Shifting your relationship to the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The magic of giving yourself more time

Something I’ve noticed again and again while working with clients who want to let go of overwhelm is just how often we expect ourselves to make big life changes very quickly and easily.

When — lo and behold! — making the changes feels like it’s taking a long time and is not all that easy, we conclude that something is wrong.

Where does this mindset come from? For some of us, it’s deeply rooted in childhood, where our feelings might have gotten lost in the shuffle or, in some cases, were flat out not allowed.

For lots of us, too, the culture that surrounds us is focused on “fast and easy,” and we can feel exposed to this message hundreds of times a day. No wonder when things feel slow and difficult, we question ourselves! (This is where self-compassion is especially important.)

When we allow our feelings to surface, we have access to our intuition, and our intuition gives us a solid sense of how fast — or slow — we need to go to best serve ourselves. (Sometimes intuition prompts us to move more slowly and see what emerges, and sometimes it prompts us to take swift action and a lot unfolds seemingly all at once, but when we’re acting from intuition, that unfolding feels right, no matter its pace.)

There are times, for example, when I get an idea about something I might want to do, but when I start taking actions toward it, I can feel a forcing/pushing energy behind it that creates an “ick” for me. (“Ick” is my way of describing something that feels like it’s actually the opposite of where my essential self wants to go.)

If I keep on pushing through the “ick,” I notice I just create more of it. My mind may tell me I need to do this thing (whatever it is), but if I don’t take a giant step back at this point and investigate what’s behind the “ick,” I only end up feeling awful about the thing I thought I wanted to do/create/have.

If we’re in a big hurry, it’s always worth stepping back and questioning what’s going on for us. What are we afraid of? What do we fear will happen if we don’t hurry? How do we want to feel?

***

A while back, a client I was working with felt pretty sure that she wanted to quit her job — the mere thought of quitting caused her essential self to light right up. But when she started getting things in order to actually quit, she felt her version of “the ick”. Flow stopped, fear took over, and she felt frozen. Did this mean, she wondered, that quitting her job was the wrong move?

After we did some calming of her nervous system and she was feeling more safe and peaceful, she was able to see that although she did indeed want to quit her job, she needed to give herself a longer time frame in which to make that big step. Instead of “right now!”, she realized that giving herself six months to plan her exit felt really good and didn’t trigger the “ick”.

When she stepped back in this way, her intuition was more clear to her — she wanted to leave, but she needed more time to do that in a way that felt solid and grounded to her essential self.

Your essential self is the essence of who you truly are (as opposed to your social self, which is much more concerned with how you’re viewed by those around you).

I have learned that the essential self is never in a hurry. Its voice is that of our intuition, which, as I mentioned above, has a “just-right” sense of our unfolding — it’s not about “fast” or “slow”, but about the right pace for where we want to go next, where we (essentially) need to be.

On a smaller, day-to-day scale, giving ourselves more time when things feel hard can help us meet ourselves where we are, too. Whenever I have to figure out some new technology, I get edgy because I am not a techy person. I’ve noticed, though, that if I can block out an hour to learn something new, rather than expecting myself to “just get it” in five minutes, I usually learn it fine and don’t feel like I’m waging a war against myself.

How is giving ourselves more time in this sense different from “procrastination”? It’s the difference between approaching and tending to our feelings, and avoiding them.

What we call “procrastinating” feels so awful because we’re really in avoidance — not necessarily of the thing we’re “supposed” to do — but of ourselves, our feelings, and understanding more deeply what’s going on. (I can’t tell you how many times a client who’s judged herself for “procrastinating” has come to the realization that the “thing” didn’t even need to be done, once she got clear on what was going on.)

When we take a giant step back and ask what’s really going on here, we are generous with ourselves. We’ve taken the pressure off, calmed our nervous systems, and now we can clearly feel into what’s right for us and what isn’t. (If you need support here, you might want to check out my Stellar Self-Care One-on-One Coaching Program.)

When you have that “up against a wall” feeling, what happens when you simply choose to give yourself a little more time? I’d love to hear from you.

My Stellar Self-Care One-on-One Coaching Program is enrolling now. If you want to let go of overwhelm and embrace your creativity, I’d love to support you. Want to learn more? You can do that here

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Above images by Giv Meraj and Terry Richmond on Unsplash, respectively

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