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Back-to-School Lessons from Cookie Monster

Back-to-School Lessons from Cookie Monster

As we get into the thick of the new school year, if you’re anything like me, you’re pretty bummed about it. Maybe it’s just the chill in the air that spoils my mood, but I sense a change of pace and attitude in folks at this time of year as everybody buckles down post-summer. I already feel nostalgic about those joyful, sunny days when the sun was still shining at 9 pm. Come back, August! 

 

‘Tis the Season to Own Your Shit.

For me, Fall is a season of self-reckoning. I think that’s the effect of two decades worth of spending it transitioning back to school. As a kid, your life is structured for you into a pattern where for two months you can stop and smell the roses while they’re in bloom, and then you’re thrown right back into school’s rhythms of responsibility, filling agendas with homework again, and sitting quietly in a chair doing what you’re told. 

That transition was never easy for me. It always took a few weeks of inattention before I could tune in. Instead, I’d stare out the window at the vacant playground while the teacher taught. I’d watch the pathetic seagulls squawk and wrestle over the best trash from morning recess. It all felt sad. 

Eventually, I’d tire of wallowing and come to accept and even enjoy school. But to this day, and even in the few years before I went back to school, in late-August a cloud of dread floats in.

Now that I’m back to being a student, my pattern so far has been to let all this dread and anxiety for the new school year turn into unreasonable expectations of myself. A very bossy part of me sees being back as a mature student as a second chance to finally be perfect in every way. This part of me speaks in commandments, like so: 

       Thou shalt read every word assigned in your course syllabus on time!

       Thou shalt not have any fun between Sunday evenings and Friday afternoons for 8 straight months!

       Thou shalt be perfect in every way or consider yourself a failure!”

No surprise I dread school every year. Bossy-me sets up these rules that I don’t really want to follow, and I make no plans to manage the difficulty of making change happen, and I expect myself to simply stop—cold-turkey—that laidback summer lifestyle I’ve been enjoying for months. How am I supposed to succeed? 

The truth is, I can’t. It’s a setup. It keeps me in a cycle, in the middle of a perpetual wrestling match with myself. I feel like the head of a 90s sitcom actor, while the tiny devil on my left shoulder and the tiny angel on my right bicker back-and-forth about what’s best for me. Shut up already! 

 

“Be the Cookie Monster you wish to see in the world”

This year, I’m taking inspiration from Cookie Monster. 

To be clear, I haven’t decided to once and for all to say, “screw it, I give up!”, drop out and eat infinite cookies. Let me explain. About a month ago, I had a moment of clarity while belly-laughing with my six-year-old nephew. I showed him Youtube clips of Cookie Monster, whom I love passionately. Until then I hadn’t considered why. It occurred to me then that the little blue rascal is timeless, full of life lessons, and everybody seems to just get it without judgement. 

This seemed very important at the time. So important that later that night, instead of filling out my student loan application, I mulled over what it is about Cookie Monster that’s so great, so universally charming and so inherently worthy of love. I think it’s because Cookie Monster mirrors the little rascal in all of us. Cookie Monster shows us what the experience of desire is like. Everybody knows it deeply. Every human carries a cookie monster within them. 

The average Sesame Street viewers may be preschoolers learning for the first time that they don’t get to do whatever they want whenever they feel like it. But we keep learning that lesson our whole lives.

 

The Temptation of Cookie Monster

The way Cookie Monster is presented on Sesame Street is cute and innocent. I mean, despite an evident incapacity to self-regulate or to love anything other than the pleasure of a good cookie, everybody still loves Cookie Monster. 

If Cookie Monster was an adult human, the story would be a little more sinister. We don’t imagine a fuzzy blue puppet with googly eyes might have a traumatic past. We don’t worry that he’ll face the devastating effects of an all-cookie diet. We don’t witness the pain of having only a cookie to turn to. We don’t wonder if he has a family somewhere that he abandoned for a cheap, lousy cookie. We see an ageless puppet, in a sweet little world, protected from consequence. 

It’s certainly not the most authentic characterization but it does give us a safe space to see inner demons in a gentler, judgment-free light. For example, do you notice how every child and adult on Sesame Street welcomes Cookie Monster as a deserving member of their community? How often do you laugh with, sympathize, hug, or spend quality time with your cookie-monster-self in the way that those folks do theirs? I don’t. I tend to roll my eyes at mine, call it selfish, weak, careless, ugly, and I often blame it for holding me back from being awesome. 

Why do I do that? It’s pointless! Nothing I tell myself makes the proverbial cookies any less tempting. What if instead, I loved my internal cookie monster in the way the Sesame Street community love theirs? What if I accepted that part of me for what it is? If I appreciated that tenacity, that ability to be in the moment and to feel joy, that unabashed will to get every drop of good vibes out of life and share it, no matter the consequences? 

What if I didn’t constantly shame myself for my consumption habits and instead did a little bargaining, laughed with myself, listened, took a load off when I need it, and tried to understand what makes this part of me tick? Because—

 

Truth bomb: it ain’t really about cookies

Heck, beyond just how you treat the cookie monster in yourself, what if the next time you see your friend that’s stuck in a loop and just can’t seem to break out of it, or you see your sibling smoking again after trying to quit for the millionth time, you looked on them with the same degree of love and understanding that we all give Cookie Monster? What if we tried to see the innocence that exists at the start of it all? Life can be so hard and the cookies are aplenty. 

This semester I’m going to try my best not to shame myself for succumbing to the occasional “NOM! NOM! NOM!” session. When I do find myself partaking in some unscheduled indulgence, I’ll give my internal cookie monster’s fuzzy blue hair a tussle. I’ll say, “Alright little guy, that was a blast! Thanks for making sure I get to have some fun. Now it’s time to hit the books. We got this!”

 

______________

Seamus Ogden is a Care Coordinator with Real Campus and a mature student. He has a deep affection for Cookie Monster.

The Importance of Self-Compassion During Difficult Times

The Importance of Self-Compassion During Difficult Times

Disclaimer: This is a personal discussion around self-compassion and self-love with details about my own disappointments, sexual assaults, and critical self-talk that may be difficult for some clients to read about. This blog is divided into 3 parts to address the: disappointments, critical self-talk, and sexual assaults.

Part 1: Disappointments

Self-compassion was something I first heard about during my MSW. It refers to extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general struggle. It was advertised as the holy grail of therapy. I say this because I didn’t know how to practice it or feel at all connected to this concept. In my head, I would think “yeah, that sounds like someone who’s making an excuse for something. Why wouldn’t you just keep pushing through when it’s tough? That’s so weak of them.”

I had connected emotional strength to avoidance and tolerance, which didn’t help when I was faced with some personal crisis (I couldn’t find a job coming out of my MSW in the field despite starting my search 3 months before school had even ended. Everyone else in my class was getting hired and I wasn’t going anywhere. Plus, my partner of 6 years decided that our relationship was over. My world was spinning out of control).

You’re probably asking “what does this have to do with self-compassion?” Well, I believe looking back with the self-compassionate lens I have now, I can connect with the parts of me that needed care during that distressing time. Disappointments in life are something we all have to adjust to. Self-compassion gives us the emotional buffer and resilience to get through it. Looking back, a practice of self-compassion would have helped me accept that the job market is tough for anyone. Especially with 250 University of Toronto MSW graduates (not to mention graduates of other universities in the area) seeking work in the same field!

Part 2: Critical Self-Talk

When it comes to practicing self-compassion, it’s really important to examine where your critical self-talk comes up (my colleague Melissa wrote an amazing piece on that, click here to read more about it).

You can think of “critical self-talk” as the harsh internal dialogue you have with yourself. For example, my critical self-talk usually sounds like this: I complete a task/project at work and my critical self-talk says “you know, you need to check over that work. It’s probably wrong. You probably fucked it up again”. Where does this voice come from? It’s the critic I developed at home and at school. It’s that version of me that doesn’t feel like I’m good enough. That inner voice had benefited me growing up when I needed to accomplish things. Now it diminishes the effort and work I put into my achievements and it diminishes me as a person. A compassionate voice in the same situation would sound like this: “you got it done. I know, I know. You’re not sure if it was perfect. Then again, we’ve done such great work we didn’t think was perfect and here you are, still alive and standing. Achieving more and more each day”.

Is the compassionate voice easy for me to connect with? 100% not, and especially not when I’m in a raw and vulnerable spot or feeling miserable. However, this voice that I’ve had to practice (first by asking loved ones for reassurance and then trying it out with myself daily) has brought me great relief during difficult times.

Part 3: Sexual Assaults

When we don’t show ourselves love and compassion, we tend to end up in precarious situations that can be damaging to our body, mind, and spirit. For me, a loud critical self voice and a non-existent presence of self-compassion meant that if a partner wanted something from me, I didn’t have the voice to say ‘no’ even when I didn’t feel comfortable in engaging in intimacy or to feel like I deserved to say ‘no’ and set my own limits. I found myself feeling inferior and emotionally numb after certain sexual experiences. Without my self-compassion, I allowed others to cross my boundaries, and when they did, I blamed myself. I continued to blame myself even in situations when I had said ‘no’ or tried to leave. Sexual assault isn’t meant to be taken lightly. My accounts of it are purely my own experiences. Although the practice of self-compassion in these moments is hard, remember to take time to speak kindly to yourself as you would with a loved one. Being able to love yourself is the way you show others how you need to be treated.

How we speak to ourselves through our inner voice (whether it be critical or loving) spills into all aspects of our lives, whether it be in accomplishments or disappointments, fulfillment or harm. A practice of self-compassion is one we need to cultivate as individuals and as a society.

How to Set Boundaries and Say No

How to Set Boundaries and Say No

Do you sometimes have trouble saying “no”, or expressing what you really want? Don’t worry—you’re definitely not alone.

Many people struggle to communicate their needs and express personal limits with others. Setting boundaries sounds so simple yet it can be quite challenging to execute if you’re not accustomed to doing so.

If you do have difficulty setting boundaries, you might find yourself either drained from not being able to say no or feeling isolated because you haven’t shared what you need from others. Also, if you tend to be inconsistent with your boundaries (sometimes it’s “yes,” sometimes it’s “no”), then you’re likely sending mixed messages and leaving those around you confused about how to treat you.

Boundaries teach others how to treat us and communicate what we find to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. In some ways, setting boundaries is also about honouring the relationships around you, whether it is with family members, friends, partners or coworkers. Rather than expecting the people in your life to read your mind (and then feeling resentful because you’ve pushed your needs aside), tell the person how you feel.

How to set boundaries

First, identify the behaviour or action that has affected you, and briefly describe how you feel about it; then outline what boundary you want to put in place.

1. Share how you feel with “I” Statements:

“When you _______ (identify the behaviour), I feel _______ (name the emotion)”

Examples:

“When you speak negatively about me in public, I feel disrespected.”

“When you look through my phone without my consent, I feel violated.”

“When you start working on your laptop during the kids bedtime routine, I feel alone and more stressed.”

“When you talk to the client before telling me, I feel caught off guard.”

2. Outline the boundary or make a request:

“I need you to…“

Example: “I need you to stop making comments about my weight”, “I need you to respect my privacy”

or “Could you please_________”

Example: “Could you please keep negative comments to yourself?”, “Could you please help me with the kids every night before you start working on your laptop?”)

or “I would appreciate it if _____________”

Example: “I would appreciate if you could ask me how long it would take before setting the deadline with the client.”

3. In some situations, you may need to state a consequence:

“If you continue to ______ (the behaviour), I will ______________ (your plan to protect the boundary)”

Example: “If you continue to speak negatively about me in public, I will remove myself and leave the room.”

Things to keep in mind when setting boundaries

  • Be short but specific when describing the behaviour, leaving little room for interpretation. Use simple language and don’t over-explain yourself.
  • Use a neutral, respectful, and firm tone
  • Avoid blaming or criticizing statements (“You” statements)
  • You are not responsible for how others react towards your boundaries
  • If there is an unpleasant reaction, remind yourself the other person is entitled to how they feel and try not to take it personally
  • Follow through with your boundaries and back up your words with action; if you are not feeling ready to act on a consequence, don’t put it out there until you are
  • Expect that you will have to reinforce your boundaries and be prepared for pushback
  • If you’re not sure about what your boundaries are in the first place, you may need to work on building self-awareness and understanding your priorities. Connecting with a therapist can help. They will help you gain clarity on what your limits are and why and get support in strengthening your boundary criteria for different areas of your life.

How to say no

Sometimes we just need to say no in simple terms, without identifying the emotion. Here are 6 ways to do it.

1. Polite refusal: Be gracious yet firm

Example: “No thank you. I prefer not to.”

2. Insistence: Emphasize your position with strength

Example: “No, I feel really strongly about changing the direction of this project.”

3. Be a Broken Record: Repeat the same sentence over and over.

Example: “No, thank you, I won’t be joining you all tonight”; “No, thanks, I won’t be joining you tonight”; “No thanks, have fun, I won’t be joining you all tonight…”

4. Partial honesty. If you don’t feel safe enough to be fully assertive, provide a version of the truth

Example: “I’m not able to come out tonight because I made other plans.”

5. Full honesty: Be 100% direct

Example: “No, I’m not interested.”

6. Buy yourself time: If you’re unsure of your position and don’t want to answer yet, ask for time.

Example: “I’ll have to think about that one and get back to you tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, setting boundaries is really about taking care of yourself and honouring your self-worth. You deserve to be heard!

How to Date Confidently

How to Date Confidently

It seems like it’s become harder and harder to date. Dating articles range from “why did they ghost me?” to “why are they all hot and cold?” These behaviours are all marvels that are becoming more common as a result of the online dating and app world.

In this day and age, not only do we have multiple options, we also have to search through those multiple profiles, go on multiple dates, have multiple chats and potential connections, and possibly go through multiple break-ups in order to get to be with someone (that is, if monogamy and serious relationships are your thing). Just thinking about all of this and typing it makes me exhausted!

So, how on earth can we make sense of this messy online dating and app scene?

Think about the following, always with your own needs as your true compass:

  • What do I want when it comes to dating? Do you want something casual, to see how things develop, a serious relationship, marriage?
  • What do I want in a relationship? Would you be okay with long distance, for example?
  • What do I need from a partner? For example: kind, thoughtful, considerate, attentive, etc.
  • What are my boundaries? What behaviours am I not okay with?
  • What is my gut saying about what’s going on? If it doesn’t feel right, check it out. If it still doesn’t feel right, consider saying no to this relationship.

At the end of the day, only you will know what works for you. By being your authentic self, others who appreciate who you really are will take notice. It’s more than enough to give.

If you have questions on how to further explore and understand your relationships, it can also be helpful to explore this with a therapist.

How to Grow Your Confidence

Who wouldn’t want more confidence?

Unless you’re Beyonce, chances are that you’re among the majority of people who wish that they were more confident in themselves.

How do you define confidence and where does it come from?

Confidence is a trust in your ability to handle what life throws your way. It’s a belief that you can walk into any situation and come out okay.

Some falsely believe that those who have confidence have always had it and those who don’t, never will. That’s just not true. Much like a plant, confidence is something that must be grown and nurtured, cultivated and harvested. Even if you don’t identify as someone who is “naturally” confident, you do possess the ability to grow it.

Another misconception is the assumption that confidence comes from being good at things. Of course, it’s easy to feel confident when doing things you’re good at, but that’s not what builds confidence. Instead, confidence comes from embracing vulnerability and having the patience to work through things that you’re not immediately good at. The ability to push yourself outside of your comfort zone is vital to the development of confidence.

Sowing the seeds

If you had a greenhouse to grow your confidence, challenge and adversity would be the seeds. Confidence doesn’t grow without embracing either of those.  

If you spend your days performing high-level tasks that don’t challenge you, it’s hard to achieve the surge in confidence that you get when learning to function outside of your comfort zone. If you really feel like you could use a confidence boost, know that you will have to decide to integrate challenge and difficulty into your life. Something that is objectively difficult won’t give you the results you want either. The challenge you settle on has to be something that is uniquely difficult for you.

Watering the plants

Just like when planting the seeds of challenge and adversity, there is a balance to be found in watering them. You have to be mindful of the amount and frequency that you’re doing it.

It’s important not to pick the absolute biggest challenge you can think of in the hopes that it will have a big confidence payoff. The scarier the challenge, the more unpleasant and distressing it will be. You don’t want to pick something so challenging and distressing that you are likely to give up before you’ve made it to the payoff. Doing so will have the opposite effect and erode your confidence.

The trick is to find something challenging enough that you’re outside your comfort zone but not so difficult that you’re completely overwhelmed. Allow yourself the opportunity to get better bit-by-bit.

The challenge also has to be something that you are able to practice and do with some regularity. I’d say once per week is the minimum amount of time that you should strive for.

As an example, if you decide that you want to be more comfortable talking to people at parties, but you only go to a party once every three months, you won’t build up the tolerance and comfort required to get to that point.

A more effective way to work through this challenge would be to join a group that meets regularly like a Meetup or Toastmasters. If you’re shy at parties, groups like those would put you into a position where you would have to engage with others more often. This frequency would provide enough of a challenge to give you regular practice in speaking with others, that you would eventually get used to it. And with that ease of sparking conversation, you would become more confident in doing so.

Building confidence in certain areas extends beyond the activity you are doing. The more practice you get overcoming challenges and discomfort in various areas of your life, the more you internalize it as a skill that you can transfer to other activities and scenarios that are uncomfortable for you. By doing so, you build up evidence that you are capable of overcoming personal challenges.

Letting the sunshine in

Much like sowing and watering, sunshine is necessary for growth. In terms of confidence-building, sunshine is the vulnerability and humanity you bring to the process. It feels excruciatingly vulnerable to put yourself in situations where you know you won’t be good at something, and to do so knowing you will fumble and be uncomfortable–especially if other people are around to witness it. Unfortunately, there is no solution for the internal alarm bells that go off when you put yourself in a place of intense vulnerability. You just have to take a deep breath and allow those feelings to wash over you.

In these moments, it helps to remind yourself that learning takes time. No one is good at something right away. The truth is, it’s hard to be vulnerability-averse and live a fulfilling, stimulating life. Stepping into vulnerability is stepping into humanity. Stepping into humanity is stepping into feeling more alive.

Growing strong

In developing your self-confidence, find ways to encourage yourself through the initial discomfort of the challenging situation. What self-talk will resonate with you in order to persevere? When I was traveling solo and felt super anxious showing up to hostels by myself I constantly had to say to myself, “This will get easier. You deserve to be here.” Then I took a few deep breaths and went into social and common areas to introduce myself. And eventually, it did get easier. By the end of my trip, I was showing up to new crowds of people with ease and self-assurance.

Who’s perseverance do you admire and could use for inspiration? My biggest heroes are my friends and family members who I’ve seen demonstrate courage in their everyday lives. Because I have a behind-the-scenes look into their lives, I’ve seen them fall down and get back up often. It’s okay to have famous role models of perseverance but we don’t always have a behind-the-scenes look at all that they have stumbled through. When choosing a role model, try to find someone who has a visible track record for overcoming challenges and adversity, not just someone who you only see perform at a high level.

Take some time every day to visualize the challenge and yourself overcoming it. Visualizing a task activates the same parts of the brain that actually completing the task does. This doesn’t mean that you can sit out the activity and bypass the learning process, but it can help you feel better about what lies ahead by showing you the light at the end of the tunnel.

Developing more self-confidence will require you to make the decision to move beyond things you can already do with ease. If you’re looking to boost your confidence, a good place to begin would be to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you playing it too safe to feel like you can grow your confidence?
  • Is there something you’ve always wanted to feel more comfortable doing?
  • What’s the most introductory level of that activity that could put you in a zone of discomfort big enough for growth, but not so big it chases you away?

If you were waiting for a sign to get out of your comfort zone, maybe this it. The final piece is the knowledge that the greenhouse where your confidence grows is built with compassion and kindness for self. Give yourself permission to be human in this process. Greenhouses are built entirely with windows so the light and warmth can get in. Self-criticism is the wall that keeps the light out. Give yourself the equipment and environment you need to grow and wonderful things will happen.

How to Grow Up

How to Grow Up

Here’s some wisdom from a 32-year-old on a second round as a university student:

It’s really hard.

Not exactly a revelation, I know, but hear me out. Completing assignments, keeping up with readings, and managing time – we all know how challenging this can be. What I want to highlight instead is that the hard work isn’t always the hardest part. For me, trying to figure out how to get to bed early enough, how to wake up and make it to class on time, how to keep my bedroom from looking like a junkyard, and how to resist daily temptations is really hard. While others seem to be worrying about making time for self-care between classes and work, I’m sprinting to class only to find I forgot my notebook. Sometimes it’s the stuff that is supposed to be simple that ends up being really— you guessed it— hard.

It can feel like there isn’t much sympathy out there for those of us who struggle with the day-to-day stuff. If someone hasn’t done laundry in two weeks, it’s easier for people to judge and label them lazy than it is to try to understand why they find it difficult. We’re all guilty of passing quick judgment – and this has its consequences. In my case, people often presume I’m either carefree or careless. A friend told me years back that it seemed like I have no passion. It felt awful to be seen that way. For a decade I almost believed that story about myself. I often felt like a let down, both to myself and to the world. I worried I’d never grow up to be someone I could respect. None of that was true.

The First Round

With that mindset, completing my first degree somehow seemed like both a miracle and barely an accomplishment. I didn’t find the schoolwork very difficult. I loved learning, I made it to class, I paid attention, and for the most part, I got good grades. But I spent the majority of my six years as an undergrad (that’s right, six) procrastinating. I wish I could say I spent all my time partying and enjoying myself. Mostly I agonized about how much work I had to do instead of just doing it, or I beat myself up because I didn’t feel I was trying hard enough. I knew what I needed to do, I just couldn’t seem to do it. I always felt like I could do better, or like I never gave it all I had. At graduation I knew I was smart enough to be handed that degree but somehow I felt like I hadn’t earned it. Now upon reflection, I see I gave it everything I had at the time. I earned that degree Sinatra-style— I did it my way.

We rarely hear this sort of student story. Ever notice in the movies how college students always look like they’re having the greatest time of their lives? They’re winning trophies, getting laid, and going on spring break holidays. How do they make time to have all this fun? They’re never studying, working their asses off to afford tuition, or staying in because they can’t afford to party. The message is that our college years are supposed to be all fun all the time. I’ve done it twice now, and I call bullshit! If you can relate, you’re not alone. I’d say we’re the silent majority.

The Second Round

This time it’s different. The same simple stuff I found difficult ten years ago is still hard and it probably won’t ever be easy for me. I have grown though. I’ve slowly adopted some better life skills (so much more to go), a lot of patience with myself, and the pièce de résistance, I’ve developed a who-gives-a-shit swagger – a gift of confidence that seemed to arrive right around the time I turned 30. Much to my partner’s chagrin, my room is still a pig stye, and I still struggle to hand papers in on time. But my world isn’t collapsing around me. I’m imperfect, and that’s fine. There are a lot of us!

These days I juggle a job, classes and a co-op position. I never thought I’d be able to do that much at once. For the first time in my adult life, people say, “Wow! That must be so hard to manage!” about my life. The irony is, in a lot of ways, it used to be harder. It’s harder to wake up in the morning when you have three or four chapters to read on your own time, two assignments due in a week, and instead of doing any homework the night before, you smoked a joint with your roommate and stayed up watching cartoons. That is stressful. That life is never free from the anxiety of having too much shit to do. Now, waking up groggy to get to my co-op placement after a late night at work is easy in comparison. It would be even easier if I could just decide to go to bed earlier, but at least I have a better excuse for being late.

What’s Next?

Each of us struggles with different aspects of the transition into adulthood. Moving toward my mid-30s now, I realize that the development period is actually never finished. You never wake up to find you’re all done building yourself. But you do get better at it.

I wanted to write all this because I wish people had recognized and acknowledged ten years ago that even when I didn’t look like it, I really cared. To everyone living in that eternal awkward phase, I’m right there with you. I know you care. Keep at it and take all the time you need.