• Laura Owens

Ashly Perez: ...that not everything is binary

Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens. If you're anything like me and my mom, you could use some wisdom, encouragement, and enlightenment right about now. If your answer is yes, you're going to want to hear what our guest on this episode, Ashly Perez, has to say. Ashly spent more than five years producing, writing, acting, and directing short form internet content for BuzzFeed.

Jan: Ashly was a BuzzFeed sensation, starring in more than 250 videos, many of which became viral. These days she's a television writer, artist, and the author of a great new book called, Read This for Inspiration: Simple Sparks to Ignite Your Life. Ashly, thank you so much for joining us.

Ashly: Thank you for having me.

Jan: Tell us how the book came about.

Ashly: It really was one of those books that is a function of what I needed in my life. I have ADHD and it's hard for me to concentrate. I also have, because of that, a lot of different interests in my life. I wanted books that gave me inspiration. Honestly, I think we all have that same intrinsic feeling and desire, but we don't have the time to do it. I was tired of waking up every morning and getting phone fatigue; immediately getting on the news, getting through it's sad news cycle, and then not knowing really how to start your day. I wrote this as a function of that in order to be a two-to-three-minute replacement of getting on your phone, reading sad news, and then feeling like your energy is drained before your day even began.

Laura: Like we mentioned right before the show, I have ADHD as well. Having a book like yours, where you just flip to one page and you can learn a lesson, is a great idea. I still think, to some extent, I would struggle with also not checking my phone. Why do you think it's so bad for us to do that immediately? I can justify it by saying, "I'm learning what's going on in the world and seeing what my friends are up to."

Ashly: I think it's not a bad habit. I think it's just, we don't realize how much the very first thing we do affects us. It's not that the phone in and of itself is bad. I use this app, Headspace, that's amazing. They have this morning Wake Up. Before I get on Twitter, before I get on Instagram, to get on Headspace because I know what type of content I'm going to get versus on Instagram. Yes, it might be your friends, but it also might be a friend who is having an experience that then makes you feel bad about your life, or makes you feel less than. Or if you get on the news, you don't know what you're going to get. I think knowing what you're going to get, and putting that type of content intentionally into your body and into your mind, first thing in the morning is, I think, what we're all having to learn to do, especially in a pandemic where our routines are completely different than they were before.

Jan: Tell us what people are going to get if they read your book, Read This for Inspiration.

Ashly: I describe it to a lot of people because I think it's sometimes difficult to describe. To me, it feels like a millennial version of a Chicken Soup for the Soul. It's just a culmination of lots of different stories and versions of my life and things that I've learned. This book came about because I found that there were lots of little lessons that I've picked up along the way around a number of different topics. I would tell those things to my friends when we were talking to each other. I found I kept telling the same stories over and over.

For instance, one of them in the book is that Lucille Ball was 40 years old the day the first episode of I Love Lucy aired. Before that, she was a washed-up, C-List actress that nobody wanted who had been in Hollywood for almost 20 years, and she was blonde most of that time. Whenever I have a friend, or myself, who feels like I'm running out of time, it's like, Lucille Ball is one of the most iconic actors and comedians to ever live and she was 40 when she got her first big break.

It's stories like that, some of them are pop culture, a lot of them are female-base. I was an International Studies major, a lot of them are language and etymology. Some of them are just lessons that I learned from my mom, my girlfriend, my dad. It really is a mixed bag, which I think is very fun for millennials too. In some ways it mimics the social feed that we have that you don't know what you're going to get, but at least you know it's all going to be positive.

Laura: Right. Exactly, exactly. I think one of the most pertinent to what we're going through right now, I just love this lesson, how home comes in many forms. Obviously, so many of us aren't able to go home and see the things that we're familiar with, our family, our dinner table, our childhood room. What advice would you have for people who are trying to find their home when they can't go home?

Ashly: I think you're totally right that, as cheesy as it sounds, that home is where the heart is. I think I would expand that. Home is anything that makes you feel comfortable. I'm a queer woman, so I know, very particularly, that home for a lot of queer people isn't always necessarily a safe space. But that there are other homes that you can make and other memories and safe spaces that you can unlock.

This is a very silly example, one of the things I miss the most in the pandemic is going to Disneyland. I grew up going to Disneyland because I'm from Southern California. Often when I'm stressed now, I'll literally just close my eyes and walk through the park because it feels comforting to me, it feels like that sense of home. Even if you can't see your parents right now, or go to your childhood bedroom, or even interact with the people that you've missed, we have this technology that can bring us there. But also, you can simply close your eyes and be in the place that gives you comfort.

Jan: You say you wrote the book pre-pandemic when you were a lot more sure of things. But would the inspiration in the book be any different if you'd written it entirely during the pandemic?

Ashly: What's interesting is, I wrote the book in completely different circumstances and it's been comforting to me now in the pandemic. I found that I don't think the advice would necessarily change. In writing the book, the main thing I realize about inspiration is that you can't force it to happen. Inspiration to me is really summarized by Mary Oliver's poem, How to Live a Good Life (Sometimes). She says, "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."

I think in the pandemic, more than anything, all of us have gone on lots of new walks. We're walking around a neighborhood that we didn't even know. I find inspiration everywhere within a two-block radius of me that I just didn't know was there. It's because I wasn't paying attention to what was there. Though I do think this time and era has forced us all to think differently, I'm not sure that the advice would be that different. If anything, this pandemic has forced me to really live what I wrote a couple of years ago.

Laura: It seems like now is a time to make some drastic changes in our life. You talk about change is really hard, especially when we're all facing it head-on so unexpectedly. Our lives just were completely upended. With people who've lost their jobs and are forced to have a new start, maybe following a dream they've had for a long time, what advice would you have for them to help them feel like making a big change is a good thing, even if there's a good chance we also might fail?

Ashly: There's one chapter, or entry, in the book that's called, When you're stuck, move. Something that I learned is, there's a difference between being stuck and being paralyzed. When you're paralyzed, you literally cannot move any part of your body. Again, I'm very big into etymology so it's like, the origins of these words. Stuckiness and being stuck, actually, you can still move your limbs, you can move your body, it's your feet that are planted. We all are in a place right now that feels like we are stuck, whether we're physically stuck at home, mentally stuck, we can't do the things that we used to do, but we still have the capacity to move.

Anything that brings change, I always bring these things also back to the science of, 'An object in motion stays in motion.' If you can give yourself any momentum, even if it's the tiniest, tiniest bit forward, you will continue to stay in motion. I think my advice for people who feel like they're too stuck or too trapped right now to make a movement, myself included, I've definitely felt that in this pandemic. It's like, "What one tiny thing can I do to remind me of myself or the life that I'm missing right now? How can I let that give me momentum?" The rest naturally happens after that.

Jan: Along those lines, you also talk about how anything you can do in under two minutes, you should do right now. Tell us more about why you feel that's a good piece of advice.

Ashly: I just listened to your podcast with Gretchen Rubin. She has the one-minute rule, which is the same thing. But if you need an extra minute, you can take the two-minute rule. It was the best professional advice that I've ever gotten that I've now applied into my personal life. My old boss used to say, "Anything you could do under two minutes, do." Meaning, essentially, we all get inundated with emails. Sometimes if you have an overwhelming number, or you have this feeling of, "How do I get this down?" Just do the ones that you can do in under two minutes and start slowly going that way. Same with bills and stuff like that. We all have those stacks of mail, you're just looking through it and dreading it.

Sometimes I just remember that rule, I'll go through it and be like, "Okay, I'm only going to do the ones that I can do in two minutes right now, the rest of them I'll think about later." You don't always have the energy to do everything that you need to do in your life. But you can do the things that you need to do for two minutes. The exercise area of this is, I also had a trainer who once said, "You can hold anything for two more seconds, or you can hold anything for two minutes." Do two more, do things in two minutes, do it in twos. I think it's a nice mental hack for you.

Laura: What advice do you have if there's something that does take longer than two minutes? We're dreading it and getting overwhelmed, but we do want to take a break. Do you think there's something we could do that would maybe be more beneficial with, say, five minutes off an hour, going on our phone?

Ashly: I think a lot of this book is also drawn from my experiences being in therapy. Something I learned in therapy is that procrastination actually isn't often about time management, it's more about procrastinating the negative feelings we don't want to experience. For instance, if you have a report that you haven't been doing, I think sometimes it's good to just take a second to breathe, to be in your body, and be like, "What am I afraid of about this report? What is it that's been making me not do this?"

Another thing I've done in therapy is just to go down the worst possible case scenario. It sounds counterintuitive, but often you find, "Okay, if I don't do this report, what's going to happen? If that doesn't happen, what's going to happen?" You keep going down until you get to the point of what you're actually afraid of, and it's not as scary. I think the dread and the anxiety comes from knowing that the fear is there and not facing it at all. I just had a friend, yesterday, say to me, "If you're going through it, the only way through is through it. You can't escape by slowly staying away from the pain. You have to get through the pain, and live in the pain, to get through it."

Jan: One thing in the book that I really love, you point out that emotions are gifts. In what ways?

Ashly: I think one of the biggest things that I learned, which it sounds so funny is, we have to feel our feelings. I think we have a propensity to only feel the feelings that we feel are socially acceptable, like happiness. First of all, most humans actually can't identify more than three major feelings: happy, sad and angry. We don't often take the time to expand our emotional vocabulary and really discover what we're feeling. Are we feeling jealous? Are we feeling intimidated? Are we humiliated? Are we exhausted, tired, all of these expansions of that.

I think that emotions can be gifts because they're clues into how we're feeling and where to go. If we actually looked at our emotions, we could see the path forward. Again, I think the thing that has been so humbling about the pandemic, and so great in the same way, is that, I think, we've all been brought to the bottom of our emotions and stretched to our limits. This book, Read This for Inspiration, is not meant to be prescriptive, it's meant to be a starting place for how we all can shift our mindset. Like I said, I've needed the book just as much as anybody that I'm talking to right now. I'm reading these things being like, "I'm really glad I wrote that."

Laura: It wasn't just a starting place for you to share and think about your emotions. You talk about how you need to give people time to come around and how this applied to your mother. How when you came out, you felt like she had some sort of shame and worry, now she's the biggest activist for gay rights. If we share our dreams, or goals, or sexuality, or struggles with somebody that we care about and they don't respond like we want them to, what should we do when it's hard to just sit around and hope that they'll come around?

Ashly: First of all, always make sure you're safe. For a lot of queer people, coming out is not something that you can do until you're in a safe space or you're older. Secondly, I would say that something that really helped me is, I started Googling, 'what to do when your child comes out' so that I could see what, potentially, my mom was going through. When you come out, queer people, gay people, have to come out to ourselves first, we've been living with this thing. For me, I came out when I was 23 and I had known since I was 5 years old that I was queer. I have been processing that for 18 years at that point, my mom had no idea. We expect people, when you come out, to have this same feeling, and they're just beginning the processing. I think coming out is the starting line, not the ending point.

You're right that in the book I talk about everybody just needs time. I found that as my mom had more time with me, and the more I was open and committed to being honest with her about my feelings, she could see that I was who I always had been. I think for queer people, a lot of us are afraid that people are going to see us differently, that they're going to perceive us differently.

At the beginning, people are learning this very big, new piece of information. The more time that you give people, they're like, "You're exactly the same. It's just this new thing that I didn't know about you." I really do believe that with a little time, it can heal that sense. For the people who are queer, I would say do some googling, figure out what your parents are going through, what your friends are going through, and see if you can understand their perspective, as silly as that sounds. It seems like they should be trying to understand yours, which they absolutely should, but I think it can be good mental preparation for the queer person to know what the other side is going through.

Jan: You also say that, today you lead with qualities that you used to hide behind. Tell us more about that.

Ashly: I think just a facet of growing up is we don't like anything that makes us different when we're younger. I'm queer, both of my parents are immigrants. My whole life I wanted to be the opposite of what I was, and was very ashamed of lots of different parts of me. I wanted to just be a blonde girl who was from here and not have to deal with any of the parts of my personality that felt difficult or made me different. Now I really understand that our superpower is whatever makes us different. By the way, it's okay if you're a blonde girl who is from here, you still have that superpower, there's still something that makes you different, that makes you unique.

I think once I realized that, and the more I started, specifically at BuzzFeed, making content and videos around that to heal myself, the thing that I heard more than anything else was people saying, "This is me.” And “I feel the same way too." It was in that acceptance of that, that I felt there was a lot of healing. Even my ADHD, it was something that I felt very much hindered me. Now I realize, "My ADHD is part of the reason that this book can exist because it's the way my brain works. If I had just tried to hide that and hinder that, this wouldn't exist." I think accepting the things that we're not proud of can really help us in the long term.

Laura: How did you deal with criticism over being such a sensation online? You got such great feedback, I'm sure you also got stuff that wasn't so good and was hurtful.

Jan: You've always got haters out here.

Laura: Exactly.

Ashly: 'Don't read the comments' is the number one rule. My caveat to that is, 'Read the first few comments' because it's not good to keep yourself fully encapsulated and not seeing anything. I think the way that I dealt with it, I think this goes with whether or not you're a viral media sensation or if you're just a person online, all of us increasingly, right now, it's like 90% of our existence is online. It's hard to separate the fact that you are a real person from your online avatar.

The thing that always helped me, when I was at BuzzFeed, was having real friends who I could talk to and realizing I could turn off the internet and that that wasn't my real life. My real life was my real friendships and real connections with my family, with my friends, and with people who loved and cared about me.

Brené Brown always says, "You shouldn't take criticism from anyone who isn't in the arena with you." That has helped me so much. People will say and do things online, but if they're not in the arena right there with you, being vulnerable, also making things, and putting themselves out there, then they don't have a right to affect you. They can say whatever they want, but you don't need to let it affect you.

Laura: As a side note, I actually have that right in front of me right now.

Jan: The quote.

Ashly: Do you?

Laura: I have the quote on my wall because of Brené Brown. I agree with you that has helped me so many times through so many different things. My mom and I have talked about that before, that that's a great way to think about dealing with criticism; is that you really can't take it from people who don't know what you're going through.

Ashly: Exactly. By the way, I think some of the hardest criticisms I got are from people who were media-types, who I respected. If somebody didn't like what BuzzFeed was doing or something, I took that a lot more personally. At the end of the day, it's also okay for people not to like everything that you do. You don't like everything that everyone else does.

I think in The Four Agreements, the one that stood out to me the most was, I think it's the second one, Don't Take Things Personally, not everything has to be so personal. Most things are actually personal to the people who are saying them. We do and say things because it's personal to us. You don't have to take everything that someone is saying, including their criticism, as personal to you.

Jan: You have so much great advice in the book. One of the things that I think is really wonderful is, 'Fill yourself up first.' Why is that important?

Ashly: That was something that I learned in an old youth group that I was a part of. I think that often times the people who are trying to do good, do so at their own expense, and then end up being able to do less because of it. In the book, the example is, if you're trying to give water to someone else and you have a cup and a saucer that's overflowing, if you keep taking water out of your own bucket, filling it, and giving it to someone else in their cup, at some point you're going to be empty. Whereas there's another way to do it; where you fill yourself up first, then the overflow of what you have filled up in yourself goes to other people. Instead of constantly draining yourself fully, and getting to a point where you have zero, you can fill yourself up first and the overflow will spill into all the relationships and people around you.

I think, particularly as women, this is one of the hardest things that we have to learn. It's not me at all who thought of this first. I feel like I've taken so much of that inspiration from Oprah. I remember watching her show when I was a kid with my mom. She always talked about, "Mothers need to put themselves first." It was a really crazy thing for her to say back then. Mothers feel like, "No, at the very least, my children have to come first." But your children are dependent on you. If you're not taking care of yourself, who's taking care of them? I think that is really where that came from, this idea of, "We have to fill ourselves up in order to even be helpful to others."

Laura: We've heard some absolutely astounding figures, in terms of how people are dealing with the pandemic, specifically millennials with depression. I believe my mom told me a statistic yesterday that was, 70% of millennials would say that they are depressed or anxious right now. For people who don't understand what that feels like, or their parents, I like how in the book, you talk about asking somebody, "How is your heart?" rather than asking them, "How are you?"

We've talked to so many different mental health experts on the show, who have talked about ways to ask people who might be struggling, what they're going through, and how to get them to open up. Why did this work for you?

Ashly: That was a moment where I was really struggling. My mom, I didn't realize it until after we were having the conversation, she said, "How's your heart?" It opened up something completely different for me. I think when we ask, "How are you doing?" All of us say "Fine," immediately. "I'm good. I'm fine." There's another entry in the book that's about nourishing yourself.

I lived as an English teacher abroad in South Korea, the phrase that they say there is, “bab meog-eoss-eo?” which means, "Have you eaten rice?" That came out of World War II, excuse me, not World War II, the Korean War, where there was a shortage of food. The first thing that you would ask someone, to see if they were okay is, "Have you eaten rice?" It made me realize the real question there is, "Are you nourished? Have you nourished yourself? What is it? Do you have enough to keep going?" I think we often avoid, when we ask people, "How are you doing?" and someone says, "Fine," we avoid that question of, "Are you nourished? Are you okay? Can I help you nourish yourself?" I think for mental health, it's a question that we can ask to others and we can ask ourselves.

For me, I would identify with those people who have been depressed, struggling, and anxious in this period, in this pandemic. The most helpful time, honestly, and the most helpful people, are people who have just said, "Same buddy, I feel the same." It's so nice to have that, in a moment where we're lacking human connection. It's so nice to have someone say, "Me too," in that moment.

Jan: Is it your sense that, because we have all had upheavals in our lives due to the pandemic, because we're all in this together, that it is easier now to admit that we're struggling than it was before the pandemic, when there seemed to be more pressure to look like, "Oh, wow. I've got it all. Yeah, I've got my act together."

Ashly: I think there is. We're a very individualist society in America. I think this is our first lesson in collectivism on a global stage. The whole entire world is experiencing the same thing right now. The only other time that that's happened in our society is during war. The great achievements that we think of, of American society, came after war, after people banded together. I think the same thing is happening now. This is a little harder because we're physically isolated from each other. I think it can be harder mentally, especially with the advent of social media.

I absolutely think that you're right. It's definitely made it easier for me to say, "Hey, I don't feel like I'm doing so well right now." and to have people say back, "Me neither." I think the thing that has been changed in this equation of the life that we're living right now is busyness has been removed. For most of us, that was our solve, that was a thing that made us feel better was, "I can be busy. I can go to Target. I can run errands. I can go see friends and get dinner." Now we're all just left with our feelings. I think because that busyness has been removed, it's a lot easier for all of us to feel the feelings that we've been ignoring, and then also to admit to people later, "I'm not feeling so well right now."

Laura: That's so interesting. I've never heard somebody explained it that way. I think that's absolutely perfect.

Ashly: It's my life.

Laura: Me too. But there's still always Target online. I have an order outside actually.

Jan: Which brings up another point. You say you are not what you buy. You talk about shopping issues, get into that a little bit for us.

Ashly: I think what the pandemic has changed, and is revealing in all of us, and particularly if you have ADD I think you'll relate to this, ADD is a lot of acting on impulse. There's a lack of the pause that happens in between the desire and the impulse to do something. I think with shopping, I often would fill my needs or fears by buying something. I learned this great trick that when you want to buy something, something that you can do is write down why you're buying it.

For instance, I have iced coffee at home, I have all the iced coffee in the world that I want, but I still have these cravings to go out and get iced coffee. Why? If I sit for two minutes, "I want to feel productive." What I'm trying to do is buy productivity and buy that sense of feeling. Often the same thing with clothes, you have all the clothes in the world that you need and yet you feel a need to buy something. Can you sit for a second and be, "What I want is to feel cool," or "What I want is novelty and I'm not getting novelty. Is there another way I can get novelty besides buying something?" This is still a very hard one for me but that's kind of the only thing that has actually helped curb any sense of my shopping desires, is to actually examine them.

Laura: Again, that's something I definitely could use. ADHD brains thinking alike.

Ashly: I know, I know. I think I have to make a specific version of this for ADHD brain.

Laura: It's needed. Ashly, we always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me the lesson?" What is it that nobody told you about life, or motivation, or what it's like to be gay and go through struggles and, wherever you want to take it, that you wish you'd known before because it would have saved you a lot of hard times and hopefully will save somebody else.

Ashly: You know what nobody told me? Nobody told me that not everything is binary. Some people told me that not everything is black or white. We really do live, I think, in the world of, it's good or bad, it's right or wrong, yes or no. Most things are somewhere exactly in-between. For instance, even with the shopping, we go through binging and purging. I'm either going to get rid of all of it or I'm going to buy all of it. The happy place is somewhere in-between. I wish that someone had told me earlier that the gray is okay for almost everything in your life.

Jan: Wow, I love it. Gray is okay. Really?

Ashly: Mm-hmm.

Jan: I love the inspiration that you have in the book. It really is wonderful. I also love the fact that you say that you want people to think and reflect rather than do after they read it. How can people connect with you on social media and the internet?

Ashly: You can find me @itsashlyperez on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. You can go to forinspiration.co to find the book, to find more inspiration. In January, I will actually have a podcast coming out called, Listen to This for Inspiration, where you can hear more of these conversations about what the book is going. The book is available for purchase December 1. Please read it and let me know how you're finding it. I find that the most inspirational thing comes from conversations with other people.

Laura: Absolutely. Ashly, thank you so much for coming on the show. We have so many more questions and they're all based on the lessons that you talk about in the book. Everyone, be sure to get, Read This for Inspiration: Simple Sparks to Ignite Your Life. I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black.

Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me!

Jan: Thank you so much for joining us.

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