Tiffany Miller is a Nurturer of Dreams

Tiffany is a 26-year-old artist who lives in Los Angeles, California with her two senior rescues, Bupis (a tortoiseshell cat) and BaoBao (a chihuahua). She used to work as a creative program manager at a big tech company, but is currently pursuing her passion for animal rescue as supervisor at the Santé D’or Cat Shelter in LA.

Prologue: I believe the stories we tell one another have the power to change the world. Especially the stories we tell one another about ourselves.

As a society, we focus so much of our attention on the bold-faced “success stories” of CEOs and best-selling authors, the famous and infamous. We get accustomed to glossy, polished anecdotes that are fun to read but hard to relate to. Too often — especially during these times of isolation and separation — we miss the remarkable stories that live all around us.

The neighbor across the street.
The woman behind the cash register.
The co-worker we see every day.

Captivating, inspiring, powerful stories live inside each of us. This series celebrates those stories with 15 interviews of women whose voices you likely haven’t heard before. (Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems like the perfect time for it.) I asked each of these women to share some of their personal story, and talk about how they have found — or are still finding — their own voice.

Today, we hear from Tiffany.

In her own words:

I first realized I was a feminist when I was very young, maybe first grade? And I saw the photo composite of our US Presidents, all of them white males, taped to the wall in the classroom. That was the first “WTF?” moment. It is still such a bizarre experience to look at that and really, truly internalize that we have never had a woman president. It is the most glaring, obvious example of the patriarchy, and yet it still feels like we have to prove the patriarchy exists every day.

I grew up in Palo Alto, California, before it became the Silicon Valley capital that it is today. It felt very quaint and comforting when I was a child, a small-town vibe filled with really intelligent, diverse people.

Over time, though, the intersection of Stanford and the emerging tech boom created an air that felt very tense and pressurized, and its charm started to chip away. Our favorite small businesses closed, and Tesla dealerships opened. It was actually a simultaneously sad and incredible thing to experience, witnessing the birth of tech. Eventually my family did move away as we couldn’t keep up with the intense influx of wealth.

My parents are genuine hippies — they don’t own any property and prefer a nomadic style of life with minimal assets. My dad is a retired therapist, poet, and a bit of a philosopher; my mom is a Chinese emigrant, a prominent writer in China, and documentary film maker. My sister is an author and artist, also my soulmate — our relationship has taught me about the power of sisterhood and what evolves when women support each other.

Everyone in my family is very much of the thought, “The point of life is to be free and do something life-changing for others; our individual lives don’t matter.” I am more like, “I want to adopt 16 medical-needs animals and watch TV.”

Because I grew up in such an intensely creative, introspective, and existential family, I pivoted away from pursuing art for a long time because I needed a sense of control on reality. I was always the one who knew how to turn on the TV and set up the WiFi. In hindsight, I wish I had leaned into the essence of my family, but I always felt the responsibility of being the organized, career-driven one.

How did the culture you were raised in inform your ideas about what a woman was supposed to be — how she should look, act, and speak?
My culture taught me that a woman should be highly driven, outspoken, and should focus on excelling in career over anything else. We had this universal understanding that there was an expectation to be leaders in tech or in the venture capital world. This energy is so insane and not me — it’s why I moved away from the Bay Area. This energy continues to permeate my sense of self-worth and affects my self-esteem; it’s something I’m continuously trying to unlearn.

What does it mean to be a woman in the culture you grew up in?
Growing up in Palo Alto was like…imagine growing up inside of Facebook’s headquarters. The definition of success was narrated by tech bros; there were competitions to see who could get the perfect SAT score the most consecutive times in a row; an expectation that you would eventually go off to Stanford or an Ivy League school and excel in math or science.

As a right-brained woman from a non-traditional family, this formula was essentially my worst nightmare and instilled a deep sense of shame and worthlessness, which permeated my being for over two decades. I remember I kept it a secret that I was taking pre-calc in high school. I was embarrassed that my only AP was for Photography, and didn’t tell anyone I was applying to college for English and Art. When I got into Cal Poly for Art & Design, it took me months to unlearn the shame I felt for going to a state school and pursuing something outside of STEM.

College is where I unlearned this sense of shame and recognized that the expectations and pressures in Palo Alto were unnatural, they were not me. I met women pursuing all kinds of realities, so far from what I had been taught as the definition of success and worth. To learn how far away that was from the truth, I felt like I had been bamboozled!

I have a desire for everyone to like me, so it’s hard for me to fully go for something without any hesitation. I am always thinking, “Does this make me look desperate? Does this make me look dumb?”

I also have a distinct personal voice, and I muffle it when I’m afraid of being perceived as weird. But I’m weird!!! I own it now.

Nowadays I just am like, it doesn’t matter what people think! And it works. It was harder than it seems, though. I also went to therapy for like two years and started an amazing medication.

What are three words a new acquaintance might use to describe you?
Welcoming, silly, conscientious.

What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Altruistic: because in any situation where someone or something is in need, I always give, a lot of the times too much. I’ve been conditioned to give more of myself than I should, and am starting to learn to give some of that to myself too.

Funny: just because I’m aware that I’ve always been a funny person. I know how to get a person to laugh.

Principled: because I have a very rigid definition of right vs. wrong, which is also something I’m trying to unlearn.

What aspect of your identity are you most proud of?
My humor and ability to impersonate people. It’s a very silent skill that I have, that I only let my sister and partner see. But it’s actually pretty freaky how good I am at imitating voices, mannerisms, etc. I’m proud of this because I feel like being funny is the only way to make it through the darkest times, and making people laugh is the easiest way for me to show love.

What aspect of your personal history most shaped who you are?
Being half Chinese! I really didn’t think much about it as a kid, since Asians are the majority in Palo Alto. But then I went to Cal Poly SLO for college, which is an actual sea of white people, and I realized how much of my identity and life experiences were unique to being Asian. In my first class freshman year, a girl tapped me on the shoulder and said she had never seen an Asian before. Until that moment I didn’t truly understand how much of a bubble I had grown up in and how much being Asian was part of my identity.

As you’ve gotten older, what aspects of your identity have you shed and what have you embraced?
Definitely embracing my Chinese heritage. One of my lifelong best friends, Laura, is of Swedish descent and was raised in a home with differing cultures and traditions than mine. I remember always wanting to go to her house because I was envious of their American snacks, while she always wanted to go to my house because of the Chinese snacks. I was also embarrassed that, in typical Chinese fashion, my home was sprinkled with random objects and there were always, like, five kinds of meat sitting out on the stove. Now, I am so thankful to be half-Chinese, and to be able to experience an entirely different culture in my own home. I have shed any inkling of embarrassment I used to feel for my heritage.

Tiffany and BaoBao

What aspect of your identity is most precious to you?
My animal-loving side. I would die for animals and have always had a drive to rescue as many animals as I can. My parents supported this by letting me have ~30 rescue animals growing up. I hear my friends talking about wanting to get married and have children, while my boyfriend and I are aiming to get a piece of land so we can get an animal sanctuary going. I have 0% desire (right now) to have children but 1,000,000,000% desire to get like a million cats. This is precious to me because it IS me.

What is a skill that you feel extremely confident about? Why do you feel that way?
Emotional intelligence. I can read people and body language well and intuitively know how to respond. I’m also pretty confident in my ability to read a room.

What is a skill (or character trait) that you struggle with?
Contrary to my above answer, although I’m intuitive, I also speak without thinking and often just say what is inside of my brain. I struggle with this because I have social anxiety, so the combination of saying whatever I’m thinking and then being anxious about it, isn’t great. But I mask this all really well with that high EQ.

What is something you do/make/create that brings you deep joy.
I started a podcast with my sister last year, and it’s been such a joy!!!

It’s called Childhood with Chanel and Tiffany, and we reflect on childhood using question prompts, then share email submissions. Honestly, it’s not even the podcast part of it that I enjoy so much, but to read the responses to it and how sweet and gentle people are. I LOVE being reminded that there are a bunch of really good people in the world.

Putting my real personality out there on the podcast was tough. I am such a crude and vulgar person with a very specific sense of humor; I was nervous for people to discover this about me since I can come off as just silly and gentle, lovey-dovey. In actuality, I’m wild. But I realized these traits are exactly why my friends love me, so why wouldn’t other people enjoy it? Now I just am fully myself on the pod and don’t feel bad about it.

Tiffany and Bupis

How did 2020 (COVID, etc.) affect your passions?
I’ve BEEN all up in the cat shelter. I’ve never been able to be this committed to rescue work, and I’m so thankful that the WFH environment lets me do this! I was recently “promoted” from a volunteer to a supervisor, and now I get to give all the sick cats medicine, which is like my version of euphoria. I also started painting animals, which is finally an art form I like, since it involves the precious fur babies!

What or who in your life history most shaped your values?
My sister, Chanel, because she is a genius. All my empathy, emotional intelligence, and values were learned from her. Airplanes used to make me throw up (like 10 times at least), so we’d run out of barf bags real fast. Once we ran out, she would catch my vomit with her hands and then throw it away in the bathroom, then come back and do it again. This is a metaphor for our entire relationship.

What values have most made you who you are?
Empathy for sure. I’m so empathetic it makes me dizzy sometimes. To some it may sound hippie-dippie, but I can sense the emotions of others, feel their feelings. It makes it hard to function normally because I feel like I’m a walking vessel of other people’s emotions.

What is a value that shifted for you because of everything that happened in 2020 (pandemic/social unrest/election/wildfires/etc.)?
I’ve used this time to focus on my own needs. It’s the first time in my life I don’t feel a pressure to overbook myself socially, and I have a legit reason to hermit without feeling bad about it.

I’ve spent my entire life believing I needed to be surrounded by friends up until the minute I went to bed, but now I love being alone and processing in silence. So I guess it would be valuing my alone time, and using it to really think about myself and not others for once.

What values helped you survive the emotional experience of 2020?Straight up, not a specific value but, ANIMALS!!!! My BaoBao and Bupis are my everything and have gotten me through this. I actually don’t mind being home all the time because it means I get to be with them.

Bupis (L) and BaoBao (R)

Who is a woman whose voice you love?
I can’t get enough of Rynn Star. She makes short and succinct videos teaching Generation Z about systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, and other societal issues. I love the way she uses language to pack so much information into quick videos, and clearly impacts hundreds of thousands of people! She embodies Gen Z to me — intelligent and motivated young people who I believe will make huge changes. (Plus, I love Tik Tok.)

What voices get under your skin?
My eating disorder, Ed. He sucks so bad. He tells me all the time to fight against my natural body and that I am full of defects. While I don’t have an eating disorder anymore (again, therapy!), Ed will always be sitting somewhere in my mind. Now, he only stops by when I’m in a bad headspace, but when he does come back, he’s ruthless.

How do you speak back to him?
I say, “Fuck you Ed. Go away!” I talk to him as if he is an intruder in my body.

Tell us about a time when you felt silenced.
It’s pretty hard to silence me; I’m very vocal about my thoughts. So when I’m actually silenced, or feel paralyzed with silence, it’s a very surreal and out-of-body experience.

When my family was involved in a public trial, I went through the entire case using a different persona, who was very quiet, polite, and composed. It was probably a coping mechanism, but when I go back and read the transcripts, I’m like, “Tiffy, why didn’t you SCREAM this part?!”

I was so nervous to be speaking in front of the defense, jury, and a bunch of random media, with so much at stake, that my instinct was to barely speak or say my real truth.

What are the rooms/situations that are hardest for you to speak up in? Anytime I can sense a big ego or I can sense that someone is not being an authentic version of themself, I SHUT down. I get so inside my head and analyze them internally, so then I become mute as I’m staring at them, trying to figure out why they became this way. Then I start to think about all of the times my ego came out or I was not myself. It’s a dark spiral so I now really only let authentic people into my life. Lol.

What are the rooms/situations that are easiest to speak up in?
People who radiate authenticity. I don’t care if they’re super introverted or super extroverted, I just need to be able to sense that they are genuine.

When have you been the most proud of using your voice?
I am truly a broken record on social media about animals — donating, adopting, fostering, etc. The fact that I’m so preachy while knowing that a lot of my followers and friends buy their animals actually causes me a great deal of anxiety. But this year, I’ve gotten a whopping three messages telling me that they have adopted a dog thanks to my preaching. Just knowing three li’l puppers are in forever homes now, makes me happy!

In January 2020, I bought some paint at Michael’s for fun and realized that it actually came naturally to me. So this past year during the pandemic, I self-taught painting. I’ve never considered myself gifted in any art-related talents before; but I’ve got to say, I’m pretty proud of these!

FeeBea the Green-Cheeked Conure
Portraits of Chester (L) and Jude (R)

See more of Tiffany’s work on her portfolio

tiffymiller.com

Headline History

The titles for the VOICES Series come from Exercise #2 in the Permission to Speak Workbook. The exercise, “You have more power than you know,” encourages participants to choose a title from a list that is offered, or — if none of those titles feels right — to make up one of their own.

“Each of us is our own harshest critic, most of the time,” the workbook says. “We don’t always see ourselves as we are. We instinctively try to hide many things about ourselves — our failures, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our obsessions. …But the things that make you you also give you power.”

Each woman interviewed for the VOICES Series either chose a title for herself from this list, or gave herself a title of her own making.

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna

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