Finding myself

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As I apply to MBA programs, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching. All this introspection makes me take time to really consider what it is that matters to me and what sort of person I want to become. It’s a great exercise that I feel like we should all do more often.

So as Stanford GSB asks, what matters to me and why? So many things come to mind: empowerment, collaboration, change, balance, diversity/uniqueness, fulfillment, compassion. Each of these because of how they enable us to improve our lives, to be better versions of ourselves. Ultimately, I think it boils down to empowerment. When people are empowered through education or resources or connections, they can take themselves to a better place bit by bit. And aren’t we all pursuing incremental improvements that will culminate into a life that we can look back on and be pleased with?

For years, I’ve yearned to find my calling. I’d watch shows, read articles, and hear interviews of successful people following their passion as if answering a calling. Many of them spoke about how they’ve always felt the deep desire to (fill in the blank). Meanwhile, I searched and searched for my calling. Was it animals? Nature? Photography? Travel? Blogging? Entrepreneurism? So many options seemed compelling, but no single one stood out to me above the others. I was trying so hard to get a little bit of everything I wanted.

Recently, in writing my essays for my MBA applications, I’ve finally figured it out. What is it that I can spend hours reading about, thinking about, talking about? Sure I love animals and I volunteer with insects, I take photos all the time and love getting that amazing shot, and I have been blogging for years… but I don’t engross myself in science articles or photo editing or blogging tips the way I do business articles and interviews.

When it comes to business – in particular, management principles, hiring practices, and above all – culture, I am obsessed. For me, culture drives everything. Culture determines the type of people you attract, the way they behave (and therefore the output they’ll create), the effectiveness of your brand, etc. etc. etc. I literally devour everything I find mentioning anything related to company culture, hiring, and training. I could sit (or stand, or walk) and talk about ideas around these concepts for days. I constantly have new thoughts that I add to my every-growing ideas document.

While I often get distracted by the many other things I am passionate for, I don’t spend nearly as much time and energy on any of those topics. This is how I know that the thing I would get up in the morning for above all else is the opportunity to cultivate an amazing and likely unconventional culture. To do that, I want my vehicle of change to be empowerment. By creating mechanisms through which people are empowered with the knowledge or resources or contacts they need, I can help them become better people. Better people thrive and feed into a culture that is supportive, collaborative, and empowering. And thus the cycle goes, building upon itself and sustaining itself even as it grows.

I’m still finding myself, but this time spent being self-reflective has given me a lot of insight into who I am and who I aspire to be. I’m starting to notice the patterns in my life that draw from an underlying current that I hadn’t observed before. All these seemingly disparate choices have come together to paint a clearer picture of what motivates me. I have gained confidence in what I should do with my life because I can now see the forces that have been there all along, creating the themes that define me. Now I just hope I can clearly articulate to the admissions committee!

When I dream, I don’t sleep well

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Every now and then I’ll remember a dream. It’s a pretty rare occurrence that I do not try to encourage.

Whereas many people seem to enjoy remembering a dream, or at least find my wacky ones interesting, I always hope that I can wake up with no memory of my mind’s nighttime escapades. It’s not that I don’t like remembering the dreams (though sometimes they are a bit nightmarish) – it’s just that it always seems to happen when I’m not sleeping well. So whether I dreamt because I didn’t sleep well or I didn’t feel like I slept well because I dreamt, it’s just not a good combo.

It started in my first year of college, when I decided to start writing down my dreams. I rarely remembered them, so it was pretty cool when I could. Not surprising, the more I wrote about them, the more I remembered them. It went pretty much as I expected. What I did not expect was the sheer exhaustion and lack of energy I felt from those endeavors. I was completely drained when I woke up and it only got worse. I had never noticed it because of the infrequency, but once I started to consistently wake up remembering my dreams, I quickly noticed that it was not good for my sleep.

So I stopped.

Now I’ve gone back to remembering perhaps a dream or two a year, and I like to keep it that way. For all the fantastical things that are happening in my mind at night, none of that is worth waking up unable to stay awake and function throughout the day. I’ll keep my dreams in lala land, thank you very much.

Do you have this problem too? Or do you recall your dreams with no effect of your awake life?

Travel marathon

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It’s been quite a couple of days, especially for Panda. I got a chance to rest up for Thanksgiving weekend, but he went to Vegas with his family and then we met up to drive to NorCal so I could do a school visit at Stanford GSB. The drive took 8 hours, due to construction and traffic! We arrived at the hotel at 3:30 am and got in about 4 hours of sleep before getting up and ready for the day.

After my scheduled meetings from 10-1, we quickly went back to the hotel and hit the road. Luckily, the drive back was much smoother and only took the expected 5.5 hours. I never want to stray too far from the 5 freeway again. The smaller roads are so cumbersome to get through and I was exhausted even as Panda helped drive the second half up.

My legs are swollen and sore, which will only get exaggerated on the plane ride. Traveling can be quite the activity! Too much stationary sitting is no good. Maybe I’ll sleep with my legs up to try to counteract the effects. I think I might want to get some compression socks in the future. I’m getting more sensitive to the physical constraints of travel as I get older.

So that was my extended vacation. What did you do for the long weekend?

Uncontainable Conscious Capitalism

laelene Posted in general blog, reviews
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I just read the book Uncontainable by Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, and found it to be a delightful read – or “yummy” as he would say. I had no idea that TCS was such a strong brand with an admirable corporate culture. After learning more, I wonder why I didn’t hear about their values sooner. With an employees-first view, they’ve made a successful business that thrives from the love they pour into their people. They don’t see business as a zero-sum game and believe that everyone can win. Yes, that means the business, its employees, its customers, and its stakeholders.

Most businesses do not operate that way, and it’s a pity. What TCS and other strong brands like Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, and Panera Bread have done is what they termed Conscious Capitalism. They operate in a way that serves a higher purpose beyond profit and they do so by adhering to values that inspire better work (and thus leads to greater profitability). I like this idea, that making a profit is not a bad thing – money is not a bad thing. But that doesn’t mean we should be cutthroat and see everyone else’s wins as our losses. Quite the contrary: you can position yourself to be more successful by thinking of others and taking a more wholistic approach.

I absolutely believe this is a better way to do business, much like the triple bottom line idea of people, planet, and profit. These philosophies share the basic tenet that serving one’s interest can benefit others and doesn’t need to harm them. I really enjoyed reading about a success story that illustrates good business practices, particularly treating employees well. (Side note, I don’t like the term employee and team member seems too clunky. Any alternate suggestions?)

What I also enjoyed was how I felt like I could see Kip’s personality in his words. Some parts got repetitive when he shared the same idea again, but it felt like he had deep conviction and the tone was so accessible. I like his style and honesty. There are certainly some things I would do differently based on my own values, but they are nonetheless spades better than most any other company out there. I do hope his vision of a future where Conscious Capitalism is the normal way of business becomes a reality. I’ll certainly do my part.

Paris

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I didn’t want to continue blogging like nothing was happening in the world. The attacks in Paris are just too horrific to ignore and I still can’t believe it. That city has had to withstand so much this year and I feel for them.

Last night I was watching my college’s football game, feeling bummed out that we ultimately lost. But in comparison to what happened in France, my perspective changed. Instead I am grateful that I was able to watch the game without fear of an attack. That my friends and fellow Bruins could rally at the Rose Bowl and be safe. I’m glad that we are not on lockdown and that we have not had attacks.

I can’t imagine what it’s like in Paris now. Certainly nothing like the amazing city we were in just a month ago. I’m fortunate we got to travel through Europe safely and I hope the Parisiens get their city back to normal soon. I know it can be a long, hard path. Americans have felt similarly for 14 years, but resilience will win out.

In honor of the souls lost and the brave people who helped the survivors, I wanted to pay tribute. It’s a small piece but I wanted to send goodwill out into the world wide web, from my little corner of it. We will stand united and we will overcome. <3 Vive La France

The creators, the inventors, the doers

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I’ve always admired people who can make something. Maybe it’s gadgets or maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s art or maybe it’s crafts. It just amazes me when they can take their skills to produce an end result that we can use or enjoy again and again.

For years I wished I could be a creative. Come up with things, produce things that others would admire me for. In fact, recently I’ve been contemplating YouTube videos. Putting content out there that people could listen to and relate to, now that’s creation! I looked in admiration at all types of people who had found their passion as a child, couldn’t stop creating, and eventually followed a path to put out amazing things. “What about me?” I thought as I reflected on skills I wish I had, like making soap or cooking or singing or dancing.

Yet all this time, I never realized that I have been creating. This very blog, in fact.

For some reason, because it’s not something I can open up an Etsy shop for or record a video or audio file of, I never considered it creating. Why did I not see it earlier? This IS content, and truly one of the original forms. And I (*gasp*) am creating it! Whoa.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been writing for so much of my life that it became the norm. I don’t even notice all I’ve written. At 10 years old, I began keeping a daily journal. 13 years later, I stopped upon meeting Panda, but by then I had been blogging on the side. So then blogging started to take hold until it became the primary way I kept track of my life. I’d share thoughts and experiences and now it’s become a place for my memories. Whenever I want to share something with friends, I can easily do a search of the 2300+ entries on my blog to pull up a post. It’s very much a part of me and an extension of me.

This is what I’ve realized: I am creative. I write blog posts. I am inventive. I constantly think of new topics to share. I am a doer. I built and manage the website for it all.

#proud

On not feeling good enough

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We all get to a point where we feel like a failure. Maybe you haven’t gotten there yet. But the longer you sail through life without smacking into a wall, the harder it will be to adjust and overcome.

That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.

Academically, life was pretty much a breeze up until high school. It got a bit tougher then, but I still graduated in the top 10% of the class (or was it 5%?). I got into a respectable college – UCLA – and began my undergraduate career. The first year, things were pretty good. I managed to get over a 3.5 GPA so I made the Dean’s Honor List and joined ALD/PES (the National Honor Societies). My second year, the grades slipped a bit. Perhaps I was distracted by pledging for my fraternity, AKPsi. My third year, I studied abroad in the UK and my grades kept going down. I figured that the different grading system and structure might have contributed. When I came back for my fourth year, the trend only continued. At this point I might have begun to realize that as classes got progressively harder, I wasn’t adapting.

It took me a long time to figure out what was happening. The lesson I learned about myself is that all those years of doing it on my own and having learning come easily did not prepare me to know how to handle adversity. In one of my last classes before graduating, I was actually afraid of failing the class. An absolutely scary prospect for someone who spent most of her education getting A’s. So in desperation, I asked my roommate for some help. She was also in the class and got the concepts way better than me. And you know what? She was able to explain things to me in a way that really helped my understanding! It was amazing.

Ironically, when I was younger, I tutored and mentored children. I did not realize the impact that could have had on them. I figured I was just helping out, spending some time with them and sharing some knowledge. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the table that I learned the power of extra help. I’ve never been tutored in my life. I’ve never gone to the teacher for help. I can’t really remember truly engaging in a study group either. I thought study groups were for people to sit in the same area and do their own work. After over 15 years of schooling, I finally began to see the impact of having support.

It’s not like I didn’t know about support being out there. I just never associated it with myself. I had never learned how to reach out and use the resources out there. I hadn’t known to ask for help.

Is that strange? Am I alone in this? Or perhaps it is more commonly an Asian thing?

Whatever the case, looking back at my college track record makes me feel pretty awful. Had I known how to empower myself with better learning, what would I have gotten? Could I have graduated with honors, with distinction? Panda’s college story tells almost the exact opposite story. He started off a little lower than me, but as he got into the upper division courses, he got better. He was hitting his stride with classes in his major that was really fit for him. I wasn’t finding the joy in diving deeper into my chosen majors. Maybe I should have double majored in something else. Maybe I should have majored and minored instead. But maybe it was that one factor all along, that I just didn’t know how to ask for help or how to identify when I needed it in the first place.

I’ve learned since then and I hope it’s not too late to apply that to my next academic pursuit. I still find it hard to reflect on how I’m doing and get help when I need it. Being aware of the issue is only half the battle. It takes a conscious effort to continually address it so it’s not neglected.

Now I certainly hope that you don’t have to face extreme adversity in your life. Yet by experiencing that low in life, you learn a lot and you grow from that. So in a way, I hope that you do face challenges, so you can build up your resiliency.

In fact, that reminds me of when Panda failed for the first time. It was a training program and he made a mistake that meant he didn’t pass the course. He had to do the whole program over again at a later date. I remember he called me sounding so dejected. He did not handle it well. The amount of stress and worry was far more than necessary, but I think because he hadn’t really experienced failure before that, he didn’t know how to deal with it. It just made him feel like he couldn’t do it at all. Luckily, we talked through it, did not let it get out of proportion, and built up his confidence again so he could pass the next time. It really takes experience to go through something like that and learn the hard-won lessons of how to be better.

So if you ever feel like you’re a failure or you’re not good enough, remind yourself of what you can learn by pushing through it and growing with it. The lessons from the experience will be more valuable than the ultimate outcome. That’s what I’m doing now as I apply for b-schools. It’s tough but it will be worth it!

A freezing office was killing our productivity

laelene Posted in general blog, lifestyle glimpses,Tags: , , ,
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For months, the temperature of the office was almost a daily topic of discussion. It was always freezing for at least half of us, and a comfortable cool for the others. It got to the point where I had to wear at least two jackets in the office (which was pretty ridiculous considering it was blazing hot outside). Why waste all that energy to overcompensate for the external heat? Why does it always get SO cold in offices in the summer? It’s really counterproductive.

I would spend my days chugging hot water. The moment I stopped, I’d feel the numbing cold and have trouble focusing on anything else. It was dreadful to spend so much of my work hours uncomfortable and even in pain at times. Those of us who were cold were constantly thinking about how to stay warm, which couldn’t have been good for our productivity. I mean, I actually brought in a blanket that I put on my chair and wrapped around my legs when I worked. Many of us had little heaters at our desks as well, but after one blew a fuse, they weren’t allowed anymore.

Every couple of days, our office manager would call in the maintenance guys who would tell us everything was fine and the temperature was not abnormally low. Tell that to our icy cold hands. Finally, one day one of the sales folks joked about it being like a meat locker in the office – were we trying to keep raw meat from going bad? That sparked a discussion about how insanely cold it was and I shared an article about productivity in warmer temperatures. Some quotes from that article:

When our body’s temperature drops, we expend energy keeping ourselves warm, making less energy available for concentration, inspiration, and insight.

A forthcoming paper from researchers at UCLA even shows that brief exposure to warmer temperatures leads people to report higher job satisfaction.

When we experience warmth, we experience trust. And vice versa.

We know that cold temperatures worsen productivity. What new research is showing is that it can also corrode the quality of our relationships.

Great workplaces aren’t simply the product of good organizational policies. They emerge when employees connect with one another and form meaningful relationships that engender trust. What’s often overlooked is that connections don’t operate in a vacuum.

It seems obvious that the temperature of a restaurant or theater can alter our experience. So why do we continue to neglect it in the workplace?

It makes sense after all, since if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the very basis of survival includes physiological needs. How could be possibly expect to be able to operate well in relationships and higher level thinking and work if we couldn’t even satisfy the innate need for body function? Obviously our resources would be redirected towards trying to alleviate that unmet need, not leaving much room for the work we were supposed to be doing.

After this rather lengthy discussion, complete with pictures of how people were piling on the layers to combat the cold, we finally got the thermostat changed. Suddenly, I could wear only one jacket, and a light one at that! Sometimes after drinking my mug of hot water I could even take off the jacket momentarily. It was amazing and immediately lifted the mood of all those who had been freezing before. Now temperature is hardly a consideration at work. Sometimes the office still feels cold, but not nearly as bad. Hopefully it will continue to stay at a steady 74 degrees or higher. Those who didn’t mind the cold before certainly don’t seem to be too hot in this new temperature.

I’m much happier and can actually focus on work without having to consider how to stay warm throughout the day. It’s pretty incredible that something pretty simple took so long to fix (and that it feels oh so rewarding). I no longer yearn to work from home just so I could feel my fingers when I type. Isn’t that glorious?

The Italian way of life

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After Panda and I got to spend some time in Rome and the surrounding area, we learned a lot about Italian culture. I don’t seem to remember much of it from my first time in the country, either because I didn’t experience things the same, didn’t notice that time around, or forgot after all these years. I mean, it’s been 8 years! So here are some observations about how Italians seem to live their lives – while I still remember them all.

-They say “prego” a lot. Apparently this is a word that can mean many things in many contexts, so it is both highly useful for those who know it and highly confusing for those who don’t. Half the time I was wondering what the prego was supposed to imply in each given situation. The only one I got a hang of was when service folks used it to see if you needed anything. I’m pretty sure Panda used it a few times at times when it made no sense. 😛

-There are a lot of smokers, everywhere. At least they are on the streets and not inside! I’d forgotten how many more smokers you encounter on the streets of Europe and it’s really rather unpleasant. I’m always holding my breath, ducking clouds of smoke, and hoping I don’t stink of it myself by the end of the day.

roma trastavere train station in rome-Public transportation (and life) seems pretty lax. We got on many a train where our tickets weren’t checked at all. Not sure if the underground metro worked the same since we never ended up using that. The schedule generally works well, but the last night, we had a train that was 85 minutes late! At one point I found myself wondering why I wasn’t upset and why nobody else seemed upset either. That also seems to go with the generally lax approach. For us, it was because we were on vacation and just heading back to the hotel. No need to fret. For locals, perhaps they never even considered it a problem.

-Personal space is either nonexistent or like a one-inch radius from your body. I had multiple instances where people got too close for comfort, but they didn’t seem to notice a thing. At first it was just a couple who sat at the same bar stool area that Panda and I were eating at in McDonald’s (yes, we tried a local one). Out of all of the empty areas in the restaurant, they chose to be two seats away from us at the same table. I would have gotten a table to ourselves. Then there was a guy on the bus who swayed with the turns of the vehicle. Sometimes that meant bumping into me, despite the fact that he had a good two feet in front of him and even more to the sides. It was especially cringe-worthy because he reeked of cigarette smells. He also managed to brush hands with Panda when they were holding the same pole. At our stop, we both got off relieved to have some breathing room. Finally, there were the people who sat directly behind us on a long bench even though the entire rest of it was empty. And it was a loooong bench! I mean, you could easily seat at least 20 people on each side. Why did they have to come back to back with us, leaving just inches between our bodies? I don’t get it. Maybe I’m too Americanized. Funny enough though, this is something I expect in Asia, so I might not even notice it there.

-Street performers and hawkers are abound. Tons of musicians will perform all over the place and random people walk up to you casually selling battery packs for your devices, selfie sticks, flowers, or toys. For these type of people, the best policy for me has been no eye contact. Once you give them attention, they won’t leave you alone!

-In Rome for sure, but maybe more of Italy, they have little water spigots all over the place, which act as water fountains. The water never stops running out of them and you can go grab a few sips or fill up your water bottle at any of them. In fact, I remember my tour guide from my previous visit mentioning that all water fountains in Rome have drinking water – except Trevi Fountain. So hey, you really can’t go thirsty, can you?

And when it comes to food, oh my! What a difference…

italian outdoor seating on roads-First of all, they have some interesting outdoor seating. Oftentimes it’s a few tables and chairs that are actually on the road, off the curb. In more busy areas, they have a little barrier to create a sort of “room” for people to sit in. This would be life-threatening in the states, but in Italy it’s the norm!

-Just about every restaurant has morning and evening hours, with a break in the middle. Between 3-7, your meal options are very limited, so if you like to have dinner at 5 or 6, you better do your research. Dinners start late and go late in this part of the world. Personally, I’d rather eat earlier and get home.

-As you get each course, they tend to take away the food of the previous course. It seems irrelevant if you’ve still got a hunk of food on your plate. At first we were startled by this, but now I make sure to explain that I haven’t finished. I’m partial to eating a little bit of each course and switching between more than one at a time. This is why I love tapas, izakaya, dim sum, etc.

-This is the land of “beware what you ask for.” They tend to charge for all things, including bread, water, and sometimes even olive oil. If you really don’t care for it, don’t ask for it! Just say no (or no thanks).

ristochicco fettucine and roasted potatoes

I wanted fettucine with a tomato-based sauce, but they only offered a cream-based one that night.

-Menus are quite set (little to no flexibility to request modifications to a dish) and very seasonal – to the point that it’s a day to day, hour to hour kind of thing. That means that you can look forward to much fresher options, but it also means that the awesome picture you saw on Yelp may not be applicable to your visit. (Yes, that happened to me. Sad times.) I’ve seen some restaurants with very strict rules on ordering with no straying from exactly how the dishes are offered. The chefs are in control and rather finicky too. I’m not used to such particular ways and it doesn’t bode well for a picky eater like myself.

-Service is always slow. I’m not sure if it’s because of the relaxed pace of life or the fact that these establishments appear perpetually understaffed. Or if they’re “understaffed” by American standards because everyone takes it slow and they don’t need to go any faster. Either way, we’ve had to plan extra time for meals because we know it will take forever to get our order in, get leftovers boxed, and finally receive and pay our bill.

So there you go! Some of the lessons learned from our observations of how Italians do things. Have you experienced this too? What did I miss in my list?

How to discern a person’s character

laelene Posted in general blog,Tags: , , , ,
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I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to tell someone’s character is by how they treat those they don’t particularly like and don’t (think they’ll) need.

So often, people focus their attention on those they want or need something from and neglect all others. They may be nice to their family because of the intrinsic tie, to bosses because of their influence, or simply to people they like because they enjoy the company. But it’s easy to be good when you want to get something out of it.

What would you do when you ran into someone you did not get along with? Would you duck your head and go another way? Would you grit your teeth and try to be cordial? Would you sneer a bit and let them know how you feel? Or would you attempt to make a friend or at least acquaintance of them?

I’ve met some people who really rubbed me the wrong way. I remember one girl who had a good heart, but she was just so needy with attention that she went out of her way to get it. She’d bake you a cake or buy you something to try to win your affection. Some people were wooed by that, but it grated on me because it felt so fake. I mostly tolerated her, but every now and then when it got extremely excessive, I honestly shared my opinions with her. Admittedly, I’m not a very patient person and if our social lives did not intersect, I would have steered clear. I find it better to avoid conflict like that.

A few folks I’ve known weren’t quite so nice. There was one girl who would target me whenever she had a complaint about my friends and I, as if I was the only person causing the problem. I think it was because I was the only name she knew. I found it very rude the way that she haughtily came to ask us to change our behavior, like she’d never had a day of fun in her whole life. In fact, I’m not sure she ever smiled and she had the worst resting face I’ve seen. It always looked like she was fuming or glaring at you. When she finally moved on to somewhere else, she never even told any of us that she was leaving. You can tell she didn’t bother with making any friends there.

Another one in particular was rude, disrespectful, and outright mean at times. I don’t know where all that hate came from, but I can’t stand that sort of thing. What really bothered me was the fact that she was two-faced, putting on a smile for people she liked, respected, or needed to get along with. Me? I had no impact on her life and she did not like me, so she held little back. Normally I’d keep my distance as much as possible and not waste time thinking about her awful personality, but sometimes our paths inevitably intersect and I can’t help but wish that more people would see through her facade.

This then begs the question: would you rather be ignored and not noticed or ridiculed when noticed? Which is the lesser evil here? In a sense, if you’re being bullied, you’re being noticed. What if you mattered so little to people that they didn’t even pay attention to your existence? What scenario would make you feel more inferior?

I personally would prefer to be ignored. At least then you’re not subjected to cruelty. It may make you feel small to not be noticed at all, but it’s easier to deal with. With bullying, try as you might to convince yourself that you’re being targeted because of an innate security from the bully, or even jealousy, it’s hard to accept that mindset. What do you think?

I’m trying hard to not let negativity like that into my life. It’s sad that they are so lacking in positive emotions and healthy relationships, but I can’t help but mull over it more than I ever should. I always wonder if there’s something I could do to make things different. Ultimately, it’s up to them to stop perpetuating that negativity and it’s up to me to keep those influences out. If I have to, I might need to remove myself from the situation that keeps me tied to these poisonous people. I’d rather be happier somewhere else.

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