Ways to shift your energy when you’re stuck or overwhelmed

frozen berries

That feeling that you’re up against a wall and there’s nowhere to go: it’s the worst. It’s enough to keep you up nights, and then you’re sleep deprived, which makes everything look about a hundred times bleaker than it is.

Feelings of overwhelm and “stuckness” do not come from our circumstances; they come from our thoughts. That’s not to say that our circumstances do not trigger feelings of overwhelm and stuckness — they definitely can. The holidays, for example, trigger overwhelm for many of us. That’s because they add that much more to our to-do list.

But it’s the thoughts we’re having about everything on the to-do list that create the feeling of overwhelm, not the to-do list itself.

Now, you can try crossing things off the to-do list to lessen the overwhelm. And it can work, sometimes very well.

But I suggest doing something else first: shifting your energy.

The quality of the energy we bring to our circumstances interacts with those circumstances and transforms them. Sometimes, we try to change circumstances, only to end up in the same energetic space: stagnant, heavy.

So before we go about manipulating our circumstances by crossing things off the to-do list or diving in headfirst to “get it all done,” let’s look at ways to shift our energy.

1) Trim tabs!

Martha Beck wrote this article for O Magazine where she talked about how Buckminster Fuller invented something called the trim tab for large ships. The trim tab is this teeny-tiny rudder placed on the ship’s large rudder that allows the ship to turn with a very slight amount of pressure.

I like to remind myself of trim tabs when everything feels like too much. I don’t have to move the earth in order to create change; I only need to make one tiny change that creates new direction.

Every time I remember trim tabs, I realize that there is NO WAY I can make all the changes I think I need to make right now. And I don’t need to. I just need to focus on one small change that tilts my course in the right direction. And go from there. (As a bonus, thinking TRIM TABS! reminds me that it’s not all up to me. When I make one small choice, other forces are set into motion, and I’m not in control of all of them. This is good news! )

2) Think marathon, not sprint.

Back when I was in life coach training, Pam Slim was teaching us a class on marketing our businesses, and she said, “It’s a lot more helpful to think of marketing as a marathon, not a sprint.”

This knocked me upside the head. At the time, it was quite the revelation for me. I’d always been a sprinter. If I had an idea, I wanted to make it happen, fast. My sprinting ways made me extremely impatient, particularly in my twenties, when I gave up routinely when something I wanted to happen seemed to be “taking too long.”

The fact is, large-scale changes take time. Even small changes often do not occur within a day or a week. Humans are resistant to change (it’s part of our built-in survival mechanism), and change very often takes longer than we predict. (I usually find that if I want it to happen in six months, it will actually happen in a year. But it will happen.)

Remembering “marathon, not sprint” — taking the long view — reminds us that progress is not always immediately apparent, and allows us to take the pressure off.

I bet if I challenged you to write down all the progress you’ve made in your life in the past five years, you could easily fill an entire page without having to think too hard. But you probably wouldn’t have been able to recognize all of it while it was “progress in process.”

3) Move your body.

This is one of the simplest ways to shift energy — the trick is, you can’t let your mind talk you out of doing it! Taking a ten-minute walk and focusing on your stride, your breath visible in the cold air, the dog in the sweater who just trotted by, is an amazing way to get out of your mind and press the reset button. But your mind will tell you it won’t make a difference, there’s no time, yadda yadda. Don’t listen to it!

4) Water.

Taking a shower is one of my favorite ways to shift my energy. Even washing my hands can do it. And doing dishes! Yes, I actually enjoy doing dishes because it allows me to be in proximity to water. Standing near a body of water, or sitting near an aquarium, can do it, too. Or just drinking a glass of water. Again, give it a chance — don’t let your mind talk you out of it! It works.

5) Write it down.

There’s power to seeing something in words, on paper. (The act of moving your hand across paper also ties into point #3 — it moves your body. It’s a much more physical act than typing.) When you can get whatever’s keeping you up at night out of your head and allow it to be held by the paper, you’re reminded that it is not bigger than you are.

Another way to approach this is to do what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice.” Just write what you see, what’s in front of you right now. “My Christmas-tree-scented candle is flickering; my cat is staring out the window even though it’s dark outside; there’s a Jackie Chan marathon on TV and I have the sound down; I can hear the downstairs neighbor coughing.”

Just keep your hand moving and keep on writing whatever engages your five senses. This creates an anchor for your mind, putting you solidly in the present moment, the only place where you actually DO have any power.

Once you’ve shifted your energy — even if just a bit — you can take a look at that to-do list.

What are some ways you’ve noticed that help you shift your energy when you’re overwhelmed or in a stagnant place? I’d love to learn more.

Work With Me: I’ll have some openings for new one-on-one clients starting in mid January, 2014. Interested in working together? Find out more, here.

Image is Frozen Berries © Rod Chronister | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What if you didn’t need a reason?

Happy Fall!

Last week, I was talking with the wonderful business coach Kristin Stevens, and I kept telling her about various things I wanted to do, and prefacing them with, “For some reason.”

“For some reason, I want to move into a smaller apartment.”

“For some reason, I want to streamline and simplify my life.”

Now, some coaches would have gone right to “Okay. Why? Let’s get clear on the reason.”

I would have gone there, if I were coaching someone. And it can be a good way to go.

But Kristin said, “You keep saying, ‘For some reason.’ What if you didn’t need a reason?

This stopped me. Because, in this case, I already feel clear. I already know that something in me wants to do these things — but my rational mind tells me I don’t have a good enough reason to do them.

For years, I lived in small apartments and had a great need for more space. In 2005, I moved and got the space I wanted. For the past eight years, I’ve lived in a beautiful space where I have plenty of room.

But now it feels oddly too big, like I’m a kid clomping around in my dad’s work shoes. And I realize I’ve filled it up with things I no longer necessarily want or need.

When I moved here, I had this idea of a life I thought I wanted. But now I realize that maybe that life was about who I wanted to be back then, and not who I actually am today.

My rational mind says, “But why would you want to go back to living in a small space? Isn’t that going backwards?”

Is it? I’m not sure it’s a good question, in this case, because questioning my desire is only keeping me in wheel-spinning mode. A good question sparks curiosity and creates spaciousness and movement.

That’s how I know Kristin’s question — what if you didn’t need a reason? — is a good one for me here.

If I didn’t need a reason, I’d start making plans to move. If I didn’t need a reason, I’d free up my energy to focus on things that are more important to me at this point in my life than having a larger living space and the maintenance that goes along with it.

It’s telling that a while ago on Pinterest I created a board called Cozy Spaces. Something in me longs for cozy right now. Why?

Do I really need to know? What if, in fact, I can’t know the answer to that question until I move toward what I’m longing for?

The nudges I get from my intuition feel simple and straightforward. “Do this.” Or, “Don’t do that.” Or, “Wear something blue today.” “Call about that class.”

Intuition doesn’t explain itself. It lives in the world of trust, not the world of guarantees. And often, when I’m clear but I’m still not taking action on that clarity, it’s because I want a guarantee. I want a guarantee that the direction my intuition is pointing me in will be pain-free, that if I go there, “everything will work out.”

Experience tells me there is no such guarantee. Sometimes, I think I am waiting for clarity but it has already arrived. The truth is, I’m not waiting for clarity — I’m waiting for that guarantee.

“Why?” is a good question if it creates more clarity. But if I’m already clear, I don’t need to ask why. I need to act on what I know.

What do you think? Do you ever second-guess the next step that comes to you from your intuition? I’d love to hear how this works for you, in the comments.

Image ©Jill Winski 2013

How kindness helps you create

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So often when I’m feeling unhappy and stuck (whether in my life or in my creative work), I find myself frantically trying to control circumstances.

My thoughts go something like this: “If I could just get rid of [X circumstance] and find [X circumstance], and get [X amount of money], and if [X person] wasn’t so hard to deal with, I could stop feeling so bad.”

Or sometimes it goes like this: “If I could just figure out if what I really want is [X] or [Z], then I could move forward. But I’m so confused; I can’t figure it out. So I’m unhappy and I’ll be unhappy until I figure it out.”

There’s a kind of paralysis that sets in when I believe that circumstances are causing my unhappiness. It’s often a breed of analysis paralysis, closely tied to perfectionism, where I’m sure that if I choose the “wrong” thing, I’ll increase my current unhappiness in spades. So I don’t choose.

It usually takes me a while in this spin cycle before I remember: Ohhh. Waiiittt.

It’s not about circumstances. It’s not about making the “right” decision.

It’s about kindness. The kindness I’m forgetting to give to myself.

I don’t know about you, but when I remember to treat myself with kindness, there’s a palpable shift within myself. I feel it in my abdomen first, then my jaw — my entire body softens. I literally feel the rigidity seeping out of me, almost like it forms a puddle around my feet. And then I feel a surprising thing: hope.

From this place, there is fluidity — there is movement. How can that be? I haven’t changed my external circumstances, and yet, there’s movement?

Yes. Martha Beck, with whom I trained to become a life coach, likes to remind her coaches that our circumstances do not create our feeling states; it’s the opposite. Our feeling states create our circumstances.

When our focus is outside ourselves, on what we’re sure the “right” circumstances will bring us, we are disconnected from what’s inside us. We forget where our power actually lies — in our ability to choose how we relate to ourselves, and how relate to the world around us.

And here’s how this relates to our creativity: As I’ve often written on this blog, creativity, as I define it, is nothing more or less than the life force within us.

That life force needs to move. It needs to flow, and to ebb.

When I try to control circumstances, or second-guess my decisions, or try to make the “perfect” choice, that life force gets frozen in time. I’m teetering on the edge of the belief that the “reward” lies on the other side of “right” or “wrong” — when, in fact, the “reward” is right here, within me, if I can remember to treat myself with kindness.

Some of my clients say at first that they simply don’t know how to treat themselves with kindness — or that it seems self-indulgent, or a waste of time.

But my clients are often the kindest people I know — they are truly skilled at directing kindness outside of themselves, toward others. They just haven’t practiced directing it toward themselves.

And there’s a distinct difference between kindness toward ourselves and self-indulgence: Kindness creates movement that comes from the heart; it radiates outward. It’s intimately linked to “inspired action.” Self-indulgence, like a clenched fist, closes us off from ourselves, from the world. Rather than engaging the heart, self-indulgence feels like avoidance of something we fear. Kindness feels like an openness to what we love, to what inspires us.

Sometimes, when I think about doing something like, say, write a blog post about the importance of remembering to treat ourselves with kindness, there’s a hard, embittered piece of me that says things like, “Kindness? How cliche and cheesy and abstract is that?”

And then I have to laugh, because that’s exactly the voice that makes treating myself with kindness my last resort so much of the time. I often come to kindness — or it comes to me — because I’m at the end of my rope with treating myself harshly.

I come to kindness because I realize I’ve literally exhausted all my options if I’m viewing myself, and life, with harshness. Most importantly, I’ve forgotten to acknowledge that I am suffering. Of course it seems like I need to manipulate circumstances and choose perfectly if I’m coming from a harsh, rigid place. Wherever I go, there I am.

So, if I feel backed into a corner, if I believe I’m trapped and there are no good options — whether in my real life or in my creative work — it may be that I’ve forgotten this oh-so-basic step: Treat myself kindly. Exquisitely kindly. Time and again, I learn that from that space of kindness, unseen options emerge.

(To learn more about the amazing benefits of treating ourselves with kindness, check out Kristin Neff’s work at http://selfcompassion.org.)

Do you remember to treat yourself with kindness? Do you think it’s worth doing? Do you apply it in your creative process? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “Hand Feeding” © David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When you’re not taking action (even though you want to)

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Sometimes we’re in a space where there’s something we want to do, but we’re not taking any action toward actually doing it. This space is frustrating and icky. We can spin our wheels here for quite a while.

What I find especially stressful (and confusing) is when I do take a step toward whatever it is I want to do, but I don’t seem to build any momentum. Something feels off. I’m not getting caught up in whatever that thing is; there’s no passion, no fire.

What’s going on when we’re in this space? It’s tempting to try to bulldoze our way through and “just do it!” And there are times when that works.

But sometimes it doesn’t work — and, when we plow forward with sheer force, there’s a nasty lingering side effect: We don’t understand ourselves any better. We may get that thing done, but what happens the next time we’re in the “spinning our wheels” place? We force ourselves to plow through again?

I much prefer asking questions at times like these. More than anything, I want to understand myself better so I can have a better relationship with myself. If that relationship is vital to you, too, here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re spinning your wheels:

Do I truly want to do this thing, or do I believe I “should” want to do this thing?

The presence of a “should” is not necessarily an indication that you don’t want to do it; it often means that you have conflicting voices within you around taking this action. If you can untangle the “should” from the rest of it, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what you really want.

Is this something I used to want, but perhaps no longer do?

Does the person you are today actually want to do this, or is this something you wanted to do five years ago? Are you hanging on to an old dream? (“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Alice in Wonderland)

* Is there a deadline issue?

Some of us work better and more effectively with deadlines; some of us get panicky and overwhelmed when we have a deadline situation. And sometimes, the deadline is simply too close or too far away to work for us.

If there’s a deadline by which you’re supposed to do this thing, is it possible to push it back, or push it up? Would doing either of those things make a difference in how you felt about taking action on it? (Sometimes we’ve set our own deadlines. Most of my clients have a perfectionistic streak and expect themselves to complete things way sooner than is reasonable, or necessary.)

Am I making the task too big?

One of my clients had decided to apply to a graduate program, but she wasn’t taking any action toward it. The deadline loomed and the weeks were going by and nothing was happening.

We noticed that every day she had been writing on her to-do list “Grad school application.” But when we broke it down, we found that there were at least twenty individual steps involved in completing the entire application process, and some of those steps could be broken down into even smaller steps. Of course she wasn’t taking action on it when “grad school application” was not an actionable step.

We often don’t want to break things down into small steps because we’re in a hurry. We think we don’t have time to take small steps. Then we proceed to do nothing at all because the giant leap we think we have to take overwhelms us. In the long run, we move more quickly and steadily when we take small steps over time. Think turtle and hare.

Am I in somebody else’s business?

Byron Katie talks about the three kinds of business: My business, your business, and God’s business. Much of the time when I’m feeling stressed, confused, or unfocused, if I remember to ask myself who’s business I’m in, I discover the issue. When I’m in somebody else’s business, as Katie says, there’s no one here taking care of my own.

How does this keep me from moving forward? If I’m worried about what someone else thinks of me, or trying to control someone else’s reaction to my choices in some way, I keep on spinning my wheels. I may not allow myself to do what I truly want to do. It’s human to care about what others think; but if we’re paralyzed because of it, we’re way out of our own business and into somebody else’s.

* Is my creative well empty?

I often mention the creative well on this blog. Julia Cameron likens the creative well to a “trout pond” that, ideally, is fully stocked with fish, except, as artists, we stock our ponds with images that inspire. We stock our ponds with the wordlessness that comes from simply being.

When the pond is empty, we need to restock it. And this means we need to practice great self-care and recognize that there are ebbs and flows to our energy and our creativity. Sometimes, when I’m not taking action, it’s simply because I need to be in a place of inaction for a while.

Any of these questions is a good starting point if you find you’re not taking action on something you want to do. If one question doesn’t seem to apply to you, try the next. And come up with your own, too — write them in a notebook where you can refer to them the next time you’re up against the stuckity-stuck.

How do you deal with it when you want to move forward but can’t seem to take action? I’d love to hear from you!

Image is “Bird on a Mirror” © Shane Link | Dreamstime Stock Photos

A two-step journaling process (for when you’re feeling stuck or scared)

“My writer self is braver than the rest of me.” — Natalie Goldberg

On one of our recent group calls, a fellow participant in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle asked me how I use journaling when I’m feeling stuck on my fiction writing. I thought I’d share my process, in case others might benefit from it.

My journal is one of the safest spaces I know.

And I’m someone who’s struggled a lot with safety. (I remember when I was an undergraduate, a teacher had us do an exercise that started with the sentence “Imagine you’re in a safe space.” At that time, I literally could not think of a safe space, so I couldn’t go on with the exercise.)

Safety is important. We’re often told to “take creative risks” and “really put ourselves out there,” but we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we pretend that isn’t scary, if we pretend that we feel safe, when in fact we do not. Nothing creates a feeling of stuckness like pretending we feel differently than we actually do.

So, a lot of the time, when I’m feeling stuck or scared as I’m trying to write, it’s because I’m not feeling safe.

Safe to what?

Safe to explore. Safe to write the worst crap imaginable. Safe to share only what I’m ready to share. Safe to be with the discomfort of whatever’s coming up for me. Safe to write that thing that brings up the pain of the past.

So getting away from my document on the computer (which can feel so oddly “formal”) and going to my journaling notebook is STEP ONE of creating safety. I think of the journal as a room, a room where there’s only me (and anyone else with whom I feel completely safe).

From this point on (STEP TWO), I ask myself questions on the page.

Any of the following questions are good jumping-off points.

* What do I really want to say that I’m not allowing myself to say?

* What’s the worst thing that can happen if I write the thing I’m afraid to write?

* Why don’t I want to write this thing?

* What’s the worst thing that can happen if I make a wrong turn?

* Do I actually need to step away from the story right now? (If the answer is yes, follow this one up with “How can I make that feel okay?”)

* Where is the tension (fear, stress, sadness) located in my body right now? If that tension had a voice, what would it say?

* What does this particular feeling of stuckness remind me of?

* If I had a guarantee that no one but me would ever read this writing, what would I write now? (This one can really point us to where we are censoring ourselves.)

* Am I truly ready to write this story? Why or why not?

* If I honestly don’t know where to go with the story right now, how might I open myself up to all the possibilities?

Take one of these questions, and run with it. Don’t deliberate too much over which question to choose — they’re all designed to create movement, which is what we need when we’re feeling stuck. Go with one of the questions and keep writing until you feel ready to stop. Often, new questions arise for me while I’m writing, and I ponder those, too, on the page.

A page from my journal: answering the questions, + doodling

A page from my journal: answering the questions, + doodling

This process does not have to take a lot of time — I often do it in ten minutes or so. The idea here is not to find the perfect answer to the question (there isn’t one). The idea is to dig beneath your surface “stuckness” and generate a new perspective. “Feeling stuck” is nothing more than believing something about your writing or yourself that is not helpful.

You can probably come up with other, better questions. Make a master list of them and have it on hand for times when you’re sitting in front of the computer and the sweat on your forehead feels like blood. We don’t have to make the act of writing so dramatic (put that drama on the page!).

(By the way, you can transfer this process to any art form, or anything at all that you’re feeling stuck on.)

What do you do when you’re feeling stuck on your writing, artwork, or any other creative project? Please share in the comments!

On that note, Aug. 15 is the last day I’ll be offering my Free Mini Unsticky Sessions! (I’ll be offering them for a low cost, in a slightly different format, after Aug. 15.) Want to grab one? Check them out, here.

And: This Thursday, Aug. 8, is the last day to register for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle. I’ve been a member of this group for going on two years now (I’m also one of the coaches) and it’s been an amazing source of support for me. Interested? Read more, here.

Five things I’ve learned about trust

This is my second post for The Declaration of You BlogLovin’ Tour (scroll to the bottom of this post to find out more). This is the final week of the tour, and the topic is Trust.

ferriswheel

I used to think I couldn’t trust others and I couldn’t trust life. It took me a long time to see the turnaround: It was me I thought I couldn’t trust. Once I saw this, I wanted to really know what it meant to trust myself. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

1) Trusting myself means that I allow myself to experiment, to stretch, to make mistakes.

I first encountered the idea of trusting myself when I discovered the writing of Geneen Roth in my early twenties. I was a chronic dieter at the time, and Geneen’s concept of trusting myself to know when I was hungry and to stop eating when I was full was a radical thing to me.

When I first tried it, the perfectionist in me wanted to “do this trusting myself thing right.” I thought if I made a mistake, it was proof I couldn’t trust myself.

It took me a few years before I’d integrated the truth that trusting myself is about the way I relate to myself when things don’t go as I want them to — it is about the way I relate to myself, period. It has nothing to do with being “good” or “right” or even wise. It is a way of living in the world. It is a choice.

2) Self-trust is intimately linked to self-acceptance.

If I’m judging myself, you can bet I am not in a place of self-trust. In fact, I’ve found that my intuition will “hide out” when I’m judging myself harshly. Intuition is fierce, but it’s often quiet and subtle in how it comes to us.

My cat usually disappears when someone who speaks loudly and has heavy footsteps enters the house. Intuition is similar — it tends to hide out in the closet when my inner critic starts raging. It’s not that intuition is afraid of the inner critic (intuition fears nothing; it simply is). It’s more that intuition (like my cat) has a very low tolerance for drama. So it goes silent and seems to disappear when that harsh voice within me goes on a rampage.

I can always reconnect with my intuition, though. I just need to get quiet again. Intuition never fails to show up when I’m in a place of peace. And the more deeply I can accept myself, the more peaceful I feel.

3) Trusting myself means having faith that my intuition is there for a reason, and taking the risk to follow it.

It’s the process of acting on my intuition that makes me feel alive, not the outcome, which will never be completely within my control, and which, I’ve found, I often cannot accurately predict.

The more I trust myself to take action on my intuition, the better I get at it, because I create more and more evidence for the fact that it feels good and right and empowering when I trust myself. It’s like strengthening a muscle. (You may not be sure you have the “self-trust” muscle if you haven’t used it a lot — but you do. Trust me.)

4) No one else’s truth is a substitute for my own.

The best help from others is guidance that points me back to my own inner compass, and reminds me how important it is.

It’s good — and often necessary — to gather information and receive advice from others, especially those who’ve been where we are. But at some point, we need to sift through this guidance, integrate it, and check inside ourselves for what feels right for us.

How do we know it’s time to stop going to outside sources? When the information we’re getting is creating more confusion, not contributing to clarity.

5) “Trusting myself” is a belief system.

There are no guarantees of what the outcome will be if I trust myself.

I may trust myself, take action from that place, and find that things happen in a way I couldn’t have predicted.

I’d love to tell you that the way they happen is always better than I could ever have imagined — but while that is sometimes true, it doesn’t always feel like that. Sometimes, I trust myself and things don’t turn out the way I’d like them to — and I don’t understand why things happened the way they did until years later, if at all.

But regardless of outcome, it’s a heck of a lot easier for me to make decisions — and to live with them — when I operate from a platform of self-trust. It comes down to how I want to live: From a space of doubting myself, or from that solid foundation of knowing I’m worthy of my own trust.

I know this: It feels better to trust myself, and to act on that trust, than it does to spin my wheels in the sticky mud of indecision, doubt, and fear.

What have you learned about trust? I’d love to know — feel free to share, in the comments!

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The Declaration of You, published by North Light Craft Books and available now, gives readers all the permission they’ve craved to step passionately into their lives, discover how they and their gifts are unique and uncover what they are meant to do. This post is part of The Declaration of You’s BlogLovin’ Tour, which I’m thrilled to participate in alongside over 200 other creative bloggers. Learn more — and join us! – by clicking here.

Top image is “Ferris Wheel” © James Hearn | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Two ways to deal with “idea paralysis”

sepiabulb2

A while ago, I had a session with someone who had so many ideas, she felt paralyzed as to which to choose and where to begin. Every time she took a little action on an idea, another one of her ideas started to haunt her and she was sure that one was better. So she’d stop working on the current thing and start this other thing. And then the other thing wouldn’t feel quite right, and some shiny new idea would start hovering and she’d drop the current thing and start in on the shiny new thing. And so on.

I so relate to this. It doesn’t happen to me that frequently, but when it does, it is crazymaking. What’s going on when we’re knee-deep in a sea of ideas and we just can’t choose, or stick with one long enough to bring it to completion?

For me, there are one of a couple of things happening:

1) Perfectionism has reared its oh-so-troublesome head.

We’re wanting the idea to be the be-all and end-all of ideas, rather than a stepping stone to what the idea can become. There’s no way an idea won’t transform as we work on it, so most of the time, it’s not going to stay the same as the seedling in our heads. But if we have perfectionistic tendencies, we want to know it’s going to be great, it’s going to knock everybody’s socks off. We can’t know that at the beginning of the process. We can’t know that at the end of the process.

Our own interest in the idea has to be enough. The only thing we have an absolute guarantee of is that we will check in with ourselves about how we are responding to our idea, from day to day. And I can guarantee you that our relationship to it will change from day to day, week to week.

Perfectionists often feel “it’s not quite right, so I’m not ready to begin.” My question to perfectionists (and that includes myself!) is: Is there enough here for me to work with? Is there enough here to sustain my interest, for now?

When I was in college, I had a screenwriting teacher I remember really well because he talked a lot about things that I sensed were true, but didn’t yet have the life experience to know were true. He looked at twenty or so pages of the screenplay I was writing and said, “You don’t have to telegraph your themes to the audience. The themes that are important to you as a writer are going to be there because they’re important to you. They can’t not be there. So stop telegraphing your themes and just tell the story.”

This felt like a huge relief. And I think this applies to those of us who struggle over choosing the “perfect” idea. No matter which idea we pick, the common theme behind it is going to be US. Just because you decide to tell the story about the guy who goes fishing with his estranged father instead of the story about the woman who learns her teenage son is in trouble with the law doesn’t mean your usual themes of loss, loneliness, heartache and redemption are not going to be there. They’ll be there because you will be there.

So relax. You, and the things that are important to you, will be there, in spades, no matter what path you choose.

And, on the flipside:

2) You may be knee-deep in ideas because you are only knee-deep. And what you really need is to be completely submerged in one idea, so your heart is engaged. In other words, there may be a bunch of ideas swirling around your ankles but they’re not really involving the whole of you, so it’s easy to jump off of one and onto another.

I’m reminded of someone I know who, many years ago, was caught up in romantic involvements with two different guys. Time went on and on, and she just couldn’t decide between the two. Finally, she ended both relationships, realizing that neither of these guys was a “hell, yes!” for her and that was why she couldn’t decide. The question wasn’t actually “which of these men is the better choice?” but “who am I and what do I really care about?”

If you’re flitting from one idea to the next, stop. Take some time out and ask yourself, what do I really want? Why am I doing this (writing, artwork, coaching, whatever it may be)? How can you engage the whole of you — starting with your heart, which tells you what you care about the most — in your creative process? And go from there.

Looking at it this way, you’re not choosing the idea so much as letting it choose you. And when something chooses us, there’s no contest.

(On this topic, I highly recommend Miranda July’s wonderful memoir, “It Chooses You.”)

Do you struggle with “idea paralysis”? How do you decide which idea to choose? Or do you let it choose you? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Work With Me: I have a couple of openings for new coaching clients, starting in July. Interested? See if we might be a good fit, here.

Image is “Sepia Bulb” © Graham Stewart | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Making it ridiculously easy

sharpenedpencil3

When I went through life coach training with the wonderful Martha Beck, I learned about what Martha calls “turtle steps.” Turtle steps are teeny-tiny increments that help us reach a goal. The main thing about a turtle step is it has to feel do-able. It has to feel, as Martha puts it, ridiculously easy.

When I coached my very first client, I suggested she break that overwhelming goal down into turtle steps, and she said, “Turtle steps sound great, but I’m forty-five years old. I don’t have time to move that slowly.”

The coaching session came — for a moment — to a screeching halt. She’d triggered one of my own big fears. She’s right! I thought. At the time, I had two unfinished novel drafts and an image of them sitting in the corner of my office flanked by dust bunnies and cat hair popped into my mind. If I use turtle steps with my novels, I’ll be ninety before I finish them!

Luckily, by then I had enough evidence from the experiences of Martha and my fellow coaches to know that turtle steps worked. In fact, the more ridiculously easy they felt, the better they worked.

My client wasn’t ready to try turtle steps — yet. A month later, when she’d done nothing to move her goal forward because she kept approaching it with her familiar “bite off more than I can chew” method, she showed up for a session and said, “I think I’m ready to try out turtle steps.”

That’s the funny thing about the way our minds tend to work: We’d rather hold on to the idea of taking giant leaps forward that only exist in our fantasies than take smaller, less glamorous steps that we actually do complete.

If you have a tenacious inner perfectionist (as I do), know that you are probably going to have a tough time accepting the idea of turtle steps.

When I was an undergraduate in college, literally every semester I signed up for five or six classes, even though by my third semester it became blatantly obvious that I could not take on more than four classes without feeling overwhelmed and scattered. My inner perfectionist (who is best friends with my “social self”) loved the idea that I was tackling a huge course load — and besides, other people took six classes and aced them all, so why couldn’t I?

Almost every semester I ended up withdrawing from a class or two at the last minute because I felt completely overwhelmed. Twice, I withdrew past the deadline and therefore received a grade of a big fat F. Twice. The person who couldn’t stand the thought of getting less than an A+ actually ended up with F’s on her transcripts simply because she voluntarily took on too much.

The idea that we can take small, easy steps is anathema to the perfectionist, whose identity is formed out of the belief that if she can take on more than is necessary and excel at it, she will finally be worthy, and therefore, loved.

But it doesn’t work this way, my sweet little inner perfectionist is slowly discovering. She is loved, deeply, simply for existing and for being who she is. And she does not get more accomplished when she takes on more — she actually accomplishes less that way.

Back to my two unfinished novels: they have long since stopped communing with the dust bunnies in the corner of my office. They’re up and dancing around now, dust-free and shiny. How did this miracle happen? Since September of 2011, I’ve been taking ridiculously easy steps, on a regular basis, to finish my novels. (Read more about how I’ve done that at the end of this post.)

Yes, sometimes that means I write for fifteen minutes a day. Yes, sometimes that means I write one sentence. And no, I do not write every single day. But I’ve completed two novel drafts and I’m 240 pages into a third.

The key is making it ridiculously easy, step by teeny-tiny step. Any step can feel ridiculously easy if it is small enough.

Ridiculously easy isn’t as easy as it could be, though, because we live in a culture that tells us that for something to have value, it has to feel impossibly hard. And so we take on enormous “to-do” steps like “write novel” or “get new job” or “lose twenty pounds.” Seriously! These are actual items I’ve seen on clients’ to-do lists. But they’re not action steps, they’re long-term goals. In fact, I’m loath to call them goals — they’re actually processes, ways of life, daily habits we develop.

So a huge part of all this is allowing ourselves to do what feels ridiculously easy. That might mean a daily goal of “write one paragraph” rather than “write ten pages.” But it’s one paragraph that gets written, rather then ten pages that don’t.

Often our minds won’t allow us to embrace ridiculously easy. It’s a total shift for most of us, right? If it feels easy — or, at the very least, not hard, we don’t trust it. “But life isn’t easy!” we think. And that is certainly true. But we don’t need to add hard to the hard.

This is one of my favorite beliefs to challenge with my clients. When we make the shift from “It has to be hard” to “I can allow it to be easier,” amazing things happen. Believe me. I’ve seen it.

If you need support in allowing your process to feel easier, I’d love to help. See if we might be a good fit, here.

And: One of the biggest reasons I’ve moved forward with my novels is due to my participation in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle. This is where I’ve put my writing turtle steps into action. This group offers me daily support, accountability and community around my writing. The last day to register for the next session of the Writer’s Circle is tomorrow, May 16. Check it out, here!

Image is Sharpened Pencil © Uschi Hering | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Pausing is not the same as stopping

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Sometimes it is incredibly, excruciatingly hard for me to step away from something, when stepping away is exactly what I need to do.

Step away from that phone call that is not going anywhere and sucking up a lot of time.

Step away from my novel when I keep forcing it even though I’m beyond frustrated and realize I have gotten so far away from the heart of the story that I have no investment in what I’m writing.

Step away from the problem I’m desperately trying to solve (when it’s becoming more and more obvious that the mind that created the problem is not the one that can solve it).

Step away from the internet. Because, it’s the internet. And I need sizeable breaks from it if I’m going to remain sane.

I think one of the reasons it’s hard for me to step away is because of the idea that I am supposed to tackle things. Take control of them, wrestle them to the ground, and force them to cry uncle. This is the way I was taught to solve problems when I was very small, and, even though I’ve never been very good at it,  it’s deeply engrained in me.

Only, sometimes — often — it just isn’t effective. There’s a point where I’m trying so hard to control the outcome of something that I am way too emotional to be effective. It’s at this point that pressing the pause button can be so essential.

But there’s another reason it’s hard for me to step away. It’s because of trust, or the lack of it. Allowing myself to step away means I am trusting that I will get back to whatever it is I’m struggling with — whether it’s a phone conversation or a tough scene in my novel.

And this kind of trust takes some practice to cultivate. I’ve been working with this for years and yet I can still go way too far out of fear.

We can never solve an internal problem by changing an external circumstance. If something within me feels out of control, no amount of controlling the external world will change that. This is the recipe for compulsion and, eventually, addiction. I’ve got to get back into balance within myself before I meet the world again.

This is why I suggest to my coaching clients that they not make huge decisions when they’re feeling intense emotions. We don’t know what the truth is for us until we come back to center. Our emotions are messengers, but they’re often not the message. (Extreme anger at your boss may just be saying, hey, let’s take a look at what’s happening here, not hey, let’s quit!)

So we’ve got to make it okay for ourselves to step away when we’re getting into a place that feels out of balance — no matter how important we’re making what we’re doing. Stepping away for now does not mean stopping altogether — in fact, it can mean letting another part of us — our subconscious — take the wheel for a while.

So, how do we do this?

1) If you’re struggling with something you’re creating (a painting, a novel, a website) and you’re ready to take a knife to the canvas or put your fist through the computer screen, know you’ve reached that point where you need a little less perspiration and a little more inspiration.

I know, I know, there’s that awful saying about how creating is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration. Please. I don’t believe we need to feel inspired all the time to create — inspiration often comes in the course of creating, and some days it doesn’t come at all — but if, in the long haul, you’re only feeling one-percent inspired, you need more inspiration. If the whole thing feels like a struggle every step of the way, you’re forgetting how important it is to fill your creative well.

2) If you’re having a really hard time in several areas of your life (if you’re in what we Martha Beck life coaches refer to as “Square One”, where you’re going through a massive identity shift and you don’t know what the hell is happening), realize you may need to move much more slowly.

You may need to take more time-outs. You need to practice really good self-care during these times. If you’re in Square One, the question is never “how can I get out of Square One?” but “how can I make it okay to go slow?” (I love Kristin Neff’s guided meditations on self-compassion for these times, and all times, really.)

3) Know the point at which you are getting in your own way. See if you can step outside of your emotional self and be the observer. What do you look like when you’re in need of pressing the pause button? What happens with your body, your behavior?

A few years ago, I was walking home in a seriously foul mood, and a car rolled through the stop instead of letting me cross the street. I actually reached out and hit the back of the car as I walked behind it. Feeling the sting of the hot metal on my fingers (it was like a 100-degree day, which was part of why I was ready to maim), I knew I’d crossed one of my personal boundaries into nutso territory, territory I did not want to stay in. It was time for me to stop wrestling and take a time out. Know these places in yourself, and find ways to clue yourself in to when you’re getting into this territory. Hopefully you will not have to slap a defenseless Honda Civic to know you’ve entered “that zone.”

4) Above all, cultivate trust in yourself. Take baby steps. If you’d normally force yourself through something to the point of frustration, try stepping back even five minutes before you usually would.

One of my clients recently made the decision, for a number of reasons, to take a month off from her artwork. (Namely, because it was feeling too much like art-WORK. She said she didn’t want to return to it until it felt like art-PLAY. I love this!) She was afraid a month was too long, but she felt like she needed it. The need for the break felt like it was coming from her intuition, not from a place of fear. It felt deeply right.

A week into the month off, she emailed me. As of today, she said, I am back to my art-PLAY. It turned out she didn’t need an entire month off after all. Something in her was more than willing to return to creating when it was ready. Now that’s self-trust.

For an article on a similar theme, check out Practicing Reverent Curiosity.

Image is “Reflected Stop Sign” © Vladimir Zanadvorov | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What triggers your resistance?

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One of the benefits of being a rabid journaler is that I have ample evidence of my patterns and habits and defaults. All that stuff I “tend to do” when I’m scared, overwhelmed, panicked, what have you. It’s there in ink on actual, physical pages. Hard evidence.

A client who also journals told me recently that he picked up a notebook from ten years ago and was depressed to see that he was struggling with exactly the same stuff as he is today. He thought it meant that he hadn’t changed at all, had been stagnating for ten whole years.

Which is so not the case.

Of course you were struggling with the same stuff back then, I said. Those are your core issues.

We all have core issues, those deep, resonant conflicts within us that we’re on this earth to be with, work with, and, over time, learn from. These issues are our teachers. It’s not about overcoming them or even letting go of them. The work is to become more and more intimate with our core issues as we cycle through them again and again in our lives. We peel our layers like an onion, each time getting closer and closer to our center.

I still struggle with much of the same stuff I did at twenty — it just doesn’t throw me as much, because I understand it better. I know how to work with it, play with it, in ways I didn’t then. In fact, some of the areas where I’m strongest now are the areas I had most difficulty with at twenty, even if those areas still cause me trouble.

For me, this is the work of my life. This is my real work, above, beyond, and beneath any other “work” I do in the world.

It’s these core issues, though, that trigger our resistance. Of course they do. They’re painful. Nobody wants to delve into pain. When I feel like I’m spinning my wheels and I just don’t see a way out, I can be pretty sure that some core issue has risen to the forefront and I’m in resistance to it.

What’s tricky is that we can often be blind to our core issues when they’re “up” for us. This is why I keep lists of my “resistance triggers” in my journals.

When I’m feeling stuck, I go to one of my lists. Resistance triggers basically boil down to painful thoughts that reflect our core issues. Here are some sample triggers from one of my lists:

You have to write something special, original and amazing or there’s no point. People have to be totally wowed by your writing or why are you doing it?

If you take too much time to yourself, people you love won’t understand and they’ll leave you. You have to be available to others when they need you or you’ll end up alone.

Even when you work really hard, it isn’t enough – what’s the point?

It doesn’t matter if you’re tired. Just keep going.

These are some of the biggies for me. You get the idea. The reason I write this stuff down is because I often don’t recognize that these issues are “up” for me. All I know is I’m feeling sad, empty, or pissed off and like I can’t move forward. Often, when I consult one of my lists I immediately see the thought causing the resistance jump off the page at me. Ahhh. Now I have something to work with.

So let me show you how this resistance thing plays out: If I’m in the grip of a thought like, “If you take too much time to yourself, people you love won’t understand and they’ll leave you,” but I don’t know it, I’m often over-responding to others, overscheduling myself, saying yes more than feels good to me.

Pretty soon I’m fed up, angry, withdrawing from and resisting interaction — even interaction that could be helpful and nourishing to me (such as taking time to truly connect with myself or with a friend who deeply wants to hear me).

If I’m in the grip of a belief like, “You have to write something special, original and amazing or there’s no point,” I become extra-hard on my writing. I become unwilling to experiment. I belabor every sentence. Everything feels squeezed and distorted, like I’m trying to fit my words through a teeny, tiny keyhole and hope they can make it through to the other side as magical, life-altering prose.

Pretty soon I don’t want to sit down at my desk at all. Writing has become painful, not life-enhancing. And certainly not fun. So now I’m resisting writing at all; I’ve become disconnected from why I ever wanted to do it in the first place.

Writing these triggers down as we become aware of them is a huge act of self-care. It’s about knowing ourselves. Seeing your thoughts on paper is a good way to cut them down to size – sometimes, thoughts that feel horrifying when they’re stuck in our heads can look absolutely ridiculous when you see them written down.

Just the act of noticing that I’m being triggered by one of these thoughts can create a huge shift for me. I’m no longer merged with the thought — I’m now outside of it, observing it, so it’s over there where I can question it, and not a driving force within me. The next step is to question these thoughts, look for evidence of where they are not true. (The Work of Byron Katie is an excellent way to question your painful thoughts.)

What triggers resistance for you? How do you know you’re “in it”? Let me know in the comments!

Image is “Stone and Brick Wall” © Peter Szucs | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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