Back to basics: practicing presence

As I write this, it’s a rainy fall day and drops are pelting the bedroom window. The change in seasons has got me pondering my own, internal seasons. How often do we forget that, as humans, we are part of the natural world, and we, too, have seasons and cycles?

Too often I hear from my coaching clients that they haven’t taken a real vacation in years, that they keep putting off allowing themselves rest and downtime for when they’re “less busy” (and that time never seems to arrive!), or that when they do give themselves time off, they still feel burdened with everything they “should” be doing.

And I really hear this, because after more than two decades of serious devotion to my own self-care, I too struggle with giving myself true, dedicated downtime, with really allowing myself to deeply pause and acknowledge where I truly am in my life and what my needs are in this season.

We need to exercise our self-compassion muscles here, because very likely (whether you are U.S.-based as I am or not) the prevailing culture does not support you in taking deep and discerning care of yourself — particularly if you have needs that cause you not to fit neatly into the dominant paradigm. And let’s face it: that’s just about everyone at some point in their lives.

***

This morning I went for a walk and saw, in the window of the gray house three doors down, a long-haired white cat peering lazily at me, chin resting on the window sill, seemingly mid-nap but doing that half-open-eye thing cats do where they’re between worlds, not awake but not fully asleep, and yet somehow totally aware of their surroundings. Whenever I see this cat it is in a state of repose, reminding me that I can always access stillness, no matter what is going on in my world, in the world.

The quality of my being changed as soon as I saw the cat — I am often in a bad mood when I head out for my morning walk — and I began to notice yellow leaves floating to the sidewalk, jack-o-lantern decorations strung along a balcony, a vintage-looking cardboard witch with a purple hat on someone’s front door, and an unseasonably humid breeze hitting my face like warm breath.

If, like me, you are an introvert (and a Myers-Briggs “N” type), a regular process of noticing your surroundings, of using your senses to engage with the world, can be truly grounding and stabilizing. Noticing the “external landscape” can also balance your tendency to delve inward and be in your “inner landscape” a lot.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you feel a frenetic kind of busy-ness in your life that never seems to end, you may need to give yourself permission to access your inner world, your inner landscape. (This used to be me, an introvert who wouldn’t allow herself the gifts of introversion!)

If you identify as an introvert, or a highly sensitive person, you will suffer if you are too externally-focused for long periods of time, just as you can go to the other extreme and sometimes delve for very long periods in your inner world. (Elaine Aron, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, calls this the dilemma of “too in or too out”, and I often see my highly sensitive clients struggling here.)

Finding this balance is not necessarily easy, but there is a simplicity to it, and that often has to do with choosing one thinga morning walk, a meditative drive, working in your garden, twenty minutes with your journal (writing by hand), a yoga routine — which involves the body, the breath, and noticing. In this way we connect with our physical selves, our emotional selves, and what we see around us. It’s a way of integrating our internal and external landscapes, so we feel more connected to our essential selves and to the world.

Reading books that help us do this is a great practice too. Poetry can be brilliant at this — connecting images, what is seen and sensed, to our internal landscapes. A friend of mine shared that knitting brings her to this space of integration of inner and outer worlds.

A regular practice of noticing also brings us to the present moment, the only moment in which we have true agency and true connection to who we are, right now (the “us” of the past is no longer here, and “us” of the future doesn’t exist yet — but how often are we experiencing stress because our minds are in the past or the future?).

If you are feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated, ungrounded (or simply grumpy as I am in the morning!), what regular practice can bring you to engagement and connection with the present moment? It may take some testing and trying, but I encourage you not give up, and give it a chance to take hold. (This means trying it out for more than a few minutes once every few months! Maybe aim for twenty minutes several times a week, and see what happens.)

On that note, Happy Fall (my favorite time of year!)! What does this new season bring for you in terms of caring for your sensitive self? What practices support you here? I’d love to hear from you.

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

Need support in taking care of your unique and sensitive self while making your creativity a priority? You can learn more about the ways we can work together, here. Wondering if we’re a fit? You can learn more, here.

Above cat image by Tina Rataj-Berard on Unsplash

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Mood, assumptions, and action

Sometimes when I am working with coaching clients, we talk about things that boil down, in essence, to “low mood.” Low mood is basically “I don’t feel like doing anything. I feel kind of sluggish and down.”

Low mood can be associated with depression, that’s for sure. Low mood can also have a chemical or hormonal component. It can also be, for some of us, our natural “setpoint.” If this is the case, it’s helpful to understand that, and to know that we may need to shift ourselves into action before we feel like doing anything. Wow! That’s a tough one, right?

I have written before about the importance of shifting our energy. I actually prefer this phrasing to “taking action.”

There tends to be a huge emphasis in U.S. culture, and, quite frankly, the coaching/personal-growth world, on “taking action.” Taking action is viewed as the “right thing” and stepping back, pondering, slowing down are often viewed as “not taking action” and therefore, the wrong thing.

Obviously, context is important here. It is definitely important to take action in support of injustice and in support of things we care about. We want to take actions that align with our values.

But many of my coaching clients have been addicted to “taking action,” and growth, for them, has been to slow down and learn that it’s okay to not do. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to be.

All this said, when we are dealing with “low mood,” it can be important to take actions to shift that mood. Acceptance also comes into play here.

I know, for example, that my “default state” when I get up in the morning is low mood. It’s been this way since I was a kid. I can remember walking into the kitchen before I left for school for the day and my dad would be shaving in the little bathroom in the hall. “Good morning, Jillie!” he (a morning person) would say. I would grumble, barely audibly, good morning. His cheerfulness, at that time of day, was jarring to me.

Rather than “forcing myself” to be cheerful, I’ve found that it helps a lot to a) know that I am in a low mood place when I get up in the morning, and b) know that this will shift as I take gentle actions to start my day.

Sometimes we can get stuck in a kind of belief that is something like “I shouldn’t feel this way in the morning. What is wrong with me?”

Obviously, if we have severe low mood that is actually impairing our ability to function, this is something to check out with a doctor. But if, like me and some of my clients, you know you have a certain “low mood” default place, this self-knowledge is important.

And beyond that, self-acceptance — this is how I feel at X time of day and that’s okay, that’s part of being who I am so far in this lifetime — will allow you to move forward, rather than spinning your wheels in the land of “I shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t be this way.”

The thing about low mood is that when our minds get going in that space, we can spin out many very “negative” thoughts that increase the low mood.

In this low mood space, we may notice that we have many “negative” assumptions about things, life, and other people as well. (I put “negative” in quotes because I actually don’t like to view thoughts as “negative” or “positive”, or feelings, either. I think it’s more important to notice the feelings and behaviors that certain thoughts trigger than to label any of it “negative.”)

For example, in a low mood state I might read an email from someone and it comes across as snippy or rude to me. Later, in a more balanced mood state, it may come across as neutral.

In a low mood state, ideas or plans that previously felt important and good can seem trivial or exhausting.

It’s important to recognize that your mood can have a significant effect on what you’re experiencing, how you’re experiencing it, and the assumptions you make about other people.

Shifting out of a low mood space can be pretty simple. It’s why I take a walk every morning. It’s why I get my coffee out instead of making it at home — I get to exchange hello’s and how are you’s with the people who work in the coffee place, and I get to say hi to my neighbors (and their dogs!) on my way home. By the time I’m ready to go to work for the day, my mood has shifted to something more open, more grounded, more curious.

The steps to this shift can look like this:

  • Notice. Simply be curious about how you’re feeling at the moment (it’s pretty hard to be judgmental and curious at the same time — they are opposite energies!).
  • Move your body (in whatever way this is possible for you).
  • Connect with another being (human or animal) in a tiny way. Don’t make it too big! If connecting feels like too much, try observing someone else’s good-feeling energy. This might mean just taking a minute to watch a couple of sparrows (as I did the other day).

What do you notice about your “default mood”? How do you work with it? I’d love to hear from you.

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

Need support in taking care of your unique and sensitive self while making your creative work a priority? You can learn more about the ways we can work together, here. Wondering if we’re a fit? You can learn more, here.

Above images by Ludemeula Fernandes on Unsplash and MIKHAIL VASILYEV on Unsplash, respectively

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The power of acknowledging what is true

The other day I began to feel tired and to develop a sinus headache relatively early in the day. By 2 p.m., I was pretty wiped out and really didn’t feel like doing anything else. Something in me, though, kept pushing on, trying to get done the things I’d planned for the day. I noticed as the day rolled on that I felt increasingly edgy and dissatisfied and disconnected from myself.

At about 4 p.m., I sat down on the couch and realized I was in a lot of resistance to what was true for me in that day, that moment.

I also realized (because I have been here so many times before!) that acknowledging and accepting what was true was actually the way to presence and freedom, not pushing against it as my mind would have me believe.

And as soon as I recognized that it was okay to feel exactly what I was feeling and be exactly where I was, the tension I was holding in my body shifted. My breathing slowed and became deeper. When I allowed what I was feeling, I felt freed up to go on with the day (and also to call it a day, if that’s what I chose), rather than locked into a “bad feeling place.”

I’ve written previously about “fighting a feeling”. In fact, a lot of times when I ask a coaching client what they are feeling, they describe to me the experience of fighting a feeling, trying to push something down because it is in some way unacceptable to them. Similar to trying to hold a beach ball under water, this takes a ton of energy and ultimately just doesn’t work! (That beach ball somehow manages to pop back up every time.) When we fight with our feelings, we use up a huge amount of energy that can be available to us for living our lives.

I notice that, for me, what sometimes keeps me from acknowledging and accepting feelings is the idea that, if I fully allow them into consciousness, I won’t be able to do what I need to do. This is the mentality that leads us to burnout. In fact, Amelia and Emily Nagoski describe this in their book Burnout as “not completing the stress cycle.”

When feelings come up, they are meant to be attended to. They’re signals to us. In my case, physical symptoms — my tiredness and sinus headache — were pointing me to a need for a certain type of self-care that had been lacking: I needed better sleep, and to take a look at how I much was pressuring myself to do in a given day or week, and to take some things off my plate. If I had persisted in pushing down my tiredness and general grumpy feeling, I wouldn’t have been able to attend to my needs (because I wouldn’t have been fully aware of them!).

Did acknowledging, accepting, and attending to my feelings prevent me from getting stuff done? No. In fact, it helped me to approach what I needed to do more mindfully and realistically. It helped me put my attention where I wanted it to be (on my clients, on the beautiful day outside, on the text my friend had sent), rather than on trying to push down the beach ball of “unwanted” feelings. Letting my feelings know they were wanted was key to hearing their message for me.

A client said to me recently, but what if when I acknowledge my feelings, their message for me is that I have to take an action I don’t want to take? Ah, I’ve definitely had that fear as well. The thing is, you are still the one running the show that is your life. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings doesn’t mean you have to do anything. What it does do is open you to information about what’s going on for you.

You may choose to do one thing, or another, or nothing at all with that information, but opening yourself to the information gives you the opportunity to understand what’s going on for you more clearly and deeply, and from there you have a range of options that will not even seem in the realm of possibility when you are pushing feelings down.

In noticing our options, our nervous system relaxes. We no longer feel trapped and confined (with the resulting stress that goes along with that). When I acknowledged and accepted my tiredness, only then could I open myself to the myriad ways I could attend to it. When it remained unacknowledged and unaccepted, I felt like I was in the dark when it came to my needs, like my needs were hovering around the periphery and I kept elbowing them away.

There is power in naming what’s happening for us. This is why I’m such an advocate of journaling. When we see, on paper, what is up for us, it’s no longer a mysterious force driving us. We bring it to light, where we can work with it. And often, what’s going on is simpler than we think. Maybe we’re tired, as I was, or lonely, or sad, but we just haven’t named those things and brought them to awareness.

As you go through your day, when you’re noticing stress, chances are there are feelings that are not being given the airtime they need. What happens if you pause for a minute or two to acknowledge, accept, and attend to whatever you’re feeling? I’d love to hear about your experience of this.

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

Need support in taking care of your unique and sensitive self while making your creative work a priority? I currently have one opening for one-on-one coaching. You can learn more about the ways we can work together, here. Wondering if we’re a fit? You can learn more, here.

Above cat images by Dan Gold and Aleksandar Cvetanovic on Unsplash, respectively.

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Shifting your relationship to the problem

One of my favorite books is Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, in which she discusses the concept of “widening the lens of attention.” (You can tell this is a book I’ve turned to again and again, given the amount of coffee stains on its pages!)

I thought about “widening the lens” while working with a client the other day. Something unexpected had come up in her life, and she was feeling overwhelmed. I could so relate to the feeling that this one thing had popped up and made everything feel unworkable.

And I was reminded that when we press up against a particular, seemingly unsolvable issue, like pressing our face to a window pane, we can lose sight of the context, and the spaciousness, in which the issue lives.

At the core of most overwhelming life issues is fear, and Tara writes about the importance of relating to our fear rather than acting from fear. Fear can narrow our focus, constricting our awareness until all that seems to exist is the issue before us.

This is a good thing when, say, we’re sitting in our living room and we smell smoke coming from the kitchen. For more complex issues — those tangled, sticky ones that seem like they have no solution (and in which there is no true emergency), it’s not so effective!

Our minds will tell us that we must combat a seemingly unsolvable problem until we have a solution — that’s what minds do. That’s why, when we’re “pressed up against it” like this, it’s important to “widen the lens” — to expand our field of awareness so that we create “right distance” from the problem.

This doesn’t mean that the problem ceases to be an issue (well, sometimes that actually does happen!). But it does mean that we become aware that this “insurmountable issue” is not the only thing in our lives — that there are things that are working very well alongside this challenging issue.

And so often, I’ve found, when we let go of the struggle around a particular issue, we can take cues from what is working. This allows us to see that a) we’re not in control of everything, and b) the problem, when viewed with more detachment and from a calmer place, may be just waiting for us not to solve it, but to change our relationship to it.

This is one of the reasons I do my “what worked well today?” evening pages exercise at least several times a week. Asking this question in my journal, and hand-writing the answers, helps connect me more deeply with what is going smoothly in my life — sometimes without a shred of conscious input from me! (Some of my clients have done variations on this exercise, such as “What did I appreciate today?” “What can I appreciate about myself today?” and “What inspired me today?”)

The poet Hafiz wrote, “Troubled? Then stay with me, for I am not.”

When we can ask the parts of ourselves that are not troubled, that are calm or confident or relieved, to weigh in on that really big problem that just won’t get solved, we are accessing an alternative way of relating to the issue, and we realize, in fact, that there may be many other ways of relating to it.

It may continue to be a problem, but we’ve been so anxious we’ve been missing the solution, which has been there all along.

Or, we may see that the “problem” is more of a path, through which we are learning about who we really are and what we really value.

The “problem” may also be a teacher, showing us that it’s not what happens to us but how we choose to respond to it that is key.

The problem may be directly or indirectly connected to systemic issues over which we do not have immediate control, and allowing ourselves to acknowledge this (rather than blaming ourselves for it) may point us to where we have true control and where we do not.

Or maybe, when we widen the lens, we realize that, with gentleness, the problem begins to evaporate — it was our own harshness toward ourselves that created it to begin with.

This was the case for me when recently I was judging myself for being confused about something, and for “doing it wrong.” When I met with a few others who were dealing with the same thing, it turned out they, too, had felt confused and concerned they were “doing it wrong.” We all realized that the information we had been given about said thing actually was incomplete and confusing, and therefore there was no “right” way to move forward with it.

Connecting with the group allowed me to recognize our common humanity — we were all being hard on ourselves and concerned about “getting it wrong.” How human of us! I realized that when I was able to let go of being harsh with myself, I could see that the “insurmountable problem” was simply a need for more complete information — and gentleness around all of this.

I’ve written here that during the pandemic my partner and I have created a practice of taking drives that help us feel more connected with with the broader world outside our home, and, particularly, with nature. After these drives, I always emerge from the car with a lightened sense of being, and a broader perspective on what I’m struggling with.

These drives support me in “widening the lens.” Walking does this for me, as well, as did connecting with others in the example above. I’ve written previously, too, about “puttering time” — that’s another way I bring in new perspectives for myself, by loosening my grip on whatever is troubling me and shifting my energy, allowing more flow.

What are your ways of shifting your relationship to an issue that feels overwhelming or insurmountable? How do you widen your field of awareness? I’d love to hear from you.

Need support in taking care of your unique and sensitive self while making your creative work a priority? I currently have one opening for one-on-one coaching. You can learn more about the ways we can work together, here. Wondering if we’re a fit? You can learn more, here.

Above images by Jenna Anderson on Unsplash and Stephanie Bernotas on Unsplash, respectively

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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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