On discomfort, sadness, and creativity

reflections

I recently reconnected with a teacher of mine, and, as I shared a frustrating experience with him, he reminded me of the importance of being able to tolerate discomfort.

Even thinking about “tolerating discomfort” makes me … uncomfortable. But I was so grateful for his reminder.

I wrote about allowing discomfort quite a while ago, and it’s a theme I revisit periodically. Because I forget: my mind gets busy trying to make things the way I think they should be SO THAT I am not experiencing discomfort.

But: what if the very discomfort I’m experiencing is exactly what I need to experience in order to grow into the place, the self, the life, I desire?

I am not saying that we should tolerate negativity or abuse or situations we can readily change by willingly acting on our desire to change them.

But sometimes there are situations we cannot readily change — they are not so clear-cut, and there may actually be nothing for us to “do” at this very moment. This is an uncomfortable place to be. It is the space of ambiguity, the (sometimes vast) gray area of uncertainty. Most of us will go to great lengths to not be here.

When I am feeling particularly crabby or “off” or I catch myself slamming into a wall again and again trying to make something happen, there’s a good chance that my mind is actively avoiding discomfort by trying to “move the furniture.”

(“Moving the furniture” is my metaphor for those times in life when there is really no clear action to take, but because fear has a hold on me, I try to do something — anything — in order to feel more control. In other words, the room may be perfectly fine and functional, for now, but I am moving the furniture here and there anyway, trying to predict how I’ll want it next month or next year.)

Something I’ve learned in these past few years of working with some very dear clients is that, frequently, when someone says “I’m stuck”, what’s really going on is an unwillingness to tolerate discomfort.

In an emotional sense, the feeling of stuckness is very real, because the unwillingness to allow the discomfort to be there creates a contraction in the body. It’s like rigidly setting your jaw or tensing your abdomen. There’s no flow.

What happens when we give space to discomfort? What happens when we are not frantically searching for the “right option” or course of action so we can get rid of it, but we simply allow it to be there? Just breathe into it, even for ten seconds or so?

I notice that, often, what is underlying my own discomfort is sadness. Just pure sadness.

This does not make me a “sad person”. Sadness, as Karla McLaren says in her book The Language of Emotions, is “the watery emotion.” It is about letting go and moving on.

We may feel a hint of sadness even about small “letting-go’s”, like finishing a book we’ve dearly loved reading, or donating some clothing we no longer want. And let’s face it, there’s not a lot of space for sadness in Western culture.

But these small sadnesses are part and parcel to letting go, moving on, sorting through what needs to be processed and integrated so we can allow movement and flow into our bodies and our lives.

Speaking of flow, I am experimenting with allowing tears more in my daily life. Obviously, not all situations are appropriate or safe for the expression of tears, but sometimes, tears are a totally good thing when I might normally stifle them, and I’m finding the expression allows people to feel closer to me and creates more real connection.

(I don’t mean I’m going around bawling. I’m just allowing the tears to come forth rather than forcing them back. Like, after I saw Hello, My Name is Doris last week, I let myself be all teary and emotional coming out of the theater, because I loved the character of Doris. In the bathroom, I looked over at the woman at the sinks next to me and saw that she, too, was wiping her eyes, and we shared this lovely, appreciative smile.)

***

Creativity is, at its most essential, the life force moving through us. If we are not allowing discomfort, if we are pushing it down and analyzing or strategizing in order to avoid it, there will be a deadness to anything we attempt to create.

You’ve probably felt it when something you’ve created is a little too “sterile” or “perfect”, with not enough feeling, not enough oomph!, not enough flow. Any chance you were trying to avoid discomfort in some way there? I know I’ve done this in my writing many times.

What do you notice about allowing space for discomfort in your life? What happens if you try it for ten seconds? I’d love to hear your experience.

Do you need support in making your creative work a priority in your life, in a way that works for YOU (not the way you think you should do it!)? I’d love to help. Find out more, here.

Above image © Gjs | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When “good enough” is plenty

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My favorite morning ritual is to go for a walk and get coffee and then walk home. There is something about starting my day this way that just helps. Since I work from home, my “walk for coffee” is a transitional element — it smooths that space between waking and working.

But: the coffee at the places within walking distance just doesn’t really do it for me. Oh, there are many. Major chains, smaller independent places. But something is lacking in the taste of the coffee. It’s either too strong or too weak or it’s not quite the right flavor. Blah!

A few months ago I became obsessed with finding coffee that I could love. I was tired of paying for coffee I wasn’t thrilled with. I convinced myself that if I had better-tasting coffee to start my day, the day would go better. Like, way better.

So I decided to try just making my coffee at home. I did lengthy searches, read copious reviews, and found some fancy new flavors. And I was able to create the coffee I wanted, for the most part. And I felt satisfied. Sort of.

But: the walk. It was missing! And my morning walk is huge for me. It jump-starts my day. It connects me with the creative impulse, with birds, with squirrels and trees. It gets my body moving.

So: I decided I’d make my coffee at home, and then take it with me on my walk.

But: this didn’t work either.

Because: I like going into a coffee place and having that simple interaction with people. There is something about going into a place, talking to people a bit — just a bit, not too much — holding the door, that simple exchange — staring at the bulletin boards, smelling the coffee smells — I like all that. It connects me with the world. I need it.

So, I sat with this coffee conundrum, marveling that this seemingly small thing — really good coffee — had started to take up so very much space in my daily life.

And, eventually, I realized this: the perfect coffee just didn’t really matter that much.

Yes, it would be nice to have the coffee of my dreams on a daily basis, but it was the entirety of the experience I truly needed — walk/coffee/nature/people — and not really the coffee itself. Coffee was only one piece of a bigger thing — my foundational morning ritual.

I also realized something else: In preoccupying myself with my search for the perfect coffee, I was less available — even if only slightly — to the parts of my life that are more important to me. To the parts of my life where, perhaps, I need to take more risks and dial up my commitment. Or simply experience more presence, more of the “enough” of the here and now.

And so, I decided to let it go.

And you know what? Since I let it go, I am totally fine with my coffee, wherever I get it.

Sure, I will probably stumble on amazing coffee somewhere I don’t usually go, that is not near where I live (like the coffee they served at the Indian restaurant that went out of business!), and I will wish I could replicate that taste somehow.

But while fulfilling my desire for the perfect coffee would be nice, it’s not essential.

When it comes down to it, I’m okay with coffee that is good enough.

***

The coffee example is a simple one, but I see a version of this a lot with my clients, who sometimes feel like they need to hit upon the perfect product, or class, or book, or coach (or, in some cases, life path!) in order to feel like they’re really on their way.

While it is important in certain cases to find a great fit, sometimes it’s okay for the fit to be “good enough.”

(If we’ve struggled with perfectionism, and its shady sister, procrastination, we may use a tendency to hold out for the “perfect fit” as a way of keeping ourselves from showing up in ways that scare us. Check out the categories on the right to find my previous posts on perfectionism. )

Pouring energy into these non-essential areas may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a huge drain on our creative energy to search for perfect when we already have enough.

And even when we are dealing with an area that is truly essential, like a central relationship or the pursuit of our soul’s work, the “search for perfect” can serve as an exquisite distraction from what is already available to us.

Do you see areas like this in your life,  where you’re looking for perfect when “good enough” would suffice? I’d love to hear how you experience this.

Need some support in making your creative work a priority in your life? I’d love to help. Click here to see if we might be a good fit. 

Above image © Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When the ideal meets the real

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One thing getting into my forties has shown me is that a lot of the “ideals” of my twenties and thirties haven’t truly meshed with “the real”.

Now, when I say “the real” here, I’m not necessarily talking about “the real world” — not exactly. I’m talking about what is, when it comes down to it, real and true for me for the whole of who I am.

It’s easy for me to hang out in the land of the ideal. I remember one time, in my twenties, I was explaining to my therapist how disappointed I was in someone I was dating. She nodded and smiled and said, “As usual, your standards are very high.”

She didn’t say it with judgment at all, but with love — in fact, because I felt very accepted by her, I took it as a compliment. (She managed to say this when she could finally get a word in — at least once a session she would have to hold up her hand and say, “Jill, excuse me, may I say something?” Introvert that I am, when I am feeling safe, I can talk and talk and talk.)

I did have high standards — but I think it’s more accurate to say I had certain ideals that I was absolutely certain I needed to live by. And, as life plays out, as we live it, sometimes those ideals crash upon the shores of the real.

It’s not that the ideals are ridiculous or naive (as certain adults used to tell me about my “big dreams” when I was a teenager). It’s not even that the ideals are unattainable (sometimes ideals are very possible for us, especially when they are in keeping with our essential selves).

It’s more that reality provides constraints for our ideals to push up against.  And that who we think we are when we connect to certain ideals may not be who we truly are — or maybe it is, but we change, and our old ideals start to feel more punishing than inspiring.

And this is not a bad thing (though tell that to my twenty-five-year-old self!). In fact, creativity often thrives within constraints. (Why do we need to be creative if there’s nothing to work out, nothing to understand, nothing to make better or see more clearly?!)

When the ideal meets the real, that is when we get to know who we truly are.

I wrote several years ago about my early dream of being an actress, and how I discovered over time that the life of an actor was really not the life I wanted. If I hadn’t given it a shot, though, I never would have understood why.

The reality of me is that I’m much more a writer than an actor. And, as I’ve brought my “ideals around being a writer” into reality, I’ve also learned a lot about what kind of writer I am, and what kind I’m not. I’ve learned a lot about what writing means to me, and what it doesn’t. (In other words, I’m more than a writer. “Writer” is one aspect of me, and writing is a tool through which I express the whole of me. And I’m still learning here.)

***

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti has said that you can have all the ideals you want, but it’s your life experience — your daily reality — that shows you what is true for you.

I had to confront this in my relationships for a lot of years. Although I said I wanted to be with a partner who was fully there for me, the people I allowed into my life back then weren’t really partners at all — they were never truly available to me.

Reality for me clashed with my ideal — what was true for me, I came to see, was that I didn’t really want a partner who was actually there — I wanted the idea of a partner.

It took a lot of peeling back the layers of my ideal for me to comes to terms with what was real — and true — for me. (It’s extremely common in the work I do with clients for them to test out an ideal and discover that they liked the idea of it, but the reality of it is not necessarily a good fit for who they truly are. This is wonderful news: now they get to see what it was in the essence of that ideal that they wanted. Very often, it is the essence we crave, not the actual thing itself.)

If you find your reality pushing up against an ideal, ask yourself:

• What is it about this ideal that inspires me, that moves me? Is there a way I can have the essence of this in my life without needing particular external circumstances?

• Does this ideal even fit me — the real me — anymore?

• Do I simply need more support in order to really live this ideal in my daily life?

What do you notice about how your ideals mesh with reality in your own life? I’d love to hear how this works (or doesn’t!) for you.

This is tough stuff. If you’re in this space and needing support, check out my options for one-on-one coaching and see if you think we might be a good fit. I’d love to help.

Above image is “Clouds Floating Along” © Marilyn Barbone | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Embracing the beauty of being on the fence

ducksonfence

One of the most painful things we can experience, at times, is that feeling of being “on the fence.”

We’re not quite at “yes”, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a “no” either. This can happen with a creative project, a relationship, a job, or even an event we’re not sure we want to attend.

I know I can be a world-class waffler. Sometimes something is clearly a “hell yes” or a “hell no”, and there’s always a sense of relief for me when that’s the case. Because often, I have a whole bundle of feelings around something — an unwieldy mix of half-yeses, half-no’s, and everything in between.

I have a fascination for the murky, the muddy, the not-quite-clear. My partner said the other day, while I was debating whether or not I wanted to go out of town with him, that while he sees about two and a half sides to every situation and thinks that’s enough, I see eight sides and like to go for thirty.

Fair enough. Sometimes I love that I embrace the gray areas, the not-quite-defined. But it can also make life harder than it needs to be.

Because sometimes, I think I’m on the fence but I’m just plain fooling myself. Sometimes, I’m not on the fence at all but I’m afraid to own my “hell no” or my “hell yes.”

I’ve discovered over the years that there’s a true difference in feel between times I am genuinely on the fence and times when my “I’m not sure” is actually a cover-up for a yes or a no I’m afraid to see.

It’s all about how it feels in my body.

A true “hell no” for me feels like a hand pressing again my abdomen — a firm, strong hand. It’s a boundary; it makes me think of a drum skin pulled taut, with no give left. No. Not going there. Done. Or, eh, that just doesn’t feel right to me, for now.

A true “hell yes” for me feels like an opening. A “yes” for me is in my chest. My body lifts up and forward when I feel a true yes — it’s like an invisible string extends from my breastbone, right around the area of my heart, and pulls me toward what I want.

A true yes does not actually feel like a decision at all, much of the time — I simply find myself moving toward whatever it is. (As Byron Katie says, when we have the necessary information, decisions tend to make themselves.)

flowerfence

So what does the dreaded “fence” feel like? I’d like to first point out that, largely, what makes the fence painful is the belief that we should be off it. That being “on the fence”, feeling “maybe” instead of yes or no, means something is wrong.

When I’m genuinely on the fence (and not pretending to be there because I’m afraid of my yes or my no and what they might mean), there is a true sense of curiosity. Again, I feel it in my body. Curiosity shows up in my abdomen, chest, throat and jaw. It starts in my abdomen and moves upward — there’s a ticklish quality to it, a momentum that is born of wonder.

In fact, a good sign that I’m genuinely unsure is I hear myself saying “I wonder” and “what if?” a lot, in a musing, reverent way. I don’t mean “what if” here in the worrying, fearful sense. I mean it in the creative sense.

It’s like when I’m writing fiction, and I’m testing out story possibilities. What if she does this? And then he reacts by doing that? And then that causes this? It feels more like playing than the tense, cramped feeling that comes from analysis paralysis, from trying to “figure it all out and get it right.”

There is nothing wrong with being “on the fence”, unless we are perpetually there. In fact, when we are on the fence, it is a great opportunity to know ourselves intimately. It is autobiographical. No two people will be “on the fence” about the same situation in the same way.

I do a lot of “fence work” with my coaching clients because people often seek out a coach when they’re struggling with a big decision. Sometimes their truth is that they’ve already reached a “hell yes” or a “hell no” and they simply need to permission to see it and support in owning it.

And sometimes, they need support in embracing the beauty of their particular fence.

Very often, we can only step off the fence into the lush grass on the other side when we deeply get how the fence is serving us. It’s okay to be there for a while, as long as our being there is true for us. And if our truth is that we’re ready to jump off the fence — or shimmy down ever so gently — it’s okay to get support in doing that.

How do you know the difference between a true yes and a true no for yourself? How do they feel different than when you are genuinely “on the fence”? I’d love to hear your take on this!

Above images © Susinder | Dreamstime Stock Photos and © Steve Sharp | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively.

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

squirrelfoodA couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my journal, and I paused to stare out the window. It was cold out, bitterly cold, and I watched a squirrel make her way up a telephone pole across the parking lot with a frozen piece of hamburger bun.

When the squirrel had made it almost to the top of the pole, just inches from the wire she wanted to access in order to make it across to the tree branches many yards away, she dropped the bread. I watched it plummet — its trajectory was swift, and it bounced twice on the pavement.

On realizing she had dropped the bread, the squirrel immediately — and I mean immediately — turned around and started down the pole to retrieve it. It took her a while; eventually, she got to the pavement, located the bread (which was about twice the size of her head), put it in her mouth and headed back up the pole.

The squirrel had very little — if any — reaction to her loss of the bread. She simply noticed it had fallen and recalculated.

But here was my reaction, from the kitchen window: Oh my God! All that work and she drops it! Poor squirrel! What a hard life she has in the winter! It’s not fair! All that work just to get a scrap of bread! What if she drops it again? What then? Why is life so hard?

I watched as the squirrel made it up the pole a second time, this time without dropping the bread. She balanced with it on the wire and managed to reach the tree branches, at which point I stopped observing her because I couldn’t bear to see her drop it a second time. If she did, that would mean … what?

I was making the squirrel’s dropping the bread, or potentially dropping the bread, mean all sorts of things. Bad, sad, things.

But the squirrel wasn’t making it mean anything. She was just going on with life, not shaking her little squirrel fist at the heavens and saying, Woe is me! What a pitiful squirrel life I lead, dropping bread left and right! How will I ever eat? I am so incompetent and life is unfair to me!

What are you making it mean? is one of my favorite questions ever. I learned to employ this question during my life coach training back in 2010, and once I learned it I didn’t know how I’d lived without it. It’s probably one of my favorite questions to use with my clients, too.

Our thinking is often automatic. It bypasses our conscious awareness and, before we know it, we’re off into all kinds of stories.

Notice what I did when the squirrel dropped the bread? My mind just went there. It applied all my human concerns to the squirrel and her squirrel-ness. It took maybe three seconds — if that — for my mind to go from noting that the squirrel had dropped the bread to asking an unanswerable question: “Why is life so hard?”

It’s worth it — so worth it — to slow down and observe our thinking. We can’t stop our minds from spewing out thoughts — some research shows that we think at least 50,000 thoughts per day — but we can step back and notice how what we’re thinking is affecting us.

Sometimes (often!) I respond to myself the way I did to the squirrel. Something doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, or it’s harder than I thought it would be, and my mind is off and running — I shouldn’t have tried, what’s the point, that was so hard there’s no way I can do it again, why is life so unfair? 

It’s not bad, or wrong, that I have these thoughts. It’s what minds do. The not-so-great thing is when I believe them and take action (or not) accordingly.

When the “bad thing” happens, when I drop my proverbial bread, this is where What are you making it mean? can be a really helpful question to pose to myself. (Notice the difference in feel between this question and a profoundly unhelpful question like “why is life so unfair?”)

Humans are not squirrels, and not meant to be, but I’d like to become a little more like the squirrel. A little more undaunted, a little less self-pitying, a little less thwarted by inevitabilities that have absolutely nothing to do with me. Life is unfair (okay, I guess you can argue that thought, if you want to!). But the squirrel in her squirrel-ness reminds me that what I do with that fact is up to me.

(Two of my favorite resources for noticing and working with my thoughts are Byron Katie’s The Work, and Brooke Castillo’s Self-Coaching 101.)

What are you making it mean? I’d love to hear what you notice about how your reactions shape your world. (Noticing is always the first step!)

Need some support in bringing your creative work into the world? Check out the ways we can work together, here.

Above image is “Squirrel Food” © David James | Dreamstime Stock Photos

How distracting yourself can get you unstuck

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Sometimes we can find ourselves in a cycle that looks like this: We’re pushing and pushing to get something done, but it’s not working, no matter how hard we push.

Then we ask ourselves, “Why isn’t it working? What’s going wrong?”

Our minds start looking for what’s wrong and find that it’s all wrong. (If we look hard enough for something, we will definitely find it.) The project is wrong, the way we’re going about it is wrong, we are wrong. Our lives are wrong. Wrong! Where did it all go wrong?

We get discouraged with how wrong it all seems, and we think, “Well, maybe it’s my attitude. I just need to try harder.” So we push ourselves, and the whole cycle continues.

Western culture is in many ways a “push” culture, which values moving forward at all costs.

One thing that can result from too much pushing is a feeling of stuckness.

Ideally — when I’m really “on track” — I’ve noticed that I feel pulled toward what I want, not like I am pushing myself toward it.

This is not to undervalue “push” energy, as it’s certainly necessary sometimes (it’s just not a great way to live all the time).

A lot of what’s going on with pushing ourselves is that we’re pushing so hard we’re losing sight of why we’re doing something in the first place.

And that’s why — in addition to pulling back and gaining a broader perspective, which I wrote about in my last post — an important element to moving out of a feeling of stuckness can be shifting focus. Or, to put it another way, distracting yourself.

Yes — that means stepping away from what you’re trying (unsuccessfully) to do, and doing something else. Anything else. Resist the urge — for the moment — to try to “figure out” why things aren’t working, and just do something else.

This can work on the smaller scale or the larger scale.

On the small scale, it might look like calling it quits for the day with that chapter you’re wrestling with and attending to the email you’re feeling called to write to a friend.

On the large scale, it might look like putting the major project that’s feeling incredibly draining on hold for a month and immersing yourself in a “fun” project.

This happened for me years ago during grad school when I felt a lot of heaviness around my thesis material. At the end of a summer, when I had a brief break from course work, I found myself super-inspired by these little cat paintings I saw artists doing on a certain auction site at the time. And it occurred to me that — for fun — I could try to do a little cat painting of my own.

I did one late on a Friday night, painting into the wee hours, and it was so much fun I did another one, then listed them both on the site for very low prices. Just for the hell of it.

My sister called the next day — she was always checking on my listings back then, as we sold used clothing a lot — and said, “What are these paintings you have up? One has a bid on it!”

Yep, my little painting I’d done “just for fun” had a bid on it. Someone wanted to pay actual money for my little experiment.

This was the beginning of a period of a year or so where I made lots of little cat paintings and sold them. One ended up in a coffeehouse in Seattle. One ended up in the home of an octogenarian with six cats who lived in England. It was so much fun selling my little paintings and learning about my customers.

And what I discovered during this time was that part of the reason I’d gotten so stalled on my thesis material was that I’d lost touch with what had mattered to me about writing in the first place: it felt fun! I liked it!

I’d gotten locked into “serious grad student” mode and felt like my writing had to be big and important. I still struggled with those feelings (and sometimes do now), but doing my little paintings reminded me that there was much joy to be had from the small, the simple, the cute and the fun.

That thing I was truly seeking — connection with dear, kindred souls — was available to me by doing ordinary things with extraordinary care. (I wrapped my cat paintings in pretty tissue paper and tied them with ribbon and wrote personal notes to each of my customers. I loved responding to messages from my customers and hearing their stories about their cats.)

***

Anne Lamott tells a story in her book Traveling Mercies about her car breaking down when she and her son were on the way to visit a dying friend. When all was said and done, it turned out she wasn’t able to visit her friend until a few days later than she’d planned.

Somehow,  thanks to the “distraction” of the car situation and what it brought up for her, she was able to show up for her friend with more true presence. “I still did not know what was trying to distract me so it could get itself born,” she wrote, “but I felt happier than I had in a long time.”

Sometimes we need to distract ourselves so that we can get out of our own way.

I think this is what happened for me when I was drawn to making small, simple paintings of cats. I needed to get out of my own way.

Getting out of our own way in this sense is not the same thing as procrastination (though our culture — oh, our culture! — will try to convince us that it is, that there is nothing of value in ceasing to push.)

Challenge the culture. Allow your life to be a grand experiment that always leads you back to your core.

Need some support on your grand adventure? Through Feb. 29, my one-on-one coaching sessions and packages are at special prices, in honor of The Year of the Monkey. (Monkeys are a spirit animal for me — they are the guardians of fun and play, which my serious, driven side badly needs to stay connected with.) Find out more here

Above image is “Colour Tube” © Esra Paola Crugnale | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Are you pulling back enough to gain perspective? + special February coaching prices

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Scroll down to learn about my special coaching prices this month, in celebration of the Lunar New Year!

One thing about my many, many years of journal-keeping is that certain patterns — truths about the way I live my life, the behaviors I resort to when I’m under stress — show up with (sometimes frightening) regularity on my quickly-scrawled pages.

One of these truths about myself, which I don’t necessarily like but am coming to terms with, is that I have a tendency to keep moving things ahead even when they’re not working.

It makes me feel virtuous to check off my daily to-do list, to be there for others, to get things done that feel hard. And, I also truly love these things — when they feel deeply right.

But sometimes, I have a creeping sensation that something isn’t quite right, and, in the interest of getting my work done for the day, I don’t actually step back and ask: Is this work, you know, working? Is doing this stuff contributing to what I desire in the long run?

I had a conversation with a friend recently where I told her about this tendency of mine to keep hanging in there, to keep moving something ahead, even though it’s not necessarily working for me, even though I badly need to press the pause button.

And she said, “Wow, you know, I think of you in exactly the opposite way. You always remind me of how important it is to focus on what really matters and to take time out to be present.”

Ack. Apparently it’s true that we teach what we (desperately) need to learn.

The truth is, I’m a lot better at stepping back and focusing on the big picture than I used to be. In my younger years, I felt like I was constantly on fast-forward. I have no idea what I looked like to others, but I had a huge fear of stopping and looking around.

I became monumentally out of touch with my own feelings, and it was only an illness at twenty-five that really slapped me into the reality of what was true for me: I needed to stop pushing, to stop trying so hard to be there for others, and to allow myself to simply be. Not just once in a while, but as a regular practice.

But, it is always a process, and many years later I still get caught up in pushing myself forward when, in fact, what is required is a giant step back.

those icky patterns show up on the pages of my journal

those icky patterns show up on the pages of my journal

Obviously, moving things forward is vital, but the best way to do that is through what we coaches call inspired actionaction connected to what is in the best interests of our essential self — not simply action for the sake of it.

And this can be truly challenging when we live in a society that rewards us for taking lots of actions, for “just doing it.”

***

Last year, I made the painstaking decision to move into a smaller home. It’s a lot smaller. (I wrote about this journey here.)

It was a complicated situation, but a defining aspect of it was that I was expending a lot of physical, mental, and emotional energy trying to keep up a house that, in the long run, I just didn’t actually want to live in. In the final analysis, I had to admit I just didn’t care about the things that came with maintaining a house.

I would look around at friends and think, well, they do it. It’s worth it to them. And I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me that I wanted to go back to small apartment living, at my age.

But when I thought about moving into a small apartment, where upkeep would be minimal, where maintenance would be taken care of by someone else, where I could feel like each room and each object was well-used and appreciated, I felt all lit up inside. It was my truth, even if it wasn’t somebody else’s.

It took me a long time, though, to actually pull back from my daily existence enough to see this truth.

And it was care of the house, in part, that distracted me from the truth. Whenever I got everything else done, there was always snow to be shoveled, or leaves to be raked, or a flooded basement, or an attic fan that needed repairing. But isn’t this what you’re supposed to do? I’d think. Grow up and take care of a house?

***

Martha Beck, in her book Finding Your Own North Star, talks about the difference between “mouse vision” and “eagle vision”. Mouse vision takes care of the small details that help us get things done each day. Mouse vision is very important, because it is only through tiny, individual steps that we make our way to completing our “big things.”

Eagle vision, on the other hand, is about the big picture — it’s soaring above the landscape so we can get a sense of the whole scheme and notice what needs attending to, what needs to be let go of, and when we need to fly in a slightly (or dramatically) different direction.

It’s easy to get stuck in mouse vision. If you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe how the years are getting away from me,” it’s likely that mouse vision is a little too much at play in your life.

Something I’ve noticed while working on novel drafts (which I will get into more in a future post) is that it is really important to be able to flexibly switch between mouse vision and eagle vision in the creative process. Just like in my life, I’ve had a tendency to push my writing forward even when something nags at me, raising its little hand and saying, “Hey! Something’s not working here!”

It feels so virtuous to keep plugging along, to write more words, to check that off my to-do list! Who wants to pull back and look at the work as a whole? Do I get a gold star for doing that?

But it’s so necessary, in our lives as well as our creative work.

How do you know it’s time to pull back and embrace the big picture?

• You feel like you are drowning in the day to day. It feels like you’re just going from one thing to another, putting in the time.

• You feel disconnected from yourself, or your creative work.

• You find yourself getting really angry when you have to perform certain tasks. (When I was living in the house, there came a point where any time something broke — the dryer, the lock on the front door — I felt like I was ready to kill somebody. This kind of anger is a sure sign that something needs to change.)

• You start to get sick of hearing yourself complain about the same things, over and over.

The next step — as always! — is acceptance. This is where you are — and change is totally possible. What does a shift to a broader perspective reveal to you?

If you’re a little too entrenched in “mouse vision” and you’d like some support, I’m offering a package of three thirty-minute coaching sessions through Feb. 12 (this Friday). I don’t regularly offer thirty-minute sessions, so if this way of working with me appeals to you, I encourage you to check it out!

Also, through the end of this month, my 60-minute sessions and packages are at special prices in celebration of The Year of the Yang Fire Monkey! Find out more about this and my other coaching offerings here.

Eagle image © Cecilia Lim | Dreamstime Stock Photos

How time distortions keep you from getting things done

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

Here at the beginning of a new year, a curious phenomenon has arisen in the work I’ve been doing with my coaching clients. It comes down to this: what we believe about how long something will take is directly related to whether or not we actually do it.

These types of beliefs are time distortions, and a good example of this phenomenon comes from Seinfeld. There’s an episode where Jerry is trying to convince himself that it won’t be that bad staying for a few days with his parents in their Florida condo. To make the impending visit feel shorter, he tells himself that he can’t really count lunches and dinners and taking showers as part of the visit — so, actually, the whole visit will be “like fifteen minutes!”

Have you done this? I know I have. When we’re dreading something, our minds will go to all sorts of lengths to help us cope.

This is in some ways helpful and productive — I know there are experiences I would probably have never exposed myself to if I’d known in advance how hard and stressful they were going to be.

But my mind convinced me that “it wouldn’t be that scary.” In some cases, it was far scarier than I’d imagined, but in the end I was thrilled that I had the experience (so, thank you, dear mind!).

More commonly, though, our minds can protect us into not doing something at all (that we either want or need to do) with these types of distortions.

A client I worked with recently had not completed the “homework experiment” we’d set up for her. (I refer to any homework I give clients as an “experiment” rather than an “assignment” because approaching something as an experiment tends to engage more curiosity and less resistance. But not in this case!)

When we dug into why, it turned out that she’d been thinking the homework “would only take thirty minutes or so” and she could knock it out the night before our session. When we looked honestly at the homework, though, it was clear that she would need a minimum of three hours to do it.

So why had she decided it would only take about half an hour? Because she had a lot of resistance built up around doing it, and the only way she could bear to face it was to think that it would be over in a very short amount of time.

In this case, that meant she put it off until it simply didn’t get done. And I have a lot of compassion here, because I have SO done this.

Here’s another example, from a different client. She’d told a close friend she would run an errand for her, but hadn’t done it. For a month she’d been waking up thinking “I really need to do that today. I should do it.” Then she wouldn’t do it and the next day the whole cycle would repeat.

When we took a look at why she wasn’t doing the errand, another sort of time distortion revealed itself. She was certain the task was going to take hours and that it could become very complicated, and that she might have to get help to complete it that she wasn’t sure she could get.

I told my client that, while I could be wrong, to me it sounded like the task shouldn’t take more than about an hour to complete (and this included driving time). We looked at what would be the worst that could happen if, in fact, it did take her as long as she feared. “It would be really stressful and annoying,” she laughed.

But she agreed to go ahead and do it the next day. I told her to email me as soon as it was done and tell me how it had gone (this kind of check-in with someone who cares about you can be SO supportive!).

She emailed me way sooner than I’d expected to hear from her. Why? Because the task, including driving time, had taken her exactly 18 minutes — no complications, no extra help needed. Just straightforward driving to an office to pick up a folder and dropping it off at her friend’s house.

How do we keep ourselves from getting sucked into time distortions? Well, first we need to get our thinking about the task we’re avoiding out of our heads, where we can see it more clearly. It helps to write it down, or speak it aloud to yourself or someone else. (So often our thinking is automatic, bypassing our consciousness. We need to see it “out there” in order to be aware of it.)

If you notice there are time issues in your thinking (“I can write a draft of my chapter on the twenty-minute train ride”) and that you feel a considerable amount of anxiety with that thought, you can be pretty sure that what you’re telling yourself is deeply unhelpful. (We almost always avoid things because of the anxiety they bring up in us. If we can lessen the anxiety, we’re going to be far less likely to avoid them.)

So experiment with some mantras that will help you do a reality check when it comes to how long something will take. (Often, we just don’t know, and that needs to be factored in.)

Here are some of mine:

I won’t know how long it will truly take until I start doing it.

If it’s going to take a long time, I’d rather get started sooner than later. 

I want to feel as calm and grounded as possible around this action. What will help me feel that way?

All of these sentences give me a reality check. And for those of us with, shall we say, vibrant imaginations, reality checks can be a valuable part of our artist’s toolbox (as much as we might cringe at the idea of “mundane reality”!). As long as the reality check is supporting our bigger vision, it’s all to the good. 

What do you notice about how distortions of time play into your fears around getting things done? I’d love to hear from you.

And: Need some help moving your creative work forward in the new year? For a limited time, I’m offering three-packs of 30-minute coaching sessions. You can find out more, here.

Above image is “Old Distorted Clock,” © Jolin | Dreamstime Stock Photos

You only ever need to do one thing

christmasstar

Yesterday I was having one of those days where my mind spun with all that I was sure needed to be done. I sat at my kitchen table, staring out the window, trying frantically to access peace (as if “frantic” could ever be the way to peace).

There was so much I should be doing, surely, but it felt like there was so much that there was no point in starting — with such a huge to-do list, anything I did would only constitute a drop in the overflowing bucket of what must be done.

This is a familiar place I can go to when more than “the usual” is on my plate, and that’s the case for so many of us at the holidays. Even though I’ve made a conscious decision to do things more simply this year, I still travel for Christmas and, grrr — traveling? Not my favorite thing. I like being there, I just don’t like getting there.

As I backtracked and took a look at what I’d been thinking yesterday morning, I realized I was focused on the sheer hell that plane travel would surely be, and what a drag it is that every year I endure this, and how with everything going on in our world I have an extra layer of fear right now, and on and on.

And then I felt selfish and self-centered for not being able to be a “bigger person” and have gratitude that my parents are in good health and I have this opportunity to see them at the holidays.

This is a good example of what our minds tend to do (my mind is hardly unique in its patterns!). When we fixate on something we’ve decided will be unpleasant, reinforce the expected unpleasantness with fearful thoughts, and then judge ourselves for having the thoughts in the first place, we get into a vicious loop.

When we’re operating from that loop, it looks like only eliminating the circumstance we’re convinced is making us unhappy will restore our sanity — or, only making the exact “right choices” within that circumstance will keep us safe, secure, on steady or virtuous ground.

If feeling good is dependent on either eliminating circumstances or choosing the “correct” ones, we’re on a slippery slope. So much is out of our complete control, even in areas where we do have a good amount of legitimate power over what happens.

So when we approach our lives this way, it’s kind of like we’re either focused on the finish line, when the race will be over and (if we do it right) we’ll have won, or we’re looking for a way to bow out of the race altogether. But I don’t want to run! we think. Why does there have to be this stupid race?

As I sat obsessing about the “right way” to handle my commitments, I looked over at my boyfriend, who was sitting in a chair in the living room laughing heartily at something on TV.

How simple it is for him, I thought. He doesn’t analyze everything the way I do. He just does what needs to be done and doesn’t make a big thing out of it. (He would tell you this isn’t exactly true, but it was what I thought in the moment.)

And then I noticed the mostly blank wall behind him. Since we moved in August, I’d been meaning to hang pictures on that wall, but I kept telling myself it wasn’t important enough to take precedence over everything else I needed to do.

But, I realized, I wanted to hang those pictures. Of everything I could have been doing in that moment, hanging those pictures felt like something I wanted to do. And, looking at the mostly empty wall, I realized that hanging the pictures — only that — was all I was called to do in that moment.

Just that one thing.

Back in August, during that last chaotic week before I moved to my new home, my friend Mary Montanye asked me via email how the moving preparations were going, and I told her I was mega-overwhelmed. She responded that when she was in the process of moving, she’d found it helpful to “just take the next indicated step.”

Those words spurred me on like you wouldn’t believe (thank you, Mary!). And yesterday, hanging the pictures and admiring them afterward, noticing how much more it feels like home in the living room now that the pictures are up, my mind began to quiet itself.

pictureshung

Pictures are up!

I was reminded that all I ever need to do is one thing. No matter how big the project, how sprawling the to-do list, I only ever need to do one thing.

And here’s the trick: Only when I am in the process of doing that one thing am I able to see clearly that it is being engaged with the process that I crave, not getting to the finish line or eliminating the task.

When I am caught up in thinking about all that needs to be done, and not actually doing the one thing that presents itself, I am disconnected from the rewards of the process of doing. I believe that the only reward comes from “having done it”.

This is why when I hear people say things like, “I hate writing, but I love having written,” something in me cries, but that’s no way to live! If we can’t find ways to make the process rewarding, we’re forever focused on the finish line, and therefore missing most of our lives.

And the process looks like this: one thing, one thing, one thing. (And yes, sometimes our “one thing” CAN be eliminating, or rescheduling, something on our to-do list! The key is in taking the action, rather than obsessing over it.)

I’m curious about how this works for you, and particularly about how you might apply “just one thing” to anything you have planned for the holidays.

And if, like me, you’re an introvert who’s needing a little more comfort and simplicity at this time of year, you might want to check out this post that I wrote last year at holiday time.

Top image © Jessie Eldora Robertson | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Permission to do it differently + last day to grab an Autumn Transition coaching session

coffeebeans

Scroll down to learn more about my Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions — the deadline to sign up is today!

Sometimes (often) I get really, really attached to the way I’ve always done something.

Like, when I was in my twenties, I wrote in coffeehouses a few times a week. It worked really well for me. I loved the hum of activity around me and the human company. I loved watching people walk by the window and the bottomless-cup-of-coffee served by a particular place that I went to most often.

But by my late twenties, the coffeehouse writer thing wasn’t working for me so well. I found that I was too prone to socializing when I wrote in a coffeehouse, and that the socializing felt exhausting rather than enlivening as it had when I was younger. I also found that the bottomless-cup-of-coffee wasn’t good for my body, but if it was available, I was likely to succumb to it.

For a while, I kept on trying to write in coffeehouses. But it just didn’t feel the same as it had. It just didn’t work. How could what had worked for such a long time — and helped me create a solid writing practice — no longer be helpful?

The answer is, I don’t know. My hunch is that my journey as a writer, as a person — as me! — changed. I no longer needed the particular brand of community and company and ritual that I got from the coffeehouse writing experience — I still needed to experience those things, but in new ways, and I craved a quieter, more solitary connection to my writing and myself.

A friend of mine who is a frequent blogger and who also has another job used to crank out a blog post on her lunch break three to four times a week. For a long time, this worked really well for her. She committed to doing it and showed up and did it.

And then, over time, it began to not work so well. She felt empty and distracted when she showed up to write. She wondered if perfectionism was getting the best of her and she was just becoming too picky about her topics. She wondered if she’d run out of material. She figured if she could just push herself a little bit harder, she could keep making it work.

Then one day we were talking and she said that she’d realized her days of cranking out three to four blog posts a week while at her other job were over. Like me with the writing-in-coffeehouses thing, she’d kept on trying to do what worked before, but it no longer did.

It seems it’s a human tendency to hang on to “what once worked.” We do it with rituals, and relationships, and jobs, and rituals within relationships and jobs.

And I’ve come to realize that the important question to ask, sometimes, is not why is it no longer working like it did before? but why am I trying so hard to make it work like it did before?

Because so often what we actually need is not to figure out how to keep doing it the way we once did, but permission to do it differently.

My hunch is that much of this boils down to identity. Our rituals and routines and the things we’re able to achieve regularly contribute to our feeling of who we are. And when we begin to perceive that they’re not feeling so good anymore, we wonder who we are without them.

Eventually, I gave myself permission to do my writing at home — even though I was afraid it would be boring and tedious and that that meant I was becoming boring and tedious (oh, the things I worried about in my twenties!). And I discovered that the truth was something far, far different.

And my friend has found that it feels a lot better to write one blog post a week (and that she is shifting to new subject matter, which feels both exciting AND like she’s not quite sure who the heck she is right now, and, as we like to remind each other, that’s totally okay).

If you find yourself attempting to do something the way you always have and it’s just not working, what if you simply gave yourself permission to do it differently? What if it was totally okay to let go of that old routine and do something new? I’d love to hear how this works for you, in the comments.

And if you’re in the U.S., I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving, with much to give thanks for.

Also: Today is the last day to grab one of my low-cost Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions. These thirty-minute sessions are only $39, and the deadline to sign up is midnight Pacific Time tonight. If you’re experiencing a lot of change in your life right now and feeling stuck, scared, or just plain confused, I’d love to help. Find out more here.

Above image © Johanna Goodyear | Dreamstime Stock Photos