Embracing structure when you’re a go-with-the-flow type

stonesAs someone who tends to rebel against any kind of perceived constraint, I frequently need to remind myself that structure can be supportive and nourishing.

I also notice that the quality of my energy is innately flowing. Anything too rigid doesn’t quite feel like “home” to me.

If we’re not naturally drawn to a lot of structure — or, if we were “over-structured” in our childhoods, with nary a free moment to ourselves — we may rebel against structure as adults.

Emerson is often misquoted as having said “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The true quotation is actually this: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Consistency in and of itself — and for the purposes of this post I am defining consistency as showing up regularly for particular routines and rituals — can be extremely supportive to us, especially for those of us who have very active inner lives.

If your inner life takes you on frequent rollercoaster rides, it only makes sense that your outer life might need a certain amount of grounding, centering structure — even if that structure looks mundane to the part of you that values creativity and adventure and discovery.

So how do we know the difference between structure that is supportive to us and, as Emerson called it, “foolish consistency”? We know by the way it feels.

I can always tell I am trying to “convince myself” something is working for me that really isn’t when I go up into my mind, away from my body. I’m tipped off to the fact that I’m doing this when I hear myself say, “Realistically, I should probably keep on doing such-and-such.” Or, “Logically, there’s no reason I can’t take up running.” (Um — except that I hate it.)

Our minds are very good at convincing us that we are “just being practical and realistic” when the truth might be that we are afraid of doing what feels better and more truly supportive.  Or maybe we just can’t give ourselves permission to do what feels truly supportive to us.

Which leads me to this point: Structure that is supportive to us may not look like someone else’s structure. And it may not look like what we think it will look like.

It could be that the job we swore we’d never take actually ends up providing us with a type of routine that both grounds us and creates steady income that feels delicious (yes, regular income can be a kind of supportive structure!).

We may also find that just a little structure goes a long way for us. The key is to allow the structure in.

For example, one of my clients recently started meeting with a support group for young moms once a month and she’s finding that this simple monthly get-together is paying off in spades. She looks forward to it, it creates community and connection for her, and she leaves it feeling less overwhelmed.

As a “naturally flowing type”, she’d been thinking a regular meeting like this might feel like a chore on top of everything else she’s doing — but it’s actually supporting her in doing everything else she wants to do.

That’s something that those of us who like a lot of flow in our lives often fear — that structure will feel like a chore, that it will hem us in and we’ll feel disconnected from our spirits. But I’ve found the opposite to be true — structure can provide a container that supports and channels the flow of our energy.

It’s key here to discover what kind of structure we need, and how much structure feels good to us.

When I get over-structured, I start to feel like I’m on a deadening treadmill. But the amount of structure that feels “too much” for me is actually too little for a good friend of mine. (And we’re both Myers-Briggs INFP’s — “P” types tend to prefer less structure, but even among them there is a spectrum of how much is too much!)

And sometimes, it’s worth noting, we need to allow in a little more of the energy that we tend to reject or resist. People who get caught up in a lot of “doing” often need to ease up a little and allow more being into their lives. And people who have difficulty moving into “doing” energy sometimes need support in taking more frequent action (which may involve adding more structure!).

Obviously, we all embody both of these energies at times during each day, but the cultural preference for “doing” in the western world can create struggle for us whether we naturally prefer more structure or less.

(I wrote about how I’m learning to make friends with structure and systems several years ago in this post.)

What do you notice about your own need for structure? Do you tend to need a lot of structure in your daily life to feel grounded and supported, or not that much? What helps you get things done, more structure or less? I’d love to hear from you.

Also: I have openings for new coaching clients in December and January. If you need support in making your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care, I encourage you to check out the ways we can work together, here.

Above image © Anatoly Zavodskov | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Welcoming the conscious pause

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Conscious paws are always welcome 🍃

Somewhere on the continuum between torturous procrastination and frenetic “just so I feel like I’m doing something” action is a place of pausing. Of breathing. Of looking around, looking within, and inquiring: what do I really want here? What is it I truly need?

Or perhaps this place, which I call conscious pausing, is not on that continuum at all. Maybe it is actually off that continuum — the silent, sometimes-sacred space you step off the path to claim, like the big rock next to the river that runs along the highway.

I mention this place of conscious pausing because it took me four days to recognize that I was forgetting it was available to me. I returned from visiting my family for Christmas a week ago, and allowed myself a couple of days to recharge (which a younger me would have felt like a slacker for allowing myself, so, yay! Progress!).

But after those two days, I began to ping-pong between a feeling of severe procrastination (I should be doing something, but what? how?) and impulsive activity that felt pointless and disconnected.

(One sign that I, a Myers-Briggs INFP, am “in the grip” — read: under stress — is that I start taking urgent actions that actually make things worse. If you’re at all interested in personality type theory, it’s worth reading up on what your type looks like when it’s “in the grip.” You can start to recognize these behaviors in yourself and regroup.)

Once I noticed how I was acting, I realized my desire to “start the New Year off right” had caused me to fall back on old black-and-white thinking: “If you’re not doing productive things, you must be procrastinating. And if you’re procrastinating, you suck. And now 2016 sucks. Bah!” (Humbug.)

But the key, my friends, as always, is in noticing — a seemingly benign word with a ton of power.

Because once I noticed my swing from one end of that aforementioned spectrum to the other and back, I was able to consider the possibility that I had another choice. That, instead of beating myself up for procrastinating or jumping into frenetic doing, I could take that conscious pause and reconnect with what I truly wanted and needed.

***

Here are some questions I find helpful when I realize it’s time for a conscious pause.

(It’s good to ask them while placing awareness on your breath. I often find that writing the questions and my answers in my journal gives me a bit of detachment from myself so I can see what’s going on in me more clearly. But you can also speak them aloud, or have a friend read the questions to you.)

How exactly am I feeling right now? What emotions are coming up? (If you’re not sure, start here: are you more mad, sad, glad or scared?)

How does it feel in my body right now? (I have a headache, my chest is tight, my knees hurt.)

How do I want to feel right now? (excited, hopeful, peaceful, relaxed?)

How does my body feel when I’m in that place? (get specific here: my spine straightens, my pulse slows, I breathe more deeply.)

What thoughts am I having about the immediate future?

(Here are some of mine as examples: I can’t get it all done. I’m already behind. I won’t make the deadline. I can’t show up fully for my client.)

How can I change these thoughts to thoughts that feel better but also feel true? (When you work with your thoughts, you must believe your new thoughts — your essential self will not be fooled by hollow “positive affirmations”!)

Here’s how I changed my examples above:

I don’t have to get it all done, only the priority stuff. (I believed that.)

Exactly WHAT am I behind? A semi truck? (The frantic part of me didn’t have an answer for this; she just sort of laughed, nervously.)

If I absolutely can’t make the deadline, I can find a work-around. I’ll see it better when I’m in a place of peace.

I can offer my client my imperfect presence, my listening, my best for today. That is all I can ever do. It’s been enough in the past, so why wouldn’t it be enough now? (My frantic self rolled her eyes and scowled at me a bit here, but I could see her shoulders relaxing despite her best efforts to act intimidating.)

***

After you check in with these exercises, you’ll notice that what you’re wanting and needing will be all over your answers to the questions. (It’s amazing how easily and automatically we forget to ask ourselves what we want and need!)

It really helped that my cat climbed into my lap while I was checking in with myself. Is there anything more grounding than a warm feline?

By the way, you don’t have to answer all of these questions (you don’t HAVE to do anything!). You can start with the first one, and move on as it feels right. You may find relief after the first two.

Or, you can nix the questions altogether and simply focus on your breath and the fact that you are, indeed, choosing to consciously pause and stop the madness! What I love about going through these questions, though, is the clarity I come out with on the other side. Every time I see my behavior, my thinking, my feelings, with more clarity, it’s that much easier to navigate the stress when it arises the next time around.

Here’s to conscious pausing and a juicily creative 2016! How might you integrate the power of the conscious pause into your intentions and goals for the new year?

Can you wrap a system around that?

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I used to think that I didn’t like systems. Every time I found myself dealing with any kind of system — which implies structureI would rebel.

Part of this probably stems from having a childhood that felt way, way overstructured to me. My heart wanted to lounge in open fields with cows, sheep, books, and my journal (not that I lived near any fields), but my days always felt completely scheduled with activities from morning to night — not just riding the bus (an ordeal in and of itself) to school and back, but with afterschool activities, and then homework.

This seems so nuts to me now, but it was considered normal, and, thirty years later, though I don’t have kids myself, my sense is that many kids are even more overscheduled than I was (plus today’s kids have so much more technology to manage).

I think another reason I’ve tended to rebel against systems and structure is that I’m a Myers-Briggs INFP, and we “P” types like to keep things open-ended. Too much structure can feel overly planned and rigid for a “P” and trigger our rebelliousness.

At the same time, I’ve had to admit over the past several years, especially since becoming a coach and attracting clients who also tend to rebel against structure, that the right amount of structure can be a true godsend for those of us who cling to open-endedness (which can sometimes result in saying things like “I’ll write when I’m feeling inspired” or leaving ourselves one hour to complete something that actually takes four — woops!).

Systems and structure do not have to be elaborate or complicated. There just needs to be enough of a system to get it done — whatever “it” is.

Here’s my (very simple) example:

I was having a huge issue with mowing the lawn. It only takes me about 30 minutes, but it was becoming this thing that I so didn’t want to do and eventually I’d have to force myself to do it, angrily, usually swearing. Even though, once I’m doing it, I don’t hate it (except for that one time I mowed over some dog poop). It actually feels kinda good, moving my body, the smell of grass and dirt around me, the heft of the mower.

About a month ago, I figured out the issue. My brother, who used to live here and used to mow the lawn, had told me I should do it “about every ten days.” And I tried this. But it felt increasingly stressful to me. Because “every ten days” could fall on any day of the week. It might be a Wednesday, and then next time a Saturday, and then next time a Tuesday.

It occurred to me that if I mow the lawn every two weeks, it really doesn’t look all that much worse than if I do it every ten days. So I’ve made every other Sunday afternoon my mowing-the-lawn-time. And I think about it so, so much less. On Saturday, or Wednesday, I’m not thinking, “should I do it today?” because I know Sunday is lawn day. Every other Sunday, “mow lawn” is on my to-do list, and I know I’ll do it, and that’s that.

That was all the system that was required. It was actually way more stressful to keep the “when” I’d mow the lawn up in the air than it was to assign a day to do it.

This applies to anything I want to do on a regular basis, whether that’s writing or yoga or doing the dishes: Keeping the “when” up in the air creates stress and vagueness, and vagueness does not produce specific results.

And I think that’s worth consideration for us “open-ended” types. Is keeping something unstructured and open-ended giving us a feeling of peace and freedom, or stress and confusion?

The way to know you’ve hit on the right amount of “system” for you is that you use the system without a huge desire to rebel. (If you have a very strong inner rebel, as I do, you may be a little bit edgy around any amount of system, but when it’s the right amount, you’ll find yourself using it anyway.)

Your body is an excellent guide for whether or not a certain amount of structure is too much or too little. When I am overstructured, I feel frazzled, frenetic, like I’m on a treadmill. There’s a need to catch my breath (literally). When I have too little structure, I can feel sluggish, unfocused and fatigued.

There’s no right or wrong here; each of us has a “sweet spot” where we have enough structure, but not too much. So when I’m struggling with something that just won’t seem to get done, I’ve started to ask myself, “Can I wrap a system around this?” And then I brainstorm a little about what might feel like enough.

How do you feel about systems and structure? Do you tend to rebel against them, or do you find them helpful, or both? I’d love to know, in the comments.

Image is “Poppy Field with Powerlines” © Peter Gustafson | Dreamstime Stock Photos