Knowing yourself and saying no

An opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do popped up out of the blue today. Except, it was very last-minute. As soon as I read about the opportunity in an email, and realized that the timing felt off for me, my whole body kind of deflated.

Thinking about taking the opportunity felt draining — definitely non-energizing. My body wisdom was clear, and I decided not to take the opportunity without much more thought.

This got me thinking about the importance of knowing ourselves, especially in this day and age of so much FOMO (that stands for fear of missing out, on the off-chance you’re not familiar with this ubiquitous term!).

I used to agonize terribly over most decisions — particularly when I sensed I might need to say “no” to something.

“Yes” tended to be my default position — if only to avoid potential conflict. (“No” was a word in my childhood that caused more conflict than any other, so by the time I was an adult, it was fraught with all kinds of stuff for me. I recently watched an episode of Mad Men where Sally Draper says “no” to Don — and the ensuing madness confirmed that Sally Draper is my childhood self’s fictional soul sister.)

When I think back to my twenties (from the perspective of my forties), I sometimes wonder why I was so upset about certain things, or why some things I’d deal with swiftly and deftly today turned my world upside down back then. Good grief, I’ll think, picturing my twenty-three-year-old self. What the heck was my problem?

And then I remember, connecting with compassion for this dear younger self of mine: It’s because I have a kind of “self short-hand” in my forties that I didn’t back then — I can quickly act from an accumulated self-knowledge that was undeveloped back then.

(That’s not to say everything is easier now. Some things are a lot harder than they were then.)

It is precisely because I agonized so many times over decisions in the past, and explored what was going on for me with all that agonizing, that I don’t often freak out over decisions in that same way these days.

I know now that there are few decisions that are permanent, there are few opportunities that won’t ever come again (and if some are truly lost, there are others right there waiting), and people can handle it if I say no (even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment).

And because I know myself better than I did twenty years ago, I understand that one of my gifts is picking up on all kinds of subtleties and complexities — and that the “downside” of this gift is that if I focus too much on those subtleties and complexities, I can get lost in them.

And that means recognizing that not every decision requires weighing a bunch of things out. And some decisions do. And because I know myself better than I did at twenty-five, I intuitively sense which decisions are which for me.

I also know that picking up on all these subtleties and complexities means that sometimes things feel wrong to me when in fact nothing is wrong. I’m just picking up on a lot, and it needs to be sorted or let go, and I probably need to take a step back and reconnect with myself. When I didn’t know this stuff about the way I processed things, life was a heck of a lot harder.

So sometimes when I am working with a coaching client who is facing a challenging situation, I will ask: What do you know about yourself when it comes to situations like this? How do you tend to feel? What do you tend to do or not do?

Usually, a wealth of self-knowledge pours forth from the client when I ask these questions. They know a lot about themselves and have only temporarily “forgotten” (the brain-fog that often happens for us when we’re really stressed). And they need to be reminded that they have forgotten.

For me, for example, when someone rushes me to make a decision, if I don’t have all the information I need, I can’t access a clear yes or no for myself. If they push me further, I’ll tend to shut down.

Knowing that about myself, I’m able to say these days, “I’m not able to give you a clear answer on this until I have more information (or more time, or whatever).” That keeps me from moving to the shut-down place.

But if I have gotten to a place where I’m feeling shut-down, if I ask myself “What do I know about myself when it comes to feeling like this? What does feeling shut-down often mean for me?” — I can gain perspective again: Oh, when I’m feeling shut-down it usually means I’m pushing or forcing myself to do something too quickly. Oh, yeah. Maybe I can slow down here. Maybe I can allow myself to catch up with myself.

What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t twenty years ago, or ten, or five? How does this knowledge help you make the best decisions for yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S. As I wrote this post, I got an email update. Turns out the opportunity I mentioned, that felt too short-notice for me, has been rescheduled — for a date and time that feel just right. 

Coming up: I’ll have openings for new one-on-one coaching clients as we head into fall. Do you need support in making your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care? You can learn more about working together, here.  Or, take a look at my Is This You? page.

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

Above images of feather, © Popa Sorin | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and sparrow, © creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Are you clearing space for your creativity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearing space might also look like:

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

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

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

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

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Competing values and conflicting desires

Many years ago, I trained to work on a crisis hotline for women in domestic violence situations. One night of our training, we did an exercise that has really stuck with me over the years.

We were given a sheet a paper with about a hundred different personal values written on it. We then took scissors and cut from the list the fifteen values on it that mattered most to us. Then we took those fifteen little slips of paper, each with an individual value on it, and whittled them down to the ten values that mattered most to us. And then five. And finally, three.

The instructor asked us, “How does it feel to let go of the things you value? To not be able to hold onto them? What do you notice about what matters most to you?”

The most surprising thing that came out of this exercise for me was realizing that one of my top three values was predictability. I’d had no idea predictability was so important to me. It didn’t sound very “exciting” to my young self at all. But I knew in my bones that this value of predictability was a true one for me.

What also came out of this exercise, though, was that another very important value for me was “a sense of possibility.” I had a hard time, back then, reconciling this with the deeply held value of predictability. But as I worked on the crisis hotline and talked to women in dire situations, I could see that most of them had a strong desire for predictability and a strong desire for possibility, both of which often felt cut off from them.

We humans are complex. Years later, both predictability and possibility are still deeply defining values for me. What I’ve discovered is that, for me, the risk of the possible often springs from the safety and stability created by the predictable — and vice versa. They are not as much at odds with each other as I’d once thought, and in fact I want to have the feeling of both, regularly, in my life.

I’ll admit, though, that when I learned “predictability” was a strongly held value for me, it felt at odds with my sense of who I was. Owning that value has been a challenge for me. But owning it made so much intuitive sense to me — I had for years at that point involved myself in relationships that were highly unpredictable, and I never felt safe or cherished in them.

One of the most frequent challenges I see coming up for coaching clients is exactly this: values that seem to “compete”, and along with them, desires that seem (on the surface, anyway) to conflict. On the one hand, we want this. And on the other, we want that. Sometimes the different things we value and desire may seem about as in sync as oil and water.

Here are some more examples from my own life of how this can look:

  • I value routine, but I also value flexibility and variety
  • I value solitude, but I also value lots of connection with others
  • I consider myself a homebody, but I also value exploring new places
  • I value a feeling of privacy, but I also value being seen and known

I used to think I was alone in having so much contrast in what I valued and wanted. But having spent nearly eight years connecting with people in my life coach role, I now know that it is extremely common to have values and desires that seem to conflict and compete all over the place. I’d say it’s just part of being human.

Our minds love to grab onto the all-or-nothing, the black and white. The part of the brain that wants to ensure our physical survival particularly gets caught up in this, because it is always trying to simplify. This is great with things that actually are simple: if I’m crossing the street and a car is zooming toward me without slowing, I’d better get out of the way.

With the complexities in our lives, though, it’s much more helpful to honor that they are complex. That things are not as all-or-nothing as they may seem. Or that, as Byron Katie says, our minds often get things “backwards”. (The Work of Byron Katie is a fantastic way to question what your mind believes. Katie says it is “meditation”.)

If you take my list above, for example, how does it feel different for you if we simply replace the word “but” in each sentence with the word “and”? That would look like this:

  • I value routine, and I also value flexibility and variety
  • I value solitude, and I also value lots of connection with others
  • I consider myself a homebody, and I also value exploring new places
  • I value a feeling of privacy, and I also value being seen and known

Wow! Just rewriting that list, I felt this amazing sense of spaciousness and possibility (one of my core values!) that I didn’t feel much of at all when I wrote the list with the word “but”. (As Martha Beck likes to say, watch out for your big buts!)

So when I work with clients who have competing values or conflicting desires (or both!), we first invite that sense of spaciousness to the table. How does it feel different if this is welcome, and that is also welcome?

What often happens from this place of spaciousness is one of two things: it turns out that one value or desire actually is more important than the other (so they are not truly competing or conflicting — it’s just that one takes more of a “supporting role”); or, there is very much a way that the energies of these seemingly competing or conflicting values or desires can co-exist.

When we see this possibility, we know that we are in the highly creative zone of our brains (as opposed to the “lizard brain” that is concerned only with our physical survival).

Where do you notice competing values and conflicting desires in your life? How do you work with them? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S. My Stellar Self-Care (In an Overwhelming World) one-on-one coaching program will begin enrolling at the end of this month. Want to learn more? You can contact me through my Ways We Can Work Together page.

Above images © Daniel Janusauskas | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and © Thorsten | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Getting clear on what’s true for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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