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.

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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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What shifts when you stop fighting your feelings?

The other day I was on the phone with a friend, explaining how I felt about something that had happened recently in a rather heated way. When I finally paused, my friend said, “It makes total sense that you feel that way.”

After I hung up with her, I went out for a quick walk, and as I passed my neighbor and his two adorable dogs (I’m always instantly happy when I see them!) it occurred to me that something had deeply relaxed in me since I got off the phone with my friend.

It had relaxed because she had validated my feelings. She had pointed out that the way I felt totally made sense. For me. In this situation.

And the reason I’d felt so worked up when I’d begun telling her my tale was because I’d felt I needed to argue my point — a part of me was believing I shouldn’t feel the way I felt about the situation.

When my friend pointed out that how I felt made sense, something clicked.

When I relaxed and allowed and validated my feelings (thanks to my friend “lending” me her validation), I knew exactly what I needed to do to take care of myself in the situation.

When I was wondering if my feelings were “okay,” I was judging myself for having them and then believing I couldn’t take care of myself. Because “maybe I shouldn’t feel this way in the first place? Maybe I’m selfish? Maybe I need too much? Maybe my feelings are just too much?”

One of the coaches who trained me back when I went through life coach training in 2010 said that a lot of times when she asked a client to describe what they were feeling, they ended up describing fighting a feeling, rather than the feeling itself.

For some of us, fighting a feeling is all we actually know. We’ve never gotten beneath the feeling of resisting a feeling to the core feeling.

Does this sound familiar? If you grew up in, or currently work or live in, an environment where authentic emotion was or is not encouraged (and I think this applies to, oh, 99% of humans?!), chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about.

If you could believe that how you feel makes total sense for who you are and the situation you’re in, what might be possible?

Could you relax more? Could you, as I did after talking to my friend, connect more easily and quickly with what you need to do to take care of yourself? Could you view yourself, your life, and the people around you more clearly (because your vision is not clouded by fighting so hard against a feeling, or arguing so hard for your right to it)?

When we’re not fighting our feelings, or our right to our feelings, they come up, move through us, and find resolution. (Karla McLaren writes in depth about this process in her incredibly helpful books and on her website).

And we have far more access to our inner guidance when we’re not fighting or suppressing our feelings. It’s from that more relaxed place of accepting the feelings that we can see what their message for us may be. (It’s also from that place of acceptance, I’ve found, that my clients find themselves shifting out of “creative blocks.”)

Signs you may be fighting a feeling:

• You keep venting about something and it feels unresolved

• You catch yourself channeling Spock, saying things like “It’s not logical to feel, think or do this”

• You insist that the only thing you feel is boredom or apathy

• You’re easily irritated, angered, or feel ready to cry (but you don’t)

• You’re convinced that you “should” or you “have to” do something, but you’re not doing it

If this is the space you’re in, it’s time to create safety for yourself. My friend’s kind and patient presence and her validation of what I felt did that for me. On some days, though, I need to find other ways. I love the audios on self-compassion expert Kristin Neff’s site, particularly the one called “Soften, soothe, allow,” for this purpose.

The key word here is permission. If you had permission to feel just how you feel, if you could give that to yourself (because ultimately, we do have to give it to ourselves), what might you notice? What would be possible? These are (some of) the questions to ask. You can probably come up with new ones!

What do you notice about this process for you? What shifts for you when you allow yourself to feel whatever you feel? I’d love to hear from you.

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for more articles and updates on my coaching offerings (including occasional specials for newsletter subscribers!) here.

If you need support in practicing excellent self-care while making your creative work a priority, I’d love to help! You can find out more about working with me, here.

Above blue jay images by Steve Douglas and Erin Wilson on Unsplash, respectively

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Working with the things you can’t change

Truth be told, I am not a big fan of summer. (I actually really dislike temperatures above about 75 degrees F). Fall, on the other hand, is magic to me. I basically wait out June, July, and August — once September hits, I can see the end of summer and breathe easier.

But, where I live in the Chicago area, summer (and a long one at that) is a given. Unless I decide to seek out a place where there’s no hot weather, summer is going to be here whether I love it or not. It’s one of those non-negotiables.

Non-negotiables are those things that just are — we can’t change them no matter how much we may want to.

Byron Katie talks in her work about “the three kinds of business” — my business, your business, and God’s business (or you might call this “the universe’s business”). (Katie’s tool The Work is a powerful one for dealing with things we have limited ability to change that are causing us pain, by the way.)

You can probably guess that “non-negotiables” fall into the realms of God’s business and “other people’s business”. I have a certain amount of control and influence when it comes to the realm of my own business, but when it comes to those other two, not so much (or, in some cases, none at all).

The arrival of summer is one of those things that falls into the realm of God’s business. For a client I worked with recently, her “non-negotiable” was that her son is moving to another country soon (her son’s business). A part of her doesn’t want it to be so (while a part of her is excited for him), but no matter how she feels about it, it’s happening.

We don’t have choices about the non-negotiables — except in how we respond to them, relate to them, hold them.

When my beloved cat passed away last year, I didn’t have a choice about letting him go — he was going to go whether I raged against it, tortured myself over it, or tried desperately to keep him here. I chose to respond to his illness — on my better days, anyway — by keeping him as comfortable as possible, loving him tons, and feeling huge gratitude for the gift of his presence in my life.

A friend who has a chronic illness told me, “I can’t get rid of this right now, or maybe ever, but I’m using it to learn more about myself.” (Since I can hardly think of anything more rewarding than the opportunity to know oneself better, I was truly wowed by this statement.)

Sometimes, we can take a nonnegotiable and turn it on its head by simply focusing on the things we do like about it — even if they’re relatively few and far between.

Summer? Well, I like wearing sandals and skirts in the summer. They feel freeing to me. I like going to the Polar Bear, which is only open in the summer months, and getting a sundae or a shake. There’s a courtyard building a couple of blocks from me where I can spot the resident cats lazing on the grass — but only during summer, when it’s warm enough for them to be out.

And I like my memories of childhood summers, when I ran barefoot around the neighborhood, orchestrating the other kids into complicated creative projects, and watching the local music video channel with my friend-down-the-street, always holding our breath in hopes of seeing something by Prince or Madonna or The Thompson Twins.

So yeah, not a fan of summer — but summer has brought me plenty of joys.

We can also “better” our non-negotiables. When I had to get a root canal a few years ago, I scheduled it at a time when my partner could drop me off and pick me up so his presence could comfort me before and after. (He also bought me this while I was at the appointment. He’s good like that.)

Sometimes, the non-negotiables in our lives are simply there. They may strengthen our acceptance muscles, should we choose to use them that way. They may offer us a chance to deepen our relationship to uncertainty, or to know ourselves in a way we might not have without them. They may spark kindness in us toward ourselves that was previously absent, or a softening toward ourselves and all of life. I’ve learned — through the non-negotiables in my life thus far — to be so much gentler with myself and others than I once was (and, at times, fiercer than I knew I could be before).

What have you noticed about the non-negotiables in your life? I’d love to hear from you.

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

If you need support in practicing excellent self-care while making your creative work a priority, I’d love to help! You can find out more about working with me, here.

Above images by Jake Givens, Clark Young, and Brina Blum, respectively, on Unsplash

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Comparison and the “iceberg theory”

Sometimes when I am working with a life coaching client, I become aware that there is a kind of unspoken self-judgment going on for the client that has to do with comparison. It often shows up in a desire to give up on something difficult they’ve started, or a belief that “something is wrong” with them.

If we unravel these beliefs a little bit, we often get to a deeper belief that might be something like “If I were meant to do this, it wouldn’t be so hard for me.” This is just a shade away from “It seems so easy for _____. What’s wrong with me that it’s easy for her, but hard for me?”

Geneen Roth once wrote that we tend to compare ourselves to people whose struggles are not apparent. Which brings me to what I call the “iceberg theory” of comparison.

We’ve all heard the phrase “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” alluding to the idea that there’s a lot more to a problem or situation than the little bit we’ve touched on.

We can apply this idea to people as well: there is always more (sometimes much more) going on beneath the surface, below what we see “above the water.”

This applies even to people who share a lot about their struggles. One of my clients a while back compared herself to someone in her same profession who revealed a lot about herself on her blog. My client said, “There’s no way I could be so comfortable with revealing everything about myself.”

Notice the assumptions there? One, that the blogger was “comfortable” about revealing things about herself and her life. And two, that what she was revealing about herself was “everything.” That we were seeing the foundation of the iceberg beneath the water, when maybe we were just seeing a little further down the iceberg than my client would have chosen to let an audience in on at that point.

There is always more — there is always stuff we’re not seeing in those to whom we compare ourselves.

When I started my relationship with my partner more than seven years ago, I compared myself to him a lot. It seemed like so many things I struggled with came easily to him. And some of them truly did! (The excellent coach Theresa Trosky posed this question to me at the time: So those things should be easy for you, too?)

At some point our relationship turned a corner, and I began get back in touch with my own strengths, while still appreciating his, and also to realize that early in our relationship, his struggles had been far less apparent to me than they are now. In the first few months, I could only see the “tip of the iceberg” of my partner’s self. Now, I see much more, but I still don’t see everything. Just the other day he mentioned something that had been really hard for him to do, and I was surprised — I hadn’t known he struggled with that.

I have also had the experience of comparing myself to someone who truly did experience a lot of ease and joy in his life, most of the time. It wasn’t that he didn’t have heartbreak or disappointment, but he handled those things with a grace I couldn’t fathom finding in myself.

I felt a strange and painful combination of envy and admiration for him until one day I got the lesson: I wasn’t supposed to be him. It actually seemed to be true that I did struggle more in a lot of ways than he did — and maybe, at the end of the day, that was okay, because my life had a different purpose, a different thrust, than his.

When I finally got this at a deep level, not only did I feel a huge relief (and found this person much easier to be around!), but I realized something that has continued to be a theme in my life since then (nearly twenty years ago now): When I’m comparing myself to someone else, it’s a chance for me to practice deeper self-acceptance. Because the more self-accepting I feel, the less I seem to have the need to compare myself to others.

***

The purpose of the iceberg metaphor is not to provide a way for us to point at someone else and say, “She doesn’t really have it all together — we’re just not seeing how messy her life really is!” It’s a way to remind ourselves of the humanity, complexity, and depth of others — that they, too, struggle, despite how it may appear to us on a given day.

When I work with a client who’s caught in comparison, we first apply lots and lots of kindness and empathy. Our current world makes it easier than ever to compare ourselves (not to mention there is a part of our brain that has the sole purpose of comparing, in order to help us survive!).

Then, we reality-check. Can we really know it’s true that things always go so smoothly for the person we’re comparing ourselves to? And even if life does tend to go pretty smoothly for them much of the time (or they’re just really good at handling it!), what are we making that mean about us? (As my coach Theresa helped me see years ago, just because something that was easy for my partner was really hard for me didn’t mean there was something wrong with me or that I couldn’t achieve it, too, with the right perspective and support).

At the heart of comparison, I’ve noticed time and again, is the belief that if we are struggling, there must be something wrong. With us. With our choices. While there are definitely times it’s possible to drop the struggle, a certain amount of struggle is inherent to our humanness. So it’s always worthwhile to do some investigating here about what is true for us.

What do you notice about comparison, for you? Does the “iceberg theory” resonate for you? I’d love to hear from you.

Want to stay connected? You are always welcome to subscribe to my Artist’s Nest Newsletter, for updates on my life coaching offerings, to get in on our community calls, and other good stuff. You can sign up, here.

Above images © Staphy | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and © Viktor Burkovsky | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Seven years of The Artist’s Nest

Seven years ago this month, I wrote my very first blog post (you can read it here!).

Seven years is a long time! (Five, I could believe — but seven? I often feel like I’m about two years “behind” and I need to catch up with myself somehow. Like life has gone by so quickly I haven’t been able to process it all. Can I just have an extra two years to process, please?)

Seven years ago, March 2011, I was fresh out of my training to become a Martha Beck life coach, and blogging was a way of letting people know about my new “thing” and sorting out the issues I saw coming up for my (gulp!) new clients and also issues I’d been working with myself.

But blogging here has become something much more than that for me. It’s a writing practice. It’s a practice of showing up. It’s a practice of pressing publish.

In many ways, it’s a spiritual practice for me, because it causes my “stuff” to come up. (Do I really want to write this? Do I really want to publish this? Do I really want to reach out and connect, with all that entails? It’s great to revisit these questions, and to ultimately see, again and again, that the answer is “yes.”)

There is something about sticking with a practice for the long haul. It’s a relationship. You don’t get the benefits of the relationship if you’re not willing to keep showing up, even when you’re not sure, even on the days you wonder “why the heck are we doing this again?”

So I’m glad I’ve hung in here for this blogging relationship. And I’m so grateful — and honored — to have connected with readers and clients I’d never have “met” had I not started blogging. These posts have been a starting point for some of my most treasured connections.

By the way, here are the ten most viewed posts on The Artist’s Nest from these past seven years:

When your downtime doesn’t happen

The difference between self-care and self-indulgence

Saving the worms

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

Getting out of analysis paralysis (or: what to do when you don’t know what to do)

A two-step journaling process (for when you’re feeling stuck or scared)

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

Two ways to deal with “idea paralysis”

Where self-acceptance and creativity meet

Knowing yourself: What words inspire you?

As any writer knows, it’s funny to look back at things you wrote a long time ago. With some of these earlier posts, I barely even remember them — I’m like, did I write that? (This kind of distance can be a great thing, as it helps you look at your writing — and yourself! — with more detachment. Which always makes me laugh, eventually.)

Just for good measure, here are three of my favorite posts:

Daily saving graces for hard times

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

Creating rituals around the tough stuff

Thank you, dear, dear readers, for your presence. Whether you’ve left a comment, shared a post, sent me an email (and some of you have done these things many times!), or simply “lurked” here (lurkers are most welcome!) — I am truly grateful. I’ve felt your presence, and it’s meant, and continues to mean, so very much to me.

Want to stay connected? My Artist’s Nest Newsletter contains brief updates on my coaching offerings, and other good stuff — like how to get in on our monthly Artist’s Nest Community Calls. I’d love to have you there! You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Above images © Yanik Chauvin | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and  © Lejla Alic | 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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Your creative work: When your family doesn’t get it

A reader named Rebecca wrote recently with a terrific question. Rebecca explained that she is the only artist in a “non-artistic” family, and she has finally gotten herself into a position to pursue her artwork full-time. She continues:

I feel like in general our culture views art (and many forms of self-care like meditation, getting enough sleep, setting boundaries on how much you commit to, etc) with disdain.  Being able to stay on top of housework, cook more (and not resent it for taking up what little free time I had after work), spend time with my cats and finally make my passion a priority has made me SO happy lately!!  …Yet I still feel super self-conscious talking about it with most people (especially family), because if you’re not “contributing to society” -dare I say: economy- it’s viewed as “selfish”, “lazy”, and “unfair” since most people don’t have the privilege or opportunity.  And what counts, of course, is those measurable, tangible achievements.  Job titles and accomplishments. 

How can we keep from being shaken by the world around us that says, “Shame on you!  You ought to be doing _____ instead”, and really embrace the value of things like Art and self-care?  Naturally, I feel happier when I make art a priority, but inevitably there’s that voice deep down that sneers at me that I’m some kind of leech on society, just fooling around while everyone else works hard.  So that’s been a struggle in fully embracing this new life, despite finally “pulling it off”….

So … it strikes me that there are two parts to this question.

The first has to do with how (in many cases) it’s extra challenging to be an artist when we grew up in a situation where our creativity wasn’t supported, or maybe just not understood.

That’s because so much is going on with the development of our brains when we are young and tender.  (I can still remember putting on a play when I was about five and being laughed at. I thought I was doing something cool and important, and I was hit with derision. My brain started — at that very young age — to formulate a belief: expressing yourself creatively brings pain. Ouch!)

The second part of this question is about valuing our own creative work (or play, as I prefer to call it!). How do we do that when doing it flies in the face of a culture that values things like being constantly busy and bringing in X amount of dollars? I’ll touch on that part of the question here, but get into it more in depth in my next post.

I’m not going to pretend that I absolutely know the answers here. These inquiries are big, and complex, and important. Those of us who care about creativity and make it a focus in our lives will be working with these issues probably forever.

But I’ll start here.

It’s a universal human need to be seen and validated for being who we are. If we didn’t experience this as we were growing up, we have a sort of “extra hurdle” there, whether we deeply value creativity or not.

Add to that the fact that, yes, our “mainstream world” has typically made it challenging to be a creator (though I believe this is shifting in many ways right now), and salt is definitely sprinkled liberally on the wound that is already there.

Radical self-care is vital to robust creativity

I’m not surprised Rebecca mentioned the de-valuing of self-care in our Western culture as well. It’s fascinating to me that creativity (and the valuing of it) is not-so-loosely connected to self-care (and the valuing of it).  (I’ve written tons here on the topic of self-care as it relates to creativity, because the two are so deeply intertwined.)

I’ve noticed over the years, first when I was in grad school pursuing a degree in creative writing, and then, as I started working with life coaching clients back in 2011, that so many of us start out with this very natural creative curiosity and purpose — and then, we start to apply these ideas about “what it takes to make it in the world” to our creativity.

And we can end up very burned out, and, sometimes, very bitter and what I call “creatively confused.” This is where we’re like, “What the heck happened? I used to love [writing, acting, painting] and now I am sick of it. I just want to crawl into a hole.”

The thing is, this is almost always a lie. We’re not sick of whatever our creative thing is — we’re sick of the beliefs and the process that extends from those beliefs that we’ve created around our creative thing.

In other words, we have this tendency to recreate the family members that don’t get it, and the “world out there” which dictates that there isn’t real value or money in our creative work so why do it?, inside ourselves.

It’s kind of like how you might have had a lot of bad bosses when you were an employee, but when you shift to self-employment, if you don’t watch how you’re treating yourself, you can end up being the worst boss you ever had.

So to circle back to Rebecca’s excellent question: we need to commit to giving ourselves the permission, the kindness, the self-care, the encouragement, that we never got (and in many cases are not currently getting) from our families of origin and “the world”.

At a certain point, it is no longer about them — it is about us and the fact that we’ve recreated their lack of understanding and validation inside ourselves. And when we’re not giving it to ourselves, we want it from them (and the world) that much more.

We will feel shaken — and that’s okay

Okay — so, waaayyyy easier said than done, right? Because we are human — we’re vulnerable and fragile, and, as one of my friends says, “I keep getting stronger, but then some days I break all over again.” Yes. We do. We all do, some days.

So, we will be shaken by the world around us that does not seem to value our creative work, our need for self-care, and who we essentially are — on some days. It will happen.

Recognizing that it’s going to happen is important. Because then when it happens, we don’t have to be all appalled and frightened. In other words, we don’t have to be shaken about being shaken. We can just be like, “Oh — I’m noticing it’s happening again.”

Exquisite support: share deeply only with those who really get it

So that’s when we turn to our support systems — inner and outer. This is how we create for ourselves the world we want to live in.

This is when we turn to radical self-care, and to exquisite support — the people who really do get it. 

We are enormously blessed in this day and age that technology allows us to connect with people who get it, who get us. (I was curious about a line in a song on Tori Amos’s gorgeous new album recently and I asked the members of a Tori Facebook group what they thought it meant, and I received some beautifully detailed responses from people who’d also been pondering this same line in this same song literally within minutes.)

For many of us, this support must come from outside of our family of origin.

I don’t mean that we shouldn’t work to heal from the past — we can and often must — but when we try to receive the exquisite support we require from the source of the original wounding (or simply lack of understanding), we are actually recreating our pain. (Or just banging our head against the wall. You may have heard the phrase “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” It applies here.)

I am very careful about what I share with family members about my creative work. Because I value emotional connection so much, it’s easy for me to “overshare”, so I am mindful here.

Giving ourselves permission to be selective about who we share with is fundamental to self-care in this way. Notice who deeply sees and supports you, and who seems to stir up negative stuff for you. You can love people and still limit your discussions on certain topics with them.

(Note that your capacity to share with certain people may change from month to month, year to year, depending on where you are and what you’re going through — and vice versa.)

***

The other thing, which is foundational, is to remind yourself regularly of your why? Why is what you’re creating important to you? When you are deeply in touch with your “why”, your creative purpose has strong roots and you are not as easily shaken.

Surround yourself with the conditions — as much as you can — that remind you of your why and validate it, that help you remember it is important, it is worthwhile.

(In a future post, we’ll get into what to do when you’ve lost touch with your “why.” Edit: Find that post here.)

There is so much more here. For now, I’ll let you take the wheel. What do you think? How do you reaffirm your belief in your creativity and support yourself in making it a focus? I’d love to hear from you. And huge thanks to Rebecca for this excellent inquiry.

Above images © Grafvision | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and © Refat Mamuto | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Getting clear on what’s true for you

Several years ago I was talking to a friend of mine (who also happens to be a very gifted life coach). During our conversation, I kept comparing myself to someone else I admired, saying “I just can’t do what she does.”

My friend pointed out my use of the word “can’t” and asked me: “You can’t — or you don’t want to?”

I stopped and pondered for a moment. Oh, my friend was wise. The truth was, I didn’t want to do what this woman was doing. It was wonderful — for her, but not for me.

This realization brought me to another question: Why was I choosing to believe I wasn’t capable of doing something, when the truth was that I didn’t want to do it at all?

It occurred to me that it was “easier” for me to believe I just couldn’t than to accept and sit with that fact that, as is often true for me, someone else’s path wasn’t my path. Allowing this truth to surface meant that I would need to find another way that did work for me, for who I was (and am).

It is challenging to look inward for guidance when it seems so much easier to look outward. Realizing we don’t want to do it the way “everyone else” is doing it may trigger stuff for us, too.  (“Why can’t I do it the way she does it — what’s wrong with me?”)

Guidance that doesn’t fit us, however, is not “easy” at all. Trying to follow it feels like wearing a pair of shoes that are too loose or too tight — it’s hard to get where you’re going that way!

Isn’t it fascinating that our minds will actually believe things that are not deeply true for us, rather than take in truths that may be hard to accept? And yet, this happens all the time. I see it often with my life coaching clients — which is why, sometimes, our work is about simply creating enough safety and comfort for them to be with whatever their truth may be.

Because here’s the thing: if we aren’t standing in our truth, we have no solid foundation to build on. Somebody else’s truth, somebody else’s guidance, won’t do it for us (unless it truly resonates for us).

So how do we get clear on what’s true for us?

• Be sure that you want to know the truth. Sometimes I’ve worked with a client who realizes “I don’t want to get clear right now. I have so much going on that is causing fear and chaos for me, and I’m just not ready yet.” This is totally valid. You know what’s best for you — and in fact, a feeling of safety is key in allowing the truth to surface. Allow yourself to get to that place of safety — that inner feeling of safety — first.

• Don’t force it. You don’t have to grasp or push to know what it true for you — the truth arises when you feel safe enough to be with it and when you are in a place of relative peace. (I often connect with what’s true for me when I take my morning walks, which bring me to a peaceful place of acceptance most days.)

• Notice the language you’re using, as my coach friend helped me do during our conversation. If you hear words like “can’t”, “should”, “never” or “always”, that’s your mind going to an all-or-nothing place — and chances are, those words are not true for you.

• Know that your truth is not deeply buried. When you feel safe to contact it, to express it, you’ll find that it’s right there waiting to be honored. If writing is your thing, a simple and helpful exercise is to go to your journal and write: “What I really want to say is … ” (Thanks to Natalie Goldberg for this idea, which I found years ago in her book Wild Mind.)

• Again, safety. And support. Who is a person you trust, who is good at reflecting to you who you are, as my friend did for me? She knew me well enough to intuit that my “can’t” wasn’t really a “can’t” at all, and she played that hunch.

It is so much easier to move forward — even with the really challenging stuff — when we are doing so from a foundation of what is true for us. That starts with letting yourself know what is true, and going from there.

A quick update: My one-on-one coaching program Light Up Your Creative Self will close after September 30. This program may be for you if you are feeling blocked, stuck or simply like you are flailing in the dark when it comes to a creative project or your creativity in general. I have typically done this program with writers, but it is open to anyone who feels called to it — we are all creative (even when it doesn’t feel like it!). Interested? Find out more on my Ways We Can Work Together page, here. (By the way, it’s $25 off the total price through the 30th.)

Above image is “Autumn Leaf” © Ronfromyork | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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When the “small” isn’t small, at all

I won’t even go into what a bad week it’s been. You know what’s been going on. And maybe, like me, you’ve been feeling sad and overwhelmed.

“Overwhelmed” is not a great place from which to take action. Sadness, though, can be  powerful. Sadness points us to what matters to us.

***

Today my partner and I were at Target, and I was scouring the back-to-school section for the inexpensive notebooks I use as journals. A woman came up to us and said to him, “Hey, are you the guy who taught creative writing to my daughter last summer? My daughter loved your class!”

Now, my partner has been feeling sad this summer because the writing class he has taught to high school students for the past few summers was canceled this year. But here, here was in-person feedback from the universe that that class mattered. His teaching matters.

This woman could have passed us by. She had only met my partner once, at the reading the kids did as the culmination of the class, and she wasn’t even totally sure she recognized him. But she took a chance and walked up to us and reached out.

It mattered.

***

A few months ago, when it was still winter, I saw a sign for a lost black cat up in Starbucks. I jotted down the phone number on a piece of napkin, just in case. I do this. I can’t stand the idea that an animal and its person are suffering.

During the next several days, I did indeed see a black cat in one of the parking lots near us. It looked kind of like the cat on the poster. I fished the piece of napkin out of my bag and called the number.

A woman answered. She sounded anxious. I told her I had seen this cat and wondered if it could be hers. It turned out she lived in a suburb about an hour’s drive from me. She had no idea how the poster had even been hung in a Starbucks near me.

After some discussion, we realized the cat I was seeing could not have been hers. It was a little too fluffy and a little too standoffish and a little too large, and it had a little bit of white on it, whereas her cat did not. With disappointment, we both knew it wasn’t her cat.

But we talked for about twenty minutes, anyway. We talked about our cats, past and present. We talked about how hard it is to love and to let go, and how the not knowing is the most terrible part of having a missing pet.

Getting off the phone, I told her I was so sorry the cat I was seeing was not her cat. “That’s okay,” she said. “It’s good knowing someone is out there watching out for her.”

It wasn’t her cat, but my reaching out mattered.

Almost every time I do something like that, like calling a number on a poster about a lost cat, I catch myself thinking, should I even do this? Will this make a difference?

***

When I was twenty-one, I worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in one of the gift shops. It was, at that time, called the Koala Shop. (The koala habitat was actually in the center of the shop, so all day I watched the koalas. They slept about 99.99 percent of the time.)

One day, a customer yelled at me for ringing up her merchandise incorrectly. She called me stupid and said she was surprised I could hold down a job. It was not a good time in my life, and later that day, during a lull, I stood out on the sales floor with a co-worker, openly crying. Not easy for me. I’ve always been a pretty private person, and was even more so back then.

My co-worker asked me quiet questions about what happened and just let me cry. He acted like my crying was the most natural thing in the world. He stood there, a few feet away from me, gently nodding and talking to me here and there, but also being quiet at just the right times, until I was all cried out.

I never had contact with that guy after I stopped working at the zoo, but oh, what he did for me that day mattered. He gave me permission to have my emotions, at a time in my life when I wasn’t sure it was okay to feel what I felt.

***

I am always telling my coaching clients that the more we look for something, the more evidence we find that it exists. That day, in the zoo shop, I started building evidence for the fact that I could feel what I felt and express it and I would experience kindness in response.

And when I think back to my time working in that shop, my mind instantly goes to my fellow employee’s kindness that day. I wonder if he even remembers. And I’m sure he has no idea how profound his gentle acceptance of me was — I never told him.

It is so easy to discount these things, these things we tend to call “small”. We forget that the world is made of up relationships. That we are always in relationship — to other people, to ourselves, to the animals and trees and oceans.

But this is how we do it — one interaction at a time. This is how we add love to the world. And we need to believe it matters.

If you want to see more evidence of love, where can you add love?

I guarantee you, it matters.

Where have you experienced “small” acts of love that made a big difference for you? I’d love to hear from you. (Because the “small” isn’t small, at all.)

P. S. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed because you care so much (but you need to take care of you, too), you might love this post from Jennifer Louden. I did.

Above image © Yoyo1972 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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