Trusting the deep pull inward

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Looking back over the past twenty years of my life, I notice that times of a lot of external change were usually preceded by a deep pull inward: a period of maybe a week, or two, or more, where I needed to become very still, write in my journal more than usual, and detach from the external world.

I remember a period like this in my early twenties where I took lots of long walks in the evening after work for several weeks. And another period years later where instead of going out on the weekends like I usually did, I stayed in and wrote intensely in my journal. I didn’t have the money to actually quit work or take a long vacation in order to go within, but it was like some force compelled me to figure out a way, anyway; it was a taking stock of where I’d been and where I was so that I could move forward in a clear and powerful way.

Except I didn’t really know this at the time. I can only see it in retrospect.

I have a couple of clients right now who are feeling this pull to move inward. And, not surprisingly, they’re having a hard time listening to it.

We often resist this inner calling for a while before we finally surrender to it. I think there are a several reasons for this:

1) We have an increasing number of distractions at our fingertips (the other night I was watching American Horror Story on my laptop WHILE looking up trivia about it on imdb on my iPad — and not fully present for either activity). I believe that our ability to focus — or maybe simply our willingness to concentrate on one thing — is becoming seriously impaired, and we need to take charge of this, STAT. It’s killing our souls.

2) We’re afraid of what we might find if we do go inward and be really present with what’s there. What if we discover that we need to make big, painful changes in order to live the life we want? Sometimes we’d rather not know and live in a murky sort of limbo.

3) We’re afraid of the intimacy that comes from having a relationship with ourselves. Truly tuning in and heeding that inward pull means we actually get to know ourselves on a really deep level. (I’ve had clients tell me that they don’t want to do morning pages for this reason. They aren’t sure they want to know themselves that well. They aren’t sure they’ll like the person who shows up on those pages.) Just as becoming more and more intimate with another person is a risk, so is getting to know ourselves. What happens when we encounter pieces of us that we just don’t want to be with?

The good news is that, whether sooner or later, our intolerance for a disconnect with our essential self wins out, and we do go inward. (It’s just usually better for us when we listen to the call sooner rather than later.) Our souls won’t tolerate the numbness that comes from a life half-lived, and eventually we are forced to listen.

Here are some suggestions, though, for making it easier to trust that pull inward, when it comes:

1) Take a weekly break from the online world. A total break, for a few hours, or more, if it feels workable for you. During this break, pay attention to your body, go out for a walk; remind yourself that you are a physical being in a body with a connection to the earth, not a just fingers and a brain connected to a device.

2) Just as you are allowed to take your time in getting to know another person (in fact, true intimacy with another often develops slowly, over time — the quick kind tends to evaporate), you are also allowed to take time in getting to know yourself. If you have resistance to connecting with yourself, it may be because you’re trying to do too much too soon. You can connect with yourself in small doses, whether that’s through journaling or just being present with what you’re feeling for a couple of minutes at a time.

3) Promise yourself that you don’t have to take action on anything you discover about yourself. Recognizing that you really want to move to Europe does not mean you have to take action on that knowledge, now or ever. You may choose to act on it (and hopefully, if it’s truly right for you, you will!). But, as I so often say to my clients, it’s simply good to know. That’s the point of connecting with yourself — to know the truth about yourself. It is not about forcing yourself to completely overhaul your life. I’ve seen time and again that we are far more willing to know our truth, and own it, when we trust that we do NOT have to take immediate action on it.

Have you struggled to trust the pull to go within and connect with yourself? What made it a challenge for you, and what helped? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “One Sepia Rowboat” © Tatiana Sayig | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Two kinds of urgency

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Have you ever gone through an extended period where nothing felt clear to you, where everything seemed muddled and off and you wondered if it was ever going to end?

I’ve been there — many times (and if you’re going through this right now, I send you so much compassion. Yes, it’s hard.)

Way back when, I thought going through these periods meant there was something wrong with me, or that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Uggh.

I now know that these periods of sluggishness, lack of clarity, and downright suckiness are simply part of the process of change. They’re what happens when we’re letting go of a version of ourselves that no longer fits, but we haven’t yet stepped into whoever it is we’re becoming.

These are liminal periods, and I’ve written about them quite a bit on this blog (click on the Categories list to the right, particularly Transitions and Letting Go, to read more on liminal periods).

Another term for these transitional periods, which I learned while I trained to become a life coach with Martha Beck, is “Square One.”

During Square One, a kind of urgency can rise up in us. It feels like we’d better do something, now! We’d better get out of this crappy place! We’d better make some kind of decision, now! (Even though usually we have no idea what it is we’re deciding, because one of the hallmarks of Square One is a lack of clarity on what we really want. We know what we don’t want, and the rest of it feels like one giant slog through toffee.)

A frequent reminder that I, and the folks I work with, need while in Square One is this: The faster we try to get out of Square One, the longer we stay in it. It’s the ultimate paradox. Square One needs to be fully processed, fully felt. Yes, it sucks, but it’s the only way to get truly clear.

When we rush forward because our period of transition is so uncomfortable, we inevitably end up in more discomfort.

That’s because instead of moving toward what we want (because we’ve gotten clear on it), we’re moving away from discomfort and confusion because they scare us. And where do we end up? Right back in the discomfort and confusion, scared out of our minds. Wherever we go, there we are.

So, if you’re going through a transition, or approaching one, right now, and it feels scary and like you’ve completely lost your footing, the best path to peace is not to hurry out of the scary place.

It’s to slow down, remind your panicked brain that there is no true urgency here, and realize that (in the ultimate irony), you’ll actually move through this icky transition place much more quickly by embracing an easy, one-day-at-a-time (or, on the worst days, one-hour-at-a-time) pace.

Now, there’s another kind of urgency, too. That kind of urgency is a bit different. It’s what I’d call a “transmission from your soul.”

This kind of urgency has a kind of ache to it. It contains a yearning you can’t stave off or press down, no matter how many months or years you try to do just that.

This is the urgency that recognizes that life is relatively short and there are things your heart longs to be or do, and you’re not being or doing them yet. And you’re tired of putting them off.

Or, it’s the kind of urgency that tells you a certain situation isn’t good for you and it has to stop. And that if you don’t stop it, you’re going to keep on feeling this particular ache.

This kind of urgency is the urgency that signals you’re ready for change. Not ten years from now, but as soon as is humanly possible.

Yes, I know: I just contradicted myself. I suggested that if you’re feeling urgency, you need to slow way down, not speed up. And then I said that if you’re feeling urgency, you need to act, now!

Both are true. Can you allow your mind to wrap itself around that? It’s hard for me, too.

But notice my descriptions of the two kinds of urgency. One kind is about moving away from discomfort. And the other is about moving toward what you want. (An ache or longing points us toward something in us that wants to be born.)

We can feel both these kinds of urgency on the very same day! In the very same hour! And we can accept, and work with, both of them.

The tricky part is that, when we’re feeling a lot of the first type of urgency, we need to come to a place of peace before we take any action.

Otherwise, our actions are likely to be fueled by panic and a need to escape discomfort. (Have you ever quit a job, or left a relationship, and found yourself, almost magically, back in what seemed like the exact same job or relationship six months or a year later? That’s because your actions were fueled by a need to escape discomfort, rather than movement toward what enlivens you.)

So how do you know which urgency is driving you? You might want to share what’s going on with someone you trust, or jot down the thoughts you’re having in a journal. Then ask yourself (or let someone reflect back to you): Does what I just said (or wrote) come from the part of my brain that is strictly concerned with my physical and/or social survival? Or does it feel like a mandate from my soul?

Whichever answer you get, the next step is acceptance. And remembering that fully processing what’s going on for you is, in the long run, the fastest way to actually create what you truly desire.

What do you think? What have you noticed when urgency comes up for you? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “Time’s Up!” © Nspimages | Dreamstime Stock Photos

How kindness helps you create

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So often when I’m feeling unhappy and stuck (whether in my life or in my creative work), I find myself frantically trying to control circumstances.

My thoughts go something like this: “If I could just get rid of [X circumstance] and find [X circumstance], and get [X amount of money], and if [X person] wasn’t so hard to deal with, I could stop feeling so bad.”

Or sometimes it goes like this: “If I could just figure out if what I really want is [X] or [Z], then I could move forward. But I’m so confused; I can’t figure it out. So I’m unhappy and I’ll be unhappy until I figure it out.”

There’s a kind of paralysis that sets in when I believe that circumstances are causing my unhappiness. It’s often a breed of analysis paralysis, closely tied to perfectionism, where I’m sure that if I choose the “wrong” thing, I’ll increase my current unhappiness in spades. So I don’t choose.

It usually takes me a while in this spin cycle before I remember: Ohhh. Waiiittt.

It’s not about circumstances. It’s not about making the “right” decision.

It’s about kindness. The kindness I’m forgetting to give to myself.

I don’t know about you, but when I remember to treat myself with kindness, there’s a palpable shift within myself. I feel it in my abdomen first, then my jaw — my entire body softens. I literally feel the rigidity seeping out of me, almost like it forms a puddle around my feet. And then I feel a surprising thing: hope.

From this place, there is fluidity — there is movement. How can that be? I haven’t changed my external circumstances, and yet, there’s movement?

Yes. Martha Beck, with whom I trained to become a life coach, likes to remind her coaches that our circumstances do not create our feeling states; it’s the opposite. Our feeling states create our circumstances.

When our focus is outside ourselves, on what we’re sure the “right” circumstances will bring us, we are disconnected from what’s inside us. We forget where our power actually lies — in our ability to choose how we relate to ourselves, and how relate to the world around us.

And here’s how this relates to our creativity: As I’ve often written on this blog, creativity, as I define it, is nothing more or less than the life force within us.

That life force needs to move. It needs to flow, and to ebb.

When I try to control circumstances, or second-guess my decisions, or try to make the “perfect” choice, that life force gets frozen in time. I’m teetering on the edge of the belief that the “reward” lies on the other side of “right” or “wrong” — when, in fact, the “reward” is right here, within me, if I can remember to treat myself with kindness.

Some of my clients say at first that they simply don’t know how to treat themselves with kindness — or that it seems self-indulgent, or a waste of time.

But my clients are often the kindest people I know — they are truly skilled at directing kindness outside of themselves, toward others. They just haven’t practiced directing it toward themselves.

And there’s a distinct difference between kindness toward ourselves and self-indulgence: Kindness creates movement that comes from the heart; it radiates outward. It’s intimately linked to “inspired action.” Self-indulgence, like a clenched fist, closes us off from ourselves, from the world. Rather than engaging the heart, self-indulgence feels like avoidance of something we fear. Kindness feels like an openness to what we love, to what inspires us.

Sometimes, when I think about doing something like, say, write a blog post about the importance of remembering to treat ourselves with kindness, there’s a hard, embittered piece of me that says things like, “Kindness? How cliche and cheesy and abstract is that?”

And then I have to laugh, because that’s exactly the voice that makes treating myself with kindness my last resort so much of the time. I often come to kindness — or it comes to me — because I’m at the end of my rope with treating myself harshly.

I come to kindness because I realize I’ve literally exhausted all my options if I’m viewing myself, and life, with harshness. Most importantly, I’ve forgotten to acknowledge that I am suffering. Of course it seems like I need to manipulate circumstances and choose perfectly if I’m coming from a harsh, rigid place. Wherever I go, there I am.

So, if I feel backed into a corner, if I believe I’m trapped and there are no good options — whether in my real life or in my creative work — it may be that I’ve forgotten this oh-so-basic step: Treat myself kindly. Exquisitely kindly. Time and again, I learn that from that space of kindness, unseen options emerge.

(To learn more about the amazing benefits of treating ourselves with kindness, check out Kristin Neff’s work at http://selfcompassion.org.)

Do you remember to treat yourself with kindness? Do you think it’s worth doing? Do you apply it in your creative process? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “Hand Feeding” © David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When you’re not taking action (even though you want to)

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Sometimes we’re in a space where there’s something we want to do, but we’re not taking any action toward actually doing it. This space is frustrating and icky. We can spin our wheels here for quite a while.

What I find especially stressful (and confusing) is when I do take a step toward whatever it is I want to do, but I don’t seem to build any momentum. Something feels off. I’m not getting caught up in whatever that thing is; there’s no passion, no fire.

What’s going on when we’re in this space? It’s tempting to try to bulldoze our way through and “just do it!” And there are times when that works.

But sometimes it doesn’t work — and, when we plow forward with sheer force, there’s a nasty lingering side effect: We don’t understand ourselves any better. We may get that thing done, but what happens the next time we’re in the “spinning our wheels” place? We force ourselves to plow through again?

I much prefer asking questions at times like these. More than anything, I want to understand myself better so I can have a better relationship with myself. If that relationship is vital to you, too, here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re spinning your wheels:

Do I truly want to do this thing, or do I believe I “should” want to do this thing?

The presence of a “should” is not necessarily an indication that you don’t want to do it; it often means that you have conflicting voices within you around taking this action. If you can untangle the “should” from the rest of it, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what you really want.

Is this something I used to want, but perhaps no longer do?

Does the person you are today actually want to do this, or is this something you wanted to do five years ago? Are you hanging on to an old dream? (“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Alice in Wonderland)

* Is there a deadline issue?

Some of us work better and more effectively with deadlines; some of us get panicky and overwhelmed when we have a deadline situation. And sometimes, the deadline is simply too close or too far away to work for us.

If there’s a deadline by which you’re supposed to do this thing, is it possible to push it back, or push it up? Would doing either of those things make a difference in how you felt about taking action on it? (Sometimes we’ve set our own deadlines. Most of my clients have a perfectionistic streak and expect themselves to complete things way sooner than is reasonable, or necessary.)

Am I making the task too big?

One of my clients had decided to apply to a graduate program, but she wasn’t taking any action toward it. The deadline loomed and the weeks were going by and nothing was happening.

We noticed that every day she had been writing on her to-do list “Grad school application.” But when we broke it down, we found that there were at least twenty individual steps involved in completing the entire application process, and some of those steps could be broken down into even smaller steps. Of course she wasn’t taking action on it when “grad school application” was not an actionable step.

We often don’t want to break things down into small steps because we’re in a hurry. We think we don’t have time to take small steps. Then we proceed to do nothing at all because the giant leap we think we have to take overwhelms us. In the long run, we move more quickly and steadily when we take small steps over time. Think turtle and hare.

Am I in somebody else’s business?

Byron Katie talks about the three kinds of business: My business, your business, and God’s business. Much of the time when I’m feeling stressed, confused, or unfocused, if I remember to ask myself who’s business I’m in, I discover the issue. When I’m in somebody else’s business, as Katie says, there’s no one here taking care of my own.

How does this keep me from moving forward? If I’m worried about what someone else thinks of me, or trying to control someone else’s reaction to my choices in some way, I keep on spinning my wheels. I may not allow myself to do what I truly want to do. It’s human to care about what others think; but if we’re paralyzed because of it, we’re way out of our own business and into somebody else’s.

* Is my creative well empty?

I often mention the creative well on this blog. Julia Cameron likens the creative well to a “trout pond” that, ideally, is fully stocked with fish, except, as artists, we stock our ponds with images that inspire. We stock our ponds with the wordlessness that comes from simply being.

When the pond is empty, we need to restock it. And this means we need to practice great self-care and recognize that there are ebbs and flows to our energy and our creativity. Sometimes, when I’m not taking action, it’s simply because I need to be in a place of inaction for a while.

Any of these questions is a good starting point if you find you’re not taking action on something you want to do. If one question doesn’t seem to apply to you, try the next. And come up with your own, too — write them in a notebook where you can refer to them the next time you’re up against the stuckity-stuck.

How do you deal with it when you want to move forward but can’t seem to take action? I’d love to hear from you!

Image is “Bird on a Mirror” © Shane Link | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Trusting in where your energy takes you

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One day last week I sat down to write and felt distracted. This is not uncommon. I often experience resistance, confusion, tedium, and occasionally even dread, when it comes to working on my novel.

In fact, I don’t usually call it (in my own head at least) “working on my novel” anymore. I call it “playing with my novel.” This feels much lighter and opens up possibility, curiosity, excitement. When I make it less grave and serious, I’m more in touch with why I actually want to do it in the first place.

That said, sometimes I feel stuck and it feels hard. And I hang in there with it anyway, because it is a commitment. And because sometimes I reach that lovely place of getting lost in my story. And the more I practice hanging in there with it, the more I reach that place.

But on that day last week, something else was going on. I sat and I sat and I sat, and I wrote and revised and tinkered. But my energy was not with the writing. I had the odd sense of pushing something away.

I glanced over at my open notebook, to some morning pages I’d done the day before. Jotted in the margin at the top of the page was a reminder to call a friend of mine, a dear friend whom I’d been meaning to call for a while. But I’d been putting it off because, although I knew that talking to my friend would be nourishing and fun, I’d told myself that she was probably busy and wouldn’t have much time to talk, anyway. I kept telling myself I’d wait and call “when we were both less busy.”

Now, the reminder note jumped off the page at me. And I realized that there was a ton of energy in calling my friend right then, right in that moment.

So, I stepped away from my computer and dialed my friend’s number. She was home and said she’d been thinking about calling me, too — that very morning. But she figured I was probably busy with coaching or writing and she’d wait to call me until the weekend.

We talked for an hour and it felt soooo good. It filled my creative well to — at least — a 10 (read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to find out more about the creative well). You know those friends who accept and love you so deeply that it doesn’t matter what’s happening for you, or not happening for you, because the connection is about your very essence? That is this friend, for me.

And something important came out of this call. I realized that I often make an assumption that the people I care about are busy and they need to “fit me in.” And this assumption is not reality. In fact, my friend was making the same assumption about me, but in truth I would have welcomed a call from her.

After we talked,  I returned to my novel with a sense of lightness and new possibility, and I no longer had that nagging sensation that there was something important I wasn’t attending to. I could give the writing my full attention.

If I hadn’t followed my energetic pull toward calling my friend, I would have missed out on that connection and that insight.

And yet, my rational mind wondered if I wanted to step away from the novel simply because it was hard and it was my way of “procrastinating.” It can be tempting to “power through” at these times, no matter what. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do when we’re developing a habit, whether it’s writing or something else.

But we get to the good stuff in life by acting on what feels juiciest for us in the moment. I don’t mean by acting on our every impulse, but by following our intuitive urges. Often, it’s as simple as asking, “What would light me up right now?”  On that day last week, contacting my friend was that thing. It was “up” for me, calling out for attention. And I needed to listen.

Sometimes, our “creative work” can serve as a means of avoiding doing our inner work. Just as we can avoid our creative work, we can also use our creative work to avoid — or push down the list — other things that are vital to our well-being. Like our relationships. Most particularly, our relationship to ourselves.

So notice the quality of your energy as you create. Is the creating connecting you with yourself, with the world, with that beautiful mysterious space we go to when we create — even if it’s a huge challenge at the moment?

Or, do you have the sense that you are using your writing, artwork, business brainstorming, or whatever it may be, to push something else away, as I did last week? Just notice. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing. Just tell yourself the truth, whatever it is for you.

Because, ultimately, creativity is being connected to what’s true for you in the moment. Because that is when you are most you. And that is what I wish for you — that you be most you as often as possible. That, more than anything else, is your gift to the world.

Image is “Leaf on Steel” © Chris Mccooey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What triggers your resistance?

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One of the benefits of being a rabid journaler is that I have ample evidence of my patterns and habits and defaults. All that stuff I “tend to do” when I’m scared, overwhelmed, panicked, what have you. It’s there in ink on actual, physical pages. Hard evidence.

A client who also journals told me recently that he picked up a notebook from ten years ago and was depressed to see that he was struggling with exactly the same stuff as he is today. He thought it meant that he hadn’t changed at all, had been stagnating for ten whole years.

Which is so not the case.

Of course you were struggling with the same stuff back then, I said. Those are your core issues.

We all have core issues, those deep, resonant conflicts within us that we’re on this earth to be with, work with, and, over time, learn from. These issues are our teachers. It’s not about overcoming them or even letting go of them. The work is to become more and more intimate with our core issues as we cycle through them again and again in our lives. We peel our layers like an onion, each time getting closer and closer to our center.

I still struggle with much of the same stuff I did at twenty — it just doesn’t throw me as much, because I understand it better. I know how to work with it, play with it, in ways I didn’t then. In fact, some of the areas where I’m strongest now are the areas I had most difficulty with at twenty, even if those areas still cause me trouble.

For me, this is the work of my life. This is my real work, above, beyond, and beneath any other “work” I do in the world.

It’s these core issues, though, that trigger our resistance. Of course they do. They’re painful. Nobody wants to delve into pain. When I feel like I’m spinning my wheels and I just don’t see a way out, I can be pretty sure that some core issue has risen to the forefront and I’m in resistance to it.

What’s tricky is that we can often be blind to our core issues when they’re “up” for us. This is why I keep lists of my “resistance triggers” in my journals.

When I’m feeling stuck, I go to one of my lists. Resistance triggers basically boil down to painful thoughts that reflect our core issues. Here are some sample triggers from one of my lists:

You have to write something special, original and amazing or there’s no point. People have to be totally wowed by your writing or why are you doing it?

If you take too much time to yourself, people you love won’t understand and they’ll leave you. You have to be available to others when they need you or you’ll end up alone.

Even when you work really hard, it isn’t enough — what’s the point?

It doesn’t matter if you’re tired. Just keep going.

These are some of the biggies for me. You get the idea. The reason I write this stuff down is because I often don’t recognize that these issues are “up” for me. All I know is I’m feeling sad, empty, or pissed off and like I can’t move forward. Often, when I consult one of my lists I immediately see the thought causing the resistance jump off the page at me. Ahhh. Now I have something to work with.

So let me show you how this resistance thing plays out: If I’m in the grip of a thought like, “If you take too much time to yourself, people you love won’t understand and they’ll leave you,” but I don’t know it, I’m often over-responding to others, overscheduling myself, saying yes more than feels good to me.

Pretty soon I’m fed up, angry, withdrawing from and resisting interaction — even interaction that could be helpful and nourishing to me (such as taking time to truly connect with myself or with a friend who deeply wants to hear me).

If I’m in the grip of a belief like, “You have to write something special, original and amazing or there’s no point,” I become extra-hard on my writing. I become unwilling to experiment. I belabor every sentence. Everything feels squeezed and distorted, like I’m trying to fit my words through a teeny, tiny keyhole and hope they can make it through to the other side as magical, life-altering prose.

Pretty soon I don’t want to sit down at my desk at all. Writing has become painful, not life-enhancing. And certainly not fun. So now I’m resisting writing at all; I’ve become disconnected from why I ever wanted to do it in the first place.

Writing these triggers down as we become aware of them is a huge act of self-care. It’s about knowing ourselves. Seeing your thoughts on paper is a good way to cut them down to size — sometimes, thoughts that feel horrifying when they’re stuck in our heads can look absolutely ridiculous when you see them written down.

Just the act of noticing that I’m being triggered by one of these thoughts can create a huge shift for me. I’m no longer merged with the thought — I’m now outside of it, observing it, so it’s over there where I can question it, and not a driving force within me. The next step is to question these thoughts, look for evidence of where they are not true. (The Work of Byron Katie is an excellent way to question your painful thoughts.)

What triggers resistance for you? How do you know you’re “in it”? Let me know in the comments!

Image is “Stone and Brick Wall” © Peter Szucs | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What one thing can you let go of?

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I’ve noticed a pattern with myself and some of my clients. We want to add new things to our lives and we’re excited about that. But our current lives are so full that there literally isn’t any space for that newness. We try to stuff the newness into the cracks in our current lives, but our lives start to feel like they’re bursting at the seams. Ouch. The newness can’t truly take root and grow because there’s no rich soil for it to anchor itself to.

We need to actually make space in our lives for the newness. We need to create room where the future can enter. If we keep ourselves constantly busy and scheduled every day, if we choose not to notice our need to let go of something which no longer feels good or serves us, we spin our wheels.

I know, this sounds mildly upsetting and maybe even scary. Change can suck, even when you desperately want it.

But you can open up this space in your life, this space in which to allow for the new, bit by bit. You don’t have to do a massive overhaul of your entire life.

One of my clients who felt ready for change but completely burdened by her schedule had been taking a weekly Pilates class for more than two years. It wasn’t feeling great to her anymore, but how could she let go of it? It was Pilates, and therefore, good for her! Right?

After some poking around on the issue, we realized that the energy of the group in the class had shifted significantly and it didn’t resonate for her anymore. What had once felt like a supportive habit no longer did. She quit the class, and just that one open evening a week began to pave the way for change. She found herself using the open time to sit quietly and within a couple of weeks she started cleaning out a closet and packing up some very old stuff to donate to charity.

Sometimes the “one thing” might just be a one-time letting go, too. A friend of mine who never, ever takes a day off work recently decided she would take just one day off. She’d been convinced that things would “go to hell in a handbasket” (I love that phrase! — what does it mean?) at her office if whe wasn’t there.

As it turned out, everything went smoothly in her absence and it occurred to her that she could loosen her grip on things around there a little, delegate more, and maybe take a day off here and there in the future. (If you have perfectionistic tendencies, you are likely addicted to “showing up”. See what happens when you don’t. Just once.)

So, I know you’re thinking, what if the one thing you choose to let go of is on a grander scale, like a job, a relationship, a project near and dear to your heart? I know. That is so, so hard. But, while there’s no denying letting go can feel utterly crappy, the way we think about letting go can make it either harder or easier.

Letting go happens in layers. You don’t have to do it all at once. Even the big things we let go of are full of tiny things you can let go of one at a time.

Years ago, I left a job I’d been at for a long time, and it was hard. I knew in my heart that letting go was the thing I needed to do, but the thought of it was so overwhelming. The change! The massive change! For several months, I spun around in this cycle: I want to leave. But it’s so hard. It’s so overwhelming. I can’t do it! I won’t. But I want to leave. But it’s so hard. I can’t do it!

Then one day it occurred to me that I could make the decision to leave without having to act on it. I know, it sounds counterintuitive, right? But that’s what I did. Making the decision to leave was my “one thing.” And as soon as the decision was made, my entire body felt lighter. I didn’t actually give my notice at the job until almost a month after I’d made the decision to do it. Giving notice was another “one thing” in a series of “one things” that needed to happen for me to exit the job.

Note that my making the decision to leave — even before I’d actually given my notice at work, before I’d actually physically left the job — created space for newness to enter. Because I was no longer spinning my wheels — do I or don’t I? — my energy was freed up to magnetize itself to my not-yet-created future. And because I could see a finite end to the work situation, it became far more bearable for the remaining time I was there.

As I write this, I remember, too, that another “one thing” that helped me make the decision to leave was that I had decided to sit on the blue chair in my apartment instead of the couch where I usually sat. Yep, that was it. I looked at the chair and thought, I’m sitting here while I write in my journal today. Not there. And from that journaling space on the blue chair came my decision to leave my job.

Do not underestimate the power of letting go of one thing. Even if it’s only for today.

For a variation on this theme, check out my previous article, “The power of tiny new things.”

Work With Me: Are you in transition and feeling stuck or scared about moving forward? I have two openings for new coaching clients. Read more here to see if we might be a good fit.

Image is “Lizard 1” © Alexey Lisovoy | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The shark is working well enough … really.

sharkkite

Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that I am obsessed with the movie Jaws. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Jaws, but … just … don’t get me started. (Writers, study Jaws if you want to see a movie where every single scene moves the story forward. Nothing is wasted.)

If you know anything about the making of Jaws, you know that the mechanical shark, a.k.a. “Bruce”, didn’t work very well. In fact, there were so many problems with the shark that it wasn’t seen on screen nearly as much as director Steven Spielberg had originally intended. During production on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, the frequent refrain from the loudspeakers was “The shark is not working. The shark is not working.”

Welp. As we all know, the shark worked well enough. In fact, the semi-working shark worked so well that Jaws was the movie for which the term “summer blockbuster” was coined, back in 1975 when it first appeared in theaters.

One of the main things I do as a coach, when I have a session with a client, is listen for stressful thoughts. Thoughts are stressful when they are not deeply true for us, but we believe them anyway. So when I hear something that strikes me as painful or stressful for a client, I scribble it down in my notebook. If it seems important, I’ll point this thought out to the client and we’ll work with it.

I was going back over some notes before a session recently, and it really hit me just how often our thoughts are perfectionistic. They have to do with how we’re not doing enough, not doing it well enough (whatever it is), and how our reality is not matching the vision inside our heads. (I say “our” because, like my clients, I have a strong penchant for perfectionism. I’m always teaching what I most need to learn.)

I’ve written a lot here about perfectionism in the past (you can click on the categories link titled Perfectionism to the right to check out more). But I don’t know if I’ve emphasized how important it is for perfectionists to make a point of noticing what is working — and what is working well enough.

Because one of the biggest issues I see perfectionists struggling with is decision paralysis. We’re so terrified of making an imperfect decision and the havoc it will surely wreak that we hang out in indecision until it hurts. And then, then, we beat ourselves up for not making decisions quickly enough! It’s a totally lose-lose scenario.

And here’s the thing: We don’t struggle with decision paralysis as much when we give ourselves credit for having made good decisions in the past. Most perfectionists have a pretty big story about being poor decision-makers (it’s in keeping with the idea that we never quite measure up). We are also control freaks, so we tend to think we have much more control over our futures than we actually do.

Therefore, we think, we have to weigh each present or future decision very, very carefully, so we don’t repeat our past mistakes and don’t screw up our futures.

Why do we have this story? Probably because when life happens, as it will, it feels more familiar for us to blame ourselves than to admit the truth: Life is messy, and life is not fair. No matter how “good” we are, we can’t escape this reality.

So what if we were to flip this story on its head? What if we were to look back and notice how we made good enough decisions, and how some of them were even really good? How would we proceed if we basically believed that our lives worked well enough?

I think we’d go on making our movies, doing our writing, living our lives. We’d trust ourselves to create something good. What if Spielberg had decided to resign in the middle of production on Jaws because the shark wasn’t good enough? (Well, probably Universal would have replaced him with a different director. And we’d have had a very different Jaws. Which would have been a damn shame.)

At the bottom of it all, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our lives, are either helpful or not helpful.

I don’t mean that we should tell ourselves things we don’t truly believe. I’m not talking about piling positive affirmations on top of our fear like white-washing a rotted fence. I’m saying we need to really give ourselves some credit. I’m saying we need to lower our standards enough that we can show up in our lives and in our creative work (or creative play, as I prefer to call it).

Perfectionists, aim for the B rather than creating A+ work that exists only in your head. Make the decision that feels best to you and call it a day, knowing you can course-correct tomorrow. Admit that the shark at the core of your movie is working well enough to continue the filming. Create your flawed-but-amazing works of art and live your flawed-but-amazing lives.

Work With Me: I work with writers, artists, artisans and coaches who are feeling vulnerable and stuck. Learn more about how we might work together, here.

Image is Shark Kite by Ryan Somma at flickr; some rights reserved

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects

A few days ago while logging in my daily progress for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, I had one of those light-bulb moments where I got something, not just intellectually but viscerally.

One of the questions we group members respond to daily asks us what negative thoughts we noticed that came up around our writing. Time and time again, I find myself writing some variation of this: “My writing isn’t exciting or important enough. It’s not active enough. There’s not enough drama. No one will find it interesting.”

I’ve examined these thoughts for quite a while now. Are they true? Yes, sometimes my writing lacks drama. Sometimes it could be more active. But all the time? No, these things are not always true. As for “it’s not exciting or important enough” and “no one will find it interesting,” well, that’s all subjective. I’ve certainly gotten enough feedback on my writing by this point in my life to know that quite a few people have found it interesting. And, as any writer knows, the most important thing when it comes to writing is that you, the writer, are fascinated by what you’re writing.

But this particular day as I logged in these thoughts once again, cringing at their familiarity, I got it. BUSTED! I said out loud, practically snorting my iced coffee.

These thoughts about my writing are my particular form of resistance.

Here’s how I know this: There have been days when I’ve known, without a doubt, that what I’ve written has been exciting and dramatic. To me, anyway. My whole body felt engaged as I wrote; I could hardly tear myself away from the page. These days don’t happen all that often. When they do, they’re wonderful, but that doesn’t usually completely quiet my inner critic.

On these days, when I logged in my progress, what negative thoughts had I noticed? “This writing isn’t serious enough; it’s too active; it should be quieter and deeper; it moves too quickly.”

Yep, when my inner critic knew it couldn’t convince me the writing wasn’t exciting or active, it just went ahead and criticized the writing for not being other things.

Here’s what I realized: My inner critic just wants to protect me from putting my writing out there for scrutiny. So it dredges up anything it can find “wrong” about the writing that I just might believe. When it knows I won’t buy into the idea that the writing isn’t exciting or active enough, it criticizes the writing for having these very qualities.

My inner critic wants to convince me that unless I’m sure my writing is all things to all people, I shouldn’t put it out there — it’s not good enough yet, it’s not ready. And it’s a lose-lose proposition, a double bind. It’s like not showing up to the party unless you’re sure you can be every kind of guest. Since you know you can’t be, you don’t show up at all.

So I’ve finally gotten it: “Not exciting and active enough, not important enough” or any variations thereof, are my “usual suspects” when it comes to my writing. They’re my go-to thoughts that exist solely to keep me from having faith in my own stories, from investing them with enough importance to go all the way with them, to truly own them. 

Noticing these thoughts — my usual suspects — allows me to round them up, corral and question them. In fact, I’m getting so used to them I don’t even always have to question them anymore. I just notice them and say, ah, there you are again.

One time when I was in grad school, a well-known writer visited one of my writing classes and was asked her best advice for writers. “Know what kind of writer you are,” she said. She said she loved Dickens, but she was never going to write like him.

And I’m probably never going to write action-packed thrillers that pump you full of adrenaline. It’s not the kind of writer I am. Luckily, I don’t have to be every type of writer. Knowing that — finally getting it at a deep level — frees me up to trust in the writing that is mine and mine alone.

Do you need support in creating a daily writing habit? Tomorrow, Aug. 30, is the last day to sign up for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’ve been a member of this group for going on a year, and I’m also Jenna’s co-coach. It’s a tremendously powerful way to become aware of what keeps you from writing, and to get group support while you do it. Check it out here!

Image is ANTIQUE BLACK TYPEWRITER PAINTED WITH LIGHT
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Creative Ebbs: Not the Same as Stuckness

If you think about any relationship you’ve ever had, you’ll notice that there were phases to the relationship. Sometimes you were sitting on the couch shoulder to shoulder eating cookie dough ice cream and watching Netflixed episodes of “The Office” (British version, preferably) and you couldn’t stop laughing and finishing each other’s sentences. Other times, you were kind of quiet and it was just nice. Other times you went rollerskating and you couldn’t stop falling down, in a good way.

And then there were those times when there was just nothing to say. Phone calls felt heavy; there were lots of long pauses, and not the good kind. You got on each other’s nerves without meaning to; previously endearing odd little habits began to seem like dealbreakers.

Maybe in your younger years, the not-so-good times felt like sound reasons to end the relationship; but as you got older and had more experience, you began to see that it was important to ride them out because the ice-cream-on-the-couch times could always come back.

You have a relationship with your creativity, too. And it needs to be accepted, nurtured and protected just like any other relationship you care about. But a lot of times (and what I see happening most often with my clients) is that we either neglect this relationship or ignore it — or, at the other end of the spectrum, we push it so hard and try to control it so much that it withers or hides from us.

Accept that your relationship with your creativity has seasons, cycles, ebbs and flows. You can — believe it or not — trust these ebbs and flows. Most of us are afraid to trust them. We love the flow, but the ebb, not so much.

So I won’t talk about what to do when you’re in creative flow. Most of us love that place. I’ll address the dreaded ebb (though you shouldn’t dread it — it’s really simply the yin to the yang that is the flow).

A creative ebb is a period in which nothing much feels like it’s happening creatively for you. It’s not the same thing as feeling stuck — stuck has to do, usually, with your fears around what you’re creating, or when you’ve reached, say, the middle of your novel and you have no idea what happens next and nothing you try feels right. When we’re stuck, it’s important to bring our fears to light and give them voice so we don’t dig our wheels further into the mud.

An ebb is a bit different. You might feel it for a few days or weeks after you’ve had a period of unusually high creativity. I used to create and sell these little paintings, mostly of cats. The way my process worked was I’d get a very clear picture of what I wanted to paint in my mind, often when I was out walking, and then I’d come home and get out one of my little canvases and the image would flow out onto it, usually quite similar to what I’d envisioned.

For a period of time, I did about three of these paintings a week. And the more people bought them the more I wanted to create them. But after about nine months or so of this, the ideas gradually stopped coming. I didn’t rush to my canvases the way I had. The art I created didn’t feel as inspired to me. Some of it wasn’t selling.

I was at an ebb. How do I know it was an ebb? Well, luckily for me, in this case I’d thought of this artwork as pure fun, not at all my “life’s work” or “serious art” — I didn’t have any of those ideas attached to it that can create stuckness because we make it so big and important. So when the “flow” stopped happening, I didn’t freak out. I just kind of noticed. By now I was about to move into a new home anyway, so I focused on that. The part of me that did the paintings rested.

And within about six weeks, I was ready to go again. I starting getting new ideas and now I was incorporating collage into the paintings. I began selling them again and I got my first overseas customers.

Creative ebbs don’t necessarily last for weeks. The ebb can occur, on a smaller scale, on a daily basis, when you do your writing in the morning, say, and it goes amazingly well but by evening you’re wiped out. That evening time is what Julia Cameron calls “filling the well” time. Although it’s true that the more I create, the more creative energy I tend to have, it’s also true that a prime component to our creativity is this resting phase, whether that’s a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days.

So what do you do when you’re faced with a creative ebb? Ideally, not much of anything — putter, water plants, daydream. But I know that doesn’t sit well with you if you make your living through your creativity, or if you’re on a tight deadline. In those cases, let the resting, “be-ing” energy be there as much as you can, while keeping up a regular creative habit. Sometimes this looks like doing the minimum that needs to be done and calling it a day.

Whatever you do, don’t demand of yourself that you reach for the creative high you experience when you’re in creative flow. That, my friend, is a sure-fire recipe for getting stuck.

Allow the ebb. The ebb is your friend. When the flow returns, you’ll reap the benefits of the ebb and see just how much richness that “fallow” period has brought to your creativity.

Announcement: This Thursday, Aug. 2, is the last day to sign up for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’m Jenna’s co-coach, and I’ve also been a participant in this group for nearly a year. It’s a great way to develop a regular writing habit and get group support. Check it out here!

Also: I’ll have openings for new coaching clients starting in mid August. If you’re feeling stuck or scared around your creativity, or it seems like life just won’t stop getting in the way, feel free to set up a free consultation with me.

Image is MUD FLATS © Slidepix | Dreamstime.com