the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Earnest blogging

I got the kindest email from a reader after I wrote about trying to come up with a list of things that bring me joy, and can I just say how surprised I am that my inbox wasn’t flooded with, “Seriously? Gross.”

You most certainly do NOT come here to hear me talk about self-help nonsense like that. If you wanted to endure any of that shit you’d just follow your Aunt Donna on Facebook. She lives in Santa Fe and makes her own wind chimes when she isn’t meditating in the nude on a giant rock in her backyard.

Listen. I’m not going to go skipping through any fields in my bare feet and suddenly start crafting headbands out of wildflowers. But even if I did I’d pause every few feet to sing a song about my butt. I promise.

You know what I will do, though? Post a picture of a flickering candle. It’s a total fucking metaphor.


So much of what this reader said resonated with me, mostly about the hard work required to create a new mindset. ATTACK OF A GROSS WORD. Sorry. I know. Authors of self-help books are legally obligated to use that word in every chapter. But what can I say? I’m trying to create a new mindset. I’m tired of being a slave to my anxiety, and instead of just complaining again and again and again that I hate feeling anxious I decided to do something about it. The first step was realizing that I’ve become disengaged from joyous activities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that I’ve avoided joyous activities because I could better use that time getting things in order.


I recently read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown and I will say here in front of all of you that it will have totally transformed my life once I fully absorb and practice what she’s researched. I highlighted a paragraph on almost every page, and this one in particular speaks to why I have for so long eschewed free time:

In today’s culture—where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, and we base our worthiness on our level of productivity—spending time doing purposeless actives is rare. In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen.

We’ve got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time.

Oh, hello, Brené. What are you doing inside my brain and how did you get here?

Here are just a few of the hundreds of passages I highlighted:

The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.

Yeah. I had to set down the book, get up and walk around the room after that paragraph. Close friends of mine will be all, is Brené Brown totally fucking with Heather? Did she steal a copy of her therapist’s notes?

Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.

She broke into my therapist’s office and wired the room, obviously.

The problem is that when we don’t care at all what people think and we’re immune to hurt, we’re also ineffective at connecting. Courage is telling our story, not being immune to criticism. Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.

People may call what happens at midlife “a crisis” but it’s not. It’s an unraveling—a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re “supposed” to live. The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Go to her website and watch her TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability. Then we can be gross together!

This reader who emailed me shared with me the list that she had come up with of things that keep her grounded, and even though she and I do not know each other a few bullet points were exactly the same. Like, word for word. So I thought I’d go ahead and share with you my list in case you’d like to replicate this activity for yourself and want to compare notes. Before I do, you might read it and think, that’s it? She could have written down anything, like zip lining through the Amazon or snorkeling with talking dolphins. Dream bigger, ARMSTRONG.

But that’s just it. This isn’t about dreaming. This isn’t a bucket list. It’s a collection of small things that I can do frequently to add some much needed levity to my everyday life:

1. Laughing with my kids
2. Listening to and sharing new music
3. Visiting new places
4. Photographing new places
5. Catching up with friends in person
6. A great meal with friends
7. Warm weather, loud music with the windows rolled down in my car
8. Long phone calls with my mother

What brings you joy?

  • Elspeth

    2014/02/19 at 4:40 pm

    the first rain of the season. starry nights. seeing “unusual” animals in the garden or local parks, like the covey of quail that’s been roaming the area. completing a difficult step in a crafting project. wildflowers.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/02/19 at 4:42 pm

    I love these! Except for the unusual animals part because with my track record it would always a dead bird.

  • KatR

    2014/02/19 at 4:45 pm

    Or some kind of rare deadly reptile. No unusual animals for you. The rest of the list is lovely.

  • Nancyh

    2014/02/19 at 4:45 pm

    (1) Watching “Futurama” with my 13-year-old son, (2) cuddling up with my husband, (3) watching the birds on the feeder, (4) winter sunrises, (5) Idris. Elba. (6) singing in my loudest voice in the car, (7) laughing with my best girlfriends, (8) my dog Owen, (9) my family’s annual trip to Door County, Wisconsin, (10) the German birthday dinner that my mom cooks for me every year.

    Thanks, Heather. I needed to take a moment to think of these things.


  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/02/19 at 4:47 pm


  • Abelleabroad

    2014/02/19 at 4:48 pm

    OK, I have to read this book. I love Brene Brown and her TED talk on listening to shame resonated with me so much that I did the full on Claire Danes ugly cry.

  • Andrew Denny

    2014/02/19 at 4:49 pm

    Have you ever talked about how different your life might be if your children were boys?

  • mikecpeck

    2014/02/19 at 4:50 pm

    my future son, my wife, my family, dinners with friends, laughing, health, creating something useful. Seems like a pretty full life to me. Thanks for this…

  • Gem Wilder

    2014/02/19 at 4:56 pm

    “The first step was realizing that I’ve become disengaged from joyous activities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that I’ve avoided joyous activities because I could better use that time getting things in order.”

    You just described my twenties. If only I’d actually managed to get a couple of things in order while I was missing out on all those joyous activities.
    Here’s my list ~
    1. Dancing. Dancing with my family, dancing with my friends, dancing like no one is watching, and doing it on the regular.
    2. Listening to my daughter. Really, properly stopping what I am doing to listen to her little just-turned-two year old requests, and being reminded that I am her Mama and I know what she needs and wants.
    3. Planning, and then going on quick getaways with friends or family.

  • Mia

    2014/02/19 at 4:57 pm

    1) Cuddling with my boyfriend
    2) Reading a good book
    3) Hugs from my sister (or any family member)
    4) Being outside when it’s warm
    5) Talking to my best friend
    6) MARGARITAS!!!

  • Gem Wilder

    2014/02/19 at 4:58 pm

    A thousand times, YES!

  • gracekelle

    2014/02/19 at 4:59 pm

    a good run where I don’t feel like my lungs are going to die, wine with the bf, the first smell of fall, a free upgrade, a hard but good day’s work, a photo capturing a great moment…must think of all these good things on a regular basis.

  • jawnbc

    2014/02/19 at 5:02 pm

    Love your blog Heather. My job is rather intense and requires focus. I manage a team and I try to have a service leadership orientation to that. But I have my own stuff to get done and I’m married. New house too. No, no stressors.

    My joy is really my balance. I keep that balance by:
    7-8 hours sleep a night 90% of the time
    working at home the start of the day so I can skip/avoid rush hour
    working at home one entire day each week
    at least 2 social engagements outside of work/professional life a week (on average)
    JUnk food once a week
    “self-love” twice a week.

    That last one isn’t lascivious: it’s both stress reducing and a tangible way of practicing self care.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/02/19 at 5:02 pm

    I haven’t, but then, how would I know? I don’t have the experience of raising a son.

  • Sakura

    2014/02/19 at 5:03 pm

    Thank you. Going to read the book. Throwing out my “getting things in order” list and starting my “what do I want to do with the rest of my life” list.

  • Robin Dearing

    2014/02/19 at 5:05 pm

    1. Horsing around with my husband and daughter. 2. Traveling to anywhere. 3. Lying in bed doing all things that can be done while lying in bed. 3. Playing music with my band. 4. Teaching art history. 5. Reading. 6. Sitting outside doing all things that can be done while sitting outside. 7. Sitting in the hot tub. 8 Exercise-y things.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/02/19 at 5:06 pm

    Ok, first let me say this: yes, yes, yes, om f’ing god! YES! Just to add a little bit more to the grossness, Coldplay’s “Fix You” was playing in the background. All of it, just yes. Thank you.

  • Melissa Nutter

    2014/02/19 at 5:13 pm

    When I think of all the things that bring me joy, I realize they all involve me being or having been vulnerable at some point. 1-5)Doing anything with my husband (so that’s a 5 for 1 deal ;), 6)dinner with my best friends, 7)a lazy Sunday afternoon with my parents, 8)and walking the dog in an open field on a perfect day.

    So really, I think Brene is DEFINITELY on to something! If I am vulnerable and open in my life, the rewards are more true and deep. Being vulnerable will help bring me joy. I guess I’ll try to add vulnerability to my every-day list? yikes!!!

    Good stuff!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/02/19 at 5:14 pm

    Thank you for the recommendations. Off to find them now.

    I’m giving myself the room to have bad days now. Everyone has bad days. Normal people have bad days. And it’s okay. Tomorrow will most likely be better, and if it’s not then I should hold out until it is. Just that small allowance has made a huge difference.

  • Andrew Denny

    2014/02/19 at 5:21 pm

    Just food for thought, that’s all. You have the experience of motherhood, & the experience of watching other mothers with boys. And you have imagination and a beautiful power to communicate that imagination.

  • Jen

    2014/02/19 at 5:24 pm

    Word. Realizing and internalizing the fact that emotions are temporary was and still is a really big one for me.

    And as for joyful experiences, I just discovered one: painting! And allowing myself to do it without judgement (mostly).

  • Rhonda

    2014/02/19 at 5:26 pm

    Brene Brown has brought it home to so many of us. The world is so much smaller once you realize that you are not alone. My anxiety has lessened significantly since reading all her books. These are the things that bring me joy and help keep me grounded 🙂

    1. The sheer joy of my dog running back with his ball , 2. Laughing with my husband, 3. Hot chai and a good book, 4. Winter storms, 5. Walking the seawall, 6. Filling the house with amazing cooking aromas, 7. Decorating with symmetry and then taking that one thing and putting it askew just so you can’t take it seriously, 8. Dancing on the treadmill

  • Paula Biemann

    2014/02/19 at 5:31 pm

    A. Fucking. Men.

  • bucky4eyes

    2014/02/19 at 5:49 pm

    I’m a girl with simple tastes.

    1. Listening to my current favorite song 257 times in a row.
    2. Intense cat cuddle therapy, times three.
    3. Laughing like a complete asshole with my sister about things that happened 40 years ago.
    4. Reading my collection of restaurant menus while on the toilet.
    5. Heavy doses of Adult Swim. The TV station, not the aquatic activity.
    6. Making art of any kind (heavy on painting these days). Play-Doh is the most therapeutic substance known to mankind.
    7. My morning ritual of mint tea, pretzels, and a cat draped around my neck while I check my emails.
    8. Putting googly eyes on butt plugs and anthropomorphizing them.

  • Eve

    2014/02/19 at 5:58 pm

    What works for me is knowing that they’re feelings and they will change. I’ll not be sad, worried, depressed forever. I’ll also not be happy all the times. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the sad part as it feels like it never ends.

  • Debra

    2014/02/19 at 6:00 pm

    What brings me Joy? 1) Reading Dooce 2) Looking at individual flowers. 3) Making people laugh 4) Writing 5) Growing plants. It’s like giving birth only when you are done with them you can kill them or sell them 6) Downton Abbey 7) Doing imitations of Mary on Downton Abbey “I don’t think so” as the answer to any question she is asked. 8) Timothy Olyphant being a Federal Agent no matter in KY or the wild west 9) Copy-cat recipes 10) Looking at all my New Age Gross Shit.

  • Kathee

    2014/02/19 at 6:06 pm

    I love naps. A lot.
    Being with my kids. They are adults and they are hilarious, insightful and loving.
    Remembering the best part of my job. Sometimes I get caught up in the crazy and forget I get to ride in a freaking helicopter!!
    Crocheting. Best anxiety smoother. I take it with me a lot of places and replace electronics with crochet. I’m sure to make myself a bed jacket for that time I become old and feeble.
    Monthly family parties.
    Friends. Trying to get together at least once a month. We either run, bikram, pilates or Eat!
    Everyday thankfulness of the mundane. I have a place to live that I love and the energy/strength/ability to support myself, 2 dogs and that last kid.

  • Dawn P

    2014/02/19 at 6:43 pm

    My sheltie boy, Brody who makes me laugh several times a day, having my dad help me with my bathroom renovation, a good dinner with great friends with lots of laughter, being on a mountain anytime, a great haircut, especially as I’m letting my hair grow, the spaghetti dinner my parents still make me for my birthday, reading a good book, cooking something new irregardless of how it turns out, candles, good coffee, open windows (able to do that today!), and a handwritten letter received in the mail!
    Thanks for the reminder to remember and experience the small joys of everyday living.

  • Alexsulliv

    2014/02/19 at 6:53 pm

    Joy: 1. Good heartfelt hugs 2. The warm feeling of the sun and freckles that come with 3. Deep belly laughs and laughing so hard you cry 4. one twix bar 5. fresh from the garden tomatoes with evoo, mozz, s&p 6. jeans that make a flat ass look good 7. long car drives windows down, fresh air, and good tunes 8. driving over the GW bridge into NYC heading to Boston 9. Beach sand between toes 10. naps in a hammock

  • VickiShoppeGirlsBlog

    2014/02/19 at 7:03 pm

    Enjoying time with my teenage daughters
    Spending quality time with my family
    Blogging – especially when readers take the time to leave comments
    Time spent with friends
    Cooking and baking

  • Paula Biemann

    2014/02/19 at 7:42 pm

    1) Nighttime sounds-frogs, cicadas, neighbors having sex (makes me giggle like I’m 15)
    2) Watching my dog run
    3) People watching
    4) Emulating the faces on magazine covers while waiting in line at the grovery with my 12-yr old daughter. We both draw the line at Miley.
    5) Talking earnestly with my high functioning autistic 15-yr old son about life, girls, and minecraft
    6) The surprise on someone’s face when they realize I’m married to *dreamy eyes* that guy.
    7) Telling my family, all of them, that I love them, all the time.

  • Debra

    2014/02/19 at 8:53 pm

    Do you have any idea what happens if you listen to your current favorite song 258 times in a row!? Damn you were almost there!

  • Teal

    2014/02/19 at 8:59 pm

    Time with my family. Especially when we’re all together, and we’re laughing so loud someone could hear our laughter from the street.
    That first spring day when you can first smell the loaminess of the Earth.
    When my husband tells me that there is no one else in the world for him but me.
    Knowing that no matter how rough things might get, and how bitchy I might be, that I am loved unconditionally,

  • Jane Lamason

    2014/02/19 at 9:20 pm

    I thought to have time to experience real joy I first needed a clean, tidy, orderly house, you know, so that I could then relax and let the joy come. I suspect I’m on the wrong track and so should also be reading ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ but I’m afraid to in case I go too far the other way and become a slob. How’s that for anxiety.

  • MaryKC

    2014/02/19 at 9:39 pm

    I love everything that Brene has to say and often feel like she is inside my head. I am always happy when someone I care about discovers her and her awesome message!

    Things that make me happy:
    -a new book
    -when an Indigo Girls song comes on when I am in a store
    -time with my dog and cat
    -fresh air and sunshine
    -hearing the snow melt
    -down pillows
    -a soft blanket
    -knee socks
    -roller coasters

  • Sara

    2014/02/19 at 10:02 pm

    Thank you for your earlier post about the difference between joy and non-anxiety/satisfaction. Coming up with a lists in general causes me anxiety but the one thing I am confident brings me joy is music, that’s the one thing I know I would want if I were stranded on desert island. It was instilled in me early by my father. I was given a quarter when we went to Target (grew up in MN and Target has always been) and I remember running to the record aisle to pick out a 45.

    Secondly, I’d say independent accomplishments. I’ve found myself within the last year, saying to myself, “I did it!” and I’m genuinely proud of myself. I am really happy. I could be getting out of bed at a semi-respectable hour on Saturday and going to yoga, accomplishing the multitude of homeowner **** that a lot of people get to leave to their partners. I chose not to miss something just because I’m currently single. I bought a ticket to The National, met friends beforehand, and then went to my seat by myself and it was one of the most joyfull nights of 2013. Last weekend I walked to the library in the sunshine and witness so much activity in my community that I felt happy and connected.

    Finally, I’d say being with my friends. But my struggle is that there are so many times where my natural instinct/reaction is to stay home and avoid everyone. After therapy I have come to figure out when I need to stay at home and when I need to get out…that’s when I come and say, “I did it”

  • bucky4eyes

    2014/02/19 at 10:14 pm

    It’s not going to be like if I say “Bloody Mary” at the bathroom mirror three times, is it? If I play “In These Shoes” 258 times and the ghost of Kirsty MacColl appears, I’m blaming you.

  • Teal

    2014/02/19 at 10:43 pm

    I love that your response includes references to the toilet AND buttplugs! You must live life to the fullest. Plus, you made me giggle!

  • Jennifer Campisano

    2014/02/19 at 11:40 pm

    I love this. Off to watch the TED talk now! My list? 1. My son and his funny 2yo words (“nuggles” for snuggles is a current favorite) 2. my husband’s strength 3. spending time with my friends/family 4. reading a good book 5. clean PET scans 6. red wine (just one glass) 7. yoga set to hip-hop music 8. travel 9. Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups 10. the beach (I almost said the ocean, but realized that’s a vast and scary place, whereas the beach is much more manageable and pleasant — talk about neuroses).

  • Elize Meijer

    2014/02/19 at 11:59 pm

    1. Planning a new trip
    2. seeing new places

    3. photography, and realising that I get better every time

    4. Just being at home with my boyfriend, doing nothing

    5. Going home after a tough day in the office, sitting alone in the car, with my favourite music.

    Thank you for this. We often forget to appreciate the little things

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/02/20 at 1:09 am

    It’s funny, but as I was walking from my office to ride the train home (yay for more light after work now), I thought about how I have those low emotional days and high emotional days. The problem is when the low days hit when you have a long list of obligations. I mean, if you have a high day on a weekend, it certainly doesn’t cause much of a problem but if you have a low day and your boss dumps more projects on you that are due yesterday, it really sucks. My thoughts on the way to the train were that I am doing a lot better at accepting that I don’t have control sometimes, and most of the urgency that people bring to things is fake.

    Then I read this post tonight at home. How timely.

    My joys: 1) Music, 2) Seeing a friend or three (in person) – doesn’t really matter what we do, 3) Sharks games, 4) playing the piano [which I haven’t done in ages], 5) reading, 6) going places old and new, far and near [especially when those comp upgrades come through], 7) walking. I pretty much do 1, 5 and 7 every day and 2, 3 and 6 reasonably often. 4 is a big void.

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/02/20 at 1:13 am

    That sounds really well thought out.

  • nakedjen

    2014/02/20 at 3:11 am

    Levity is really fucking good, Armstrong.

    1. Walking my dogs to Coffee Garden and getting their coffee because it is MAGICAL and those people are my therapists. I do that every single day.

    2. Making huge messy art projects with the boy who sometimes lives with us.

    3. Road trips with unknown destinations. These are the best kind.

    4. Laughing too loudly with my professor at things no one else ever understands.

    5. The Friday evening art stroll on bikes.

    6. The yearly beach trip with my girlfriends.

    7. Festivals. Which are like reunions for me.

    8. Giving random love to strangers. I know, I know. But it’s true. I am that person who will give her heart to anyone.

    9. Sharing my vegetable garden with the whole neighborhood.

    10. Naps with my dogs. I do that every day, too. ❤️

  • allconsuming

    2014/02/20 at 6:22 am

    Your post last week was less ringing alarm bells for me and more crashing cymbals over my head. I too am sick of being a slave to my anxiety, which surprisingly has done nothing to ease or eradicate the things I fret and stress over. So I did what you did, I FOUND the joy in my life. It included just “being” with my kids – no running here and there, just hanging out with them and listening to one of the eleventy gagillion conversations about Minecraft. It was catching up with friends in person. It was lying down with my youngest when he goes to sleep (he does this thing where the thumb comes out of the mouth just enough for him to whisper “I love you mum” and then he rolls over and is instantly asleep – see, JOY) and an ongoing FB messaging convo with two women I absolutely treasure in which we confide, tease, comfort and laugh. I’ve been so caught up in a state of panic about everything I’m not and all the things I thought I would be I was failing to see the joy that was just bubbling along waiting for me to wake up. Brene Brown changed my life. Her TED talks for starters and then her books. Somehow she’s climbed into MY head and my psychiatrist’s office and stole his notes on me as well!

  • allconsuming

    2014/02/20 at 6:24 am

    Also, this:
    People may call what happens at midlife “a crisis” but it’s not. It’s an unraveling—a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re “supposed” to live. The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.


  • jamie

    2014/02/20 at 7:21 am

    I hear you. Perfectionists are their own worst enemy. Discovering that I was a “one” on the enneagram changed my life. Seriously. The two best pieces of advice it gave me was: 1: accepting that everyone is in a process of growth (ergo no one can be perfect) 2: have fun-because that’s what you do to combat perfectionism, lol (that’s an order!)

  • jamie

    2014/02/20 at 7:23 am

    So I suppose to answer your question: nature “hikes”, making art, traveling…all of which I’ve been neglecting. So thank you for the reminder!

  • Lauren3

    2014/02/20 at 7:24 am

    Heather, I love this post. More of these posts!! I think what gives me joy changes kind of often, but right now the perfect joyous scene in my mind is having a snow day, snuggled up on the couch with my boo and my dog, drinking coffee, while watching a favorite show (TRUE DETECTIVE AT THE MOMENT) while the snow falls outside. I know, you have hives from that last phrase.

  • Shannon

    2014/02/20 at 7:31 am

    After some big changes last year, a bit of a breakdown, and taking away the importance of “simplicity” from therapy, I can firmly (though working on confidently) say my sources of joy are:

    1. Doctor Who
    2. Listening/watching Pharrell’s “Happy” music video on my computer/phone/wherever – gives me an automatic boost
    3. Having a dance party with my 3 kids in the kitchen when cleaning or cooking, listening to music
    4. Sitting down on the floor to have one to three kids plop in my lap like they have been waiting for me the whole time
    5. Getting my husband to laugh his “real” laugh
    6. Cooking/baking with butter
    7. My stock of sparkling water
    8. Clear skin, after years of horrific acne
    9. Remembering my daddy
    10. Skyping with my mom and sisters daily

  • Erin Reece

    2014/02/20 at 7:45 am

    Yes! Yes yes yes! I, too, am working on creating a new mindset. I’m a year into the process and before that freaks anyone out, my therapist assured me (insisted, actually, seeing as she knows my perfectionist tendencies) that it will take a few years. I already feel so much better after this last year that I know she’s right and it’s working. Anyway, thank you for writing this as it resonated big time. Here’s my list of stuff that grounds me and fills me with joy: 1. Fully immersing myself in one task at a time. 2. Being outside, breathing fresh air. 3. Strenuous hikes in the woods with the dog. 4. A big mug full of hot tea. 5. Taking pics and posting them to instagram. 6. Brunch! 7. Traveling, seeing something new. 8. Home cooked meals. (I never cook ever. And then, I’ll cook something and my lord THE IMMENSE SATISFACTION.) 9. My dog, my dog, a thousand times my dog. 10. Dinner or drinks out with friends.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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