What gift can you give yourself?

swirlgift

Sometimes I start my day with this question: “What gift can I give myself today?”

On some days, a particular word immediately comes to me. Yesterday it was “stretch.” And I knew I wanted to move my body, so I went for a morning walk, even though we had a sweltering day here.

On another level, I knew stretch meant something else. And I made a phone call I’ve been putting off for a while — the conversation was going to be a stretch for me, but since “stretch” was the gift, I knew it would be okay. And it was.

Sometimes a word doesn’t immediately come to me. So then I let an image bubble up in my mind’s eye.

Once, I saw a heart, with wings. I wasn’t sure what it meant at first, but then some words came to me: courage, Cowardly Lion courage. And flight. On that particular day, flight meant literal flight — I gave myself permission to take a trip I’d been on the fence about, and booked my plane ticket.

And permission is another one. It’s one of the most powerful gifts I can give myself, but I have to be reminded of this often. And, I need to get specific about it. Permission to what? Once, I asked this question and an image of me sleeping bubbled up. I needed permission to rest that day.

Another day I asked, permission to what? And an image of me reading from my novel-in-progress to a large group of people bubbled up. Ahhh. Permission to be seen.

What other gifts have I given myself? The gift of endings, of allowing things to end — even things that have been a success and are still successful. The gift of beginnings, of stepping into what is new, even when I’m unsure of the first step and the second is hazier still.

Some of my favorite gifts are curiosity, wonder, and play. Sometimes the gift is tenacity. Sometimes it’s sovereignty. Sometimes the gift sounds something like “no ground to give.” And I know I want to focus on holding boundaries that day.

The gift can be something concrete and material as well. One time the image that came to me was of an exceptionally gorgeous journal I’d seen in a shop down the street. It had a filigreed gold cover with a turtle on it. The journal was expensive and I knew I didn’t want to spend the money on it right then, but the image of the turtle reminded me of my belief in taking slow, steady steps; that so many of our worthwhile journeys are marathons, not sprints.

One day last week the gift was “soft.” I was feeling extra-hard on myself that morning and my energy felt tight, rigid. I knew I needed to shift into soft energy. And I moved through my day with so much more kindness toward myself, and therefore, toward the world.

That is why I make my focus what I can give to myself. I like to think I’m pretty good at giving to others, but in truth I can’t give what I don’t have.

Want to try it? What gift can you give yourself as you move forward in your day?

Work With Me: I have openings for new coaching clients beginning in September. Need some support in connecting with your gifts? Check out my offerings, here.

Image is “Swirl Gift with Echo Blur” [cropped] © Patricia Ulan | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Overwhelmed? Step back, then scale back.

bench&sky

So I spent the last three days trying to write a blog post. Now, I happen to truly enjoy writing blog posts. I look forward to writing them. They are fun and exciting for me, because I’m always discovering something about myself while I write them. Discovery! So much a “why” for me when it comes to writing.

And usually I can sit down and write a rough draft of a post in about an hour or so. The process doesn’t always work that way. But often, it does.

This week, however, it didn’t. I arrived at the computer determined to work on a blog post and I couldn’t manage to crank out more than a paragraph or two. And then I got frustrated. And then I got angry. And this happened three days in a row.

I said to my boyfriend,  “Maybe I’ve said all I want to say in my blog posts already. Maybe that’s it.”

“No way,” he said. “I don’t believe that.”

And I didn’t believe it either. But something was off, very off, and it made me panicky.

And I’ve been here before — maybe not recently in relation to blog posts, but in relation to other things. Like my novels. Like my relationships. Like cleaning the house, or taking that trip I’d planned. That place where I think that something is supposed to be happening and it shouldn’t be so hard, but it’s terribly, terribly hard. It’s a feeling of spinning my wheels in mud and just getting further entrenched. A feeling of doing and doing and nothing actually getting done.

I call it “the spin cycle.”

I found myself staring out the window instead of looking at the computer screen as I tried to write the blog post, and I realized my body, in its infinite wisdom, was pointing me to the fact that it was not time to write, it was time to be. Regardless of how “behind schedule” I was.

So, I went to the sofa and I lay down, staring at the ceiling for a while. And I began to relax. And I began to get it.

This time around in the spin cycle, here’s what I’ve learned:

1) When I feel this way, more often than not there is some type of resistance going on. Resistance to what is: a sure route to insanity. What have I been resisting this week? What’s the reality of this week?

Well, my parents came to visit one week ago and left today. And I had a freelance project I was working on in addition to my usual daily routine.

But I didn’t factor any of this in and kept right on with my “usual” schedule. I didn’t factor in the fact that I’m an introvert and I need alone time to recharge and I wasn’t getting much of it this week. I didn’t factor in the extra hours and toll on my energy the freelance project took.

The reality of my personal energy: I am a finite being with limited energy, much as I fantasize about being able to “do it all,” seamlessly.

The reality of time: There are 24 hours in a day.

2) When something that is usually enjoyable and do-able feels really hard, it is not a sign to step it up and push it harder. It is a sign to step back and ease up and ask what is going on.

But my mind will tell me I need to keep pushing and that easing up is a sign of weakness and a lack of discipline and commitment. This is what my mind does, and how it thwarts my need for self-care. But it is a lie.

How do I know it’s a lie? Because of the way it feels. If stepping it up and pushing harder were the truth in this case, it would feel challenging but expansive, like doing it was helping me grow. But that’s not how it felt. It felt like pushing myself to do it was diminishing me. (Interestingly, I kept getting an image of myself writing on a tiny notebook with a tiny flashlight inside of a tiny black tent, my legs bursting out of the flaps like Alice in Wonderland after she drank the potion that turned her into a giant.)

So, after I lay on the couch for half an hour or so, allowing myself to space out (and giving myself full permission NOT to write the blog post), I realized that writing just one paragraph of a blog post would actually feel good. And so what if I am “usually” able to write more than that? Different week, different guidelines. I went to the computer, wrote one paragraph, and then, as it turned out, I wrote the whole darned thing.

Which brings me to the third thing I learned, this time around in the spin cycle:

3) When I keep trying to get something done and it’s just not happening, it may be because I’ve lost my connection with why I’m doing it at all.

“Because it’s time to publish a blog post” was not enough motivation for me to write one when my creative well was empty and I was in spin. When I’m in that space, I’m like a ship without a rudder. Doing for the sake of doing is meaningless if I’m totally out of touch with why I’m doing it. My “why” is what propels me into inspired action.

As it turned out, giving myself what I really needed — a time-out — connected me back to my “why”.  And my “why” led me right back to writing the blog post that had felt so impossible to write only hours earlier.

What are your ways of dealing with “the spin cycle”? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Work With Me: Do you need some support in practicing better self-care? I’d love to help. See if we might be a good fit, here.

Image is “Outlook” © Guyerwood | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Understanding our Limits: Self-care and Creativity

The foundation of a healthy relationship with our creativity is self-care.

And yet, creators know that the act of creativity is also part of our self-care. So how do we negotiate the needs of our physical and emotional selves, and the needs of our spirits?

When I was in my twenties, I thought that all the good feelings I got from creativity meant I could override and ignore pesky things like getting enough sleep, eating well, and having relationships that felt reciprocal and nurturing. I thought I could be this wildly creative being and forget the fact that I am a physical being with physical needs that are not going to go away just because I ignore them.

This turned into a vicious cycle which went something like this: let me create more because it helps me feel bigger and better and then I’ll have more energy to pour into my relationships and I won’t need as much sleep or to slow down and pay attention to what I’m eating and whether or not I really have enough money to support myself. Okay, now I’m really wired and tired and my relationships aren’t very healthy and I don’t have enough money; but let me create more because it makes me feel good and then I don’t have to think about these other annoying things that are part-and-parcel to living.

This was a form of grandiosity, though it took me a while to understand it. I didn’t want to believe that I had limits, that I was a physical being with a body that got tired and emotions with messages like, “I’m burning out here.”

I did burn out on this way of life at about age twenty-five. I ended up in the hospital, dehydrated, with an unbearably sore throat and an enlarged liver and spleen. (“You don’t actually need your spleen,” the doctor told me. “But it’s nice to have it.”)

It took me a couple of years to transition into a different, slower, deeper way of living. At first I thought this way of life would be boring; I kept trying to go back to my old way of burning the candle at both ends and ignoring my physical and emotional needs. But my body wouldn’t let me.

This was the beginning of transforming my definition of creativity and what it means to be “a creative person.” I still created, regularly, but over time I saw that I did it because I wanted to, because it felt good — I stopped using it as a means to avoid the aspects of life that I had previously considered too “mundane” to deal with.

I also realized that I had a deeply held belief that if I wasn’t actively creating something — something tangible in the form of words on paper or paint on canvas or what have you — I had no value as a person. I was so wrapped up in this “doing” mentality that it took me a while to realize that, for me, “creating” had become completely entangled with proving my own worth as a human being.

What I now know is that creativity is a natural extension of my human experience. Though it’s vital to have a regular habit or routine of creating, it’s also important to recognize that I don’t make creativity “happen.” It’s a natural part of being; a regular habit of creating is simply a way of building a container to give our creativity a form and a shape. (If you want to test me on this, try not creating anything for a day and see how impossible it is.)

That’s why, now, when I work with creators, I’m committed to helping them accept not just the natural ebbs and flows of the creative process, but their own personal, internal and external ebbs and flows. When I work with someone and hear something like “I need to be writing eight hours a day,” I ask, why? Because you really love writing all the time and it brings you joy and purpose, or because you believe it’s giving you worth and value to be constantly doing?

It’s so important to examine what we believe and how it drives our actions. What I know for sure is that if I drive myself too hard — even in the name of creating — I will wear out my body, and it’s this body that, ultimately, carries out my purpose on this earth.

The fascinating paradox of all this is that when I build into my life the care for my body that it truly needs, I accomplish more of what I deeply want to accomplish — not less — and I feel better about what I do.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you balance self-care and your creative projects?

If you need a reminder to listen to your body, hang out with animals. When they’re tired, they rest.

Image is LOUNGING CAT © April Turner | Dreamstime.com

How to tell if perfectionism is running the show

Here’s the second article in my May perfectionism series. You can read the first one here. And there’s plenty more on this site about perfectionism — just check the “categories” listing on the right.

Sometimes — often — I get into a space of confusion where I’m aware that a rather ugly shift has occurred, but I’m not sure why.

It’s when I’ve been doing something I’m really excited about — something, like writing, that may be hard and challenging, but it’s also energizing because it feels like I’m doing what I’m meant to do. I’m humming along, excited, full of enthusiasm, with a feeling of deep rightness. Or maybe I’m just feeling pretty okay. It’s going well. Well enough.

And then: the shift. Something starts to nag at me. I feel a tightness in my head, my chest. I notice I’m tired. I notice I’m a little angry. Suddenly, that feeling of deep rightness is gone and in its place is fatigue, a bad mood, depletion.

When this used to “happen to me,” I thought it was because I was just moody. I thought it was because I was emotionally unstable. I thought it was because I was doing something wrong.

Now, I know it’s because perfectionism has taken over. Without my awareness, I’ve shifted from the challenge and joy of the aims of my inner enthusiast, to the futile agenda of my inner perfectionist.

The truth is, I don’t “suddenly” shift from a space of enthusiasm and energy to Suckville. There are some “middlemen” that I typically don’t notice because they’re so subtle and automatic. Those middlemen are: 1) my physical sensations and 2) my thoughts.

“The shift” happened to me last night. I was at my computer working on something with my cat in my lap, feeling content, peaceful, energized. Everything was humming along; for about an hour or so, I was in a pretty blissful place.

And then: I started to get a little bit sleepy. That was all. Just a little sign from my body that it was beginning to be time to call it a night. (Middleman #1 — physical sensation.)

Not a problem, right? I’d put in a good hour of work (and it’s unusual for me to get much done in the evening anyway, so this was a plus after a day that had been pretty “productive” already.)

However, when I started feeling physically tired, my mind spewed out the following thoughts: You’ll never get anywhere if you always stop when you’re tired. You know tomorrow is a busy day and you won’t have the evening free to work. Why don’t you ever have the energy to make a real dent in the important stuff? You really need to push yourself to do more. (Middleman #2 — my thoughts.)

This was just a sampling of my thoughts — there were probably dozens triggered by the simple fact that my body was ready to call it a day and my inner perfectionist, a.k.a. that part of me that believes I’m not enough and I must constantly prove myself by doing more, wasn’t having it.

Last night, I was able to catch the poor little inner perfectionist and assure her that we’d done more than enough for the day and she was going to have to take a nap, which she badly needed. Sometimes, I don’t catch onto her as quickly. I believe she is telling me the truth. I push myself to do more and more, and I burn out.

The aims of my inner enthusiast feel inspiring, expansive. They challenge me, open me up, make me feel “greater than” I was before. The aims of my inner perfectionist feel like a clamping down. They tighten and close me. They make me feel “less than.” They may look like valuable ideals that are meant to get me to a better place (this is the tricky part), but the truth is in how they feel.

During my life coach training, Martha Beck liked to remind us, “You can tell it’s enlightenment because it tastes of freedom.” The pursuits of my inner enthusiast ultimately feel like freedom — even when they’re challenging as hell. The agenda of my inner perfectionist feels like punishment — even when it looks good on paper, even when it looks awfully appealing to my “social self.”

Saying “enough for now” does not mean my inner enthusiast won’t propel me toward my dreams again tomorrow.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you know when you’re in the grip of perfectionism? And how do you move out of it?

For more on this topic, check out my article on how to tell if you’re stretching or pushing yourself, here.

What Moves You? Part Two

Last week, I wrote about how small actions can inspire us to movement, and how we can create an inner battle when we try to force ourselves to move.

There are times, though, when we know it’s in our best interest to take a particular action, but still we feel resistant. Still, we can’t seem to act. How do we tell the difference between the times when we genuinely want to move, but feel like an elephant is sitting on us, and the times when our lack of movement is a sign that it’s right for us to be still at this moment?

First, we check in with our bodies. Our bodies are always a wise guide for us. For example, right now I’d like to work on a chapter of my novel (okay, to be more accurate, I believe I should work on a chapter of my novel), but I find I’m not doing it. When I think about doing it, I feel a gnawing anxiety in my abdomen. My shoulders feel tight and my jaw is clenched. Ugggh — negative body compass reading for sure. Does this mean I shouldn’t work on my novel today?

Not necessarily. I need to interpret what I’m feeling in my body. What’s going on here? If I were to put words to what I’m feeling in my body, what would they be? Well, I don’t think the writing is very good. Something’s off about the voice. It’s a terrible novel. And really, I should have finished it a year ago …

There are a number of thoughts here that I could question. The writing’s not very good — is that true? The voice is off. Is that true? It’s a terrible novel. True? Should have finished it a year ago. Is that true?

All of this is mind chatter. It feels stressful, and that’s how I know I need to question these thoughts. The mind throws lots of thoughts out there — most of them negative — and if I take them too seriously, if I attach to them too much, they become a story about this novel: It sucks. Why work on it?

Just questioning the thoughts, though, I detach from them a little. I become the observer. I already feel a little lighter about working on my novel, because I can see where my mind may be feeding me some lies. At least some of the writing is probably good. It’s possible the voice may need some tweaking, but I’ll learn more about what’s going on with that by working on it. It may actually be a pretty good novel. Why should I have finished it a year ago? Who says?

Now, let’s look at what happens when I put words to the sensations in my body and I get something entirely different. Let’s say I check in with my body and feel a gnawing anxiety in my abdomen, tight shoulders, and a clenched jaw. I ask, what’s going on here? And the answer that comes is: Well, I’m feeling really burned out on this book. There’s no energy going toward it. I’ve been working hard on it, and I’d really like to put it aside for a while. I’d like to “fill the well,” as Julia Cameron puts it in The Artist’s Way.

How is this second situation different? In the first, I question my thoughts because they’re stressful, and when I do, I know I want to work on the novel. I just need to quiet the mind chatter, comfort it, put it to bed. (It’s okay, dear little Mind, we are going to work on the book anyway. There, there.)

In the second scenario, how do I know I really want to take a break, put the novel aside for a while, and fill the well? Because the thoughts don’t feel stressful. They are pointing me to what is true for me. The truth, even if we’re not thrilled with the sound of it, is never stressful. What is deeply true for us creates peace and clarity.

(And it will take trust in the process, and movement itself, for me to allow myself this break, this rest. But it will be well worth it.)

If what I wrote above just blew your mind or gave you a raging migraine, here’s another way to tell whether you really want to move toward something or not, which I learned from Martha Beck: If you feel ONLY fear, don’t do it. At least not right now. Regroup and figure out what’s going on. What’s the fear about? What’s its message for you?

If you feel fear AND desire, do it! (But do find some support and understanding for the part of you that is fearful. It can be a lot easier to take action when you have a friend to hold your hand, or at least hold the space for your fear.)

One caveat here: Sometimes I am so confused, overwhelmed, and out of my mind that I really can’t get in touch with my body very well, and I really don’t know if I’m feeling only fear, or a mix of fear and desire, or whether I have morphed into a garden slug. In these instances, I’ve learned that I may not know whether or not I truly wanted to take an action UNTIL I’ve taken it.

How do you determine whether or not you really want to take action right now? I’d love to know!

What Moves You? Part One

Lately I’ve been working with a couple of people who say they are stuck. I empathize, deeply. “Stuck” is one of my personal themes. I’m fascinated by this idea of “stuck.” In truth, I don’t think we are ever actually stuck. I think what happens is we stop moving, and we get scared. Because we have a lot of “shoulds” around the idea that we are supposed to look like we are in motion, all the time.

This reminds me of a boyfriend I had in my twenties. He liked to beat himself up for “procrastinating,” and he used to say to me, “Jill, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.” “I am not an object!” I would yell at him. “And neither are you!” (Could it be more obvious I was actually yelling at myself?)

The fact is, our lives — our creativity, our relationships, our work — have ebbs and flows. We like it when things are flowing, but when they stop flowing for a while, we label this “bad” and “wrong.” What if they never start flowing again? I think this is the point at which we begin to think we are stuck. But this is just a thought. Like any thought, it can be questioned.

Sometimes it helps to look at areas in our lives where we do not feel stuck. I’d be willing to bet that it’s impossible to feel “stuck” in every single area of our lives at once. Even if everything “big” feels like it’s in a state of endless stall, I bet you can find one thing that feels like it’s flowing. 2008 was a big year of “stuck” for me. I’d finished graduate school and for the first time I had a summer where I wasn’t working on my thesis or taking a class and it felt like everything had stopped. And to top it all off, I felt horribly uncreative. And I was supposed to be this writer.

Looking back, I realize Iwas burned out. I needed rest. But I fought against the feeling that things weren’t moving for a long time. I am not supposed to be feeling this way, I thought. Guess what fighting against it did? It made me feel more stuck, and it extended the process of feeling stuck. Even so, I was able to, at some point, finally look around and notice that there was an area of my life where I didn’t feel stuck. There was an area of my life where it felt like things were flowing: my friendships. I had good ones, and they were alive and vibrating. I can’t tell you how focusing on this aspect of my life, this aspect that felt like it was working, helped me move through the stuck.

So there are a couple of steps that emerge here:

1) When things aren’t moving, let them be still. Embrace the non-movement, the ebb. If you find yourself labeling this “stuck,” accept the feeling of stuck.

2) Look for an area where things are moving. Notice the flow in that area. Ask yourself if you are making things flow in that area.

The next step is noticing what creates movement for you. Is it true that you really must force yourself to move? For me, “Just do it” has never been a particularly helpful mantra. It adds pressure to my already-pressured and battered soul that has its reasons for wanting to be still. Try doing nothing for thirty minutes and you will see how difficult it really is to actually not do. So I question the idea that we must force ourselves into movement. What can be helpful, however, is to notice what inspires us to movement.

For me, movement starts with giving myself full permission to not move. To be exactly where I am and fully embrace that. This can require a lot of trust. In myself, in the process of life. In movement itself. Natalie Goldberg wrote in Wild Mind that in order to write some word, there must first be no word. It’s the same concept.

A small physical movement — one that feels manageable and doable — can really help. That might be a walk down the block. Or, if you are a walk-a-holic like me, that might mean an hour-long daydreamy walk. The key is that whatever the movement is, it must feel manageable and doable to you. It must inspire you to say “Yes!” If that means the movement is a cat-like arch of your back with your hands and feet planted on the floor, and that’s all, great. That is enough, for now.

In Part Two, we’ll delve more into movement — when to create it, and when to accept that maybe you do not want to move right now.

I’d love to hear what inspires you to movement. What steps do you take, and how do you treat yourself in a way that inspires movement?