Working with (not against!) your available energy

I’ve written a lot on this site over the years about working with our energy, energetic ebbs and flows, and the challenges highly sensitive and/or introverted folks can have with energy (especially when they feel forced to adapt to a lifestyle or pace that doesn’t work for them).

Many years ago, my very astute therapist at the time commented that “perhaps” I was a “low-energy person.” I cringed. I didn’t like thinking of myself that way (even though I knew she meant nothing at all negative by it and was only throwing it out there as a suggestion).

As we talked about it more, I understood that what my therapist was getting at was that I often took on way more than my natural energetic inclinations could handle, then crashed and burned. What emerged during that period for me was the opportunity not to go faster and work harder and push myself more (I’d already done plenty of that by the time I was about 14!), but the opportunity to practice what I began to term in my journaling practice radical self-acceptance.

Which meant recognizing that while I often had high energy “bursts”, it wasn’t healthy for me to attempt to sustain them over time — in fact, I really couldn’t without becoming ill.

I learned over the years that I functioned far better when I tempered those high energy bursts with lots of slower, quieter times, where I demanded less of myself, not more. It wasn’t so much that I was a “low-energy person” as that I hadn’t learned to honor the way my energy worked.

Ironically, I found that I got more done, over time, when I accepted my natural energetic ebbs and flows (you can read how that worked with my writing, here), than when I tried to force myself to stay in a “high energy” place and then crashed and burned.

Crashing and burning takes a lot of time. From the vantage point of burnout, I would find myself wondering why in the world I thought I had to move so very quickly, when now I couldn’t move at all.

***

Working with my coaching clients during the pandemic, I’ve noticed how many of us are experiencing our energy in new ways. Some clients have told me they feel “done” much earlier in the day than they had previously; others have said they feel the need to sleep later and stay up later.

Many have expressed that they feel there is “nothing to look forward to,” and this affects their available energy in ways they never would have anticipated. Sharing space with partners, children, and pets far more than “usual” also has unforeseen effects on our energy.

And some clients have shared with me that when “small” but unexpected things go wrong, dealing with them uses up much more energy than it did prior to the pandemic. There’s also a cumulative thing here: as the days and weeks and months pile up, what didn’t feel as challenging in April may feel very challenging in October (and vice versa, for some).

So what we might have gotten “used to” expecting from ourselves may not be at all realistic now. And this is where we have an opportunity, as I did all those years ago, to practice self-acceptance. What is true for us, now? Not a year ago, but right now?

I’ve been slowly recognizing that I need to “interrupt” the perfectionist, overachiever part of me sooner than I used to. I’d gotten much better at not allowing that part of me to call all the shots over the years, but I still often let her get a foothold and then needed to sort of grab her by the ankle and steadily loosen her grip.

Now, what’s true for me is that it’s more helpful not to let her get a foothold in the first place. And often, I simply don’t have the “excess” energy to allow that, so when I sense her trying to take the reins, I’m kinda like, “Nope, sorry, my dear, you do not get to do that today.” It comes from this very calm, kind, and quietly fierce place in myself. Nope. Not happening. We don’t have the bandwidth.

I’ve also noticed more than ever how our nervous systems and our available energy are exquisitely connected. If you are familiar with research on trauma, you may know about the “window of tolerance.” This is the space within which our nervous systems are neither hyperactivated and overstimulated (we might relate these states to the “fight” or “flight” stress responses), nor are they underactivated or shut down (these states connect to the “freeze”, “overwhelm”, or “collapse” stress responses).

The more we can stay in, or return to, our window of tolerance (which Elaine Aron refers to as our “optimal range of arousal” in her book The Highly Sensitive Person), the more sustainable, renewable energy we will have available to us over time, and the more we will stay connected to our creative, resourceful selves, where we are able to perceive many more options available to us than we do when when we are locked in a stress response.

I’ve been encouraging my energetically zapped clients to notice. Notice what happens for them when they begin to get outside of their window of tolerance. Do they feel agitated, headache-y, pushed or rushed? Do they feel sleepy (when it’s not time to go to bed), disconnected, tuned out? All of these might be signs that they are starting to move out of the zone of tolerance into a stress response.

Of course, sometimes stress responses come upon us suddenly. We read something in the newsfeed (right?!?), we get a piece of bad news about someone we love, we worry about health issues (and receiving care for them) more than before. We might find that some of our support networks are eroding, or have dissolved. In the U.S., as of this writing, many of us are feeling an intense amount of election stress. All of this means we’re leaving that “zone of tolerance” probably a LOT.

That will happen — there’s no way to completely keep it from happening — but we can return to our zone of tolerance once we realize we’re having a stress response.

So I often ask my clients two questions: 1) How do you know your nervous system is getting over-activated, or shutting down? and 2) How do you know you’re in a stress response?

When we can identify these signs for ourselves, we can take actions to bring our nervous systems back “online” — to that “safe and social” zone where we feel calm, alert, and able to connect with others.

So how can we regulate our nervous systems when they’re either hyperactivated or shutdown? I’ll go into more depth on this in a future post, but for now:

  • For hyperactivated nervous systems, think calming, soothing, comforting. What can you do to bring these states to your nervous system? Call a friend? Take a walk? Take four deep breaths? Have a cup of chamomile tea? (It worked for Peter Rabbit!)
  • For shut-down nervous systems, think small, manageable, actionable — to get you out of “freeze” state. Attempting anything too big at this point will feel overwhelming and only create more “freeze.” But very small actions that feel “doable” can help shift you out of freeze and into movement, even something as small as brushing your teeth, stretching, or interacting with your pet.

In the meantime, Happy Halloween! And, if you’re in the U.S., please VOTE!

What are you noticing about your energetic ebbs and flows during this time? And what helps you regulate your nervous system? I’d love to hear from you.

And: I finally have some limited availability for new private coaching clients. If you’re in need of support right now, feel free to check out this page to see if we might be a fit. 

Above images by Alex Simpson on Unsplash, Beth Teutschmann on Unsplash, and Angelina Jollivet on Unsplash respectively

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Puttering time, soul needs, and ever-shifting self-care

“what happened to alone time?”

During the loooong time since I published my last blog post, I’ve had to kind of reinvent the ways I practice self-care. Sound familiar?

Part of this (perhaps ironically?) was the decision not to offer my Stellar Self-Care One-on-One Coaching Program this year, for the first time since 2015. I realized that, with my own self-care so up in the air, I didn’t have the personal bandwidth to “hold” the program energetically this year (though I’ve still been working with clients on self-care issues in their individual sessions).

Self-care, for me, has been hugely dependent on the availability of regular time alone, and we’re not talking about just half an hour here or there. Solid, sustained alone time was a big part of my way of life prior to the pandemic.

This solitude afforded me several important things: connection to myself, without reference to others (which, for a recovering people-pleaser, has felt like a must); the fertile creative ground from which blog posts and other pieces of writing are born; the rebalancing of my energy and recharging of my battery that I, as a definite introvert, have felt the need to do alone.

In the five years that I’ve shared a home with my partner, I’ve gotten my alone time when he’s been out, at work. I’d schedule coaching clients during this time, and I’d also be able to have my beloved “puttering time,” in which I would, yes, putter around my home alone, doing things like folding clothes, rearranging books, remembering, musing, and weaving past and future together within myself. (And, of course, talking to my cat.)

Puttering time has nothing to do with “getting things done”; it’s that pure, intentional non-doing time in which I connect with “being” energy (even though I often am doing things during it because I’m just not a particularly sedentary person). Puttering time can be hard to allow to myself, and it can be easy to forget that I need it, even in “normal” times.

Well, the pandemic brought puttering time almost to a complete halt. (I did manage to reengage with it a few weeks ago when my partner was away for a couple of days.) Add in that I have been working with more coaching clients than usual, and, for a while, I had what felt like this whole tangled mess of needs I had no idea how to meet.

I’d like to tell you this is all resolved, but, of course, it isn’t. It’s a day-by-day thing — a process of ever-shifting and ever-evolving self-care that I am learning to embrace.

What has managed to occur, though, is that I’ve reached some form of acceptance.

Acceptance that it’s extra-challenging to meet some very important needs right now.

Acceptance that my partner and I have shorter tempers and we get irritated and angry with each other more quickly.

Acceptance that there are loved ones I haven’t seen in a very long time and probably will not see for quite some time more.

Acceptance that our cat is affected by all this and going out of her mind with hunting/predatory/play energy (she’s shown up on quite a few of my video coaching sessions, stalking imaginary things in the background). (Note to self: in the future, follow instinct to adopt two cats rather than one, to avoid “single cat syndrome.”)

***

Sometimes when I bring up the concept of “acceptance” to clients, they say that acceptance sounds like not trying, like giving up, like resigning themselves to things they don’t want, like being excessively passive.

I used to feel this way, too. But over the years, as life brought me to my knees time and again, I’ve come to realize that acceptance comes down to recognizing where we have true control and where we don’t.

It also means recognizing our limits — which I used to hate to admit I had. It means accepting who we are — that combination of strengths and not-so-strong places that is innate to each of us — and understanding that we can change and grow and stretch ourselves — and we should (this is one of the places where I mean “should” in a positive way — our world, quite obviously, increasingly needs us to stretch ourselves in countless ways).

And: we also each have core traits that we’d do much better to accept than to try to change.

Like my need for alone time. I can do without it for a while, but I’d better figure out ways to get it if I can. It’s a soul need for me, and fulfilling that need allows me to be present for others, for the world.

And I’m learning that there are ways of getting that time, even when it can’t be as “planned” or as consistently available as it was in the past. I grab it here and there where I can; I make more requests of my partner (and he of me) so that we can each have some time to ourselves (even when we’re both at home).

I am also learning to leave myself alone more. By this I mean, more than ever, out of sheer necessity, I am quicker to be kind to myself. To give myself the benefit of the doubt. To drop it when I realize I’m criticizing myself (that self-criticism is probably the number one thing that makes me less available to others).

The ways I practice self-care are shifting, evolving, transforming. This is not a bad thing. It is a necessary thing.

What are you noticing about your self-care during this time? What have you changed? What has changed you? What challenges you the most? I’d love to hear from you.

Above dog photo by Ann Schreck on Unsplash; mountain goat photo by Ray Aucott on Unsplash

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Ways to comfort yourself during scary times

A lot of us are afraid right now, and when we get into fear’s grip, it can be easy to forget that we have the ability to take ever-shifting reality into account and take steps to soothe and comfort ourselves. Yes, it really can be both/and.

Remember that soothing and comforting yourself keeps your nervous system regulated. And a regulated nervous system keeps you functional and effective.

Most of my coaching clients identify as being highly sensitive (HSPs), which means a “more-sensitive-than-the-norm” nervous system. When the world feels scary, our nervous systems tend to go on high alert for signs of danger. The more we can help our nervous systems relax, the less likely we’ll be to go into one of the “fight, flight, freeze” stress responses, which impedes our ability to think critically (and actually worsens our health if we live there on a daily basis).

Here are a few ideas for keeping your nervous system regulated now:

• Stay informed, not obsessed. I’ve had several clients tell me that they’ve been up in the middle of the night worrying about the Coronavirus. The same thing happened to me two nights ago — I woke up at about 4 a.m. and my thoughts ramped up into a “worst-case-scenario highlight reel” that looped over and over again.

It was a signal to me that I’d been ingesting too much news — far more than I truly needed to stay informed. It helps to stay connected to the feeling in myself that alerts me to “enough” — where I realize I am frantically gathering info that is no longer serving me at the moment.

• Connect with people you care about — even if you’re staying at home more than usual. Pick up the phone. Schedule a video call. Find ways to connect via social media that feel nourishing (as opposed to overwhelming) to you. (I spend very little time in newsfeeds these days, but enjoy connecting in a few Facebook groups and other online communities that feel supportive to me.) Who can you “lean into” and feel that you’re giving each other strength — as opposed to pushing each other’s panic buttons?

• Appreciate your animal friends. To my cat, Genevieve (affectionately known as “Little G”), life is business as usual. Every moment is an opportunity to play with her favorite toys (which currently are these, in case you’re wondering), or dive into her favorite storage bin in the closet (which contains a nest of winter scarves, gloves, and hats).

Today as I walked down the street, I saw two pomeranian dogs, one tiny, one even tinier, barking at a squirrel clinging to the side of a tree. Connecting with animal energy and the natural world can help us stay in the present moment and bring us comfort and delight. (And if you prefer not to go outside right now, there are plenty of “inside” ways you can shift your focus to the present moment.)

• Give yourself permission to take the pressure off yourself. If you read my blog or subscribe to my newsletter, you know I am always in favor of less self-pressure rather than more. But particularly during times of tons of uncertainty and upheaval, it’s important to lessen self-pressure so you can focus on the here and now.

If you tend toward perfectionism, as many of my clients do, you are probably a “striver”, and your “best” is likely already full of a lot of self-pressure. Allow who you are to be enough, especially now. (I love Kristin Neff’s guided meditations for self-compassion — they’re also very relaxing if you’re having trouble sleeping.)

• “Borrow” calm from someone you admire. Think of a person you know whose presence is innately comforting or soothing to you, and remember you have that same presence within you. I had a friend years ago who was a great teacher for me (though she probably didn’t know it!). Sometimes when I felt really afraid, I’d kind of summon up her “essence” — a quality of quiet self-trust and inner confidence she had.

And guess what? I came to realize I had it, too. The only reason I recognized it so obviously in her was because I already had it within me. I have a handful of other people whose calming, comforting, and wise presences are always “at the ready” within me to draw upon when I’ve lost my grounding.

• Know yourself. It’s important to remember that what helps me feel calmed and safe may not be what helps you. A friend of mine feels safer staying totally inside right now, but for me, getting out and walking (while keeping “social distance”) helps my mental health the most.

Self-care is unique to each of us. (If you need ideas, click on the category titled “self-care” to the right — I’ve written a ton on this topic.) We’re individuals with differing histories, nervous systems, ways of processing change. And for all of us, it will continue to be a day-by-day decision-making process for a while, as this time of rapid change unfolds.

(And here’s a helpful infographic and podcast on our nervous system and the different stress responses — lots of good info on regulating the nervous system on this site.)

What are you doing to comfort and reassure yourself right now? I’d love to hear from you.

And, if you’re in need of support, I offer one-on-one coaching sessions via phone or video. You can find out more about my offerings, here.

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here

Above image of cat by Ramiz Dedaković on Unsplash

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Detach from holiday stress: recognizing the Drama Triangle

It’s holiday time — which means it’s a very good time to revisit our understanding of the Drama Triangle.

What’s the Drama Triangle? It’s a concept that reveals the roles we can get into when in conflict. I often find it helpful to share with clients when we work on issues around self-care. The Drama Triangle was developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman in 1968 (it’s also known as the Karpman Drama Triangle).

Picture a triangle with the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer at the three points. Then imagine arrows that move from one role to the next and go around the triangle.

These roles are connected and reflexive — when we’re acting out one of these roles, we’re also setting the stage for the others. (Note that these roles are simply energies we can identify with — they’re not meant to be “labels” we give to ourselves or others. I’m not a fan of labeling people “victims” or anything else.)

For example, someone who strongly identifies with being a “rescuer” is going to see people that she is sure “need rescuing” all over the place. She’ll tend to “call in” people who often identify with “victim” energy.

Someone who enacts the “persecutor” (sometimes called “bully”) role tends to be critical and punishing, and can bring out the victim in others, and also trigger the rescuer who steps in to protect the victim.

And when we’re in a “victim” place, we tend to seek out people with rescuer energy.

Most people who hang out on the triangle actually shift between all three roles on a regular basis. And we can experience these roles not just in our relationships with others, but within ourselves.

Here’s an example of how I have experienced this dynamic within myself: I used to identify with a “victim” role quite a bit, and in order to get out of it, I had a “rescuer” or “hero” part of me that would step up and “save” the victim.

This seemed like a good thing for a while, but what I noticed eventually (and yes, getting off the Drama Triangle requires observing our behaviors!) was that the rescuer part of me was not healthy, either. It just wanted to save me and everyone else!

Also, if the rescuer didn’t rescue quite “right” or well enough, I noticed the victim part of me could actually shift over to the persecutor role and criticize the rescuer; similarly, if the rescuer’s “rescue” didn’t turn the victim around, the rescuer part of me could start attacking the victim part of me for being too slow or stubborn or aimless or whatever.

What was much more helpful was for me to observe the victim part of me and connect with it compassionately — not jump in to “save” it.

This is equally true in our relationships with others. When we can take an observing role (presence) and access compassion for ourselves and others, we detach from the Triangle.

Many of us have experienced life on the Drama Triangle in our families of origin at least some of the time. The main “benefit” of the Drama Triangle, for those who spend a lot of time there, is that the roles on the triangle are externally-focused ones.

When we fear looking inward, we may hang out on the triangle as a way of life. Staying externally-focused helps us maintain a sense of control. Our discomfort with self-connection is kept unconscious and directed outwards — we need to “fix” situations by taking up a role on the triangle and trying to control others.

The key to self-connection and calm is to stay off the Drama Triangle — or (more realistically!) to notice when we’re on it, and swiftly step off.

While the concept is fairly simple, it can feel like it’s not at all easy to take care of ourselves when we’re around people who live on the triangle.

This is why during the holidays we can sometimes find ourselves feeling “caught up” — and if we can recognize, “oh, I’m just back on the Drama Triangle, let me step off now,” we can return to presence and self-connection. It takes this recognition that we’re on it to step off, though.

So how do we know we’re back on the Triangle? By how we feel. If our mood takes a nose-dive, or we experience a more subtle sense of “being out of sorts”, we can check in. Have we stepped into any of the roles on the triangle? Are we reacting to someone who is playing one of those roles?

Now, sometimes stress can cause us to go “on autopilot” emotionally — we may not know what the heck we’re feeling. In these cases, we can take a look at our behaviors.

Are we arguing? Withdrawing? Defending ourselves? Trying excessively to make a point with someone else? These may be clues that we’ve stepped onto the Triangle.

Note that even if we haven’t gotten “sucked in” and are not actively playing one of the triangle roles, it can feel really uncomfortable to be around someone who is.

I’ve found that just acknowledging to myself, “Okay, this person is on the triangle and is trying to drag me onto it, too” can help me to return to presence and self-connection. This is the power of naming what is happening. It’s far less confusing when we recognize it and take steps to detach from it.

I’ve also found that honoring my needs as an introvert (and particularly my need for downtime — so important to remember at holiday time!) is truly helpful in keeping me off the triangle. It allows me replenish and I am so much less likely to get “sucked in” when I am rested and aware of my own boundaries.

We can bring in lots of compassion here — for ourselves and others. (I love this piece, Compassion for the Drama Triangle, by Sonia Connolly. And here’s an in-depth piece on how the Drama Triangle plays out and how we can disengage that I found very helpful.)

Here are some posts I’ve written in previous years that you may find helpful when holiday stress arises:

You only ever need to do one thing

There’s no “right way” to be social during the holidays

Your self-care bottom line

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

What are your experiences with the Drama Triangle? What helps you notice you’re “on the triangle”? I’d love to hear from you!

Wishing you holidays filled with peace and presence! (My holiday focus is presence more than presents these days. 🙂 )

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here

Above cat and dog images by Jessica LewisMaria Teneva and Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash, respectively

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Supporting your deep-diving self from the outside in

If you’ve read my blog posts, you probably know that I believe true personal change happens most of the time in our inner world (no matter how much we scramble to change the outer).

Many of us — and I certainly include myself here — have pushed and pushed to try to control our outer worlds to the point that we bottom out on that way of life.

When we’ve gone too far in the outer direction, and we start to sense the limitations of that, it makes tons of sense to start looking within.

That said, as an introvert who often works with introverts, I’ve noticed that we “deep divers” sometimes take our moving inward just a little too far.

This might look like trying to “accept” the unacceptable — for example, working on ourselves more and more to make a relationship better, when in fact we’re better off letting go of the relationship altogether.

It might look like using spiritual practice for the purpose of avoiding the “real world” (sometimes called “spiritual bypass.”).

It can also look like making things that are simple very complicated. I remember trying so hard to “like” taking care of the yard at my old home, but in fact, I just hated yardwork. It took me ages to recognize that I didn’t have to like it, didn’t even have to do it, and it was perfectly okay to hire help.

If trying to solve the problem on the inside seems to be creating more struggle, we might need to move ever so slightly outward.

In my last post, I wrote about how getting rid of energetic drains in our surroundings can clear space for creativity. That can be a hugely important part of an outside-in approach to self-care.

Another part of an outside-in approach can be making sure we connect with people whose energy feels supportive to us on a regular basis.

If you are an introvert, your natural tendency is to move inward. And this is a good thing! It’s why introverts who try to be extroverts end up feeling exhausted — and why not enough diving inward can be detrimental to us, as I learned early in life.

Sometimes, though, introverts may find themselves a little bit “too in.” (This may be particularly true if you have high sensitivity in the mix. Elaine Aron talks about the “too in/too out” dilemma many HSPs face in her work.)

The trick for introverts is that we may have quite a bit of ambivalence about keeping up with our connections — that time to ourselves, that delving inward, can be so enticing. So I like to make sure I have regular, “calendared” ways of doing this connecting. It makes it easier for me when I know I need to show up because people are counting on me to do so.

A few other ways that can be helpful in supporting ourselves from the outside-in:

Caring for animals. On my walks, I often run into my neighbor from the condo-across-the-way as he’s walking his dog. He’s told me how meeting his dog’s needs gives him a much-needed break from his tendency to “ruminate”. I was like, preach! I haven’t had cats for thirty years only because I love cats. They allow me to have my inner world while also bringing me out of it.

Gentle time limits. Journaling is fundamental for me — I do it most days through morning pages, but it takes many other forms for me as well and is key in making shifts in my life. I do, however, set a gentle time limit on my journaling each morning. Otherwise I can sometimes get lost in it.  We might also find it helpful to set time limits on certain phone conversations, watching Netflix, or any area where we tend to be a little bit “time-boundary-challenged.”

Soft deadlines. I used to think I hated deadlines, but I’ve learned they can support me as long as I’m not imposing hard, strict deadlines on myself.  (Many thanks to my friend and coach Theresa Trosky, who years ago pointed out to me in our work together that “soft deadlines” are actually my friend!)

Bookending the day. On most days, I try to get up and go to bed at roughly the same time. This regularity bookends the day and becomes something I can count on, particularly on days when my emotions have been swirling. There are other ways I “bookend” my day, such as morning and evening pages, and we can create these kinds of “containers” for ourselves throughout the day, too.

Limiting news consumption. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s abundantly clear that exposing ourselves to anything and everything is anti-self-care, particularly if we are energy-sensitive. I have to trust my intuition here on how much news is actually helpful for me. (Notice how many of these outer supports are a form of limit?)

I’m sure you can think of hundreds of other outside-in supports (and I’d love to hear from you!).

What I notice is that these outer supports, rather than constraining the “deep diver” in me, actually support my inward focus while keeping me connected to the outer world. They remind me that I am a human being in a physical body in a physical world, even though I do a lot of delving into my inner world.

Turning inward, doing that inner work, is fundamental for those who want truly know and understand themselves. But the outer world sometimes holds the answers for us, too (and if not “answers,” certainly support!). How do you use “outside-in” support in your life?

I’ll be enrolling in this year’s version of my Stellar Self-Care One-on-One Coaching Program soon. Want to learn more, or just stay connected? Feel free to sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter, here.

Hearts photo by Rachel Walker on Unsplash ; woman with dogs photo by Frederik Trovatten.com on Unsplash

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Taking small steps to align with your values

When I downsized and streamlined my life back in 2015, it was in part because I had identified one of my main values to be simplicity.

Now, simplicity can look like many things, but for me, it turned out that it did not involve maintaining an old house inside and out with tenants living in the downstairs unit.

Fast-forward three years to the present, and I am living the “simplicity” value more fully. To me, simplicity means that the commitments I’ve made are elevating me and not dragging me down, enhancing my life rather than causing me to feel scattered and dampened. There’s a feeling of lightness and focus to simplicity for me.

Still, living in alignment with my deepest values is a process and ever-changing.

While I have so much more lightness and focus in my life than I did before I moved, there are still times where something feels “off”, and I need to tweak what I’m doing, how I’m living. (Earlier this week I donated some clothing and shoes that I just didn’t need. I’d been hanging onto them “just in case,” but I realized there was no just in case, in this case, and it was time to let go.)

While moving homes is a big change, there are often small, subtle things we can do to live more in alignment with our values. When I work with clients, a fear that often comes up is that if they admit they truly desire change, they will have to completely overhaul (or totally blow up!) their lives.

So this is where I take a stand in support of the small, the subtle, the gradual. The truth is, even when we do overhaul our lives, it’s rarely a one-and-done sort of thing. It’s usually a series of disorienting changes that, in retrospect, feels like everything changed suddenly.

Obviously, sometimes we experience catalytic external events that do cause our lives to change rapidly: a fire, a diagnosis, a sudden death.

But when we’re talking about inner change, and the desire to align more fully with our deepest values, our essential selves, we can take small steps — even tiny ones, and notice the effect they have.

I especially recommend this if you are of a creative visionary ilk, as I am. I used to absolutely loathe the idea of “small.” I loved the idea of vast, expansive leaps — or, at least, I thought I did, until my leaping and lack of taking care of the vulnerable and sensitive parts of me landed me in the hospital at twenty-five.

The truth was, my visionary leaping and the reality of the needs of my physical body and emotional self did not always mesh. (As Byron Katie says, “When you argue with reality, you lose — but only 100% of the time.”)

And I find in working with my coaching clients, most of whom identify as highly sensitive or at least relate to that concept, that there’s often a disconnect between our “ideal” and what is actually true for us.

Sometimes the fear that if we align ourselves more deeply with our true values we will have to completely overhaul our lives can keep us from connecting with what is true for us.

What I have learned (often the hard way) is that there is power in small changes. Although I didn’t move to a new home until 2015, in late 2013 I took the step of just checking out various living spaces. That was all. I just looked. That small step of just looking allowed me to get curious about what kind of living space might help me align with that lighter, simpler feeling I desired.

Taking small steps also helps us test out our assumptions. If in looking at smaller living spaces I’d gotten a cramped, closed-down feeling, it would have been a clue to me that “smaller” was not actually the key to alignment with my value of simplicity. As it turned out, when I looked at smaller spaces I felt more freedom and a lovely coziness. That was my tip-off that I was on the right track. (“Cozy” seems to be a deeply-held value for me as well!)

Here’s a quick exercise to help you start taking small steps toward more alignment with your deepest values.

• Get a piece of paper and write three things you want on it. For example: more free time, more creative expression, more rest.

• For each of those things you want, write two qualities you believe having that thing would give you. For example: more free time –> a sense of spaciousness, a feeling of relaxation. Or: more creative expression –> a feeling of being more true to myself, connection to others who really get me. 

• Now, take one of those qualities and do one small thing to bring more of it into your life. For example, let’s say you choose “a sense of spaciousness.” What one small thing could you do to bring more spaciousness into your life? (For me, it was donating that stuff the other day. I love looking in my closet now because I see more space there!)

The most interesting thing, I’ve noticed, about taking small steps is that, over time, I actually move more quickly than I do when I overwhelm myself by believing I must make all the changes, right now!

(P. S. I wrote about the “power of tiny new things” here.)

What helps you live more in alignment with your deepest values? I’d love to hear from you.

And: My Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions are available now through November 16. Do you need support in navigating a life transition this fall? Find out more, here.

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here.

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Soft energy and true downtime

One of the most frequently viewed posts on this site is called “When your downtime doesn’t happen.”

I was reminded of it a while back when a client mentioned to me that she had blocked off a day just for herself, and when the day was done, she realized she needed more than a day.

I asked her to say more about this, and she told me she had spent the majority of the day worrying about all she had to do, and feeling guilty for taking the time for herself when the world is in such an urgent state.

It turned out, the day to herself didn’t feel restful or replenishing at all.

I nodded in recognition as she spoke, staring at some squirrels out the window who busied themselves with burying acorns in the lawn next to the neighboring condo building’s concrete patio.

How often have I experienced what my client did — blocking out some time to “just be”, and spending that time feeling crappy about what I’m not doing? A lot.

It’s even more challenging with the recognition that our world is in an urgent state. It needs us, and sometimes it’s hard to reconcile that with taking a day (or an hour) to replenish ourselves.

What’s going on here?

I’m reminded of a story Martha Beck told in one of her books (I can’t remember which one right now!). She was recovering from a medical procedure and told to go on bed rest. The bed rest was supposed to keep her from feeling stress and aid in her healing.

Except the longer she stayed in bed, the more stressed she felt. She called a nurse and explained the situation and the nurse said, “Get out of bed!” Martha did, and getting up and moving around felt much less stressful to her than lying still.

Sometimes, we have an idea of what “downtime” or “resting” is supposed to look like. But the truth for us will always be in how it feels to us.

***

This past Sunday, I took the Green Line into downtown Chicago to meet my friend for lunch. I wanted to meet my friend, but on the train ride I picked up some disturbing energies, and by the time I got off at State and Lake, my mood was foul.

Sitting across from my friend, though, my energy gradually shifted. We had a leisurely lunch and afterward I felt like meandering in shops and spontaneously bought a gift for another friend’s birthday. I hadn’t planned to do that — it just felt right.

I was doing, but it didn’t feel like doing. It felt like being.

Because I had shifted into being mode, the train ride back home was considerably less stressful than the ride there — even though the train stalled for a while at one point. When I got home, I felt replenished and energized.

Now, I generally don’t consider navigating the Green Line and downtown Chicago to be “me time”. But somehow this turned into spontaneous me time and felt like lovely downtime. How?

Because my energy had shifted. My friend’s relaxed company, the warm smile of our waitress, our leisurely coffee and omelettes, and our talk about our cats and rabbits had transformed my default tense, pushing energy into softer, allowing energy.

Which is exactly why my client’s planned downtime felt anything but restful. She’d blocked out the time on her calendar, but her inner state hadn’t changed.

True downtime is less about “not doing,” and more about accessing your feel-good energy. From that softer, non-pushy, feel-good energy place, you are better equipped to assess whether you actually want to “do” or “not do.”

(When I left my friend after our lunch, I could have just as easily gotten on the train and headed straight home — which, in fact, was what I’d planned to do. But my softer energy state led me to meander into a shop in which I not only found a lovely gift but had a lovely interaction with the woman who beautifully wrapped it for me.)

Now, yesterday I had a day where, although I had quite a bit I needed to do, I was able to do it all from home and it felt absolutely delicious to stay home with the fall air coming through the windows (the air conditioning is off, finally!). I was in the “soft energy place” and it let me know that puttering around my apartment, quietly getting things done, was exactly what I needed that day.

The next time you sense you’re in need of downtime, see how you might first access more relaxed, gentle energy toward yourself. It’s this softer, kinder energy we’re so often in need of, not necessarily “doing nothing” (though time to do nothing is absolutely crucial on some days!)

And we won’t change the world by neglecting ourselves. If you’re so frazzled you can’t think straight, you won’t bring your kinder, softer, gentler energy into a world that badly needs it. (One thing that is helping me take action toward the change I want to see AND stay focused on self-care is The Americans of Conscience Checklist.)

I’m curious about how you bring yourself to a place of softer, more relaxed energy when you need it. How does downtime play into that for you? How do you define downtime for yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S. My Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions are back! If you’re in “creative transition” this fall and need some support, check out these specially-priced sessions here

Want to stay connected? You can subscribe to my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here.

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Subtle ways we reject self-care

Sundays are my “down day.” By that I mean they are the one day out of the week where my main focus is non-doing, replenishing, cultivating ease and rest.

I do thread these things throughout my week — after all, an overall foundation of self-care means we are going to infuse our daily life with the qualities that nourish and sustain us — but Sundays are my intentional “reminder to reconnect with myself” day.

Because of this Sunday intention, I do not sit at my regular workspace on that day of the week. I sit in other spaces — the loveseat in the living room, the table next to the window in the kitchen — places that help me connect with that more easeful energy.

But, oh! How I need to remind myself, some Sundays, that I am not going over to the workspace!

“But I’ll just do it for a second, just to straighten some things up, just to glance at email.” It doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? A quick dash over to my workspace to flip up the laptop is really a fairly subtle thing, right?

There have been times I’ve found myself sitting there without even knowing how I’d gotten there. It’s such automatic behavior, and my mind is quick to tell me “it’s not a big deal.”

But it is a big deal on Sundays, because Sundays are my down day.

Working with clients on the subject of self-care has clued me in bigtime to how quick and sneaky we can be about dismissing our needs — particularly if they are more of the subtle variety.

The need to go to bed half an hour earlier, for example — how quick we are to tell ourselves “it’s just half an hour, it won’t make a difference.”

Something I’ve noticed time and again is my lack of acknowledgment, after some intense time away on a trip or at a workshop or something like that, that I actually need “integration time.”

What usually happens is, a few days after I’ve returned from the trip, or had a heightened period of activity, my energy gets edgy and frenetic. No matter how much I’m “getting done,” it doesn’t feel rewarding to me, and I feel ridiculously “behind.”

That feeling of “falling behind” and vague dissatisfaction has become a red flag for me that there is an unmet self-care need raising its hand to get my attention.

What’s subtle here — and therefore can sometimes hover just outside of my awareness — is that it seems “normal” to finish up with a big event, a trip, a heightened period of activity, and immediately return to a regular routine.

It may indeed be “normal” for some people, but I’ve found it’s not workable for me. I need to build in rest and integration time when I’ve expended more energy than is usual — or comfortable — for me.

But because my need for this may initially be subtle — because I’m still functioning to some extent on the adrenaline that got pumped into my system when I stretched myself beyond my usual energetic limits — I may not notice until I become edgy and frazzled that, oh yeah, I never really gave myself that integration time after the trip! Duh!

Yep, that’s how it is sometimes. Self-care is an ongoing, unfolding, highly organic thing. We might forget what worked before, or maybe what worked before doesn’t quite do it in this particular circumstance.

Here are some other subtle ways we may neglect or reject our self-care that I’ve noticed in working with clients and myself:

• Picking up a phone or tablet repeatedly, simply because it’s nearby (and along with this, failing to turn off unnecessary visual and auditory notifications — and let’s face it, most of them are unnecessary).

• Pushing ourselves to exercise more, write more, clean more — whatever it may be — when we’ve already gotten cues from our bodies that we’ve done enough for now. (I wrote about a time I fell into this trap here.)

• On the flip side, cutting short something that matters to us — journaling. exercise, a conversation with a friend — before we’ve allowed it the momentum it deserves (and that feels satisfying to us).

• Neglecting to indulge our five senses — not taking time to really taste our food, smell the coffee in the cup in our hand, feel our pet’s fur beneath our fingers.

• Forgetting to focus on our breath. Obviously, we don’t want (or need) to be doing this all day, but checking in and noticing how we’re breathing, and allowing ourselves several deep belly breaths, can center us and point us to the fact that our breathing may be quite “shallow” — in other words, up around our shoulders. This is really, really common.

• Clutter or disorganization in our environment that drains us. (I’ve found that I feel so much better when I make the bed every day — not because I particularly care about making the bed but because it reduces visual disorganization when I walk into the bedroom.)

When we miss the more subtle ways we are forgetting to care for ourselves, over time the subtle can build to the dramatic, and we may find ourselves in “crisis mode”, as I have several times in my life. But the more we learn to pay attention — the more attuned we are to these subtleties — the more we can make self-care changes before anything builds to a crisis state.

What do you notice about the more subtle ways you might forget to care for yourself? Or, what are subtle ways you CAN care for yourself that you might not always think of? I’d love to hear from you!

By the way, enrollment for my Stellar Self-Care (In an Overwhelming World) One-on-One Coaching Program ends this Friday, June 22. This program is for sensitive, creative folks who’d love support in creating a solid foundation of self-care in their daily lives! Curious? You can find out more, here.

Above images: snail, © Marilyn Gould | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and cat, © Valerii Rublov | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Avoiding vs. replenishing (+ last chance to sign up for my fall coaching special)

Fall walks: so replenishing!

As we head into the holiday season, overwhelm is a topic that comes up for many of us (particularly if we are highly sensitive, empaths, or introverts — or all of the above!).

When we feel overwhelmed (or are anticipating becoming overwhelmed), it’s tempting to go into “avoidance” mode. This can feel like the equivalent of putting our hands over our heads and saying “I can’t! No more!” — and retreating. And not returning.

Sometimes it is absolutely appropriate to avoid something. It may be totally wrong for us.

But we don’t have to stay in the energy of avoidance. Have you noticed what avoidance feels like? Have you noticed that avoiding something actually takes a lot of energy from you?

Replenishing is different. Replenishing ourselves is recognizing that we’ve had enough, and retreating for a while to rebalance and rejuvenate, and then emerging — replenished.

I’ve noticed that, if I can trust in my ability and willingness to replenish myself, I don’t have to avoid as much. What a relief! Because a lot of avoidance is flat-out exhausting.

If we’re going to replenish ourselves, we need to give ourselves permission to do that.

That might look like leaving a party early, when we recognize we’ve had enough (rather than avoiding the party).

It might look like opting to stay in a hotel rather than with relatives (instead of avoiding the trip altogether!).

It might look like giving ourselves lots and lots of breaks while we get the house ready for guests (noticing our energy levels). (Or, my favorite: being okay with getting a C+ in housekeeping.)

It might mean choosing to let something go, so we can have more energy for something that’s more important to us. (For me, this is often letting go of my need to “do it right” and reminding myself that just my presence is of value to the people I love.)

What do you notice about how you feel when you avoid something, versus committing to replenishing yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

I wish you the joys of replenishing yourself this holiday season (and Happy Thanksgiving, if you are U.S.-based). And if you need permission to do that — well, here it is!

(If you need further support for dealing with holiday socializing when you’re an introvert, you might want to check out this post I wrote back in 2014.)

Speaking of replenishing yourself: Tomorrow, November 22, is the last day to sign up for one of my specially-priced Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions. If you need support in navigating a challenging transition in your life right now, I’d love to help! You can learn more about these sessions here.

Also, you can sign up for my newsletter (for updates on my offerings and other good stuff) here.

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On stopping when you’ve had enough

bench

One of the things I often say here is that, when it comes down to it, self-care is less about what we do than it is about what we undo.

When I first started my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program in 2015, I noticed my tendency to “firehose” my clients with lots of information. After all, the more they knew, the better, right?

Then it hit me — whoa! This is a program about self-care. And, particularly if you are highly sensitive (as most of my clients are), you are already picking up on tons of subtleties that can make life feel extra-complicated. You don’t necessarily need more doing, more information. Chances are, you need to subtract, not add.

This “exquisite art of subtraction” is about noticing — really noticing — where we are doing more because of the belief that “if some is good, more is better.” This is such a pervasive belief in Western culture — and, in my experience, it simply is not true.

Let me give you a rather mundane example: I was out for my morning walk a week or so ago, wearing a pair of new sandals that still required a bit of breaking in. I had a wonderful meander over to the nearby park (where I’m sure to see lots of dogs and their humans and I always leave with a smile on my face), and as I made my way home from the park, I started to think, hmm, maybe I will make this walk even longer! Because it’s feeling so good!

Except that the new sandals were rubbing on my toes at this point. Even though my mind was telling me I needed more of a good thing (because more is better, right?), my feet were telling me that they needed some time away from the new sandals.

Well, my mind won out, and I kept on walking, and — interestingly enough — as I rounded block after block, I noticed I was starting to feel quite crappy. In fact, my enjoyment in the walk had decreased significantly. By the time I got home, I was in a bad mood (quite unusual for me after my morning walk) and my toes felt like they were on fire.

What happened? Well, my feet — toes, to be more specific — gave me a signal that my body had had enough. But I didn’t listen to it. (And hurting toes are not even a very subtle signal — they’re pretty blatant. Often, the signals to stop are much more subtle — but our minds are powerful, and in this case, my mind wanted more of a good thing.)

***

Underlying our desire to keep going even when we’ve had enough there is usually a feeling of scarcity, a fear of future deprivation.  Deep down, we believe we’d better capitalize on the good stuff while we’ve got it, because surely it will be taken away later.

In the moment I decided to keep walking even though I’d already had a beautiful walk, and my toes were beginning to hurt, there was a thought — outside my conscious awareness at the time — that went something like: You must really make the most of this good energy, because it probably won’t last.

Had I been aware of this thought, I could have countered it with: Yeah, it probably won’t last — today. And so what? Good energy returns. There will very likely be plenty of lovely walks in my future. But for today, I’ve had enough.

Stopping when we’ve had enough — whether that’s enough of something we don’t like or something we do, something that drains us or something that fuels us — is key to self-care, to working with our creative energy, and to avoiding burnout.

In fact, the periods of my life during which I have gotten into burnout can be always be traced to day upon day in which I pushed myself out of fear that if I stopped, if I trusted that I’d done enough for today or that I had enough for now, I would surely be deprived in the future. So it didn’t feel safe to stop.

The irony, my friends, is that getting into burnout forces you to stop. In fact, I believe that sometimes we reach a state of physical, emotional, and/or spiritual burnout precisely because it’s the only way we know how to stop.

Noticing that we’ve had enough comes first. If we don’t notice the often subtle emotions and sensations that are giving us the message that we’re nearing enough, we won’t stop.

So set an intention to notice. Pay attention to your body. Our bodies are the most trusted conduits of the messages we need — far more trustworthy than our minds (notice what my mind did when I was on my walk!).

Once we’ve noticed, that’s when it’s time to actually act on stopping when we’ve had enough. This is not easy! We probably have a bunch of deeply held beliefs about why we need to push ourselves through the stuff that feels bad, or hang on for dear life to the stuff that feels good.

It is so worth it to take a look at these beliefs and go deeper. In fact, doing this type of inner work is what will change our lives because it will change how we relate to ourselves.

When you can’t seem to stop, even though you know you’ve had enough, ask yourself why. Really take a look. What’s so scary about stopping? What are you afraid will happen if you stop when you’ve had enough, if only for today?

When you see the underlying fear, when you “get” it, you have so much more power because you have made what is unconsciously driving you conscious. In your willingness to look deeper, you cultivate trust in yourself. You start to befriend yourself.

Do you have a fear of stopping, even when you know you’ve had enough? Are you able to recognize what “enough” feels like for you? I’d love to hear from you.

Further reading: Martha Beck talks about “just in case” versus “just in time” thinking in this article. I’ve found this to be a truly helpful shift!

Work With Me: This can be tough stuff. If you need support in looking deeper, I’d love to help. Check out the ways we can work together, here.

Above image © Nancy Tripp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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