Choosing your focus

My partner and I recently took our annual pre-Halloween zoo trip, which I always relish.

As we wandered around, mesmerized by the free-roaming guinea fowl (who sound like they’re chanting in unison!), I started venting to him about something that’s been bugging me for a while.

Except — I stopped myself.

It’s great to have good listeners in our lives, those to whom we can safely vent — people who don’t tell us we “shouldn’t feel that way” or who shut us down or who criticize us for having something to vent about. This non-judgmental listening is an essential quality if we want to feel deeply supported.

The kind of venting I’m talking about here is also sometimes called “conscious complaining” — you’re aware you’re complaining, and the other person holds space for you, for a certain amount of time, so you can get out whatever it is. This is different than an unconscious onslaught that saps and drains the other person.

Sometimes, though, as I move into more venting, a still voice inside me is like “Hmm … maybe you’ve focused on this long enough.”

That happened for me that day at the zoo. I kind of stepped outside of myself for a moment, and heard myself launching into this topic, again — and, although my partner was willing to listen (again!), it occurred to me that I didn’t need go there anymore. I could choose to move off of that topic because staying on it was no longer serving me.

It’s important to discern between focusing on things and talking about them because of our genuine need to sort through them and work them out — and focusing on them as a kind of fixation that distracts us from the good in our lives and, maybe, keeps us stirred up because anxiety is familiar to us.

We’ve probably all encountered people who go to one extreme or another here: the co-worker who can’t seem to stop sharing the same complaints with you day in and day out, versus the family member who downplays every emotion to the point you’re not sure they actually have any.

Between these extremes there is a place that feels healthier — unique to each of us — where we’re sharing when we need support and in order to work through things, but we’re not going over the same territory again and again when that path is already well-worn.

When I stopped myself from venting to my partner that day, it was because something in me sensed I would only be deepening the “brain rut” I’d already created with that long-held story.

And I realized it’s time to start detaching from it and letting it go. That means, for me right now, talking about it lesshonoring the subtle voice that says, “Let’s be still instead of going there again.”

So I chose, instead, to focus on the colors and textures of leaves, the quiet grace with which a giraffe loped across the grass, the stubby back legs of a polar bear as it swam under water, a squirrel monkey swinging from branch to branch with its tiny baby on its back.

Trees and animals (even those very vocal guinea fowl!) bring me to stillness, which helps me practice discernment.

It’s important to note, in our Western culture which does not encourage the expression of many flavors of emotion, that venting serves a truly important purpose — it helps us to get in touch with the feelings within us so that we can work through them. Often we’re not sure what’s up for us unless we share it with a trusted other.

When we’ve shared something many times, though, and we notice that sharing again may no longer be serving us, that’s when it’s time to choose where we want to put our focus.

Because, yes, we can choose! And it’s this choosing that, ultimately, creates movement, change, and growth in our lives.

(And by the way, the most important sharing we’ll ever do is with ourselves, whether that’s writing what’s true for us on the pages of a journal or in some other form. But, often, we get to that truth through connecting with others at some point in the process.)

What do you notice about this process of discernment for you? I’d love to hear from you. (And a belated Happy Halloween!)

My specially-priced Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions will continue through November 30, 2019. If you’re in an “in-between” place this fall and need support, you might want to check them out! You can do that here.

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

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Calling in what you need (+ a summer writing opportunity!)

As I was doing some journaling before bed last night (you can read about this ritual of mine here), I realized I felt frustrated and at loose ends. I glanced over at my cat, who lay stretched full-length on the bed next to me. And a question popped into my mind:

What qualities are needed here?

Peace and ease, came the reply.

I wrote this in my journal, put it on the floor and called it a night. I didn’t sleep well, and when I woke up my first thought was, you didn’t get enough sleep, great. But I also noticed that, despite this, I felt basically rested (a glass-half-full recognition that is unusual for me!).

Even though I had a lot on my plate that needed to be attended to early in the day, I gave myself permission to take the length of walk that felt right, rather than just darting down the street for coffee and coming back home to get stuff done.

It was a warm and windy day — I’m not a hot-weather person but it was still early enough that it felt pleasant — and as I moved my body and felt the ground under my feet, my energy shifted. Except I didn’t fully notice it until I returned home, sat down at my desk, and started in on the things that needed to get done.

It all felt purposeful and relatively effortless, and I felt present and connected for all of it. The air-conditioned alcove of my work space felt pleasant and soothing, and my cat puttered around as I worked, offering me meows here and there but not getting oppressive as she often does when I work at my laptop. (Laptop is, for mysterious reasons, her nemesis!).

At some point, I realized I was truly inhabiting the morning. In fact, my entire home felt open, somehow, imbued with a curious spaciousness.

And then I remembered what I’d scribbled in my journal the night before: What qualities are needed here? Peace and ease.

That is exactly what the morning felt like for me, even though I’d forgotten I’d asked for it.

And from that place of peace and ease, the day moved so much more simply. My choices were clearer, my energy was used more wisely. I already had what I wanted to get when everything was done: a feeling of peace and ease.

***

When I work with clients who want to let go of overwhelm, we take an in-depth look at what caring for ourselves — that ubiquitous and broad term “self-care” — actually feels like for us. And what actions come from feelings of wanting to care for ourselves.

Often, it comes down to seemingly “small” and subtle —- but ultimately powerful — questions like the one I asked myself in my journal. What is needed here? What energies can I call in? What happens when I call in those energies?

When we ask helpful, supportive questions and call on the energies we need, we can let go of the struggle, the striving, the efforting.

It’s not “magic” — but there can sometimes be a magical quality to this kind of caring for ourselves. With practice, it can become a positive habit for us to ask these helpful questions even though we presently feel mired in the muck (as I did before bed last night).

I’m going to add the question “what qualities are needed here?” to my regular evening ritual for the next month or so, and see what happens.

And, at any time during the day (or night!), we always have the option to ask ourselves helpful questions, and to call in energies that can support us. When we do this, we remind ourselves that we have a choice as to how we respond to what we’re going through, what we make it mean, and what we intend for ourselves moving forward.

This also underlined for me that I do not have to force myself to try to feel certain things — I can instead choose to call on those qualities. When I simply call on them, I recognize that they’re already within me, I don’t have to create them out of thin air. (I often hear people talking about “working up their courage” — what if you didn’t have to work it up? What if you could simply call on it, because it’s already a part of you?)

What happens for you when you set an intention to call in what you need? I’d love to hear how this works for you.

***

Write with us this summer! I’ll be leading an eight-week summer writing group over at Called to Write — it starts in just one week, on June 3. If you have a writing project you’d like to get going on (or continue) with compassionate group support this summer, feel free to send an email to support[at]calledtowrite[dot]com to get all the details! We’d love to have you. The group will be kept to eight participants (at this writing, it’s about half full.)

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

Above images by Solaiman HossenAaron Burden, and Hannah Jacobson on Unsplash

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On gratitude, appreciation, and right timing

As we near the time of Thanksgiving here in the U.S., I want to circle back to something I’ve been doing for quite a while now. (I wrote about it in this post.)

As a complement to writing morning pages, I have been doing “evening pages” since early last year. I don’t do them absolutely every evening — usually it’s more like once or twice a week at this point. In my evening pages, I simply answer this question: “What worked today?”

It feels fitting to mention this at Thanksgiving time, as I notice it’s become a kind of unintentional gratitude practice for me as well. In answering this question in my journal, I never fail to notice so much that worked during the day that I would not have noticed if I weren’t choosing to focus on it.

For example, yesterday a woman held the door for me for a long time when I was struggling with my bags. (This on a day when I had also complained to my partner about the rudeness of another person I’d encountered.)

Until I sat down to my evening pages, I’d already forgotten about the kindness of this person who held the door — but when I set an intention to think back on what worked, she popped right into my mind.

It’s easy to get swept up into dark territory these days (I think you know what I mean!). And I’m not saying we should “be positive!” and ignore important issues that must be dealt with. But we must also choose to notice how much goodness is present. How much kindness, how much generosity.

***

My evening pages have also pointed me to something else: the rightness of timing.

One of my “default” fears is that I am moving too slowly, that I take way too long to get where I need to go. While I have accumulated all kinds of evidence that this is not true, it still tends to be a go-to fear for me, particularly when I am feeling thwarted in some way.

I noticed this happened for me on Sunday, when I ran into technology issues while trying to get my monthly newsletter out. The more frustrated I got, the longer it took, the more I noticed myself going to that default fear: Why are you so slow? Why does everything take you so freaking long? You’ll never get anything important accomplished. You’re always behind where you need to be.

Although the technology issues had nothing to do with me personally, my poor mind tried to make sense of them by blaming myself and deciding the problem was that I was just too slow. (This is a “child-me” thing — children blame themselves for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with them. With their limited power and perspective, it helps them to make sense of things. How often do we do this as adults, even though we have far more power and perspective than we did as children?).

Finally, I stepped away and decided I’d deal with the newsletter on Monday. As I did my evening pages Sunday night, I found myself writing about all kinds of things during the weekend that had been good timing for me. Things that might not have happened if I’d forced myself to do other things.

Like: I regretted missing a volunteer opportunity Saturday morning — but during that time, I met up with this adorable little dog I know (and his people!) in my neighborhood. We watched this lovely creature bound through the fall leaves, losing his little lime-green “dog booties” — three of them popped right off as he ran — which caused all of us to laugh, and didn’t phase the dog at all, who just kept right on frolicking.

I was so grateful for witnessing that — it felt so nourishing to me — that I went right to it in my evening pages. But if I’d forced myself to do the volunteer thing I’d thought I “should” do that morning, I’d have missed it.

So, my evening pages have given to me this helpful question: What if my timing is perfect? Most humans tend to have a deeply-ingrained habit of asking ourselves unhelpful questions. Focusing on what works, what we cherish and appreciate, can point us to far better questions. 

***

I’ll be taking the end of next week off for the holiday, but you can still sign up for one of my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions through tomorrow, Friday, November 16. If you’re struggling with a tricky life transition this fall and need some support, I’d love to help. You can find out more about these sessions, here.

In the meantime, I wish you much to cherish and appreciate (whether you observe Thanksgiving next week or not!).

What do you notice when you shift to focusing on what worked today, or simply what you appreciated? I’d love to hear from you.

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

Above images, respectively, by Evie Shaffer and Alvan Nee on Unsplash

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Are you clearing space for your creativity?

My sister came over yesterday and pointed out that my kitchen table was a bit unruly. It was, actually, piled with stuff.

I tend to create piles — and I’ve come to realize that they are part of my thinking process and the way I move through the world. I focus on this over here, and then a little on that over there, and I collect and sift through lots of feelings, thoughts, and information as I do. My piles are the physical manifestation of this flow from one thing to another and back, integrating it all as I go.

So I don’t try to eliminate my piles, as I once did. I simply set an intention to keep them on the small side.

My sister’s comment yesterday caused me to notice that the kitchen table piles were becoming a bit monstrous. So today I set about doing some clearing there.

When you have a task like this, it always seems worse once you begin it, and then after you’ve put about fifteen minutes into it, and can see some progress, you realize it’s not going to be that bad if you just work on it a little at a time.

I didn’t end up clearing off the entire table today (I got it down to one tiny pile and one medium-sized one), but what I did achieve freed up so much space, and I was able to sit there with my journal and feel a lightness I haven’t felt since … well, since the last time I did some clearing of the kitchen table.

This got me thinking about how, on a grander scale, we can 1) become blind to the clutter in our lives (it can become part of the landscape, whether it’s clothing we no longer wear or a group we no longer want to be a part of);

and 2) that quote attributed to Einstein about how you can’t solve a problem from the same consciousness that created the problem. The mind that sees all kinds of obstacles is not the same one that sees all kinds of freedom, all kinds of possible solutions you’ve never tried before.

The problem-seeing mind tends to keep on trying to solve things in the way that didn’t work — sometimes for years.

The mind that sees all the ways it is already free of the problem is coming from an entirely different space. This mind has more space. It sees space.

So one of the things we can assign our problem-seeing mind is the clearing of space.

What I noticed as I cleared my table today was that I changed. As I focused my attention on the task at hand, I began to engage my more creative, space-seeing mind. My body began to relax — I could feel space opening up on the table, but also within me.

How often do we try to stuff something into our lives without clearing space for it? How often do we try to know the unknowable — try to see our way into our future — without first creating an opening for the new?

When I went through those piles on the table this morning, I found coupons that were long expired, sketch paper I’d forgotten I’d purchased, a card from a friend I’d forgotten to put in a folder I have labeled “nice things”. The piles were composed of the past, and unmade past decisions. Small ones, to be sure, in this case, but never the less, the piles on my kitchen table were like a holding station that zapped some of my energy every time I glanced at them.

I’d become blind to this, however, until my sister’s comment alerted me to it. I’d have seen it eventually, but it was good, today, to face it.

And how do I feel? Like there’s that much more space in my life for my creative brain to do its thing. When I look at the kitchen table now, I see possibility instead of a problem.

Clearing space might also look like:

  • Questioning your “have-to’s” and choosing to let them go
  • Letting go of a draining relationship
  • Being ultra-selective about where you focus your time and attention

Where in your life can you clear space and allow your creativity to enter? What do you notice about how clearing physical space makes you feel? I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. I have a fun new offering for one-on-one coaching clients — if this blog post resonated, you may find it of particular interest! You can learn more about my Living Space Discovery Sessions on my Ways We Can Work Together page.

Above images: flowers and sky, © Maunger | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and seashells and starfish © Grafvision | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Why it’s okay to be “boring” in your journal (+ community call date change!)

A few weeks ago I received this email (and the writer gave me permission to share it here):

I have been subscribed to your blog for a while now and I notice you talk a lot about journaling and morning pages and how valuable they are to you. While I want to believe this is true, I have so much trouble actually writing in a journal. It seems like everything I write is so mundane I can’t stand seeing what’s in my own mind! So I quit. But then I’ll want to try again, and I do it for a few days and I can’t stand what I’m writing so I quit again. What is my problem? Should I be journaling or not? I feel like it would help me connect with myself, but I don’t actually seem to like it. Any suggestions?

I wanted to share this email here because this is so, so common. I hear similar reports from my life coaching clients and have heard them from so many others when I share that I’ve been journaling regularly for more than thirty years.

First of all, whenever something becomes a “should”, we naturally develop resistance to it. So, no, you “shouldn’t” be journaling. You shouldn’t be doing anything.

There are plenty of ways to connect with yourself besides journaling and/or morning pages. Just because you hear lots of people saying how great they are doesn’t mean you have to do them. Find another way of connecting with yourself on a regular basis if journaling doesn’t speak to you. Find some way of being in your own company and noticing what you’re thinking and feeling. It doesn’t have to be journaling.

But I want to point something out here: When journaling/morning pages feel “boring” or frustrating because everything spilling out of you onto the page seems “mundane”, it may just be that you are uncomfortable with connecting with yourself.

I write tons of mundane stuff in the pages of my journals. I write about how I couldn’t decide which pair of jeans to buy, because one fit better but I liked the topstitching on the other one better. I write about how I can tell I am getting a zit and how I would have died if you told me when I was sixteen that I would still sometimes have zits in my forties. I write about how we rearranged the living room furniture and how pleased I am with how it looks.

And you know what? I enjoy writing this mundane stuff in the pages of my journal. I enjoy it because I am not trying to be “extraordinary” on the pages of my journal — my purpose there, often, is simply to keep myself company, to know the contents of my mind.

We are all capable of focusing on lots and lots of mundane stuff. And if we like who we are, if we enjoy our own company, that’s not a bad thing.

And here’s the paradox: My purpose with journaling is to keep myself company on the page, to know my own thoughts and feelings. And a lot of times, yeah, that’s pretty “mundane”. But my purpose with journaling is also to break through all that stuff, to cut a layer deeper, to get underneath it all.

If I’m really freaking out because I have a zit, if that’s really bothering me on a particular day, what’s underneath that? What am I making it mean? That underneath it all I’m still an insecure sixteen-year-old? That my body is out of control? That just when I’m feeling good, I have to be reminded of how imperfect I am?

You see what I mean? We can use the mundane in our journaling as a jumping-off point to understanding ourselves better. And that self-connection and self-understanding connects us to others — because we’re not so different from anyone else. In keeping ourselves company on the page, we realize we are in lots of good company.

When people tell me “I hate journaling because I can’t stand how mundane I am and how I wallow in my own shitty inner stuff” I want to say: Welcome to the human race. We are all mundane and we all wallow, at times, in our own shitty inner stuff. And, we are all capable of going a layer deeper, or many layers deeper, and letting that very human stuff take us to the core of who we are.

I would say to the writer of this email: There’s a reason that even though you always seem to quit journaling after a few days, you keep on wanting to try it again. You want to know yourself. 

This is a very good thing. Because no one is ever going to know you as deeply as you can know yourself. Not a significant other, not a child, not a parent, not a friend. One of the huge gifts of being here on this earth is that you have the opportunity to know yourself.

People who have the desire to write, to create in any way, usually have a deep desire to know themselves. But sometimes we have a tendency to think this desire is “selfish,” because we are so mundane so much of the time. What if it turns out we’re not that extraordinary? 

Give yourself a break. Let yourself be mundane. When you make room for your “ordinariness”, you will find it so much easier to allow the parts of you that are extraordinary to surface. Because we all have so much of both. We all have so much of everything within us.

A dear teacher of mine once said, “Great writing is nothing more than the truth, plainly told.” You will never see this more clearly than on the pages of your journal. But you need to stick with it for more than a few days. You need to be so loving toward the mundane contents of your mind that you see that you are not so mundane, after all.

And: Due to a scheduling conflict, I’ve pushed out the start date of the Artist’s Nest community calls one month, to Wed. Feb. 28. Want to join me on these monthly calls? You can get the call-in info (which I’ll send out approximately 24 hours before the call) by signing up for my newsletter, here!

Above images: Top,  © Kasia Biel | Dreamstime Stock Photos; bottom, one of my earliest journals, with kitty.

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End-of-year rituals and inquiries

Thanks to a severe cold that triggered a sinus infection, I was down for the count for the week before Christmas and am not quite fully operational as of this writing. So I didn’t get to “part two” of my last post — but I promise the topic of reconnecting with your “why” will be addressed at some point in the New Year.

Something I really savor doing toward the end of the year is engaging in some reverent curiosity about what went down during the past twelve months.

As I wrote a while back, I’ve been doing an evening ritual (as often as I can, not quite every night) which has two parts: 1) I ask the question, “what worked today?” and 2) I write an “it’s-done” list (as opposed to a “to-do” list).

When I do this evening ritual — and fall asleep having done it — I notice I wake up with a much more peaceful, hopeful, and confident perspective than I do when I have not done it. (First thing in the morning is not naturally my best time of day.)

My end-of-year ritual is a similar process — I’m just looking with a broader eye at the “big picture” of the whole year (using “eagle vision”, as Martha Beck puts it, as opposed to the “mouse vision” that sees the details of a particular day).

But I like to riff on the question “What worked this year?” and add in a few more, such as:

What worked really well?

What surprised and delighted me?

When did I surprise myself (and how)?

What felt easy that has previously felt hard?

Where did I challenge myself and realize I was more than up to the challenge?

What were a few of my favorite things this year — and why? (One of my personal faves: Seeing Tori Amos perform for a sold-out house at the Chicago Theater in October!)

What qualities would I like more of in the coming year? (examples: trust, fortitude, lightness, softness, clarity, calm, spontaneity … you get the idea!)

What am I noticing I am ready to let go of in 2018?

Then, I dive into — and really relish — my “it’s done” list for the year. Any accomplishment — big, small, internal, external — anything that comes up for me from January through December — goes on the list.

What’s great about this is that — as with the “it’s done” list in my evening ritual — there are so many more things that I’ve done than I’ve actually acknowledged.

And it’s so important to acknowledge what we feel good about. Some of these accomplishments can be rather subtle (“I paused and counted to ten before reacting”) and we may forget about them. These are the ones that — in my humble opinion — are especially important to get on the list.

Maybe we made fewer assumptions about the behavior of others than we have in the past — or maybe we noticed our assumptions and questioned them more. This is huge, and should not be overlooked.

These are simply some suggestions, but however you go about making end-of-year inquiries and acknowledging what you’ve done, how you’ve changed, I encourage you to savor your own ritual. Light some candles, sit next to your Christmas tree (if you celebrate Christmas), curl up with a blanket next to your cat or dog (our animal companions tend to connect us to our hearts, which helps us get in touch with what we most cherish).

With that, I will sign off and continue extreme self-care so I can enter 2018 feeling as close to “normal” (whatever that is) as possible!

I look forward to connecting with you, dear readers, in the New Year. Hope your New Year’s has all the sparkle, hope, and glistening snowflakes you desire (or, if you’re not a cold-weather person, sun rays on your skin).

By the way, you can sign up for my Artist’s Nest newsletter, to receive updates on my life coaching offerings and other good stuff, here. I’ll be creating some fun new things in 2018, so now’s a great time to sign up!

What are your end-of-year rituals, if you have them? I’d love to hear from you.

Above images: Candles, © Easyshutter | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and second photo, close-up on my own Christmas tree.

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The power of evening pages and “it’s done” lists

journalpenIf you are a regular reader of my posts, you know that I am a big proponent of morning pages. They are part of my morning ritual, part of my creative process.

And they never feel like a chore to me — I look forward to them, because there’s no way I can “do them wrong.”

They are simply a brain dump, and if they move into deeper journaling and other forms of writing, great. If they don’t, they don’t; I’ve taken that time in the morning to connect with myself, to take a look at my mind on paper and see what’s going on there. It’s a great way to become more conscious of what I’m thinking, and how that thinking is affecting my life.

Lately, though, I’ve instigated a habit of evening pages, too. This might sound like a lot of rituals, but honestly, evening pages take but a few minutes, and they’re making a significant difference.

I decided to try evening pages because I noticed myself feeling overstimulated and jittery before bed, probably from too much iPad use (and my dear, overworked iPad died just the other day, so maybe life is trying to tell me something). Evening is also the time that my brain gets fired up with thoughts that go something like “so much isn’t working and there’s so much more to do!”

Here’s the way I’ve been approaching evening pages: I sit down with my notebook (pen to paper, no electronic devices), and I write this question at the top of a fresh page: What worked today?

The answer may be something seemingly small or even insignificant — “I ended a phone call before I started feeling drained”, “I drank a glass of water instead of more coffee”. But making a note of it in my evening pages causes me to realize just how much good I create for myself in a given day, and, often, how those “insignificant” things I barely even notice actually make a true difference.

After the “what worked today?” question is answered, I move on to an “it’s done” list. The “it’s done” list is the equivalent of crossing off the items on my “to-do” list, but it feels much more real and satisfying to actually write down what has been done. And there is always so much more than I realized, if I look for it. Yesterday, I wrote down eight things — yes, eight — that I hadn’t even noticed I’d accomplished.

What I’m noticing is that this nightly process is helping me go to bed focusing on what I’ve already done, rather than how much there is to do.

Even things that are in the process of getting done (the big things that may take weeks or months) feel better and more manageable to me when I notice what I’m already doing and how much I’ve already done.

And the biggest takeaway I have from this process is that nothing is too small to note. It’s the voice of perfectionism (the pushy, hyper-critical aspect of perfectionism) that tells us “only the big things count.” The big things are, most of the time, made up of tons and tons of teeny-tiny things we did to create them.

One of the most significant things I’ve learned from six-plus years of working with my life coaching clients is that the more we focus on what’s working in our lives, the more we focus on what feels good and right to us — no matter how small it may seem at the time –the more of that energy we invite into our lives.

So often our tendency to is keep our focus on what’s not working. Yes, it’s important to notice when something just doesn’t work for us. If we don’t notice it, we can’t change it.

But we can get into a loop where we think if we can just “figure out” what’s not working and why, we’ll get to the bottom of it and move forward. What I’ve found is that the more we focus on what’s not working, the more evidence of things not working we find, and around that track we run.

So we need to commit to celebrating what is working, and what we have done. We need to remember to celebrate all of  it.

How do you remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished? How do you celebrate it? I’d love to hear from you.

And: On Monday, March 6, enrollment begins for my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program. I’ve been offering this one-on-one coaching program since 2015 and it is such a joy and an honor for me to witness the changes my clients make as I partner with them in this process. If you feel overwhelmed or overworked, or like you’re always putting others first and are ready to put YOU at the center of your life, I’d love to help. Find out more about the Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program, here.

Also: In late April, I’ll be offering a group version of this program. If you’d like to explore this content with a group, please contact me and I’ll send you the info on the group version. You can contact me about the group version through the form on the Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program page, here.

Above image is “Blank Page of Journal” [cropped] © Daniaphoto | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The power of “I wonder” + small group coaching in 2017

coffeesnow

Something I’ve learned in six-plus years as a life coach — as well as in observing myself! — is that we humans have a habit of asking ourselves some pretty crappy questions. Some of these questions are so automatic we might call them “default questions”.

A default question is an unhelpful question we habitually go to when we feel like things aren’t working for us.

Let me show you what I mean. A while ago I worked with a client who had recently started a new job. She’d sought out a coach because, about a month into said job, certain patterns were popping up that were making the new job look mysteriously like the job she’d left (and hated).

“Why does this always happen to me?” she asked.

Now, we could have gone there and answered that question. But “Why does this always happen to me?” was this client’s default question. In fact, when I pointed out that she’d posed it quite a few times over the course of our first session, she was unaware that she’d even said it.

That’s the thing about default questions — they’re not only unhelpful, they’re so automatic they’re outside our conscious awareness much of the time.

And yet, we create identities out of them! For my client, this identity was “the person who gives too much at work and gets way too little in return and either quits angrily or gets fired.”

Can you see how “Why does this always happen to me?” an unhelpful question? Yes, we could go there. We could eventually get somewhere by continuing to ask why. (Why? is a truly powerful question, when framed in a helpful way).

But, in this case, the question itself is making a huge assumption: that this always happens to the asker. And that can’t possibly be true.

So I didn’t go there with my client. Instead, I pointed out that the question wasn’t a great one.

And then I brought in some wondering.

I love the quality of “wonder”. It has, for me, the feeling of stepping outside to witness the glisten of just-fallen snow and the sparrow so light it lands right on top of the white sheen without making a dent.

I also love “wonder” as a verb. Did you notice how my client’s default question had a heavy undercurrent of judgment in it? That’s why default questions can be so damaging, especially when we don’t even know we’re asking them: They are almost always condemning the asker in some way.

Wondering, in contrast, is free of condemnation and full of curiosity.

One of my own default questions is “Why can’t you do this the way everyone else is doing it?” (I’m happy to say it’s no longer quite as default as it once was — sometimes I don’t go to it at all anymore, and when I do, I catch myself in it more quickly these days.)

It’s easy for me to see how this developed as a default question for me — from a very early age, there were often things I had trouble doing that “everybody else” didn’t seem to have a problem with (like playing kickball at recess).

Can you see why the question is not a helpful one? It’s got that undercurrent of judgment, and it’s also making the assumption that “everyone else” does something a “certain way” that I should certainly be doing it.

So what I’ve practiced over the years is a shift into wondering. It goes like this: Hmm … If I want to do this, I wonder how I could do it in a way that feels better to me?

Or, in the case of my client: Hmm … I wonder what it is exactly that feels really hard about your work situation right now?

When we wonder, we get to come to a situation, to ourselves, with beginner’s minds. We get to access a little of the feeling of the glisten of that fresh covering of snow. We don’t play into our well-established, age-old assumptions. We see that today is not yesterday, now is not then.

The first step here (as it so often is) is to notice our default questions. Sometimes we need someone else to catch them for us (they can be pretty sneaky) — a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach is helpful here.

I also notice my default questions a LOT in my journal. When we actually take the time to write out what we’re thinking, we slow down our minds. We capture our thoughts in a moment of time and our default questions are forced out of their hiding places.

Do you notice yourself jumping to “default questions”? Where can you shift into wondering? I’d love to hear from you on this.

And: I will be starting a small group version of my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program in March (the one-on-one version of the program will return as well). If you’d like to make your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care, and would love steady, compassionate support in the safety of a small group setting, I encourage you to apply! Details will be posted soon, but if you’d like to get on the list for more info, please contact me through the form at the bottom of my Ways We Can Work Together page, here.

Above image © Creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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

eagle on beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

those icky patterns show up on the pages of my journal

those icky patterns show up on the pages of my journal

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eagle image © Cecilia Lim | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Welcoming the conscious pause

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Conscious paws are always welcome 🍃

Somewhere on the continuum between torturous procrastination and frenetic “just so I feel like I’m doing something” action is a place of pausing. Of breathing. Of looking around, looking within, and inquiring: what do I really want here? What is it I truly need?

Or perhaps this place, which I call conscious pausing, is not on that continuum at all. Maybe it is actually off that continuum — the silent, sometimes-sacred space you step off the path to claim, like the big rock next to the river that runs along the highway.

I mention this place of conscious pausing because it took me four days to recognize that I was forgetting it was available to me. I returned from visiting my family for Christmas a week ago, and allowed myself a couple of days to recharge (which a younger me would have felt like a slacker for allowing myself, so, yay! Progress!).

But after those two days, I began to ping-pong between a feeling of severe procrastination (I should be doing something, but what? how?) and impulsive activity that felt pointless and disconnected.

(One sign that I, a Myers-Briggs INFP, am “in the grip” — read: under stress — is that I start taking urgent actions that actually make things worse. If you’re at all interested in personality type theory, it’s worth reading up on what your type looks like when it’s “in the grip.” You can start to recognize these behaviors in yourself and regroup.)

Once I noticed how I was acting, I realized my desire to “start the New Year off right” had caused me to fall back on old black-and-white thinking: “If you’re not doing productive things, you must be procrastinating. And if you’re procrastinating, you suck. And now 2016 sucks. Bah!” (Humbug.)

But the key, my friends, as always, is in noticing — a seemingly benign word with a ton of power.

Because once I noticed my swing from one end of that aforementioned spectrum to the other and back, I was able to consider the possibility that I had another choice. That, instead of beating myself up for procrastinating or jumping into frenetic doing, I could take that conscious pause and reconnect with what I truly wanted and needed.

***

Here are some questions I find helpful when I realize it’s time for a conscious pause.

(It’s good to ask them while placing awareness on your breath. I often find that writing the questions and my answers in my journal gives me a bit of detachment from myself so I can see what’s going on in me more clearly. But you can also speak them aloud, or have a friend read the questions to you.)

How exactly am I feeling right now? What emotions are coming up? (If you’re not sure, start here: are you more mad, sad, glad or scared?)

How does it feel in my body right now? (I have a headache, my chest is tight, my knees hurt.)

How do I want to feel right now? (excited, hopeful, peaceful, relaxed?)

How does my body feel when I’m in that place? (get specific here: my spine straightens, my pulse slows, I breathe more deeply.)

What thoughts am I having about the immediate future?

(Here are some of mine as examples: I can’t get it all done. I’m already behind. I won’t make the deadline. I can’t show up fully for my client.)

How can I change these thoughts to thoughts that feel better but also feel true? (When you work with your thoughts, you must believe your new thoughts — your essential self will not be fooled by hollow “positive affirmations”!)

Here’s how I changed my examples above:

I don’t have to get it all done, only the priority stuff. (I believed that.)

Exactly WHAT am I behind? A semi truck? (The frantic part of me didn’t have an answer for this; she just sort of laughed, nervously.)

If I absolutely can’t make the deadline, I can find a work-around. I’ll see it better when I’m in a place of peace.

I can offer my client my imperfect presence, my listening, my best for today. That is all I can ever do. It’s been enough in the past, so why wouldn’t it be enough now? (My frantic self rolled her eyes and scowled at me a bit here, but I could see her shoulders relaxing despite her best efforts to act intimidating.)

***

After you check in with these exercises, you’ll notice that what you’re wanting and needing will be all over your answers to the questions. (It’s amazing how easily and automatically we forget to ask ourselves what we want and need!)

It really helped that my cat climbed into my lap while I was checking in with myself. Is there anything more grounding than a warm feline?

By the way, you don’t have to answer all of these questions (you don’t HAVE to do anything!). You can start with the first one, and move on as it feels right. You may find relief after the first two.

Or, you can nix the questions altogether and simply focus on your breath and the fact that you are, indeed, choosing to consciously pause and stop the madness! What I love about going through these questions, though, is the clarity I come out with on the other side. Every time I see my behavior, my thinking, my feelings, with more clarity, it’s that much easier to navigate the stress when it arises the next time around.

Here’s to conscious pausing and a juicily creative 2016! How might you integrate the power of the conscious pause into your intentions and goals for the new year?