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What toxic varnish remover taught me about goal setting

I’m sprucing up my home office and bought an old wood side table off Letgo. It’s an ugly piece now, it’s got super shiny varnish over a terrible color wood stain but I see it’s potential. Hello, little new table friend, you are going to be stripped of your atrocious stain and painted a nice robin’s egg blue!

I am full of inspiration and creative juice as I pick up the paint, varnish remover, etc at Home Depot. I’m a genius! It’s going to be amazing! I’m going to create a shabby chic masterpiece!

I get home and suddenly the excitement is gone. The inspiration is faltering now that I actually have to do the WORK. But I gather my grit, get some gloves and an old towel, and take the table and varnish remover outside and start to work.

About 10 seconds in, I realize this is going sideways really fast. The varnish remover is eating through my cheap-ass latex gloves. And it’s burning my skin! (My precious! It burns us!) I rush into the house, wash my hands, and find some actual work gloves.

Take two.

I finally finish stripping the varnish. It’s not fun. It smells like a chemical emporium, my arms are sore from all that rubbing, and even with my best effort I can only get off about 80% of the varnish.

I decide that’s it for today. I’ll deal with the painting tomorrow.

I’m much less excited about the painting after having to cope with the varnish remover. Why isn’t this as easy and painless as it was in my mind when I first started looking at used tables for sale? At that point, it was going to be a home improvement adventure! Each step would be easy and the results would be better than I could have ever imagined, right?

But, I started this project and I’m going to finish it, goddamit.

I gather the paint and the brush and I get to work. Hey, wait a minute. The painting part is actually kind of fun. This isn’t nearly as bad as removing the varnish and I’m actually feeling creative again. I’m creating something new! This feels super satisfying!

The next day I go out to see how it dried. I can see how there are some parts where it needs a second coat, mostly because I didn’t remove the varnish completely. I berate myself ever so slightly for not spending more time on that step and therefore saving myself time here, but then I remember how much that step sucked and I decide to be kind to myself for doing the best I could in that moment. It’s not a big deal to go over the whole thing again with another coat.

Guess what? It didn’t even need a whole new coat. Just some touch-ups here and there which were super easy and somehow even more fun than the first coat. It’s like perfecting something that I did a pretty damn good job of the first time around. I’m so excited that I even painted a little green vine with leaves around the top edge of the table.

The initial excitement I felt is back. Look, I made something! And it’s cute! And I’m proud of it!

Why am I telling you about my (let’s face it) silly home improvement project? Because it made me realize something about any change we make in our lives. First, we get the idea and it sounds awesome. We see the outcome in our minds and it seems wonderful. We think, “this is going to be great!” and we start planning and visualizing. Planning and visualizing are fun! Buying the goodies to make it happen is fun! Bringing them home and looking at them is fun!

But starting the actual work? Uh… suddenly not so fun.

Making a change, be it a home improvement project or self-improvement project is hard work. The hardest part is undoing what we have in place and making room for the new, better thing. The hardest part is getting started and removing the varnish. It’s always more work than we thought, sometimes it eats through our metaphorical gloves and burns us in a way we didn’t expect (but I took precautions! I put on gloves! Why aren’t the gloves protecting me?) and we always need to go back and revise some of what we did in order to keep moving forward. Starting a new project is hard and it takes grit to keep going once we realize that this isn’t going to be as easy IRL as it was in our mind when we first got the idea.

The idea is still strong though. Life will be better if I can get through this and move toward that goal.

And it does get easier. The first few steps are always the hardest. Once I got that varnish off and committed to the project, I gained momentum. And then at a certain point, it became fun. Isn’t that always the way with life, too? Once I start to see how this is all coming together, that the work I did at the beginning is actually leading me toward the goal I have in mind, that’s when the fun starts and I can get in that flow zone.

The finished product? Eh, it looks okay. I’m not gonna be selling my refinished tables on Etsy anytime soon, let’s just say that. But, I’m proud of myself. I got through the initial disillusionment that this was going to take some hard work, I even got through the initial steps where you get burned and have to deal with some toxic stuff, and I finished it.

So, remember as you make your grand plans to improve your life and yourself, it will take work. It will not be as easy as you imagined. Things will go sideways and you’ll have to change course a bit. But as you go along, it will get easier. At a certain point, it will even get fun! And in the end, you’ll have a cute table, or whatever your thing is that you worked on. You will feel pride and love and happiness toward yourself. And isn’t that a fine, rare bird?

Sometimes I’m the a-hole.

You know what? Sometimes I’m the a-hole.

I’ve been the one driving along, thinking of the things I need to get done, and I almost miss my exit. I realize this about two seconds before the exit has passed, so I look to my right and too quickly swerve into the tiny space between two cars. If it’s a good day, maybe I had time to use my turn signal.

Yup. I’m the a-hole. I just cut someone off. I’m sure the person in the car behind me is yelling a multitude of profanities my way (I would know for sure if I weren’t doing everything in my power to avoid making eye contact with them in my rear view mirror) and I probably deserve it.

We all make mistakes. I like to think of them as lessons. Or maybe “teachable moments.” In Cherie Scott’s Ten Rules for Being Human, she states that, “You are enrolled in a full-time informal school called “life”. Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or hate them, but you have designed them as part of your curriculum. Growth is a process of experimentation, a series of trials, errors, and occasional victories. The failed experiments are as much as a part of the process as the experiments that work.”

What’s the lesson in being an a-hole? It’s empathy. The next time someone cuts me off and almost causes an accident, my first reaction will be visceral and I’ll be scared and angry. But after a moment, I’ll remember that time a few weeks earlier when I was stressed, late, almost missed my exit, and I was the one who swerved into the exit lane at the last minute.

This is true for any situation where someone has made me angry. If I think back, there was most likely a time where I did something similar to someone else. It might have been because I was stressed, I wasn’t thinking of how my actions might adversely affect someone else, or because I was acting from a place of fear or self-doubt.

There have been many times when I’ve inadvertently made someone upset. At these times, I need to practice self-compassion and forgive myself for making a mistake. There have also been a few times when out of my own hurt or anger, I’ve done it on purpose. I’m not proud of that, but it’s mine and I own it. For those times, I forgive myself, too. In those moments, it’s harder to practice self-compassion, but it’s even more important. I’m human, I have feelings, and they’re not always puppies and moonbeams.

I try to learn from the times that I’m the a-hole. Rather than get angry the next time someone does something thoughtless or mean, I try to put myself in his or her shoes. Maybe they just got fired. Or dumped. Maybe they don’t have anyone on their life that can show them how to be kind and loving and so they just don’t know how. Maybe they are just human, doing the best they can, and we stepped into a sticky moment of one of their life lessons. Whatever the reason, I do my best to forgive them. Because there will be a time when I’m the a-hole and when I am, I want you to forgive me, too.

 

 

What experiences in your life have given you greater empathy? I’d love to know and share them here! Post your story in the comments below.

 

 

A simple way to become more loving

Self-compassion is the ability to be compassionate (kindhearted, caring and gentle) with yourself. It has been shown to increase levels of happiness, optimism, and a sense of well-being. We’re all quite skilled at being compassionate with other people like our friends, family, and children. However, we aren’t as good at doing this for ourselves.

When was the last time you were gentle and kind with yourself after you made a big, embarrassing mistake? It’s so much easier to forgive others for their mistakes then it is to forgive ourselves. We tend to beat ourselves up and rehash the failure over and over, rather than giving ourselves words of encouragement and support.

When you can learn to be as kind with yourself as you are with those friends and family you hold close to your heart, you will start to see so many aspects of your life, your happiness, and your health improve.

Self-compassion is when you accept, validate, and treat with care any and all things that happen to you. If you make a mistake at work and get called out by your boss, accept what happened, validate the truth of the situation and figure out how to fix it, and then tell yourself that you did your best at the time with the resources you had. Resources always include time, materials, emotional state, energy level, interest level and more. At any given time, you can only do your best with what resources you have at that moment. If you snap at your kids or partner after a long day, accept that you made a mistake, apologize, and give yourself the grace of knowing that you are a good person but at that moment your resources were spread thin.

We all make mistakes. It’s part of the school of life class in which we’re all currently enrolled: “Being a Human: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Be kind to yourself. It makes a huge difference in your life.