Once upon a time, I was labeled a Type-A personality. I’m not sure if the labeling helped to inform my life or bring clarity. More often it served as an excuse to feel justified in juggling too much, too often, with too high of self-expectations. I’m not making any judgements about personality types. I’m not even sure if the labeling was accurate for me personally. What I do know is that I did struggle with stress brought on by creating unnaturally high self-expectations, and poor scheduling. Whether it was making a daily chore list that from minute one was unrealistic for the number of hours in the day, or over-scheduling commitments, I was and can still be my own worse critic. If I did not finish everything on my list, realistic or not, I would loose sleep over the matter or waste time in a vicious thought merry-go-round of self-bullying.
Recognizing and addressing the time issue was actually easy. I worked on setting realistic goals for a day’s work of productivity and play. When writing a to-do list, I would pause after writing each item and try to honestly assess if it was realistic to finish it in one day, and if it was, was it realistic to finish it on this given day. I worked on being honest about how long it takes to commute from point A to point B, and also how long it takes to pack up and get into/onto my mode of transportation. I worked on cultivating realistic times to spend with dear friends. How much time do I really want to spend in a sincere conversation with a friend over coffee versus working on a long article? I didn’t want to feel stress bubbling up within me about something on a to-do list, when attempting to spend quality time with a dear person. I wanted to cultivate the time to be present with the people in my lives. With that in mind, I worked on actually scheduling plenty of time for that friend, and allowing myself the down time, the connection time with real people to refuel. This actually made my work time more productive. I also had a clear indicator of whether or not I accurately created a realistic to-do list or scheduled my day appropriately. If I did not, I would feel stress welling up, tensing my shoulders, and making myself anxious to find a polite way to excuse myself. With stress hormones coursing through my system, I often didn’t find a graceful way to excuse myself.
The time management practice took a few years to cultivate. It was a real practice, meaning I had to practice it repeatedly. I had to notice when I slipped back into old patterns, and then try again to get back on the program of realistically cultivating work, play, and downtime into my life. While it took a long time, the transition was actually much easier than learning to be less serious.
I’m goofy with my friends, my colleagues, and my patients. I can be ridiculously and ruthlessly serious with myself. Much more serious than I would ever behave towards another human being. The unfairness of my seriousness is outlined perfectly by that statement. About halfway through my master’s program, I felt like I had forgotten how to play. On the day of this realization, I really noticed how serious my inner monologue, expectations, and reactions to unrealistic goals had become. It peaked with my stress threshold. My seriousness would soar around midterms and finals. My stress would soar with my seriousness – soar like a vulture, pretending to be an eagle.
Then in a serendipitous moment, seemingly out of context for the class, one of my teachers told us that whenever she goes to the bathroom, she makes ridiculous, silly, playful faces in the mirror. She started this practice one day when she was mentally beating herself up. She found herself taking everything that was said to her too seriously, she was responding and reacting very serious, and her inner monologue was just plain serious. Everything seemed so darned serious. So she walked into the bathroom and started making faces. At first, she felt ridiculous, then she started to smile inwardly. Eventually, she started smiling outwardly. The perspective of the day changed.
I started adopting the practice. Little by little it helped. I made mad faces, Popeye impersonations, cross eyes, blow raspberries, stick out my tongue and squinch my face every which way, whatever silliness flits across my face. Mainly, it reminds me to have a sense of humor with myself. To laugh at and with myself – hopefully often. In a way, it takes a certain type of arrogance to get so serious with oneself, and it really just holds one back.
It does not cure the worlds ills. Making faces in the mirror will not magically fix my day, or cure hives or mend a broken bone, but sometimes it helps me make a grand attitude adjustment. It is truly difficult to continue taking yourself seriously when you are standing in a public or private bathroom making absurd faces at yourself. Just try to keep wearing those serious pants while you imitate a pug in the mirror.
Much like practicing realistic time management, my silly faces game is still a practice. I may always have a propensity to get a little too darned serious with my inner thoughts. But the more I practice it, the easier it is to recognize those thoughts and eventually change my response to them. I have found the silly faces to be one, easy tool that works most of the time. It is a practice. And as far as practices go, it is a pretty darned fun one.