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.