Shifting your relationship to the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tolerating the discomfort of setting limits

One of my teachers says that being able to tolerate discomfort is one of the most important capacities we can develop in this life.

I very much agree.

We humans will do a heck of a lot of maneuvering in order to avoid discomfort. In fact, we employ all sorts of sophisticated systems — many of them automatic and not entirely within our awareness — to keep ourselves from feeling discomfort.

And when we commit to taking better care of ourselves, to responding to our needs instead of squashing them or pretending they’re not there, one of the really uncomfortable things we inevitably realize we need to do more of is setting limits.

Many of us have a rather complicated relationship with the idea of limits. Part of this goes back to how we were raised by our parents or guardians. We may have had lots and lots of limits imposed on us.

Or maybe we had far too few (which can be particularly frightening for children, who need the safety of supportive limits that adults set for them). We may also have experienced an inconsistent and confusing mix of the two.

So setting limits in support of self-care can be truly challenging, particularly for those of us who are practiced in living in an “others-centered” way.

And yet, setting these limits is vital to taking care of ourselves and creating the space that is required to build the lives we desire, to create what we yearn to create.

The good news, I have found, is that many people are absolutely happy to respect our limits, once we communicate them. The not-so-good news: We will also experience “pushback” when we change the behavior people are used to from us. (Martha Beck refers to this pushback as “change-back attacks”.)

This pushback can come from others, and it can also show up as extreme discomfort that arises within us. In fact, sometimes the biggest challenge I have is in setting limits with myself.

There is a deeply-rooted adaptive behavior I can default to of pushing myself relentlessly. (I say “adaptive” because I learned when I was young that if I pushed myself very hard, I could potentially get a lot of praise from the adults around me.)

And when I let in a little discomfort, if I’m not mindful, I can sometimes default to even more pushing myself to avoid feeling it.

Of course, there is an unpleasant hangover effect from all this pushing myself: I feel depleted, disconnected from myself, angry, sad, and confused as to why I feel so awful after all my very hard work.

Most of the clients who work on self-care issues with me are all too familiar with the icky hangover effect of defaulting to self-neglect. And we do quite a bit of working with the significant amount of discomfort that can arise when we start to let go of this pattern and turn it around.

This is where the power of noticing comes in. Sometimes, particularly when a coping behavior is very deeply ingrained in us, we need at first to just notice it — more and more particularly — and give ourselves a good chunk of time to let it really sink in just how this pattern is affecting us.

I sometimes work with clients on one area of a particular relationship that causes them stress. They know the relationship is challenging for them, but until they slow down enough to truly notice what’s happening within the relationship that is triggering the stress — the various pieces that make up the chain of events that lead to the result of STRESS — the pattern continues.

Slowing down and noticing our thoughts, our feelings, and the actions we take (or don’t take) in these situations is key — and it can be truly uncomfortable to do that.

A lot of times the ways we neglect to take care of ourselves — sometimes particularly where other people are involved — can get shoved into a giant blind spot for us because our discomfort causes us to speed right over what’s actually happening.

One of my clients, for example, felt that she had to answer the phone every time her mom called. And her mom sometimes called as many as five or six times a day.

Until we took a slowed-down, close-up look at her belief system around her relationship with her mom and the feelings and actions that belief system created for her, my client was dropping everything multiple times per day to be there for her mom. She wanted to be there for her mom, but she needed, she came to realize, to be there for herself first.

And there was some untangling to do there that was uncomfortable to accept — and to act on.

The paradox here is that when we’re willing to let in the discomfort of slowing, stopping and really seeing what’s going on, we actually feel less discomfort over time. We learn to live more comfortably within our true selves.

Instead of moving away from discomfort, we move toward the kind of relationship we want to have with first ourselves, and then our loved ones.

Facing our discomfort around setting limits — whether with ourselves or others — is easier with support. This is the kind of work we do together in my Stellar Self-Care One-on-One Coaching Program. Interested in learning more? You can do that here.

Want to stay connected and learn more about my coaching offerings? You’re welcome to sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter. You can do that here.

Thanks to these photographers for helping me illustrate today’s post with monkeys! Top photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash ; middle photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash ; bottom photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

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Knowing yourself and saying no

An opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do popped up out of the blue today. Except, it was very last-minute. As soon as I read about the opportunity in an email, and realized that the timing felt off for me, my whole body kind of deflated.

Thinking about taking the opportunity felt draining — definitely non-energizing. My body wisdom was clear, and I decided not to take the opportunity without much more thought.

This got me thinking about the importance of knowing ourselves, especially in this day and age of so much FOMO (that stands for fear of missing out, on the off-chance you’re not familiar with this ubiquitous term!).

I used to agonize terribly over most decisions — particularly when I sensed I might need to say “no” to something.

“Yes” tended to be my default position — if only to avoid potential conflict. (“No” was a word in my childhood that caused more conflict than any other, so by the time I was an adult, it was fraught with all kinds of stuff for me. I recently watched an episode of Mad Men where Sally Draper says “no” to Don — and the ensuing madness confirmed that Sally Draper is my childhood self’s fictional soul sister.)

When I think back to my twenties (from the perspective of my forties), I sometimes wonder why I was so upset about certain things, or why some things I’d deal with swiftly and deftly today turned my world upside down back then. Good grief, I’ll think, picturing my twenty-three-year-old self. What the heck was my problem?

And then I remember, connecting with compassion for this dear younger self of mine: It’s because I have a kind of “self short-hand” in my forties that I didn’t back then — I can quickly act from an accumulated self-knowledge that was undeveloped back then.

(That’s not to say everything is easier now. Some things are a lot harder than they were then.)

It is precisely because I agonized so many times over decisions in the past, and explored what was going on for me with all that agonizing, that I don’t often freak out over decisions in that same way these days.

I know now that there are few decisions that are permanent, there are few opportunities that won’t ever come again (and if some are truly lost, there are others right there waiting), and people can handle it if I say no (even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment).

And because I know myself better than I did twenty years ago, I understand that one of my gifts is picking up on all kinds of subtleties and complexities — and that the “downside” of this gift is that if I focus too much on those subtleties and complexities, I can get lost in them.

And that means recognizing that not every decision requires weighing a bunch of things out. And some decisions do. And because I know myself better than I did at twenty-five, I intuitively sense which decisions are which for me.

I also know that picking up on all these subtleties and complexities means that sometimes things feel wrong to me when in fact nothing is wrong. I’m just picking up on a lot, and it needs to be sorted or let go, and I probably need to take a step back and reconnect with myself. When I didn’t know this stuff about the way I processed things, life was a heck of a lot harder.

So sometimes when I am working with a coaching client who is facing a challenging situation, I will ask: What do you know about yourself when it comes to situations like this? How do you tend to feel? What do you tend to do or not do?

Usually, a wealth of self-knowledge pours forth from the client when I ask these questions. They know a lot about themselves and have only temporarily “forgotten” (the brain-fog that often happens for us when we’re really stressed). And they need to be reminded that they have forgotten.

For me, for example, when someone rushes me to make a decision, if I don’t have all the information I need, I can’t access a clear yes or no for myself. If they push me further, I’ll tend to shut down.

Knowing that about myself, I’m able to say these days, “I’m not able to give you a clear answer on this until I have more information (or more time, or whatever).” That keeps me from moving to the shut-down place.

But if I have gotten to a place where I’m feeling shut-down, if I ask myself “What do I know about myself when it comes to feeling like this? What does feeling shut-down often mean for me?” — I can gain perspective again: Oh, when I’m feeling shut-down it usually means I’m pushing or forcing myself to do something too quickly. Oh, yeah. Maybe I can slow down here. Maybe I can allow myself to catch up with myself.

What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t twenty years ago, or ten, or five? How does this knowledge help you make the best decisions for yourself? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S. As I wrote this post, I got an email update. Turns out the opportunity I mentioned, that felt too short-notice for me, has been rescheduled — for a date and time that feel just right. 

Coming up: I’ll have openings for new one-on-one coaching clients as we head into fall. Do you need support in making your creative work a priority while practicing excellent self-care? You can learn more about working together, here.  Or, take a look at my Is This You? page.

Want to stay connected? You can subscribe to my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here.

Above images of feather, © Popa Sorin | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and sparrow, © creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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