What would make it easier?

Drop of water

Several months ago, I led a small group of my clients through a support session to help them with fears that were coming up around their creative projects. They were all nearing the finish line and feeling a lot of resistance to completing, so I thought, maybe we could all support each other in this.

Something we noticed during our session was that we all had a tendency to complicate things to the point that we felt utterly paralyzed about how to move forward. The closer we got to finishing, the more questions about what might happen when we brought our projects into the “real world” came up.

A lot of the stuckness, we found, was based on fears of what might — or might not — happen in the future, if we actually did finish the projects. What if we put them out into the world and no one noticed? What if we put them out there and offended someone close to us with our content? What if we put them out there and got criticized or booed?

All of these things, of course, are distinct possibilities when we put our work out into the world. Focusing on these possibilities can also be effective ways to distract ourselves from actually finishing our work so it can BE out there.

So we came up with this question to ask ourselves when analysis paralysis set in: What would make it easier? What would make it easier, right now?

Just asking this question, we noticed, created a feeling of relief (which good questions usually do — and most of us are not in the habit of asking ourselves good questions!).

We brainstormed a list of possibilities this question generated, and here are some of the things we came up with:

* I could, just for today, commit to staying in the present moment with my work.

* I could stay in my own business. (This comes from Byron Katie’s “three kinds of business” — my business, your business, and God’s business [you might also call this the universe’s business or simply “reality”]. As I’ve written here before, much of the time I feel stress it’s because I’m in someone else’s business. That includes worrying about how my creative work will affect others in the future. There’s a place for this concern, but it’s not while we’re creating the work.)

* I could go to bed earlier and wake up earlier.

* I could check in with someone who helps me gain perspective when I’m stuck.

* I could drink more water. (This might sound silly and completely unrelated, but truly, dehydration can cause us to feel stuck, because water helps our physical systems move and flow. And, particularly if your system is highly sensitive, you may be susceptible to the effects of dehydration.)

* I could take more walks. (Sitting at a desk, especially if you use a computer to do your creative work, can cause you to feel sluggish and static. Moving your body shakes things up and help you shift perspective.)

* I could employ tunnel vision (in a good sense). Think of a racehorse who has blinders on so he is not distracted by what’s on either side of him — he’s only focused on the immediate few yards ahead.

* I could shift my work time to earlier (or later) in the day.

* I could work in a warmer (or cooler) room.

* I could take more frequent breaks when I work.

* I could aim for a B- rather than an A+ (this one is especially important for perfectionists, which most of my clients are). If it didn’t have to match your perfect vision, how much freer would you be to finish? Think about your favorite books, movies, music, artwork. Are they perfect, or are they inspired? There’s a big difference.

* I could, just for today, let go of the idea that I can please everyone with my work.

* I could, just for today, let go of the idea that I can please everyone in my existing audience with my new work.

These are only a few examples of what we came up with. But notice how simple most of them are. Sometimes there’s one small tweak we can make that really helps. And we noticed that the phrase “just for today” was especially helpful.

It’s very human to make things much more complicated than they are. Usually, when I find myself in the land of analysis paralysis, it simply means that I’m scared and I need some support. Notice if this might be the case for you.

What might make your current project easier — particularly if you’re getting close to finishing? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

And: If you’re stuck near the finish line and need some support in completing a large project, I’ll be forming another small, low-cost support group soon. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to be put on the list to learn more.

Image © zaliha yussof | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Trusting the deep pull inward

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Looking back over the past twenty years of my life, I notice that times of a lot of external change were usually preceded by a deep pull inward: a period of maybe a week, or two, or more, where I needed to become very still, write in my journal more than usual, and detach from the external world.

I remember a period like this in my early twenties where I took lots of long walks in the evening after work for several weeks. And another period years later where instead of going out on the weekends like I usually did, I stayed in and wrote intensely in my journal. I didn’t have the money to actually quit work or take a long vacation in order to go within, but it was like some force compelled me to figure out a way, anyway; it was a taking stock of where I’d been and where I was so that I could move forward in a clear and powerful way.

Except I didn’t really know this at the time. I can only see it in retrospect.

I have a couple of clients right now who are feeling this pull to move inward. And, not surprisingly, they’re having a hard time listening to it.

We often resist this inner calling for a while before we finally surrender to it. I think there are a several reasons for this:

1) We have an increasing number of distractions at our fingertips (the other night I was watching American Horror Story on my laptop WHILE looking up trivia about it on imdb on my iPad — and not fully present for either activity). I believe that our ability to focus — or maybe simply our willingness to concentrate on one thing — is becoming seriously impaired, and we need to take charge of this, STAT. It’s killing our souls.

2) We’re afraid of what we might find if we do go inward and be really present with what’s there. What if we discover that we need to make big, painful changes in order to live the life we want? Sometimes we’d rather not know and live in a murky sort of limbo.

3) We’re afraid of the intimacy that comes from having a relationship with ourselves. Truly tuning in and heeding that inward pull means we actually get to know ourselves on a really deep level. (I’ve had clients tell me that they don’t want to do morning pages for this reason. They aren’t sure they want to know themselves that well. They aren’t sure they’ll like the person who shows up on those pages.) Just as becoming more and more intimate with another person is a risk, so is getting to know ourselves. What happens when we encounter pieces of us that we just don’t want to be with?

The good news is that, whether sooner or later, our intolerance for a disconnect with our essential self wins out, and we do go inward. (It’s just usually better for us when we listen to the call sooner rather than later.) Our souls won’t tolerate the numbness that comes from a life half-lived, and eventually we are forced to listen.

Here are some suggestions, though, for making it easier to trust that pull inward, when it comes:

1) Take a weekly break from the online world. A total break, for a few hours, or more, if it feels workable for you. During this break, pay attention to your body, go out for a walk; remind yourself that you are a physical being in a body with a connection to the earth, not a just fingers and a brain connected to a device.

2) Just as you are allowed to take your time in getting to know another person (in fact, true intimacy with another often develops slowly, over time — the quick kind tends to evaporate), you are also allowed to take time in getting to know yourself. If you have resistance to connecting with yourself, it may be because you’re trying to do too much too soon. You can connect with yourself in small doses, whether that’s through journaling or just being present with what you’re feeling for a couple of minutes at a time.

3) Promise yourself that you don’t have to take action on anything you discover about yourself. Recognizing that you really want to move to Europe does not mean you have to take action on that knowledge, now or ever. You may choose to act on it (and hopefully, if it’s truly right for you, you will!). But, as I so often say to my clients, it’s simply good to know. That’s the point of connecting with yourself — to know the truth about yourself. It is not about forcing yourself to completely overhaul your life. I’ve seen time and again that we are far more willing to know our truth, and own it, when we trust that we do NOT have to take immediate action on it.

Have you struggled to trust the pull to go within and connect with yourself? What made it a challenge for you, and what helped? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “One Sepia Rowboat” © Tatiana Sayig | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When you’re not taking action (even though you want to)

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Sometimes we’re in a space where there’s something we want to do, but we’re not taking any action toward actually doing it. This space is frustrating and icky. We can spin our wheels here for quite a while.

What I find especially stressful (and confusing) is when I do take a step toward whatever it is I want to do, but I don’t seem to build any momentum. Something feels off. I’m not getting caught up in whatever that thing is; there’s no passion, no fire.

What’s going on when we’re in this space? It’s tempting to try to bulldoze our way through and “just do it!” And there are times when that works.

But sometimes it doesn’t work — and, when we plow forward with sheer force, there’s a nasty lingering side effect: We don’t understand ourselves any better. We may get that thing done, but what happens the next time we’re in the “spinning our wheels” place? We force ourselves to plow through again?

I much prefer asking questions at times like these. More than anything, I want to understand myself better so I can have a better relationship with myself. If that relationship is vital to you, too, here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re spinning your wheels:

Do I truly want to do this thing, or do I believe I “should” want to do this thing?

The presence of a “should” is not necessarily an indication that you don’t want to do it; it often means that you have conflicting voices within you around taking this action. If you can untangle the “should” from the rest of it, you’ll have a much clearer sense of what you really want.

Is this something I used to want, but perhaps no longer do?

Does the person you are today actually want to do this, or is this something you wanted to do five years ago? Are you hanging on to an old dream? (“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” – Alice in Wonderland)

* Is there a deadline issue?

Some of us work better and more effectively with deadlines; some of us get panicky and overwhelmed when we have a deadline situation. And sometimes, the deadline is simply too close or too far away to work for us.

If there’s a deadline by which you’re supposed to do this thing, is it possible to push it back, or push it up? Would doing either of those things make a difference in how you felt about taking action on it? (Sometimes we’ve set our own deadlines. Most of my clients have a perfectionistic streak and expect themselves to complete things way sooner than is reasonable, or necessary.)

Am I making the task too big?

One of my clients had decided to apply to a graduate program, but she wasn’t taking any action toward it. The deadline loomed and the weeks were going by and nothing was happening.

We noticed that every day she had been writing on her to-do list “Grad school application.” But when we broke it down, we found that there were at least twenty individual steps involved in completing the entire application process, and some of those steps could be broken down into even smaller steps. Of course she wasn’t taking action on it when “grad school application” was not an actionable step.

We often don’t want to break things down into small steps because we’re in a hurry. We think we don’t have time to take small steps. Then we proceed to do nothing at all because the giant leap we think we have to take overwhelms us. In the long run, we move more quickly and steadily when we take small steps over time. Think turtle and hare.

Am I in somebody else’s business?

Byron Katie talks about the three kinds of business: My business, your business, and God’s business. Much of the time when I’m feeling stressed, confused, or unfocused, if I remember to ask myself who’s business I’m in, I discover the issue. When I’m in somebody else’s business, as Katie says, there’s no one here taking care of my own.

How does this keep me from moving forward? If I’m worried about what someone else thinks of me, or trying to control someone else’s reaction to my choices in some way, I keep on spinning my wheels. I may not allow myself to do what I truly want to do. It’s human to care about what others think; but if we’re paralyzed because of it, we’re way out of our own business and into somebody else’s.

* Is my creative well empty?

I often mention the creative well on this blog. Julia Cameron likens the creative well to a “trout pond” that, ideally, is fully stocked with fish, except, as artists, we stock our ponds with images that inspire. We stock our ponds with the wordlessness that comes from simply being.

When the pond is empty, we need to restock it. And this means we need to practice great self-care and recognize that there are ebbs and flows to our energy and our creativity. Sometimes, when I’m not taking action, it’s simply because I need to be in a place of inaction for a while.

Any of these questions is a good starting point if you find you’re not taking action on something you want to do. If one question doesn’t seem to apply to you, try the next. And come up with your own, too — write them in a notebook where you can refer to them the next time you’re up against the stuckity-stuck.

How do you deal with it when you want to move forward but can’t seem to take action? I’d love to hear from you!

Image is “Bird on a Mirror” © Shane Link | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Trusting in where your energy takes you

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One day last week I sat down to write and felt distracted. This is not uncommon. I often experience resistance, confusion, tedium, and occasionally even dread, when it comes to working on my novel.

In fact, I don’t usually call it (in my own head at least) “working on my novel” anymore. I call it “playing with my novel.” This feels much lighter and opens up possibility, curiosity, excitement. When I make it less grave and serious, I’m more in touch with why I actually want to do it in the first place.

That said, sometimes I feel stuck and it feels hard. And I hang in there with it anyway, because it is a commitment. And because sometimes I reach that lovely place of getting lost in my story. And the more I practice hanging in there with it, the more I reach that place.

But on that day last week, something else was going on. I sat and I sat and I sat, and I wrote and revised and tinkered. But my energy was not with the writing. I had the odd sense of pushing something away.

I glanced over at my open notebook, to some morning pages I’d done the day before. Jotted in the margin at the top of the page was a reminder to call a friend of mine, a dear friend whom I’d been meaning to call for a while. But I’d been putting it off because, although I knew that talking to my friend would be nourishing and fun, I’d told myself that she was probably busy and wouldn’t have much time to talk, anyway. I kept telling myself I’d wait and call “when we were both less busy.”

Now, the reminder note jumped off the page at me. And I realized that there was a ton of energy in calling my friend right then, right in that moment.

So, I stepped away from my computer and dialed my friend’s number. She was home and said she’d been thinking about calling me, too — that very morning. But she figured I was probably busy with coaching or writing and she’d wait to call me until the weekend.

We talked for an hour and it felt soooo good. It filled my creative well to — at least — a 10 (read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to find out more about the creative well). You know those friends who accept and love you so deeply that it doesn’t matter what’s happening for you, or not happening for you, because the connection is about your very essence? That is this friend, for me.

And something important came out of this call. I realized that I often make an assumption that the people I care about are busy and they need to “fit me in.” And this assumption is not reality. In fact, my friend was making the same assumption about me, but in truth I would have welcomed a call from her.

After we talked,  I returned to my novel with a sense of lightness and new possibility, and I no longer had that nagging sensation that there was something important I wasn’t attending to. I could give the writing my full attention.

If I hadn’t followed my energetic pull toward calling my friend, I would have missed out on that connection and that insight.

And yet, my rational mind wondered if I wanted to step away from the novel simply because it was hard and it was my way of “procrastinating.” It can be tempting to “power through” at these times, no matter what. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do when we’re developing a habit, whether it’s writing or something else.

But we get to the good stuff in life by acting on what feels juiciest for us in the moment. I don’t mean by acting on our every impulse, but by following our intuitive urges. Often, it’s as simple as asking, “What would light me up right now?”  On that day last week, contacting my friend was that thing. It was “up” for me, calling out for attention. And I needed to listen.

Sometimes, our “creative work” can serve as a means of avoiding doing our inner work. Just as we can avoid our creative work, we can also use our creative work to avoid — or push down the list — other things that are vital to our well-being. Like our relationships. Most particularly, our relationship to ourselves.

So notice the quality of your energy as you create. Is the creating connecting you with yourself, with the world, with that beautiful mysterious space we go to when we create — even if it’s a huge challenge at the moment?

Or, do you have the sense that you are using your writing, artwork, business brainstorming, or whatever it may be, to push something else away, as I did last week? Just notice. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing. Just tell yourself the truth, whatever it is for you.

Because, ultimately, creativity is being connected to what’s true for you in the moment. Because that is when you are most you. And that is what I wish for you — that you be most you as often as possible. That, more than anything else, is your gift to the world.

Image is “Leaf on Steel” © Chris Mccooey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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

Making it ridiculously easy

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When I went through life coach training with the wonderful Martha Beck, I learned about what Martha calls “turtle steps.” Turtle steps are teeny-tiny increments that help us reach a goal. The main thing about a turtle step is it has to feel do-able. It has to feel, as Martha puts it, ridiculously easy.

When I coached my very first client, I suggested she break that overwhelming goal down into turtle steps, and she said, “Turtle steps sound great, but I’m forty-five years old. I don’t have time to move that slowly.”

The coaching session came — for a moment — to a screeching halt. She’d triggered one of my own big fears. She’s right! I thought. At the time, I had two unfinished novel drafts and an image of them sitting in the corner of my office flanked by dust bunnies and cat hair popped into my mind. If I use turtle steps with my novels, I’ll be ninety before I finish them!

Luckily, by then I had enough evidence from the experiences of Martha and my fellow coaches to know that turtle steps worked. In fact, the more ridiculously easy they felt, the better they worked.

My client wasn’t ready to try turtle steps — yet. A month later, when she’d done nothing to move her goal forward because she kept approaching it with her familiar “bite off more than I can chew” method, she showed up for a session and said, “I think I’m ready to try out turtle steps.”

That’s the funny thing about the way our minds tend to work: We’d rather hold on to the idea of taking giant leaps forward that only exist in our fantasies than take smaller, less glamorous steps that we actually do complete.

If you have a tenacious inner perfectionist (as I do), know that you are probably going to have a tough time accepting the idea of turtle steps.

When I was an undergraduate in college, literally every semester I signed up for five or six classes, even though by my third semester it became blatantly obvious that I could not take on more than four classes without feeling overwhelmed and scattered. My inner perfectionist (who is best friends with my “social self”) loved the idea that I was tackling a huge course load — and besides, other people took six classes and aced them all, so why couldn’t I?

Almost every semester I ended up withdrawing from a class or two at the last minute because I felt completely overwhelmed. Twice, I withdrew past the deadline and therefore received a grade of a big fat F. Twice. The person who couldn’t stand the thought of getting less than an A+ actually ended up with F’s on her transcripts simply because she voluntarily took on too much.

The idea that we can take small, easy steps is anathema to the perfectionist, whose identity is formed out of the belief that if she can take on more than is necessary and excel at it, she will finally be worthy, and therefore, loved.

But it doesn’t work this way, my sweet little inner perfectionist is slowly discovering. She is loved, deeply, simply for existing and for being who she is. And she does not get more accomplished when she takes on more — she actually accomplishes less that way.

Back to my two unfinished novels: they have long since stopped communing with the dust bunnies in the corner of my office. They’re up and dancing around now, dust-free and shiny. How did this miracle happen? Since September of 2011, I’ve been taking ridiculously easy steps, on a regular basis, to finish my novels. (Read more about how I’ve done that at the end of this post.)

Yes, sometimes that means I write for fifteen minutes a day. Yes, sometimes that means I write one sentence. And no, I do not write every single day. But I’ve completed two novel drafts and I’m 240 pages into a third.

The key is making it ridiculously easy, step by teeny-tiny step. Any step can feel ridiculously easy if it is small enough.

Ridiculously easy isn’t as easy as it could be, though, because we live in a culture that tells us that for something to have value, it has to feel impossibly hard. And so we take on enormous “to-do” steps like “write novel” or “get new job” or “lose twenty pounds.” Seriously! These are actual items I’ve seen on clients’ to-do lists. But they’re not action steps, they’re long-term goals. In fact, I’m loath to call them goals — they’re actually processes, ways of life, daily habits we develop.

So a huge part of all this is allowing ourselves to do what feels ridiculously easy. That might mean a daily goal of “write one paragraph” rather than “write ten pages.” But it’s one paragraph that gets written, rather then ten pages that don’t.

Often our minds won’t allow us to embrace ridiculously easy. It’s a total shift for most of us, right? If it feels easy — or, at the very least, not hard, we don’t trust it. “But life isn’t easy!” we think. And that is certainly true. But we don’t need to add hard to the hard.

This is one of my favorite beliefs to challenge with my clients. When we make the shift from “It has to be hard” to “I can allow it to be easier,” amazing things happen. Believe me. I’ve seen it.

If you need support in allowing your process to feel easier, I’d love to help. See if we might be a good fit, here.

And: One of the biggest reasons I’ve moved forward with my novels is due to my participation in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle. This is where I’ve put my writing turtle steps into action. This group offers me daily support, accountability and community around my writing. The last day to register for the next session of the Writer’s Circle is tomorrow, May 16. Check it out, here!

Image is Sharpened Pencil © Uschi Hering | Dreamstime Stock Photos

What triggers your resistance?

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One of the benefits of being a rabid journaler is that I have ample evidence of my patterns and habits and defaults. All that stuff I “tend to do” when I’m scared, overwhelmed, panicked, what have you. It’s there in ink on actual, physical pages. Hard evidence.

A client who also journals told me recently that he picked up a notebook from ten years ago and was depressed to see that he was struggling with exactly the same stuff as he is today. He thought it meant that he hadn’t changed at all, had been stagnating for ten whole years.

Which is so not the case.

Of course you were struggling with the same stuff back then, I said. Those are your core issues.

We all have core issues, those deep, resonant conflicts within us that we’re on this earth to be with, work with, and, over time, learn from. These issues are our teachers. It’s not about overcoming them or even letting go of them. The work is to become more and more intimate with our core issues as we cycle through them again and again in our lives. We peel our layers like an onion, each time getting closer and closer to our center.

I still struggle with much of the same stuff I did at twenty — it just doesn’t throw me as much, because I understand it better. I know how to work with it, play with it, in ways I didn’t then. In fact, some of the areas where I’m strongest now are the areas I had most difficulty with at twenty, even if those areas still cause me trouble.

For me, this is the work of my life. This is my real work, above, beyond, and beneath any other “work” I do in the world.

It’s these core issues, though, that trigger our resistance. Of course they do. They’re painful. Nobody wants to delve into pain. When I feel like I’m spinning my wheels and I just don’t see a way out, I can be pretty sure that some core issue has risen to the forefront and I’m in resistance to it.

What’s tricky is that we can often be blind to our core issues when they’re “up” for us. This is why I keep lists of my “resistance triggers” in my journals.

When I’m feeling stuck, I go to one of my lists. Resistance triggers basically boil down to painful thoughts that reflect our core issues. Here are some sample triggers from one of my lists:

You have to write something special, original and amazing or there’s no point. People have to be totally wowed by your writing or why are you doing it?

If you take too much time to yourself, people you love won’t understand and they’ll leave you. You have to be available to others when they need you or you’ll end up alone.

Even when you work really hard, it isn’t enough — what’s the point?

It doesn’t matter if you’re tired. Just keep going.

These are some of the biggies for me. You get the idea. The reason I write this stuff down is because I often don’t recognize that these issues are “up” for me. All I know is I’m feeling sad, empty, or pissed off and like I can’t move forward. Often, when I consult one of my lists I immediately see the thought causing the resistance jump off the page at me. Ahhh. Now I have something to work with.

So let me show you how this resistance thing plays out: If I’m in the grip of a thought like, “If you take too much time to yourself, people you love won’t understand and they’ll leave you,” but I don’t know it, I’m often over-responding to others, overscheduling myself, saying yes more than feels good to me.

Pretty soon I’m fed up, angry, withdrawing from and resisting interaction — even interaction that could be helpful and nourishing to me (such as taking time to truly connect with myself or with a friend who deeply wants to hear me).

If I’m in the grip of a belief like, “You have to write something special, original and amazing or there’s no point,” I become extra-hard on my writing. I become unwilling to experiment. I belabor every sentence. Everything feels squeezed and distorted, like I’m trying to fit my words through a teeny, tiny keyhole and hope they can make it through to the other side as magical, life-altering prose.

Pretty soon I don’t want to sit down at my desk at all. Writing has become painful, not life-enhancing. And certainly not fun. So now I’m resisting writing at all; I’ve become disconnected from why I ever wanted to do it in the first place.

Writing these triggers down as we become aware of them is a huge act of self-care. It’s about knowing ourselves. Seeing your thoughts on paper is a good way to cut them down to size — sometimes, thoughts that feel horrifying when they’re stuck in our heads can look absolutely ridiculous when you see them written down.

Just the act of noticing that I’m being triggered by one of these thoughts can create a huge shift for me. I’m no longer merged with the thought — I’m now outside of it, observing it, so it’s over there where I can question it, and not a driving force within me. The next step is to question these thoughts, look for evidence of where they are not true. (The Work of Byron Katie is an excellent way to question your painful thoughts.)

What triggers resistance for you? How do you know you’re “in it”? Let me know in the comments!

Image is “Stone and Brick Wall” © Peter Szucs | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The shark is working well enough … really.

sharkkite

Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that I am obsessed with the movie Jaws. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Jaws, but … just … don’t get me started. (Writers, study Jaws if you want to see a movie where every single scene moves the story forward. Nothing is wasted.)

If you know anything about the making of Jaws, you know that the mechanical shark, a.k.a. “Bruce”, didn’t work very well. In fact, there were so many problems with the shark that it wasn’t seen on screen nearly as much as director Steven Spielberg had originally intended. During production on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, the frequent refrain from the loudspeakers was “The shark is not working. The shark is not working.”

Welp. As we all know, the shark worked well enough. In fact, the semi-working shark worked so well that Jaws was the movie for which the term “summer blockbuster” was coined, back in 1975 when it first appeared in theaters.

One of the main things I do as a coach, when I have a session with a client, is listen for stressful thoughts. Thoughts are stressful when they are not deeply true for us, but we believe them anyway. So when I hear something that strikes me as painful or stressful for a client, I scribble it down in my notebook. If it seems important, I’ll point this thought out to the client and we’ll work with it.

I was going back over some notes before a session recently, and it really hit me just how often our thoughts are perfectionistic. They have to do with how we’re not doing enough, not doing it well enough (whatever it is), and how our reality is not matching the vision inside our heads. (I say “our” because, like my clients, I have a strong penchant for perfectionism. I’m always teaching what I most need to learn.)

I’ve written a lot here about perfectionism in the past (you can click on the categories link titled Perfectionism to the right to check out more). But I don’t know if I’ve emphasized how important it is for perfectionists to make a point of noticing what is working — and what is working well enough.

Because one of the biggest issues I see perfectionists struggling with is decision paralysis. We’re so terrified of making an imperfect decision and the havoc it will surely wreak that we hang out in indecision until it hurts. And then, then, we beat ourselves up for not making decisions quickly enough! It’s a totally lose-lose scenario.

And here’s the thing: We don’t struggle with decision paralysis as much when we give ourselves credit for having made good decisions in the past. Most perfectionists have a pretty big story about being poor decision-makers (it’s in keeping with the idea that we never quite measure up). We are also control freaks, so we tend to think we have much more control over our futures than we actually do.

Therefore, we think, we have to weigh each present or future decision very, very carefully, so we don’t repeat our past mistakes and don’t screw up our futures.

Why do we have this story? Probably because when life happens, as it will, it feels more familiar for us to blame ourselves than to admit the truth: Life is messy, and life is not fair. No matter how “good” we are, we can’t escape this reality.

So what if we were to flip this story on its head? What if we were to look back and notice how we made good enough decisions, and how some of them were even really good? How would we proceed if we basically believed that our lives worked well enough?

I think we’d go on making our movies, doing our writing, living our lives. We’d trust ourselves to create something good. What if Spielberg had decided to resign in the middle of production on Jaws because the shark wasn’t good enough? (Well, probably Universal would have replaced him with a different director. And we’d have had a very different Jaws. Which would have been a damn shame.)

At the bottom of it all, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our lives, are either helpful or not helpful.

I don’t mean that we should tell ourselves things we don’t truly believe. I’m not talking about piling positive affirmations on top of our fear like white-washing a rotted fence. I’m saying we need to really give ourselves some credit. I’m saying we need to lower our standards enough that we can show up in our lives and in our creative work (or creative play, as I prefer to call it).

Perfectionists, aim for the B rather than creating A+ work that exists only in your head. Make the decision that feels best to you and call it a day, knowing you can course-correct tomorrow. Admit that the shark at the core of your movie is working well enough to continue the filming. Create your flawed-but-amazing works of art and live your flawed-but-amazing lives.

Work With Me: I work with writers, artists, artisans and coaches who are feeling vulnerable and stuck. Learn more about how we might work together, here.

Image is Shark Kite by Ryan Somma at flickr; some rights reserved

Why creating consistently is so important

artistbox

I’ve been thinking back over the past year and remembering the awesome clients I’ve worked with.

If there’s anything that’s repeatedly reared its head this year for my clients, it’s been the issue of making creativity so BIG that it feels scary, 0verwhelming, and like there just isn’t enough time to take it on. Almost everyone I worked with had a belief that went something like this: “I can’t [write, paint, dance, draw — fill in the blank] unless I have more time available to me. So I need to completely overhaul my life in order to focus on my creativity. But completely overhauling my life isn’t possible right now. So I’m hoping that by next year I’ll be able to let go of something so I can focus on my creativity.”

What I’ve found so interesting — because these beliefs can certainly come up for me as well — is that it’s the beliefs themselves that make the idea of creating feel so hard, not creating itself.

When we make it so big we feel like we need a ton of time in which to do it, we ensure that it will never be done, because we know on some level it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever have huge blocks of empty time available to us on a regular basis. And when we tell ourselves we need more time in which to do it, and we don’t make that time or don’t see that we can have it, we put off our creative work (I prefer to call it creative play). And when we put something off, we create resistance.

The very act of putting it off (when something deep inside us knows it’s vital that we do it) creates stress around the idea of doing it — our minds spin out stories like, “Well, if I’m putting it off, it must be because it’s terribly hard and scary and BIG, and wow, that feels really frightening, which makes me just want to put it off more.”

We don’t often question thoughts like these. But they start to wield a huge amount of power over us, because these thoughts create feelings, and our feelings create our actions (or lack of actions) in the world. Often, our most powerful thought around our creativity is “I’ll do it when I don’t feel so overwhelmed and uncomfortable around it.”

But the reason we are overwhelmed and uncomfortable around it is because we make it so BIG.

Since September of 2011, I’ve been a participant in Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. (We like to call it simply The Writer’s Circle). I’ve also been co-coaching the Circle with Jenna for about a year now. In the Circle, we focus on writing a little each day, building our writing habit over time, with group support.

What I’ve learned over my time in this group is that:

1) Writing consistently (even if I’m not always crazy about what I’m writing — and believe me, I’m often not) feels a lot better than writing once every couple of months. When I create regularly, I remind myself of what matters to me, of what makes me me. When I put off creating, I can lose sight of why I create. I create because I have an instinctive drive to make meaning, to understand myself, to understand the world. I create because it’s fun (which isn’t to say it’s not challenging! But I love a good challenge.).

When I put it off until I have “more time,” I get confused about why I do it in the first place. I start to think it has something to do with money, with success, with notoriety. When I actually do it, I’m reminded that it has little to do with this things. It’s an act of adventure, a quest for discovery.

2) When we make our creativity really BIG — as opposed to integrating it into our daily lives in small, sustainable ways — it becomes something outside of ourselves, something to grasp for, something we believe will make us complete if we can only get to it. (Julia Cameron calls this turning our creativity into “Art with a capital A.”)

The truth is, creativity is always inside of us. It’s part of us. The “me” that lives my daily life and does mundane things like doing the dishes is not a completely separate entity from the part of me that sits down and writes. In fact, sitting down and writing is, in some ways, not that much different from doing the dishes. The hardest part is starting. Once I begin, I proceed one sentence — one dish — at a time.

When the parts of us that create and the parts of us that do the dishes are friendly with each other, and not strangers, they work together oh so much better, and we show up in the world as more integrated beings.

3) We all — whether we are seasoned writers, or writing our very first poem, whether we are published writers or not, whether we make our living from our writing, or not — struggle with clusters of the same (or similar) issues. It’s incredibly heartening to realize that that issue you’ve struggled with in isolation, sometimes for years, is not just shared by others, but is deeply understood.

If you’d like support in creating a more regular writing habit — whether you’ve been away from writing for years, or you’re just starting out — check out The Writer’s Circle. Our next session begins December 31, and tomorrow, Dec. 28, is the last day to register. New members can save $30 on their first session with the coupon code NEWYEARWRITE. We’d love to have you there!

Image is “Artist Box 2” © Andreea Stefan | Dreamstime.com

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects

A few days ago while logging in my daily progress for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, I had one of those light-bulb moments where I got something, not just intellectually but viscerally.

One of the questions we group members respond to daily asks us what negative thoughts we noticed that came up around our writing. Time and time again, I find myself writing some variation of this: “My writing isn’t exciting or important enough. It’s not active enough. There’s not enough drama. No one will find it interesting.”

I’ve examined these thoughts for quite a while now. Are they true? Yes, sometimes my writing lacks drama. Sometimes it could be more active. But all the time? No, these things are not always true. As for “it’s not exciting or important enough” and “no one will find it interesting,” well, that’s all subjective. I’ve certainly gotten enough feedback on my writing by this point in my life to know that quite a few people have found it interesting. And, as any writer knows, the most important thing when it comes to writing is that you, the writer, are fascinated by what you’re writing.

But this particular day as I logged in these thoughts once again, cringing at their familiarity, I got it. BUSTED! I said out loud, practically snorting my iced coffee.

These thoughts about my writing are my particular form of resistance.

Here’s how I know this: There have been days when I’ve known, without a doubt, that what I’ve written has been exciting and dramatic. To me, anyway. My whole body felt engaged as I wrote; I could hardly tear myself away from the page. These days don’t happen all that often. When they do, they’re wonderful, but that doesn’t usually completely quiet my inner critic.

On these days, when I logged in my progress, what negative thoughts had I noticed? “This writing isn’t serious enough; it’s too active; it should be quieter and deeper; it moves too quickly.”

Yep, when my inner critic knew it couldn’t convince me the writing wasn’t exciting or active, it just went ahead and criticized the writing for not being other things.

Here’s what I realized: My inner critic just wants to protect me from putting my writing out there for scrutiny. So it dredges up anything it can find “wrong” about the writing that I just might believe. When it knows I won’t buy into the idea that the writing isn’t exciting or active enough, it criticizes the writing for having these very qualities.

My inner critic wants to convince me that unless I’m sure my writing is all things to all people, I shouldn’t put it out there — it’s not good enough yet, it’s not ready. And it’s a lose-lose proposition, a double bind. It’s like not showing up to the party unless you’re sure you can be every kind of guest. Since you know you can’t be, you don’t show up at all.

So I’ve finally gotten it: “Not exciting and active enough, not important enough” or any variations thereof, are my “usual suspects” when it comes to my writing. They’re my go-to thoughts that exist solely to keep me from having faith in my own stories, from investing them with enough importance to go all the way with them, to truly own them. 

Noticing these thoughts — my usual suspects — allows me to round them up, corral and question them. In fact, I’m getting so used to them I don’t even always have to question them anymore. I just notice them and say, ah, there you are again.

One time when I was in grad school, a well-known writer visited one of my writing classes and was asked her best advice for writers. “Know what kind of writer you are,” she said. She said she loved Dickens, but she was never going to write like him.

And I’m probably never going to write action-packed thrillers that pump you full of adrenaline. It’s not the kind of writer I am. Luckily, I don’t have to be every type of writer. Knowing that — finally getting it at a deep level — frees me up to trust in the writing that is mine and mine alone.

Do you need support in creating a daily writing habit? Tomorrow, Aug. 30, is the last day to sign up for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’ve been a member of this group for going on a year, and I’m also Jenna’s co-coach. It’s a tremendously powerful way to become aware of what keeps you from writing, and to get group support while you do it. Check it out here!

Image is ANTIQUE BLACK TYPEWRITER PAINTED WITH LIGHT
© Dariusz Sas | Dreamstime.com