Are you harder on yourself…or on others?

beeGretchen Rubin, one of my favorite authors and patron saints, says that there are two kinds of people: those who love to divide people into two types, and those who don’t. Gretchen does, and has some wonderful distinctions to think about, as we try and gain self-knowledge, as well as learn more about others: for instance, there are under-buyers and over-buyers, tiggers and eeyores, marathoners and sprinters. I’ve always found Gretchen’s distinctions super helpful, and on a recent walk, I thought a distinction of my own: there are people who are harder on themselves, and there are people who are harder on others.

People who are harder on themselves are likely to blame themselves for things that are either not their responsibility or those they cannot control. People who are harder on others are likely to find a scapegoat for their follies. A dangerous combination is when an other-blamer meets a self-blamer: the other-blamer is more than willing to offload his or her own-responsibility to the self-blamer, who has a tendency to take on responsibility that is not theirs to bear.

Shel Silverstein’s beautiful poem Three Stings from his collection Falling Up relates to this concept:

George got stung by a bee and said,
“I wouldn’t have got stung if I’d stayed in bed.”
Fred got stung and we heard him roar,
“What am I being punished for?”
Lew got stung and we heard him say,
“I learned somethin’ about bees today.”

What happens when you get stung by an over-blamer: do you absorb it and fear the sting so much that you hesitate to put yourself out there, like George? Do you believe that you were stung by the over-blamer because of something you did, like Fred? Or do you like Lew, learn to identify the over-blamer – the first step to protecting yourself – without absorbing the fear and the pain?

One day, may we all be Lew.

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What the best mentors do

We respond to our mentors because they speak to qualities of heart and mind, qualities of awareness, that are already within us. Their gift is that they remind us of what is possible and call it forth. Much in the same way, we are drawn to spiritual figures that help connect us with our inner goodness.

Tara Brach, True Refuge

Getting rid of the golf ball stuck in my throat

throat chakraSometimes it feels like a golf ball is stuck in my throat – the words I want to speak don’t come out. They go back down, sometimes lodging heavily in my heart, sometimes weighing heavily on my mind.

How do I open up my throat chakra, I ask my husband. Practice everyday, he said. He doesn’t know about much about chakras, but he knows me, and he knows the answers. The only way I can unblock my throat chakra is by practicing, starting to speak. Maybe a thin voice comes out, squeezing around the golf ball stuck in my throat; thin, like a singer’s voice on the decline, but I hope it grows stronger with practice.

We were on holiday recently when I rediscovered the beauty and restorative power of music: sufi songs; old hindi songs with a word or two in urdu, maybe, just maybe, the most lyrical language on the earth; new songs, some with personality, some with a sameness that blended into each other.

I sang along as we drove through the vast majestic mountains of stone and sand and multiple colors. At first, my voice was weak and limited to a narrow band from years of being forgotten, but as I sang, it grew stronger. Maybe it was the strength of the mountains seeping into me?

I feel compassion for my voice. It has been suppressed on occasion and so it is scared.  It takes some time to make it past the golf ball stuck inside, and when it does come out, it wavers, it is shaky. I send it out, shaking courageously into the world.

I draw on the first day of art class. It is my attempt at a self portrait and after drawing what looks like a sad woman, I scribble some crosses on the neck. The teacher knows when she sees my work, that I am showing her what is inside, telling her something about me, but she does not know exactly what. Do you have a thyroid problem, she asks – she has noticed the dark squiggles? No, that’s my throat chakra – it’s blocked.

I try and open it with sodalite and lapiz lazuli, and singing in the mountains, and saying I don’t like this, and I will not be treated this way.

The throat chakra is expression and expression is creativity. With my throat chakra blocked, I fear creating, I fear making mistakes. Maybe the golf ball stuck is perfectionism?

So, I give myself, little by little, permission to not be perfect. I give myself permission to write shitty first drafts and say rambling sentences which have a seed of an idea that may take root – or may not, and that’s ok too. I give myself the permission to wreck my journal, to squirt it with lemon juice, and stitch some pages together, to doodle all over it, including the edges, to rip out pages and lose them because loss is part of life, and part of creation. I give myself the permission to break an egg and squish it, shells and yolk and all, letting the shards dig into my hands to see if it really does unblock me as it is touted to do, and find that heart does feel lighter and the censor in my hands that keeps a finger on the backspace is a little bit more relaxed, like after a few glasses of wine.

My throat chakra opens slowly in the midnight hour as I sit on laptop and go clicket-y click. I type to know what I think, what I feel, and what I must do. I type to become.

If this post resonated with you, would love for you to follow the blog. Use the “follow” button on the right hand side.

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On the blog:
Oil pastel therapy and imaginary planets, far, far away
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Letting go of perfectionism and wrecking my journal

From blogosphere: 6 tips for clearing your throat chakra
A wonderful book on chakras: Eastern Body, Western Mind

Take away the power of unhealthy comparisons

Comparison-QuoteLately, I’ve been thinking about comparisons, and how they can be the root of unhappiness. Rumi said it well, hundreds of years ago:
Envy is a poison
An illogical distress
The fact your neighbour has more
Doesn’t mean that you have less.

An illogical distress it is, but then we’re all a big mangled mess of logical thoughts and intense, primal feelings. Time and again, all of us fall into the trap of social comparisons, which Sonja Lyyubomirsky, the author of The How of Happiness says is a surefire way of reducing our happiness.

We are well aware of the dangers of comparing ourselves with those we view as “better-off” than us (though we often lack self-control required to stop us from making these comparisons). As Sonja notes:

“Upward” comparisons (e.g., “He’s paid a higher salary,” “She’s thinner”) may lead to feelings of inferiority, distress, and loss of self-esteem.

Though we’re more keenly aware of the unhappiness-causing power of upward comparisons, downward comparisons can be equally debilitating.Why? Sonja writes:

While “downward” comparisons (e.g., “He got laid off,” “Her cancer’s spread”) may lead to feelings of guilt, the need to cope with others’ envy and resentment, and fears of suffering the same (equally bad) fate.

For instance, in The Dance of Fear, Harriet Lerner, a psychologist, writes about how many of her patients feel guilty coming to her, because they feel their own suffering is less than than of other people who are suffering more. Their own suffering does not seem to be deserving of care.

So, what are some strategies to avoid the trap of social comparisons? Here are some that Sonja puts forward in her book (do check it out for color on each of these).

1. Distract, distract, distract:

Good bets are activities that make you feel happy, curious, peaceful, amused, or proud.

2. The “Stop” technique:

..think, say, or even shout to yourself, “Stop,” or “No!” when you find yourself resuming overthinking.

3. Put rumination on the schedule:

..set aside thirty minutes every day to do nothing but ruminate.

4. Talk to someone you trust:

…talk to a sympathetic and trusted person about your thoughts and troubles. [What makes a good confidante? Read here.]

5.  Act to solve problems:

 …this step jump-starts you into trying to solve the very real, concrete problems that might inspire your overthinking.

6. Dodge overthinking triggers:

…write a list of situations (places, times, and people) that appear to trigger your overthinking. If at all possible, avoid those situations or modify them just enough to thwart their ability to trigger an episode of overthinking.

7. Take in the big picture:

Ask yourself: Will this matter in a year?

Distance yourself from rumination even further by contemplating your particular problem in the context of space and time.

Finally, if you resolve that the trouble you’re enduring now is indeed significant and will matter in a year, then consider what the experience can teach you. Focusing on the lessons you can learn from a stress, irritant, or ordeal will help soften its blow. The lessons that those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty, or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity, or self-control.

Do you know anyone who’s feeling in the tight, crippling grip of comparisons? Do share this post with them. Did you feel this post will help you live better? If so, sign up for updates on the blog. Lastly, you may also like:

Oil pastel therapy and imaginary planets, far far away

I bought a little box of oil pastels for the new art class I’m taking on weekends. The class was yesterday, and all of us drew a vase the instructor had arranged stylistically on a table in front of us, with a few kitchen utensils thrown in for an interesting composition.

We drew, first with a pencil, and then colored in with the oil pastels: the moss green and deep green and pale yellow of the leaves in the vase; the grey for the steel utensils that glistened in the background; the blue for the cloth that made the makeshift backdrop of this arrangement.

I am a novice when it comes to drawing and sketching. My main motivation to join this class was to nurture the butchered creative in me; to learn to be more in the moment; and to pay heed to the solid world around me, not just the world of thoughts and feelings and ideas that I am used to living in.

When I started the class a month or so back, my attention was at the lowest its ever been, fleeting, darting from here to there. It was difficult for me to hold my attention long enough to sketch what I saw in front of me: to make sure the opening of the vase was wider than the base, to make sure the curves I drew mirrored the curves of the vase, to see where the sunlight fell and which parts needed shading in and which didn’t.

Art is therapeutic. Across the last few weeks, I can sense my attention becoming deeper, and less runaway. Holding a crayon and the repeated motion of filling in the colors is soothing; it fills in wounds in a way that thinking and analyzing does not. As I fill in the colors on the page, I fill my wounds. I am learning to be ok with being less than perfect, which I am obviously so in comparison to my more advanced peers in this class. I am learning to create something from nothing, and becoming more comfortable with the process being messy. I am learning also to be more risk-taking: the instructor remarked yesterday as she did the rounds of the class, looking at our work, that we seemed afraid of colors. Don’t be afraid, she said, don’t subdue the vibrancy of the oil pastels, the drama. Let it out. So, I did. I filled in the blue till it was deep and dark and not a drop of white peaked from the paper below. Why should I be afraid to let the boldness of the deep blue stand out? Why should I be afraid to have it be noticed? Why, really, should I be afraid of showing the vibrancy of all that is me, not just the softness of the blue sky on a sunny day, but also the darkness and deepness of the stormy nights.

Today, I sat curled up reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before in the bedroom. When I ventured outside, I saw that my husband had caught hold of my oil pastels and was busy composing his own creation. Don’t look, he said, give me fifteen. Fifteen minutes later I went to see his painting. Unsurprisingly for someone who loves all things space, he’d drawn a picture of the night sky with a planet and some galaxies.

abhinav drawing

This is Saturn, right? I said noticing the ring around the planet. The ring is from Saturn and the red spot is from Jupiter, he replied. A combination planet! So this is…Supiter…said both of us together. Other than Supiter, the Andromeda is there too, or at least a galaxy he drew, which he now thinks is the Andromeda. There are also a bunch of other galaxies and some shooting stars.

The black of the night sky is jet black, unafraid. The colors are what he imagines them to be. The subject, an imaginary planet. I realize that my husband’s creativity flows, without being clogged by too many rules.

At one point of time, Supiter would have stressed me out. It’s not a real planet, I would think. It doesn’t exist. You can’t just combine planets. But now I love it. It exists because I see it on the paper in front of me. It is real because it came from my husband’s imagination, as he closed his eyes to imagine it, or maybe realized post facto that he’d combined the features of two planets.

As I walk the creative path, I can find myself unfurling, little by little. Learning that creativity means more play and less judgment. Learning that I don’t need to know what I will write in my blog post but trusting that when I start to write, the words will flow, or sputter, depending on the day. Learning that the tap is really more open than I give myself credit for. And learning, most importantly, that in creating lies the deepest healing.

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A leisurely afternoon with a BFF: The little joys


Lunching with my BFF who’s a mom is a rare pleasure. Recently, the stars aligned, and we were able to meet up for a relaxed, leisurely lunch sans kids.

We spoke of times past, of lives present, of who we were and still are, and who we hope to become.

We spoke of the need to break the conditioning we feel burdened by, and live by values we’ve examined and accepted, instead of those we’ve absorbed.

We spoke of the the husbands, hers and mine; of school friends, some recognizable, some not; of children, real or future; of parents growing older; of in-laws; of tugs of modern and traditional sides within us, that push and pull us in different directions.

We spoke of messages absorbed growing up in what was fairly conservative India in the 1990s, of internalizing the expectations of women fulfilling everyone’s needs first, never complaining, happy to support, and allowed to dream for themselves, only when everyone else was taken care of.

We spoke of our selfish dreams, those we wanted, just for ourselves. We wished for time to switch off, to just be, to not care if the house was pretty, or we were, or the work we turned in was perfect. Some time where we could dream, some time where we could work on our dreams.

We spoke with gratefulness for our supporters, who believed we could, who believed we would, and that we should.

We spoke of how the time will never be just right, that now is now, and that we will not miraculously have more time to work on our life’s work tomorrow than we have today.

We spoke of how we will never have it all figured out, how we will never know as we take our first steps in uncharted territory of how that would impact kids and husbands and parents and in-laws. How we would never be able to forward solve every problem. How we would never have guarantees that everything would be okay, and with it, the permission to work on our books and on our selves and on our lives and those of others.

We lamented missed opportunities when we tried to put together the jigsaw, when all we needed was to find the next piece. Of trying to find the map, when all we needed was a compass.

It was the first leisurely lunch date we’d had in years, but just in those few hours, we were connected. We saw, we loved, we supported, and hopefully, moved a little bit closer to doing what we’re meant to do.

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A little dose of Ben Franklin’s wisdom on learning and communication


Benjamin Franklin’s love of learning and self-improvement is inspirational. In his autobiography, he talks about a self-improvement club that he formed with like-minded people. The club, which they called JUNTO, met Friday evenings. The agenda?

The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one of more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Taking the time to think about and discuss some of the things that really matter, instead of being consumed by the minutae of daily existence is something as relevant today as it was all those years ago.

To make the most of these meetings, JUNTO followed certain principles that enabled the pursuit of truth.

Our debates were to be made under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary peculiarities.

These principles remain timeless, and the wise try to follow all these commandments. But forceful communication and surety seem to be encouraged, or tolerated, more often today. “Positiveness of opinion” can mistakenly attributed to confidence.

And yet, modern research echoes Franklin’s timeless wisdom that “power-less” communication, characterized by “asking questions than offering answers, talking tentatively than talking boldly, admitting their weaknesses than displaying their strengths, and seeking advice than imposing their views on others” is a more sustainable path to building prestige and influence, instead of forceful “there are no gaps in my thinking,” style of communication.

Do you know anyone who is feeling the pressure to be more “power-ful” in their communication? Do share this post with them! Also, if this post resonated with you, you may also like:

The upside of showing our less than perfect self to the world

micWhenever we’re trying to do something new, something for the first time, we feel an excitement, but also fear. What if we mess up? What if make a fool of ourselves in front of others? And if we do put ourselves out there, some of these fears may come true.

In her wise and helpful book, “The Dance of Fear,” Harriet Lerner shares how her  anxieties and fears about speaking in public came true one day.

As I strode out before the audience and placed a copy of my speech on the podium, I failed to notice that this particular lectern lacked the conventional ledge for holding papers. The pages of my speech cascaded to the floor. This incident might have been relegated to the category of minor embarrassment had it not been for the fact that I had not bothered to number the pages. Unlike my Seattle speech, this was a brand-new presentation and I wasn’t familiar with its flow and structure. “Just a minute,” I said brightly, then spent the next five shuffling papers and trying to control my panic. At last I was ready to begin.

Ten minutes into the speech, I broke the expensive laser pointer that I had borrowed from my hosts. Keeping my sense of humor about it became difficult when, a few minutes later, the left shoulder pad of my silk jacket somehow lost its moorings and came to rest up against my neck. “Breathe,” I sternly ordered myself, but by now I was beyond the reach of oxygen therapy. I finished my talk in a stew of embarrassment and wondered if I should drastically lower my fee for future (if any) speaking engagements. But my trials were not over. During the question-and-answer period, I was forced to respond, “I don’t know,” several times. “Some expert,” I berated myself.

What do you think happened after the talk? Harriet of course was mortified and wanted to remove herself from the situation as soon as she could. But…

…I saw to my surprise that a small crowd of women had gathered around the lectern. They were smiling at me. “Thank you,” said one, reaching out her hand to shake mine. “It was wonderful to see you being so real.” A younger woman, a psychology graduate student, chimed in. “I’ve always been afraid to speak in public,” she confessed. “Now I feel, if you can do it, I can do it!” Others spoke of the palpable connection they felt with me during my talk, a sense of being in the presence of someone they already knew and understood. Being approached by members of an audience following a speech wasn’t a new experience for me. What was new, however, was the level of vitality and connectedness I felt flowing toward me that evening. I looked around at the open, loving faces surrounding me and felt my embarrassment melting away.

We’re comfortable sharing our competence, but shy away from sharing our vulnerabilities. Maybe we’ve been raised to believe that anything less than perfect is not good enough. Maybe that’s a bar we’ve set for ourselves. Whatever the source, it’s important to remember that the fear of being anything less than perfect limits us. On the other hand, putting ourselves out there, practicing our craft in public makes us human, makes us others connect with us, see us as real.

I wish I had a story like Harriet’s that I could share, but I don’t. And I realize now that this means that I’ve been saying “No” because I wasn’t perfectly prepared to do something, when I should have been saying “Yes” and figuring it out along the way.

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Thinking of becoming a writer? Some advice from the wonderful Gretchen Rubin

fork in the roadAs I’ve said before, I am a Gretchen Rubin SUPER FAN. I love Gretchen’s insights into human nature, which help her readers understand themselves better, and as a result, live better. This nugget comes from the Goodreads Q&A that Gretchen did some time ago (and needless to say, I was super excited that Gretchen answered my question!)

Question: When you quit law for writing, did you have any reservations or fears? How did you make it easy for yourself to take the big leap?

Here’s what she answered:

It took me a long time to make the switch from law to writing, but it was made easier because I had an idea for a book that I desperately wanted to write (and was already writing, in fact), my sister was a professional writer, so I had that model; and everyone in my family was very supportive of me taking a big risk. At one point, I thought, “I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer,” so I knew I had to give writing a shot.

Often, when we’re contemplating big life or career changes, we feel a sense of anxiety. This anxiety definitely serves a purpose – it makes us carefully examine our options so that we can choose one best suited for us – but sometimes it can cause us to abandon our dreams, without even trying. This is why I love Gretchen’s decision-making framing: “I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.” Framing the decision this way helped Gretchen – and can help many of us – from preventing fear of change from clipping our wings, even before they sprout.

Is there something YOU’D rather fail at, than succeeding at what you’re currently doing? Would love to hear from you. Is there anyone you know who is contemplating a big career shift? Do share Gretchen’s advice with them!

P.S. Gretchen’s book “Better than Before” came out just a couple of weeks back. My sister who lives in the US is couriering me a SIGNED copy all the way to India. CANNOT WAIT. Till then, busy watching the videos of Gretchen Rubin on the book tour (such as this one at Google.)

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Creative treats for the artist in us

In the exquisite The Artist’s Way, the wonderful Julia Cameron exhorts us to give little treats to the young artist inside of us. Julia says:

As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing, We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them–to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well…

She explains how to do this.

The artist brain is the sensory brain: sight and sound, smell and taste, touch. These are the elements of magic, and magic is the elemental stuff of art…In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun.

Well, if Julia says it, I am totally going to do it, I tell myself – The Artist’s Way has been inspiring and magical and hopeful. And so last week, I bought for myself the beautiful book Waiting for Wings, by Lois Ehlert. These days I feel like I am waiting for wings. I guess growth is like that; a funny process that involves feeling stuck and dark, but also hopeful and expanding. I feasted in the greens and mauves and yellows and oranges of this piece of art which tells the story of how butterfly eggs turn into caterpillars which turn into butterflies. The book is for 3-7 year olds, but that’s probably the age of my inner artist, so the book filled me with its beauty and wisdom. As Lois says:

Soon caterpillars hatch. They creep and chew. Each one knows what it must do: Find a place where winds don’t blow then make a case in which to grow. Caterpillar changes now begin– body and wings take shape within. When it’s time, each case is torn– wings unfold; new butterflies are born!



Sometimes when we are in the delicate and vulnerable phases of transformation, it is okay to create a case for ourselves and find a place where winds don’t blow. This is self-protection. Protecting our blossoming creative spirits means that we will be ready to fly in that very wind, when it is time. What treat have you given the creative spirit in you? Maybe a little trinket, or fresh flowers from the garden? Maybe a herbal massage? Maybe a beautiful ceramic plate that comes from the earth and is painted just the color of yellow that brightens your soul? Do share this with those going through their own personal or creative transformations. Thank you!

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