Let Us Shine: Lessons from BTS to Begin 2022

2021 American Music Awards - Arrivals

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 21: BTS attends the 2021 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 21, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for MRC )

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

I was 17 years old when I read those words from Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time, but I don’t think I fully understood them until now, more than 15 years later.

When I look back—as one does at this time of year—it feels clear: 2020 was a year that asked a lot of questions, and 2021 was a year when I started finding some of the answers.

The years that answer are harder.

The years that answer challenge us to confront hard truths about the world, about the ways we live our life, and about ourselves.

And this year, one of the answers I found was that so much of who I am and how I interact with the world was built on a shaky foundation because it was all external—it was all about appearing perfect and seeing myself through the eyes of others. I defined myself using the words other people had used to define me, which feels good when the words are good but also means you’re constantly looking outside of yourself for answers to the big questions asked in years like 2020: Who am I? What do I want? Am I worthy of love? Does my story matter?

At times this year, I honestly didn’t know the answers to any of those questions.

But then, this year answered back in a big way.

It gave me BTS.

And somewhere in the middle of countless YouTube videos and car singalongs in my bad attempts at Korean and talking to my best friend about these seven men who’d stolen my heart, some of those answers, which had been evading me for so long, started to become louder and clearer. The part of me that had always known those answers—that voice in my gut that has stubbornly stuck around even during years when I didn’t want to listen to her—grew more confident.

Maybe it was the therapy I finally decided to commit to. Maybe it was the self-compassion journaling and the hard work I started putting in to understand myself and to be gentle with myself instead of always looking to shame and punish.

It was all of that.

But it was also BTS.

Because it can’t be a coincidence that the year that taught me that I hadn’t ever learned to love myself as I am in an internal way—independent of how other people perceive me—also brought me into the orbit of a band who sing songs with lyrics like:

You’ve shown me I have reasons I should love myself…

I am the one I should love in this world…

You can’t stop me loving myself…

That’s the big lesson I learned from BTS this year—and it’s the answer to one of the questions asked by years like 2020, years when I felt isolated from the other people I always looked to when I needed to see what about me was worth loving, why I should love myself:

Loving myself doesn’t require anyone else’s permission.

And there are times when that seems easy and times when that seems like such a lofty concept that it’s impossible to put into practice. But luckily, BTS has illuminated the path not just for the big picture of self-love, but also for the million little ways we can actually put it into practice. From each of the seven members of this band, I’ve learned lessons about what it means to love yourself and why that should be the most important resolution I make going forward—to commit to a practice of truly, completely learning how to love myself.

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Lights in the Dark Forest: 2021 in Review

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My journey through the dark forest of 2021 began with Wanda Maximoff. (Source: TVLine)

“Believing in rom-communism is all about believing that everything’s gonna work out in the end. Now, these next few months might be tricky, but that’s just ’cause we’re going through the dark forest. Fairy tales do not start, nor do they end, in the dark forest.”

I can’t write about Ted Lasso.

But every time I think about 2021, I come back to this quote.

(And maybe that’s why I can’t write about it.)

So much of the last two years has felt like a long walk through the dark forest. And in 2021 things felt like they got even darker. So it was hard for me to watch a show—whose first season had given me so much comfort—take its characters through that dark forest and not quite out of it yet.

I didn’t like that Ted Lasso had changed.

And I felt that way about a whole lot of media this year. From The Rookie’s decision to all but abandon the challenging storylines that had made the first half of its third season so compelling to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s emotional farewell that took its characters in different directions, some changes were for the better and others less so, but it still seemed like a lot of the media I had used for comfort through the toughest parts of early pandemic life had changed.

And I hate change.

When I look at the only piece of scripted television that motivated me to write on an almost weekly basis, the only one that consistently moved me and stayed with me in a meaningful way, it was a show about a woman who resists change so strongly that she creates an entire new reality to escape the fact that her life had changed in deeply painful ways.

WandaVision is a show about a woman in the dark forest who spends so much time refusing to admit she’s in there that she builds herself a home and a life in the middle of it because even if it’s an illusion of control, it’s still better than the terror and unknown of the dark forest.

Control—however fake, however fleeting—feels better than uncertainty.

I don’t have a lot in common with Wanda Maximoff. I don’t have her powers or her tragic backstory or her tortured romance with an AI system turned sentient. But her need to hold on to some sense of control in a world that feels scary and lonely? That I get.

I spent the beginning of this year trying to build a world that I could control—a place that felt like nothing had changed even though everything had changed (both inside and outside of me).

There’s a reason WandaVision was the show that produced the most writing from me.

When I couldn’t control anything else, I wanted to control this little corner of the internet. I wanted it to be what it was when things felt better and brighter. I wanted to be who I was when things felt better and brighter.

Because, like Wanda, I didn’t want to acknowledge one of the truths of the dark forest: You don’t come out of it in the same place you were when you went in.

Slowly, steadily, my writing has started to move toward that truth. NGN has started to move toward that truth. Instead of being Westview—a place created to desperately hold onto a piece of the past because the present is sad and the future is scary—it’s growing into something that feels more real, something that feels more honest. It may not be sitcom shiny—a beacon of constant positivity where every problem is fixed and hurt is healed by the end of a post—but it’s stronger because of its messy reality.

I’m stronger because of my messy reality.

I’ve changed so much this year, and that means my writing changed too. And that’s part of life. Change is a part of life.

You can’t grow if you refuse to change.

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There’s No Place for Her: A Letter to Sadness

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Dear Sadness,

I don’t want to write this.

And that’s exactly why I’m writing this.

I’ve fought this post with every fiber of my being—putting it off, changing its focus 10 different times, doing every household chore imaginable to avoid listening to the nagging voice inside of me that keeps insistently whispering that this will help. That you will help.

You can never just stay in your “circle of Sadness,” can you?

I’ve always felt proud when people compare me to Joy from Inside Out. For a long time, I worked hard to share positivity whenever I could, to spread sunshine everywhere I went. I wanted that to be what people remembered when they thought of me—bright yellow (or even hot pink) light, lots of smiles, memories dipped in gold. And even when other emotions took their turn at the console (especially fear, my ever-present companion for most of my life) I tried to find a way to make all those feelings positive—to share my big feelings with the world so that the people around me could feel more comfortable with theirs.

I was good with big feelings.

Or—to be more accurate—I was good with big feelings that made sense.

Anger was a way for me to respond to injustices—both personal and global. Disgust helped me hone my sense of taste—in food, clothes, media, and more. Fear kept me safe—sometimes a little too safe, but with some therapy and a little openness, we worked on that. And joy was my favorite big feeling to feel—I loved crying happy tears or laughing so loud people stared or dancing down a grocery store aisle because I just felt happy.

And even you had a place, Sadness. I was good with you when you made sense—when a TV show made me sad or when I experienced a loss and needed to grieve or when I felt lonely. I was never totally comfortable with you taking the console, but as long as you did it at a time that made sense, you could make things turn blue for a little while.

But sometimes you don’t make sense. Sometimes you don’t stay in the circle Joy made for you. Sometimes you touch the console and turn everything blue when I’m not ready or when I can’t figure out why.

And that’s when the version of Joy that’s inside of me gets desperate, just like the version of Joy inside of Riley.

When you created a blue core memory for Riley, Joy couldn’t handle it. Instead of accepting that not every foundational moment in life can be a happy one, she tried to destroy it—to erase any memory that wasn’t happy. Because Joy liked how it was in Riley’s head. It was perfect up there as it was.

There’s something about you, Sadness, that messes with ideas of perfection.

Because, let’s admit it, you’re a little messy. You come with tears and sometimes snot and a splotchy face and a cracking voice. You’re not something we like showing the world.

You’re not something I like showing the world.

I have worked so hard to keep you in your circle. I have tried to explain that other people around me are going through really hard things, so there’s no place for you right now. I have pleaded and begged for you to understand that I have a job to do—and that job is to cheer people up, to be a beacon of positivity, to brighten the days of everyone I come across.

But you didn’t listen.

You didn’t listen when Riley needed to be happy for her parents, and you didn’t listen when I needed to be happy for the people around me who are struggling.

You didn’t stay in your circle.

That’s what depression feels like for me.

It’s when you don’t stay in your circle.

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We’re Not Fine: Simone Biles and Journey from Good Girl to GOAT

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Source: ABC News

When I watched Simone Biles warm up before eventually withdrawing from the women’s gymnastics team event at the Tokyo Olympics last week, the hardest part wasn’t watching her fall out of her vault. It wasn’t even watching her eyes as she clearly lost her sense of where she was in the air.

It was after, when she walked back to her teammates and they asked her if she was OK—clearly sensing that something was very wrong with the woman we all know as the GOAT of women’s gymnastics. But Simone put on a smile (that didn’t reach her eyes) and said two words that sounded too familiar:

“I’m fine.”

How many of us have said those words, knowing they were a lie? How many of us have said them fighting back tears or pushing down anger or pretending we didn’t just have a panic attack in the bathroom?

We say we’re fine because we want to be fine—we want to pretend. But often, we also say we’re fine because we know the alternative—the truth—is uncomfortable. And we’ve been taught for our whole lives that making other people uncomfortable is a lot worse than being uncomfortable ourselves.

So we say we’re fine when we’re not. We try to push through and push down and put on a smile.

And every time we do, we shrink a little bit more so we can fit more easily into the cute little box the world wants to keep us in. Everyone’s box has a different label, but for many of us, our labels all boil down to the same thing—a label we were given when we were too young to understand all that it would ask of us:

Good Girl

A Good Girl is always fine. She never makes a scene, never makes herself the center of attention, never asks for more than what she’s given. A Good Girl takes care of the people around her, and she’s often so busy doing this that she forgets to take care of herself. A Good Girl is self-sacrificial, always putting the needs of others above her own.

A Good Girl is selfless.

Because a sense of self is too big to fit in that tiny box.

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Right in the Feels: Anna Does “The Next Right Thing” in Frozen 2

I’ve seen dark before
But not like this
This is cold
This is empty
This is numb
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
Hello, darkness
I’m ready to succumb…

This moment in Frozen 2—as Anna finds herself trapped in a cave and totally alone after watching Olaf disintegrate and realizing that meant something horrible had happened to Elsa—isn’t for kids. In fact, when I saw Frozen 2 in theaters on its opening night back in 2019, I remember hearing lots of tiny sniffles as Olaf turned to snowflakes and thinking that this was going to traumatize a heck of a lot of children for years to come.

Luckily, the trauma is short-lived—this is a Disney movie, after all (and not Bambi). But as with all emotionally compelling media, the point isn’t that we know Elsa and Olaf are most likely going to be fine because we know how these movies work. The point is that Anna doesn’t know this. And she’s written so well—and her moment of grief is written so well—that we’re able to suspend our disbelief as if we’re right in that cave with her, trying to figure out how to survive in a world that’s suddenly changed beyond recognition.

Trying to figure out if we want to survive in a world that’s suddenly changed beyond recognition.

It doesn’t seem like a moment Anna should have. She’s the perky princess who sees the good in everyone. She’s the ray of sunshine to her sister’s ice and snow. She always has a smile, always tries to find the bright side, and always seems to make the best of a bad situation (see her entire childhood and adolescence kept locked away in a castle without even her sister to talk to). She’s a woman of action, never giving up—even in the craziest of circumstances.

But that’s exactly why it matters.

Because grief and depression are things that can affect anyone. And the idea that “happy” people can’t be depressed, extroverted people can’t be lonely, and take-charge people can’t be immobilized by grief does so much damage to people who are suffering but feel they have to do so in silence because struggling doesn’t fit their personality—that no one would believe them if they said they feel like they can’t keep going because they’ve always kept going through whatever else life has thrown at them.

Anna—one of the most popular Disney princesses in the most popular Disney animated franchise—is so consumed by her grief that she can’t see a reason to keep going. If she stays in that dark and isolated cave—the physical representation of depression—she’s going to die in there. And for a moment, things seem so bad and she feels so hopeless that she seriously considers it.

It’s an important moment for kids to witness—even if they’re hopefully too young to understand what she’s describing. Because they’re going to internalize the message that sometimes even the brightest people feel the darkness pressing in, that there’s no shame in struggling with loss or sadness—no matter who you are or what your life looks like on the outside—and that they’re not alone if they ever start to feel that way as they grow up. Because even Princess Anna felt hopeless and lost once too.

And they’re also going to internalize the message that there’s a way out of that darkness if they ever feel stuck in it.

Do the next right thing.

They may be 5 small words, but they’ve left a big impact on so many people.

People like me.

Do the next right thing.

Late at night last week, I had a panic attack in the shower. It was exhausting and awful, and one of the few things I remember from those moments of shaking and crying and feeling like I was drowning was saying out loud in between sobs, “I just don’t know what to do.”

I have a tendency to spiral when I’m left alone with my own thoughts for too long. That’s always been true. My thoughts race ahead faster than an Olympic track star, and they tend to go in circles like one too. I’m someone who likes to always have the right answer, but lately I’ve been grappling with some big questions that don’t seem to have one. I’m someone who believes in listening to her gut, but lately I’ve been having a hard time hearing it—or maybe it’s more that I’ve been having a hard time accepting and acting on what it’s been telling me.

But in that moment—when I was at my lowest—I could hear it loud and clear:

Do the next right thing.

There it was—the answer to maybe the biggest question.

What do I do?

Do the next right thing.

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Learning How to Love Myself

Needy. Selfish. Self-centered. Demanding. Attention whore.

These are all words I have used to describe myself—most of them multiple times in the last week alone. Sometimes it’s with more than a little guilt. Sometimes it’s coming from deep in the pit of self-loathing. Often, it’s said with a laugh or in an attempt at self-deprecating humor.

But somewhere along the way, it stopped being funny.

Somewhere along the way, those words became how I defined myself—above other words like passionate or friendly or warm or kind or good.

I take more than I give. I ask for too much. I need too much.

I am too much.

That’s a common refrain for me when I feel myself wanting to ask for help on a bad day, when I feel the gnawing emptiness in my chest that says I’m having a hard time and could use some love, and even when someone who loves me shows me they do and the guilt settles in because I’m not supposed to need that. I’m supposed to be stronger than that.

I’m supposed to love myself enough that I don’t need to ask other people to help me with that.

I’m supposed to get enough satisfaction out of showing other people that I love them that I’m not supposed to need other people to show me they love me too.

But I do need it.

And I need it in different ways than most people I know.

I’m an extrovert who loves words and hugs—whose primary love languages are words of affirmation and physical touch. And I am surrounded by a beautiful group of introverts whose primary love language is typically acts of service—and who are very good at never asking for anything in return.

I have spent a long time wishing I was more like them. I know that the ways I most clearly and confidently show love and feel loved are things that make a lot of people uncomfortable to even think about. Not everyone likes cuddles. A lot of people get shy when it comes to compliments. So I have told myself that I should never ask for these things from other people—because that’s the selfless thing to do. But most of the time, I fail. I fish for compliments or ask for reassurance or hug whoever will give me even the tiniest glimpse of not hating the physical contact.

And then the guilt sinks in. And then the words come.

Needy. Selfish. Self-centered. Demanding. Attention whore.

They’re words I would never think about saying to someone I care about if they asked me to do something for them or to spend time with them or if they told me they were feeling bad and needed a little love in any of the ways they believe it most assuredly.

Other people deserve to have their needs met—and to not feel ashamed or afraid or guilty for asking that they be met sometimes in a way that makes them feel happiest. That’s something I believe with every piece of me.

But why is it so hard for me to believe that about myself?

I’ll let the boys of BTS explain it:

Loving myself might be harder
Than loving someone else
Let’s admit it
The standards you made are more strict for yourself…

The first time I saw the lyrics to “Answer: Love Myself,” those were the ones that immediately jumped out at me because they’re so painfully true. Loving other people has always felt easy to me. But loving myself has always been a struggle.

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Right in the Feels: Ted Lasso Reminds Us We’re Not Alone

“I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad—and that is being alone and being sad.”

I didn’t see it coming.

I thought I knew the playbook Ted Lasso was using. I’ve seen a lot of sports movies. I’ve also seen a lot of comedies that look at the world through the rose-colored glasses Ted always seems to have on. So, despite the fact that I should have known AFC Richmond needed to lose in the Season One finale to secure a second season for the show, I genuinely believed  they would do what all underdogs do in these kinds of stories—shock the world (and comfort the audience) with a win.

I thought everyone loved the first season of this show because it gave them a happy ending at a time when so many of us could use one.

I was wrong.

Ted Lasso isn’t a show about what it means to be happy. That’s not why people love it.

It’s a show about how we deal with sadness.

And that’s why people need it.

Everyone on this show experiences sadness—and not just because Richmond loses in the end. Rebecca’s divorce, Roy’s injury, Keeley’s issues with Jamie, Jamie’s issues with his father, and Ted’s own marital struggles—they all highlight an important fact about being human:

In the words of another brilliant recent comedy that had a lot to say about how we handle hard times, “We’re all a little bit sad, all the time. That’s just the deal.”

Sadness is part of the deal. It comes with the territory. When you feel and care and love, there are going to be sad moments. So much of Ted Lasso’s appeal—especially in this last year—is in the way it acknowledges that sadness and setbacks are a part of life. And sometimes we can’t make it better, for ourselves or the people we love.

For a show that’s been praised for its positive outlook, Ted Lasso’s positivity is never toxic. It’s not a show that says, “Don’t be sad! If we all help each other, everything will turn out fine in the end!” Instead it’s a show that says, “Sometimes life is sad and things don’t turn out fine, but if we help each other, at least we won’t have to be sad alone.”

For all his optimism and openness and belief in the power of teamwork, Ted knows what it means to be alone and be sad. We watch him struggle with his crumbling marriage on his own and we see how his belief that growth matters more than wins can isolate him from even those closest to him. But then, there are the moments when someone sees him and reaches out—when Roy stops him from walking into traffic or when Rebecca gently eases him through his panic attack. It’s in those moments that the sadness feels a little less overwhelming and the loneliness fades a little. Because when we’re seen, when we lift our head up and meet the eyes of someone who cares, it doesn’t magically fix what’s broken in our lives, but it makes it a little easier to live with the broken pieces.

That’s what having a team is all about. They’re not just the people who celebrate the good times with you; they’re the people who see you and sit with you in the hard times too.

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Using It: Pain, Purpose, and a Year in a Pandemic

I knew it would be hard.

But I had no idea it would be this hard.

Exactly one year ago today, I sat down at my dining room table to work from home because COVID-19 was spreading into my part of New York State.

I thought it would be for a couple of weeks. Once we flatten the curve, it’ll all go back to normal, I told myself.

Then two weeks went by. Once summer comes, it’ll start to get better, I told myself.

Then summer came and went.

I stopped telling myself anything.

This pandemic has taken so much from so many. And I’m luckier than most—a year later, I still have my job, my health, and my family.

But no one escaped this year without losing something. A graduation. A wedding. A vacation. A concert. A movie’s opening night surrounded by friends and fellow fans. The sound of laughter in a classroom before a teacher says to quiet down. The feeling of hugging your best friend. The sight of a stranger smiling when you compliment their shoes while you wait in a long line for coffee.

The version of you that you used to be. The version of you that you were becoming.

Exactly one year ago, I knew who I was. It had taken me 31 years to get there, but I felt confident and content in a way that I’m not sure I’ve felt since I was a kid. I knew what made me happy—what made me feel the most like me.

Planning trips. Flying to new places by myself. Saturday afternoons in a darkened movie theater. Sitting with my team at work and helping them through problems and giving them advice. People-watching at the mall. Making little kids laugh. Walking into a crowded restaurant or hotel lobby or airport in my high heels, finding the friend I’m supposed to meet, and hugging them like my life depends on it.

I thought I’d just be giving up those things for a few weeks.

Then, I thought I’d just be giving up those things for a season.

Now, one year later, I’m still trying to figure out who I am—what makes me happy and what makes me feel the most like me—without those things.

It’s like the last year slowly, painfully dug these deep holes in my sense of self, and there’s a whole lot of nothing where my plans, dreams, and extroverted energy used to be.

I know I’m not the only one with those holes. I know we all have them to some degree. But I also know so many resilient people who’ve worked to fill those holes with something new—who forged new fandom connections, picked up new hobbies, and learned new things.

I admire these people so much.

I envy these people so much.

I don’t want to feel like I wasted a year of my life.

I don’t want to look back on this year and realize I came out of it a worse person than I was before.

I don’t want these holes in me to turn into scars.

But maybe they already have.

And maybe that has to be okay.

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Understanding My Power: WandaVision as a Journey of Feelings and Forgiveness

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Source: TVLine

When I was 17 years old, I had a breakdown inside the Electric Umbrella restaurant in EPCOT.

Looking back on it, it’s easy to see what caused it. It was my last family vacation as a high school student, before I “grew up.” It was also my last family vacation with my grandfather—my Disney trip buddy for my entire life up to that point. He was getting older and slowing down, and we didn’t know it then, but we’d lose him about 6 months later.

But in the moment, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I couldn’t name it. All I knew is that whatever I was feeling was too much. So I cried into my Disney World french fries—not quiet, gentle tears, but ugly, loud, scary sobs that felt like they were never going to end.

I didn’t even feel like a person. I just felt a vessel for feelings that I couldn’t control.

And all I really remember were the looks on people’s faces. Confusion from my grandfather. Fear from my little sister. Embarrassment from my parents. Concern from the strangers around me.

In that moment, my feelings weren’t just mine anymore. They overwhelmed not just me but everyone in my path. And I couldn’t stop it.

Sometimes I still can’t stop it.

I have big feelings. I feel things deeply and express my feelings openly. And there’s power in that. It makes me a better writer, it helps me forge deeper and more honest connections with people, and it often makes me a bright light to be around—because when those big feelings are enthusiastic and warm and good, they’re infectious; they spread positivity and encourage others to embrace their own vulnerability.

But when those big feelings are dark and difficult and bad, that power isn’t used to help people. It makes me more impatient and melodramatic, it causes me to lash out or cut people off, and it can make me a hard person to be around—projecting my pain onto others just so I don’t have to carry it anymore and making myself the main character in everyone else’s stories because my pain feels more pressing than theirs.

Sound familiar?

Wanda Maximoff’s journey through WandaVision meant so many different things to so many different people. Some people empathized with her path through grief. Some people connected with her story of self-acceptance.

And for me, I learned a lot about myself through Wanda’s struggle with her powers and how deeply they’re tied to her feelings.

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Here’s to Women

Today is International Women’s Day, which means that it’s likely we’ve all seen this quote a million times on our social media feeds:

“Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”

It’s an empowering quote—one that I’ve said myself more than once and shared often. But this year, something about it isn’t sitting right with me.

I don’t feel strong right now. I haven’t felt strong for long stretches of the last year. And there’s a part of me—a tired, broken, sad part of me—that sees this quote and feels like the only kind of woman worthy of being admired, celebrated, and seen is a “strong” woman.

What about the women who are struggling? What about the women who cry, the women who lose their patience, the women who have days when they can’t get out of bed because everything feels like it’s too much?

Most of us will be these women at some point in our lives because to be a woman is to be human, and to be human is to fail and falter and feel big, overwhelming, messy feelings sometimes. But all too often, when we feel those big, overwhelming, messy feelings or when we snap at a loved one or when we spend most of our waking hours in tears on a bad day, we don’t give ourselves the grace to not be okay—to not be strong.

Because somewhere along the way, in our quest to inspire and empower, “strong” became synonymous with “good” and “worthy.”

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