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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Small shifts during big change

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, or are subscribed to my newsletter (you can do that here!), you know I am a big fan of little changes.

Huge changes in our lives can be highly taxing to the nervous system. We’re experiencing that collectively now. And within that, we each have extremely personal, individual experiences of this time.

Probably the thing I’ve noticing most in a coaching context lately is the idea that “I should be coping better than I am.”

One of the issues my coaching clients over the years have tended to share is a tendency to self-pressure. Because the self-pressure is so deeply ingrained, it’s habitual, and when things get hard, instead of easing up, part of the habit is to double-up on this pressure.

If we tend toward self-pressuring and perfectionism, the current situation might be bringing these issues front and center for us.

We might feel like we’re “with ourselves” (or, depending on our living situations, with partners or family members  or roommates) a lot more than before, and it can feel a lot harder than usual to balance self-care and other-care (whether we feel alone too much, or with others more than we’d like).

If we “normally” struggle with a particular issue, it just might be magnified right now. Pre shelter-in-place, my partner and I had been grappling with the limitations of our living space, and now, wow are we ever challenged by them! A friend who’d resolved to spend less time in the online world and more in the “real world” for her mental health is having to accept that more time “out” is not terribly possible right now.

So many ways we previously resourced ourselves are currently off the table — and that’s real. It’s real loss and real stress, and it’s okay — and necessary — to acknowledge that.

I’ve noticed that some days — some hours — I connect with kindness toward myself. And on some days, and hours, I do not.

I’m not “trying to do better” at being kind to myself. I’m just noticing how I feel when I can find gentleness and compassion toward myself, and how I feel when I can’t seem to find it, in the moment. It’s harder than usual right now, and that’s what is.

I’m also finding that if I can give a lot of space to whatever I’m feeling, I don’t fight it as much. I’ve learned that fighting a feeling is a lot more stressful than the feeling itself — whatever it may be. It’s helpful to notice the difference between these two states — fighting the feeling vs. experiencing the feeling.

Behind “fighting the feeling”, I’ve found, is the belief that “there isn’t room for this.” Or, “there isn’t time for this.”

What if there is room? What if there’s plenty of space for whatever’s coming up (even if you feel like you’re in cramped quarters?). What if there is time? What if there is enough, right now, even in this situation?

These inquiries have been helping me.

Other seemingly “small” things that are helping:

• Allowing my body to relax while I was on an extra-long Zoom call the other day. Stretching my legs out on the chair next to me, allowing my jaw to soften and my shoulders to slump a bit. It reminded me that I can show up in a softer, more vulnerable way and still be effective — in fact, more effective than I’d imagined I could be on that day.

• Taking short drives with my partner a couple of times a week. Yesterday we drove past a curve of sparse nearby woods and saw deer eating and blinking at us through the trees. We saw colorful signs in yards in children’s handwriting: Thank you, helpers. We saw people in masks walking happy dogs. We saw plump robins foraging for worms through April snow flurries.

• Noticing my relationship to comfort foods. When does the “comfort” in comfort food actually give comfort, and when does it create more stress? I’m looking at all this with curiosity. So many people have shared with me that their eating habits have changed in the past several weeks, and it’s human to seek comfort in our food. “Just noticing” might not seem like a lot, but I’ve found the act of noticing to be incredibly powerful. It is, in fact, a cornerstone for self-understanding and desired change.

• Allowing myself a little more sleep and to call it a day a little earlier than usual. Just that little bit of extra sleep and rest can make the difference in my ability to face the day (and the news).

A final thought: If you’re not sure what you need on a given day, or in a given moment, sometimes it helps to think about what others have told you you’re really good at giving to them. We’re often experts at giving the very thing we need the most (we just might not notice it because it comes so naturally to us, and we might not realize we need it!).

What seemingly “small” shifts in your day are helping you through this time? I’d love to hear from you.

And: here are a couple of older posts you might find helpful. They’re not about current situation, of course, but some of the concepts are relevant: Radical self-care: when your “normal” has changed and There’s no right way to process change.

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Above image of robin by Jordan Irving 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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When it’s hard getting started: part two

When we start something new our lives — a project, a program, a class — we put it on the calendar and tend to think “this will take X amount of time in my schedule.”

But “starting new stuff,” as I wrote in my last post, is often about much more than just the time it will take.

Our brains can protect us, when we’re “taking the plunge” and doing something challenging, by oversimplifying just how hard it might actually be. We get swept up in the enthusiasm of “doing the thing” — and then, a little bit after we’ve begun, reality sets in: Oh. This is kinda hard.

I remember working with a client who wanted to make a commitment to writing regularly. He’d blocked out times about five days a week on his calendar when he was going to write. He came to a coaching session saying he had been writing — which we celebrated! — but he couldn’t understand why he felt so “off” and overall depleted.

He’d thought it was just about “making the time” to write. But it wasn’t just about the time. It was about many other things: writing, after a long time away from it, was like using muscles he hadn’t used in a while. (I used to start and stop and start yoga practice a lot, and every time I started it again, it took about a day for me to be reminded of the muscles I hadn’t been using when away from it.)

It was also about: the fact that writing felt uncomfortable. It brought up uncomfortable stuff: do I really want to write this? Is it safe to write this? Is this any good? Why am I doing this again? (Not to mention anything challenging about the actual craft of writing.)

It was also about: The reactions my client’s renewed commitment in his writing triggered in those around him, who depended on him in ways he might be less available for now.

It was also about: Realizing he might not be able to do the amount of writing he’d hoped he’d be able to do and get everything else done that was important and necessary to him. It was about figuring out what could be let go and what couldn’t. (It’s a really common “blind spot,” I’ve found, for us to add something new to our schedules and not realize that doing so means we likely need to take something old out of the schedule.)

And it was about other things that I’m sure I know nothing about.

Scheduling that time to do it is a starting point, and a vital one. And it’s also vital that we recognize that it’s totally normal for it not to go “smoothly.” It’s normal to experience a period of “disorganization” where we’re letting go of part of our old routine to make room for the new one, and where we’re figuring out just how to best incorporate the new thing on a daily basis.

I’ve experienced this myself here at the start of the new year: the first week of January I started a new and challenging thing, and it took me until the third week of January to realize why I was feeling so weirdly behind, disorganized, and depleted.

I thought of my client and many others I’d worked with who’d had similar feelings when starting something new — and I realized, oh yeah! I’m not just “taking a really long time to recover from the holidays this year.” I’m actually doing a new thing, flexing muscles that haven’t been flexed in a while, processing the change, noticing what I’m needing to give up because of it, what new boundaries need to be set, and all kinds of other things around it.

Once I got it: okay, this isn’t just about taking an hour or two out of my days to do this thing; there’s a lot connected to taking that hour or two, mostly in my emotional world — an interesting thing happened: I caught up with myself.

And I began to feel far more in the present moment, more “on top of things,” and am establishing a pace that feels right for doing this new project. There is power in naming what is happening.

If you’re in the process of beginning something new and challenging, allow yourself the recognition that making the time is only part of it. If you’re feeling all kinds of other stuff as you start this new thing, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong choice; it doesn’t mean you should quit.

The more we can accept that starting something new brings up our stuff — and that nothing is wrong when it inevitably does — the more we, paradoxically, are able to be with all the stuff that comes up. It’s believing “something is wrong here!” that is the problem — not the stuff that’s coming up.

(And if you are freaking out, try naming what’s happening: This is new to me, and it turns out there’s a lot more to this than I thought there would be. That’s okay.)

What do you notice about this for you? Do you expect yourself to “just put in the time” and get it done? How do you make room for everything that comes up around starting something new?  I’d love to hear from you.

And, if you’re in a “starting new stuff” place and needing some support, I’d love to help! You can check out my one-on-one coaching offerings, here.

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

Top photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash; bottom photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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When it’s hard getting started

As we move into a new year, we’re met with a flurry of messages: How will you make this year different? What goals will you accomplish this year? How will you create BIG CHANGE this year?

These messages may or may not line up with where we actually are in our processes, in our lives.

Just because it’s January, it does not necessarily follow for all of us that we are in a “start new stuff” phase of life. We may be in a grieving place. We may be in a “processing everything that happened in the fall” place. It may be time to take a few things off the plate rather than adding more.

Even if we are in a “start new stuff” phase of life — which can be a delicious place to be! — we might find that we’re having trouble actually starting. This could be for any number of reasons — we might be, without fully realizing it, making getting started extra-hard for ourselves.

Are you really in a “start new stuff” place? Here are some ways to tell:

• When you think about something you’d like to begin, there’s an element of excitement, fun, joy, or deliciousness to it. There may be other, less “positive” feelings there too — but you notice that at least some part of this idea or thing lights you up.

• You have the time and energy (both physical and emotional) to do this thing.

• You have the financial resources to do this thing (or know how to get them).

• You have access to other sources of support that might help you to do this thing (or ideas about how to get them).

“Start new stuff” periods in our lives are characterized by moving outward into the world and gathering support for this movement. If you got mostly feelings of “yes” when you read the above statements, then, yay! You’re probably in a “start new stuff” period of your life.

But if you didn’t? Let’s do a little investigating and see if you might be in a “time to move inward” or “in-between” place in your life.

• You feel like you “should” be starting new things, but nothing is lighting you up.

• You feel depleted — your emotional, physical, spiritual and/or financial resources do not feel like “enough” right now.

• You feel overwhelmed, or like you’ve been running on adrenaline. You’re coming off a very busy time of life, and although your mind likes the idea of starting new stuff, in your body it feels like if you add one more thing you are going to shut down or implode.

• You are going through a big loss, or have just experienced a big loss in your life.

If you got mostly feelings of “true” when you read the above statements, you are likely not in a “start new stuff” period of your life. You are likely in a “moving inward,” “processing what happened,” or “cocooning” period of your life.

When we’re in this space, it can actually be counterproductive to start new stuff (especially if it’s “big” stuff, like a project that will take a lot of time and energy, a move, or anything that requires lots of inner and outer resources to get going and keep going).

With clients who are in this space, I have often seen that projects they think they should do (because it’s a new year! Because they wanted to do them before, when they were in a different place!) end up falling apart pretty early on. It’s like there’s not enough glue (desire + resources + right timing) to hold them together.

We live in an “all action, all the time” culture. It’s not realistic to adapt ourselves to this message, pervasive as it is. Where are you, in your life right now?

If you realize you are in a “start new stuff” place — if the idea of that lights you up, at least a little! — it can help to begin in “right-sized” steps.

Lots of us have a habit of making our steps so big we just can’t wrap our minds around them. (This was me when I started blogging in 2011!)  Choosing a step that feels innately doable is key here. When I’m overwhelmed, I usually find that if I start with a step that feels super-easy, I’ll do more than I’d planned. But if I try to begin with something complex and triggering, I probably won’t get started at all.

A lot of getting started is about knowing yourself and what feels “right-sized” for you on a particular day. I remember coaching someone several years ago who felt energized by doing things in big chunks rather than tiny steps — really small steps just felt too boring to her and if something felt bigger she was actually more likely to do it, not less.

For others (like me!), we might need to make the step super-tiny on some days, and a little bigger of a step might feel right on days we’re feeling more resourced.

Wherever you are as you begin this new year, honor that. Change is a process, and there’s no right or wrong to that process — there’s only where you, authentically, are right now.

Whether you’re in a “start new stuff” phase, or a “moving inward” phase, or a “relishing what you’ve created” phase, it’s all good if it’s true for you. And you can find support for wherever you are.

What do you know about where you are as the new year begins? What’s true for you? What might support you in being where you are, whether you’re in a “start new stuff” place, or not? I’d love to hear from you.

Speaking of support, I have a new option on my Ways We Can Work Together page. If you need support for integrating self-care and creativity in your life, you may want to check it out!

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

Above image of black cat by Andreea Popa on Unsplash; image of yawning cat by Philippine FITAMANT on Unsplash

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Self-knowledge will always support you (+ Happy Fall!)

When we’re going through challenging transition periods in our lives, or when we feel seriously overwhelmed, we can get triggered. Our “stuff” can come up big time — and by “stuff” here I mean our “core issues.”

For example, if one of our core issues is feeling like we need to do it all on our own because we’re not allowed to ask for help, we may coast along seemingly doing it on “all our own” during times when we’re not particularly challenged.

But one or two important elements of our life shift, we recognize we’re feeling in over our heads, and suddenly, bam! The core issue is pressing on us: “I need to do it all on my own, but I’m in new territory here and it feels like I can’t do it on my own, but I have to because I’m not allowed to ask for help/ if I were a strong person I wouldn’t need help/ maybe the kind of help I need isn’t out there.” (I use this as an example because it’s, in my experience, a pretty common core issue for my perfectionist-leaning clients — and for myself as well!)

Another core issue could just as easily be “I can’t do it on my own — I need someone to do it for me or I won’t survive.” You can see that, while this could indeed be very true for a child, for an adult it might not be true in many circumstances (depending on what the thing is and any number of other factors).

If we, as adults, don’t take a look at the core issue that is popping up for us during challenging times, we can stay in a sort of “spin cycle” for a really long time because we don’t see a way out of it.

Usually, working with a core issue involves gaining more and more perspective around it over the course of our lives, so that what once may have felt debilitating or terribly shaming to us becomes something we understand, something we can work with, something we can hold.

So, when we’re really challenged by circumstances inner or outer or both, we need to find ways to calm and soothe our nervous systems so we can relax and detach enough to see the core issue and work with it rather than running away from it, ignoring it or pushing it down.

One of the ways I’ve noticed seems to be particularly helpful here is to call on our strengths by asking them to come forth with this question: What do I know about myself that will help me here?

What’s useful about the framing of this question is that it presupposes that we do know things about ourselves that we value, are unique to us, and that have helped us in the past. This circumvents our tendency during stressful times to go to a place of self-doubt or a place of noticing what’s NOT working and what we’re NOT good at (which is totally habitual for most of us when we’re feeling dazed by something we’ve never dealt with before and in over our heads.)

This works even if we don’t have a lot of life experience. When I was in elementary school, I absolutely hated participating in team sports, but I was forced to for daily gym class. At one point, I was struggling through some sport or other in the gymnasium, wearing my red gym uniform that always seemed way too big, and my teacher shouted out, “You’re holding your own, Jill.” (I’m pretty sure my fourth-grade teacher had gathered by this point that I hated gym, since I sometimes pretended to have a stomach ache to get out of it.)

Now, oddly, when my teacher told me I was holding my own, I believed her. It felt true — I was holding my own. I was actually somewhat nimble and good at catching balls here and there. I just didn’t enjoy any of it — I wanted to read Judy Blume books under a tree somewhere, not dodge the elbows of my aggressive classmates.

What got me through playing countless team sports in gym class for several years after that, though, was my belief in what my teacher had observed: I could hold my own. It sucked, I didn’t want to do it, but since I was a kid and I didn’t have the agency to get out of it, I could hold my own (though not so well in wretched games like bombardment!).

This was my “kid version” answer to the question “What do you know about yourself that will help you here?” “I am pretty good at holding my own.”

(And, Hallelujah, when I got to high school I had way more options for gym class and I took almost all dance classes, which I actually enjoyed.)

Now, notice that if I hadn’t believed my teacher’s observation that I was holding my own, it wouldn’t have been useful self-knowledge to draw upon. When we draw on what we know about ourselves, it won’t feel supportive if we don’t have a certain conviction about it.

A client I worked with several years ago had been through an incredibly stressful relationship break-up. I asked her what she knew about herself that could support her in this bereft-feeling place. She said (shared here with her permission), “I am really good at finding comfort in the most unexpected places.”

What a beautiful piece of self-knowledge! And notice how her essential self served that right up when I asked? We always have within us the seeds of what we need to navigate those extra-challenging spaces, even if they are only seeds and have some maturing to do. That’s often how the hard places end up serving us in the long-run — by maturing the seeds within us that are so ready for growth.

What do you notice about this for you? What do you know about yourself that will help you in a situation you’re currently facing? I’d love to hear from you!

And: In celebration of fall, my favorite season, my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions are back! If you’re in an “in-between” space this fall and needing some support, you might want to learn more. You can do that here

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

Above photos, respectively, by Anh Trandavide ragusa, and Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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Reconnecting with what you want (when you feel a little lost)

With only a couple of days left in 2018, I took a look back at my year and asked myself some key questions. (You can check out some of these questions in my 2017 year-end post.)

I also thought about the clients I’ve worked with, and what had come up for them. And it seems that the most common issue I’ve seen this year is along the lines of this: I feel like I’ve gotten off-track, somehow. I’ve lost the path. Or: I feel so busy and overwhelmed, I’ve forgotten why I’m doing this in the first place.

In the process of creating our lives, we will feel off-track, like we’ve lost sight of the path, and even if we feel “on-path”, we will feel so busy and overwhelmed at times that we’ll wonder whether what we’ve created is actually what we want.

This is not a matter of “if I were doing it right, I wouldn’t feel this way.” I hear this so often. We’re so quick to jump from “this doesn’t feel good” to “I must be doing it wrong!”

Repeat after me: Feeling uncomfortable, off-track, or overwhelmed is not a sign that you are “doing it wrong.”

It’s simply a sign that something is calling out for your attention. Something wants to be looked at more closely. 

The more we “push through” and/or ignore this inner nudge to look more closely at what’s going on within us, the more out of control and “off-track” we tend to feel.

(Ironically, we usually bulldoze over our feelings because we’re afraid feeling them will cause us to lose control. It’s true that we do “lose control” in the moment when we allow feelings to emerge. But overall, we gain more control of our lives when we are clear on what our feelings are trying to tell us. I highly recommend Karla McLaren’s books The Language of Emotions and The Art of Empathy on this topic.)

Being able to sit with uncomfortable feelings as they arise is key to connecting (or reconnecting) with what you really want. 

Why? Because until we are coming from a “clean” emotional space, we will keep taking the same actions that lead us to results that aren’t really what we want. I have written here before about making decisions from a place of peace, and I have quoted Lao-Tzu, who asked if we can find the patience to allow “muddy water” to become clear. At that point, said Lao-Tzu, the “right action” will arise by itself.

I have found this to be true in my own life time and again. But most of us are really resistant to believing this, because it requires a certain degree of trust to let go enough to allow our “inner muddy water” to become clear.

If we haven’t had a lot of practice in exercising our trust muscles — trust in ourselves to make solid decisions, and trust in the process of life — it can feel downright scary to not rush to action.

But, as I’ve often written here, when we rush to actions that feel “muddied” because we are so afraid of being still, we often make messes that we have to undo, or we perpetuate the same feeling we are trying to get away from by taking rushed action!

I am a prime example of this. As young as age ten or so, I developed a coping mechanism of getting through life by avoiding my emotions, rather than moving toward what I wanted. This coping mechanism became so automatic that by my mid-twenties my body literally broke down. Pushing down emotions only works for so long, my friends.

Our emotions are messengers for us. When we can sit with them, let them move up and out, without taking action on them right away, we clear the way for our intuition to emerge. It is our intuition — the voice of our essential self — that will point us to (or back to) what is deeply true for us.

So when we feel like we’ve “lost our way,” what’s usually going on is that we have been avoiding emotion.

It’s extremely common for me to hear from a client, “I feel like I don’t have time to deal with my emotions!” (This is coming from people who know the value of emotional work — that’s why they’ve signed up for life coaching! Our culture really drills into us the idea that we don’t have time to feel. We must challenge this idea.)

Now, once we have allowed emotion to come up and out, and have cleared the way for the voice of our essential self to make itself known (this voice can be quite subtle, which is why “muddy” emotions can seem to blot it out), we’ll often find that what emerges is one simple step to bring us closer to ourselves.

That’s it. Intuition does not come to us in a series of complicated steps that extend into the distant future — it is usually just one step, one “best” next step.

I was reminded of this while doing my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions this fall — the whole purpose of these sessions is to connect folks with their “best next step.” It never fails to delight us when, once we’ve let the muddy water clear a bit, that best next step pops right up with intensity. It may be a seemingly “tiny” thing, but it’s always strong and clear.

What’s fascinating is that once we’ve allowed our feelings to emerge, rather than pushing them down, we often find that we’re not as “off-track” as we think, or that our overwhelm is directly connected to the pushing down of our feelings, not to what we’re doing or not doing.

The good news here is that allowing our feelings to come up and out does not have to be some laborious, time-intensive process where we remove ourselves from our “regular lives” for weeks or months. In fact, it’s vital that we weave connection with our feelings into our daily lives.

When we connect this way, just checking in with how we’re feeling on a daily basis, we feel “off-track” far less, because in tending to our feelings and the message they have for us, we are clearing the way for intuition — the voice of the essential self. (You don’t have to actually “sit” with your feelings, by the way. I find walking, moving my body, most helpful for connecting with my emotions.)

How will you connect with what you’re feeling on a daily basis in 2019? What have you noticed about this process for you? I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I wish you a beautiful start to the New Year. 

(For more related to this topic, you might also find this post from last year helpful, or this one from years ago.)

Want to stay connected? You can get updates on my coaching offerings and other good stuff by subscribing to my monthly-ish newsletter, here.

I’ll be working with new coaching clients starting January 10, 2019. Wondering if I might be able to help? Feel free to check out my Is This You? page.

Above photo of candle by freestocks.org on Unsplash; snow globe by Aaron Burden on Unsplash; lamppost by Hide Obara on Unsplash

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A fond farewell to a feline friend

As we near the end of 2018, it feels right to share that earlier this year we said goodbye to our beloved Sullivan, feline extraordinaire.

I have tended to be quite hesitant to share publicly when my animal companions pass away, because they are so very dear to me and their passing feels, in some ways, exquisitely private.

But Sullivan was known to many of my coaching clients, and also to folks from the various communities of which I am a part.

Chances are, if we worked together on the phone, Sullivan was curled in my lap while we talked, or maybe you heard him purring wildly (which he did when he was in “lovey-dovey” mode —  it was so loud people would tell me they could practically feel the vibration of his purr as we talked). Or, if we did a Skype or Zoom session, you may have seen Sullivan pop up on your screen, or climbing the shelves or chairs in the background.

***

I adopted Sullivan back in 2005, as a companion for Slinky (who died of lymphoma in 2010). Sullivan was by far the skinniest cat in the shelter, but his spirit radiated joy. Even into his very last weeks, he maintained his “puppy-like” personality — he’s the only cat I’ve ever had who would trot happily over to me when I called his name. (When he felt like it, of course! He was, after all, a cat.)

Sharing a box with Slinky, around 2008 (Sullivan is on the right)

Sullivan was, in fact, so skinny when I adopted him that he looked rather like Dobby the House Elf — all ears. In those early days, people who met him were shocked at his thinness. Fast-forward to 2012, and he tipped the scales at nearly 13 pounds. (“He probably shouldn’t gain any more weight,” our wonderful vet, Dr. Brancel of Prairie State Animal Hospital, said with a laugh. I took this as a win!)

When Slinky left us in 2010, I was concerned Sullivan would be in deep grief, but he simply accepted her death and went on with life. I’d sensed as Slinky worsened that Sullivan “got it” — while he’d once demanded daily attention from her, and loved to ambush her on the couch or in a box where she was sleeping, he started to leave her alone, stopping when he passed to gently groom her now and then.

Ever the shelf sitter, in 2016

As far as we know, Sullivan was probably eighteen, or close to it, when he left us. Even into his last month or so of life, he remained a climber — he loved the top of the refrigerator, the highest shelf in the living room. We noticed, though, that he didn’t look out the windows as much in his last several months, and his favorite toy — a yellow “tiger tail” filled with catnip, was going untouched more and more.

It’s hard to imagine a sweeter soul than Sullivan, and as he aged, I reassured myself (or maybe chose the path of denial) by reminding myself that I’ve had cats for thirty-plus years, and that I was by now a seasoned veteran of cat loss, and I’d be able to “accept it” when Sullivan’s time came.

But you know what? I wasn’t even remotely ready. The loss has been extremely difficult for me, and for my partner, who first met Sullivan in 2011 and loved him almost as much as I did (though Sullivan remained, for the most part, a mama’s boy).

Sporting his Day of the Dead collar in 2015

Pets come into our lives for a relatively short time. When I adopted Sullivan in 2005, I was in a different place in my life, and I was a “youngish” person, while now, there’s no way around the fact that I am — a-hem — “middle-aged.” Sullivan made that passage with me, and it’s a period of my life that I’ll always cherish.

When the time came (and you never truly know when it’s “time”), we used this service for in-home euthanasia. A truly sensitive and compassionate vet, Megan Carolyn of Chicago, came to our home and we let Sullivan go.

When I started my life coaching practice in early 2011, Sullivan became my CEO of Curiosity and Relaxation. His presence was a constant reminder to me that I didn’t have to push so hard all the time, and that just being curious about the goings-on within me would take me a very long way.

We miss and will continue to miss you, beloved friend.

***

By the way, if you’re dealing with the loss of a pet, I was helped immensely after Sullivan died by the blog of Joy Davy (who also has a book on pet loss).

And please know, this is tough stuff and there is nothing wrong or weird about feeling intense grief over the loss of an animal companion. Pets, probably more than people for many of us, are so integrated into our homes, our daily lives, that they can leave a truly massive void.

Pets also provide us with the benefits of oxytocin — the “love hormone” that is released when we touch them. This hormone is in part related to mother-infant bonding, and it is said to have anti-inflammatory benefits. When that’s taken away, it hurts. (Research also shows that the frequency of a cat’s purr has healing properties.) No wonder so many of us feel better with animal in our lives.

(And yes, we do have a new feline companion named Genevieve, a.k.a. Little G, a.k.a. The QUOTH — Queen of the House. I’ll introduce Genevieve in a future post.)

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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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