Self-Love Takes Practice

There are two memes I’ve seen go around in the last little while that got me to thinking about self-love.

The first goes…

“If I asked you to name all the things you love, how long would it take for you to name yourself?”

When I saw this, it stopped my in my tracks.

I have a pretty high opinion of myself (which by itself is something we’re not supposed to admit, but it’s just us here, right?) and yet, if I engaged in this question of naming the things I love, earnestly and for days, I bet it would have taken me a really, REALLY long time to put myself on the list.

What about you?

This isn’t a criticism, by the way. We’re taught to think of ourselves as inherently unworthy, needing of fixing up, and maybe someday, finally, if you do enough “self-help” or buy the right things, perhaps then, we’ll be good enough to love unconditionally.

So it’s no wonder it might take us a while to add ourselves to a list of things we love.

The second meme was a bit more manageable to chew…

"Name five things you love about you"My dear friend Kendra tagged me in it and I took it as a challenge. Could I, the advocate for recovering Good Girls and champion of Asking for What You Want, publicly name 5 things I love about myself in front of a bunch of people I don’t know on the internet? Kendra went first, which helped.

Here’s what I wrote.

After I posted it, my mind swam… what would people think? Was it arrogant to say that? Was I inviting trouble by talking about my boobs? The self-doubt monsters growled their growls, but I didn’t let them take over.

Self-love, as it turns out, is a practice — one I recommend you engage in at every possible opportunity. It can feel intimidating at first, but it’s so worth it to practice. See what I shared, and share your 5 self-loves here.

“OKAY” Is A Four-Letter Word

nookayTalking about what you want in bed (and for that matter, in life) is scary, tricky business. Admitting something you want takes guts, and no one wants to be laughed at or rejected for sharing something tender with a loved one.

Sometimes though, the pull toward intimacy and connection wins out and you get up the guts to ask for the thing you want. You share a secret desire. You make your move and then…

“Is this okay?”

“Was that okay?”

“Are you okay?”

That dreaded four-letter word rears its head. When it comes to sex and intimacy, I absolutely, without a doubt, hate the word “okay.” What’s so bad about okay? Let me explain:

1. It’s unclear.

When you ask if something is okay, it is maddeningly unclear what you’re asking. Are you checking for permission? To see if you’re still loved? To find out if your partner is willing to tolerate whatever it is you want or are doing?

What do you mean by “Okay?”

Usually, it’s some combination of the above. There’s a lot of complexity wedged into that four-letter word. And only two answers: “Yes” and “no.” (I guess silence or “um…” would be other options.)

What the heck are you actually asking?

And what is it that your partner is hearing?

You might be checking to see if your partner is on board with doing the thing, but they might be hearing that you’re asking if they will put up it.

Or, you might be needing reassurance, and their brusque “yeah” isn’t exactly doing the trick.

You might be asking if a thing is allowable in the context of your relationship, and your partner might be hearing you ask if they think you are okay, as a basic human being.

This lack of clarity leads to endless fights involving the phrase “but you SAID it was Okay!”

Sure. But nobody actually knows what that means. Asking about “okay” sidesteps more honest questions. Figure out what you really want to know, and ask about that instead.

2. It encourages gatekeeping.

“But what about consent?” you’re wondering. “How am I supposed to know if something’s okay, unless I ask if it’s… okay?!”

I’m thrilled with the attention that consent culture is getting lately. There are many people out there educating and advocating for clearer and more open expressions of consent out there, and it’s awesome.

We’ve already covered how “okay” is unclear, but there’s another problem with it.

When asking “is this okay?” one person is asking permission and the other person is acting as the gatekeeper. It’s like one person wants the sex and the other person has sex to give out. (Mainly in our culture, we act like men want sex all the time and their manliness depends on being able to get it, and women have to act like the guardians of chastity and virtue, and certainly not like sexual creatures with agency of their own, capable of co-creating a fun sexy time with their partners.)

This sets both people up to lose.

Consent is about agreements between equals about how they want to play together. When one person is trying to “get” something from another who “has” it, it’s more like applying for a permit in a bureaucracy. It’s like you sort of assume the person on the other side isn’t having any fun or pleasure.

And so we ask if it’s okay. Which leads to my third reason for hating “Okay.”

3. It’s a sadly low standard.

“Okay” is a really, really low standard to hold your relationships and sex life to.

If all the time you’re asking if thing are okay, and your partner says yes, then over time you have an … okay relationship. And an okay sex life.

You deserve better than this. So does your partner.

A whole lot better than this.

Most couples have never taken the time to talk about how they want their relationship or sex life to be. What if the standard was pleasurable, or enjoyable, or fun, or good? What if you made a game of finding things that rocked one another’s world, instead of aiming for okay?

Breaking the Habit

I still catch myself asking “Is this okay?” “Was that okay?” “Are you okay?” a few times a week, particularly with people I’m just getting to know, or when don’t know where I stand with someone. But it’s getting easier to notice and to ask something else instead. When you feel unclear or unreassured after an “okay” exchange, it’s a clue to stop, and be more precise about what you (or the other person) is asking for.

Up next: 27 Alternatives to Asking “Is This Okay?”

The Naked Truth About Desire Smuggling

The world is not friendly to our desires.

In over a decade of relationship coaching and sex ed, I’ve talked with thousands of people about why they don’t ask for what they want. Reasons include: not knowing what to want, not having the language to ask, and “why rock the boat when it’s good enough?”

But by and large, the main reason we don’t ask for what we want is fear.

Fear of rejection, humiliation, and judgment.

Fear of disappointment, shame, loss, or guilt.

Fear of repeating the past, missing out, hurting your partner, or feeling like a failure.

Fear of “what they will think,” not getting what you want, or putting too much at stake.

Fear rules our desires.

You know to be afraid of these things because you’ve experienced them.

  • The look of disdain on some adult’s face when you expressed curiosity about masturbation.
  • Being laughed at for your youthful eagerness and enthusiasm.
  • Hearing someone say “Ewww” after you shared a vulnerable truth.
  • Watching helplessly as a friend got judged for wanting something that seemed just a little “outside the box.”
  • Seeing people’s hearts be torn apart on reality TV, and their imperfections shredded to bits on the internet.

The world is hostile to the sweet, fumbling, imperfect nature of desire.


And so, to cope, we hide our desires from ourselves and from the people we love. And in the process, we become desire smugglers.

Desire Smuggling: Hiding what you really want from yourself and/or a loved one, then, finding cover strategies to get (at least pieces of) what you want.

We do it to stay safe. It’s a reasonable response to a toxic environment of shame and judgment.

At the same time, desire is powerful. Even in the face of fear, rejection, guilt, loss… we want what we want. And through better or worse means, we will try to get it.

Desire smuggling is something that we all do. The stakes are high around what you truly want, and being direct can seem outright terrifying in the face of these (often well-justified) fears.

What does it look like?

How to Spot Desire Smuggling

When I teach about smuggling desire, a class of 20 people can easily come up with 50-80 examples of ways we try to get what we want when we think it’s not available. From the merely annoying to the truly toxic, techniques of smuggling desire are endlessly creative.

desirepersistantDesire is persistent and will not be denied. When it doesn’t feel safe to want what you want, you will try to get it anyway. Here are some things you might do:

  • Expect telepathy
  • Make wishes
  • Fake spontaneity
  • Get drunk/high to remove inhibitions
  • Hint
  • Ask if the other person wants the thing you want
  • Rationalize cost/benefit
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Send articles about the thing
  • Give statistics about the thing
  • Say “people like…” (instead of owning it yourself)
  • Try to convince
  • Try to get the other person to say it
  • Complain that you don’t get it
  • Be “nice” and hope to be rewarded
  • Make unspoken deals
  • Issue ultimatums
  • Emotional blackmail
  • Tack on obligation to a “gift”
  • Minimize by saying “just” or “only”
  • Guilt-trip
  • Be passive-aggressive
  • Blame
  • Want the other person to guess
  • Wait for the right time
  • Wait for a sign
  • Buy into a romance myth (“If you really loved me…”)
  • Assume they should “just know”
  • Withhold
  • Force
  • Non-consensual taking
  • Be macho
  • Be loud and bombastic
  • Punish your partner for not giving it to you
  • Attack/judge someone asking for what you want
  • Attack/judge someone getting what you want
  • Look for other, less-scary places to get it
  • Shame yourself for having that desire
  • Shame others with the same desire
  • Avoid it altogether
  • Make sugar-coated demands
  • Compromise
  • “Purchase” it by doing other things
  • Get needs met without owning them
  • Tell a story about the thing desire
  • Martyr yourself in hopes of getting it
  • Substitute something else
  • Don’t explore internal dissonance
  • Bully
  • Criticize after the fact
  • Spiritually bypass
  • Settle
  • Play options roulette (where one option is the one you want)

Desire smuggling is a clue.

Looking at this list, it’s easy to criticize, blame or shame yourself (or your partner) for doing these things. After all, some of them are pretty shitty behavior, and others are just not terribly effective for getting what you want.

When you catch yourself (or someone you love) smuggling desire, the last thing you want to do is to criticize. Instead, have some compassion for yourself, and recognize two things:

  1. These behaviors are a totally sane and rational response to an environment where desire is discounted, rejected, ridiculed, shamed and otherwise devalued.
  2. Desire smuggling is a clue that there’s something you want.

When you catch this clue, then you can do something more effective with your desire. You can ask for what you want. You can bring it into your relationships. You can share with a community of trust where your desire will be celebrated. You can explore it safely. You can apologize for not being straightforward and find new ways of creating connection with the people you love.

When it’s safe to have desire, you no longer have to smuggle it. 

photo credits: OUCHcharley, Ray_from_LA

Relationship Survival At Burning Man – What You Need To Know

bmcoupleDear Marcia,

I’m going to Burning Man this year for the first time with my partner and I want to make sure our relationship doesn’t implode. What are some things we should watch out for?

– Playa Bound

Dear Playa Bound,

Burning Man is a weird and wonderful place where all sorts of mind-blowing stuff can happen. However, some things are predictable. Here’s what to know ahead of time. 

You will fight and it will probably be because you’re dehydrated. If you catch yourselves fighting doesn’t assume it mean the end of the world, and instead check your self-care. My camp has a rule that if you saw two people getting snippy with each other, separate them and make them drink water and sit in the shade for a bit. This rule saved several relationships that I know of. Make it your own. 

Time works differently on the playa. When you’re making dates with your sweetie, try to schedule them according to the sun, rather than the clock. It’s much easier to meet up back at camp “around sunset” than to try to do something at 4pm. Clocks have little meaning in an environment of immediacy, and you’ll only cause yourself frustration if you try to keep both of you on some sort of schedule. 

Expectations will fuck you up. If you think something is going to be a certain way, or your sweetie is going to do a certain thing, you will almost always be disappointed. It is far better to set some intentions, do the best you can, assume others are doing the best they can, take responsibility for getting your own needs met, and then roll with whatever shows up.

Mushroom People at Burning Man 2010There will be eye-candy. Lots of it. Sweaty, scantily-clad eye candy. Get clear ahead of time what is and isn’t okay, and what your intentions are in regards to this eye candy. Do you want to make out with strangers together on Threesome Thursday? Look but don’t touch? Plan one day where you go your separate ways and whatever happens happens? Talk ahead of time about what you each want, but don’t push each other’s boundaries. Burning Man is a strange, magical place, but you want to be on speaking terms when you leave. Respect your boundaries and agreements. 

You will need lube. It’s the desert. When it’s time for the two of you to make sweet, sweet love, make sure you have lube, water, condoms and baby wipes ready to go. 

For more handy tips, check out the Burning Man Relationship Survival Guide.

Talk things through ahead of time, but stay flexible and spontaneous. Be nice to each other and enjoy the ride! 



photos courtesy quantamlars and michael holden via flickr

16 Ways to Talk About Consent (That Are Pretty Sexy…)

yesbymadhavaHere’s a stack of wonderful ways to check in with your partner, to find out more of what they want, and to communicate your own desires. Try some today!

  1. “Do you like when I…?”
  2. “I like when you…”
  3. “Will you…?”
  4. “How does this feel?”
  5. “Do you want me to…?”
  6. “Do you want to…?”
  7. “Is there anything you want to try?”
  8. “Show me what you like.”
  9. “Do you want to go further?”
  10. “Do you want to stop?”
  11. “Can I…?”
  12. “Does this feel good?”
  13. “Are you happy?”
  14. “Are you comfortable?”
  15. “Are you having a good time?”
  16. “Is this good for you?”

* I found this floating around the internet without citation. If you know who gets original credit for this, please let me know!

 Mighty fine thanks to Madhava for the pic.

What I mean when I talk about love is…

valentine-heartLove is confusing. It’s messy and unpredictable and wild and untamable. It obeys no laws, adheres to no restrictions. It’ll knock the socks off of you and everyone around you. And the wind out of you too.

What with the wind and the socks, it sort of feels like being in a tumble dryer.

But no one puts that on a Hallmark card.


The Greeks had 4 or 7 or 8 words for love… like ἀγάπη, ἔρως, φιλία, στοργή, μανία.

Wikipedia has a bunch of them. But you can’t find love on Wikipedia.


What I mean when I talk about love is so many things but many of them point to being kind.

Being kind and not being attached.

Being kind and not being attached and expanding. Expanding into something you didn’t know you could be.

And there’s also something about being curious. Endlessly, hopelessly curious.

And devoted. Which implies LOYAL but also implies SURRENDER. (Well, shit, that’s scary.)

Yes. Love is kind and not attached and expanding and curious and devoted and loyal and surrendering.

All that. While not getting lost and keeping your center. With, like, boundaries and stuff(Because if you can’t say “I” then you can’t say “I love you.”)

What I mean when I talk about love is being kind and not attached and expanding into the unknown and being curious and being devoted and loyal and surrendering.

I mean all of that. But what I really mean is being kind.


A lover once said to me, with wonder in his eyes, “Love feels like love.”

Love doesn’t feel like obligation, or coercion, or fear, or doubt, or a battle to be won. Those things might be there, but those aren’t love.

I wanted to take him into my arms and say, “Of course it does, dear.” But he was already there.


Love is safe. Profoundly safe. But it FEELS dangerous…

Can I trust this much? Can I really let go? Can I surrender? Is it okay? Is it okay? Is it okay?

Is it okay?

I don’t know. Is it?

You have to answer that for yourself.


What I mean when I talk about love is that it’s scary to love and it’s scary to be loved and it’s scary to let go into someone loving someone else, and it’s all very vulnerable.

I spend my life helping people navigate all the things around love: fears and boundaries and desires and what about me? and how do you build a life with somebody that you love and what do you do when there is more than one person you love and what if you love someone but the sex isn’t working, or what if the sex is working but you want something else too and so on.

But none of this is love.

What I mean when I talk about love is that it’s worth it.


(Originally published on the Successful Non-Monogamy mailing list.)

Who are your role models?

513px-Katharine_Hepburn_promo_pic“She was independent. She chose her way of life – hurting no one and never vying for approval.”

This is what Lauren Bacall said about Katharine Hepburn after her death.

I love this quote for so many reasons. I love it when powerful women build each other up. I love that it reflects Hepburn as the kind of woman who neither needed to be “good” to be great, nor “bad” to be noticed. And I love that it points out that women have the opportunity to choose how we live.

In a time when most Hollywood actresses played to stereotypes, Katharine Hepburn dared to go a different direction. She was labeled “box office poison” early in her career and rejected the Hollywood publicity machine but she made her own (massive!!) success outside of these power structures.

Hepburn donned mannish suits while never caving on her femininity, and found ways of playing powerful characters even as she aged out of being a starlet. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she never remarried, but did have a 26-year committed relationship with Spencer Tracy that she kept firmly out of the public eye.

All of these things point to what it means to be a Great Woman instead of a Good Girl. A good girl would have tried to conform to what the publicists and studios wanted. A good girl would have tried to stay young, and she certainly would have worn gowns and dresses at every turn. A good girl might have tried to reject these constraints by rebelling. But a Great Woman stays in her center, even as life throws its difficulties at her.

(I don’t know about you, but even THINKING about all that “trying” exhausts me!)

The world is full of people and messages that are all about telling you to be unfailingly nice, not “too much,” and ever-accommodating. That’s why it’s crucial to have examples of women who have done it differently. Not necessarily “bad” girls, but actual, grown-ass women who have found their own path and built their own lives on their terms.

In other words: role models.

Katharine Hepburn is one of mine. Who are yours?

The AFWYW Guide to Holiday Sanity (In 4 Easy-ish Steps)

The Donner Party.
The threatening hordes.
The family hurricane.
The microscope parade.

What do these words have in common? They’re all terms I’ve heard my clients use in the past week, referring to their families and the holidays.

319693504_bd75a21dfaNo matter how much “work” you might have done on yourself, spending several days in close quarters with people who really, really know you (but also kinda don’t) can be crazy-making. There are explicit obligations and implied “shoulds.” You may find yourself slipping back into old behaviors like people-pleasing or not speaking up. You might have spent all year practicing asking for what you want, but when it comes to the last Christmas cookie, or making sure that you and your partner get some alone time, “what you want” slides to the bottom of the priority list and you find yourself curled up in a ball wondering what the hell happened.

Keeping your center and staying grounded, even in the chaos, can make for the best holidays yet. In that spirit, here are four questions to help you navigate the holiday season, whether you’re spending them with your blood family, chosen family, or some crazy batch of strangers you haven’t decided if you’re going to keep yet.

Question 1: What can I let go of?

Around the holidays, there are tons of rules and things you “should” do, many of which fall under the heading of “tradition.” The problem is, as you go through life and come into contact with more and more people, the traditions, obligations and expectations multiply. The pressure to participate sometimes comes from other people, and sometimes comes from ourselves. But ask yourself: Do I really HAVE to bake 4 different kinds of cookies? Could I let go of some of the decorations this year? Would the world REALLY end if I don’t go the Boxing Day brunch? What would actually happen if I took a nap instead of going to the movies this afternoon with 12 relatives?

Simplify your holiday season by opting out of the things you are doing for no good reason. Check out what you can legitimately just let go of. Ask the people around you how it would be for them if you did things a little differently this year. Remember too, that a no to one thing is a yes to something else.

Question 2: What can I accept is so?

Your ex has always been a bit of a space cadet.
Your mom knows EVERYTHING. (Or at least acts like it.)
You know your dad is going to grumble about making dinner.
This is the third year your partner has tried to quit smoking for New Year’s and he’s ALWAYS a jerk for 3 days.
And the kids never fail to wake you up at 5am Christmas morning.


Getting angry with people for being who they are, and not being what you want them to be is a massive source of stress, especially over the holidays. Wishing they were different is one thing. Getting angry because they’re the way they are is like getting angry because it’s raining when you want to go on a picnic. If you find yourself saying that so-and-so “always” or “never” does something, then maybe it’s time to consider that that’s how it is, and make an alternate plan or adjust your expectations.

Much like a rainy day picnic, accepting what’s so is about finding workarounds and alternative plans. Which means – get creative! If your dad is going to grumble about making dinner, maybe it’s time to find a different chef. If the kids will wake you up at 5am, plan for quiet time after all the presents are opened and squeeze a nap in. If your mom wants to tell you about all of the things, be curious and ask her questions about things she actually DOES know a lot about. And tell your partner that you support his non-smoking, but you’ll be taking a little space for a few days.

Question 3: What can I do for me?

It’s so easy to get swept up in the spirit of giving that your bank account shrivels, your waistline expands, and you start to feel haggard and grinch-y. Before long, you’re snapping at the people you care about, and you’re wondering if it’s too late to return all those gifts and buy a ticket to Tahiti (or Tallahassee). Alone.

It’s time to do something for yourself. Take a page from my dad’s book and buy something you really want and wrap it up with a note from Santa. Or, take a deep breath every 20 minutes. Schedule a real vacation for a few months down the road. Go to a yoga class. Trade babysitting with the neighbors to get a night alone. Go for a run. Set aside some of those cookies you made into a special “me only” tin for you to enjoy after the hordes descend.

(If you find yourself saying, “but there’s no time!” may I refer you back up to the first question: What can you let go of?)

Question 4: What will I opt out of next year?

Much of the time we end up doing stuff over the holidays because someone else set it into motion before we had a chance to figure out which way is up. You can get sucked up into another person’s vision for the holidays, and before you know it, you are trapped in a three-day “It’s a Wonderful Life” marathon.

This is really about setting expectations early and often. If it’s too late to salvage the holidays this year, plan for next year and start setting boundaries now. Appreciate what’s good about being here or doing this thing now, while you’re in it, and then, tell the relevant person that you won’t be participating next year. Think about what you’d rather do instead. Set up a reminder for yourself for next year, so that it pops up between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

(Note to self: DON’T commit to Aunt Edna’s Handel-Messiah-sing-along-and-all-you-can-eat-buffet next year. DO schedule with Jamie and Casey EARLY.)

Best wishes for a very happy holiday season and a spectacular New Year.


Mighty fine thanks to Dylan Tweny for the elf pic.


A Broken Down, Hurting Howl of Want

You know what I love? I love it when one of you replies to me and plays the “I Want” Game from the Uncover Your Desires e-course. The answers are so varied and heartfelt and I feel touched every single time one pops into my inbox. Some are simple. Some are playful. Some are so, so sad I can feel the longing and want jump out of the screen at me.

SadnessI found one of my own “I Want” games today, and I wanted to share it with you. This is from a few months ago, when I was in the midst of what felt like an incredible betrayal. My mind was going crazy. I had been hurt tremendously by someone close to me and I was in so much pain. Every moment was consumed with “Why? Why? Why?”

I knew from experience that playing the “I Want” game was a path to reconnecting with my own desires. Circling around the endlessly unanswerable question of why this had happened to me was getting me nowhere, so I played.

It didn’t fix everything (it took months of conversation with the person who had hurt me to sort things out fully, and that bit is still tender for me.) But playing did crack the door open to other parts of myself that were getting lost in the pain. It was reminded me that what I wanted was bigger than just the fear and grief and loss.

Every bit of my own insecurity, ambition and pain is in this list, a snapshot of a moment of desire. So much felt so scary to me at the time, and this “I Want” is my own hurting howl of want, entirely unedited… which makes it especially edgy to put it out for the whole internet to read. But I believe that it’s only by sharing our messy bits that we get the space and permission we need to be whole, so I’m sharing it here with you, now. Here goes…


What I Want…

I want him to pay attention to me, to realize how much I’m hurting, to take more than just 20 minutes and actually GET ME, to realize I’m not demanding anything of him, that I”m simply asking something of him, and for him to give me an answer.

I want to not have to walk away because he won’t give me an answer.

I want to be able to enjoy the incredible beauty I’m surrounded by right now, here at my friend’s estate, without thinking about the pain I feel from having been dropped.

I want to relive that moment of eating the apple and the orange from the garden, slow it down even more.

I want to throw my iPhone in the trash. It seems, in this moment, to be the source of so much of my pain.

I want to pay attention to my breath. I want to not sound so much like a hippie when I say stuff like that.

I want to remember. I want to hold on. I want to hold all these moments. I want to capture these things. I want to not want that, because I know the futility of it, but I want it anyway, and I’m letting myself want it.

I want to be heard. I want to be loved. I want that what he said was true to be actually true. I want my trust to have not been misplaced.

I want to be a better cook. I want to know what flavors go with what and to be able to just know that that is the sausage to get, and those are the greens that go with it. I want to not be intimidated when people are having a potluck and I’m supposed to bring something. There are so many foodies here!

I want to be more disciplined about my writing. I want to be able to transfer the discipline I have in showing up for difficult conversations or creating experiences for people into my writing.

I want to understand the longing that other people seem to feel that I feel so rarely. I want to get what it is that makes other people tick. I want to not feel aversion to some of the things that lay under the surface of that ticking. I want to be able to be with it all.

I want flowers in my home on a regular basis.

I want less of my life to revolve around my damn iPhone.

I want to be sending and receiving more letters in the mail. I consider myself lucky that I have that at all. I want more of that.

I want to be speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people on a regular basis. I want my book to be written and published. I more than want these. I will make these happen. I believe these things will fulfill something deep in me that is more than want. I want to fulfill that.

I want my family of choice to feel stable again. I want to know where I fit in, whether there is a there there anymore. I want to be able to relax into knowing when I will see people and that I will be held. I want us all to stop being in so much pain over so many complex and hard things. I want my friends to stop breaking up and separating and for things to feel settled again.

I want to be producing more than I currently have the means to produce. I want more support professionally, and I want it to feel good and inspiring.

I want to go on a book tour. 🙂

I want to stop arguing with him in my head. I want to be heard.

I want to know how to end this list.


(If you don’t know the “I Want” game, sign up for the free Uncover Your Desires e-course right here, and you can play too.)

How to Have a Good Time, Even At The Most Painfully Awkward Party You’ve Ever Been To

A few weeks ago, I was at a birthday party that would easily win the award for “Awkward Social Event of 2013″. It was a tiny event, with only about 16 people, from two different social circles, and a whole lot of weird dynamics and history amongst the people participating. (Did he sleep with her? Is she speaking to them? What’s going on with those two? IS THIS EVEN HAPPENING?!)

awkward momentNo matter which way I turned, it was painfully uncomfortable. Everyone I knew at the party was dealing with their own awkwardness, so there was no relief in sight, but I didn’t exactly want to leave. After all, I wanted to celebrate my friend’s birthday, not to mention there was also a sort of train-wreck fascination I had with everything that was not being said.

I was stuck, trapped in conversations I didn’t want to be in, with people who weren’t admitting what was really going on, even though I could see it.

In a word, it sucked.

Now, as a rule, I don’t drink in social situations to handle discomfort. I prefer to stay with my feelings and see what can be discovered there, or to consciously choose to leave the situation rather than checking out. But in this case, I was on my way to the bar when the voice of my good friend Kye came into my head, saying “If you don’t like the experience you’re having, do something different. What is the experience you want to be having?”

Suddenly, everything crystalized for me, and I knew what I wanted to do.

Kye and I have had this conversation many times over the 10 or so years we’ve known each other. All group social events — parties, bars, clubs, workshops, Disneyland, you name it — are set up to produce a certain kind of experience. Some are set up well, and some are set up poorly, but there is always something on the part of the people putting it together that is “supposed” to happen.

Most of us just go into the experience, get swept up into whatever is going on, and kind of get spit out on the other side, having had whatever happened to us happen. Sometimes the experience is satisfying, and we might go back, trying to capture that initial feeling again. Other times, like at this party I was at, it can be head-scratching or downright anxiety producing.

The secret is in those two sentences Kye said to me. Let’s break it down:

If you don’t like the experience you’re having, do something different.

Anything different will give you a different experience, although that might not be what you want, either. Still, taking action puts in you in the driver’s seat. And making a conscious choice to do something different keeps you from doing whatever unconscious behavior you would normally do that keeps you stuck in a pattern (like leaving, or drinking, or checking out, or flirting with someone to get validation, or picking a fight with your partner… not that I’ve EVER done any of those!)

If you can’t get so far as to actually creating the experience you WANT to have, you can at least start having a different experience than what you are having, simply by trying something different than what you’ve been doing.

What is the experience you want to be having?

It’s not uncommon before going out for Kye to ask, “What’s your intention tonight? Why are you going out?” By asking before we even hit the party or club, I have an opportunity to ground myself in why I’m even doing the thing I’m doing. If the answer is “because it seems fun” or “because all of y’all are going,” that’s a clue to come up with something more internally motivated, or to consider bailing.

But even if you haven’t thought about it in advance, asking what the experience you WANT to have opens the door for you to get what you want in a situation.

As I looked around the room, I noticed what I was drawn to, and it became very clear that I wanted four things:

  • To cuddle and talk to one of my good girlfriends who was having a hard time.
  • To play with and celebrate the birthday girl in her silly fun ways.
  • To try to connect with one of the people I had my own awkward history with.
  • And to surrender to my not-so-enlightened desire to watch the train-wreck social stuff unfold. (Hey, I never said I was a good person. 🙂 )

What happened next was not all sunshine and roses…

My friend and I clung to each other for dear life for a little while, and eventually relaxed into feeling more playful and less stressed due the physical contact. (That was nice.)

I got to see the birthday girl shine in her particular way, and I felt closer to her for having been there. (Awwww… cute.)

And when I finally admitted I actually wanted to watch everything unfold like it was a soap opera (instead of trying to help or avoid it), I was able to enjoy the silly machinations that humans go through to try to keep themselves safe, and have compassion for the people involved. And, yes, I did laugh at some of it, because I am not always that good of a person. But you know, giving myself permission to be a bad person can often make me a better person. (Score one for embracing imperfection.)

As for the person I had the awkward history with… well. Let’s just say I accidentally managed to make things HOLY CRAP JESUS MUCH MORE AWKWARD. Sometimes, it’s shocking how massively I can stick my foot in my mouth. I mean, seriously, a clusterfuck. An OMG-Did-That-Actually-Just-Come-Out-Of-My-Mouth, I-Totally-Didn’t-Mean-That clusterfuck.

(The jury’s still out on that one. I don’t know if I will ever be able to hang in the same room as that guy without wanting to hang my tail between my legs.)

But you know what? I stayed til the end of the party, and Clusterfuck Of Doom aside, I actually ended up having a really good time. Even at the Awkward Social Event of the Year.

How do you handle awkward moments?