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In Need

I don’t like the word needy. I much prefer the word crazy to needy.  Crazy can have many meanings, and not all of them are negative.  Sometimes crazy can be a compliment.  At least that’s how I interpret it when I’m feeling good about myself.  Neediness, on the other hand, is never a compliment.

I admit I am sensitive to the word because I have been accused of being too needy, too demanding.  I have tried to correct for this, but I don’t know how to distinguish my unreasonable demands from my needs.

I’ve tried to deal with it by giving my partner the benefit of the doubt.  If he couldn’t give me what I needed, then perhaps it was a demand that I mistook for a need.  How important is meaningful conversation anyway, really?  How much contact is actually necessary for the survival of the relationship?

This approach hasn’t gotten me very far.  I seem to have overshot my mark.  My therapist tells me that I cannot disavow my needs in order to make my relationships work.  Sounds good to me.  But how do you separate the needs that are necessary for survival from the ones that make people accuse you of being needy?

Let’s say that you came across a boy who you met in the woods while hiking one day, like the wild boy of Aveyron.  You feel bad for him so you invite him over for dinner.  But he’s really hungry, so he eats all the food in your house and still wants more.  Obviously, you wouldn’t blame the kid for this.  You wouldn’t accuse him of being too hungry, because it’s not his fault he was abandoned in the woods to fend for himself.

Psychological needs are no different.  Neediness is the product of prolonged emotional starvation.  You may not be able to give the person what they need to feel satisfied, but that’s not their fault.  It’s not yours, either.

But it feels like it should be someone’s fault, doesn’t it?  Someone should take the blame!

I prefer to reframe a needy person as someone who is in need.  Perhaps their needs are so great that I can’t help them.  That’s OK; I don’t have to be able to help everyone–although I do still try.

I am trying to think of myself as someone in need, too.  I am just learning what these needs are, because I’ve spent my life focusing on other people.  There are a lot of them, and they have gone unfulfilled for a long time.  I’m not blaming anyone for this, but I’m trying not to blame myself, either.

I’m just trying to make my way out of the woods.

Wants and Needs

The other day I had a session where I was talking to a client about wants and needs.  She said that she knows that she needs to allow herself to be taken care of, but she doesn’t want to do it.  I thought that was interesting.  How can you not want what you need?  But then after I thought about it some more, I realized that there are all kinds of things that people don’t want to need.  They are usually the things that bring people to therapy.

Most people don’t want to need other people.  That would make them dependent, and dependency is bad.  It’s a sign of weakness.  There is even a diagnosis called dependent personality disorder.  Excessive independence, however, is not considered a problem.  In our culture, you can never be too self-reliant.

While I have certainly seen clients who depend too much on others, more frequently I see people who are afraid to rely on anyone, like this client.  Which is strange, because in the animal kingdom, humans have the longest period of dependence on their parents.  And even as independent adults, we still need other people to have babies, to have jobs, and to survive.  Even hunters and gatherers relied on one another.  I don’t think anyone would consider them weak.

Despite this knowledge, I have to admit, I don’t like to rely on other people, either.  I don’t ask for help unless absolutely necessary.  And the flaw that I am most of ashamed of is my need to be in a relationship.  That’s why I’m so proud of myself right now for being alone.  But the truth is, while I’m not in a romantic relationship, I’m not really alone.

The other thing that people don’t want is to feel.  Usually they come to therapy with the hope that I can help them stop feeling.  This includes the feelings that accompany disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as normal feelings like sadness after a breakup or loneliness–because that makes you weak.

Like dependency, feelings are also necessary for survival.  Without feelings, we would have no signal to figure out what is causing us pain.  Without feelings, we aren’t able to empathize with other people.  Without feelings, we would be classified as reptiles in the animal kingdom.

I don’t want to be a reptile, but I do get frustrated with the intensity of my feelings.  Sometimes they reach the level of depression and anxiety.  And then I feel other people’s feelings, too.  That’s a lot of feeling for one person to tolerate.  And some people do find my feelings overwhelming.  I’m too needy. Too sensitive. Too much.

Or maybe they were too reptilian to be able to empathize with me.

I often have to tell clients up front that if what they want is to stop needing and feeling, I can’t help them.  Sometimes they transfer to other therapists, which I understand.  Who wants to be told that they have to accept being human?  But most people stay.  When I point out that only robots have the luxury of not needing or feeling, they acknowledge that they don’t want to be a robot.

But it’s surprisingly hard work, this being human stuff.  It requires a lot of self-compassion, self-acceptance.

Which is why I started this blog.

It Matters to Me

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Last week in our body image support group, every single client prefaced an anecdote about something that upset them with a disclaimer about how it’s not that big of a deal. This thing that bothered them enough to bring it up. Not important at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Trivialize our feelings? I do it all the time, but it’s more noticeable when other people do it because it sounds so mean.

For example, if I tell my opponents before a tennis match not to be alarmed if I throw up, I feel like I’m just trying to get attention. Because I secretly enjoy telling them about my GERD/asthma/allergies and listing all the drugs I take for each of these conditions. And if they make some comment about what a trooper I am for continuing to play, I feel guilty. Am I misleading them into thinking that I am strong? Maybe I’m exaggerating how bad it is.

I get it that this is a defense mechanism. I am going to beat you to the punch. I am going to say upfront that I know this thing I am about to tell you is trivial so that you can’t hurt me by not caring about it. I am going to shame myself out of being upset to try to make the feeling go away. I am going to compare my pain to other people who are suffering more than I am so that I will feel guilty and stop complaining. I’m going to repeat to myself how stupid it is to be upset every day, hundreds of times a day, until the pain goes away.

Except it doesn’t make the pain go away. So we just end up invalidating our feelings hundreds of times a day, every day. Or, if you’re successful in being able to cut yourself off from your feelings, then you end up invalidating other people’s feelings, too. Which is why they preface all of their comments to you with a disclaimer about how what they are about to tell you is not that big of a deal.

Even though I am now aware of the harm I am doing to myself with these comments, it is effortful and time-consuming to come up with something nicer to say. Which is a bit disconcerting, that being kind to myself would be so difficult.

It was even more difficult for those clients, who did not even realize they were invalidating their feelings until I brought it to their attention. They sat in silence for a few minutes, straining their brains to come up with something they could say to themselves that would be more compassionate.

Which is exactly why we need to practice.

That’s why I help clients come up with mantras in advance to counteract their inner demons; it saves time and energy. So if you are in need of something to say, here’s one you can use: it matters to me, and that’s all that matters.

Friendship

Last night we had our 2nd Annual Charlie Brown Christmas Party.  The party was named after last year’s tree, which looked like this:
 
 
This year the tree was more normal looking but my friends were more comedic, as you can see in this picture:

We even had prizes for Christmas attire:  Ugliest sweater, Most Festive, and Prettiest Sweater.  Guess which person won each prize from the picture below:

I am so thankful to have such good friends.

In my first marriage my husband and I were everything to each other–just like in love songs and romantic movies–but we didn’t have many friends.  Perhaps at some level we feared that if we told people what our relationship was really like, they would see how fragile our marriage was.

I believe that lessons are often learned from tragedy, pain, and hardship–particularly lessons you don’t want to learn.  What I learned from that relationship is that no single person can be everything you need.  And when you lose that person who has tried to be your everything, you are left with nothing. 

So I vowed never to allow myself to be that socially isolated again, and I have done a pretty good job of honoring that commitment.  In addition to playing and captaining all of those tennis teams, I also organize most of our social events and play the MC at the parties, making sure that our time is evenly spent between eating, singing karaoke, and playing board games. 

However, I am still more inclined to play the role of therapist with my friends than friend in need.  And I use all the same excuses that my clients use for not asking for help:  I am a burden, a broken record, a person whose feelings may be too much for other people to handle.  A person who is too needy, too demanding.

I’ve spent today the way I spend most Saturdays–tired and alone.  I did text a few friends.  And I talked to my brother.  And I’m writing this blog post.  So I’m trying to reach out.  But it will always be more natural for me to help than to be helped.

Perhaps whenever I have doubts about whether my friends want to be there for me, I can look at the deranged elf pictured above and remind myself that only someone who cared deeply about me would pose for a picture that can be posted for all the world to see.

Meet the Drill Sergeant

I am now about to introduce you to one of my most challenging parts.  I call this part the drill sergeant.  Many of you may have a similar part.  My drill sergeant demands productivity at all costs, and not in a nice way.

I am not a morning person, as I indicated in my first post.  The drill sergeant doesn’t give a crap.  He (I think of it as a he) doesn’t give a crap if it’s a weekend, either; he still wants me to get up.  I don’t listen to him, of course, but I pay the price.  For every extra hour of sleep I try to get, the drill sergeant yells at me, telling me how other people are up doing normal people productive things, while I am lying in bed wasting my life away. 

It doesn’t matter if I don’t have anything pressing to do.  The drill sergeant will make up random to do lists as though these things are of the utmost importance.  You need to wash those bath mats! There are scraps of paper all over the house that need to be put in the recycling!  I’m pretty sure there’s a mug in the sink that needs to be washed!  Get up!

I have been sick for the last few days, which is very frustrating for the drill sergeant.  I always get sick at this time of the year because, despite my best attempts to manage the stress of my job, I still get exhausted and can’t function.  The drill sergeant is frustrated because I was just two days from making it to Thanksgiving break, but I had to miss a day of work, anyway.  And I have to say, that frustrates me, too.  But what can I do?  I don’t even feel like playing tennis.  Or eating!  If you know me, you know that’s bad.

In my efforts to practice self-acceptance, I’m trying to get to know the drill sergeant better, understand his point of view.  I can see how he’s trying to prevent me from a life of sloth-hood.  And I do have to wake up early to get to work.  And sometimes you really do need your drill sergeant, like when you have to channel your inner warrior on the tennis court.

So I’ve struck a deal with my drill sergeant.  As long as I am waking up when I need to, fulfilling my obligations, and being a productive member of society, he can be at ease.  But I have promised to call upon him when I am in need of some ass-kicking motivation. 

So far, it seems to be working.

This doodle reflects my less positive emotional state at the moment.  I think it looks like some kind of scary octopus with floating eyeballs, albeit in pretty colors.

Solitude

I am about to share with you my most shameful flaw so please don’t judge me.  And this post isn’t that funny.  (Although I always think I’m kind of funny, even when I’m being serious).  But it’s the truth, so I have to say it.

I have been in a relationship non-stop since I was 14.  That’s 30 years of relationships, and not just to one person.  So no pearls for me. ( That’s the 30 year anniversary gift, in case you didn’t know.  I just looked it up.)  And sometimes the relationships were slightly overlapping towards the end.  And often they were not very good relationships.  And I knew this at the time, but I stayed in them, anyway.

In my defense, the marriages were both relationships with two very good guys, but that doesn’t guarantee that a relationship will work, as I indicated in my previous blog.  But most of the other relationships were not very good.   I stayed in them because 1) I’m drawn to guys who need psychological help and 2) I am terrified of being alone and am in need of psychological help myself.  My attitude was that something was better than nothing.  I didn’t have any empirical evidence to support this, but that’s how fear is:  it feels true, even when it’s not.

So in addition to channeling all of my energy into my long-standing dream of becoming a writer, I have also decided to be alone for the first time. 

A lot of my married friends say, oh I would love to be alone.  I look forward to the times when my husband and kids are not in the house.  I, too, appreciated my alone time when I was in a relationship.  But it’s different when you go home and no one will be there, and you don’t know if or when someone will ever be there.

It’s different when you could fall and hurt your back and not be able to reach your phone and call for help and people might not notice that you haven’t been around until you stop showing up to work for a few days.  Then they would have to send someone down to find you because you’re not answering your phone.  That’s not the same thing as having a break from your husband and kids at all.

Last night I tried to change one of the flood lights in my bedroom, but I couldn’t reach it.  I tried to use that thingy that allows you to reach light bulbs that are really high up but the floodlight was too big.  I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the thingy to work, anyway.  I considered getting out the ladder but that would definitely result in bodily injury and/or death.  I don’t want to call one of my guy friends and ask them to come over and change one light bulb, so I’ll probably have to wait until several bulbs burn out and exist in semi-darkness in the meantime.

Don’t get me wrong–I know that in the grand scheme of things, I’m a very lucky person.  I have a loving family and a great group of friends, I can support myself and I love my job, I have a nice place, and I am hopeful that at some point another relationship opportunity will present itself.  Still, there’s no amount of self-talk that can change the fact that sometimes it sucks to be alone.

I’m a big proponent of learning how to sit with negative feelings.  This is what I tell my clients all the time.  I’m often amazed that they start doing it because I tell them to.  Sometimes they’re better at it than I am.  I’m amazed that I can give them the courage to break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, even though they were terrified of doing so.  At those times I think, why is it that I can help them do it but not myself?  It doesn’t work to be your own therapist, apparently.

But now I’m ready.  I’m going to face sadness and loneliness and fear if it kills me.  I am going to find out whether or not it’s true that it’s better to be in a bad relationship than none at all.  Obviously it’s not true, but like I said, fear is not always logical. 

And it’s going OK so far.  Sometimes it does suck, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.  Because when I was in a bad relationship, I still felt sad and lonely and afraid, but I also beat myself up for staying in a relationship just because I was afraid of being alone.  It’s much better without that last part.

The thing I miss the most is having someone to talk to–someone to share how my day went, to talk about the book I’m reading, or to share any deep and meaningful revelations I’ve had.  But now that I have this blog, I have all of you to listen to me.  And that helps a lot. 

And you know what else?  My neighbor called me this morning to check on me because she hadn’t seen me in awhile and wanted to make sure I was OK.  I was afraid she was going to tell me she hit my car or accidentally opened my mail again or try to get me to come to church with her, because those are reasons she has called in the past.  But no.  She was checking on me.

I take that as a sign that God is looking out for me.

I read this blog that said that if you want to get people to read your blog you should have photos to keep it interesting and not to use other people’s work.  I’m not sure how you take a picture of solitude, so I thought I would post one of my doodles from last night.  Please don’t judge my drawing, either.

Housekeeper for a Day

I can see why parents say that having kids provides hours of entertainment–expensive entertainment if you ask me–but entertainment nonetheless.  That’s one advantage of being an aunt: you get the entertainment for free.  Or at least at a reduced rate.

When my niece Sadie came up to visit last weekend she was obsessed about raising money for this school project in which her class was going to make a donation to some place in Africa so that they could build a well and have fresh water.  At first I thought she said a whale and I couldn’t figure out how a whale could survive on fresh water in Africa, even with the most generous donations.

Rather than the usual route of selling candles and tin cans of popcorn, the kids are supposed to earn the money through performing chores, so Sadie was anxious to get back to my place and clean. In fact, she was so exited that she followed me into the bathroom when we got back, asking me for assignments.

So first I asked her to water the plants. I had to show her where the watering can was and she asked her dad to fill it with water and then I had to show her where all the plants were.

It took her less than a minute to water them.

Sadie:  What else can I do?

Me: You’re done already?

Sadie: Yes.

Me:  Did you get the plants on the other wall?  (My brother points out the wall.)

Sadie:  Of course!  Now what can I do?  (I make a mental note to water the plants tomorrow.)

Me:  Why don’t you put these magazines in the recycling bin? (I show her where the bags are and her dad shows her where the recycling bin is.)

Me:  You forgot a magazine.

Sadie:  I’ll just stick it back in the magazine rack.

Me:  That’s not really helping me.

Sadie:  I’m afraid to go in the garage.  It’s dark and scary.  (I walk with her to the garage and turn on the light.)

Sadie:  Now what can I do?

By this point I realize that whatever task I give her is going to mean work for me so I’m reluctant to give her any more assignments.

Sadie:  I can cook you something.

Me:  What can you make?

Sadie:  I can get you a bowl of cereal.

Me:  That’s ok. I’m not hungry.

Sadie:  I can vacuum.

The rug does need to be vacuumed.  But then I envision having to get the vacuum out, move the furniture, show her how to turn the vacuum on, help her push it, and then put everything back in its original place.  I’m too tired to vacuum so I hand her the Swiffer instead.

It takes her a minute to do my entire place.

Me:  Are you sure you got every room?

Sadie: Yes.

Me: What about this room, and this room?

Sadie:  Of course!

I’m not convinced she actually cleaned anything so she sweeps the living room again. She takes her time and does a better job.

Me:  You seem to be enjoying yourself.

Sadie:  Well I have to raise money for the poor!  Is there anything else I can do? This is fun.

By now I’m tired of cleaning so I give her the $5 and commend her for her noble goal. She runs to her dad and excitedly gives him the bill for safe keeping.  He is on Skype with his wife so Sadie tells her mom that she just raised money for building a well in Africa so that they can have fresh water.

I enjoyed being a part of her first lesson in being helpful to people in need and admired how she really took it to heart.  It was definitely entertaining, as well as good exercise.  And the memory of the housekeeping incident will keep me entertained until I see her again. All for the bargain price of $5.

Sorry, Not Sorry

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Never underestimate the value of a sincere apology.

If you don’t give a crap about the person, I guess you can say whatever you want. But a sincere apology goes a long way if you’ve hurt someone you care about and really want to make amends. If you get into arguments with loved ones where there is no clear resolution, it’s probably because they don’t end with a sincere apology, and therefore it’s difficult to reconnect.

Before I outline what to say in an apology, let me first begin with what not to say. Things that will likely prolong the argument and hurt the relationship.

Insensitive comments have to do with shame–the feeling that, if you make a mistake, you must be a bad person. Therefore, the person cannot acknowledge any wrongdoing. And because the person is focused on their own shame for making a mistake, they cannot have compassion for the person who they have hurt. Here are some examples:

  1. You’re too sensitive. This is not an apology at all, obviously. You’re basically saying it’s not me; it’s you. You are flawed. I am not.
  2. That wasn’t my intention. I meant well. Not my fault if you interpreted my good intentions in a different way. So we can just agree to disagree and you need to get over it.
  3. Everyone has flaws. You know how I am. I have a bad temper. Sometimes I blow up. I can’t change who I am. So expect more of the same.
  4. I’m sorry that you’re upset. I can see you’re upset, but I don’t take any responsibility for it. But I do I wish you weren’t upset, because you’re upsetting me.
  5. I’m sorry. I will say sorry to appease you, but I have no idea what you’re upset about. And I don’t really want to try to find out and have to change my behavior.

If you have said one or more of these things, let me reiterate that you are not a bad person. No one likes making mistakes. It activates our defenses and makes us want to protect ourselves rather than attend to the other person. And most of us aren’t taught how to give a sincere apology.

So here’s your chance to change your behavior. These are the steps you can take when you’ve hurt someone:

  1. Acknowledge their pain. Even if you think they’ve misunderstood what you’ve said or done. Try to identify what they’re feeling. Acknowledge that you can see how your actions triggered that feeling.
  2. Tell them that you care about their feelings. Let them know that their pain matters. You do not want to be the cause of their pain because you love this person, and it hurts you to know that you have been, in this case.
  3. Make your apology specific. I’m sorry that I worried you by not letting you know I was running late. I’m sorry that I made it sound like it’s your fault, when it’s not.
  4. Make a commitment to change your behavior. From now on, I’ll text you if I’m running late. I’ll tell you that I need space and tell you when I’ll call back rather than hang up.
  5. Reaffirm your commitment to the person. I care about you and I care about our relationship. I’m going to demonstrate this through my actions.

The best way to practice giving sincere apologies is to practice self-compassion. When you accept your own mistakes and forgive yourself for making them, you learn that making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person. We all make them. We’re all just stumbling along, not knowing what we’re doing half the time.

So self-forgiveness goes a long way.

Ironic, isn’t it? That the best way to learn how to be kind to others is to be kind to ourselves? That’s a win-win, if you ask me.

Be Brave

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I once saw a news story where this guy jumped into the river to save a drowning person. When asked how he was able to be so brave, he said he didn’t really think about it. He just did it. While this is an amazing thing to do, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an act of courage, because he wasn’t afraid. There isn’t really anything courageous in doing something that doesn’t scare you. What’s the risk in that?

I asked readers to share the bravest thing they’ve ever done. A lot of them had to do with taking risks like starting a business, joining the army, going back to school. Most people play it safe–stay in the career or relationship or neighborhood that isn’t fulfilling because of the fear that whatever they choose could be worse. Not many things are scarier than the unknown.

Some people said the bravest thing they’ve ever done was to embrace a painful life experience. Going through childbirth alone, without drugs. Facing a diagnosis of a brain tumor. Watching a loved one die. I had not expected this, but I guess it’s true that life will inevitably throw experiences our way that require us to be brave. No one gets through unscathed.

I would say the bravest thing I’ve ever done was to be single. I had been in a relationship nonstop from 15 to 45, and when I knew that one relationship was about to end, I would start another one so that there was no period of time when I was alone. I was ashamed of this, but I was more afraid of being by myself. And I stayed in a lot of unsatisfying relationships because of this fear. So for me, being single for 4 years was pretty courageous.

In my search to discover how to be a good person, the answer I found was unexpected. To be a good person, to be loving, we must be self-aware. We have to look inward and be with all of those things about ourselves that we try so hard not to face. Our flaws. Our mistakes. Our secrets. We have to accept them, forgive ourselves for them, and understand that this, too, is what it means to be human.

Those who do so can be loving because they know that we are all the same. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. We all harbor secrets. So who am I to say that I am better than anyone else? We’re all traveling the same road, doing the best that we can. We are all deserving of compassion.

I would say that this is the most difficult kind of bravery of all–to face what is inside us. This is the reason that people come to therapy–and why everyone can benefit from therapy. We aren’t taught how to face our demons. We are told to suck it up, push through, instead. And in the midst of a crisis, that is an important skill to have. But in the aftermath, we have to take time to make sense of what we’ve experienced. That’s when we need to spend some time looking within.

In teaching clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that they are learning how to feel their feelings but not respond reflexively to them. Just because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we have to avoid flying. We can still book the flight. We can be afraid but do it, anyway. We can be brave.

What will your next act of courage be?

Words of Wisdom

Be You

I’ve been playing a game with some friends where we alternate asking a question to get to know the other person–and ourselves–better. One of my favorites was: what advice would you give to your 16 year old self? My answer was not to date someone just because you’re afraid of being alone, because that habit gets harder to break with age.

I enjoyed hearing people’s answers so much that I decided to ask the same question to followers on my Facebook page and to share their answers on my blog so that we may all benefit from other people’s wisdom. Many of the answers were similar, so I’ve grouped them into categories and have given some of the actual responses.

  1. Be yourself.
    • Find acceptance within yourself first. Don’t look for acceptance from anyone but you.
    • Don’t believe all you hear about what others think, they may be jealous of what you have accomplished.
    • My 16 year old self would just need to be told that she is loved! That’s ALL! The rest will come.
  2. Be mindful.
    • Slow down!!!! I was in such a rush to be “grown”! Now I miss having just One Day where I don’t have to be an adult!
    • Life is a marathon…not a sprint…be patient and stay focused…the best is yet to come..
    • Enjoy every moment…don’t wish time away!
  3. Be kind.
    •  Kindness is magical; it is a real superpower that saves the world one little life at a time.
    • Love much and forgive often.
    • Whether you are struggling or at your very best, turn around and lend a hand to someone behind you.
  4. Be discerning.
    •  Wait a while longer for intimacy; it’s still too early and a decent guy will understand that.
    • You can’t make someone love you if they don’t.
    • Be careful who you choose as friends… not everyone is your friend.
    • You aren’t going to be an old maid….no really, trust me. Don’t cruise in cars with strangers, as the world isn’t a safe place.
    • Don’t believe any boy when he says “I love you”!
  5. Be open to advice.
    • Listen to the people who truly love you…they know life and will never steer you on a wrong path!
    • Listen to advice from your elders or parents but at the same time search for what is best for yourself.
    • You are not the best driver in the world, the ink isn’t even dry yet.
  6. Be prepared.
    • Study harder, do better in school, it only happens once!
    • Wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident.
    •  Invest in Google, Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, etc. And I’d give myself a list of the winners of every Superbowl, and World Series for 20 years.
  7. Be brave.
    • Take chances- you may not ever get the opportunity again.
    • Don’t be so self conscious! Go for it!!
    • Take setbacks with a grain of salt. Things happen for a reason.
    • Don’t be afraid to go to prom alone.

Thanks to all of the readers who offered advice! If you’re reading this post and your words of wisdom are not represented above, feel free to include yours in the comments section.