3 Takeaways from 2 weeks in India

We recently returned from a trip to India, and for me, it was a significant learning experience. Some of my previously held assumptions about the country turned out to be inaccurate. Even more important, lessons I’ve been learning for years became real for me in a new way. So here are my India takeaways.

 

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Prior worries upended

I’d long wanted to visit India. But movies, documentaries and books I’d seen or read emphasized a country of desperate poverty. Friends and blog posts warned me about “Delhi Belly,” traffic, congestion, pollution, dirt and general mayhem in this country of 1.3 billion people. I started the trip with some worries, but soon cast them aside.

I realized that, as foreign tourists staying in fine hotels, we were shielded from India’s slums and many signs of poverty and oppression. We still witnessed roadside shanties, and people living under bridges or plastic tarps. We saw humans dwelling alongside their livestock and roadside brick factories where we feared there might be enslaved workers. At the same time, our impressions of Indian poverty weren’t that different from what we’d seen in places like Mexico, Guatemala or Peru. Jarring — but sadly, not unique.

And yes, traffic and congestion were terrible in the larger cities. However, air quality wasn’t as bad as we’d thought it would be. Our trip occurred at the end of the monsoon season, when the rain has “cleaned” the air. Maybe that’s why pollution didn’t affect us, but at no time did we experience trouble breathing such as one hears about when traveling in parts of China.

Last and most surprising, neither my husband nor I felt ill even one day in two weeks! We ramped up our intake of probiotics, and we consumed bottled water and filtered ice everywhere, even for brushing teeth. We took care in what we ate, although we tried many Indian dishes. Which, by the way, we found to be delicious!

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Incredible Indian hospitality

We enjoyed wonderful hospitality every day of our trip. We first met up with Indian friends who showed us around Bangalore and took us to some 12th century temples that UNESCO recently added to its list of heritage sites. They introduced us to southern Indian cuisine served on traditional banana leaves. We got to see how family life in India’s IT capital is similar and yet different from a place like Silicon Valley. Then we visited Kochi and the Kerala backwaters, touring via auto rickshaw and houseboat. Our trip continued on the opposite coast, in Chennai. Finally we journeyed north to the Golden Triangle of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi.

Our style of traveling in India was different from traveling in Europe, or even in Latin America. We made a point of staying in top-rated hotels, whose air-conditioned facilities offered relief from outdoor heat and humidity. We took advantage of hotel restaurants, drivers and concierge services to book tour guides, shopping excursions, etc. At the same time, most of our accommodations in India cost less than comparable establishments in the US – particularly in the larger cities. In Agra and Jaipur, we splurged on hotels in the famous Oberoi chain, both of which offered outstanding experiences. Their facilities and services added to their incredible surroundings, creating magical days and memories.

Now, on to my personal India takeaways.

(1) Happiness has more to do with your attitude than your circumstances

I have understood this truth intellectually, even preached it to my children on numerous occasions. But person after person in India, many of whom appeared to have every reason to feel impoverished, depressed or anxious, struck me as positive and even upbeat.

I know most of the people with whom we interacted worked in hotels or other industries where cheerful service to tourists constituted good business practice. But still, Indians’ overall good humor amazed me. One would have thought that, in fourteen days of dining out, flying low-cost Indian airlines, bargaining in shops and observing regular people in the streets and temples, we would have seen at least one person who was out of sorts. Not so. (Well, as long as you don’t count a handful of other tourists!)

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Stanford SEED: optimism and energy harnessed

A highlight of our trip was attending the launch of the Stanford SEED program in India. They have sites in East and West Africa, and now in Chennai. As part of the launch festivities, we met a number of entrepreneurs and founders of small to mid-size companies across India. Their energy and optimism overflowed, especially after interacting with Stanford Business School professors and each other. Without a doubt, these leaders will use their SEED training to scale their businesses, hire more people and thus alleviate poverty in their communities.

Another reason for Indian optimism is its economic potential. India is a young country, with an estimated 65% of its population below the age of 35. In 2016, the median age for India was 27.6, compared to 37.1 for China and 37.9 for the US. (source: CIA World Factbook) The entrepreneurs we met were positioning their companies to take advantage of India’s growing population and wealth. Everywhere we went, we noticed a youthful energy, vitality and positive attitude. Certainly the country has its share of problems, but young Indians seem optimistic about their country’s future.

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(2) Never underestimate the power of a kind word or gesture

This is another lesson I’ve heard my whole life, and to which I’ve repeatedly committed myself. (How many times did someone tell you as a child, “Just smile?”) But again, on the trip I took particular notice of this principle – maybe because I was often on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness. Related in part to the low cost of labor, Indian hotels give outstanding customer service. They have lots of staff whose main job is to make their guests feel comfortable.

And you know, it’s nice to have people treat you well. I felt special when hotel staff greeted me by name, pulled out my chair and placed my napkin in my lap in a restaurant, or responded to unusual requests as though nothing was too difficult for them.

A common gesture in India is the slight bow with hands pressed together at chest level – the namaste posture commonly practiced at the end of yoga classes in the US. Everyone in the hotels, even security guards, would press their hands together in this way when I passed by. People in the shops, streets, anywhere you might encounter someone, would make the gesture as a greeting, a sign of respect, an expression of thanks. It occurred to me, as I was often carrying my phone or camera and unable to do a reciprocal greeting, that to make a namaste gesture, you have to keep your hands free. Symbolically at least, you indicate that you are completely available to the other person, that you’re not multi-tasking, that they are the most important item on your agenda at that moment. This is powerful.

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Guest is god

In Hindi they have a saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which means “Guest is god.” Multiple guides and drivers told us this, emphasizing how happy they were to accompany us, and that their first desire was to please us. In the US, I would have viewed such a remark with skepticism. But in India, it seemed to be more than just a saying. Perhaps I was naïve to believe people really cared, but their attention seemed genuine.

Maybe one reason I enjoyed the trip so much was that I felt so well cared for. Plus, when people were nice to me, I of course was inclined to be nice to them. Funny how that works. In general, I felt more patient and less frustrated than I often do at home. Although I won’t be trying to incorporate a namaste gesture into my everyday actions, I hope to keep the internal posture evident in my outward behavior.

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(3) So much good proceeds from loving people

The greatest privilege of this trip was getting to spend time with our friends, Bob and Dottie. We met them in Chennai for the Stanford SEED launch – a program they founded within the Stanford Graduate School of Business. We loved visiting places like the Taj Mahal with them, as well as the fun we had together riding elephants, having cocktails or chatting with hotel staff. But I especially appreciated Bob’s willingness to ask probing questions that moved our conversation to deeper levels, and Dottie’s phenomenal ability to connect with all kinds of people.

Partners in connecting

Dottie and Bob bring together individuals from different spheres, and they make sure guests feel welcome and have meaningful interactions. During nearly sixty years of marriage, they’ve extended hospitality to countless friends, friends of friends, and even strangers. One practice Dottie started years ago was to host Stanford international students when they first arrived in this country. At the time it was a great way to expose their children to different cultures. But taking things a step further, our friends have kept in touch with their students over decades, attending their weddings and visiting in their homes abroad.

They’ve been blessed to associate with all kinds of people — rich and poor, powerful and weak. And to a person, Dottie treats everyone the same. My guess is that she was born with the gift of caring about others, but it’s clear that she’s nurtured and honed her natural ability for connecting. She unfailingly notices people’s “good sides,” loves to hear their stories, and helps them recognize gifts they can contribute to their communities.

It may sound corny to describe a person like this, but you have to know my friend. Both Bob and Dottie are incredibly generous people. For Bob, a key aspect of philanthropy is the leverage potential: he operates from a vision of how an investment in human capital can multiply to great impact. Dottie, on the other hand, focuses on the possibility for making a noticeable difference in people’s lives.

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Results and stories both matter

They joked with the SEED entrepreneurs about how Bob wanted to see “results” as people grew their companies, while Dottie wanted “stories” about lives being changed. Both perspectives are valid, of course. But, as a person steeped in Silicon Valley mores, which prize results, I relished seeing Dottie’s enduring love for people and their individual journeys.

Wherever we went, we saw Indian women wearing colorful saris. Dottie would ask if she could take their photos. They always said yes, and then invariably one of them would start taking selfies with Dottie and our group. I thought this was amusing the first time it happened, but it became a regular occurrence.

My friend’s ability to connect with people didn’t stop with strangers in the street. Back at our hotel, she admired a bartender’s turban, part of his staff uniform. After she told him about her assortment of hats at home, and how she liked to throw “hat parties,” the bartender gave her the turban to add to her collection. Dottie’s laugh echoed across the lobby and down the hall.

I loved riding the coattails of Dottie’s good humor and personal warmth. As more of an introvert myself, I enjoyed her initiative and openness toward others. I also felt privileged to witness first-hand how maintaining an appreciation for folks around you can make a big a difference in other people’s demeanors. And usually in your own mood, too.

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Sounds simple, but doing it is hard

What I took away from my two weeks in India wasn’t the thrill of seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or fascination with an economy called “the next China,” or even shock regarding the contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. All those things made an impression, definitely. But my India takeaways concerned truths I’d heard all my life, but that I came to appreciate in a new way.

For me, this was a trip of a lifetime. Because I want to live differently now than I did before.

Happiness comes from within, not without. Kind words and deeds are more powerful than you might think. And genuinely loving other people results in all kinds of good things.

Sounds simple enough. But practicing this “attitude of gratitude” in everyday circumstances is actually complex and challenging. After my experience in India, though, I’m seeking the grace to live this way: to be happy regardless of my circumstances, to practice kind words and deeds, and to just love people.

Friends, I need your help – let’s do it together.

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The pressure’s all in your head, right?

Just like other athletes, professional tennis players contend with performance pressures and emotional swings. André Agassi related his on- and off-court struggles in his 2009 book, Open. Commentators highlighted emotional pressure as an possible issue in Serena Williams’ crushing loss to Roberta Vinci. Although she never admitted to sensing the pressure, Serena had encountered heavy media and fan attention as she attempted to complete the calendar year Grand Slam.

Another American player, Mardy Fish, went on the record to discuss how psychological pressure led to panic attacks and physical problems that sidelined him for nearly three years. In his last singles match prior to retirement at the  2015 US Open, Fish showed signs of mental and physical greatness coupled with indications of emotional wear. He ultimately lost the match in five long sets.

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Emotional pressure affects rec players, too

Fish’s willingness to talk about his issues increased dialogue about mental health concerns in the world of pro tennis. And even though rec tennis players don’t earn their livelihoods from the sport, we still have to handle the pressure of competitive situations.

In fact for women such as myself, the scoring and ranking aspects of tennis make it particularly hard to view the sport as merely a recreational activity I do for fun and exercise, not a place where I compare my performance to other people’s.

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We decide how to view our pressure

Anxiety over becoming an empty-nester and worries about what I would do after full-time motherhood ended contributed to a general lack of focus and low self-confidence that carried over into my tennis matches. Even though I was playing tennis “for fun,” it actually wasn’t all that fun, and I wasn’t sure how to make things better.

Last year, however, I experienced a defining moment — in other words, a moment of pain + an opportunity to grow.

Pain

After organizing a group of players to do clinics, practice and play doubles matches together, I heard from others in my group that they preferred not to partner with me. While I might have taken this information at face value, instead I interpreted it as a rejection of me and my on-court performance. I thought they were choosing to emphasize win/loss record over friendship, and it made me feel terrible.

As a tennis player who wants to improve, I understood my friends’ desire to move up in the ratings, and their fear that partnering with me might prohibit them from doing so. But their rejection still hurt. It hurt a lot. Some days I’d barely get to my car after seeing them on the court before I’d start crying.

Looking at the situation now, I don’t believe my friends had intended to make me feel bad, only to tell me the truth — that they liked me, but preferred not to partner with me. At the time, however, I let myself slip further into negativity, with the result that I lost every USTA match I played that season.

Opportunity to Grow

It had been my choice to allow the emotional pressure of a situation where friends wouldn’t partner with me to drain my self-confidence. Alternatively, I might have interpreted it as a sad commentary on the strength of our friendship, but not as a rejection of me per se.

Given the fact that I felt weak in other parts of my life, choosing the second interpretation would have been hard for me back then. Even so, I tried to hide my vulnerability. I failed to reach out to my friends and let them know how much their rejection had hurt me.

Sometimes we cover up weaknesses to appear strong on the outside — when really, by admitting our weakness, we could become stronger on the inside.

I tried to conceal my pain, but at the same time hoped that one of my friends would notice something was wrong and show me she cared. That didn’t happen. The growth came when I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself, stopped waiting for others to help me, and took charge of my own reactions.

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“Pressure is a privilege”

Billie Jean King, perhaps the greatest female player in the history of tennis, is famous for saying, “Pressure is a privilege.” That phrase, in fact, is the title of her memoir. Her 1973 match v. Bobby Riggs, nicknamed “The Battle of the Sexes,” became a metaphor for women’s equality struggles through that decade and beyond. She has also discussed pressure faced in her decision to have an abortion, as well as the press conference she chose to hold after being “outed” in 1981.

Recreational athletes can take learnings from the court, course or field and apply them to other parts of our lives. As sports marketer David McLean puts it, we can excel under pressure by changing the way we think about it:

Regardless of who we are and what we do, let’s shift our perspective on pressure from being something from which we want to be freed, to a gift enabling us to be better.

Replace self-pressure with self-compassion

As good as the concept of embracing “pressure as a privilege” sounds, I find it hard to do. What works better for me is looking at the source of the pressure I’m feeling, and deciding what, if anything, I can do about it.

On the tennis court and in life generally, I find the worst pressure I experience is pressure I put on myself. I push myself to do better all the time, whether it be to win more tennis matches, write more “usable” prose (whatever that means!), or load the dishwasher more efficiently.

But I’m learning to identify my triggers for self-imposed pressure and offer up self-compassion instead. To replace the voice of judgment in my head that tells me, “I should have finished this project by now, I’m an incompetent writer,” with “It’s a bummer I haven’t finished this project yet, but I’m going to keep trying.”

A subtle shift perhaps, but one that in time, will help me put pressure in its proper place.

 

Image credits: WSOC TV, NoFault Sports,Canberra Times,

Back to school, back to anxiety

It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’s exciting to enter a new year at school, meet new friends, learn new things. But many back-to-school experiences are infused with anxiety — both for students and their parents.

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Student anxiety

Students of all ages are nervous as well as excited, whether they’re in elementary, middle, high school, college or beyond. Their questions vary on similar themes: will I get a “good” teacher? How will I find something I like to do and people I like to do it with? How can I make good grades without working too hard?

For students moving away to college, the thrill of living on their own is often matched by a latent fear of whether they’ll be happy. Whether they will find people who accept them for who they are, or whether they should “try on” new personalities in order to fit in.

Even going back to college after a summer away brings worries: will I still like my friends from last year? Will they like me? What am I going to major in? How am I going to juggle all my responsibilities?

Parents are anxious for our kids

We parents may try to hide our anxiety, but it runs high. We’re worried about how our younger children are going to choose friends, make good grades, excel at sports, get their homework done. Anxiety builds as they start high school. We fear that even tiny missteps will limit their options for college.

Clearing the college hurdle brings on new worries. As parents of college students, we have to content ourselves with what our kids choose to tell us. Even if we had tried to guide kids’ choices in the past, they’re out of our reach now.

We worry about ourselves, too

Those are the worries we have for our kids. What about the anxiety we feel for ourselves? For example, how can I volunteer at my child’s school while still leaving time for my job or other commitments? Are the other parents going to accept me as one of them? Now that my kids have moved on to college, what should I do? Should I change jobs, start working again, go back to school, take up a new interest? How will my spouse and I get along with each other, now that the kids have left home? How can I meet new friends, now that the interactions with parents I used to see at school or sports are more random?

Relationship anxiety

So we worry about our relationships with other adults, and also about how we will relate to our children who are becoming adults. But deep down, both parents and students want to know the same things:

  • How do I separate?
  • How do I stay connected?

 

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Letting go of anxiety

Vague advice for anxious parents or kids like, “Just chill out!” may be well meant, but it’s not particularly helpful. Of course we know that worrying doesn’t do any good! Various religious traditions (not to mention common sense) admonish us to let go of anxiety. For example, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Which one of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?(Matthew 6:27 ESV)

For those of us who are prone to anxiety, however, it’s not so easy. As a near-professional worrier myself, I struggle with letting go. But my own experience suggests starting small can help. For example:

  • Commit time to take a “worry break.” Go for a walk or sit outside and breathe slowly. Get a pedicure or massage. See if you can think about something else for thirty minutes, maybe even an hour. Block the time out on your calendar.
  • Let go of one thing: Figure out something you’re worried about that logically, you know you can’t control. Don’t try to let go of all worries at once — just this one.
  • Turn the camera around: notice what’s going on in the lives of people you encounter every day. The cashier, receptionist, school janitor, or homeless person. Sometimes the simple act of focusing on another’s problems, even briefly, can give you perspective on your own concerns.

Letting go of anxiety, even temporarily, is something we can train ourselves to do. Not unlike learning to hit a slice serve or sink a four-foot putt, this training requires us to practice and build on small successes. But even little improvements will start to add up.

OK, it’s time for me to walk my dog. Likewise, go on your own “worry break!”

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Images licensed under CC BY via Flickr: Mari Z., T. Goskar, P. Nouhailler

Patrick Nouhaill

 

Two weeks, two graduations, what’s next for me?

Last month we celebrated. First was college graduation for my eldest on the East Coast, then back home for the last rites of high school with my youngest. There were so many parties and official events that I powered through by focusing on logistics. Now I have time to stop and consider the meaning of it all.

 

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There’s no denying middle age

In addition to the festivities, I also underwent that initiation into middle age, the baseline colonoscopy. And recently I’ve spent hours collecting financial documents, as my husband and I worked with an attorney to update our wills. Little wonder that my spinning instructor cautioned me about hunching my shoulders, and my chiropractor told me to come back in just a week.

 

That persistent question

Why can’t I stop and bask in my kids’ graduations — celebrate a job well done? Why do I jump to “what’s next?” Maybe it has to do with the question people were asking me at last month’s functions: “Now you’re going to be an empty nester. What do you think about that, and what do you plan to do with yourself?

 

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I tense up. For twenty years I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, school and sports volunteer, carpool driver and family chef. I don’t know how to translate these skills into something that will give my life meaning for the next twenty years.

I know I’m over-reacting. Folks are just being nice when they ask me “what’s next.” We don’t know each other well, and they’re trying to make conversation. Maybe the woman who asks me this is gathering ideas for her own midlife transition, or maybe she wonders if anyone else dreads an empty nest as much as she does. In fact, the actual number of people asking me “what’s next” has been small — nonetheless, I feel overwhelmed by the question.

 

Not knowing what’s next

For lots of us, it’s a scary transition. We’re left alone as our children go off to new adventures, friends and opportunities. Although it doesn’t hit you when they’re in elementary or middle school, the implication of raising your kids to be independent is that, eventually, they won’t need you anymore. This is good. But it’s also terrible.

I’ve spent the better part of two decades shepherding my children through their activities, helping with homework, doing laundry and cooking, and learning about their friends and interests. Now I’m staying put while they move on to do these things somewhere else, without me. Sure, it’s nice to do less laundry than before, not to always plan ahead what we’ll have for dinner. But there’s a big hole in my day-to-day life where my kids used to be, and I’m not sure how to fill it.

 

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A beginning or an end?

Commencement: for the graduates, it’s a beginning. For me, the graduates’ mother, it feels like more of an end. The end of their childhoods, the end of little people who need me, the end of doing what I know how to do.

I have faith there’ll be more joy ahead — I’ll make my way through this tunnel of sadness, fear and confusion. But I’m not ready to announce “what’s next” for me.

When I figure it out, though, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

Image credits: Daisy Shih, Nick Harris, Anne Rosales

My life is good; so why am I feeling bad?

Have you ever had one of those days? Maybe not a day worthy of posting to the FML website, but one that reminds you of the children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Monday was like that for me. By the time the day ended, I couldn’t isolate anything that I’d call “terrible” about my life — I just was feeling bad.

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Feeling bad after the older kids leave

It started Sunday, when my college kids returned to school after being home for a week on spring break. I liked having our whole family together again, enjoyed seeing the older two tease their younger brother. It was just like old times. Then they went back to their “real” homes at college, to their friends and their lives there. While it’s nice to stop sharing my car and go back to my routine in our household of three, I know that next year we’ll be a household of two  — and I’m worried that’s not going to feel so great, at least not initially.

Knowing I wasn’t feeling particularly good, I thought I’d ease into Monday, use the morning to catch up on paperwork, do laundry, change sheets and clean up my older kids’ bedrooms. They left their rooms as if they’d been leaving a hotel — beds unmade, shopping bags on the floor, papers and receipts on the night tables. Straightening up in the quiet, I felt like a housekeeper — not the mother of three well-adjusted children.

Feeling bad about a lost ring

Then I realized one of my rings was missing. Not my wedding ring, but the one my husband gave me for our twenty-fifth anniversary. A little worried, I checked the bathroom, the kitchen counter, my jewelry box. Not there. So I looked harder: I put my hand down the kitchen sink to check the disposal, looked all around the house. Cleaned out my purse, checked the pockets of my clothes.

I called the restaurant where we had dinner last night. No, they hadn’t seen my ring.

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Feeling bad and sorting through refuse

So I went through the last three days’ worth of garbage, then turned over the recycling bin and emptied it out to make sure the ring hadn’t slipped off my finger when I tossed out old magazines. Still nothing. I went outside and dug through the compost, running my hands through banana peels, coffee grounds, chicken bones, Saturday’s Indian takeout, and more slime I won’t discuss. But still no ring.

So at least we weren’t about to send it off with the garbage truck. But if the ring wasn’t in the trash, I’d have to look more aggressively inside the house. I cleaned out two bathroom drawers, then dismantled the sink drain. No luck.

Finally, something possessed me to check a closet I had looked in two hours earlier. This time I saw it.

But you know what? I thought I’d feel happy to find the ring, especially after looking all that time. Instead I just felt relieved. And emotionally worn out.

Feeling bad at tennis

I left to play a tennis match I had scheduled for the afternoon. It lasted only an hour. I lost 6-0, 6-0.

I wasn’t sure what was going on with me, but the day wasn’t getting better. I remembered my dad’s response whenever things got tough. He would say, “Want a cup of coffee, honey?”

So I went for a cappuccino and one of those delicious seven-layer cookie bars. I sat and stared out the coffeeshop window while I gathered my strength to go grocery shopping. I wondered whether I should quit playing tennis, spend my time on something I could do well. But wasn’t it okay to like a sport and want to play it, even if I played poorly?

On the other hand, if I couldn’t win, could I honestly say I liked tennis? I realized I was immersed in a conversation with myself, with my own Voice of Judgment. I had made this whole day about me, and I was over-reacting to a poor outcome in a match I supposedly had played “for fun.”

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The feeling-bad vortex

How did I get here, to this place of feeling bad? I have a great life: faith, family, friends, health, financial stability, and more. So why, all too often, do I spin down the woe-is-me vortex?

Sure, I know there are real people with real problems in this world. And I’m not one of them. It’s just a lot easier to stay in my personal vortex, than to get out of it and experience someone else’s.

I bought my groceries, went home and cooked a good dinner. At least that much of my day went okay. Actually, the whole day was fine, if you consider it in relation to the day of someone with real problems.

What drags you down, and how do you pull out of your vortex? Let me know in the comments!

 

Image credits: Amazon, Portland Observer, photoholic1 via flickr