Overcoming Fear: Speaking on my First Panel

This week I spoke on my first ever panel at the SAG Foundation on ‘Growing Your Social Media Following’. I was absolutely terrified before going out there, but let me just say it went really well. Except for the moment I set off an alarm and locked myself and all the other badass panelists in the elevator right before the panel began… more on that later. The other panelists were: Arda @ardaocaltv (our talented moderator), Heidi @marketing4actors (social media pro), Tony @tonyhowell (digital guru), and Jessy @socialmediaagent (next level brand partnership leader).

Lillian Isabella at SAG Foundation

I was asked to be on this panel because I’m an actor, writer, model, and social media expert. After graduating NYU Tisch with a BFA in Theatre I dove right into social media and built a large following including 45,000+ on Facebook and 22,000+ on Twitter. Then I took on clients including Tribeca Film Institute, I increased their Instagram following by over 300%, their Twitter following by over 50%, and their Instagram following by over 25%. Needless to say I love social media and the power it has to connect people.

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Okay back to the panel – this was my first time ever speaking on a panel but I have spoken in front of large crowds before. The thing I love most about public speaking is it’s a chance to genuinely connect with a roomful of other humans and get them excited. In this case we were talking about something I’m usually pretty jazzed about anyway.

The panel was all about looking at social media from an actor/brand perspective. How can you best utilize social media to amplify your brands reach and message? It became clear pretty quickly that all of us panelists agree social media is about genuinely connecting with people more than being a sounding board for your artistic endeavors. Social Media Pro Tip: Use your storytelling abilities to create an engaging narrative about who you are and what you’re about then connect with the people you want to work with.

You can watch the panel in its entirety here:

I want to work with everyone who spoke on the panel on Monday and I’m thrilled I got to meet them. Also although my nerve wracked brain fantasized about suddenly not being able to attend the panel (safety!) I’m so happy I was in fact able to go. It was a life changing experience and I can’t wait to speak on a panel again. Making people laugh is really addicting. Not so funny was when the amazing NY Program Director of the SAG Foundation Melissa Zakri Zareh, the other 3 panelists and I got stuck in the elevator because I accidentally leaned on the emergency button with my butt. Luckily Melissa used her staff badge to whisk us out of that situation and get the elevator doors to open. Sorry team! Haha. Okay maybe it was a tiny bit funny, but only because it didn’t last long.

On a more serious note, I’m noticing those moments where I do something in spite of my fear often wind up being life changing for me. I’m reminded of that Kafka story where the man stands in front of a gate waiting for permission from the gatekeeper to go through. He waits for many years until he’s on the verge of death but then finds out the door was only meant for him to go through this whole time and now it’s too late and it’s closed to him forever. Yikes! In reality we are both that eager striving man and that gatekeeper. Our fear often keeps us from walking through a gate of opportunity, growth, and new expansion. However we also hold the power to change that and push through. Take that, fear.

Facing Fear: Starbucks and Senators Oh My!

This week I drank my first cup of fancy Starbucks coffee ever. I have the metabolic disorder #Phenylketonuria (PKU), which makes it so that I can’t break down the amino acid Phenylalanine found in food high in protein, more on that here. This includes cow’s milk and is why I hadn’t tried any of those macchiato confections – because let’s be real they’re straight up sugar.

Besides, I’m not a big coffee drinker and wouldn’t want to drink straight black coffee. However a couple years ago Starbucks added Almond Milk and Coconut Milk as substitute options, both are MUCH lower in protein than cows milk and are PKU friendly.

Once I could try one of Starbucks’ fancy coffees I delayed it because on some level I was scared to. I had thought of Starbucks as something I couldn’t enjoy for so long I was in denial that it wasn’t so anymore. Now I understand what all the fuss is about.

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I’ve been wanting to take my advocacy for PKU to the next level for a while but the idea of reaching out to a politician was a bit scary. What would I say? Would they even take me seriously?

Last week I emailed one of my Senators to ask if I could speak with her about sponsoring the Medical Nutrition Equity Act. The Act would provide public and private insurance coverage for physician prescribed medical foods – medical formulas (my PKU shake) and low protein modified foods for children and adults with PKU and other inborn errors of metabolism.

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I love drinking my shake. It’s called Phenyl Ade Essential

This is incredibly important because the medical formulas and foods ensure people with PKU, such as myself, are able to function at their full capacity instead of becoming mentally disabled. Without insurance the cost of these medical formulas and foods runs approximately $12,000- $15,000 per year.

Right now coverage differs state to state and many families with a loved one with PKU find it incredibly challenging to get the help they need.

Yesterday afternoon I got an email from a senior advisor to Senator Gillibrand and I will be speaking with the advisor about the act soon. I’m excited and a little intimidated but I’ll let you know how it goes!

Overcoming Fear – Directing My 1st Film

I’ve wanted to try my hand at directing for a couple years, been curious about it, daydreamed about it, and even imagined accepting an Academy Award for doing it, but until two weeks ago I hadn’t made one yet. I came up with all the excuses for why not, but mainly it was because I was scared to get started.

Well, last month I was invited to take part in a film challenge called Film Force Five an independent project led by Jose Rodriguez (Director Documentary Programs at Tribeca Film Institute) and Timothy Noble. It was just the push I needed. Psyched the Universe threw this opportunity my way, I accepted and on May 2nd, 2017 I produced and directed my first short film, Working It Out!

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Jose and Timothy sent five filmmakers (including me!) a short skeleton script containing only dialogue and asked us to interpret the genre, setting, character details, action and scene directions, etc. They requested we approach the script with unexpected direction and to feel free to be weird and original. We had one month to interpret the script, go through the pre-production process, and shoot and edit the film. It was intense, exactly what I needed to push through the fear, throw myself into action, and finally make a film.

IMG_4075Since we weren’t able to add any dialogue it forced me to concentrate on telling the story visually – which is what filmmaking is all about! Also, being weird in my interpretation of the script was fun. The script originally only had two characters in it, but I split one of the characters into two without changing the order of the dialogue. I’m grateful to the talented actors Anna Fikhman, Laura Riveros, and Andrew James Gordon who dove into the unusual script and had fun with it.

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My DP/ Editor Benny Krown was also a great asset to have on set. Due to the tight pre-production and shooting schedule, we had to think fast and make changes on the fly. Benny knew what he was doing with the camera and that made ALL the difference. I was happily able to focus on rehearsing with the actors when I needed to.

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The experienced Sound Mixer Ruben Morales was also invaluable to have on set! We had a spectacularly noisy park location with airplanes flying overhead and a drill going on somewhere nearby. Without Ruben, we would’ve been in trouble. Ryan Pattison was on board to help with sound and Sophia Rodriguez (my sister) wound up with a 1st AD credit because of how much she contributed on the day of. I originally just asked her to be the photographer so I’m grateful for her willingness to help.

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I had always found it funny how Academy Award winners seem so shocked to be winning one. Don’t we all imagine winning one at some point and practice speeches in our heads? Yet to actually put our dreams into motion requires a shift of mentality that pushes the award-winning daydreams out of mind.

By the time I had finished shooting the film I was just so grateful it happened. That by some miracle, the actors came to set safely, the equipment worked, it didn’t rain, we finished filming in under eight hours, we got enough shots to make a film, we all got along, we made it happen.

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Directing is fun beyond my wildest dreams. On set I literally jumped up and down with excitement when we got a great take. I loved balancing all the different elements of the production – sound, shot list, actors, scheduling, feeding everyone. I was in my element. That’s where the joy of creating lies – in taking action, making it happen, and teamwork. Take that, fear.

I learned a lot, gained experience, and created a fun short film that passes the Bechdel test (of course).

Facing Fear – Improv in a Bar

I haven’t written a post in longer than I’d like but in the past month, as I work to overcome fear, I’ve been going out, doing more, meeting new people, and thrusting myself into new situations.

Just yesterday I performed improv in a bar with a group of friends from my Upright Citizens Brigade improv class. I had never performed in a bar before, and had performed in an improv show only once before about two years ago.

When they asked me to join them my initial reaction was AHHHH! Perform live in a bar? There will be (drunk uninhibited) people there watching us! But I barreled through the fear and said ‘yes why not?!’ After all, I’d get to perform! Performing is one of my absolute favorite things to do.

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As I got ready to head out to the venue last night I kept wondering how the night would go. Would the audience greet us as welcome entertainment or intruders on their night out? Would they enjoy our show or wish they were elsewhere? You know typical fearful thoughts.

I hadn’t eaten dinner yet so once I got there I wolfed down some fries and a glass of wine. My friends and I all played a verbal warm up game together. We’d pick someone in the group and name a category then they’d list the first five things that came to mind. I hadn’t played that game before but it was fun and helped loosen me up and get my mind churning. (I’m sure the glass of wine helped too.)

Then we went downstairs to the underground black box theatre. Two improv groups went before us and they each got about 15 minutes. I could tell the audience was an incredibly supportive one made up almost entirely of other improvisers, and that this was a safe space to play. As our time on stage got closer and closer my nerves started to flare up. I couldn’t BELIEVE what I was about to do. What we were about to do.

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Then it happened. The host called out our group name and we leapt out of our seats, high energy and willing to play. We asked for a one word suggestion from our audience to riff off of and then dove right in.

It was so fantastically fun! I’m proud of all of us because we left inhibition at the door, picked up on each others cues and built on each others ideas. It was improv as it should be – fun and alive and present.

I’m not saying we or I were perfect obviously and hopefully the more we practice the better we’ll get, but we were ON. We got a bunch of laughs too and claps after our individual scenes which is a rewarding feeling.

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I’m excited to perform with my friends in our class show this weekend and to keep exploring the world of improv. Pushing through my fear seems to frequently lead to reaching new heights of joy.

I also Instagrammed the story as it was happening so if you want to follow my adventures in real time follow me over there.

Dealing with Anxiety in my Creative Life

In the past couple of days, I’ve been particularly focused on overcoming anxiety and fear about my creative life. However, without a solid definition of what fear is, it kind of feels like I’m dealing with a nebulous blob of unpleasantness. What does ‘fear’ actually mean?

noun: Fear
1. an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

Thanks, Google. Now to adapt this general definition to what I’m specifically afraid of.

noun: Lillian’s Fear
1. an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that allowing myself to express my creativity is likely to cause pain.

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Photo credit: Joel Marsh Garland

Okay, now I’m going to break it down even further. Why do I believe that my creativity is likely to cause me pain?

  • I won’t be perfect right away.
  • I might tap into deep emotions that disturb me.
  • I might do something I feel good about and share it and then have to deal with unknown consequences.
  • It’s not safe to take action and change.
  • I might get rejected.
  • If I do express myself creatively in the ways I’ve already thought of, I’ll need to move on to new unknown ways of expressing myself.
  • Other people will know more about my creative capabilities and expect more from me, which will necessitate more growth and change.
  • I’ll be threatened by people who disregard my creativity and value their own more highly.
  • I’ll realize that my idols are people too and lose that safe fantasy of the creative person as other.
  • I’ll be held accountable for my actions as opposed to living in my safe ‘one day I will’ world of ideas.

A lot of what I wrote above has to do with the pain of change and moving into the unknown or losing a sense of safety. Those pain points can’t be avoided if I want to keep living a healthy full life, and I do.

It’s possible that it won’t be as tough to deal with that kind of pain as I strengthen my creative muscle and resilience over time. Maybe that’s how overcoming fear feels. I’ll likely open myself up to new challenges along the way and with my newfound strength overcome bigger obstacles and push through new levels of fear.

The first step is to accept my fears, express myself creatively anyway, and trust that everything will be okay.

Being Happy While Facing Fear

When you’re committed to overcoming fear, you’re signing up to challenge yourself and push past your comfort zone. This is no easy task. It comes with plenty of agonizing, trepidation, sweat, and possibly tears. However being in a constant state of stress as a by-product of facing fear is a recipe for burnout and not a good long-term plan.

This past Friday I was walking down the staircase of my NYC apartment in a bit of a funk. Now usually when I take the stairs I fervently wish not to run into anyone. It’s awkward, the staircase isn’t that wide and then I feel pressured by their tempo as they walk, do we have one flight between us? Two? Are they gaining on me? Etc…

So my initial reaction that morning as I was joined by a neighbor on the staircase was Ah! Another human. Wince. Are they going to talk to me?! Then I thought hey wouldn’t this be a good moment to practice facing fear and say hello?

I did and lucky for me this guy was in a GREAT mood. Picture an older Russian man with a light accent. I said hey, how are you? He said ‘good, Happy Friday!’ I said ‘yes, indeed!’ He went on to say the following as we made our way down to the lobby:

‘But every day is happy for me. You can do it. Happiness is a choice. It’s not easy, but you tell your mind what to think about. You can write a list of all the things that make you happy and then all the things that don’t, and cross off the things that don’t and you’re not allowed to think about those things. Only think of the good things. Be happy for your health, your beauty, your boyfriend. It’s not easy but you can do it. It’s the truth!’

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What?! Is this guy real or a psychic angel dropped down to help me out in a moment of need? No, but seriously it was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment to lift me out of my self-absorbed (if not justified) funk. Plus I LOVE lists and I’m definitely going to try his suggestion.

I waited a moment in front of the building untangling my headphones to listen to a podcast as he walked away ahead of me. When I looked up again a few seconds later he had disappeared, but his words are burned into my memory.

It’s been four days since I had that conversation with him but since then when I feel down I remind myself in a slight Russian accent ‘happiness is a choice.’ Somehow remembering that makes it easier to shrug off unhappy thoughts and brightens the path towards facing my fears. Happiness is a choice, and when I choose it life gets a little less scary.

 

Overcoming Fear, One Moment at a Time

Facing fear is necessary for me right now, I have to do it in order to continue growing and thriving. What is the point of life but to thrive while living it? Easily said.

When my boyfriend and I first started living together in NYC three years ago, I was always getting startled by his presence in the apartment. He’d turn around the corner and I’d jump externally but also my heart would jump up into my throat. Do you know that feeling? Ugh. Rollercoaster status but without the thrill of the drop.

My boyfriend is definitely not scary, he’s slightly taller than me, handsome, and really quiet. I’m the loud one. Nonetheless, it was starting to make him feel somewhat self-conscious because every time he turned the corner I was frightened. We adopted tactics to avoid the scare; he’d say ‘I’m entering the room now’ whenever he was coming into a room I was already in. This helped me a lot but admittedly wasn’t practical and certainly not a long term solution.

One evening I entered our pitch black bedroom and was completely surprised to find him in our bed, sleeping. I screamed at the top of my lungs because I was so startled. I woke him up and he shot up out of bed and screamed at the top of his lungs, which only made me scream even louder. When he clutched his chest in pain we realized enough was enough.

Obviously, it’s terrible to walk into a room where someone is peacefully sleeping and scream. He thought something terrible was happening, as anyone would. I have no idea why I was so startled that evening. It’s not logical to me but fear really isn’t a rational emotion.

We needed a new tactic that didn’t involve him announcing his presence because he can’t do that when he’s asleep – unless he developed some crazy lucid dreaming technique. So, now I peek around the corner before I enter a room to assess where he is.

I’m happy to say I have adjusted to living with a partner and have had no fearful reactions to his entering a room, or sleeping peacefully, in about 2 years or so.

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photo credit: Joel Marsh Garland

I suspect that a lot of the fears I have are similarly ridiculous and by catering to them I’m causing myself (and possibly others) undue stress and pain. Facing fear is necessary to continue to grow in my relationships, profession, and life generally. Dealing with anxiety, performance anxiety, fear of flying, fear of intimacy, it isn’t going to be easy, but my prediction is my day-to-day life (as well as that of those around me) will be vastly more complete (and less alarming) as a result. Time to let go.

Skating Through My Fear

Last weekend I went to a friends roller skating birthday party. I hadn’t been roller skating before and although I had rollerbladed as a kid, hadn’t done that in a good 16 years or so as well. The event took place after hours in a public school, a flashing disco ball hung above the doorway outside marking the entrance. By the time I arrived, twenty or so people were skating around in a repurposed school gym with Christmas lights hung all around the ceiling and a TV playing 80s music hung above the ‘rink’.

I was feeling pretty good about coming out, despite the long journey to BedStuy from Queens and the frigid cold. Soon as I stepped into the building my nose started to thaw and the man who greeted me was friendly and all smiles as he helped me find skates in my size. It wasn’t until I put the skates on and attempted to skate over to the rink that I suddenly realized how absolutely terrifying this was going to be. After nearly falling flat on my back several times, it took every ounce of courage I had to not take the skates off and sit by the chips and cupcakes all night.

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I saw some of my other friends sitting in chairs watching the skaters go by; they were waiting till they gathered enough confidence to get the skates on at all. I sorely wished I had waited to do the same. However my skates were on and there was nothing left to do but get moving and get used to the motion – left, right, left, right. Some super talented skaters whizzed past me dipping and twirling and skating backward and I watched in admiration and envy until I had to nervously look down at my own feet to make sure I was still shuffling along – left, right, left, right.

My friend whose birthday it was also hadn’t really skated before but she was all smiles in a beautiful flowing white dress. She’s a new friend and I’m completely grateful she’s in my life her positive energy and laughter are infectious. I felt like giving up and sitting on the sidelines and I did take a break to try and feel more grounded, in charge of my body and luxuriously safe, (and to eat a cupcake). Eventually, that got boring and I started to feel lazy. Plus the birthday girl was out there getting her groove on, so I powered up my nerve and went back out into the rink.

After I’d gone around and around maybe 30 times I started to get the hang of it. I started to let my feet get a little more creative with their gliding, pointing my toes towards each other and letting my skates glide close and then tilting my toes out and allowing my feet and legs to follow. By maybe the 40th time around the rink, I started to move my upper body in time with the music a bit, relaxing into the beat.

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By the end of the night, I was blowing past people and one of the guys who had been skating backward and doing tricks randomly held my hand and tried to get me to twirl around and I had to explain ‘oh no I’m new to this can’t spin yet!’. It felt damn good to be skating around with the wind blowing my hair back and the hum of laughter and other skaters swooshing by. Being in motion and allowing myself to go with the flow of everyone around me felt so positive. Pushing through my fear had yet again led to an adventure, a new experience, and a deeper appreciation for the variety of ways I can enjoy being alive.

Another day, another lesson learned about the importance of taking action in service of my values in spite of the limitations of my fears.

Lillian Isabella at top of Willis Tower

A Mini Vacation, Exploration, & Realization

I get nervous about flying and it would have been less scary to just stay at home and relax for Thanksgiving break but I moved through my fear and past my excuses, bought a plane ticket and got ready for adventure.

My boyfriend is the Technical Director on a Game of Thrones Behind the Scenes experience happening in Chicago this weekend – super cool gig – and I went down to join him for a Thanksgiving meet up with his extended family.

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I got to Chicago in one piece (so happy) and decided to go to the top of the Willis Tower (aka Sears Tower) to see their Skydeck! I waited in line for an hour and considering how many people were in the line that wasn’t too bad; props to the efficient Skydeck staff on Thanksgiving. To see the Skydeck you shoot up to the top of a 1,363 foot building in an elevator that rapidly counts the floors as you soar past them. Once you’re up at the top there’s panoramic views of parts of Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. For the more daring there’s a glass-enclosed ledge you can step out onto. I did it and was completely terrified. You’re standing on top of a 1,363 foot drop and you can see the whole thing.

I’m always musing about what I’d like to share on social media next and I knew this experience could generate some wicked cool photos. The woman working the glass ledge was super patient and took my photo and actually took way more photos than I had hoped for! I even dared to lie down for the photo opp, this is the one version of those where I don’t look terrified.

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That night as my boyfriend and I were driving back to downtown Chicago from our Thanksgiving dinner I felt incredibly full, and not just from the food. My heart felt full too. As we wound around the highway, downtown Chicago skyscrapers coming into view, I imagined what it would feel like if my heart was full all the time. I tried to parcel out what in that moment was making me feel so good.

Then I had a realization. A lot of what I’d been doing on this vacation was reflective of what I most value in life. I value travel and exploration, sharing on social media, writing, meeting new friends/ bonding with family, learning from others, and performing / entertaining others. I realized that when my values become a part of my daily life I’m acting in the best interest of my heart, and opening myself up to give the most back to the universe. Going forward I’m going to work on turning those things I value into the compass by which I navigate the world.

I came back to NYC holding onto some inspiration from Daniel Burnham the architect of Chicago.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” 

Here’s to finding the magic and stirring wo(men)’s blood. Onward!

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Finding Time to De-Stress

Today is National Stress Awareness Day. The joke I’ve been hearing all day is ‘we’re always aware of our stress’. I know for a fact I experience stress every single day, living in NYC contributes to my stress levels a lot.

Those of you who need to commute on the subway in to work and home from work, know how incredibly stressful that can be with crowded grumpy people shoving by sluggish pre-coffee individuals. Not to mention the multitude of other stresses you face the rest of the day. However while I’m aware of everything that causes me stress, I’ve been trying to become more aware of the moment I’m feeling stressed so I can try and calm the heck down.

I’ve been writing free form stream of consciousness thoughts for about 45 minutes every morning for the past two years, started while working on The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. 

Now I’m almost done filling up my 7th book of writing, and it’s been a tremendous help in getting me more in tune with my thoughts and emotions, especially overarching issues I’m grappling with over time that cause stress and anxiety.

As of this Monday I’ve been challenging myself to wake up super early, 5:30am-6:30am (yes that’s super early for me) and write my pages by candlelight. Waking up that early is definitely challenging for me but so far I’ve found:

  • It’s a lot quieter both outside and inside my apartment earlier in the morning. 
  • The darkness of the night is a relaxing way to get ready to greet the day. 
  • Observing the dawn break is satisfying and beautiful, and makes me feel (oddly) as if I’ve already done something cool with my day. 
  • I have a leisurely amount of time after I finish writing in my journal to cook my lunch for the day, exercise at the gym, and get a little creative work done before heading out for the day job.
  • I get tired much earlier in the day and have been getting to bed quite a bit earlier as well. 

I’m looking forward to continuing this experiment and hopefully making it a daily practice. 

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I’ve also been making an effort to do things I want to do, whether it is finishing projects or learning a new skill, instead of feeling stressed about not doing it. As I mentioned in my last blog I’ve been seriously blocked by fear the past couple of years and I’m coming to own that and look that fear in the face. So this Monday I went and took an archery lesson. I LOVE archery but I’ve only done it three times now, with lots of space in-between due to fear. Not fear that I’d get hurt, just scared of committing and seeing what comes of it.

While I was practicing the teachers in the place told me I was worrying too much and that I needed to relax. They said just aim the arrow and then let go gently. Practice makes perfect, and I’m not going to get it perfect right away. I was being too hard on myself they said. They were talking about archery specifically, but if they only knew they were diagnosing a much larger challenge I face every day. Judging myself and needing to be perfect at everything is a huge amount of stress I dump on my brain and body daily, and I’m going to keep hitting the refresh button, lighting a candle, and honing in on what’s real now.