Category Archives: Fun

A Simple Relationship Test

Posted on August 15, 2012 in Fun by Sandra Bienkowski

“You can never love anyone to your own detriment. That is not love, that is possession, control, fear, or a combination of them all.” – Iyanla Vanzant

For most of my 20s and a good chunk of my 30s, I had a unique skill. I was particularly gifted at finding men to date who were missing an essential ingredient of a healthy personality—empathy. Plenty of experiences and exchanges along the way were giant neon signs telling me: No Empathy Here, Lost: Empathy, or to be crass, Asshole Here.

One man really took the no empathy cake. You know how you have cringe worthy moments? In retrospect, my two years with him was a cringe worthy moment. As self-aware as I always attempt to be, my fear of not finding Mr. Right would sometimes plunge me deep into denial, clutching tightly to Mr. Wrong. This guy was a disaster from day one. It was no mystery. I just blindly decided to ignore the signs.

Fast forward to today and I am happily married to someone with empathy coming out of his pores, so why do I share this tale now? I hope my story can spare someone else from making the same mistake, and wasting the time I did. I think we can make faster progress in our lives when we learn from the missteps of others, in this case, me.

The number one way to tell if you are in a good relationship boils down to one question. Does your relationship make your life better? It’s a simple, yet effective way to separate the duds from the studs. Life quality tends to plummet with the wrong person. If you are in the right relationship, life improves in all sorts of ways, individually and as a couple.

[DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying you need to be in a relationship to improve your life, I’m saying if your relationship doesn’t improve your life, you could be in the wrong one.]

Long ago I learned from my psychologist that our intimate relationships, more than any other aspect of our lives, are a reflection of our overall mental health. To oversimplify, someone could have a thriving career, money in the bank, a rigorous fitness regimen, great friendships, but if he/she is dating a disaster, he/she could use a little mental health work.

For me, I had friends who met my Mr. Zero Empathy and they immediately disliked him. My family? They were silent at the time, but later told me they wondered what I was thinking.

My life took all sorts of negative spirals.

I noticed my bank account dwindling because he wanted to go out all the time (almost every day) but he was King of going Dutch. (I’m not saying women should never pay, but I do believe your long-term BF should treat once in a while.)

I felt alone in the relationship as I watched Zero Empathy stare at other girls. (You are cringing for me now, right?)

Zero Empathy even joked once when we were rappelling that I had misstepped. He laughed at his joke while his feet were safely on the ground and I was blindly pushing off a ledge.

Soon, I noticed every event we went to had alcohol at its center—camping, crawfish boils, running events (after), pool parties and vacations. While I love some good red and some fruity martinis, a constant focus on alcohol, even during the work week, was just another sign that my life wasn’t moving in the right direction.

Zero Empathy didn’t make me feel like he was in my corner. I had an abscessed tooth once and was in excruciating pain. I needed meds to get me through the night to my appointment with the endodontist the next morning. Zero Empathy reminded me on the phone of how close I lived to the drugstore, you know, instead of volunteering to help me out.

Point is, if you are with a Zero Empathy, your life is likely taking hits in areas outside of your relationship.

Maybe your bank account …

Or you are compromising your physical health …

A shadow is cast over your outlook or spirit …

Maybe friends tell you that you are acting differently …

Or your relationship has halted your life progress …

It is likely people in your life don’t like your significant other …

If you are in the right relationship, life improves. Period. Healthy relationships bring out the best in you.

Do a quick relationship check. Is there empathy? If that’s missing, nothing will fix your relationship. People who lack empathy only care about themselves. Next, check and see if life is improving. If it isn’t getting better, or if it’s getting worse, exit stage left and don’t look back.

The Lost Art of Conversation

Posted on July 17, 2012 in Fun by Sandra Bienkowski

I’ve committed a few conversational etiquette crimes in my 40 plus years. In high school, I would survey about six friends to validate my own opinions. I’ve always had a tendency to analyze things to death, and through the years, friends and family had to listen … a lot. Then there was that period of my life where I was so good at creating drama, and then I spent the other half of my time filling my friends’ ears about it. Let’s just say I have conversational regrets. Since I can’t go back and fix those selfish blunders, I’ve chalked it up to a great learning experience.

“When you know better, you do better.” – Maya Angelou

My social gaffes opened my eyes to the art of conversation. One of my favorite things is to have a deep conversation where it feels like a well-choreographed dance. It’s the opposite of surface, awkward chitchat. You get lost in the conversation. Time flies. New perspectives and insights are shared, and relationships are deepened. There’s even an art to casual conversation. I love social settings where the conversation is like a tennis match, everyone gets a chance to serve and hit the ball back and share the limelight. So why does it seem like the fine art of conversation is dying?

The most common type of conversation these days is the monologue. It’s titled, “I’m so fascinating, I am going to make you my audience.” You are either cornered in a group setting by someone who will monopolize you, or your whole group is dominated by one person talking endlessly about themselves. I keep seeing it happen. After spending the whole time listening, I get home and realize, “Wow, that person didn’t ask one thing about me.”

I get that people like to talk about themselves. I joke with my husband that talking about me is my favorite topic, and he’s not quite sure I’m joking. But to dominate a conversation to the exclusion of everyone else is a major social blunder. I may politely listen, but in my head I’m wondering how someone can be so unaware. I think: It really doesn’t matter how captivating your stories may be, if you never let anyone else ever have the floor, you are only conveying one message about yourself—and it isn’t good.

Last time I checked, conversation includes banter. It’s a give and take and a somewhat balanced mix of sharing stories, responding, commenting and listening.

A conversation isn’t a litany of everything going on in your life and then we both hang up the phone.

A conversation isn’t turning friends into an audience for your endless stories and forgetting to ask even one tiny question about the other person.

A conversation isn’t reciting resume and career highlights since you graduated college because you are so impressed with yourself.

A conversation isn’t repeating the same stories because you are oblivious.

I don’t contend that I am perfect. Sometimes I talk with a friend and later when I return home or hang up the phone, I wonder if I offered too much of my opinion in my desire to help. I try and remind myself not to overstep boundaries because there are times when people just need to talk, and they may not want my input. I also work on rambling less, not repeating myself and listening more.

We could get the art of conversation back if we made the decision to be more interested with other people and less so with ourselves. Conversations will improve if people focus on the art of listening and remember that behind every face there are some beautiful stories that can expand our understanding of each other.

It’s a colossal conversational blunder to take center stage and turn friends, family or business associates into an audience for a rendition of “No one is as fascinating as me.”

What about you, do you think conversation is a lost art form?

Get Real

Posted on May 31, 2012 in Fun by Sandra Bienkowski

“I went out with a guy who once told me I didn’t need to drink to make myself more fun to be around. I told him, I’m drinking so that you’re more fun to be around.” –Chelsea Handler

My favorite people are blunt. I worked with a sales rep once who told me, “You are pretty, but you’d look so much better if you lost 20 pounds.” Some people might punch the guy for uttering such a sentence. I laughed. He was kind of a spacey guy and I knew he wasn’t trying to be mean. It gave me a little jolt for sure and woke me up a bit.

I love people who put it all out there.

I’m not saying I want people to roll out the criticisms in my direction. I just prefer people who are blunt and speak their minds. It is way easier than dealing with people who are constantly managing their appearance, reciting (and repeating) lines from their resume, or trying to hide imperfections. People who are transparent usually are funny as hell.

Consider these sentences from some of my friends …

I had a boob job.

I broke up with him because he kept calling his mom when he was sick … and I live with him!

I ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s last night.

Sometimes being a mom sucks.

A little Botox isn’t that bad.

I was a little slutty in college before I settled down.

Did you hear about those moms who bring wine in a thermos to the playground?

Hilarious, right? Real people are refreshing.

When you are real, you are broadcasting to everyone else that it’s okay for them to be real too—scales, skeletons and all. Ironically, by showing flaws or foibles openly, the real deal peeps exude confidence. It’s as if they say, Hello world, here I am good, bad and ugly. Love me anyway!

Real people are self-accepting.

Being real is like exhaling; you can relax. Easy breezy. There’s no pretentious Facebook-like competition to see who has the better life. Or marketing spin designed to impress you.

Real people are likeable.

One of my closest friends is the real deal on caffeine. I never have to guess how she is feeling or thinking. I told her I want her to be my accountability partner because she’s a little mean … like the time at a dance class when she told me to take the scrunchie out of my hair because the 80s are over. Everyone should have a friend who cares enough about them not to sell them a bunch of crap.

Real people are helpful … and sometimes brutally honest.

My psychologist who I credit for helping me overcome depression when I was in my twenties (with talk therapy) was totally blunt. In one of our first sessions he said, “You need to shatter all of your mirrors. Stop using people to reflect how you should feel about yourself, and come up with your own definition of who you are.” Ouch.

Real people save time.

Recently I was whining to a friend about how I have piles of notes, but I haven’t made any significant progress in writing my book. Instead of indulging my excuses, she looked at me and asked, “Is there a reason why you can’t have an outline finished by next week?” After my feeble, “No” she said, “Just write your freaking book.”

I’d take a blunt person any day over someone with a thick layer of fake or pretend perfect. And for the record, the only thing fake about me is my nails. I hope to keep it that way.

Fun Doesn’t Just Happen

Posted on March 12, 2012 in Fun by Sandra Bienkowski

“Why not become conscious and make choices to create your life like an artist?” –Gary Zukav

My husband does this great impression of me. He waves his arms and hands wildly in the air and sings “La Dee Dah” over and over. He enjoys mocking my carefree attitude, and it always makes me laugh. See, I don’t always dot my i’s and cross all of my t’s. I rarely feel the need to clean incessantly or make sure my checkbook is balanced to the penny. My husband? He’s the walking, breathing definition of detailed. (Just try telling him a story and I guarantee he will ask you questions you don’t know the answers to!) Anyway, it works. I jokingly tell people that he makes sure our bills are paid on time, and I make sure we have fun.

All joking aside, we actually take our fun seriously. It’s sad that it seems easier to find people who view their days with drudgery than it is to find people who craft their joy. I often see people trying to get through life, instead of making it a masterpiece of fun and fulfillment. Like most good things, sometimes fun takes a little work. Here are a few tips to add more fun into your days.

Plan it. As much as you might like the universe to constantly produce fun in your life, it just doesn’t happen that way. Don’t wait for vacation or that mysterious day in your future when you plan to have more time. Take control and put fun on your calendar. My husband and I sign up to run 5ks months in advance, buy tickets for musical performances, make a list of restaurants we want to try, sketch out possible trips for the year, and plan out our weekends at least a week in advance. Make sure you can easily list what fun means to you, and then schedule it.

Refrain from putting life on hold for the weekend. I dislike the whole wait for the weekend philosophy. You are going to dread five days of the week so you can look forward to two? Make each day as fulfilling as possible—even Monday. If there’s something on your daily calendar you dread, add something you love. Dentist appointment … meet pedicure appointment. Grumpy boss? Schedule lunch with a positive friend. Work overload? Plan something you can look forward to and use it as a reward. When I have to do something I dread, I tell myself: “Okay, pull up your big girl boots.” I crack myself up, and then I get on with it.

Make sure it isn’t your head you dread. You can’t go anywhere and leave your head behind, so make sure it’s a friendly place to reside. Too often people are kinder to best friends than they are to themselves inside their own heads. Your thoughts are powerful. You become what you think about, so choose your thoughts wisely. If you want to change your mood, your outlook and your capacity for fun (your life!)—change your thoughts.

Take more risks. My husband and I took an entrepreneurial leap so we could move to an area that would support our love for outdoor adventures. Moving to an area we love and having jobs where we control our schedules has resulted in immeasurable happiness. Loving where you live is a big boost to the fun factor, but more importantly we realized that taking the risk led to the rewards.

Make happy decisions. You make tons of little decisions all day long. With a little bit of creative thinking, you can make those decisions more fun. Take a favorite book with you for your lunch break, get up early to watch the sunrise, cook a new meal, listen to meditative music before you fall asleep, call a friend spontaneously, go to a favorite coffee shop or do something spontaneous mid-week with your family. Vary your routine. Tap into your creative side and get more fun on your daily canvas.

Don’t be so serious. There’s a Someecard ( that reads: “If you are having a bad day at work, remember you are going to die.” I laugh hysterically every time I read it because 1. It’s true. And 2. It jolts things into perspective. While death isn’t exactly a cheery topic, you don’t have to be morose about it. Use it as a good kick in the butt reminder to have some fun.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking successful people don’t have time for fun. Most people aren’t successful unless they are having fun in what they are doing. So, live your days with full awareness that this journey does come to an end … and have some freaking fun.

People Are Walking Billboards

Posted on February 19, 2012 in Fun by Sandra Bienkowski

My favorite Oprah quote is: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” This one sentence can change your world. You can spare yourself grief and aggravation. You can save time. And you can dramatically improve (or even save) your life.

I learned Oprah’s quote the tough way. I was dating a guy exclusively and he asked me to go on a cruise with him. We each paid for our own plane tickets to get to the cruise. We paid for our own cruises. About to board the ship, we were asked for a credit card to pay for drinks onboard and incidentals. He had me go first—meaning he wasn’t buying my drinks either. I was deflated. I didn’t mind buying my own cocktails; I did mind what it meant. He was showing me he wasn’t into me. (And he was cheap!) Part of me wanted to turn back and skip the cruise, but I decided to make the best of it and realized I had a decision to make when I got home.

When people show you who they are, believe them.

A few years out of college, I rented a house with a friend. I didn’t know her extremely well, but she was fun and we both loved to go out dancing at a club up the street. I thought it was the perfect situation for two twenty somethings, friends who could split the rent and expenses. Soon, a different picture of her emerged. She received late notices on bills in the mail. She didn’t always have her half of our rent. Bill collectors left her messages. It got worse. She wrote some bad checks. She skipped out on her court date. One day, she just vanished. I heard she left her car—about to be repossessed—abandoned on a street. She was showing me who she was all along. She wasn’t just someone late on her bills. She was someone who manipulated people, lied, and walked away from her responsibilities.

When people show you who they are, believe them.

If I knew long ago to immediately trust what I was seeing—to believe people as they reveal who they are—I could have made a lot of decisions faster. I could have skipped chronic analysis and the polling of my friends. I could have ditched my eternal hope that people must be better than what I was witnessing with my two eyes. They weren’t better. They were exactly who they said they were in words and actions. I could have ended relationships quicker, saved time and torment, and increased my self-respect if I trusted what I saw.

In other life situations, believing people is a lot more serious than a boyfriend who isn’t into you or a roommate who is a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

If you believe people when they show you who they are, you quickly know someone who hits you is an abuser. You don’t say that person had a bad day, messed up once or will never do it again. Abuse is a billboard you don’t want to test.

If you meet someone addicted to drugs, it’s not someone going through a bad patch or partying a little hard. It’s someone saying, I am a drug abuser. I am an addict.

If someone married or in a relationship hits on you, it doesn’t mean you’re special, it means he lacks character, integrity and is a cheater.

You realize when a friend insults you or takes little digs here and there … that person is not really a friend at all.

As soon as people put up their billboard …
I am cheap.
I am not into you.
I am addicted.
I abuse.
I cheat.
I am rude.
I am negative.
I am exploitative.
I am disloyal.
I am selfish.
I’m not really a friend.

Believe the billboard.

You don’t have to watch much news, Dateline or 20/20 to know that some people would still be alive today if they believed the billboard. Most people could at least save themselves some anguish.

As the legendary philosopher Jim Rohn said: “You must constantly ask yourself these questions: Who am I around? What are they doing to me? What have they got me reading? What have they got me saying? Where do they have me going? What do they have me thinking? And most important, what do they have me becoming? Then ask yourself the big question: Is that okay?”

People give you clues as to who they are all the time. Now all you have to do is believe them—the first time. Or as author Iyanla Vanzant says, “When you see crazy coming … cross the street.”

Reality Check: There’s No Perfect Life

Posted on January 16, 2012 in Fun by Sandra Bienkowski

In my twenties, I saw a psychologist for depression. A defining moment in our talk therapy came from a George Bernard Shaw quote he shared with me. “Nothing is as good as it appears, and it’s never better.” It took me awhile to fully grasp the quote and how it was impacting my life, but once I did, things improved dramatically.

Back then, I had a tendency to idealize people. Because of my wavering self-image, I’d look at other people and think, “They totally have their shit together. Why can’t I be like that?” I did it all day long and it slowly eroded my self-image. I kept sliding people up, as I slid down.

I did it in relationships with men. Oh, he has a Harley, a jet ski, he’s a runner and lives in an affluent neighborhood—he must be prince charming! The reality was … he wasn’t nice. The relationship was no fairy tale. I’d look at fit women admiringly and wish I didn’t nose dive into that pint of ice cream while watching shallow TV. Or, I’d meet a woman who was hurling herself toward her career goals while I was working as a waitress with a Bachelor’s degree. Why couldn’t I fearlessly pursue my goals? In my world, everyone was smarter, kinder, braver and more successful than me. Everyone else was a shampoo commercial, women effortlessly tossing their beautiful hair without a care in the world, while I was frazzled and riddled with mental stress, more like the old Calgon Take Me Away commercial.

But it was all in my head. My idealization was fiction. Nothing is as good as it appears, and it’s never better.

You can find examples of this everywhere. Take Kim Kardashian and her fairy tale wedding. Imagine how many young women watched her elaborate wedding planning and wished they could have the same? But it was just an illusion. A marriage that’s over in the same year in which it began is no fairy tale. Take Tiger Woods. I bet thousands of people wanted his golf skill, his endorsement deals, his life. But his life had cracks, and when those cracks tore open for everyone to see, he was undone.

Examples of false idealization don’t have to be that infamous or dramatic. You can find examples in your own life. People you know right now have more going on than you see. They have fears and insecurities. They have things they don’t want you to know. They are flawed and make mistakes. They have doubts and want certain parts of their lives to change. They have problems. They’re human … like you, and like me.

I’m not saying to celebrate other people’s flaws or downfalls to lift you up. I’m saying you shouldn’t torment yourself with how perfectly together everyone else is because you don’t have the whole story.

Take other people off the pedestal and pull them back down to Earth. Use the energy you spend inflating others on you instead …

• Make decisions that make you feel good about yourself.
• Discover the power in thinking about all of your positive traits and strengths.
• Stop comparing yourself to others.
• Understand life can be messy. No one’s life is a perfectly linear procession of progress.
• And if you get really brave, celebrate your flaws. You know, laugh at yourself once in a while.

When you shift your thoughts toward how amazing you are and away from how amazing everyone else is—your success in life starts multiplying because you believe and act upon your own self-worth. You will only want your life. In a liberating way, you will know everyone has days of flawed and fabulous. Everyone has specific weaknesses and strengths. You realize it’s a mistake to idealize people because it only hurts you …. and it’s not real.

The next time you find yourself idealizing someone else’s life, repeat after me: “Nothing is as good as it appears, and it’s never better.”

Bumpy Road to Happiness

Posted on December 14, 2011 in Fun, Goals, Happiness by Sandra Bienkowski

Are you happy? Do you have fun? If you answered “no” to either question, I’d like to help you ditch the drudgery and find joy. I am passionate about helping other people live happier, more fulfilling lives. I know what it’s like to be in the depths of depression (a story for another blog), but I dug my way out. Now I hope to inspire others with what I know.

I want my blog, Journey to Joy, to offer straight talk, real solutions that work, and the truth. First, a bit about my journey …

Several years ago, the quote, “the road to success is always under construction” certainly applied to me. Everything was going wrong. (Not the depression I spoke of earlier, just a bad patch) It was almost comical; at least that’s how I like to think of it now. My car went from reliable to lemon. I couldn’t get my car to shut off. Seriously. I felt like I was stuck in some sort of horror movie where my car was out to get me. Costly repairs made my paycheck disappear in a not-so-magical way. I also realized (after way too much time) that I was dating another narcissist. Maybe not by clinical definition, but let’s just say I should have bought these men mirrors instead of dating them … but I digress.

My friends were getting laid off in droves at the publishing company where I worked. While my job was safe, it was like going to work at a ghost town. It was no longer a fun, fulfilling place of employment. Feeling overwhelmed, I quickly turned into one of those people so consumed with my own problems, I became a crappy, self-absorbed friend. I lost some friendships in the process. I was in my 30s and life wasn’t turning out like I planned.

I pulled out my journal because writing always centers me. I wrote out a vision of how I wanted my life to look. And then I wrote out the depressing part—how my life currently looked. I asked myself: What steps do you need to take to turn your life into your ideal vision instead of its current mess? The action steps included things like: dump the lemon car and boyfriend, find a new job I love, and be a better friend. I was amazed at how quickly my life turned around. I landed a job at SUCCESS, a national magazine, writing about how people can improve their lives. (Fitting, right?) I took a time out from dating. I stopped talking about my own problems long enough to be a good friend again.

When you get clear on your problems and clear on where you are going, you can improve your life—fast.

If you don’t like where your life is today, write out a plan for your ideal life. What’s your ideal vision for your life? Write it down. Now write a description of how your life currently looks and compare it to your ideal vision. Don’t forget the most important part—the action steps that will lead you to your ideal life. List them for every change you need to make.

A quote from Katori Hall, a playwright featured in O magazine sums up this blog best. “It was like God was holding a bag of blessings and I was holding a bag of shit, and when I let go of my bag, God was like, ‘here you go.’”

So let go of the crap and let your blessings begin.