Creating rituals around the tough stuff


For almost everything we call “hard,” it’s hard in part because our tendency is to force ourselves to jump in and “just do it.” We live in a culture that loves the idea of “just do it”.

And sometimes just doing it is totally helpful and appropriate.

And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it makes the hard stuff harder.

When we think of something we want to do that scares us as a big, solid mass, like some monolithic thing rising up out of the sea, and we tell ourselves to “just jump over that!”, of course it’s going to feel really hard.

Everything that we think is hard has many, many increments and layers to it. And we can approach it this way, too.

Once, I was asked to create a piece of writing around a photograph in a museum exhibit, then read the piece to an audience as part of a writing festival. I had only about a week to get to the museum, look at the photograph, write the piece, and practice the reading.

A week goes fast, and I had lots of other stuff going on that week, too, so in reality, I knew I’d only have a few hours to do this. But it felt fun and challenging, so I decided to take it on.

Except when I looked at it all as a whole, it felt really hard. And when I say hard, I mean it actually felt hard, like a glinting black bowling ball. I could feel my abdomen contract just thinking about having to write this thing.

And this is what we often do when we’re confronted with something difficult that needs to be done: we get really hard and rigid ourselves around that thing. We set up walls around it and then we talk about “breaking through them.”

What if we set up softness around the tough stuff? What if we created a relationship with it that we enter and exit?

If I go back to my example of that piece of writing, I notice that there was a lot of entering and exiting the hard parts, within the whole process of getting it written.

There was going to the museum to look at the photograph. I made that softer by wandering around the exhibit for a while, letting the work of these photographers sink in and appreciating it. I made it softer by doodling stars and cat faces in my notebook before I started taking notes. I made it softer by treating myself to coffee on the way home.

Then I made the process softer by giving myself some time after I got home to sit with my notes and the feeling I got from the photograph. I let my notebook simmer next to my computer before I sat down to write. I let myself take a little time to get a good sense of what the picture conjured up in me.

And when I sat down to write, I made that process softer by reminding myself that right now, I was just writing, not sharing. I wasn’t thinking about the sharing until I was good and done with the writing. And I was writing one sentence at a time.

And within that writing, I took little breaks from time to time where I exited the process.

On the day of the actual reading, there was a lot of entering and exiting, too.

I didn’t turn it into, “Just do the reading! Just Do It!!!” Instead, it was more like: Get up. Have coffee while taking ten minutes to do a run-through of the reading. Keep enjoying that coffee while choosing an outfit. Ride train to reading, and while on train, start getting into reading mode — start entering reading mode and preparing for the reading.

Ahhh. Being allowed to enter and prepare, and making that a completely separate thing of its own, made the impending reading feel so much more soft.

There was a little period before the reading, where I congregated with the other readers, who were also freaked out, and acknowledging each other’s freaked-out-ness made it all feel much softer.

And then there was the reading itself, and meeting the warm eyes of certain appreciative audience members. And that made the reading itself so much softer, so much less like a glinty, flinty bowling ball and much more like a marshmallow or some Silly Putty.

Fast-forward to the present. When I sit down to work on my novel, it often feels hard, until I remember about creating rituals of softness.

There’s getting coffee and feeling the warm cup in my hand. There’s turning on my computer and watching my wallpaper come up (it’s a picture of my cat stretched out on the couch, sleeping). There’s opening my document and noticing all the other documents alongside this one, documents full of things I’ve written in the past, and that makes me happy and gives me courage: Oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, this writing.

And then there’s the first sentence of the day. I make that softer by allowing it to be a totally crappy sentence. And I make that softer by reminding myself that I can go back and change it later. And then, nine times out of ten, I’m off and writing. If I get stuck (which I often do), I make the stuckness softer by allowing myself another crappy sentence which I can change later. A lot of days, my cat jumps into my lap while I sit at my computer.

Ahhhh. So soft.

How do you create tiny rituals of softness around the tough stuff? I’d love to know.

Image is “Necessities” © Liz Van Steenburgh |

The power of tiny new things


I was talking with one of my clients the other day about how when we’re getting ready to let go of an old, painful pattern, it usually seems to get worse. It seems worse because (yay!) we notice it more. We’re really, really aware of how terribly incongruent this pattern is with the new-us-we-are-becoming. So of course it feels more painful than it ever has before.

When a pattern is really painful, I know my tendency can be to get really hard on myself about it. “How could you create this mess?” “How can you be here, again?” “Are you never going to learn from your stuff?”

These kinds of thoughts are like a smokescreen, or code, for: big internal changes are happening, and they scare me, so I need to slow down the process by being really hard on myself. Then I have something to struggle with and rail against, so I can ensure that the change is as slow as a part of me needs it to be.

The part of me who is deep and wise knows that I don’t need to do this; I don’t need to make the process harder than it is. Actually, when a pattern is playing itself out and it’s really, really painful, this is the time to step back and be the observer. I don’t have to do anything; I don’t have to fight with the pattern or try to get rid of it.

By the time I’m noticing how acutely painful it is, it’s already on its way out.

Mixed in with the pain of “this so doesn’t work for me anymore” is, believe it or not, some grief — sometimes a lot of grief. A coping mechanism that, on some level, has been useful for (often) many years is being let go. There’s sadness in that. That coping mechanism has become part of my identity, so, truly, I am letting go of something that feels like me (even if it isn’t).

In these periods of watching old patterns rev themselves up to high speed until they burn up and work themselves out of my system, it can be so gratifying to notice tiny new good-feeling things that enter my life. As the old stuff is leaving, I like to set an intention to notice what feels new and good and light.

The new and the good and the light are so often commonplace AND unexpected. Like this morning when I was getting dressed, I saw this sweater in the bottom of my drawer that I’d bought a long time ago but never really worn. I put it on and smelled the sharp, fresh scent of new wool and it felt so snuggly and cocoon-like.

And then when I was reaching into my drawer for my earrings, I noticed this blue jay pin I love but haven’t ever worn much, either, and I put it on the sweater. And it looked like it was made for that sweater, like, how could I not have put these two things together before?

A tiny thing, yes, putting a pin on a sweater. But tiny bits of newness can be powerful. Because I’ve never put this sweater and this blue jay together before, they are already creating a tiny new alchemy that is about now, not then. Good to notice as the old stuff comes up to be kissed goodbye and released.

Try this: Experiment with tiny change. Move two tiny things in your house to new places, or put two things next to each other that have never shared the same space before. Notice what this tiny change sets into motion for you.

Coaching in the New Year: I have limited open slots for new coaching clients. If change is on the horizon for you, or you’re already knee-deep in it and need some support, check out my one-on-one coaching. Consultations are always free!

Making Room for Everything


Twenty years ago, my father gave me a copy of Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. I devoured this book. I was fascinated by the words these writers used to talk about their process, and about their relationship with writing. In some ways, I cared less about what they wrote than I did about what writing meant to them, its connection to who they were, and how it made meaning for them.

One interview stood out for me the most, and that was with the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, author of many novels and short stories. I returned to this interview again and again. Edna O’Brien was so herself, so full of contradictions and so open and accepting of them. The interviewer mentioned Philip Roth’s rumored habit of writing 365 days a year, and asked O’Brien if she shared this habit. O’Brien said that, actually, she did not write 365 days a year, because she wasn’t “that kind of writer”.

She also said that part of her process was moping. “Did Philip Roth say that he moped?” she asked.

I loved this. Permission to mope! I was twenty-one at the time, and for years I’d been trying to get rid of the part of myself that was mopey, the part of myself that actually needed time to just be with whatever I was feeling. Because no one in my life had ever given me permission to just feel bad, and to take that time. And, up until I read that interview with Edna O’Brien,  I wasn’t able to give it to myself.

I didn’t know it could be okay to allow myself to feel like crap, let the feeling be there, and trust that this feeling would move and shift, as feelings do. I’d always been taught to get rid of that stuff — if I allowed myself to get in touch with it at all — and to move on from it as soon as possible.

Which hadn’t worked very well.

Because sometimes I need that. I need to putter around the house with these feelings and just give them space. I need to allow them to be, instead of engaging in the inner tug of war that happens when I feel a little mopey and I tell myself, “You don’t have any real reason to feel that way!”

As a creativity coach, a frequent refrain I hear from clients who feel sad, tired, or drained is, “I know I shouldn’t be letting this get in the way of my [writing, artwork, coaching — fill in the blank].”

We have this idea that “creating” means doing — all the time — and we’re somehow “lesser” writers or artists or coaches if we’re not always doing something that looks like creating. We get into either/or: I’m either doing it, or I’m not.

We don’t see the whole of our process — we might not even be aware of the whole of our process. The root system of a tree plunges deep, deep into the earth — but we only see the leaves, the trunk, the branches. And in winter, we don’t even see leaves.

What if we included all of ourselves in our process? What if we saw all of our emotions as helping our creative process, rather than hurting it?

In attending to, making space for, our own emotional core, we feed our creativity, over time.

We may have days that look like puttering, or moping, or just curling up on the couch, and not much else.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t creating. We’re just in the unseen part of our process. We’re just underground for a while.

The holidays are a good time to remember this. We often feel frazzled, disconnected from ourselves, due to extra activities and the “stuff” the holidays can bring up for many of us. What part of your process are you in right now? Can you give yourself permission to be there, or at least, to notice where you are? Can you make room for whatever’s coming up?

Happy Holidays to my beautiful readers, clients, and friends.

And here’s a great opportunity for more permission-building insights: My friend and mentor, the wonderful writer and coach Jenna Avery, is offering a free teleseries on Creative Productivity, starting this Wednesday, Dec. 19! You can check it out and sign up, here.

Image is Ice Tree © Brent Hatcher |

Support, Part 2: Reaching Out of the Vortex

In my last post, I talked about how things that look, sound and smell like support may not actually be support. And I mentioned that dark, swirling, sucking vortex I can get into when I need support but I’m not sure how to get the kind I need — or maybe I’m not even sure what kind of support I need to begin with.

So, if we find ourselves in the vortex, how do we get out?

First, remember that being in the vortex is only scary because we believe we shouldn’t be there and we need to get out, now.

As Byron Katie might say, we should be there because we are there. Being there is just another opportunity to look around and learn.

Second, there are two parts to support — self-support and support from others that feels supportive. (Hiro Boga commented, brilliantly, in a recording I listened to on her site recently, that it’s not support if it doesn’t feel supportive!)

So, when you’re swirling in the Vortex of Need, ask the wise part of yourself: What might feel truly supportive right now? And see what bubbles up. (It’s really important to ask your inner wisdom for this information, and not the part of you that is spinning in need and angry or sad or desperate that it’s not getting its needs met. This part of you does not need to be burdened with questions right now.)

Usually, I get a response that is very simple. It might be to call a particular person I trust. It might be to tell any one of my private, virtual support networks that I’m feeling like crap. It might be to do the dishes, watch a movie, take a nap, open a particular book. It’s never about the long-term– it’s always a very small, specific thing I can do in this moment.

Thinking too long-term can make getting the kind of support we need feel completely overwhelming. It’s not possible to know what kind of support we’re going to need next year, or even next week. We can only know what we need in this moment.

So, what if it feels hard to get in touch with our inner wisdom? What if it’s crowded out by the voice of need? What if our inner wisdom suggests calling Suzy, but even though we know we deeply trust Suzy, we’re so far into the vortex that, in this moment, calling Suzy feels unsafe?

This is where the self-support piece comes in. Sometimes, I need to practice self-support before I can reach out for support from others. This is one of those steps that often gets left out. “Reach out, ask for help, have courage,” we’re told. But there’s an intermediate step that gets skipped over, and that’s kindness.

Can I access that space within me that is exquisitely kind, warm, and accepting — toward myself? It’s often easy to generate this type of kindness toward others, but what about turning it inward, toward me? This means having total reverence and respect for whatever it is I’m feeling. Giving it permission to be there, and legitimacy, and validity.

We often skip completely over this step, and then wonder why, when someone else does offer support, it doesn’t “land.” Usually it doesn’t land because there’s still a part of us judging and beating ourselves up for feeling whatever it is in the first place — for needing to begin with.

The beautiful thing is that when I practice this type of kindness toward myself, I am put immediately in touch with my inner wisdom. There’s nothing like kindness to lift me out of the vortex of need. In fact, reminding myself to treat myself with exquisite kindness points out the places where I’ve been harsh, or where others (not meaning to) have triggered my own harshness toward myself. But it’s hard to see the harshness when I’m living by its rules. I need to shift into kindness in order to see it.

So, the quick version of this process:

1) Accept that you are In the Vortex of Need, and it’s totally okay. You should be there because you are there.

2) Ask your inner wisdom, what might feel truly supportive right now? See what bubbles up. Take action on whatever comes.

3) If you can’t access your inner wisdom, or if what bubbles up from your inner wisdom feels too scary, practice kindness toward yourself. Deep, radical, kindness. Notice what shifts in practicing this. If it feels hard or awkward, imagine the kindness you’d feel toward a struggling friend, or your cat or dog — someone you find it really easy to be deeply kind to — and direct that kindness toward yourself.

The quick and dirty version:

Skip to number #3 and keep doing it. From deep, radical kindness, all Vortexes of Need dissolve and transform into Foundations of Support.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you reach out for support. What makes it feel easier?

And: Wednesday, Nov. 21, is the last day to sign up for Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’m both a participant and a coach for this group, and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re looking for support in creating a daily writing habit!

Image is YELLOW VORTEX © Carsten Erler |

Support: What it is, what it’s not

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of support. There are few things more frustrating and alienating than reaching out for support and getting something that feels like the opposite, even if support is what’s intended.

I like to say, “It begins with us.”

And this is true. Self-support is the cornerstone of any true support. Sometimes it’s impossible to let support from “out there” truly land if we aren’t first practicing self-support.

But, said one of my dear clients the other day, what if I’m in a place where I simply can’t access my self-support system? What if I’m so turned around and upside down and frantic that I just can’t get to that place in myself?

Of course. This happens. That’s when support from “the outside” can be most valuable. That gentleness from a trusted friend that we can’t seem to manage to give ourselves. That perspective we just never would have considered if left to our own devices. So. Important.

But: sometimes it’s when I’m in need of support the most that I am the most reluctant to reach out for it. In fact, this is usually what happens. The more I feel like a black hole of sucking need and desperation, the less I want to reach out, and the more I get sucked down, down, down into the vortex.

And, sometimes, into that vortex is exactly where I need to go. It’s not about “forcing myself” out of the vortex to ask for help. This doesn’t necessarily feel safe, and I’m also not necessarily in a place where I can receive any external support when I’ve gotten to this point. (More on this in my next post.)

True support meets us where we are. It doesn’t force, criticize, or project. It’s curious, interested; it asks open-ended questions. (See my previous post on true support, here).

There are, however, a few things I’ve learned that can contribute to getting into the vortex of swirling, sucking need that feels like it will never end and will never be met. Here are some I’ve noticed:

1) Calling something “support” that doesn’t feel like support. For example, the internet. There’s more than enough information for any of us to digest on any topic we want to do a search on for the next bazillion years. But information is not the same thing as support. And getting overwhelmed by information definitely doesn’t feel like being supported. Posting a question on Facebook and getting fifty different “here’s what I’d do” responses is not necessarily support; it just might be overwhelm — more to process, more to weed through.

2) Going for support, again and again, to people who just aren’t able to provide the kind of support you need. Different people provide different types of support. One of my ingenious ways of alienating myself for many years was going to people who weren’t able to give me the kind of support I needed in the past, hoping that this time they’d show up for me the way I wanted them to. It didn’t happen. Embracing reality: always a good thing.

3) Expecting people to support you exactly the way you’d like them to, without telling them the kind of support you need. If you just want to vent and you don’t want to be coached, you can let someone know that — even if they’re your coach. I used to have a habit of just accepting whatever support was offered, even if it was so not what I needed in that moment. I’d feel alienated by the other person, but really I was alienating myself by not stating what I needed. (This isn’t always, easy, of course. Sometimes, we’re just not sure what we need. We need to be really, really compassionate with ourselves here. We’ll figure it out.)

4) Thinking we need a LOT of support, when what we actually need is the right KIND of support. (See #1.)

5) Thinking that what feels supportive to others should feel supportive to us — even when it doesn’t. The same week my cat died two years ago, I had a trip planned. I literally had no energy for travel and wanted to be at home with my grief, even though other people told me the trip “might be just what you need!” It wasn’t; puttering at home feeling totally safe to burst into tears at any moment was.

In my next post, I’ll write about what to do — or not do — when we’re swirling in the vortex of need and we don’t know how to support ourselves.

What are your thoughts about support? Where do you look for it? What works for you and what doesn’t? I’d love to know.

Work with me! Check out my one-on-one coaching opportunities.

Image is LADY-BIRD © Nikolajs Strigins |

How to Take a Pretend Vacation

I realized this afternoon that, kind of without being totally aware of it, I’ve slid into one of my oh-so-rare “pretend vacations.”

A Pretend Vacation is something I give myself when I’m a little overwhelmed, a little run-down, or maybe just feeling more reflective and inward than usual. It might last a day; it might last three. It’s never a planned thing. It’s like a need that asserts itself in a small voice; if I don’t listen, it speaks up more sharply.

I suspect the need for a Pretend Vacation has been coming on for several weeks. Maybe it’s kicked in because of the events of this past weekend: Saturday morning, while eating a Larabar, my crown popped off and I almost swallowed it. Did you know when a crown comes completely off, it has a little pointy screw thing sticking out of it? Be warned.

Then, Saturday night, there was a party. I have an interesting relationship with parties. If I can get myself to them, I like them. For about twenty minutes. I stayed at this one for three hours. (But it was a Halloween party! Costumes! Gummy worms soaked in vodka! And “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist” on TV all night! My inner scary-movie-lover was happy; my inner HSP-introvert was overstimulated.)

I spent Wednesday morning in my lovely dentist’s office as she dealt with the gaping hole in my gum. Throw in a couple other unexpected and stress-inducing issues over the past few days and, on cue, need for Pretend Vacation makes itself known.

A real vacation is planned in advance. It involves taking time away from work, maybe more time with family or friends, or not, maybe traveling to another place, or not, but there is an interruption of one’s normal routine.

In my Pretend Vacations, my normal routine goes on. I just scale it back as much as possible. I do everything that’s a priority — keep my appointments with clients, do my writing, feed my cat. But I cut out anything I might normally do but don’t really need to. Today, for example, laundry and the dishes fell right off the list so I could sit quietly and drink Midnight Velvet tea. I haven’t been on social media much. I let a couple of phone calls go to voice mail.

The intention behind a Pretend Vacation is to create a container for the part of me that is vulnerable, tired, and wants to move inward to reflect or rest, while not completely removing myself from my life. I’ve noticed on a Pretend Vacation, choices I might usually waver over become really, really clear. I also notice I’m gentler with myself than I usually am, and I’m less likely to respond to things that don’t really require a response from me.

There’s something to be learned here, methinks. Can I invoke this Pretend Vacation mindset for the parts of me that are vulnerable, overwhelmed, or scared, while still attending to the parts of me that don’t want to leave the party because “The Exorcist” hasn’t gotten to the really good parts yet?

I can’t necessarily care for all these parts of myself — all these selves — on the same day, in the same moment, but I can let them all know that they will get their say, they will be heard by me, and none of them will be left out.

I can also let the sensation-seeking parts of me — my inner adventurer, my inner scary movie buff — and the driven, perfectionistic parts — know that, in the long run, a Pretend Vacation is good for all of us.

And a Real Vacation is even better.

For a related article, click here.

Image is TOY ON THE BEACH © Cristina |