoughts and feelings, trying to dig deeper into what I know and feel, what I want and how I want it.

Analyzing my more sporadic journal entries from previous years, I seem to have picked up my pen and put black on white when I’ve been 1) overwhelmed by feelings, may that be love, hate, sadness or confusion; 2) feeling guilty about not exercising enough and only eating candy and chocolate, or 3) when I felt like I needed to get out all those thoughts about people, school work and life in general, and didn’t feel like telling about them to anyone else (or writing about them on my LiveJournal blog that has been gone for a long time).

Focus on Depth

Today, however, I have a different approach on writing a journal. Actually, I only recently realized that I haven’t actually been writing a journal all these years. I’ve been writing a diary – a book where I’ve recorded events as they happen and that have included feelings and moods. That I have done, for sure – all that foul language, teenage hate towards others and myself, crushes on cute guys… And a play-by-play descriptions about my plans and what I intend to do later that day or the next.

But now it feels like I have become a grown up – I’m writing a journal. A book where I record, not events or what other people say and do, but ideas and thoughts. I try to focus on depth instead of just telling what I did that day or how I felt. I’m actually digging deeper into those emotions, trying to concentrate on what’s on my mind and find out why it’s on my mind.

Writing for me has always been something I’ve had to force myself to do. It’s not a natural daily yearning for me to write down my thoughts and pick on them with a stick to find out what these thoughts really are about. Sometimes, I also find the process somewhat frustrating: it takes time to write by hand compared with writing on a computer which means the process is slow, while at the same time my thoughts are running around like the crazy dodos in Ice Age. It feels like I lose the track of thought before I’ve managed to write everything down.

(And let’s not forget about the hand – it does get tired which means the writing won’t be as pretty. A thing that tends to matter to me.)

But never have I regretted sitting down to write my daily two pages. Some days, I know exactly what I want to write about. Last week such clear thoughts were about self-care, thoughts on why I’m writing my thesis, and how I deal with anxiety that comes from school work. And on those days when I have no clue what I’m thinking about – I write about that and try to figure out why I don’t have anything to say.

During this new in-depth writing habit of mine, I’ve experienced some of the benefits of daily journal writing:

  • I realize new things about myself and my though processes that I might not have realized if I hadn’t written them down.
  • I take a moment to focus on what feels important in my mind at the moment: what thoughts are constantly there?
  • I listen to myself: how do I feel today? Am I anxious, motivated, tired, stressed or energized?
  • I improve my concentration by focusing on a single, manual task for thirty minutes or so. It helps me focus on projects at hand during the rest on the day.

Retrospective Reading

And one of the huge benefits of writing a diary or a journal, when regarded in the long run, is the retrospect one gets when reading old diaries and journals. As I’ve been reading those old entries, especially from 2009 onward, I’ve understood myself in a different way than I did before.

Of course, I remember many of the big things I wrote about (and forgotten many of those that felt so big at the time but that lost their meaning in a few weeks or months). But the events and the people aren’t that important – it’s more about how I wrote about them. I’ve realized how much built-in anger I had when I was a teenager, and how I had no way of letting it out. So I wrote these awful things in my diary, and yelled at everything and everyone on paper – instead of confronting them in person.

Reading old entries gave me a refreshed view of my younger self – what was I insecure about, what events and happenings did I consider being important enough to write about, and what did that mean, on a deeper level? My findings have been thought-provoking.

What I’ve thought about is this: what if I had never written a diary? What would I know about myself today, what kind of image would I have about my childhood and being a teenager? In his book Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari speaks about the experiencing self and the narrating self.

The experiencing self is the person experiencing the emotions, thoughts and feelings in the moment. The experiencing self is able to tell exactly how one feels, giving a realistic, although subjective, description of the current state of life.

The narrating self takes over when the experiencing self is taking a break – and builds up a narrative, a story, that tells how the situation was. The narrative self tends to bend the curves, put a filter on what the experiencing self just told and transform the memories into something else, something nice and less complex.

In one way or the other, the narrative self distorts the real experience and creates, in the long run, a not-so-truthful perception of oneself and the happenings that occurred.

This doesn’t help us understand why we have become the people we are today. What events formed us, who had a great effect on our thoughts and opinions? Here, the diaries and journals come to our help. They are the reality check we need every once in a while – how was the experience really, was it as good or as bad as I remembered? What did I think of this thing previously, has my thinking shifted?

Writing a daily journal helps to understand our own progress and who we are. This, however, requires patience and self-discipline: in order to have something to analyze, you need to take the time to write down those entries. But it pays off in the end, I’d say. What do you think? Is it worth your time?

***

Why do you write a journal, if you do? Or what is keeping you from it? Can you relate to any of the benefits I mentioned in this blog post?