Saturday, July 30, 2016

Yay for Sarah May: Self Help for Animators

Sarah Bates' 2007 FLiP article "Animation Brat" was reposted the other day as a precursor to this brand spanking new interview with her, where she talks about her latest online venture, Yay With Me. Sarah has been doing a self-help blog and podcast called Help Me Be Me that is so fantastic, it has prompted me out of my widower's funk and refueled my interest in old passions like FLiP.  "Self Help for Animators" is a bit of a misnomer; her blog is not aimed at animators specifically. But it does touch on many emotional and psychological issues creatives wrestle with daily.

FLiP: What prompted you to create  Yay With Me?

Sarah: Back in 2010 while I was writing commercial scripts and shooting spec spots, Zooey Deschanel asked me to contribute to Hello Giggles, a pop-culture site for women which she and two other savvy gals were about to launch. She’s my best friend since kindergarten, so I immediately said yes though I didn’t know what I was going to do about the content. My first thought was, “I’ll just be hilarious and Tina Fey will hire me on 30 Rock.” I thought my blog would be the perfect forum for promoting myself as a comedy writer – I pictured Tina Fey running across a shoot-out and immediately sending me a plane ticket. That is… until I started writing blogs.

In my opinion – there’s so much fluff out there that is of no value to the world and I didn’t want to make more of it – in other words, listicles are not my style. I started asking myself, first – what do I have to offer strangers that’s of unique value, which as it turned out – was the most important learning I’ve done for myself. Hence, the current content I create for Hello Giggles – a blog called Teaspoon of Happy.

Once I started thinking in terms of value, the blog became about translating the greatest learning I’ve done in my life – all of which came through hardship.  That insight – I call it “the why,” - is what I try to give to audiences, because truly it’s the missing link to making change of any kind.  You just have to be able to understand what caused the symptom and then you can figure out the solutions.  More importantly, you can forgive yourself because you can finally see it’s not your fault, you’re not broken – the blocks you are hitting are the same ones I’d hit, if I lived your exact life experience. Success comes from having the right tools, and a lot of us haven’t been given the right ones from our own lives.  Plus, a lot of the catalysts for stuck-ness are painful, complicated, and layered, so I take them apart and make them understandable – in my own words (A lot of them are cuss words).  I do a lot of research, but I learned the majority of what I preach through personal experience – including years of therapy with an amazing psychologist that I can’t thank enough.  If this were an Oscar ceremony I’d thank Dr. Sharon Flynn – she gave me a gift I can never repay.  And if you’re in the LA area – she’s practicing!  I highly recommend her to anyone who needs to do some self-work.

Yay With Me is my website, just launched, that unites all the content I create – my podcasts Help Me Be Me and Love is Like a Plant, my One-on-One’s with individuals, and my blogs – all of which are re-blogged on Hello Giggles and . If I had to give you a tagline for my work it’d be, “Self-help for people who hate self-help.” I create content for those who are too vain to carry a depressing book jacket and would rather die than watch Dr. Phil. (No offense if that’s your jam.) Self-help alienates a lot of us because it’s inherently “not like us” – I guess I’m striving to make all of that more accessible – because the truth is, it works.

FLiP:  You talk about your personal relationships in the blog and podcasts. Do you find that difficult? How do your friends and family react?

Sarah: My criteria is whether or not being personal would change how someone received the message, because with really impossible-to-relate-to-things like PTSD, speaking from experience is a big deal – it can give you hope.  So I don’t share anything personal unless I feel it’s important someone knows I’ve been there, too.  Having lost all hope at one time in my life, I know how valuable it is to trust someone: if you’re used to being able to crack things, you don’t believe anyone can help you if you haven’t been able to help yourself.  Sometimes the right advice doesn’t mean shit if someone hasn’t been in your shoes.  Because if you have tried your hardest and failed or those who’ve said they can help you have failed you repeatedly, change becomes a wall that feels insurmountable. When someone gives you advice and you don’t believe they could ever relate to you, it’s worse than just being witnessed in your pain – it’s like a reinforcement of how royally fucked you are – and it’s the pain of hopelessness that catalyzes more and more damage;  a vicious cycle, if you will.  Other than that, I keep things intentionally vague to protect the innocent. Whether it seems like it or not, I’m a very private person and I had a really hard time opening up to the internet.  I am still terrified of trolls because I really, really care about my audience and whether or not I’m giving them my best.

Also, on a creative level, I prefer a focus on logic and not the personal. When it comes to overcoming a problem, I don’t want to know about the author – I just want to know what to do.  I used to skip all the anecdotes in self-help books because all I wanted to know was what steps I needed to take.  And like a lot of people who feel alone in their struggles, personal details became a barrier for me to believe in what someone had to offer.  If I heard someone’s story and they weren’t “like me” or they hadn’t lived as much as I had, I wrote them off, which was a self-protective mechanism; you do it when you have lost a lot of hope in others. Whether or not that’s how every reader likes their self-help, I believe in writing what you, yourself would want to read.  The straightest path toward something good is heartfelt honesty, the right motivation and your own personal bar.

I also quantify the value of bringing myself into the topic in literal of terms of value-to-listener.  For example, if I’m really sad and I’m trying to help others who are really sad, I can create much better content when I am in that head space; it’s like being able to channel the purest form of an answer. And I believe that emotion can better translate information.  So if you listen to me and you feel like I am identifying with you emotionally, that’s because I am.  When I podcast, I am either talking to one individual – like a friend or a client, or myself.  The very first podcasts I recorded were literally voice memos to myself and I remember thinking, maybe someone else could use to hear this.  Sharing personal stories freely is one of those things that I’m sure I’ll do more of eventually, but I draw the line when it comes to something that could get me fired from a job or make my mom cry.  You’ll have to buy my autobiography when I write it.

FLiP:  Examining feelings - not exactly a guy thing. What would you say to a guy who clearly could find your insight useful, but thinks this is ‘chick stuff’?

Sarah: I would say that’s a false perception and one coming from fear – likely trained in by your upbringing. About half my audience is male and many have written to me that they’ve changed their lives because of my work. Many have also written that they appreciate that I create content that is gender-neutral.  My goal is to create content that would not alienate anyone looking for help or make them feel excluded in a solution.  I have found that men and women of different sexual orientations, across cultures and age groups suffer in exactly the same ways and they play the same roles in their relationships.  There is nothing different about the emotional challenges they face – only the stigma they experience.

Usually people who dismiss information as “not for me” are deeply vulnerable and some part of them is afraid of what they will feel if they open up.  It’s a way of controlling what scares you: you build rules for right and wrong. And that’s not uncommon – those who can accept their feelings, including the shameful ones, were gifted that ability by great parenting.  That, or they’ve been to some form of therapy. What I’d say to someone who shuts down to examining their feelings would be: What it comes down to is, what do you want for yourself?  You get one life– why wouldn’t you want to live it, happily?  If you have something that bums you out, why not get rid of it?  The rest is really just a learning process – treat it like you’re buying a new dishwasher and do the research.

FLiP: It’s safe to say that most all creative people have been dismissed as a ‘crazy artist’ in a social situation at some time. Are creative people indeed ‘crazier’ than non-creative people, or is this a bad rap?

Sarah: I would say a lot of artists are more right-brain, which probably makes them more intuitive and imaginative, less linear and rule-bound, but the crazy comes in all types equally, in my opinion.  If it’s about emotion and one’s ability to manage it, that’s not a creativity thing – it has a lot more to do with getting validation as a vulnerable child.

 I think the single most important factor in one’s ability to be a healthy, functioning person is a method of communication – we all need a way to express what is inside us, whether that’s the beauty we see, the pain we feel, the portrait that flows through our fingers, the song we can channel, or the perfect order we can put things in on a spreadsheet.   Without a voice or a way to release our inner self, we internalize and fester or eventually explode.  By explode I mean with anger, violence, hopelessness, and by fester I mean depression, self-loathing and a view of life as not worth living.  Which is why I think many would rather numb all their thoughts and instead watch television and get drunk.  Because to not be able to use your talents and your voice is to abuse yourself.  It feels terrible – like an invisible prison, and eventually you lose belief that you have a voice at all. In my opinion, it’s much better to be crazy and in touch with yourself than silenced and numb.  I think sometimes we are all crazier than we are sane – and in those moments, sometimes you’ve just got to fall apart.  And when you’re done yelling or wallowing in a pile, you just get back up again and keep going.  Much better to be alive than stay under the covers your whole life, afraid to feel anything at all.

FLiP: What tools can an artist use in dealing with the intricacies of studio politics?

Sarah: I am lucky to be surrounded by happy and successful creative talents and one trait they share is not taking anything personally, or if they do – they don’t waste time dwelling on it.  They immediately move on to the next opportunity they can grab.  People who have a hard time with politics tend to be sensitive – aka, they take the tactics personally.  To them I would say simply, empower yourself!  If you are vulnerable in your work environment or you’re surrounded by douchebags, don’t let it derail you.  Keep your eye on the prize and keep taking steps toward ways you can leverage your position. Assume anyone who’s mean is insecure, anyone who’s belittling is threatened, and anyone who intentionally fucks with you is a psychopath and stay the hell away.  Move your focus to what you need to do to empower yourself.  Take everyone at face value: nothing is personal, everything is objective – you can better leverage your position when you can see all the information, at once.  When you’re wounded by work things, it’s a major distraction: if you need to cry, do it in a bathroom stall and then get back out there with a firm excuse for red eyes.  Don’t waste time in victimhood – because it’s never about you.  Everyone’s playing defense or they’re looking for the next chip to play. The goal is not to be emotional when you’re planning your moves.

So to make it into one of my tools: Just Be Awesomer.

Whatever someone says or does that feels like an attack, remind yourself that it’s never about you. It’s about money and power and the job that is being traded for the money.  Take you – personally, out of the equation and make it about just what it’s about.  How can you strategize based on all the factors at play?  How can you take apart the mechanisms that are behind the dysfunction?  How can you break that chain and give yourself even the tiniest advantage?  How can you come back and deliver more value in a way that you can leverage, later?  In every work situation that challenges you, empower yourself to see the situation from a higher vantage point so that you can use everything available to your benefit.  Sometimes that means playing the game wearing a different uniform and a bigger smile.  Sometimes that means dodging a crazy person and soothing yourself at regular increments throughout the day.  Use your power.  Never be the victim.  Know the options you have and use all of them, never decide they’re not convenient or “not you.”

Additionally, grow your confidence outside of this sphere by learning something new – preferably, that scares you.  This is the podcast I have on that subject.  Because the truth is, when you know who you are and what you’re capable of, no one can take that away from you – even if they use their power to belittle you.  Sure, it sucks to work with assholes but they can’t take you down if your confidence and self-love are bulletproof.  Are you going to swallow their toxic sludge or are you going to look past them at the next thing you need to do to get where you want to be?  Remind yourself that there are people who came before you who had to deal with worse, no matter what you’re going through – don’t give up.  As soon as you hear that voice of hurt, stop, step back and soothe.  Immediately move on to what you can do – right now – to move yourself in a positive direction.  Even if that’s taking another job so that you can protect yourself from abuse.  You know you best, so if it’s really hurting you – listen to that voice.  If you stay in abusive relationships, you teach yourself that it’s what you deserve, so I am a firm believer in removing yourself from any job that causes you emotional harm.  No matter how good the money is, it’s not worth it to destroy yourself unless you can empower yourself to cope with it effectively.

FLiP:  What is your go-to technique for getting through the shittiest work days?

Sarah: Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with rude people on a daily basis. For me, shitty work days come about when something is out of balance in my life and I haven’t been addressing something that I need to do to be happy.  I call it a good life-ratio.  How you break down your day translates literally to the entirety of your life – so if you’re not taking care of all your needs today, your life-balance is out of whack.

When I’m feeling shitty, it’s usually chemical-balance related, like I need to do some yoga or be in nature.  Or it’s something in the fulfilling-my-life-purpose department and I need to work on my passions.  The latter is a HUGE one.  I get very unhappy when I haven’t been able to dedicate a portion of my time to what I am most passionate about – which is helping people with my work.  I also get really unhappy when I am in a room full of people who are uninspiring and talking about nothing – it’s like I survived at the end of Body Snatchers.

So my first suggestion to anyone who has a lot of shitty work days would be figuring out their “best-self-regiment” – meaning, figure out what you need to do to keep yourself chemically balanced and holistically rewarded, as an individual.  You need to make these things a priority every day, over that new Netflix show. If it’s creating things based on your imagination, you have to do something creative everyday, otherwise, over time, your life is going to feel meaningless.  Know your needs and make sure you’re checking those boxes.  If you’re feeling shitty, that’s because one of them needs attention.

I find as soon as I do something positive to help myself, I immediately feel better – simply by taking action.  If it’s an extremely difficult day I’ll take periodic walks outside with helpful podcasts– either one of my own or something by Tara Brach.  If I can’t do that then I’ll do a yoga inversion like a handstand with yoga breathing – or just focus on the sound of my own breathing while sitting at my desk.

FLiP: Yay With Me is clearly a ton of work. Where would you like to go with it?

Sarah: My ‘big as the stars’ goal is to change the world with practical and not depressing self-help – in mediums of all kinds.  A lot of self-help is alienating, despite that it has valuable information – which is how my whole brand came about.  My goal is to create products to empower those without openness or access to quality help, because as I’ve heard from my audience, there are a lot of people who suffer because there’s no good help available to them.  I always tell people it’s a lot harder to find a good therapist than it is to find a good plumber.  I want to give anyone who needs help a place to start, so they can see that they’re not alone or broken, and that yes – they can change for the better – even if they have tried and failed their whole life.  Why is the missing link.

As far as how I’m going to change the world, Yay With Me is in a constant state of growth.  The hardest part of turning any passion into a business is making it viable without compromising your ethics and the soul of your work.  Turning your content into a business immediately changes how others receive it and also restructures how you can deliver it, so it’s been a learning process.  I know I’ll eventually make it profitable, because otherwise I will burn out – and this is my life’s purpose. But you are correct when you say it’s a ton of work. As far as the future goes, I ask my audience what they want and they’re great at giving me feedback.  Recently I’ve been getting requests for video content so YouTube is the next step.

Audience feedback is also what inspired my upcoming Podcast album – it’s called The Break-Up Album and it’s designed to get you through your break-up while making it a personal growth spurt. It’s full of the same tools that I offer my One-On-One clients and it follows the same structure as the plan I call, Ouch My Heart.  It’s very similar to my podcast - made up of everything I’ve applied in my own life to create post-traumatic-growth.  If anyone wants to be notified of the launch or preorder the album now, they can find all the info on Yay With Me.  If you haven’t heard my podcast, it’s kind of like a phone call with your wisest bestie when you need it most.  Very intimate but very direct, with a lot of heart and some occasional bad language.

FLiP:  Theme music - where do you get that perfect NPR sounding theme music?

Sarah: My theme was created by Booker Hill Music – they’re AWESOME– definitely rising stars. I work with them on a lot of big budget commercials, so I used my “credits” to get a freebie – well, two freebies, actually.  They composed the music for my second podcast, “Love is Like a Plant,” with Ellen Huerta of Mend – she created an app that helps you through a break-up. You can find them both on the podcast page of my site.  Booker Hill does sound design, film and commercial score – the reason I like them is they use real instruments – something lost in a lot of music houses, as of late. Their work is more artful and subtle - it caters to audiences that appreciate Phillip Glass to Thomas Newman.  I guess I’m hard to please when it comes to that stuff.

Check out Sarah May B's "Yay With Me".  And as she says at the end of every podcast, don't forget to smile! -Steve

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