The question I get asked most about this blog is, “How do you decide what change you’re going to make each week?” (Actually, it’s probably, “You have a blog?” but that doesn’t really set up the rest of this entry.) I do have a scribbled master list of ideas that I plan to get to, and I take into consideration what will be particularly challenging – and therefore, I hope, interesting reading – in the week to come. But I’m also becoming increasingly suspicious that the universe is picking for me. A case in point: this week I was toying with the idea of letting it go. You know, it. All of it. Or, as much of it as possible. Letting things roll off my back, going with the flow, et cetera, et cetera. In other words, doing the opposite of what I usually do, which is let every small transgression, slight (perceived and real), glitch, error, aberration and moment of discomfort burrow under my skin and fester until it drives me to distraction. Obsess about stuff I can’t control and outcomes I can’t do anything about. Replay conversations and confrontations in my head until I’ve hit on just the right thing I should have said/done/thrown.
It was on my list, this “letting go” thing, mostly because I knew that it would be difficult for me. But it didn’t look like it was going to be a terrific amount of fun. Then Wednesday rolled around, the day on which I start each week’s change. And a funny thing happened. Not a funny thing at all, actually. An annoying thing. One of those uncomfortable run-ins you have from time to time with a completely irrational person. The sort of situation where even though you know you’re behaving like a normal human being, the other person’s rude response seems so strong and certain it could make you question your own sanity.
If you were the sort of person who let things like that bother her. If you were the sort of person who would let such a confrontation color her whole outlook, take up miles of precious real estate in her brain for hours, if not days.
But what if, instead, I were the sort of person who didn’t? What if I were the sort of person who let things like this go? Who had the wherewithal and the perspective to know that this situation wasn’t my fault, wasn’t my problem – wasn’t personal?
Apparently, I was about to find out. I stopped just short of shaking my fists at the sky and saying, “You win, universe! You win, dammit!”
Instead, I pretended to let it go. That seemed like a first step. I went about my business as usual, brushing off the concerned inquiries of people who had witnessed the exchange and shrugged like it was no big deal.
One thing this change experiment is teaching me is that there are many, many blurry lines in the sand. Lines that confuse me. In this case, I wasn’t sure where “fake it ‘til you make it” ends and “you’re a big, fat liar” begins. Does it count as letting it go if you’re only pretending? I was straddling that middle ground and trying desperately to find out.
Clearly, letting things go wouldn’t be a change worth pursuing if I weren’t a person who is so deeply affected by things in the first place. I don’t mean to imply I’m impressively sensitive, a delicate flower worthy of your admiration. I mean to imply that I think I lack some very grown-up coping skills. I am the one lying in bed at night obsessing about what I should have said, how I should have reacted. I get so caught up in worrying about things I can’t control that sometimes it’s a wonder I get anything done at all.
So it’s not hard to see how this first confrontation was a bit like baptism by fire. I’d like very much to explain how just pretending to be someone who lets things go proved to be a good start, but I have no idea how that worked, exactly. I just know that I only obsessed about the circumstances for a few hours, and even then I muttered to myself, like a crazy lady, “Let it go. Let it go!”
I had conversations with myself whenever I felt my brain taking a direct path to the place of obsession. I had to soothe myself off the ledge of self-doubt, talk to myself like I was a different person, issue constant reminders that the interaction didn’t matter, that I should just Let It Go.
There’s a distinct possibility it helped. I spent much of my week muttering, “Let it go” under my breath, my new mantra. I intoned it line at the grocery store, in traffic, at home. Maybe it was my imagination, but I could feel something shifting.
As if everyday life were not enough of a test, fate had it that I would be traveling twice that week, once to Iowa for a family event and then less than 24 hours later to Las Vegas for a business trip. Air travel. In airports. Filled with people. Anxious and rude fellow travelers. Snippy, overworked airline employees. Long lines, pointless delays and inexplicable bureaucracy.
In the usual course of travel, it only takes and hour or so of dealing with all this stimuli before Chris pronounces me “done.” I absorb all the annoyances and react, react, react until I blow a fuse and can’t deal, reduced to the upright version of rocking back and forth in the corner.
But on this trip, there would be none of that. Because I had become a person who let things go.
Our first trip took us to Iowa for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. Family’s always tricky to begin with, balancing everyone’s needs and neuroses, opinions and intentions and big events with lots of details to figure out can really ratchet up the anxiety. It’s precisely the sort of thing that can really send me into a tail spin. Everybody’s invested in outcomes, everyone wants a voice. And me? I like to have a dog in every fight. Sometimes two or three.
So I had to think long and hard about what it would look like to let go of things during the lead-in to this party – which, I should note, really didn’t have much to do with me in the first place. I realized, somewhat sheepishly, that part of my motivation for injecting myself into these sorts of things is so that I feel important, so that I don’t feel invisible. It’s a humbling thing to acknowledge, especially in the face of an event that was, inarguably, not about me.
I decided the best approach was to know my place. Just to be a worker bee. Do as I was told. Try to be of service. Try to help, not hinder. Don’t complicate things unnecessarily. Hang back.
The biggest struggle for me was not injecting myself into every little decision that was being made around me. Did I have an opinion on the centerpieces? How many balloons should be on each table? Which confetti to use and where to put it? Sure. I have an opinion on everything.
Only now I also had a voice inside myself that kept asking: what difference does it really make?
Yes, there was the possibility that things might not turn out exactly as people had planned, but with just the little bit of remove I’d afforded myself, it was easier to know that everything would be fine anyway. Instead of making it about me, I could just to be supportive of other people’s decision. And that, I have to say, was unbelievably liberating. It felt like I suddenly had all this extra space to move around in, to be in.
Except, I’d arrived at another unclear line in the sand. Where does “letting it go” end and “not giving a shit” begin? What stops me from being spineless and voiceless? How do you let go of things but still feel empowered?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week and I’ve decided that it’s choice. I think it’s the difference between being silenced and choosing to be quiet. It’s running triage on all these tiny factors and making a conscious decision about what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t – as opposed to assuming that my input’s crucial to everything – that my perspective is correct and worth fretting over and brow-beating others into submission.
The key seems to be caring without being completely invested, which is a very interesting concept for someone as prone to black-and-white thinking as I am. The goal, I’m guessing, is not to turn into an automaton, but to still feel things without feeling everything. Innnnteresting.
Towards week’s end, after less than 24 hours at home, we traveled again to Las Vegas, a place I don’t exactly love. I don’t drink or smoke or gamble. I don’t like crowds. So it was a really, really good thing that by the time we arrived, I had gotten pretty damn good at letting go of things. My husband Chris commented multiple times during our travels how much he liked this new me, how incredible it was that I was just letting things go and I was humbled (and, yes, slightly annoyed) to realize just how much my behavior can be a burden to him.
I liked the change, too, although I quickly became aware that I still have limits, that this takes a lot of effort and a lot of practice. After a day or so of wandering around our hotel-casino, blinded by the lights, dodging weaving drunks and clouds of cigarette smoke, I found myself wondering when the week would be over. When I could finally react to all of this and just throw a good, old fashioned tantrum.
Right before going to sleep on the last night of this experiment, Chris threw an arm around me, closed his eyes and murmured, “Maybe this change will stick.”
Huh. Despite a whopping seven days of effort, my initial reaction was to take that as an insult, an editorial comment on what how awful I usually am. It’s still so deeply ingrained in me to get defensive and react, start a fight and make him feel bad about judging me.
Instead, I didn’t say anything. Maybe I was just too tired or maybe this change is actually taking hold. Either way, what I did was, I just let it go.
See how easy that was? I just let it go.