Just Smile

The power of a smile, it can create an unexpected connection, it can alter your day when you’re absorbed with your own distracting thoughts and it can surprise you with its sudden shine and gravitational pull.  I have always been a “smiley” person. I learned early in my life that a smile can change the course of a situation, it can put people at ease, and it can potentially get you what you want, or need, in many situations.

My Mom has always smiled a lot. Maybe that’s where I picked it up. I noticed she smiled in public when she was interacting with pretty much anyone. Typically, people treated my Mom with kindness and showed interest in her and what she had to say.557847_4741898744657_653824696_n - Copy It probably didn’t hurt that she was attractive but it was the smile that warmed people up to her and made her approachable and easy to talk to. I realized early that it was the easiest thing I could do to make a connection, so I followed in her footsteps, maybe a little too much. Sometimes I smile so much that people actually call me out on it. One morning I was riding up the elevator with the President of my company, also my friend, and he paused as we stepped out into the hall and asked, “do you always smile, are you always happy?” Without hesitation, I said, “most of the time, I guess I am.” When I walked away I couldn’t stop thinking about his observation. I have been leveraging “the smile” for so long it truly does come naturally. And I can pull a smile out of my ass, even on my worst day because when I smile, people smile back, and that typically turns my day around quickly. But always happy? That’s a different story and a bit more complicated.

Smiling as a kid was a way to put a person or a situation at ease and I’ve been focused on making people comfortable for most of my life. I grew up in an emotionally loving but volatile home. Both of my parents are/were “feelers”. They also had the ability to use logic and information, (specifically my Dad) but when push came to shove we were an emotionally driven family and emotions can rise and fall pretty quick as a result. I had to learn to navigate these situations and make choices. When you grow up around intelligent and emotional people it’s like a dance and I had to pay close attention to what music was playing that day. tammy &michelle CO_0017I found that with my parents a smile could get them back to a calm and loving place much faster so I used that along with my gift of words. Between the smile and the words, I could get away with practically anything. But as I grew into a teenager and young adult my tactics may have become manipulative and for certain, self-absorbed. I smiled a lot in later years because it was a distraction, a decoy, from what was really going on. Has anyone asked you while in full smile, “what’s wrong?” Nope, me either. So, this has been a sure fire way to keep those pesky investigative questions at bay and manage my inner battles alone, completely alone.

So, this leads to what’s behind the smile. And that very daunting question, “are you always happy?” Well, mostly I am happy but sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with the speed of life and my old tactics begin to fail me. I have always believed that being sad was something that I did alone, in my car, in my room, anywhere that was safe to cry and feel everything that may be going on inside.  Iphone Pictures 2017-May18 7884Being sad is not something I choose to carry around on the outside and definitely not in the presence of others. But there are days I’m really sad, and I assume that’s no different than anyone else walking around this world. When I’m feeling sad I guess I fake it until I believe what I’m faking. I consider this the art of reframing and I’m pretty masterful at it. I put energy out to others, typically starting with a smile, and they send their energy back to me. It’s quite magical how others can lift you up in those moments of “faking it”. Eventually, this leads to a better moment, interaction, and day.

Here’s the challenge with this strategy, I stopped telling the truth. I didn’t start lying, it’s not like that but I have not been truthful for a long time, almost longer than I can remember. If you pride yourself on showing up in a positive way and that eventually becomes your brand then the “undoing” is to begin to show yourself in the most vulnerable way. For me, this means unfolding and coming to terms with the imperfections of my life. It is the act of letting people in to help me navigate the unsettling challenges that we all ultimately face. This is a daunting and ever-present, challenge for me.

The people closest to me can see right through me, as they should. I need them to, and I’m grateful to have them in my life so that I can be challenged and pushed at the most difficult moments. Fortunately, I have a few of these people in my life but it’s Aubrey that’s been around the longest. My smile has never fooled Aub, who has been watching my tactics for a lifetime. Maybe it’s because she knows my history, or maybe it’s because she’s been reading me for almost 30 years and sees the young vulnerable Michelle all covered up in “experience”. 1044499_10210776713953193_5548242026145674262_nOr maybe it’s because she’s annoyingly intuitive and just an overall badass. Whatever it is, we all need these people in our lives, the ones that will call us out. The ones that see us through the smile and the nodding and the attempts to move past a topic. We were down at the beach several years ago, which is where she lives, and out on our customary “date night” to catch up. We were only sitting for 3 minutes with our husbands when she simply asked me, “how are you?” I guess I paused, I don’t really remember, but she immediately stood up, grabbed my arm and ushered me out. Just as we stepped out of the restaurant and stood in the parking lot, in the dark of night, I fell apart but was still saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” She wasn’t having it, she knew I wasn’t fine and she wasn’t willing to listen to the words. She was focused on what I was feeling and I was feeling raw, to say the least. The smile didn’t work and she broke me down. Thank God she did. I went back to therapy when I got home and started to dig a little deeper to figure out exactly what was going on. If it wasn’t for Aub that night I would have continued down the road of life potentially fooling everyone, including myself. I wasn’t being truthful and she could tell. It’s that simple. d55538

I needed Aubrey’s help at that moment and I need more help than I’m willing to accept pretty much every day. As I tried to explain in my past blog, Help, it’s difficult, and I’m trying to be intentional about getting the help I need. I have so many people in my life that have tried and keep trying to support and listen to the truth but most days it seems easier to keep all the difficult stuff to myself. It’s exhausting to open up and go down those complicated roads. So I’m trying to think of it in moments versus big proclamations. For me, this means saying something sooner, even about the little things. If I think Greg, or a friend or my Mom is implying something then I’m trying to ask more questions to disrupt the stories that I build up in my head. Or if something pisses me off I’m working on saying, “that kinda pisses me off.” We don’t have to take everything on by ourselves and I think if I start addressing the little moments maybe they won’t build up to be such big issues. I have a choice and I’m doing the best I can to open myself up to asking for what I need and to share how I’m really feeling in the right moments. Let’s be honest, sometimes, all you need to do is smile in passing and move on. It would be weird to unleash everything “real” to the unknowing or undeserving.

I don’t plan to stop smiling, it wouldn’t be me if I did but I am working on what’s behind the smile. Sometimes it’s a lot of things and many of those things are difficult and painful. I want to be truthful and I want to be more open to getting help and then sometimes…I just want to smile.

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Help

I’ve unknowingly walked through my life believing that there are “helpers” and those that “need the help”. Early on I didn’t consciously assign judgment to either of these roles but simply saw people as one, or the other. From an early age I thought I was meant to be a “helper” and over time I saw this as a strength. Eventually, I started to associate asking for help with weakness. For me, it was really hard to ask, and then crushing if I didn’t get the help I needed or wanted. Asking felt like it sucked the life out of me so not asking was the safer bet. So began a pattern and a belief that I would be happy, even honored, to help as many people as I could but would steer clear of asking for any help if at all possible. One of the first major misguided lessons of my life.

tammy &michelle CO_0019When I was a little girl my Mom told me that she could hear me in my room crying by myself. I don’t remember doing this but I do remember her telling me later, with what felt like pride, that I preferred to be alone when I was in pain.  I did feel proud of this and it was more comfortable so I held back sharing my pain with most people early on. My Mom and Dad were open with their emotions and I never remember feeling shame around crying, or anger, or any emotion for that matter.  But clearly, I felt embarrassed in some way. Even to this day, I try to hide my tears in a movie theater during a sad scene, but doesn’t everyone do that? So early on, probably 3rd grade when I received my first diary, I started to journal my feelings. It was a way for me to get my “crazy” out and not involve anyone else. Just me and my journal, it felt safe.

In 5th grade, I was put in a small group of kids who had divorced parents. After two sessions with this group of kids, the teacher pulled me aside and asked me to help the other kids. She told me that I was handling things so well and it would be wonderful if I could help support them through this difficult time. This was for sure a moment of pride. I could be useful and that somehow meant that I was ok.  Over time I started to equate “ok-ness” with “enough-ness”. If you didn’t need help you were better off than if you did. It was that simple.

After high school, I went to community college and managed to hold down two, sometimes three jobs so that I could have an apartment of my own. MichellesI remember feeling like I was really in control. But I was broke and barely getting by. I got myself in some financial trouble because of that damn credit card application that’s in your bag when you buy school books and had to ask my parents for help. My Dad had me sign a contract stating that I’d agree to pay the money back by a certain date. I assume he did this so I was clear it was an official loan, or my Stepmom made him do it because she didn’t trust I would pay it back. Either way, I thought it was weird and it felt terrible. My Mom didn’t make me sign anything but worked out a payment plan with interest included.  I guess I should have felt grateful to get the loan and at an interest rate that was much more competitive than the local bank, but I was mortified. I repaid both of my parents as soon as possible, I suppose their tactics worked. But I never ever asked for their financial help again. I didn’t know much but I did know that asking for this help felt awful.

IMG_9178When I was 23 my Dad died of a sudden heart attack at the young age of 51. I quietly begged for help to relieve the pain but wasn’t sure how to ask those around me for what I needed. I have never felt more alone and more in need of help than at that moment. I’m sure people tried to help and I imagine I was getting some help that I didn’t even realize but I felt helpless and worked very hard to get to solid ground where I could find relief from the pain. The answer, I ran from my first marriage and threw myself into my career which resulted in a move to Baltimore where no one knew my past and how much help I truly needed.

My most vivid memory of clearly asking for help was in September 2013 when my daughter, Madison, was hit by a wave and swept out to sea. Once I realized that she was in the water and couldn’t touch or make her way back I ran to the edge of the break and screamed, “HELP!, HELP, PLEASE HELP HER!”. I can’t even begin to describe the terror I felt at that moment. But no one came, no one could help. WFV 2013 096So I went in and the ocean beat the living shit out of me but I managed to pull her back to shore. At that moment I realized that it was the adrenaline and a sheer will to reach her that helped me and I was grateful for whatever force was with us that day. But again I was left feeling like the “helper” and for months I had terrible flashbacks. I would sit paralyzed in my car and struggle to get out and go inside the house or work. I remember sitting in my car and calling Angela, one of my besties, and telling her I couldn’t stop crying. She listened and then she suggested I go see my therapist immediately. It was exactly the help I needed and I felt relieved to have someone else making a decision for me.

My brother Mark has been one of my greatest teachers on the subject of “help” in recent years. When he called me three years ago and asked for my help it would change my perspective on help forever. My brother is in recovery but at this time alcoholism was crushing him and he was now in need of a home and support to get back on his feet. 10428416_10206177270649985_560921163018834319_nSo he left Texas and moved to Maryland to live with me and my family. But I was not prepared for the next year and what difficult decisions and actions it would take to truly provide the right help to my brother. I learned there is a fine line between enabling and helping. Someone said this to me and it somehow made sense, “if you are enabling he will be happy  but if you’re truly helping he will be frustrated, maybe even angry.” That was hard to consume but sure enough, that was about right. My brother had been one of my greatest helpers and now he needed me to do the helping but I didn’t know how. This was an awful feeling. Somehow I thought I could be even more than “the helper” but also “the fixer”. How arrogant of me and what a lesson of humility this was. We don’t fix people and they don’t fix us, it’ doesn’t work that way. I was facing something new, I didn’t know how to be “the helper”, I needed help and so did he.

There are countless moments that we each face that we are either the “helpers” or the ones “in need of the help”. That’s logical to me and makes complete sense. So why does it feel so impossible to ask for the help that we need? We all want to help because it feels good to support the needs of others. We also feel tremendous relief when we get the help. But historically I have associated help with weakness.  Just recently it became overwhelmingly clear that asking for help is actually one of the truest forms of strength that we can exhibit. It was me all these years confusing this and now I’m working on retraining myself to learn to reach out and just ask for the help that I need.

Building this new skill is difficult since secretly I’ve praised myself for being the “helper” all these years. I’ve managed to juggle various situations and the complexities of my life by helping others and taking on all of the “asks”. But over time it’s like my boat, of helping, has taken on so much water that I’m starting to sink. Without learning how to be the “asker” I’ve suffered and at times I feel like I’m drowning. Since I believe that suffering is optional I’m determined to look at this differently and learn.

I just finished Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers and I’m realizing that when I’m asking for help no matter how small or enormous it feels it truly is just a prayer. I’ve never really known how to pray but in learning how to ask for help I believe I’m also experiencing something even greater than just the skill of asking. At that moment I’m learning to surrender and let something so much greater than myself take over. We can be “the helped” and “the helper” but letting go of the belief that we get to control how all this actually works is one of my first steps towards peace.

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