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

Daily saving graces for hard times

whiskers

Whether you’re in transition and not sure which end is up,  just beginning something that requires a completely new skill set, or letting go of something (or someone) very dear to you, sometimes the hard just doesn’t seem to stop.

“I keep thinking this is going to get easier,” one of my clients who had moved to a new city and started a new job said a while back. “But every day is a challenge I’m not sure I want!”

Something I’ve been noticing over the past several years is that fewer and fewer of us seem to be experiencing those extended periods of time where we just kind of “coast”. I think there are a number of reasons for this, a big one being that our world and our planet are reaching very critical points where change must happen. We can’t “coast”, globally, in certain ways any longer.

And we, as individuals, are never disconnected from the whole of the world we live in. Many of us may have worked hard to cultivate independence, but the fact is that we are undeniably interdependent. What happens to the whole affects us, and vice versa.

***

Today I walked over to Petco to buy some pill pockets for my cat, who’s on medication for inflammatory bowel disease (yes, it’s as lovely as it sounds). My cat is old, but still active, and I want to keep him as comfortable as possible for as long as I can, for as long as he’s around.

In Petco, there were cats up for adoption. Four cats, in cages. Well-kept cages, with comfy beds and food and perches, but cages nonetheless.

One of the cats, a tortoiseshell whose sign informed me that her name was Trooper and that she’d been given up for adoption because “my owner’s girlfriend didn’t like me”, sat up straight and met my gaze with her green eyes. She gave me a commanding meow. She was extremely curious and open to me and everyone in the store. Her adoption fee was only $42.50.

Let me tell you, sometimes I hate going into Petco. I would have loved to take Trooper and another of those cats and offer them a stable and loving home. My gut tells me, though, that it would be too much stress for my existing fur child, whose immune system is not what it once was.

But Trooper served as my “saving grace” today.

Locking eyes with her in Petco circled me back to this truth: I want to be able to take care of me the best I can, so that I can be of greatest service to the people and animals who can best benefit from whatever it is I have to offer.

We can never separate “self-care” from “other-care”. It’s all the same thing when it comes down to it. 

***

And that brings me back to “the hard”.

It’s often when things feel the hardest that we throw self-care out the window. Because “self-care” can feel like just one more thing on an ever-growing, ever-changing to-do list.

But so often self-care is not about doing but about undoing. About letting go of what is not necessary and coming back, every single day, to what is most fundamental for us.

And when we get away from it, life is there to point us back toward it, often in the most unexpected places, as Trooper in Petco did for me this morning.

Here are some ways to weave those everyday “saving graces” into your life, especially when things are hard:

If you are physically able, get out and walk. Your feet on the ground and noticing trees, bird, squirrels, is fundamentally nourishing. You can also combine this with “sit spotting” — finding a good bench and planting yourself there and just noticing for a while. During my last sit spot, I watched the bees interact with a plot of heather, their gold bodies moving in and out of the thick purple, and I saw how the sparrows were keen on the heather too, and how they weren’t bothered by the bees.

Take responsibility for what enters your ears and eyes. When I walk, I often listen to recordings of gifted coaches, teachers, and writers who remind me of the importance of what I do.  In keeping with this, limit social media time to only the aspects of it that feel truly supportive to you. When I’m “in the hard” I don’t spend much time in the Facebook newsfeed, for example, and mostly hang out in Facebook groups that feel the most supportive and connecting to me.

Have a morning ritual. Morning rituals allow us to take responsibility for our state of mind as soon as we wake up — this is extra-important when we’re in tough times. Don’t wait until later when, as writer Edna O’Brien has put it, “the shackles of the day are around you.” Mine is walking, coffee, and morning pages. What about you?

Take time — if only a moment or two — to be truly present with at least one other living being. Your partner, your child, your pet, the person ringing up your purchase at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Presence with another person is rejuvenating and reminds us of that continuum of “self” and “other”.  When things are hard, it’s so easy to slip into isolation, but something as “small” as a smile from a stranger can break us out of it.

And finally: Be open to the grace. Sometimes, in our yearning and longing and weariness for things to change, we adopt a “been there, done that” attitude and don’t notice the exact things that can support us.

What are your daily saving graces when it feels like things are hard? What helps you reconnect with what really matters to you when you’re not at your best? I’d love to hear from you.

By the way, if you’re in the U.S. in the Chicago area and interested in giving a home to a cat like Trooper, I hope you’ll check out Catnap from the Heart. These giant-hearted folks have done so much for homeless animals over the years and will be expanding their facility soon so they can help even more.

Please note my Stellar Self-Care Program is now closed until early 2017, but you can still sign up to work with me one-on-one in other ways. Interested? Find out more, here.

Above image is “Whiskers” © Marilyn Barbone | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Recognizing your options (all of them!)

rusty signI was talking with an old friend of mine the other day and we remembered a situation we’d been in during college. It was a crappy situation, but we didn’t do anything about it.

“What the heck were we thinking?” we asked ourselves (our “today” selves). “Why the heck didn’t we just get out of there? It would have made things so much easier.”

Well, the answer is, our younger selves didn’t just get the heck out of there because we didn’t see getting the heck out of there as an option. We didn’t know we could just leave.

With the benefit of hindsight (and more than twenty years of life experience!), we could clearly see that we had many more options available to us than we recognized at the time. We could have chosen to leave the situation. We could have spoken up to change it. We could have brought humor to it.

But we did none of those things. We resigned ourselves to “just getting through it.”

***

I notice that I feel much more powerful and expansive than I did then. Sure, there are periods where I feel fragile, depending on what I am going through. But overall, I have a sense of standing on this earth with more steadiness, more perspective, a wider vision.

And I’m pretty sure this is directly related to the fact that I am aware that I have more choices than I believed I did in the past.

These can be actual, physical-world choices. But the choice that is most obvious to me today is in how I respond to what’s happening for me.

Back then, when I had the belief that I was stuck or trapped, it would send me into a flurry of frantic activity in which I would try to flee my circumstances, or, as in the situation with my friend, I would freeze, assuming I had no options.

What’s striking to me today is recognizing that, back then, I didn’t notice my belief. The belief “I’m trapped” was actually outside of my conscious awareness — I was reacting to a belief I didn’t even know I had!

Awareness of how our thoughts are triggering our feelings, and how our actions are triggered by those feelings, is key in recognizing our options. There are so many options we can’t see when our lives are being run by beliefs we never question.

***

Just today, I got triggered by an email request that seemed ridiculous and unfair to me. I felt a sense of anger and injustice rise up in me and I was ready to tell this person off. I started writing my email response in my head, in the most sharp-tongued tone I could imagine.

At the same time, I felt I had to take care of the sender’s feelings, so I felt a conflict — taking care of myself and taking care of the sender. Within probably thirty seconds of reading the email, my feelings were about to propel me to action based on this swirl of anger and confusion.

But: I stopped. I stopped and simply noticed the feelings coming up in me. After I sat with the feelings for a bit and just let them be, I could see that my feelings were based on the following thoughts:

How dare this person request this of me! Don’t they know I have a life?

I need to set them straight! They can’t think they have the right to request this of me!

What the heck is wrong with my life that I have to deal with this kind of thing? What am I doing wrong?

Wow. Look how quickly the thoughts evolved into a blanket statement about my life and its “wrongness”.

Now, I’ll be honest — ten years ago I would have acted on my anger and righteousness. I would have shot back a scathing email (probably cloaked in sarcastic politeness) and gone on to regret it. I likely would have escalated things with the sender and felt out of control and crappy and mean.

But when I stopped (and believe me, it wasn’t easy to stop, even after years of practice) and simply felt the emotions, I could trace them back to the thoughts the email had triggered in me.

And then I began to reconnect with my power. I began to see where I have control and where I don’t.

I can’t control what the sender thinks about me or wants from me.

But I can control the way I respond to it, and I can (from a place of peace) communicate that I would prefer the sender not make these sorts of requests of me. What that may look like, I’m not sure — I’m not calm enough yet! 🙂

What I do know for sure is that I have many more options here than to shoot back an angry email or to believe this person has some kind of power over me. And the key is to see those options.

***

Sometimes in situations like this, I write down dozens of things I could do instead of the thing my knee-jerk emotional reaction would have me do — even silly and ridiculous ones, like “climb up on the roof and do a manic dance in the rain” or “paint my toenails deep purple” or “kiss the top of my cat’s head”. Or “spray-paint LOVE on all the cars in the parking lot.”

I wouldn’t necessarily do all these things, of course (or maybe I would!), but you get my drift. There are tons of ways we can choose to respond that we may not be noticing — until we make a point to notice.

So, how do we notice?

• When your feelings are strong, don’t act, sit. Count to ten if you want to. Notice that sitting with strong feelings is only that — sitting with strong feelings. It will not kill you if you don’t act on them in that moment. You will not dissolve.

• Once you’ve felt the feelings, notice what thoughts bubble up, as I did above. (Sometimes it takes a while — maybe a few hours or a day in some cases — to allow your feelings to settle enough to recognize the thoughts that are driving you. Other times it’s a quicker process.)

• Question the thoughts you notice. Are they true? Are they helpful? What thoughts would feel better and more helpful and more true?

• Come up with at least ten ways you could respond. Notice your options, even if they’re seemingly silly ones like those I listed above.

• Now, ask yourself: is action necessary? Yes? What action do you want to take? Does it feel settled and peaceful? Then, do it. Action is good, when it’s inspired action.

It is always, always, the way we choose to respond in this moment that determines the course of our lives, because our lives are nothing more — or less — than moments, strung together, like thousands and thousands of fairy lights.

What do you do when you feel trapped or “up against it”? What happens when, instead of taking immediate action, you pause and notice your options? I’d love to hear from you.

Are you in “creative transition” and needing support? I’d love to help. I currently have openings for new one-on-one coaching clients. Find out more, here.

Above image © Alptraum | 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

Squirrel wisdom (or, the power of a good question)

squirrelfoodA couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my journal, and I paused to stare out the window. It was cold out, bitterly cold, and I watched a squirrel make her way up a telephone pole across the parking lot with a frozen piece of hamburger bun.

When the squirrel had made it almost to the top of the pole, just inches from the wire she wanted to access in order to make it across to the tree branches many yards away, she dropped the bread. I watched it plummet — its trajectory was swift, and it bounced twice on the pavement.

On realizing she had dropped the bread, the squirrel immediately — and I mean immediately — turned around and started down the pole to retrieve it. It took her a while; eventually, she got to the pavement, located the bread (which was about twice the size of her head), put it in her mouth and headed back up the pole.

The squirrel had very little — if any — reaction to her loss of the bread. She simply noticed it had fallen and recalculated.

But here was my reaction, from the kitchen window: Oh my God! All that work and she drops it! Poor squirrel! What a hard life she has in the winter! It’s not fair! All that work just to get a scrap of bread! What if she drops it again? What then? Why is life so hard?

I watched as the squirrel made it up the pole a second time, this time without dropping the bread. She balanced with it on the wire and managed to reach the tree branches, at which point I stopped observing her because I couldn’t bear to see her drop it a second time. If she did, that would mean … what?

I was making the squirrel’s dropping the bread, or potentially dropping the bread, mean all sorts of things. Bad, sad, things.

But the squirrel wasn’t making it mean anything. She was just going on with life, not shaking her little squirrel fist at the heavens and saying, Woe is me! What a pitiful squirrel life I lead, dropping bread left and right! How will I ever eat? I am so incompetent and life is unfair to me!

What are you making it mean? is one of my favorite questions ever. I learned to employ this question during my life coach training back in 2010, and once I learned it I didn’t know how I’d lived without it. It’s probably one of my favorite questions to use with my clients, too.

Our thinking is often automatic. It bypasses our conscious awareness and, before we know it, we’re off into all kinds of stories.

Notice what I did when the squirrel dropped the bread? My mind just went there. It applied all my human concerns to the squirrel and her squirrel-ness. It took maybe three seconds — if that — for my mind to go from noting that the squirrel had dropped the bread to asking an unanswerable question: “Why is life so hard?”

It’s worth it — so worth it — to slow down and observe our thinking. We can’t stop our minds from spewing out thoughts — some research shows that we think at least 50,000 thoughts per day — but we can step back and notice how what we’re thinking is affecting us.

Sometimes (often!) I respond to myself the way I did to the squirrel. Something doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, or it’s harder than I thought it would be, and my mind is off and running — I shouldn’t have tried, what’s the point, that was so hard there’s no way I can do it again, why is life so unfair? 

It’s not bad, or wrong, that I have these thoughts. It’s what minds do. The not-so-great thing is when I believe them and take action (or not) accordingly.

When the “bad thing” happens, when I drop my proverbial bread, this is where What are you making it mean? can be a really helpful question to pose to myself. (Notice the difference in feel between this question and a profoundly unhelpful question like “why is life so unfair?”)

Humans are not squirrels, and not meant to be, but I’d like to become a little more like the squirrel. A little more undaunted, a little less self-pitying, a little less thwarted by inevitabilities that have absolutely nothing to do with me. Life is unfair (okay, I guess you can argue that thought, if you want to!). But the squirrel in her squirrel-ness reminds me that what I do with that fact is up to me.

(Two of my favorite resources for noticing and working with my thoughts are Byron Katie’s The Work, and Brooke Castillo’s Self-Coaching 101.)

What are you making it mean? I’d love to hear what you notice about how your reactions shape your world. (Noticing is always the first step!)

Need some support in bringing your creative work into the world? Check out the ways we can work together, here.

Above image is “Squirrel Food” © David James | 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

Making friends with creative transition

making friends with creative transitionRecently I spoke with a client who had just completed a massive project that took several years of her life to bring to fruition. It was a huge accomplishment for her to send her “baby” out into the world, and she was really happy about it.

Except that … she also wasn’t. She also felt lost and … sad?

How could this be? This was the time she’d been waiting for! In fact, at points during her journey she’d sworn the project would never be finished and couldn’t wait for it to leave her hands.

Because this was the first creative project of this scope that my client had seen from start to finish, she was unprepared for the letdown she felt when it was done. And it was making her really nervous that she wasn’t sure what her next project would be.

She didn’t even have any ideas. She kept trying to grab onto opportunities that came her way, but none of them felt right.

What my client was feeling was so, so normal.

When we imagine finishing something big, we often envision the elation that will come with the accomplishment but we don’t realize that there is a sense of loss in finishing, too.

We get thrown into “creative transition.”

Our tendency during these times is to rush ourselves through them because they feel so uncomfortable.

If we rush ourselves through, though, we miss out on the opportunity to become the new “us” that the transition time provides. That’s what transitions are, after all — bridges or tunnels from one version of ourselves to the next.

It’s kind of like when we end a relationship. Most of us have had that experience of breaking up with someone and then (oh, crap!) getting back together with them a week or a month later.

What happened there? We crawled back into our former lives, not quite ready to go through the “deep cocooning”  process we must embrace in order to emerge as that new “us.”

This is okay. As Robyn Posin says in one of her wonderful posts, we’re never fully anywhere until all of us arrives there. (I’m also reminded of an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry compares ending a relationship to knocking over a Coke machine. It has to rock back and forth a few times before the whole thing falls over.)

So what can we do to make times of creative transition easier? Here are a few suggestions.

* Allow yourself to come down from the trip.

Recognize that at the end of a long creative journey, we’re often functioning — to some extent — on adrenaline. This is especially true if we have a bunch of deadlines to meet or events to attend in order to complete our journey and we’re (understandably) tired. Adrenaline will kick in to help us make it through.

Remember how badly you wanted the semester to be over back in college, and you got all your papers in and exams taken, and then didn’t know what to do with yourself for a few days? That’s because you were still pumped with adrenaline and it was compelling you to do something, anything! When we come down from that heightened state (which, by the way, is not healthy for us to remain in), we will feel more centered and present and at choice.

* Allow yourself to feel sadness and loss.

There is nothing wrong with you if you feel a sense of loss and even grief after achieving a huge success. It is part of the natural process of moving from one phase of life to another. It’s normal to enter a “liminal state” at this time, what Martha Beck refers to as “Square One.” (Martha’s wonderful book Finding Your Own North Star explains “Square One” at length.)

* This is an excellent time to cultivate curiosity.

As the sadness and loss mix with your joy at your achievement and wash through you, what’s taking your interest? What do you notice about the change in yourself from the beginning of this journey to now? As you move through your daily life, what are you needing? Comfort? Connection with trusted friends?

Journaling about what you’re going through can be a great way to gain more awareness of your current needs, and the ways your inner compass is pointing you to your next step.

* It’s okay to go slow — in fact, it’s best to go slow — at this time.

When you allow yourself slowness as you enter creative transition, you really get a chance to experience who you’re becoming and what this transition is all about (though that may not be totally clear to you until you exit the transition phase!). This time is an amazing gift and you’ll never get it back in exactly the same form again. So how can you find ways to savor rather than hurry it?

You may need support in doing this. Our culture does not encourage savoring and slowness. Trust that support is out there in the form you need it!

What have you noticed about creative transitions for yourself? Has anything in particular helped to make them easier for you? I’d love to hear from you.

And: These are the last several days (through March 31) to purchase my package of four coaching sessions as I will have new offerings up on my site soon (I can’t wait to share them with you!). The package of four saves you $75 and is a great way to get ongoing support from me. Take a look here to learn more!

Image is “Tunnel Under Railroad” © Peterguess | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Making decisions from a place of peace

Making decisions from a place of peace

Something I often notice when I work with a coaching client is how urgent everything can feel when we are in a space where we have unmet needs.

The interesting thing about this urgency is that it can feel really true.

Sometimes, before we even consciously recognize it, we have acted on this feeling of urgency when — actually — the best course of action might have been, in this moment, no action.

One of the biggest push-backs I get from clients is when I suggest that if they are feeling frantic or highly anxious, they become peaceful before making whatever decision it is that they are sure they need to make.

Two things usually come up:

1) But I can’t get peaceful until I figure out what the heck I’m doing. I need to have my life sorted out first.

2) My needs are enormous and unless I take the “right” action to fulfill them, they will not be met. I am so tired of having these unmet needs. I need to do something about it, now!

I totally get both of these reactions. It can feel so frustrating and overwhelming to have a pile of unmet needs sitting there, unsure of how we will ever resolve any of it.

On top of the fact that the needs seem to be hanging there unmet, we can get really hard on ourselves for not meeting them immediately, or for having them in the first place. (The Buddha told a story where he referred to this as “the second arrow” — when something difficult happens, we in effect have “one arrow” in us, and our tendency is to “shoot another arrow into ourselves” by being hard and judgmental just when we most need to be compassionate.)

Here’s the thing: When we proceed from a place of panic, anxiety, or otherwise stirred-up feelings, we often end up making decisions that either do not actually need to be made right now (or at all), OR we make choices that only create more pain for us and have to backtrack and undo them.

So I like to share this Lao Tzu quote with clients (and sometimes they find this really annoying): “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.”

Clients usually say, but what do I do to get peaceful? How can I make the muddy water become clear, faster?

These questions make me laugh. They are so, so funny. Can you see why? (And I’ve asked the same questions myself, many many times, so I’m laughing from a place of compassion, for sure.)

Sometimes, it’s not about doing, and it’s not about making things happen, faster.

How can we tell? Because our doing has that frantic, anxious energy behind it. And, the biggest tip-off that we are doing in order to resist being with what is coming up for us: we don’t feel any better for having taken an action or made a decision.

Here are some better questions to ask ourselves:

What is so hard about staying with these uncomfortable feelings until they settle down a little and point me to clarity?

How can I make it easier to allow these feelings to be there, without trying to change them?

How might I support myself in being with the hard stuff that’s coming up for me right now?

Sometimes we might think, but how will I know that I’m ready to take a particular action or make a decision?

The answer is, you’ll know because you will find yourself in the middle of doing the action or making the decision.

When we’re in a place of acceptance, what truly needs to be done and decided arises naturally. We make the call to get the help we need. We withdraw the money from the bank. We comfort the friend who is hurting. We sleep because we’re tired.

This is all there ever is when we’re able to be with what’s actually true for us, right now: the next step presents itself, and we take it. (Or maybe what presents itself is that there is no action to be taken right now.)

But in order to be in our truth, in order to sense our true next step, we may need to allow our muddy water to clear. We may need to exercise some patience and be with whatever is coming up for us. And we can do that a few minutes, or seconds, at a time. We can break it down that much if we need to.

(Byron Katie says that we don’t make decisions — “decisions make us” when we have the necessary information to make them. Do you notice this for yourself?)

What have you learned about your decision-making process? What have your best decisions felt like for you? I’d love to hear.

And: I’m in the process of changing my coaching offerings and won’t be offering them in the current format for much longer. If you’d like to work with me in the current way, check out my offerings, here.

Image is “Water 4” © Chrisharvey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Slowing down to speed up: embracing gentle on Valentine’s Day

Slowing down to speed up

I gave myself a Valentine’s gift today: the gift of sleeping in. I slept until 9:30 (though not without the usual 4 a.m. wake-up call from kitty!).

This was a conscious choice — I decided yesterday evening that I would allow myself to sleep in this morning, since I had nothing on my schedule early.

And there’s something about consciously choosing that makes a real difference. It was a much different feeling than, “Damn, I slept late! Now I’m already behind!” You can feel the difference, right?

I woke up having already honored myself (with extra sleep) the way I’d planned to. And I feel really happy that I actually put “allow myself to sleep in” on my schedule for the day. I made it that important.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I entered 2015 with a feeling of burnout. And little by little over the weeks, I’ve been feeling myself move out of it, in teeny, tiny increments.

Small glimmers of new energy have arrived; I’ve been working with a wonderful mentor (Yollana Shore of Heart of Business) to expand into new directions with my coaching work.

Sometimes almost imperceptibly, I can feel myself moving forward in small but important ways.

But here’s the thing: When I start putting pressure on myself to move more quickly, I can feel myself shrinking back.

This has been a longstanding pattern with me — wanting myself to move more quickly than the whole of me can actually capably move.

I’ve learned something over the years that has been reinforced by my work with my coaching clients. Many of us have a “visionary” part of our selves that moves very quickly and can often manifest things in the physical world with a lot of speed.

But this visionary aspect of us is only one aspect. There are other parts of us, too, which may need to move at a different pace.

I learned this bigtime when I was in my mid twenties. I bottomed out on my inner visionary’s need for speed.

It wanted to move so quickly that it didn’t take the “slower” parts of me into account: the child in me who feels vulnerable and needs a safe space (and, as Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, the “inner child” is very much connected to the part of us that creates); and my (highly sensitive) physical body which can become overstimulated by too much activity and movement and needs slowness and quiet to recharge itself.

When I bottomed out, I developed a chronic illness which eventually put a halt to my ability to hold a job and to create at all. For much of my twenty-fifth year, I was too ill to function “normally”. My “new normal” was lying in bed or dragging myself down the hall to use the bathroom. I eventually ended up in the hospital, dehydrated and being fed through a tube.

When I came out of the hospital, the realization crept in over time that I had to learn to take care of the part of me that needed to move slowly.

I had to learn to accept — in fact, to love — the part of me that needed to move at its own pace (which to the visionary part of myself sometimes seems excruciatingly glacial).

The fact is, we are all touched by a constellation of components — heart, soul, physical body, genetics, our family history and any trauma from “back then” that may still get triggered from time to time, our changing needs and selves, our current and past relationships and the ways they affect us and we affect them, and the culture and environment we live in. Although we in Western culture are often encouraged to be “independent”, we are, without exception, interdependent.

And this means that, sometimes, in acknowledging the needs of all parts of us, we move more slowly than we’d like.

A while back I gave a presentation and after it a man in the audience came up and remarked on how gentle I was in answering questions from the audience. Yes, I am gentle when I sense struggle. But I’ve had to learn to be gentle. I learned it because it was necessary for me to be gentle with myself in order to grow.

I found during my illness all those years ago that the harder I was on myself, the more I demanded of myself that I get well quickly, the sicker I felt. I finally had to accept that I might stay sick forever, and I had to learn to be okay with that. Only gentleness — treating myself with kindness and softness, even though it felt foreign to me — allowed me to rest fully enough to get well.

I think, many years later, this learning is circling back around to me as I’m navigating the current transition in my life. And I’ve seen it in various forms with my coaching clients, too. The more I notice myself putting pressure on myself to move quickly, the more imperative it is that I allow myself to slow down.

This is especially true when we are going through difficult transition periods. We want to be out of them quickly because they are so uncomfortable, but the irony is that the more we try to rush them along, the longer they last!

So: I look around at my life right now and I notice that I am not sick. I notice all the ways I am better at taking care of myself than I was at twenty-five. I notice that I no longer hold my breath and leap in order to ignore the fear that comes with transitions. I notice I am more able to be present with what is coming up for me.

I notice that it is Valentine’s Day and I am in a loving relationship — and while I do have a significant other I love very much, that is not the relationship I’m referring to here. I am talking about me. My loving relationship with me. It’s been a long road and I look forward to where it leads next.

Wishing you a Valentine’s Day filled with love, whether you are spending it with yourself or with someone else. (And I love Robyn Posin’s article here, on “going only as fast as the slowest part of you feels safe to go”. Her site is wonderful.)

What do you notice about navigating transitions? What helps you move at the speed that feels right to all of you?

And: In the coming weeks, I will be making some changes to my coaching offerings. If you’d like to work with me in the current way, you can take a look at my offerings here.

Above image is “Valentine Ribbon” © Radu Razvan Gheorghe | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Momentum is not always obvious

frozenwaterfall

A friend and I had a conversation the other day about those times in life when we feel like we just can’t get any momentum going, and it got me thinking.

It can be painful to feel like we’re not moving forward. Part of this is due to external stuff (we live in a world that has little tolerance for the idea of “standing still”) and part of it is due to our innate desire to grow and become more of who we are.

If I look back over my life and pinpoint the periods of a lot of “obvious” momentum, it becomes clear that they were almost always preceded by a time (sometimes a long one) where I swore I was stagnating and that nothing would ever change.

Why is this?

In my experience, it’s because the part of us that has outgrown where we are is the one who is experiencing “where we are” as stagnant.

But: there’s another part of us, the slower part that isn’t quite ready to let go, that is NOT experiencing “where we are” as stagnant at all. This part of us is still receiving benefits, comfort, nourishment, even joy, from being exactly where we are.

When I look back on my life from the standpoint of “who I am now”, the “me” I am now sees the periods of my life that preceded a lot of change as stagnant.

But, when I actually was LIVING those periods, a part of me was okay with them. A part of me needed them to be exactly as they were. And until that part of me was ready to let go, they weren’t truly “stagnant” periods to ALL of me.

Maybe the truth is that when we feel a lack of momentum, and think we are “stagnating,” what’s really going on is we’re feeling an increasing sense of incongruence.  Who we are becoming is feeling incongruent with who we have been, but we are still ALSO who we have been.

I’ve found that it’s not helpful to rush along the part of me that needs to be exactly where it is for a while longer. When I do that, it holds on tighter out of fear and a kind of rebellion.

What’s more helpful is to reassure the part of me that wants to gallop ahead that it WILL have its day, and that, in fact it IS moving forward as we speak, and that’s why the divide between it and the part of me that wants to stay put is becoming more and more painful.

The pain is a good thing! The pain of incongruence is a sign of momentum, rather than evidence that there is NO momentum.

If you find yourself thinking that momentum has to look a certain way, play around with rethinking it. Are there signs of momentum in your life that may not be obvious or tangible? Does the fact that something is not obvious or tangible mean it isn’t real?

Nature is always a good role model for us here. During the winter, growth does not stop altogether. Growth goes into a different phase. Trees do not die; they sprout new buds in the spring. Some animals go into hibernation, conserving energy for their eventual reemergence. The fact that they’re inactive during this period does not mean they are dead!

Before you assume you have “no momentum,” look for ways that momentum may be showing up in your life that are not totally obvious. And check for signs that you may be in the middle of your personal “winter,” where growth is occurring in oh-so-subtle ways, deep beneath the surface.

Trust is helpful here. Trust and momentum make good partners.

What do you notice about what momentum looks like for you? What do you do when you feel your momentum is “lost”? I’d love to hear how this works for you, in the comments.

 Image is “Iced Waterfall” © Patricia Cale | Dreamstime Stock Photos