The power of “I wonder” + small group coaching in 2017

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Something I’ve learned in six-plus years as a life coach — as well as in observing myself! — is that we humans have a habit of asking ourselves some pretty crappy questions. Some of these questions are so automatic we might call them “default questions”.

A default question is an unhelpful question we habitually go to when we feel like things aren’t working for us.

Let me show you what I mean. A while ago I worked with a client who had recently started a new job. She’d sought out a coach because, about a month into said job, certain patterns were popping up that were making the new job look mysteriously like the job she’d left (and hated).

“Why does this always happen to me?” she asked.

Now, we could have gone there and answered that question. But “Why does this always happen to me?” was this client’s default question. In fact, when I pointed out that she’d posed it quite a few times over the course of our first session, she was unaware that she’d even said it.

That’s the thing about default questions — they’re not only unhelpful, they’re so automatic they’re outside our conscious awareness much of the time.

And yet, we create identities out of them! For my client, this identity was “the person who gives too much at work and gets way too little in return and either quits angrily or gets fired.”

Can you see how “Why does this always happen to me?” an unhelpful question? Yes, we could go there. We could eventually get somewhere by continuing to ask why. (Why? is a truly powerful question, when framed in a helpful way).

But, in this case, the question itself is making a huge assumption: that this always happens to the asker. And that can’t possibly be true.

So I didn’t go there with my client. Instead, I pointed out that the question wasn’t a great one.

And then I brought in some wondering.

I love the quality of “wonder”. It has, for me, the feeling of stepping outside to witness the glisten of just-fallen snow and the sparrow so light it lands right on top of the white sheen without making a dent.

I also love “wonder” as a verb. Did you notice how my client’s default question had a heavy undercurrent of judgment in it? That’s why default questions can be so damaging, especially when we don’t even know we’re asking them: They are almost always condemning the asker in some way.

Wondering, in contrast, is free of condemnation and full of curiosity.

One of my own default questions is “Why can’t you do this the way everyone else is doing it?” (I’m happy to say it’s no longer quite as default as it once was — sometimes I don’t go to it at all anymore, and when I do, I catch myself in it more quickly these days.)

It’s easy for me to see how this developed as a default question for me — from a very early age, there were often things I had trouble doing that “everybody else” didn’t seem to have a problem with (like playing kickball at recess).

Can you see why the question is not a helpful one? It’s got that undercurrent of judgment, and it’s also making the assumption that “everyone else” does something a “certain way” that I should certainly be doing it.

So what I’ve practiced over the years is a shift into wondering. It goes like this: Hmm … If I want to do this, I wonder how I could do it in a way that feels better to me?

Or, in the case of my client: Hmm … I wonder what it is exactly that feels really hard about your work situation right now?

When we wonder, we get to come to a situation, to ourselves, with beginner’s minds. We get to access a little of the feeling of the glisten of that fresh covering of snow. We don’t play into our well-established, age-old assumptions. We see that today is not yesterday, now is not then.

The first step here (as it so often is) is to notice our default questions. Sometimes we need someone else to catch them for us (they can be pretty sneaky) — a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach is helpful here.

I also notice my default questions a LOT in my journal. When we actually take the time to write out what we’re thinking, we slow down our minds. We capture our thoughts in a moment of time and our default questions are forced out of their hiding places.

Do you notice yourself jumping to “default questions”? Where can you shift into wondering? I’d love to hear from you on this.

And: I will be starting a small group version of my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program in March (the one-on-one version of the program will return as well). If you’d like to make your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care, and would love steady, compassionate support in the safety of a small group setting, I encourage you to apply! Details will be posted soon, but if you’d like to get on the list for more info, please contact me through the form at the bottom of my Ways We Can Work Together page, here.

Above image © Creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Recognizing your options (all of them!)

rusty signI was talking with an old friend of mine the other day and we remembered a situation we’d been in during college. It was a crappy situation, but we didn’t do anything about it.

“What the heck were we thinking?” we asked ourselves (our “today” selves). “Why the heck didn’t we just get out of there? It would have made things so much easier.”

Well, the answer is, our younger selves didn’t just get the heck out of there because we didn’t see getting the heck out of there as an option. We didn’t know we could just leave.

With the benefit of hindsight (and more than twenty years of life experience!), we could clearly see that we had many more options available to us than we recognized at the time. We could have chosen to leave the situation. We could have spoken up to change it. We could have brought humor to it.

But we did none of those things. We resigned ourselves to “just getting through it.”

***

I notice that I feel much more powerful and expansive than I did then. Sure, there are periods where I feel fragile, depending on what I am going through. But overall, I have a sense of standing on this earth with more steadiness, more perspective, a wider vision.

And I’m pretty sure this is directly related to the fact that I am aware that I have more choices than I believed I did in the past.

These can be actual, physical-world choices. But the choice that is most obvious to me today is in how I respond to what’s happening for me.

Back then, when I had the belief that I was stuck or trapped, it would send me into a flurry of frantic activity in which I would try to flee my circumstances, or, as in the situation with my friend, I would freeze, assuming I had no options.

What’s striking to me today is recognizing that, back then, I didn’t notice my belief. The belief “I’m trapped” was actually outside of my conscious awareness — I was reacting to a belief I didn’t even know I had!

Awareness of how our thoughts are triggering our feelings, and how our actions are triggered by those feelings, is key in recognizing our options. There are so many options we can’t see when our lives are being run by beliefs we never question.

***

Just today, I got triggered by an email request that seemed ridiculous and unfair to me. I felt a sense of anger and injustice rise up in me and I was ready to tell this person off. I started writing my email response in my head, in the most sharp-tongued tone I could imagine.

At the same time, I felt I had to take care of the sender’s feelings, so I felt a conflict — taking care of myself and taking care of the sender. Within probably thirty seconds of reading the email, my feelings were about to propel me to action based on this swirl of anger and confusion.

But: I stopped. I stopped and simply noticed the feelings coming up in me. After I sat with the feelings for a bit and just let them be, I could see that my feelings were based on the following thoughts:

How dare this person request this of me! Don’t they know I have a life?

I need to set them straight! They can’t think they have the right to request this of me!

What the heck is wrong with my life that I have to deal with this kind of thing? What am I doing wrong?

Wow. Look how quickly the thoughts evolved into a blanket statement about my life and its “wrongness”.

Now, I’ll be honest — ten years ago I would have acted on my anger and righteousness. I would have shot back a scathing email (probably cloaked in sarcastic politeness) and gone on to regret it. I likely would have escalated things with the sender and felt out of control and crappy and mean.

But when I stopped (and believe me, it wasn’t easy to stop, even after years of practice) and simply felt the emotions, I could trace them back to the thoughts the email had triggered in me.

And then I began to reconnect with my power. I began to see where I have control and where I don’t.

I can’t control what the sender thinks about me or wants from me.

But I can control the way I respond to it, and I can (from a place of peace) communicate that I would prefer the sender not make these sorts of requests of me. What that may look like, I’m not sure — I’m not calm enough yet! 🙂

What I do know for sure is that I have many more options here than to shoot back an angry email or to believe this person has some kind of power over me. And the key is to see those options.

***

Sometimes in situations like this, I write down dozens of things I could do instead of the thing my knee-jerk emotional reaction would have me do — even silly and ridiculous ones, like “climb up on the roof and do a manic dance in the rain” or “paint my toenails deep purple” or “kiss the top of my cat’s head”. Or “spray-paint LOVE on all the cars in the parking lot.”

I wouldn’t necessarily do all these things, of course (or maybe I would!), but you get my drift. There are tons of ways we can choose to respond that we may not be noticing — until we make a point to notice.

So, how do we notice?

• When your feelings are strong, don’t act, sit. Count to ten if you want to. Notice that sitting with strong feelings is only that — sitting with strong feelings. It will not kill you if you don’t act on them in that moment. You will not dissolve.

• Once you’ve felt the feelings, notice what thoughts bubble up, as I did above. (Sometimes it takes a while — maybe a few hours or a day in some cases — to allow your feelings to settle enough to recognize the thoughts that are driving you. Other times it’s a quicker process.)

• Question the thoughts you notice. Are they true? Are they helpful? What thoughts would feel better and more helpful and more true?

• Come up with at least ten ways you could respond. Notice your options, even if they’re seemingly silly ones like those I listed above.

• Now, ask yourself: is action necessary? Yes? What action do you want to take? Does it feel settled and peaceful? Then, do it. Action is good, when it’s inspired action.

It is always, always, the way we choose to respond in this moment that determines the course of our lives, because our lives are nothing more — or less — than moments, strung together, like thousands and thousands of fairy lights.

What do you do when you feel trapped or “up against it”? What happens when, instead of taking immediate action, you pause and notice your options? I’d love to hear from you.

Are you in “creative transition” and needing support? I’d love to help. I currently have openings for new one-on-one coaching clients. Find out more, here.

Above image © Alptraum | 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?