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A Free Life Starts With A Free Mind

Free as in free from emotional baggage like excessive worry, perfectionism, guilt and shame. Free to not give a damn what people think about the lifestyle we’re choosing. And free from obligation to a past that isn’t me and hasn’t been for years. These things are as important to a free life as freedom from unreasonable rules and regulations.

“Live Free” is a motto I love. I even bought the t-shirt. Twice!

The slogan is part of New Hampshire’s state motto, Live Free or Die. It’s often used as an exhortation or encouragement in the face of political oppression. I certainly adopted it with that notion in mind. More recently, though, I’ve realized that even if going nomad helps me skip some repressive aspects of conventional American life, my brain’s processes have at times rivaled the most condescending a*holes among the political class.

With the equivalent of abusive and power-hungry jerks along for the ride, I wouldn’t be free enough to really live, even if there weren’t any rules at all.

I’ve had these counterproductive habits and thought patterns off and on forever, in a way that I couldn’t understand, much less untangle. Brian and I latched onto the idea of living in an RV in large part because we wanted things to be different. And yeah, it’ll be fairly different without us doing any more than selling our stuff and moving into an RV. But I want to do so much more than just pack our current life into 300 square feet.

I want to write more. I want to focus on helping Brian build our new business instead of letting myself get sucked into things I don’t like and/or am not good at. I’d like to spend more time thinking about my husband and family and less worrying about inconsequential stuff like getting to inbox zero, perfectly white towels, Facebook or dirty windows. I need to figure out how to breathe, let go and be content to sometimes do absolutely nothing.

Someone, somewhere (maybe my past self), recently threw me a line. I’m still struggling, but I am climbing.

Buys Book on Overcoming Procrastination, Waits 2.5 Years to Read It

Can’t make this crap up…

7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary RettigI didn’t even remember buying 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. Somehow I stumbled across it on my Kindle at just the right time. Even though the title is aimed at blocked writers, the author knows the multi-headed beast that lives inside my head. That it’s also about writing is the icing on the cake.

Writer’s block has never been a problem for me. But all the other things author Hillary Rettig writes about – procrastination, perfectionism, grandiosity, self-flagellation – got in the way of me sitting down to write in the first place. In the words of Mr. Miyagi, “Fighting fighting. Same same.” I knew what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t figure out how it was OK to do it. Still can’t, 100%.

Between guilt, shame, perfectionism and inadequately valuing my time, I’ve carried an unnecessarily enormous burden for years. It affects my writing and every other aspect of my life. If I want to live free in the fullest sense of the phrase, it’s time to drop that sucker and walk away.

I’m still working through this book. It’s not a silver bullet more than anything else in life, and its worth in any case will depend on what I do with it. I wanted to share it, though, because to date Rettig is the only one I’ve read who seems to understand the complex and interconnected issues behind creative blocks.

Right now I’m mostly still just reading 7 Secrets, but already it’s been eye opening. I know I’ll have to do the suggested exercises and implement the recommended practices if I’m to move beyond struggling and become prolific. But the book has already been such an eye-opener that I wanted to share it and write about my personal experience with a few of the topics Rettig covers.

Guilt: The Trip to Nowhere

Who I should be, what I should have and what I ought to do are decisions I allowed others call the shots on for the majority of my life. If I wasn’t buying into my dad’s assertion that I deserved nothing, I focused on disproving his claims that I was selfish, ignorant, obstinate, etc., with actions that were 180º opposite. Great that I wasn’t a disagreeable jerk, but being a pleaser who lives for others is just as unhealthy and exhausting.

So exhausting that at times I have been a disagreeable jerk anyway.

Because I went into business for myself, and because marketing, sales and accounting are not my forte, I learned the hard way to say no, ask for more money or decline to enter into inequitable deals. If I had the benefit of today’s hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have started the simpler web at all. Of course then I’d have missed all those learning experiences, not to mention some pretty decent clients that were in the mix.

In the more recent past, I’ve struggled with feelings of guilt and inadequacy over the declining amount of money I’ve brought in. Though working and earning less came as the result of conscious choices about my web design business, it was a constant source of internal (and sometimes marital) conflict because we needed money to move.

Guilt drove me to overwork. Then I was in pain and feared work, so I didn’t sit down to do it at all, lest I further aggravate repetitive strain injuries. Felt guiltier about that. When I felt OK, guilt drove me to do things that weren’t 100% aligned with who I was or where I wanted to go. But hey – it felt like I was doing something. Being guilt-driven is one reason I wrote a how-to book on making yogurt. It earns me a whopping $20-$30 per month, BTW. Oh, well…now I know the Kindle publishing ropes.

Here’s what I have managed to learn: Guilt trips drive me to make more poor choices than meaningful decisions. I shouldn’t feel guilty about anything. Ever. No worries, though – I won’t kill or maim anyone (at least, not intentionally). I’ll always have a conscience and the NAP to guide me.

Shame On Who?

Why on earth would anyone accept feelings of shame over failure to meet unreasonable expectations? I don’t even know, but I did it for years.

I figured out in elementary school that our family’s home was crazytown, and spent years mired in shame over not having a “normal” family and home like “everyone else.” Yes, those were air quotes. It wasn’t until well into adulthood, though, that I discovered that plenty of things outside our house weren’t what they seemed.

As a child, that my best friend was often upset over her father’s drinking, or that lack of space meant her brother had to sleep on a convertible sofa bed every night, or that their TV was always on, didn’t stop me from comparing our homes and families and thinking hers was heaven and ours was to be ashamed of. Well, our home was pretty bad, but my BFF didn’t grow up in a Disney Princess castle, either.

Not having a sense of what was usual or average, I treated advertising as reality well into my 20s. Predictably, my life did not measure up to this “reality.”

I thought everything in a room should match, just like the bedroom in my grandma’s JC Penny catalog. I believed other parents bought their children all the toys we saw on Saturday morning commercials. I was pretty sure candy, soda, white bread and Oreos were staples in every American household except ours. I did catch onto those lies after about 10 or 20 years, and finally stopped feeling bad that we ate brown rice and wheat bread and soda was forbidden.

In later years, my eyes were opened by conversations with or about classmates, some of whom I discovered had endured their own hellish upbringing. I stopped feeling shamed about what my parents and schoolmates did to me growing up. It was abuse. Duh. It didn’t happen because I deserved it, and piling feelings of inferiority on top of it was crazy. I think I’ve had all that down for about the last 15 – 20 years.

I’ve done a better job of shirking shame in recent months. Saying IDGAF is a highly underrated coping mechanism, BTW.

Brian is a lot of help in this area, though not always in the way I’d like. He sees me berate myself and expresses his frustration using not-the-lovliest of words. His expectations of me are probably not even 10% of what I put on myself. They’re mostly around being able to eat dinner before he goes to bed and not discovering his wife in compromising positions. It’s a pretty low bar.

Acknowledging accomplishments that matter – even when they’re small – is a shame buster. And no, I’m not talking about doing it in that bullshit “everybody’s a winner” way. Just appreciating progress without having to add in that it wasn’t perfect. Still working on that.

I’m Not Good Enough to Be A Perfectionist

Perfectionism magnifies aspects of life that aren’t ideal – even when they matter little in the grand scheme of things – and is at the core of feeling guilty and less than. I grew up in an environment that was almost as far from perfect as you could get, yet ever since I left home being perfect has been my mission. How the hell does that happen?

True story: I used to deny I was a perfectionist because I could almost never get a thing done perfectly. Another story, also true: In kindergarten we were given a pair of kid scissors, a sheet of paper with a circle ditto copied onto it, and instructions to cut out the circle. The circle I turned in was lopsided and much smaller than other kids’ work because I kept trying to fix the choppy edges.

Reading the 7 Secrets book is helping me acknowledge how much perfectionism negatively impacts not only my writing, but my whole life. I was really, really surprised to see how many negative thought patterns and behaviors are related to perfectionism. Rettig does a good job of laying it all out in a way that makes the interconnectedness undeniably clear.

I’ll probably always struggle with perfectionism. How much, though, is up to me. Brian is very supportive in this area, frequently telling me it’s OK if IDGAF. Or shouting that I shouldn’t GAF while tearing his hair out 🙂

Mixed-Up Priorities

Stating the obvious here, but just so we (OK me) are clear: Trying to do everything well, regardless of its actual import, means important things go undone.

Too often, instead of first doing things I’m really good at and should do (writing, website nerdery, marketing), my work day has started (time-wise, anyway) with me deciding I must clean the wall by the dog dish, or use a razor blade to get every last bit of gunk off the stovetop, or any one of a hundred other household tasks that do not earn me $125/hr. If you’re thinking my house must have been spotless, no, sadly – it was a vehicle for procrastination more than it was OCD.

My "Oh shit – Brian's home and I'm still in my PJs" face.
My “Oh shit – Brian’s home and I’m still in my PJs” face.

See, I like feeling that things are complete. Plus I kid myself all the damn time that a thing “will only take a minute.” HA. This wicked combination often meant that I spent an hour or more finishing unimportant things so I could mentally tick a box and count it as an accomplishment. Then I’d feel guilty because I got a late start on actual work, so I’d sit down at the computer and try like hell to make up for my transgression. Next thing I know I’d hear the garage door opener, and Brian would walk in to find me in my PJs at 7:00 PM.

Marie Kondo’s famous book title says that tidying up is “life-changing” and “magic.” It’s not either of those things for me. I just feel more comfortable when things are neat, clean and uncluttered, probably because the house I grew up in was the opposite. Anyway, it’s important to note that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is less about cleaning than minimalism. If I remove things from my life that aren’t contributing to it in a meaningful way, life will be simpler and priorities clearer.

My perfectionist behavior and discomfort with undone housekeeping will suck as much time as I allow from meaningful things. Like writing. Promoting my work or my business. Spending time with friends or family.

I’ve made a lot of progress in this area lately by doing meaningful things first. This way I can make sure I make progress on things that matter. Being forced to deal with throwing together dinner (or not…we can eat out) in 30 minutes isn’t a bad thing for me. Although it’s stressful, I’m most creative when I’m boxed in. Having those wins on things that matter (as opposed to, say, clean tile grout or sparkling windows) provides the boost I need to continue putting the house stuff last.

Choosing Intentionally

Simplifying by downsizing to an RV will mean fewer meaningless tasks. For this to truly matter, though, I have to conscientiously choose what to bring along.

I know the transformations I seek won’t happen simply because we give up our sticks & bricks home, although RV life is by nature more supportive of the life I seek. It’s pretty cool that as I’ve continued through 7 Secrets of the Prolific, I’ve noticed that some of the author’s recommendations are pretty much baked into RV life. At the same time, I’m aware that when I find myself with “extra” time I have a tendency to overfill it with new projects and plans.

I haven’t yet learned how to just BE.

Because I can do something does not mean that I have any business doing it. My time and my mind are worth more than the low-value crap I’ve repeatedly gotten myself into because it mattered only to me and no one else would do it. Everything requires an investment of time and energy in greater or lesser degrees. Everything carries a certain opportunity cost.

Realizing this is the main reason I stepped away from political activism in Georgia. Unfortunately I didn’t do it before learning the hard way that I’d grossly undervalued my time.

Countless hours at the keyboard organizing meetings and writing letters, social media posts and speeches easily doubled repetitive stress injuries I already had. Most of what I did had little impact other than to mildly annoy the local political class. That kind of activism in New Hampshire would be more likely to effect change. In Georgia, it’s a much longer and more sacrificial route that doesn’t bring results often enough for me.

It’s not that I don’t care about political malfeasance, or learning something new, or joining a club. It’s that they’d better be more important than the thing I’ll need to put down to do it, and it had better be a good fit for me, AND (unlike political activism in GA) I’d better not be carrying the water for others who are better equipped for the given thing than I am.

Making the choice that jives with how I want to live isn’t always going to be a black and white thing. But acting with intention instead of obligation will keep me on the right track.

Live Free or Die: Death is Not the Worst of Evils

Pretty sure that simply accepting that I’d feel miserable my whole life would have been a helluva lot worse than going ahead and dying. My mom seemed to just give up when she was in her 30s. It was sad to see her feel like life was so futile, but it left an impression.

I thought then (and still think now) that there’s always a way to make life better.

My intention is to keep working to free my mind from guilt, shame and perfectionism so I can live free in the fullest, most meaningful sense – even if I’m told not to cross a line, sell a thing or resist inappropriate behavior.

2 thoughts on “A Free Life Starts With A Free Mind”

  1. It doesn’t matter what anyone else things, You and B should just get in the bus (as soon as you safely can) and GO, the things you do have to satisfy no one but yourself. I do wish you good luck in your adventure.

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