Is it time to set down those old coping strategies?

birdsflight

The other day, I noticed myself doing something I’ve done countless times in my life: I said “yes” when I meant “no.”

The story I told myself in my head, in the moment, was “Well, I’m too overwhelmed right now to get into a conflict by saying no. So I’ll say yes, and then I’ll find a way to gracefully bow out later.”

I have a lot of compassion for myself around this, because I was caught off-guard by the asker. And I don’t think there is anything “wrong” with the way I handled this. (I followed up the next day and said, “You know, after checking in with myself and looking at my schedule, I realize I actually can’t do X. I’m sorry about that.”)

But the truth is, I was out of integrity when I said yes, knowing I meant no. It wasn’t really fair to the asker, and the incident shone a light for me on an area where, perhaps, it’s time for me to shift “coping strategies.”

Back in my twenties, I went through some intense shifts where I realized I needed set some boundaries if I were to live the life I wanted to live, if I were to retain any semblance of my true self. So I said no, a lot. No, no, no.

In fact, I said “no” even when I wasn’t sure I really wanted to say no, just to practice. There was a lot of “no” going on during that time.

Eventually, I realized that many of my “no’s” were simply reactions to a fear of being controlled, to a fear of losing my autonomy. They were not genuine “no’s.” (Sometimes, when we’re embracing something new, we can go to an extreme with it. When that extreme starts to hurt, we know it’s time for some balance.)

So, bit by bit, I started letting “yes” — an authentic yes — be part of my life. And sometimes I got confused. Sometimes I’d say “yes” and realize that it was a people-pleasing yes, and then I’d get angry and go to a big NO. Sometimes I felt more of a “maybe” and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle that one.

So fast-forward to my forties. I’ve had tons of practice with all this over the years, and it is so much less stressful than it was when I was first learning to say yes when I meant yes, and no when I meant no. But I’ve held onto a coping strategy: When I’m on the spot, as I was the other day, I still sometimes go for the “yes” that is less about a true yes and more about not making waves in the moment.

And I realized this time around, I don’t need to do that anymore. I can let that particular coping strategy go.

I developed that coping strategy at a time of my life when I thought there was something wrong with anything less than a whole-hearted “yes” or a full-on “no”. I was at a place where my thinking was often black-and-white, all-or-nothing. It didn’t feel okay to be unsure or in-between.

So the way I worked with that belief was to say “yes” when I felt pressured, and retract my yes later. Which was still leaps and bounds better than how I’d used to handle things (saying yes when I meant no but believing I couldn’t say no, so going ahead with things full of resentment, reinforcing to myself the belief that I wasn’t allowed to do what I really wanted to do).

You know what, though? Today, I believe that it is perfectly okay to say, “You know, I really can’t. I’m sorry.” Or, “Hmm … let me ponder that and get back to you on it.” Or, “I’m feeling a little conflicted about that — when do you need to know for sure?”

There is such a range of “okay” here that I didn’t see back then.

And since I’m okay with whatever my response might be, however someone else responds is okay, too. I don’t have to jump to the old coping strategy of trying to predict and head off a “negative” response. I can breathe and tell the truth, and, if they choose it, so can the person who’s asking.

It’s interesting that I hadn’t even noticed I was employing a coping strategy of yore. (I love the concept of yore. Yore is a good word!) And, now that I’ve noticed it, I’m wondering what other “old strategies” I might be able to just set down? Because other, better ones, more authentic ones, have already queued up to take their place.

Do you remember the Buddhist tale of the man who uses a raft to get across the river, and once he’s across, he keeps carrying the heavy raft over his head, even though he’s already across?  How often do we do this in our lives? We’ve grown and changed and we’re not who we used to be — we have different needs, new strengths, more capabilities.

But some little part of us still resorts to the means by which we got here. If those means continue to feel authentic and relevant, absolutely continue to use them. But if they’ve gotten a little stale, if you feel like someone else when you notice yourself employing them, ask: can I let go of this now? Can I trust in a new way?

As I finish this post, I’m aware of how much this concept affects us not just individually, but collectively. We are being called upon to set down the old ways that no longer work.

And we’re being truly challenged here. Are we up to the challenge? Can we give ourselves lots of compassion while we find a new way — or, if we’ve already found it, can we be steadfastly kind and patient with ourselves as we test our new wings?

I’d love to hear how this works for you — do you notice yourself using coping strategies that are more about who you used to be than who you are now?

And: I had the true pleasure of talking to the wonderful writer and speaker Caroline McGraw for A Wish Come Clear’s You Need to Read video interview series. Such an honor to be part of this series — I hope you’ll take a look at the interview, and subscribe to get the whole series! Check it out, here.

Plus: I heard from a few of you who’d like to get on the info list for the small group version  of my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program. I’ll be sending out info to those interested around the third week of February. If you’d like to get on the list, please contact me through the form on my Ways We Can Work Together page, here.

Above image © Creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Inauthentic — or unfamiliar?

carouselhorses

There’s something I sometimes notice in people who are sensitive, creative, and for whom authenticity is a deeply-held value.

We frequently believe we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do something because it feels wrong to us. It feels inauthentic — not like who we are.

And it’s important to notice that feeling, to see what it has to tell us.

When something feels inauthentic, it seems like we should run from it, or at the very least, let go of it. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to recognize that we’ve come into contact with something which just isn’t in sync with who we are, and we need to move away from it.

But: sometimes we’ve come into contact with something that is unfamiliar, and because it feels unfamiliar, our minds immediately label it “inauthentic”.

Let me give you an example of how this showed up for me at the tender age of, oh, about five.

A little friend of mine (most of my friends were little then, I was five!) went to a different school than I did, and her school was having a “fun fair.” She kept talking about the fun fair and how excited she was about it, and how she wanted me to go to it with her.

And I began to dread this “fun fair”. Just the idea of something that existed for the sole purpose of “FUN” felt overwhelming to me. (What exactly was this mysterious fun that was to be had?)

I had already decided, at five (though not consciously), that something like a fun fair was not me. I would rather play quietly with one or two friends — that was me.

I could never have articulated this at the time, of course. I just knew that there was no way I was going to the fun fair! The fun fair was definitely not going to be fun for me!

At this point, my parents and I had already had quite a few go-rounds with me not wanting to do things. They found this quite confounding. Everyone else wants to do it! they’d say. Why not you?

In fact, there was something else at work, something I wouldn’t understand for years: my sensitive nervous system got easily overstimulated by situations that were unfamiliar to me. I even got overstimulated by thinking about new situations. Which was why I was dreading the fun fair that my friend couldn’t wait for.

However, on this particular occasion (in what, looking back, I see as a stroke of brilliant parenting) my mother told me something like this: “You don’t have to go to the fun fair. You can go if you want to, but you don’t have to go. Take some time to decide.”

This took a great weight off my five-year-old mind. Instead of being dragged somewhere against my will, I was being given the opportunity to choose.

I pondered the idea of the fun fair over the next several days, and eventually I went up to my mother while she was working in the kitchen and said, “Mom? I’ve decided to go to the fun fair.”

Now, the fun fair WAS most definitely overstimulating. There were echoey noises of kids yelling and running, and there were clowns (eek), and games where you could win a goldfish in a bag (my friend and I each won one, which at the time greatly excited me, but poor goldfish!), and I came home with a lacquered figurine of a bright orange squirrel with sparkly green eyes, which I had also won.

The fun fair was overstimulating, and it was FUN. Both/and.

And had there been another fun fair the following month, I might have gone without getting quite so overstimulated, because the fun fair would no longer have been unfamiliar to me. And because it was no longer unfamiliar, I would have gotten to know myself in that environment, and understood how I could show up there authentically, if I wanted to do that.

***

Our minds tend to do a fascinating (and not always helpful) thing: when something is unfamiliar to us, but maybe seems a little like some other experience we had that we really didn’t like, we put it into the category of “oh no! not that again,” and decide we’d better avoid it.

There are SO many good things (and people) in my life that I’d have missed out on if I hadn’t questioned my mind’s tendency to do this.

When we’re overstimulated because something is new and unfamiliar to us, of course we don’t feel authentic. Being overstimulated doesn’t feel good; we don’t feel like who we truly are when we are overstimulated.

But if we can choose to ride out the overstimulation in favor of exploration, of being curious about something new, as my five-year-old self did, we can give ourselves more options. And we can learn that what is “authentically us” may be vaster than we’d imagined.

(It’s definitely worth mentioning here that, for those of us with sensitive nervous systems, managing overstimulation is vital to our well-being. So I’m not saying “just throw yourself into overstimulating situations all the time and go ahead and burn yourself out.” We must choose wisely for ourselves and bring ourselves back into balance. The key is to remember that we have choices, usually more than we think we do.)

Have you labeled something “inauthentic” for you when in fact it was simply unfamiliar? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S.  In celebration of my favorite season, my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions are back! I offered these last fall and worked with some wonderful folks. If you’re in “creative transition” this fall and feeling stuck or scared, you might benefit from one of these sessions. The format is the same as last year, but I’ve made them 45 minutes in length this time around. Check them out, here.

Above image © Jack Schiffer | Dreamstime Stock Photos

On discomfort, sadness, and creativity

reflections

I recently reconnected with a teacher of mine, and, as I shared a frustrating experience with him, he reminded me of the importance of being able to tolerate discomfort.

Even thinking about “tolerating discomfort” makes me … uncomfortable. But I was so grateful for his reminder.

I wrote about allowing discomfort quite a while ago, and it’s a theme I revisit periodically. Because I forget: my mind gets busy trying to make things the way I think they should be SO THAT I am not experiencing discomfort.

But: what if the very discomfort I’m experiencing is exactly what I need to experience in order to grow into the place, the self, the life, I desire?

I am not saying that we should tolerate negativity or abuse or situations we can readily change by willingly acting on our desire to change them.

But sometimes there are situations we cannot readily change — they are not so clear-cut, and there may actually be nothing for us to “do” at this very moment. This is an uncomfortable place to be. It is the space of ambiguity, the (sometimes vast) gray area of uncertainty. Most of us will go to great lengths to not be here.

When I am feeling particularly crabby or “off” or I catch myself slamming into a wall again and again trying to make something happen, there’s a good chance that my mind is actively avoiding discomfort by trying to “move the furniture.”

(“Moving the furniture” is my metaphor for those times in life when there is really no clear action to take, but because fear has a hold on me, I try to do something — anything — in order to feel more control. In other words, the room may be perfectly fine and functional, for now, but I am moving the furniture here and there anyway, trying to predict how I’ll want it next month or next year.)

Something I’ve learned in these past few years of working with some very dear clients is that, frequently, when someone says “I’m stuck”, what’s really going on is an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort.

In an emotional sense, the feeling of stuckness is very real, because the unwillingness to allow the discomfort to be there creates a contraction in the body. It’s like rigidly setting your jaw or tensing your abdomen. There’s no flow.

What happens when we give space to discomfort? What happens when we are not frantically searching for the “right option” or course of action so we can get rid of it, but we simply allow it to be there? Just breathe into it, even for ten seconds or so?

I notice that, often, what is underlying my own discomfort is sadness. Just pure sadness.

This does not make me a “sad person”. Sadness, as Karla McLaren says in her book The Language of Emotions, is “the watery emotion.” It is about letting go and moving on.

We may feel a hint of sadness even about small “letting-go’s”, like finishing a book we’ve dearly loved reading, or donating some clothing we no longer want. And let’s face it, there’s not a lot of space for sadness in Western culture.

But these small sadnesses are part and parcel to letting go, moving on, sorting through what needs to be processed and integrated so we can allow movement and flow into our bodies and our lives.

Speaking of flow, I am experimenting with allowing tears more in my daily life. Obviously, not all situations are appropriate or safe for the expression of tears, but sometimes, tears are a totally good thing when I might normally stifle them, and I’m finding the expression allows people to feel closer to me and creates more real connection.

(I don’t mean I’m going around bawling. I’m just allowing the tears to come forth rather than forcing them back. Like, after I saw Hello, My Name is Doris last week, I let myself be all teary and emotional coming out of the theater, because I loved the character of Doris. In the bathroom, I looked over at the woman at the sinks next to me and saw that she, too, was wiping her eyes, and we shared this lovely, appreciative smile.)

***

Creativity is, at its most essential, the life force moving through us. If we are not allowing discomfort, if we are pushing it down and analyzing or strategizing in order to avoid it, there will be a deadness to anything we attempt to create.

You’ve probably felt it when something you’ve created is a little too “sterile” or “perfect”, with not enough feeling, not enough oomph!, not enough flow. Any chance you were trying to avoid discomfort in some way there? I know I’ve done this in my writing many times.

What do you notice about allowing space for discomfort in your life? What happens if you try it for ten seconds? I’d love to hear your experience.

Do you need support in making your creative work a priority in your life, in a way that works for YOU (not the way you think you should do it!)? I’d love to help. Find out more, here.

Above image © Gjs | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Are you pulling back enough to gain perspective? + special February coaching prices

eagle on beach

Scroll down to learn about my special coaching prices this month, in celebration of the Lunar New Year!

One thing about my many, many years of journal-keeping is that certain patterns — truths about the way I live my life, the behaviors I resort to when I’m under stress — show up with (sometimes frightening) regularity on my quickly-scrawled pages.

One of these truths about myself, which I don’t necessarily like but am coming to terms with, is that I have a tendency to keep moving things ahead even when they’re not working.

It makes me feel virtuous to check off my daily to-do list, to be there for others, to get things done that feel hard. And, I also truly love these things — when they feel deeply right.

But sometimes, I have a creeping sensation that something isn’t quite right, and, in the interest of getting my work done for the day, I don’t actually step back and ask: Is this work, you know, working? Is doing this stuff contributing to what I desire in the long run?

I had a conversation with a friend recently where I told her about this tendency of mine to keep hanging in there, to keep moving something ahead, even though it’s not necessarily working for me, even though I badly need to press the pause button.

And she said, “Wow, you know, I think of you in exactly the opposite way. You always remind me of how important it is to focus on what really matters and to take time out to be present.”

Ack. Apparently it’s true that we teach what we (desperately) need to learn.

The truth is, I’m a lot better at stepping back and focusing on the big picture than I used to be. In my younger years, I felt like I was constantly on fast-forward. I have no idea what I looked like to others, but I had a huge fear of stopping and looking around.

I became monumentally out of touch with my own feelings, and it was only an illness at twenty-five that really slapped me into the reality of what was true for me: I needed to stop pushing, to stop trying so hard to be there for others, and to allow myself to simply be. Not just once in a while, but as a regular practice.

But, it is always a process, and many years later I still get caught up in pushing myself forward when, in fact, what is required is a giant step back.

those icky patterns show up on the pages of my journal

those icky patterns show up on the pages of my journal

Obviously, moving things forward is vital, but the best way to do that is through what we coaches call inspired actionaction connected to what is in the best interests of our essential self — not simply action for the sake of it.

And this can be truly challenging when we live in a society that rewards us for taking lots of actions, for “just doing it.”

***

Last year, I made the painstaking decision to move into a smaller home. It’s a lot smaller. (I wrote about this journey here.)

It was a complicated situation, but a defining aspect of it was that I was expending a lot of physical, mental, and emotional energy trying to keep up a house that, in the long run, I just didn’t actually want to live in. In the final analysis, I had to admit I just didn’t care about the things that came with maintaining a house.

I would look around at friends and think, well, they do it. It’s worth it to them. And I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me that I wanted to go back to small apartment living, at my age.

But when I thought about moving into a small apartment, where upkeep would be minimal, where maintenance would be taken care of by someone else, where I could feel like each room and each object was well-used and appreciated, I felt all lit up inside. It was my truth, even if it wasn’t somebody else’s.

It took me a long time, though, to actually pull back from my daily existence enough to see this truth.

And it was care of the house, in part, that distracted me from the truth. Whenever I got everything else done, there was always snow to be shoveled, or leaves to be raked, or a flooded basement, or an attic fan that needed repairing. But isn’t this what you’re supposed to do? I’d think. Grow up and take care of a house?

***

Martha Beck, in her book Finding Your Own North Star, talks about the difference between “mouse vision” and “eagle vision”. Mouse vision takes care of the small details that help us get things done each day. Mouse vision is very important, because it is only through tiny, individual steps that we make our way to completing our “big things.”

Eagle vision, on the other hand, is about the big picture — it’s soaring above the landscape so we can get a sense of the whole scheme and notice what needs attending to, what needs to be let go of, and when we need to fly in a slightly (or dramatically) different direction.

It’s easy to get stuck in mouse vision. If you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe how the years are getting away from me,” it’s likely that mouse vision is a little too much at play in your life.

Something I’ve noticed while working on novel drafts (which I will get into more in a future post) is that it is really important to be able to flexibly switch between mouse vision and eagle vision in the creative process. Just like in my life, I’ve had a tendency to push my writing forward even when something nags at me, raising its little hand and saying, “Hey! Something’s not working here!”

It feels so virtuous to keep plugging along, to write more words, to check that off my to-do list! Who wants to pull back and look at the work as a whole? Do I get a gold star for doing that?

But it’s so necessary, in our lives as well as our creative work.

How do you know it’s time to pull back and embrace the big picture?

• You feel like you are drowning in the day to day. It feels like you’re just going from one thing to another, putting in the time.

• You feel disconnected from yourself, or your creative work.

• You find yourself getting really angry when you have to perform certain tasks. (When I was living in the house, there came a point where any time something broke — the dryer, the lock on the front door — I felt like I was ready to kill somebody. This kind of anger is a sure sign that something needs to change.)

• You start to get sick of hearing yourself complain about the same things, over and over.

The next step — as always! — is acceptance. This is where you are — and change is totally possible. What does a shift to a broader perspective reveal to you?

If you’re a little too entrenched in “mouse vision” and you’d like some support, I’m offering a package of three thirty-minute coaching sessions through Feb. 12 (this Friday). I don’t regularly offer thirty-minute sessions, so if this way of working with me appeals to you, I encourage you to check it out!

Also, through the end of this month, my 60-minute sessions and packages are at special prices in celebration of The Year of the Yang Fire Monkey! Find out more about this and my other coaching offerings here.

Eagle image © Cecilia Lim | Dreamstime Stock Photos

How time distortions keep you from getting things done

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

Here at the beginning of a new year, a curious phenomenon has arisen in the work I’ve been doing with my coaching clients. It comes down to this: what we believe about how long something will take is directly related to whether or not we actually do it.

These types of beliefs are time distortions, and a good example of this phenomenon comes from Seinfeld. There’s an episode where Jerry is trying to convince himself that it won’t be that bad staying for a few days with his parents in their Florida condo. To make the impending visit feel shorter, he tells himself that he can’t really count lunches and dinners and taking showers as part of the visit — so, actually, the whole visit will be “like fifteen minutes!”

Have you done this? I know I have. When we’re dreading something, our minds will go to all sorts of lengths to help us cope.

This is in some ways helpful and productive — I know there are experiences I would probably have never exposed myself to if I’d known in advance how hard and stressful they were going to be.

But my mind convinced me that “it wouldn’t be that scary.” In some cases, it was far scarier than I’d imagined, but in the end I was thrilled that I had the experience (so, thank you, dear mind!).

More commonly, though, our minds can protect us into not doing something at all (that we either want or need to do) with these types of distortions.

A client I worked with recently had not completed the “homework experiment” we’d set up for her. (I refer to any homework I give clients as an “experiment” rather than an “assignment” because approaching something as an experiment tends to engage more curiosity and less resistance. But not in this case!)

When we dug into why, it turned out that she’d been thinking the homework “would only take thirty minutes or so” and she could knock it out the night before our session. When we looked honestly at the homework, though, it was clear that she would need a minimum of three hours to do it.

So why had she decided it would only take about half an hour? Because she had a lot of resistance built up around doing it, and the only way she could bear to face it was to think that it would be over in a very short amount of time.

In this case, that meant she put it off until it simply didn’t get done. And I have a lot of compassion here, because I have SO done this.

Here’s another example, from a different client. She’d told a close friend she would run an errand for her, but hadn’t done it. For a month she’d been waking up thinking “I really need to do that today. I should do it.” Then she wouldn’t do it and the next day the whole cycle would repeat.

When we took a look at why she wasn’t doing the errand, another sort of time distortion revealed itself. She was certain the task was going to take hours and that it could become very complicated, and that she might have to get help to complete it that she wasn’t sure she could get.

I told my client that, while I could be wrong, to me it sounded like the task shouldn’t take more than about an hour to complete (and this included driving time). We looked at what would be the worst that could happen if, in fact, it did take her as long as she feared. “It would be really stressful and annoying,” she laughed.

But she agreed to go ahead and do it the next day. I told her to email me as soon as it was done and tell me how it had gone (this kind of check-in with someone who cares about you can be SO supportive!).

She emailed me way sooner than I’d expected to hear from her. Why? Because the task, including driving time, had taken her exactly 18 minutes — no complications, no extra help needed. Just straightforward driving to an office to pick up a folder and dropping it off at her friend’s house.

How do we keep ourselves from getting sucked into time distortions? Well, first we need to get our thinking about the task we’re avoiding out of our heads, where we can see it more clearly. It helps to write it down, or speak it aloud to yourself or someone else. (So often our thinking is automatic, bypassing our consciousness. We need to see it “out there” in order to be aware of it.)

If you notice there are time issues in your thinking (“I can write a draft of my chapter on the twenty-minute train ride”) and that you feel a considerable amount of anxiety with that thought, you can be pretty sure that what you’re telling yourself is deeply unhelpful. (We almost always avoid things because of the anxiety they bring up in us. If we can lessen the anxiety, we’re going to be far less likely to avoid them.)

So experiment with some mantras that will help you do a reality check when it comes to how long something will take. (Often, we just don’t know, and that needs to be factored in.)

Here are some of mine:

I won’t know how long it will truly take until I start doing it.

If it’s going to take a long time, I’d rather get started sooner than later. 

I want to feel as calm and grounded as possible around this action. What will help me feel that way?

All of these sentences give me a reality check. And for those of us with, shall we say, vibrant imaginations, reality checks can be a valuable part of our artist’s toolbox (as much as we might cringe at the idea of “mundane reality”!). As long as the reality check is supporting our bigger vision, it’s all to the good. 

What do you notice about how distortions of time play into your fears around getting things done? I’d love to hear from you.

And: Need some help moving your creative work forward in the new year? For a limited time, I’m offering three-packs of 30-minute coaching sessions. You can find out more, here.

Above image is “Old Distorted Clock,” © Jolin | Dreamstime Stock Photos

You only ever need to do one thing

christmasstar

Yesterday I was having one of those days where my mind spun with all that I was sure needed to be done. I sat at my kitchen table, staring out the window, trying frantically to access peace (as if “frantic” could ever be the way to peace).

There was so much I should be doing, surely, but it felt like there was so much that there was no point in starting — with such a huge to-do list, anything I did would only constitute a drop in the overflowing bucket of what must be done.

This is a familiar place I can go to when more than “the usual” is on my plate, and that’s the case for so many of us at the holidays. Even though I’ve made a conscious decision to do things more simply this year, I still travel for Christmas and, grrr — traveling? Not my favorite thing. I like being there, I just don’t like getting there.

As I backtracked and took a look at what I’d been thinking yesterday morning, I realized I was focused on the sheer hell that plane travel would surely be, and what a drag it is that every year I endure this, and how with everything going on in our world I have an extra layer of fear right now, and on and on.

And then I felt selfish and self-centered for not being able to be a “bigger person” and have gratitude that my parents are in good health and I have this opportunity to see them at the holidays.

This is a good example of what our minds tend to do (my mind is hardly unique in its patterns!). When we fixate on something we’ve decided will be unpleasant, reinforce the expected unpleasantness with fearful thoughts, and then judge ourselves for having the thoughts in the first place, we get into a vicious loop.

When we’re operating from that loop, it looks like only eliminating the circumstance we’re convinced is making us unhappy will restore our sanity — or, only making the exact “right choices” within that circumstance will keep us safe, secure, on steady or virtuous ground.

If feeling good is dependent on either eliminating circumstances or choosing the “correct” ones, we’re on a slippery slope. So much is out of our complete control, even in areas where we do have a good amount of legitimate power over what happens.

So when we approach our lives this way, it’s kind of like we’re either focused on the finish line, when the race will be over and (if we do it right) we’ll have won, or we’re looking for a way to bow out of the race altogether. But I don’t want to run! we think. Why does there have to be this stupid race?

As I sat obsessing about the “right way” to handle my commitments, I looked over at my boyfriend, who was sitting in a chair in the living room laughing heartily at something on TV.

How simple it is for him, I thought. He doesn’t analyze everything the way I do. He just does what needs to be done and doesn’t make a big thing out of it. (He would tell you this isn’t exactly true, but it was what I thought in the moment.)

And then I noticed the mostly blank wall behind him. Since we moved in August, I’d been meaning to hang pictures on that wall, but I kept telling myself it wasn’t important enough to take precedence over everything else I needed to do.

But, I realized, I wanted to hang those pictures. Of everything I could have been doing in that moment, hanging those pictures felt like something I wanted to do. And, looking at the mostly empty wall, I realized that hanging the pictures — only that — was all I was called to do in that moment.

Just that one thing.

Back in August, during that last chaotic week before I moved to my new home, my friend Mary Montanye asked me via email how the moving preparations were going, and I told her I was mega-overwhelmed. She responded that when she was in the process of moving, she’d found it helpful to “just take the next indicated step.”

Those words spurred me on like you wouldn’t believe (thank you, Mary!). And yesterday, hanging the pictures and admiring them afterward, noticing how much more it feels like home in the living room now that the pictures are up, my mind began to quiet itself.

pictureshung

Pictures are up!

I was reminded that all I ever need to do is one thing. No matter how big the project, how sprawling the to-do list, I only ever need to do one thing.

And here’s the trick: Only when I am in the process of doing that one thing am I able to see clearly that it is being engaged with the process that I crave, not getting to the finish line or eliminating the task.

When I am caught up in thinking about all that needs to be done, and not actually doing the one thing that presents itself, I am disconnected from the rewards of the process of doing. I believe that the only reward comes from “having done it”.

This is why when I hear people say things like, “I hate writing, but I love having written,” something in me cries, but that’s no way to live! If we can’t find ways to make the process rewarding, we’re forever focused on the finish line, and therefore missing most of our lives.

And the process looks like this: one thing, one thing, one thing. (And yes, sometimes our “one thing” CAN be eliminating, or rescheduling, something on our to-do list! The key is in taking the action, rather than obsessing over it.)

I’m curious about how this works for you, and particularly about how you might apply “just one thing” to anything you have planned for the holidays.

And if, like me, you’re an introvert who’s needing a little more comfort and simplicity at this time of year, you might want to check out this post that I wrote last year at holiday time.

Top image © Jessie Eldora Robertson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Avoiding the intimacy of creating

pensandpencils

Publishing this post today, my heart is heavy with the news of the horrible events in Paris. A prayer for love and kindness in the world, and for each of us to remember that it starts with the way we treat ourselves and those closest to us, and radiates outward.

As I’ve often noted here, I am a compulsive journaler and have been since my teen years. I don’t ever have to drag myself to my journal; in fact, I usually relish the expanse of the blank page there (this is not always, or even often, so for other forms of writing!).

Lately, though, I notice that while I go readily to my journal to write, I’m restless after a few minutes and it’s hard to stay there.

I’ve gone through these periods before, and they usually happen when I’m about to approach what I call “hardcore” journaling — meaning, there’s a lot that’s ready to come up, and I know it’s vital that I allow it to come up onto the page, but it’s not going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be intense, and even draining. But it’s so worth it.

In this way, I compare journaling — or any kind of writing we do — to an athletic activity. We are building all kinds of muscles when we write regularly.

And this is true for any form of creative work (or play, as I prefer to call it!) that we do steadily. Doing it makes us stronger, more flexible, vaster — it widens our scope as human beings, as spiritual beings.

But sometimes, the process is especially tough and tender, as it has been for me lately in my journal.

Yesterday I was drawn to pull out Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning, one of quite a few wonderful books she’s written on her writing life and process. In one chapter she describes leading a class in which she read to her students from Richard Nelson’s The Island Within. The writing was sinewy, alive, present, tender. And yet, she saw her students’ attention wandering; she saw them yawning and getting bored. How could this be happening when the writing was so alive?

The students, Goldberg realized, were resistant to the intimacy on the page. The writing was so there, it brought them so unflinchingly close to the subject, that they were afraid of that intimacy. They wanted to avoid it.

As someone who’s taken many writing classes and viewed them from the standpoint of both student and teacher, I’ve experienced this as well. There is something in us that is afraid of beauty, of aliveness, of what’s true — and, in our resistance to it, we feel tedium. We pull away.

When I was about twenty, I had a conversation with a guy in a coffeehouse that has always stuck with me. He talked about the book he was reading — it was a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, but I don’t remember which one — and he said, “You know, it’s a boring book. It tries my patience. I want to put it down a lot. But some of the most boring books I’ve ever read have been some of the best books I’ve ever read.”

This was a totally new idea to me at the time. I pondered what he meant for a while and I got it. He didn’t really mean that the whole of him thought the book was boring. He meant that the part of him that was afraid of being present, the part of him set on instant gratification, that part that just wanted to be distracted from itself, found the book tedious.

The whole of him felt compelled to finish the book — it knew something important was there for him — and, guided by his essential self and not his impatient instant-gratification-seeking self, he kept reading.

(A writing teacher of mine once said, “A ‘boring’ book is often a failing of the reader, not the writer.” Martha Beck talks about “the cultural pressure to seek excitement” here.)

There are so many challenges in this world to our staying with something. Anything. When I got an iPad several years ago, as much as I loved it, its built-in ease of use presented a huge test to my powers of concentration. Now, when I write, when I read, or even when I want to fully focus on a movie, I keep the iPad away from me. (Unless, of course, I’m reading or watching the movie on the iPad. A-hem.)

So how does this circle back to me and my journaling? I’ve been avoiding the intimacy of being with my own aliveness on the page. How crazy is that? Well, not crazy at all — actually, very human.

But I know I will stay with the journaling because I have been initiated into its magic. And the magic only comes when I stay with it.

Is this true for you and your creativity, whatever form it may take? Do you find yourself avoiding the intimacy that comes with staying present to yourself, to the world around you? I’d love to hear how you experience this, in the comments.

A few things I’m up to …

  • Reading Dog Medicine by Julie Barton, a beautifully-written memoir about a woman’s struggle with depression and how her bond with her dog helped her through it. It’s not an easy read by any means (I’ve cried through quite a bit of it), but having experienced first-hand the healing power of animals in my own journey, it’s helping me embrace my own story. Which, to me, is the most amazing thing writing can do.
  • Preparing to teach a class locally on supporting ourselves through the vulnerability and other rough stuff that comes with writing autobiographical material, a topic close to my heart.
  • Continuing my low-cost Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions (you can still grab one through Wednesday, Nov. 25). If you’re a sensitive creator who’s deep in transition and feeling stuck or scared, I’d love to help. Find out more here.

Image © Scarf_andrei | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The difference between “ready” and “comfortable”

gorgeous fall

Scroll down to find out about limited-time Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions. 

As I am settling into my new living space, I notice how satisfied I feel with this change. Being in this new place during the gorgeousness of fall, my favorite season, is lending a brisk beauty to this season of my life.

The other morning I was up with my cat at 4 a.m.  — he is a night prowler and shelf-climber, unfortunately (at least it’s unfortunate at that time of day). Even though it’s a drag to get up and monitor him at an insanely early hour, I often have insights at that time of day/night. (Isn’t 4 a.m. known as the witching hour? Hmm.)

The insight that came to me that morning was that, as with all the changes in my life that have felt most “right”, this move to a new home happened when I was ready for it, and not a moment before.

Now, what do I mean by “ready”?

There’s an idea out there in the world right now about “starting before you’re ready.” That if we wait to be “ready,” we’ll never begin.

I understand this concept, but my experience tells me something different. And I think it has to do with what is meant by “ready”.

I would say, “Start before you’re comfortable, but don’t start before you’re ready.”

For me, deep, true “readiness” has a feeling of acceptance attached to it.

With moving to this new home, for example, I wasn’t entirely happy about the change. For a long time after I began to perceive that it was going to be necessary for me to let go of my old home, I felt a lot of resistance to that idea.

About a year and a half before I made the move, I looked at apartments in the very building where I now live, and I had a feeling of wondering. Hmm, I wonder what it would be like to live here. I really like this street. I have a sense that I’d like to live here.

But: I was nowhere near ready to make a move at that point. My attachment to my old home was still so great that even thinking about a “real move” filled me with grief, exhaustion and overwhelm.

At that point, all I was ready for was wondering about where I might want to live next. The idea that I should be “more ready” to make a change than I actually was created lots of stress for me. (Funny how it’s always easier to see these things in retrospect.)

The shift for me came this past March or so, when I realized that even though things were still very much up in the air with my living situation and I was enduring frequent house showings, it felt right to simply be where I was. I stopped scrambling. I decided that despite the uncertainty of my situation, I was going to fully enjoy my home for as long as I had it.

And, from that place of full acceptance, I began to become truly, deeply ready to make a change. By June, my boyfriend and I had found our new home and we knew we would be moving in August.

But moving — despite feeling more truly ready for it — was not comfortable.

As I wrote previously, I had a ton of downsizing and letting go to do, on a number of levels. Aspects of that felt excruciating, not just from an emotional standpoint but from a logistical one.

And sometimes, in my new “streamlined” existence, I am still uncomfortable with the fact that I go looking for something that was part of my life for a long time and realize I donated it back in August. Or, now that my boyfriend and I do not have separate office rooms to go to, we sometimes feel on top of each other when we are trying to work. This change is not comfortable, even though I wanted it, I chose it.

pumpkintrio

Happy Halloween!

Another example: Back when I finished life coach training in 2011, a number of my fellow “cadets” began to go through the coaching certification process. My mind started in on a familiar loop: “Look at them! You’re falling behind. Hurry up and get certified!”

Luckily, my training had taught me to question my thoughts, and in doing that I realized that, deep in my bones, I was not ready to apply for certification. I wanted to do more coaching first. I wanted to “get” coaching at a deeper level before I went through the certification process so it would actually have meaning for me, rather than just feeling like a “should”.

This feeling came from a different place than the “never-quite-good-enough” thrust of perfectionism. It simply felt right to me to wait to get certified.

When I did go through the certification process, in November of 2011, I felt ready, but it was not comfortable. I still had all kinds of doubts and fears, but the way I knew I was ready was that I was not attached to the outcome. The process of certification was so “real” to me by this point that, even if I didn’t get certified, I knew what coaching meant to me, and I knew that I was a good coach. I’d walked coaching into my bones, and certification felt like a natural evolution of that process.

And, as it happened, certification went beautifully for me. But it wasn’t comfortable. I had all kinds of anxiety around it, but it was a different kind of anxiety than I would have had if I’d forced myself to go through the process six months earlier than I did, just as I would have had a different kind of discomfort around moving if I’d made myself do it a year earlier, just to end my discomfort!

(One of the most poignant things I’ve learned about humans since I became a coach is that, so often, in our hurry to end our discomfort, we create even more discomfort for ourselves. Then we look back and wonder what in the world we were thinking.)

What do you notice about the difference between the times you’ve felt “deeply ready” to make a change and the times you started too soon? Has being “ready” felt comfortable for you? I’d love to hear your experience.

Plus: In celebration of Halloween and the beauty of fall, I’ll be offering 30-minute Autumn Transition coaching sessions for just $39, now through November 25. If you find yourself in deep transition and not quite sure how to navigate your next step, I’d love to help. Find out more about Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions, here.

Above images © Jill Winski, 2015

The difference between self-care and self-indulgence

strongtreesI have to admit that I’ve been pretty on edge lately. At times I feel unsafe. The house I rent is up for sale, and I know I need to move soon.

Being in limbo mode with my living space brings up all my “stuff” around safety, feeling like I don’t have a true home base, and, well, strangers. Strangers coming through my home and seeing all my stuff, deciding if they’re interested in living here themselves.

It’s weird and, somehow, it makes me feel like a little kid. It brings up the part of me that wants to hide out.

And so, I’ve had to practice extra self-care in order to stay sane, to feel safe.

I’ve had to remind myself, it’s okay, you’re an adult, you can take care of yourself with these strangers who suddenly show up.

I’ve had to pause and ground myself, remind myself to breathe, more than usual.

What’s interesting is how, because I’m also extra-busy right now, another voice comes up a lot.

It’s a high-pitched voice that snaps at me, “What’s with all this self-care stuff? Self-care? Aren’t you being just a little self-indulgent? I mean, look at all you have to do! And you’re letting yourself sleep an hour later than usual?”

This voice is old. Years ago, I thought “self-care” meant taking bubble baths and sitting on a cushion drinking tea. Or spa treatments. Or buying expensive moisturizers.

Self-care can look like those things, but what I’ve come to realize over the past twenty years is that it goes much, much deeper.

What I’ve also come to realize is what self-care is not: it’s not self-indulgence. There’s a big difference, but I think many of us confuse these two terms, which are most definitely not interchangeable.

I’ve mentioned quite a few times on this blog that in my twenties I developed a chronic illness and ended up in the hospital. Then and only then was my cynical twenty-five-year-old too-hip-to-do-self-care self forced to recognize that I had to take better care of me.

That’s all self-care is, really. It’s acknowledging that without putting YOU at the center of your life, there ultimately is no life that feels like you.

Many of the clients I’ve worked with over these past several years have had a pattern in common: feeling bad about not showing up for their creative work in the world as fully as they’d like because they just can’t make it important enough to put themselves front and center in their own lives.

Or: They’re doing their creative work in the world, they’re getting it out there, but they’re so overwhelmed and overstimulated from both the work itself and their interactions with others that they’re totally depleted and aren’t sure they can go another step on their journey.

Self-care, in my book, is about recognizing that YOU are at the center of any creative journey you’re on. Both when you begin the journey, and during it.

And yet, so many of us have a judge-y inner voice like mine that insists that taking good care of ourselves might just actually be, you know, self-indulgence.

How is self-care different from self-indulgence?

For me, “self-care” is about noticing what I am needing — truly needing — in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms, and making it important that I provide it for myself.

The focus of self-care is not doing, but noticing and acknowledging — and then doing, if necessary. (Often, practicing better self-care means practicing un-doing!)

It’s the noticing and acknowledging piece that we tend to lose sight of in our driven society. And often, when we do notice and acknowledge, we don’t allow ourselves to know what we know about what we need.

Self-indulgence, on the other hand, is fueling the part of us that doesn’t notice or acknowledge what we need. 

Self-indulgence is buying six more sweaters when we already have fifty and only wear ten (I’m raising my hand here!) — and the buying of the sweaters feels like an avoidance rather than a coming home.

It’s eating or checking Facebook or staying on the phone too long or having an extra glass of wine or pushing ourselves to work longer hours in order to avoid checking in with ourselves.

It may feel good or “righteous” or like we “deserve it” in the moment, but in the long run it’s actually continuing to do something that hurts when we know it hurts us.

Self-indulgence can also look like committing to something, or someone, and only giving it half our effort, or half our attention. It can look like always holding back just that little bit so we’re never fully present to our lives.

Now, I do want to emphasize that a little indulgence is not wrong, and sometimes it’s exactly what we need. (Particularly if we have a tendency toward perfectionism, we may need to “balance ourselves out” a little with some indulgence.)

The key is to be honest with yourself. When are you crossing the line from enjoyment to making yourself sick with enjoyment (I’m thinking about French silk pie here) simply because it’s hard to be present with yourself?

When are you crossing the line from doing an extra hour of work on the book you’re writing to feeling burned out but forcing yourself to continue? That, too, is self-indulgence. It’s starting to hurt, not help, and you’re rationalizing doing it anyway.

Self-indulgence always has a seed of avoiding ourselves in it; self-care always feels like coming home to ourselves. That’s how we know the difference.

And so, all this extra grounding myself and focusing on my breath and allowing myself to sleep more than usual? I know it’s self-care because it feels like coming home. Which reminds me that home is within me, wherever I happen to be. It’s a great reminder when my external living space is in flux.

What challenges you about practicing self-care, especially during times of a lot of stress when you need it the most? I’d love to hear from you.

And, I have a new program called Stellar Self-Care (for Sensitive Creatives). If you’re wanting to put YOU at the center of your life, or get back to it, I’d love to be that support for you. You can learn more about the program, here.

Image is “Sunset at Peace” © Shannan Thiel | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Procrastination? Or no payoff?

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A while back while channel-surfing I had the pleasure of happening on Tootsie, one of my favorite movies of all time which I hadn’t seen in way too long.

In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an impassioned, perfectionistic but unemployed actor, and we get this great opening montage of Michael auditioning and teaching his acting class and we get to see how he cares almost impossibly deeply about the craft of acting, but that he’s also kind of a pain in the butt.

Early in the movie, Michael and his playwright roommate (played by Bill Murray, need I say more?) are walking home from the restaurant where they both work as waiters, and the roommate asks Michael why he has to be “Michael Dorsey the great actor” or “Michael Dorsey the great waiter” — why can’t he just be, you know, Michael Dorsey? And Michael says, “I don’t know what the payoff is there.”

(Tootsie is packed front to back with great dialogue, so writers, go watch it immediately. But not before you read this blog post.)

Obviously, Michael means he can’t see a dramatic payoff for being Michael Dorsey (and this “throwaway” line has a number of meanings in the context of the movie). But the line kept popping into my mind for a while afterward because I tied it to some situations a couple of my clients were going through, where they kept beating themselves up for not doing something they said they wanted to do.

In other words, for “procrastinating.” I always like to put quotes around that word, because, as I’ve said here quite a few times, it tends to be a quick go-to descriptor when we’re not taking action on something.

But it’s not always true that we’re procrastinating when we’re not taking action. Sometimes we tell ourselves we’re procrastinating because we don’t want to look more deeply at what’s actually going on. (And sometimes, yes, we are actually procrastinating. But true procrastination has a different feel than the more complex stuff, which I wrote about here.)

What I’ve noticed over the years is that sometimes when we’re not taking action toward something we say we want, it’s because we don’t really believe there’s a payoff in doing whatever it is we think we should do. And I don’t necessarily mean an external, tangible payoff here.

It could be that we are not sensing an intrinsic payoff.

In other words, we don’t really believe that doing that thing is going to make us feel any better.

Feelings are incredibly strong motivators. It’s our feelings that drive us to action. And although we may say we want something, if on some level we don’t actually believe that having that thing will make a difference for us, we’re just not going to feel drawn to it, and when it comes down to it, we won’t take action toward it.

It’s easy to fool ourselves here — we say we want something, and it sounds good on the surface, and maybe we’re even getting into a kind of urgency where we feel like we desperately want it or need it. We may be really attached to the idea that we need the thing, or need to do the thing. But do we, really?

There are some layers that need to be peeled here.

We can start by asking ourselves what we believe the payoff will be for doing this thing. Can we see a payoff? One of my clients had to admit, when we delved into her situation, that there was no payoff for her in doing her thing. No wonder she wasn’t taking any action toward it!

We only ever want anything because of how we believe it’s going to make us feel. There’s really no other reason we want it. We can name all sorts of other things — acclaim, money, knowledge, experience — but all of that really comes down to how we think acclaim, money, knowledge and experience will feel or make us feel.

How we feel is the intrinsic payoff for anything we do, anything we move toward. But so often we leave it out of the equation!

Experiment with this the next time you’re feeling stuck or stopped on something you believe you want to accomplish. Is there a true payoff for you in accomplishing this thing? How do you think accomplishing it will make you feel? Is that how you want to feel?

If not, you need to get back in touch with how you want to feel, and go from there. The goal may need some tweaking, or you may want something completely different than you thought you did.

What about you? Do you notice yourself “procrastinating” on something you want to accomplish? Is it possible there isn’t enough of a payoff for you in accomplishing it? I’d love it if you’d share.

Also: Because I am in the process of creating new coaching offerings, these are the last two weeks to work with me in the current format. As of the end of March, the package of four sessions will be gone (the one-session-at-a-time option will remain, but the package of four saves you $75 if you’re wanting to purchase multiple sessions). Learn more about working with me here.

Image is “Broken Wagon Wheels” © Geoffrey Kuchera | Dreamstime Stock Photos