The power of acknowledging what is true

The other day I began to feel tired and to develop a sinus headache relatively early in the day. By 2 p.m., I was pretty wiped out and really didn’t feel like doing anything else. Something in me, though, kept pushing on, trying to get done the things I’d planned for the day. I noticed as the day rolled on that I felt increasingly edgy and dissatisfied and disconnected from myself.

At about 4 p.m., I sat down on the couch and realized I was in a lot of resistance to what was true for me in that day, that moment.

I also realized (because I have been here so many times before!) that acknowledging and accepting what was true was actually the way to presence and freedom, not pushing against it as my mind would have me believe.

And as soon as I recognized that it was okay to feel exactly what I was feeling and be exactly where I was, the tension I was holding in my body shifted. My breathing slowed and became deeper. When I allowed what I was feeling, I felt freed up to go on with the day (and also to call it a day, if that’s what I chose), rather than locked into a “bad feeling place.”

I’ve written previously about “fighting a feeling”. In fact, a lot of times when I ask a coaching client what they are feeling, they describe to me the experience of fighting a feeling, trying to push something down because it is in some way unacceptable to them. Similar to trying to hold a beach ball under water, this takes a ton of energy and ultimately just doesn’t work! (That beach ball somehow manages to pop back up every time.) When we fight with our feelings, we use up a huge amount of energy that can be available to us for living our lives.

I notice that, for me, what sometimes keeps me from acknowledging and accepting feelings is the idea that, if I fully allow them into consciousness, I won’t be able to do what I need to do. This is the mentality that leads us to burnout. In fact, Amelia and Emily Nagoski describe this in their book Burnout as “not completing the stress cycle.”

When feelings come up, they are meant to be attended to. They’re signals to us. In my case, physical symptoms — my tiredness and sinus headache — were pointing me to a need for a certain type of self-care that had been lacking: I needed better sleep, and to take a look at how I much was pressuring myself to do in a given day or week, and to take some things off my plate. If I had persisted in pushing down my tiredness and general grumpy feeling, I wouldn’t have been able to attend to my needs (because I wouldn’t have been fully aware of them!).

Did acknowledging, accepting, and attending to my feelings prevent me from getting stuff done? No. In fact, it helped me to approach what I needed to do more mindfully and realistically. It helped me put my attention where I wanted it to be (on my clients, on the beautiful day outside, on the text my friend had sent), rather than on trying to push down the beach ball of “unwanted” feelings. Letting my feelings know they were wanted was key to hearing their message for me.

A client said to me recently, but what if when I acknowledge my feelings, their message for me is that I have to take an action I don’t want to take? Ah, I’ve definitely had that fear as well. The thing is, you are still the one running the show that is your life. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings doesn’t mean you have to do anything. What it does do is open you to information about what’s going on for you.

You may choose to do one thing, or another, or nothing at all with that information, but opening yourself to the information gives you the opportunity to understand what’s going on for you more clearly and deeply, and from there you have a range of options that will not even seem in the realm of possibility when you are pushing feelings down.

In noticing our options, our nervous system relaxes. We no longer feel trapped and confined (with the resulting stress that goes along with that). When I acknowledged and accepted my tiredness, only then could I open myself to the myriad ways I could attend to it. When it remained unacknowledged and unaccepted, I felt like I was in the dark when it came to my needs, like my needs were hovering around the periphery and I kept elbowing them away.

There is power in naming what’s happening for us. This is why I’m such an advocate of journaling. When we see, on paper, what is up for us, it’s no longer a mysterious force driving us. We bring it to light, where we can work with it. And often, what’s going on is simpler than we think. Maybe we’re tired, as I was, or lonely, or sad, but we just haven’t named those things and brought them to awareness.

As you go through your day, when you’re noticing stress, chances are there are feelings that are not being given the airtime they need. What happens if you pause for a minute or two to acknowledge, accept, and attend to whatever you’re feeling? I’d love to hear about your experience of this.

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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 cat images by Dan Gold and Aleksandar Cvetanovic on Unsplash, respectively.

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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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The invitation to move inward

Here in the Chicago area of the U.S., we are reaching the time of year where it gets dark very early.

Sometimes I turn a light on in my living room now before 4 p.m. because it’s become so dim. From my windows, I can see Christmas lights strung on the balconies of the condo building across the way, decorated trees lit up through the windows, and (my favorite!) the occasional dog or cat peering out.

I know some people find the darker times of year depressing, but I appreciate it when daylight ends earlier. It seems to me to be an invitation to reflect, to hush, to go within. And in this particular year, 2020, maybe more of us than usual are needing such an invitation.

During the pandemic, my partner and I have taken to longish drives on the weekends. I have come to appreciate, even to relish, these drives, which at first felt like acts of desperation (there’s nowhere to go!). Now they feel reflective to me, a shared activity between us where we simply notice. We listen to music on these drives, too (I rediscovered Fleetwood Mac!), and there is a quality of really listening, because our purpose is not to get anywhere. We are simply being, appreciating.

After these drives, more often than not, I feel renewed. And because we are covering more ground in the car than I would on my walks, I feel more connected to community-at-large, my place in the bigger picture, as the landscape flows by. It’s a good way of getting “out of myself” — noticing the specifics of the world around me — when I feel too “in”.

In that same way, during much of the pandemic I have been feeling too “out”. Is this true for you, too?

Less alone time and more coaching clients for me has meant more natural focus on others, and in many ways this has been very, very good. I’ve felt honored and blessed to be a part of a support system during this time for the lovely souls I work with, and it’s felt more important than ever to recognize that we all share this experience of being human, and that any issue a client I work with is experiencing is not solely “their own” — it is, in its essence, a universal thing, a part of existing on this planet.

And, for my introvert self, sometimes all this “out” is a challenge. I need to make sure I’m getting the alone time, the “puttering time,” that fills my creative well, that allows me to recharge and replenish.

That means that there are ways in which I’ve given myself permission to really slow down during this time.

Despite a couple of decades of practice of giving myself this permission, I have to say that it took me several months to recognize I needed it more than ever. A part of me kept exerting pressure to “keep to my usual pace”, with this particularly prickly voice within me piping up to utter things like, “You already go way too slow! And now you think you need to go even slower??”

Here is where I know that the “you need to speed up!” voice is not mine alone and part of a shared experience of being human (at least in U.S. culture): I have this conversation with clients a lot. The idea that they may need to move more slowly, to let some things go, triggers all sorts of fears. What if there won’t be enough? What if I won’t be enough? Who will I be if I’m “slacking off?What if I can’t keep up?

We talk about how this fearful voice is trying to help, but the voice ultimately doesn’t feel helpful.

We talk about noticing this fearful voice as a part of us, not the whole of who we are. It’s simply one part, often a young one that didn’t quite get its needs met way back when.

We talk about ways we can calm this voice, ways we can reassure it that we are okay, and we’re choosing a new way, a kinder way, to be in relationship to ourselves now.

Clients often say they are relieved to realize that this fearful, critical voice is just one part of them — just a voice within them — and that there are other, calmer voices within them, too. They’re just more used to focusing on the fearful voice.

As Kristin Neff teaches in writing about self-compassion, it’s vital to find equanimity when we are working with a part of ourselves that is fearful, that is suffering. We don’t want to overidentify with our suffering, but at the same time, we don’t want to dismiss it and pretend it doesn’t matter.

That fearful voice may have an important message for us — it’s just that, often, that message is amplified because the voice is so loud and demanding.

It can drown out other, quieter, less frenetic voices, like the voice that might say, “Hmm, yes, this is challenging right now, but we’ve faced big challenges before and figured out ways to handle them.” Or, “I’m sensing we need to rest for a while, and when we return to this issue refreshed, we’ll see it from another perspective.”

I notice that, although that frightened, frenetic voice really jumped out for me as the pandemic set in (and of course it did, why wouldn’t it?!), I am choosing to listen more to the calmer part of me, the part that knows the whole of me is capable of seeing creative solutions I might not have seen before.

And as darkness falls earlier these days, I accept the invitation to move inward and rediscover calm and quiet and the wisest part of me (who is also, by the way, quite fierce about setting boundaries around her time and energy). This will look different ways at different times, but it’s the underlying feeling of replenishing, of recharging and renewing, that tells me I’m on the right track.

For now, I am setting an intention to choose to respond when I notice a trend in my behavior of automatic reacting.

I am reminding myself that I can always access mindful presence, regardless of what I am “doing” at any time.

And that, if I am in a situation where I am really struggling to access mindful presence, I have permission to remove myself from that situation if I can. If that’s not possible, I can work toward acceptance of the situation. (And by the way, acceptance is not the same as resignation to things that are unjust! We can be in a state of acceptance of what is, and still take action toward the good.)

How can you welcome moving inward this season (whether your daylight hours have shortened or not!)? What permission can you give yourself to move inward and reconnect? How does this work for you right now? I’d love to hear from you.

Above images by Wonderlane, Debby Hudson and Renee Fisher on Unsplash, respectively

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Subtle ways we reject self-care

Sundays are my “down day.” By that I mean they are the one day out of the week where my main focus is non-doing, replenishing, cultivating ease and rest.

I do thread these things throughout my week — after all, an overall foundation of self-care means we are going to infuse our daily life with the qualities that nourish and sustain us — but Sundays are my intentional “reminder to reconnect with myself” day.

Because of this Sunday intention, I do not sit at my regular workspace on that day of the week. I sit in other spaces — the loveseat in the living room, the table next to the window in the kitchen — places that help me connect with that more easeful energy.

But, oh! How I need to remind myself, some Sundays, that I am not going over to the workspace!

“But I’ll just do it for a second, just to straighten some things up, just to glance at email.” It doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? A quick dash over to my workspace to flip up the laptop is really a fairly subtle thing, right?

There have been times I’ve found myself sitting there without even knowing how I’d gotten there. It’s such automatic behavior, and my mind is quick to tell me “it’s not a big deal.”

But it is a big deal on Sundays, because Sundays are my down day.

Working with clients on the subject of self-care has clued me in bigtime to how quick and sneaky we can be about dismissing our needs — particularly if they are more of the subtle variety.

The need to go to bed half an hour earlier, for example — how quick we are to tell ourselves “it’s just half an hour, it won’t make a difference.”

Something I’ve noticed time and again is my lack of acknowledgment, after some intense time away on a trip or at a workshop or something like that, that I actually need “integration time.”

What usually happens is, a few days after I’ve returned from the trip, or had a heightened period of activity, my energy gets edgy and frenetic. No matter how much I’m “getting done,” it doesn’t feel rewarding to me, and I feel ridiculously “behind.”

That feeling of “falling behind” and vague dissatisfaction has become a red flag for me that there is an unmet self-care need raising its hand to get my attention.

What’s subtle here — and therefore can sometimes hover just outside of my awareness — is that it seems “normal” to finish up with a big event, a trip, a heightened period of activity, and immediately return to a regular routine.

It may indeed be “normal” for some people, but I’ve found it’s not workable for me. I need to build in rest and integration time when I’ve expended more energy than is usual — or comfortable — for me.

But because my need for this may initially be subtle — because I’m still functioning to some extent on the adrenaline that got pumped into my system when I stretched myself beyond my usual energetic limits — I may not notice until I become edgy and frazzled that, oh yeah, I never really gave myself that integration time after the trip! Duh!

Yep, that’s how it is sometimes. Self-care is an ongoing, unfolding, highly organic thing. We might forget what worked before, or maybe what worked before doesn’t quite do it in this particular circumstance.

Here are some other subtle ways we may neglect or reject our self-care that I’ve noticed in working with clients and myself:

• Picking up a phone or tablet repeatedly, simply because it’s nearby (and along with this, failing to turn off unnecessary visual and auditory notifications — and let’s face it, most of them are unnecessary).

• Pushing ourselves to exercise more, write more, clean more — whatever it may be — when we’ve already gotten cues from our bodies that we’ve done enough for now. (I wrote about a time I fell into this trap here.)

• On the flip side, cutting short something that matters to us — journaling. exercise, a conversation with a friend — before we’ve allowed it the momentum it deserves (and that feels satisfying to us).

• Neglecting to indulge our five senses — not taking time to really taste our food, smell the coffee in the cup in our hand, feel our pet’s fur beneath our fingers.

• Forgetting to focus on our breath. Obviously, we don’t want (or need) to be doing this all day, but checking in and noticing how we’re breathing, and allowing ourselves several deep belly breaths, can center us and point us to the fact that our breathing may be quite “shallow” — in other words, up around our shoulders. This is really, really common.

• Clutter or disorganization in our environment that drains us. (I’ve found that I feel so much better when I make the bed every day — not because I particularly care about making the bed but because it reduces visual disorganization when I walk into the bedroom.)

When we miss the more subtle ways we are forgetting to care for ourselves, over time the subtle can build to the dramatic, and we may find ourselves in “crisis mode”, as I have several times in my life. But the more we learn to pay attention — the more attuned we are to these subtleties — the more we can make self-care changes before anything builds to a crisis state.

What do you notice about the more subtle ways you might forget to care for yourself? Or, what are subtle ways you CAN care for yourself that you might not always think of? I’d love to hear from you!

By the way, enrollment for my Stellar Self-Care (In an Overwhelming World) One-on-One Coaching Program ends this Friday, June 22. This program is for sensitive, creative folks who’d love support in creating a solid foundation of self-care in their daily lives! Curious? You can find out more, here.

Above images: snail, © Marilyn Gould | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and cat, © Valerii Rublov | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Your resources and the seasons of your life

I’ve written here before about how important it is to recognize that our lives have their seasons, and that it’s vital for us to honor those seasons.

Something I see when I work with my life coaching clients is that we often have the expectation that our lives should constantly be exploding with growth — and if they aren’t, something is wrong! It’s not surprising that so many of us have this idea, particularly in Western culture — we live in an extremely growth-oriented world, where we’re fed the ideal of “bigger, faster, more.”

Many heart-centered folks I know are becoming mindful of the ways this “constant growth” ideal has harmed our selves and our world, and they are dedicated to living differently, to treating the world differently.

But, still, some of them (and I include myself here!) have a really hard time stepping back and checking in to notice what season of their lives it is, and what is required of them in that season.

And being aware of what season you’re in is important, because heart-centered people want to give a lot of themselves to the world (and thank goodness they do!). But in some seasons of our lives, we simply have more resources with which to give than we do in others.

For example: sometimes I work with someone who has recently experienced a big loss. Maybe a spouse or a parent has died, maybe a job has been lost (or quit), maybe an important project has failed or a large amount of money has been spent on something that didn’t work out. Maybe an illness has changed the scope and shape of their lives.

During these times (which in my training as a Martha Beck life coach we call “Square One” periods, or “liminal” periods), we simply have fewer inner resources — and often fewer external ones, too.

I’ve often seen clients lamenting — or really angry! — that their attempts at growth, at flourishing creativity, at building something, usually just won’t take hold during these times.

What’s going on here?

They’re in “winter”. And if we look at winter and take a cue from our animal friends, winter is a time in which we’re not growing new stuff, we’re not building new stuff, we’re not exploring new horizons. We might be underground, relying on our body fat to keep us warm and nourished until spring. We’re counting on what we gathered during spring, summer, and fall to get us through our winter.

But here’s the rub: We humans are not always that well-resourced when our “personal winters” hit.

Maybe money is tight. Maybe those we’ve always counted on for support make themselves scarce. Because these “winters” are also times of deep transformation, we may emerge from them feeling quite different from who we were when we entered them. (If you’ve been a one-on-one coaching client of mine, you know I am talking about what we Martha Beck coaches refer to as The Change Cycle here!)

So: If you are deep into a personal winter — if you’ve experienced a big loss, a huge change (and this can sometimes include what we think of as “positive” change as well!), or some sort of internal or external shift that’s really rocking your world — know that your resources are important right now.

And: They are probably limited. They are probably feeling much more limited than they were when you were in your “personal spring” — that time of lovely growth where beautiful, sparkly things seem to be sprouting all over the place.

Don’t try to make your life feel like a “personal spring” when, in fact, you’re in an inner winter. Be where you are. If your resources — inner and outer — are feeling limited right now, how can you preserve them? How might you bring in more without further depleting yourself?

I’ve found that one of the best ways to help myself through a (perhaps under-resourced) personal winter is to be as kind to myself as possible. I have some very clear ideas about what that means for me, and I encourage you to check in with yourself on this: What does being kind to yourself really mean to you? What does it feel like, look like?

I have little reminders around my home that guide me back to my personal definition of treating myself kindly: A sign with cats on it that my dad got for me in a Quaker-run shop that says “Be ye kind to one another.” A mug with the word Kindness on it that I use all the time.

(If you’re hitting a wall when it comes to treating yourself with kindness, I encourage you to check out the work of Kristin Neff, who has researched the importance of self-compassion.)

When I can remember to treat myself warmly and gently and with a huge amount of faith and trust in who I am and in my process, my “personal winters” are so much less hard.

Because much of the problem for so many of us is that our “default” is to be really hard on ourselves. We don’t ever need to be that hard on ourselves, but it’s especially damaging and unhelpful to be hard when we’re already in the hard that an “inner winter” brings.

It’s also important, in a world that is in so much need, that we balance our giving to the world with giving to ourselves (and yes, this giving does overlap!).

We’ll likely have more to give when we’re in our “personal spring” or summer than we do when we’re in our personal winter. This is okay. You don’t have to do it all, all the time. Others who are experiencing more of that “spring” energy will step up while you’re in your winter.

What do you think? What have you noticed about the seasons of your life and your resources (inner and outer)? I’d love to hear from you!

If you are in a “personal winter” and need some support on your journey, you can find out more about my one-on-one coaching work, here. I’d love to help!

And: My newsletter offers updates on my coaching programs and other good stuff. You can also find out through my newsletter about how to get in on my monthly Artist’s Nest community calls — the first one is coming up soon, on Feb. 28! You can sign up for my newsletter, here.

Above images are “Winter Landscape”, © Adina Nani | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and “Winter Branches”, © Peter Zaharov | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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Tapping into tortoise wisdom ( + my fall coaching special!)

There is a part of me that is always in an enormous hurry. It’s a small but mighty voice within me that has been piping up since I was very young. The voice says things like: “You are soooo behind where you should be. You have to move faster. You need to make up for lost time! If you don’t get busy, you’re going to regret it!”

I used to listen to this voice, most of the time. I believed the things it said to me, the way it spoke to me, were truth.

However, over time I came to see that when I listened to this voice, merged with it as though it were actually “me” rather than just a point-of-view within me, I actually felt more behind, felt like I had to move even faster, and experienced more regret.

Hmm … curious, right? How could this be?

Well, here’s what I realized was happening (and it took me many years to see this clearly): This voice, while it meant to help, created a very heavy and desperate feeling state within me. And when I took action from that heavy and desperate feeling state, the results I created were — wait for it — heavy and desperate.

(For example: working incredibly hard to prove to my boss that I could take on a lot of work — and getting more work dumped on me by the day. Or, writing for hours after my work day so that I could feel like a “real writer” and ending up so burned out I felt increasingly like a fraud and like it didn’t matter how much I wrote, I still sucked.)

***

My partner and I make a yearly fall trip to the Brookfield Zoo here in the Chicago area. There is something about being there (especially during fall, my favorite season), that taps into childlike, playful energy for me. I connect with spaciousness there, with the energies of the animals, and my mind (particularly, perhaps, that desperate voice that tells me I’m never doing enough), calms down.

This year, we saw that there are tortoises near the duck and pelican pond at one end of the zoo. We stood and stared down at the six different types of tortoises for a long time. A trio of Galapagos tortoises hung out at one corner of their area, and one of them eventually started making its way toward us.

We were surprised that the tortoise moved faster than we’d thought it would, but what we noticed most was how relaxed and methodical it was, how it seemed to feel its way across the soft ground beneath it. It was actually neither “slow” nor “fast” — it simply moved the way it moved, at the pace that felt right to it.

When it had gone a little ways, it turned back, in that same relaxed way, feeling with its feet, head swiveling from side to side. It had apparently changed its mind and it was no big deal. Now it was going that way.

When you watch tortoises closely, you can’t help thinking they are time travelers. These are prehistoric-looking creatures, and they have — you must imagine — a unique relationship with time.

So, back to that ever-present voice in my head, which has been my frightened companion for so very long. Its relationship with time is quite like a race. It thinks it can, at some point, beat time if it just tries hard enough.

It only knows two speeds: “fast” or “slow” (too slow). This makes sense, if you’re in a race. But if you don’t want to — choose to — live your entire life as a race, this voice will quickly propel you to that desperate, heavy place it has caused me to know so well.

The wisdom that the tortoises sparked in me this week was this: It’s not that it’s all about slowing down (though slowing down is, for many of us, an excellent idea) — that Galapagos tortoise traveled more quickly than we’d imagined he would. It’s about being open to your own relationship with time, with pace — how do you want that relationship to be? What pace feels good and supportive and nourishing to you?

Since I can trace that “we’re in a desperate hurry” voice back to my ten-year-old self, who always scrambled in school to get “extra credit” even though she was already doing plenty, I know it is not purely a response to “today’s” culture. But I do think today’s culture contains plenty of triggers for this voice to go into overdrive.

So my ongoing commitment is to keep on noticing when I am “merging” with that voice, believing that it is “me.” I call it “a voice within me” because it is not me. It’s a habitual, practiced reaction, but it doesn’t have to drive my behavior if I notice it, detach from it a little, assure it that it’s being heard but it doesn’t call the shots.

And then I can ask the wiser part of myself how I want the pace of my life to feel, and recognize that I have more choices than that scared, desperate voice thinks I do.

How do you want the pace of your life to feel? How can you create more of that feeling? I’d love to hear from you.

And: My Autumn Transition Coaching Sessions are back — through November 22. These sessions are meant to support you in determining your “best next step” if you are feeling the uncertainty that big (or small!) life transitions bring. I’m finding that one-on-one support is vital for me right now, with all that is going on in our world, and I’d love to provide that support for you if it feels right for you. Learn more about Autumn Transition Sessions, here.

You can also now sign up for my newsletter, for periodic updates about my offerings and other good stuff, here.

Tortoise images © Jill Winski, 2017

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Welcoming the conscious pause

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Conscious paws are always welcome 🍃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

What thoughts am I having about the immediate future?

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

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

Here’s how I changed my examples above:

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

How kindness helps you create

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So often when I’m feeling unhappy and stuck (whether in my life or in my creative work), I find myself frantically trying to control circumstances.

My thoughts go something like this: “If I could just get rid of [X circumstance] and find [X circumstance], and get [X amount of money], and if [X person] wasn’t so hard to deal with, I could stop feeling so bad.”

Or sometimes it goes like this: “If I could just figure out if what I really want is [X] or [Z], then I could move forward. But I’m so confused; I can’t figure it out. So I’m unhappy and I’ll be unhappy until I figure it out.”

There’s a kind of paralysis that sets in when I believe that circumstances are causing my unhappiness. It’s often a breed of analysis paralysis, closely tied to perfectionism, where I’m sure that if I choose the “wrong” thing, I’ll increase my current unhappiness in spades. So I don’t choose.

It usually takes me a while in this spin cycle before I remember: Ohhh. Waiiittt.

It’s not about circumstances. It’s not about making the “right” decision.

It’s about kindness. The kindness I’m forgetting to give to myself.

I don’t know about you, but when I remember to treat myself with kindness, there’s a palpable shift within myself. I feel it in my abdomen first, then my jaw — my entire body softens. I literally feel the rigidity seeping out of me, almost like it forms a puddle around my feet. And then I feel a surprising thing: hope.

From this place, there is fluidity — there is movement. How can that be? I haven’t changed my external circumstances, and yet, there’s movement?

Yes. Martha Beck, with whom I trained to become a life coach, likes to remind her coaches that our circumstances do not create our feeling states; it’s the opposite. Our feeling states create our circumstances.

When our focus is outside ourselves, on what we’re sure the “right” circumstances will bring us, we are disconnected from what’s inside us. We forget where our power actually lies — in our ability to choose how we relate to ourselves, and how relate to the world around us.

And here’s how this relates to our creativity: As I’ve often written on this blog, creativity, as I define it, is nothing more or less than the life force within us.

That life force needs to move. It needs to flow, and to ebb.

When I try to control circumstances, or second-guess my decisions, or try to make the “perfect” choice, that life force gets frozen in time. I’m teetering on the edge of the belief that the “reward” lies on the other side of “right” or “wrong” — when, in fact, the “reward” is right here, within me, if I can remember to treat myself with kindness.

Some of my clients say at first that they simply don’t know how to treat themselves with kindness — or that it seems self-indulgent, or a waste of time.

But my clients are often the kindest people I know — they are truly skilled at directing kindness outside of themselves, toward others. They just haven’t practiced directing it toward themselves.

And there’s a distinct difference between kindness toward ourselves and self-indulgence: Kindness creates movement that comes from the heart; it radiates outward. It’s intimately linked to “inspired action.” Self-indulgence, like a clenched fist, closes us off from ourselves, from the world. Rather than engaging the heart, self-indulgence feels like avoidance of something we fear. Kindness feels like an openness to what we love, to what inspires us.

Sometimes, when I think about doing something like, say, write a blog post about the importance of remembering to treat ourselves with kindness, there’s a hard, embittered piece of me that says things like, “Kindness? How cliche and cheesy and abstract is that?”

And then I have to laugh, because that’s exactly the voice that makes treating myself with kindness my last resort so much of the time. I often come to kindness — or it comes to me — because I’m at the end of my rope with treating myself harshly.

I come to kindness because I realize I’ve literally exhausted all my options if I’m viewing myself, and life, with harshness. Most importantly, I’ve forgotten to acknowledge that I am suffering. Of course it seems like I need to manipulate circumstances and choose perfectly if I’m coming from a harsh, rigid place. Wherever I go, there I am.

So, if I feel backed into a corner, if I believe I’m trapped and there are no good options — whether in my real life or in my creative work — it may be that I’ve forgotten this oh-so-basic step: Treat myself kindly. Exquisitely kindly. Time and again, I learn that from that space of kindness, unseen options emerge.

(To learn more about the amazing benefits of treating ourselves with kindness, check out Kristin Neff’s work at http://selfcompassion.org.)

Do you remember to treat yourself with kindness? Do you think it’s worth doing? Do you apply it in your creative process? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Image is “Hand Feeding” © David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos