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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What triggers your resistance?

brick wall

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

Celebrating What I No Longer Do

Today I was thinking about an issue I’ve been working on for years and I started beating myself up because it seems like I’ve made so little progress on it. (I am being purposely vague — my “issue” will be the subject of a future article.) At one point, I caught myself thinking, How can I still be doing this?!?!  Then I remembered an exercise taught to me by the wonderful writer Joyce Maynard, whose workshop I attended a couple of years ago. Joyce suggested it as a good way to come up with story movement, but I think it works equally well as a way to celebrate the changes we’ve made.

It goes like this: “I used to _______ , but now I ________ .”

Here’s what I wrote at Joyce’s workshop:

I used to be a chronic dieter, but now, most of the time, I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full.

I used to be afraid to ask for help in a store, but now I can walk up to someone and tell them what I need.

I used to go numb and forget how to speak when someone did something that hurt me, but now I can tell them to stop (even if it’s an hour or a day later).

This all caused me to think about Victor. Victor is a character in a short story I wrote. I like Victor. He’s about to turn fifty, and although he works as an office manager, he’s really more of a philosopher. He likes to sit cross-legged on the floor of his office in the middle of the day and … ponder. He has a twenty-six-year-old son who can’t seem to get his life together, and a wife who has long since ceased to connect with him. Victor just wants everyone he loves to be happy and he thinks he can make this happen by just going along with what everybody around him wants. It begins to occur to Victor that it’s been a helluva long time since he’s thought about what he wants.

Victor used to pretend it was okay when his wife ignored him, but today he’s telling her he wants to connect with her.

I might want to up the drama for the purposes of my story. Maybe Victor tells her he needs to connect with her or he’s leaving the marriage, and instead of saying, “Victor, don’t leave me!”, his wife says, “Do whatever you want.” What does Victor do then?

However, if Victor were a real person I was working with who told me he was stuck, I’d tell him to celebrate the changes that are even smaller.

Victor used to pretend it was okay when his wife ignored him, but now he notices it’s not okay with him.

Go Victor!! Just that act of noticing it’s not okay — wow! This is the way we progress as humans. Sometimes things take a long time. Sometimes an issue reappears for the entirety of our lives (my therapist called these our “core issues”; Eckhart Tolle calls them “structures in the mind”). But wherever we notice change, wherever we notice movement, no matter how tiny it may seem to us, we have evidence that we are not stuck, we are not hopeless. It is, in fact, in our very nature to grow, to change. We just need to do this at our own rate.

I guarantee you that if you make a list of “I used to … but now I’s”, you will start feeling pretty darn awesome about all the progress you’ve made in your life. We need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to celebrate the small stuff, maybe especially the really small stuff. The more we celebrate the small stuff, the easier it is to create what we really want. The big stuff.