In Praise of Criticism

When I hired our children’s piano teacher, he stated clearly that he expected us (the parents) to participate in their lessons so that we could help our kids practice in between.  The biggest struggle with practicing at first for both of them was being told they’d made mistakes.  There were several power struggles in the beginning, because neither child liked being told that they had made a mistake, that they’d played the wrong note or held a note for too long or not long enough.  It was hard work for me to hold my ground through their sometimes volatile resistance, and it was hard work for them to accept the criticism.  I explained that mistakes teach them how to play.  I explained that they couldn’t learn much of anything without making mistakes.  I explained that I love them even when I am showing them where they missed the mark.  I explained that making mistakes does not make them bad people.  Learning to accept criticism has been just as important as learning how to play the music itself.  We are all impressed with how much they have learned as a result of being able to accept criticism.

I’ve heard people speak out against praising children too much, or even at all, because they can become addicted to praise.  I do not agree with this stance, and I do not withhold praise, but I do think that praise without criticism in a relationship is meaningless and that the converse is true as well.  And I don’t mean that they should happen simultaneously: I have never been a fan of the criticism that starts out with a compliment.  That always feels like a bait and switch to me.  In the course of helping my kids learn piano, if I only praise my children when they hit the notes right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them wrong.  If I only criticize my children without telling them what they are doing right, they have no idea that they have ever hit them right.  I want them to trust fully that when I say that they did a good job, I mean it.  When I tell them that they made a mistake and need to work harder, I mean that too.  They can trust me to reflect to them how they are doing.

The ability to give and accept healthy, truthful criticism is crucial for the growth of any good relationship.  Healthy criticism addresses behavior; unhealthy criticism attacks a person’s being.  Because so many people have had the unhealthy kind of criticism, it can feel painful at first when you are on either end of the healthy kind.  Like everything, it takes practice.  You might be afraid of being seen as harsh or mean when you want to tell someone that their actions affected you negatively.   You might feel unlovable when someone tells you that your actions impacted them negatively.  The important thing to remember, whether giving or receiving criticism, is that criticism alone does not change who you are as a person; it does, however, give you the opportunity to learn about yourself and that learning can transform you into a more truthful person.   You do not become a harsh being when you tell someone that they did something that hurt you, you merely have let that person know that they had an impact.  You do not become a bad person when you discover that you hurt someone unwittingly, you merely have found out that you had an impact.  What you do with that awareness makes all the difference.  If you face your fear of criticizing, your criticism can transform a relationship that was previously not hitting the mark.  You will find out whether your partner or partner-to-be can handle your truth.  If you’ve been given criticism, and if you know yourself well enough to understand that you’ve missed the mark, you have an opportunity to change behaviors that may have kept you from being able to be in a good relationship.  On either side of criticism is a golden chance to learn more deeply how to live and love truthfully, and that is worth all the risk and vulnerability involved.

Harnessing your Anger to Move Forward

The other day when I wrote the post about name calling, I’d been sitting on a half-written version of it for a week or two. I have many posts like this, ones I’ve started and then gotten stuck on, so there is a massive pile of drafts waiting for me to write. A conversation on Facebook between a total stranger and my husband triggered me into finishing that draft. In that conversation, the stranger called a politician a “bitch.” My husband expressed disappointment in this person’s behavior, and was treated with the response, “a bitch is a bitch.” This made me angry. I started writing a response to this random stranger, when suddenly I realized where that response would take me: into a conversation with someone who has made it very clear that he has no intention of changing. I could picture myself feeling more angry. I could picture myself wasting energy and time on it. I stopped myself from writing to him. I felt the anger until it transformed into an inspiration to take action: I wanted to write a blog post for the first time in over a year. Not only that, I still want to keep writing. All because I harnessed my anger and asked it what it wanted from me.

The first time I can remember consciously harnessing my anger to take action in my life was the moment that essentially led me to choose to become a therapist. I was working as a cashier at a retail store, and I really hated this job. Another employee at the same store had been promoted to manager, which was a position that I felt I was more qualified for. I hated working under her. Honestly, I hated her. One day, she said something to me that offended me so much I could barely contain my feelings of rage. I went home for lunch shortly afterward, and all I could think about was how much I hated her. I was just so angry.

At the time, I was reading a book called “How to Get What You Want and Want What You Have” by John Gray, and in it was an exercise about feeling one emotion and then feeling the emotions that come next.  The theory was that emotions, if felt, move, and that under each emotion is buried more deeply another.  I came home and sat there with my anger, and I wrote about it, how angry I was with this woman at work. I wrote until the next feeling came; sadness. I felt sad that she got the position at work that I wanted. After the sadness came fear: I was afraid that I would be stuck at this unsatisfying job forever and never get to do something that gave me satisfaction. Once I felt the dissatisfaction with my job, the hatred and anger transformed into something else: motivation. I knew that I needed to take action and change my life. This woman was not keeping me from being happy. I was. I had taken this job because it was a no-brainer for me. It was safe. It did not require any responsibility from me and I could do it with my eyes closed. It was also mind-numbing and soul-destroying. And it was not this woman’s fault. I needed to change my life.

I resolved that moment that, even if I didn’t know what it was I wanted, I would spend the next year ruthlessly trying to figure it out. It took less than a couple of months after making that resolution to discover that I wanted to be a therapist, and that is what I did. All the energy that had been stuck in my hatred and anger was now freed up, and I focused it on all the work that it took to go from being a cashier stuck in a job, to applying to graduate school, attending graduate school and doing the post-graduate work to become licensed and to build a practice. That was more than 16 years ago, and to this day, I have never been stuck in the way I was before I learned to feel and listen to my anger.

When we throw our anger and other difficult feelings at people, especially to trolls, without experiencing it for ourselves, we hand over a great treasure to someone who does not recognize its value and definitely who does not deserve it.  When we instead spend time with these emotions, the world becomes bigger, freer and better than we could have imagined.

Name Calling as a Way to Bypass Anger

The other day when I was running, I made a huge mistake in the middle of a busy intersection. It was completely my fault.  I was ending an exhausting run that was having a negative impact on my cognitive functioning: in short; I was totally out of it.  I got to an intersection, all I saw was green, and I sprinted forward.  Cars all honked, and from behind, I heard a man’s voice yell, “ASSHOLE!!!!!” He and all the honking cars were long gone by the time I realized that the green light was an arrow for those honking cars to turn left, and that I had sprinted right into their path.  I understood why everyone was so mad, and had I been able to, I would have apologized and moved on.

As I ran on, I thought about that man who hollered “asshole.” He was understandably angry; I don’t blame him for feeling angry. He had no way of knowing that I made a mistake and that I was sorry. He’s probably had a collection of unpleasant car versus runner experiences.  Maybe he has a boss who treats him poorly, and he felt more comfortable taking his pent up rage out on an anonymous person.  Things were moving fast, he reacted.  He would have had another expletive for me if he’d realized I was a woman.  Calling me an “asshole” might have released a bit of his frustration, but I doubt that it gave him any long-term relief from his feelings of anger.  Here’s why:

Name-calling is a bypass for the ownership and real-time experiencing of feelings like anger, rage, frustration, and helplessness.  It’s like the game of hot potato: one person’s actions trigger feelings of anger in another. Rather than hold and experience that anger, that person hurls the potato in the form of words like “bitch,” “stupid,” “asshole,” and so on. The recipient of the name-calling reacts angrily to being called those names and throws the hot potato right back but with some extra fire added to it.  It doesn’t take long before the entire interaction is no longer about the original offense, and everyone is enraged.  The person who was angry in the first place has guaranteed that they will never get any sort of apology from the person who offended them in the first place.  In fact, they might feel justified because this person, instead of apologizing reacted in a way that a “bitch” or “asshole” would.  Now, two people are angry instead of one, no one has owned up to or apologized for the original offense, and no action has been taken to enact any sort of change.

If you feel the urge to call someone a name, whether directly or in a Facebook conversation about, say, a politician, take a moment to own and feel your anger.  Notice any desire you have to throw that anger at someone else, notice just how uncomfortable you are with the feeling of anger.  Get to know what it feels like in your body.  Instead of hurling the word “stupid,” “bitch” or “asshole,” acknowledge the fact that you are angry.  Allow yourself to be angry.  Tell yourself, “I feel angry.” And then, instead of hurling an insult at whoever has offended you, say to them, “I feel angry.”  Tell that person why you are angry.  It can sound like this: “When you cut me off just now, I felt angry,” or “I am angry at this politician that you like because I feel like he/she is not taking my values into consideration,” or “I am angry because you didn’t show up when you said you would.”  This might be awkward at first, but the odds of a reasonable conversation and even an apology are greatly increased when you resist name-calling.

If you are on the receiving end of name-calling, you do not have to take the bait and engage in the kind of fight that you’ve been invited to engage in.  Let’s say someone calls you a bitch or an asshole.  You can acknowledge that person’s anger and invite them to have a civil conversation.  It might sound like this: “I can see that you are feeling angry with me, and I can accept that, but I am not okay with you calling me names.  If you would like to continue to have this conversation, please do so without the name-calling, or I will have to end this.”  Be willing to walk away if the person cannot respect this request.

There is nothing wrong with anger, and there is nothing wrong with feeling anger.  Anger has a job: it moves you to action so that you can change a painful situation.  Throwing it at people by name-calling, whether anonymously in a passing car or comment thread, or in person, only increases the anger exponentially while keeping you stuck in the same situation.  When you resist the urge to name-call, you make space for anger to do its powerful job.

When Loss Hits Us Unprepared

Yesterday, I wrote about pruning the roses for spring, something I willingly do on my own terms.  Sometimes in spring, plants get pruned on the weather’s terms. Things get ripped brutally apart from the weight of a heavy snowstorm, and you are left with broken plants, trees, bushes. You were excited about the potential fruit on your tree, or the flowers that were swelling in their buds, and now you are saddened by their demise. The plants need to stop with the budding and focus their energy down into their roots, then use that energy to heal what is left of themselves. This takes time, and while the plants heal, they can’t produce the harvest they’d been working toward.

An unexpected, unasked-for spring pruning can be heartbreaking. We abruptly face the fact that we are not going to have what we’d been hoping for, what we’d had before. The apple we saw in the bud is gone, and it is not coming back. Like the tree, we need to stop the forward motion toward the potential of that particular season, and focus our energy on accepting what is right in front of us. We can pick up the broken pieces and put them in the compost, allowing them to rot in order to feed the next season’s budding tree. Some plants will never be quite same again, others will bounce back with an even better harvest, and others will take much longer to heal but over time will grow into abundant producers. It depends on the plant and the severity of the injury. If you adjust your expectations based on these factors, you will accept each plant for what it is and what it is capable of doing.

When you unexpectedly lose a relationship, a job, a loved one, you are suddenly forced to stop moving forward. You are no longer walking on the path you’d been hoping to stay on. It is heartbreaking, and it is shocking. Your focus changes from potential and future and you are here, right now, in the wreckage. It is important to understand that it takes time to heal, and that things will change from what you’d hoped for and expected. Allow yourself to focus inward, and don’t let anyone try to rush you through this process. You will not be the same person you were before, and you need to adjust your expectations based on the person you are right now.   It takes time to allow your broken parts to disintegrate into fertile material for the growth that will happen later, when it is time to move forward again.  Take that time now and take it for as long as you need.  Grief moves at its own pace, and the best you can do is allow yourself to be in it while it is with you.  It will eventually move over enough to make room for you to experience life, harvests, and love again, in whichever new forms they come.


You Invested Energy into It, but That Doesn’t Mean You Should Keep It

Yesterday, I cut back two of my largest rosebushes for spring.  It always seems impossible that the roses can survive such pruning, but every year, they grow back even better than the year before.  I planted these roses when they were in one-gallon pots and each about a foot tall, and they’ve grown into massive climbers over the years.  Every spring,  I hack off an abundance of dead branches, cut back other branches that are partially dead, and leave just a few whole branches that are fully alive.  Every year the rose grows back, impossibly, up over the arbor and then busts out with a giant mass of flowers. The logic to cutting out the dead and dying parts is to allow the whole plant to focus all of its energy on the growing, living parts.  Doing so allows the rose to bloom more.  It is easy to underestimate just how much of the rose lives in its roots, hidden away from view.  We humans can learn from this.  Many times, we focus our energy on things that once bloomed like this rose bush, but that are now spent. We might need to cut them out of our lives, or we might need to trim something back a bit.  Maybe we spent years putting energy into a relationship that has reached its end, and it is time to cut this relationship out.  Maybe we are in the right career but the job we’ve focused our energy into has stopped taking us to the place we want to go in that career.  It is tempting to try to hold on to the dying parts, but doing so will keep the living parts from growing to their full potential.  Just because you put a lot of energy into something doesn’t mean you will be served by holding onto it.  If it has reached its end, there is nothing to be gained from trying to bring it back to life, and if you tie up your energy in the trying, you have very little energy left for the living and growing parts of your life. Knowing what to cut out completely, what to trim back somewhat, and what to leave to grow takes some observation, insight and time.  With a rose, you can tell a branch is completely dead because it is entirely brittle and brown.  These branches get hacked to the ground.  Other branches might be partially brittle and brown where they meet up with green.  These branches get cut at the first fully healthy part, right above a bud, so that the rose can focus fully on forming a new branch in the direction you want it to grow.  The branches that don’t get cut at all are the ones that are fully green from ground to end.  We can sort through the “branches” of our lives in the same way. Before you can even sort through the branches, you need to take your focus from the rose (or relationship, or project, or job) that once was, and put it on that which is in front of you right now.  Yes, this rose was huge last summer, full of flowers on all of these long branches that took so long to grow, but those flowers are not coming back.  Now you stand in front of a mess of branches in varying states of health.  There is no guarantee that this year the rose bushes will reach the level of magnificence they did the year before, but hanging onto the past will not bring that magnificence back.  There is no guarantee that a new relationship or a new job will feel just like the one you are leaving.  Guaranteed, however, is the fact that staying and trying to eke life out of something that is dead will feel much worse.  That first big cut feels like a leap of faith.  It gets easier, and by the time you finish cutting out the truly dead parts, you will feel a sense of relief and clarity.  Now you can focus on your living parts, and you will have the energy to take yourself to your full potential.                                                         


I have written a second post inspired by this one, about what happens when things end against our wishes, inspired by the thought of when pruning happens via the spring storm.

It is called: When Loss Hits Us Unprepared

Other posts like this: Emotional Protection Finding the Courage to Leave a Relationship Relationships and Shoes Emotional Decluttering

Breaking Free from Hopeful Illusion: The April Fool’s Edition

In the comic strip “Peanuts” the character Lucy is a bully, and perhaps her most famous mean trick is the football swipe: She tells Charlie Brown that she’ll hold the football for him, then swipes it away at the last minute and he falls. I hated this story line as a child. I got frustrated with Charlie Brown for falling for the same trick over and over. The first couple of times, I felt sorry for Charlie Brown, but I lost patience with him after that. I could not understand why he kept letting Lucy hold the ball for him.

Charlie Brown probably wanted to believe that Lucy could change. Maybe he couldn’t accept the idea that she truly got a kick out of humiliating him. Every time she promised that this time she wouldn’t pull the ball away, he wanted to believe it was true and every time he fell for it. He was stuck in a pattern of unhealthy optimism. Lucy was consistently Lucy, and if Charlie Brown could only have accepted that fact, he could have moved on and trusted someone else to hold the ball for him, leaving Lucy behind to trick and torture some other naive person.

Most of us have had a “Lucy” moment at some point in our lives. Mine was in my twenties when I dated a man who was unable to be there for me in the way I wanted him to be. There were many breakups and reconciliations, and my friends could not understand why I kept going back to this person, over and over again. Like Charlie Brown, I did not want to accept the fact that this man was not who I wished he was. Like Charlie Brown, I believed that he would change and then I’d feel betrayed when he didn’t. One such time, I complained to a friend about some horrible something he had done, hoping for sympathy, hoping she’d join me in demonizing him. Instead of sympathizing or demonizing, she patiently pointed out that he was consistently being himself, and she asked me why I stayed with him when I clearly wanted something he could not give me.

This response shocked me awake. Until that moment, my obsession with his inability to be there for me distracted me from being there for myself. I was addicted to the hope that he would change, much like a gambler is addicted to the hope that the gamble will bring the big win, much like Charlie Brown was addicted to the hope that this time, Lucy would be kind. The only way to break this sort of addiction is to face the painful but freeing truth. I finally faced the truth of my situation: I was with someone who, though attractive and sweet and even well-meaning, was never going to be with me in the way I wanted him to be. Once I accepted this truth, everything became clear and it felt like a spell had been broken. There was not even a smidgeon of temptation to stay and try make the relationship work, because once I saw the truth, I also saw that there wasn’t actually a relationship to begin with, just hope and illusion keeping me stuck. Letting go of illusion freed me to move forward into the reality of truth and I haven’t gotten stuck since.

If you are having a “Lucy” moment, it might be time to stop and take a look at your life. Do you invest your energy in something that consistently gives you the same unhappy result? What result are you are hoping for? Is what you are currently doing going to bring that result? If not, it is time to accept the truth of the situation. Prepare to have your world rocked.

You may also be interested in:

When You Love Someone Who Treats You Badly

Ultimatums and Power

As the parent of a two-year old, I give a lot of mini-ultimatums throughout the day. These ultimatums work because I have more responsibility and power than my two-year old does. It is my responsibility to keep my child from hurting himself and others, and I hold the power to enforce many boundaries because he relies on me for most of his needs. Two-year olds are limited in their capacity to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy choices: they are ruled by their impulses and desires and they do not understand the future inherent consequences of acting on those impulses and desires. For this reason, the ultimatum works absolutely great when you are trying to get a two-year old do something or to stop doing something. My son thinks that it is fun to hit his sister with his toy shovel. Telling him not to do so is ineffective. It is effective to tell him that if he hits his sister one more time with his beloved toy shovel, it will go bye-bye. When he is older, his ability to empathize and reason will develop and he will very likely respond to something other than an ultimatum in this situation. He should be able to think his actions through and not rely on his mother’s ultimatums in order to make a good decision.

As my son grows older, his responsibility for himself will also grow and my power over him should rightly fade.  It is my job, over time, to help him to rely on me less and rely on himself more.  My job is to help him reach adulthood as an adult.  An adult is able to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy choices and is no longer ruled by impulses and desires in the way that a toddler is. Ultimatums should not be necessary with adults who are in equitable relationships. Many people who give ultimatums in adult relationships are doing so because they have taken on a parenting role with their partner, rather than an equal role with a fellow adult. The balance of power is completely skewed: one person is stuck in the role of small child and the other is stuck in the role of parent.

For the relationship to move forward, each person needs to step out of the role they’ve been in and make some big changes. Both need to see what they get from the roles they’re ensconced in.  The parent-partner gets an overblown feeling of responsibility by focusing on their partner’s lack thereof. The big question for this person is where in their life are they craving a sense of responsibility?  The child-partner relies on their partner’s parenting of them to give them a sense of guidance, of right-or-wrong, of consequences to their actions. The big question for this person is where in their life are they craving direction, a compass?  If each person answers their own questions, they will be able to rely on themselves for their own sense of responsibility and direction, rather than trying to get each other to fulfill those roles.  This feels risky: one partner might outgrow the relationship and then the relationship might end, and what then?  It is worth the risk to find out.


When the Silent Treatment Feels Like Your Only Option

Almost six years ago, I wrote my first post about the Silent Treatment.   I wrote it from the perspective of someone who is on the receiving end of the silence, and it struck a nerve with many people who have been given the silent treatment.  I had no idea that it would touch such a nerve, and it is still the most-read page on my blog.  Most of my posts on the silent treatment have dealt with it from this perspective, but not from the perspective of the person who gives the silent treatment.  Today, I will be writing from a new perspective.

Reading through the comments, I have learned that some people who give the silent treatment do so because it feels like their only option.  Some have stated that they resort to the silent treatment because they don’t trust themselves in a conflict; that if they actually say anything, they will yell and scream and hurt the person they are with, because in the past they did so.  This person feels as if the silent treatment helps them stay in control of their own emotions, the ones that they are scared of letting out.  Other people have described feeling a need to use the silent treatment because they are with a partner who is verbally violent, perhaps abusive, and yells non-stop during conflict.  This person feels powerless in their relationship and feels that the only way to level the playing field is to give their volatile partner the silent treatment.  This is someone who is in a lot of pain, who feels that their partner will not allow them to express this pain, and who has resorted to a method that inflicts an equal amount of pain on their partner.  I have even noticed that when a person like this tries to explain their perspective in the comments thread, they might be met immediately with anger, shaming and judgment in a comment from someone who has been hurt by the silent treatment.  It’s easy to see the dynamic that both people are involved in.

I have mentioned before that the silent treatment is about control.  What lies underneath the need for control is a feeling of helplessness.  Powerful emotions like anger feel so dangerous that you fear you will injure your partner if you express them, so you resort to the silent treatment because you think that it is less hurtful and less dangerous.  You might not believe that the silent treatment is painful to your partner and you might believe you are sparing him or her from something much worse.  If this is the case, it is important to share these feelings with your partner at a time when things are calmer.  It is also important to learn how to feel and express the more difficult emotions.  Getting therapy can provide you support in this.

If you are resorting to the silent treatment to deal with a partner who reacts by yelling when you try to express your feelings, then it is time to examine the relationship.  You and your partner have resorted to opposite extremes that are unhealthy but still fit perfectly together like puzzle pieces.  If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship and know that your partner is not willing to work with you to change things, then it is time to gather the courage to leave the relationship.  If you feel that you and your partner can work together, then you both will have to do some things that take you out of your comfort zone.  You will have to take the risk of coming forward and saying how you feel.  Your partner will have to risk hearing uncomfortable truths from you without immediately reacting.  A good couples counselor can guide you both in how to do this while creating a safe environment for both of you.  Healing your broken parts brings upheaval, but in the rubble you will find treasures.

You may also be interested in these posts:

When You Love Someone Who Treats You Badly

Finding the Courage to Leave A Relationship

There are No Bad Emotions, Just Powerful Ones

Swallowing the Conflict to “Keep the Peace”

Learning How to Speak in a New Emotional Language

Learning to Use Words



There are no “Bad” Emotions, Just Powerful Ones

The other day, my daughter asked me if “hate” is a bad word. The short answer is no, because I do not believe that emotions are good or bad. The long answer is a bit more complicated. When emotions such as hate, jealousy, and anger get classified as bad and wrong, then you might try to stuff them down and avoid feeling them, or try to get rid of them like a hot potato, passing your unfelt emotions on to someone else. It takes a lot of energy to continually stuff powerful emotions down inside, and over time, all that stuck energy can turn into deep depression or other health issues. On the other hand, playing hot potato with powerful unowned emotions is a way to give your power away to someone else and can feed a volatile and violent dynamic into which you and that person disappear.

Emotions that we allow ourselves to feel carry messages for us to attend to which hold the potential to transform us. I looked up the word “hate” in the Merriam Webster dictionary and one definition describes it as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” Right there in the definition are three possible messages in the feeling of hate. If you are feeling hatred toward someone, examine what is going on in yourself before trying to bury the feeling or blindly act on that person. Are you afraid? Are you angry? Do you feel hurt? The answers to these questions require attendance. If you are afraid, what do you need to do to feel safe? If you are angry, what is it that has made you feel angry? If you are hurt, how can you attend to your wound?
If you don’t listen to your hatred, you might think that the disappearance of this person from this world would be all you need to feel better, but in reality, when you make your feelings about yourself and not about the person you feel hatred toward, their power over you disintegrates.

Years ago, I worked at a job with a person I absolutely hated and who rubbed me wrong in a particular way that made work feel unbearable. One day, it became clear to me that I needed to address this hatred in myself, because I felt miserable. I sat down and examined my feelings. I discovered a deep feeling of jealousy under the hatred. This person had been given a position at work that I felt more qualified for, and I felt such envy and anger toward her. I allowed that jealousy and anger to sink in and I let myself feel it. Soon, the jealousy moved over and made room for an even deeper feeling of sadness and stuckness. In reality, I hated my job because I wanted to do something much more satisfying with my life than work there, something I was more qualified for. Until that moment, it was easier to hate this person who I thought had what I wanted, who I believed held my power in her hands.

After that moment, I understood that I wanted something much bigger than her position, that job, and the life I was living at the time. I focused the energy that had previously been tangled up in the hatred and set about to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. This task kept me busy, and brought me to a new life that still fills me with satisfaction more than a decade later. I can’t imagine where I would be if I were stuck in the belief that hate is just a bad word.

More posts like this one:

Dealing with Your Anger

Wanting the Person Who Hurt You to Hurt As Much As You Do

Chapter One: Shadow Mouse


When Things Stop Being Too Precious or Not Precious Enough

Last night, I tried to make some fresh pasta and the dough got gummed up in the pasta maker, probably because it was too moist. I got frustrated and started to toss all the dough into the compost, but my daughter insisted that she make dinner out of the dough. I was in a horrible mood because it was so close to dinner time, I didn’t have a back up plan and had been looking forward to homemade pasta. She was just excited to have the full run of all that dough. I let her go with it. She asked for a cookie cutter and made these pasta-dough shapes and asked me to fry them. She made shapes out of more dough and asked me to boil them. Her attention span lasted through about half the remaining dough, and by then my mood had entirely shifted. I decided to see what I could make out of the remaining dough. I’d been wondering if I could make shells for a while, so I decided to give that a shot, and discovered that shells are pretty easy and fun to make.

Everything we made, even if a bit funny-looking, tasted awesome. Out of a completely failed dinner attempt came a new and wonderful experience that also opened the way for fun future meals I hadn’t previously imagined. I probably never would have tried to make those shells because the effort to make the dough did not seem worth the price of them not turning out. Since the dough I made last night had become a throwaway dough, I was not invested in anything. This opened me and my daughter up to experiments and discovery.

This experience reminded me of something an art teacher once said to our class about not letting the art work get too precious. When you are making art, if you start out with expensive materials and an attachment to outcome, you can get too attached. When you get too attached to what you are making, you stifle expression and creativity. You might get stingy with the colors because you are using that special tube of paint that cost more than you meant to spend. You might not try putting a shape here or there because you are so attached to the figure you painted into that one corner.

It is easy to get stuck when things get too precious. At the same time, if you are not at all invested in what you are doing, you can only go so far with it, and you can find yourself stuck in a different way. Finding the balance between attachment and complete disengagement can be tricky. Balance is an act of finding the middle after leaning over into either extreme. If you are stuck because everything feels too precious, you need to lean the other way and make some messes. Do something you are not good at whatsoever and that you know very little about. Take a class in something you’ve never tried: a new language; an art skill; a sport. Notice the parts of you that want to skip past the learning, the parts that want to go straight to the mastery. If you are stuck because nothing feels precious and worth your time, you need to slow down and allow yourself to get just a bit more attached. Start a project that takes a lot of focus, one with an end result you want to be successful. Allow yourself to want that end result and notice the parts of you that fight your attachment.

Part of why it has been so long since I have written a blog post has been because I’ve wanted to have the time, energy and space to make a perfectly edited and well-thought-through entry. I don’t have that sort of time right now, and it could be a couple more years before I do. Today, I am leaning more toward the messy side of things and posting this in its imperfectness. It is nice to be back.

Next page »