The Limits of Feeling Better

I’ve had a lot to say here about feeling better, seriously many, many posts. And in all of that talk I think I might have created the wrong impression. I’m afraid I might have inadvertently suggested that it is possible to feel good all of the time. And saying that will make half you roll your eyes and turn away because “Yeah, right” and half of you will be so relieved because all you’ve wanted your whole lives is to feel good all of the time. Okay, maybe let’s get rid of the “halves” in that equation and just say that while people might not believe that’s possible, it is very much what we all want.

How do we know we want to feel good all of the time? We know because of all of the things we do to try to make that true. We overeat; we over drink; we over Facebook; we over TV; we over whatever it is you do to avoid feeling bad and to try to convince ourselves we feel okay. I’m going to say it even though I know you know this; none of those things actually make anything better. They may make us feel a little better for a short time, but they don’t change anything externally or internally and many of them have negative consequences.

What would happen if instead of all of that running that we do, because that’s really what it is – get me away from this discomfort ASAP – what if we decided that discomfort is a normal part of life? What if we decided to just allow ourselves to feel bad once in a while? What if we decided not to self-soothe, distract, or cheer ourselves up? What if we didn’t numb it, stuff it, or ignore it? What would happen?

feel your feelingsI can tell you that in my personal experience, one thing consistently happens when I do this – when I allow the “negative” feelings, a whole lot of tension falls away. Because when I’m dodging that stuff, when I’m telling myself I shouldn’t feel bad, when I’m desperately searching for ways to make myself feel better for just a few minutes (hangover or sugar crash be damned), there is tension. There is physical tension and psychological pressure. There is tension because I am fighting myself. I am fighting how I feel. I am fighting my natural responses. I am fighting who I am. Fighting, fighting, fighting. That stuff takes a lot of energy and has a cost. What would happen if we just stopped fighting?

“Well then we’d feel bad Julia.” Yes, you will. But does what you’re doing feel good? Does numbing out feel good? Does spending hours on social media feel good? Does overeating and over drinking feel good (that question is harder for me than the others, but maybe it’s the opposite for you)? When we chase the bad feelings away with momentary false pleasures, they don’t go anywhere. We just try to drown them out, suffocate them with a food, booze, media blanket. We fight ourselves.

What if feeling bad could help you? What if sitting with it could give you answers to questions like: “What do I really want to be doing in my life?” “What am I missing out on?” “Who do I want to be?” “What do I need to work on to feel more whole?” What if ALL of your feelings are part of a finely tuned navigation system that’s trying so very hard to help you be your best and most fulfilling you? What if ignoring that stuff is pretty much ignoring the best advice and direction you could get anywhere? What if feeling all of your feelings makes the good times even better? What if it turns out that the bad feelings aren’t as bad as you fear? What if it turns out that feeling sad for a few minutes WON’T mean feeling sad forever (wouldn’t that be good to know)? What if feeling badly every now and again (or like 50% of the time) is part of the human experience, part of what helps us grow and learn, part of what makes our lives uniquely ours? That’s an awful lot to miss out on.

Missing out on lifeYou are here. There are experiences. They are not all good. No matter what you add or change or adjust your vibration for, they will not all be good. The fact that everyone has bad days and bad feelings suggests something kind of basic there. This is it. This is the deal. This is being human. Do you really want to miss out on half of it?

If you’re tired of fighting yourself, but aren’t sure how to really let yourself feel all of the things, I’d love to help.

When We Fail

Sometimes we fail.

How to fail wellWe do.

The thing we try to do doesn’t work.

The job we thought we’d love is really awful.

The marriage we so wanted to work out or fix ends.

Sometimes we fail.

 

The question is not whether or not it’s going to happen.

It’s going to happen, that is if you make any attempt to grow, reach, stretch, be more – failure will happen.

The question is not if, but what you will do with it.

The motivational crowd will tell you to get right back on that horse.

I’m going to ask you to check your course.

“But wait,” they say: “You can’t get mired in self-doubt.”

I say this is a reaction.

I say our fear of getting stuck in self-doubt after a failure or a less than stellar outcome is a dodge, a deflection, an extremely sophisticated way to get out of feeling the failure.

Because that’s what I think we should do.

I think we should feel it.

I think we should sit with the failure and let it be with us, cry if we need to, destroy a pillow if that’s better, but be with that feeling of failure.

Why? Why on earth would I want you to do that? Am I just a sadist?

No. I’m really not.

That feeling part, the part we dodge and weave to avoid, the part we look for quick fixes, buffers, distractions for? That’s our most delicate and informative equipment. That’s our navigational hardware. That’s how we really stay on course. If we avoid it all of the time and just get back to forging ahead we’ll be going in circles or headed to a destination we don’t really want.

So what do we need to do? We need to feel the failure.

Does that mean we need to change course? No, maybe, I don’t know for you. Only YOU know for you and the best way to access that knowing is to be honest and the way to start being honest is to feel how you feel, get through the peak of that and then have the conversation with yourself, check in with your internal navigation, after you’ve given it a moment to recalibrate.

what will you let failure teach youYou may then decide to get back on that horse and just try again. You may try again with a variation. You may decide it’s time for a new horse. The point isn’t always whether or not you persist in what you were doing, but in what you learn and what you allow with the failure. The point isn’t always getting up and trying again, but in trying better, trying different, maybe even trying new.

Failure will happen.

If you risk anything worth risking, if you step beyond where you are at all in hopes of reaching something more, failure will happen.

What will you make from it? What will it teach you? Who will you become after that?

 

How Much of Your Action is Reaction?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about action and reaction.

I guess it would be more accurate to say that I’ve been taking the time to notice the difference between them and to notice when I’m doing which.

what drives reactionIt seems to me, at least based on anecdotal evidence and the horribly skewed version of our lives that Facebook represents, that a lot of us (and I say “us”, not “you”) spend a great deal of time on reaction, meeting an event or a piece of information with exactly what Newton’s third law predicts: equal force, opposite direction. In fact, I think there may be a a modern adjustment to Newton’s law that predicts greater force in the opposite direction. We meet new information with vigorous opposition.

Before I go any further, I shall note, with great force, that I often believe that vigorous opposition is exactly appropriate. There is an awful lot going on in the world right now that deserves full force rejection and reversal. With that said (and I may be speaking only for myself), I sometimes feel as though I’m losing my non-reactive skills. Sometimes I need reminding that reacting is not always necessary and that, in fact, it can be harmful.

Let me explain a little. One of the pitfalls of being in a “helping” profession is that it is very easy to constantly slip into helping mode with everyone around you, whether they’re interested in that help or not. It is easy to become a helicopter friend. When you have a great set of tools that you know make people’s lives better, you can (without being really mindful) find yourself constantly pulling your toolbox out and seeing where that wrench is so you can help someone tighten a bolt. You may find yourself in the position of reacting to your friend or family member’s pain (hey! here’s a great thing that will pull us in the opposite direction) rather than mindfully choosing an action or no action.

We all do this, we just do it in different ways. We all react to one another – sometimes in anger, and that’s the one we recognize the most readily, but we all react. I’ve noticed that oftentimes when I react, out of help or out of anger, the reaction is ALL about me and my discomfort. I’m uncomfortable with friends and family members suffering, so I incautiously whip out some tools that might help. I’m uncomfortable when people reveal truths about the world (or THEIR truths about the world) that don’t match up with my experience or ideals, so I incautiously whip out some really great political rhetoric and a statistical study to really seal the deal. I’m uncomfortable with the stupid conflicts I hear between my children and so I incautiously intervene in a way that is designed to SHUT IT DOWN rather than help them learn how to handle conflict. When I react in these ways, it is based in my discomfort. It is based in me feeling bad and wanting to change that right now.

All of this learning is a bit of a surprise, because I thought I had this lesson down. When I revamped my professional life, I made a big move from a habit of reacting into the realm of mindful and intentional acting. My work life is pretty non-reactive. I choose what I want and need to do. I choose how and when to do it. I work hard to keep other people’s emergencies from de-railing my cherished plans. I guess I thought all of that mindfulness would just spill over into everything else. I guess I thought my personal life would morph on its own.

Yeah, not so much.

You don't have to reactAnd so I am making a pledge to myself, to continue this investigation: to continue to notice when I am acting and when I am reacting, and perhaps more importantly to notice where that reaction is coming from. Is it coming solely from my momentary discomfort rather than out of a place of a larger concern? Is my choice coming from a desire for little quiet rather than big peace? What would happen if I just sat with my discomfort? What would be revealed? What could be learned? What safe space could be created for others and for myself? What would deliberate action look like in the face of those questions?

Every action has a reaction equal in force and in the opposite direction, unless we decide it need not be so.

Where in your life could you use a little alteration of the laws of physics?

When You Don’t Want To Be Right

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be human.

Yeah, I just do stuff like that; let’s move on.

Some would say our feelings are part of humanity, but I’m not sure we can make an exclusive claim there, just based on how my dog acts when I come home.

Some would say our ability to have compassion and put the needs of others before our own is uniquely human. I could take the low road and point to counter-examples, but I’ll stick with my animal companions as evidence that this is not true.

Some would say our ability to think is what makes us really human, but really? Animals hunting in groups, animals figuring out how to get at the hidden food, animals creating hiding places. Yeah, that’s not all ours either.

Having said all of that, I can’t even be 100% sure that this next statement is true, but it seems to be the “last man standing” when it comes to what we can claim as being a fundamental human characteristic: our ability to think about what we are thinking. Maybe they do it too, but the communication gap seems, for now, to allow us to exclude animals from this claim. So a big part of being human is thinking about what we’re thinking about.

How to Feel BetterHow do we use this particular and peculiar gift? Usually, at least in my personal and professional experience, we use it to beat ourselves up. We notice what we’re thinking and feeling and give ourselves a hard time about it. “Feeling blue? Of course you are. Get it together!” “STILL grieving? Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?” “Insecurity, still? You should have been done with that years ago.” I think of it as double torture. We load judgment onto feeling bad, and that’s how we use our uniquely human gift. Yay!

And now I’m going to tell you the really amazing and kind of awful part. Once we have these thoughts about ourselves (that we pretty much stink for feeling how we feel, that we can’t handle adulting, that we’ve learned nothing, that there’s something wrong with us – whatever version your brain gives you), we look for evidence. We constantly scan the horizon (and our bounty of data from the past) to confirm those assertions. What?! Why?!

Because our brains get a dopamine rush when we confirm our beliefs. At least that’s what researchers Sara and Jack Gorman tell us. It feels good to have our beliefs confirmed and to stick to our guns, dig in with our position, even if plenty of available facts don’t support what we believe. We actually get the same neurohormone rush that we get when we have sex, do drugs, eat sugar (no, those are not all of a piece for me – no worries). This research points to a number of interesting discussions about politics and science, but it also tells us something about ourselves as individuals.

Once we decide something about ourselves, it can be very difficult to change that belief. If I believe that I am spoiled, for example, perhaps because it was part of my family story about who I was as a child, I will more readily see and accept evidence that supports the idea that I’m spoiled. And my brain will reward me for finding that evidence even though thinking that thought will ultimately NOT reward me. Our biology puts us at risk for hanging onto beliefs about the world and about ourselves that are harmful, destructive, and on a personal level, that create barriers for creating the kinds of lives that we want to lead. Now, the brain isn’t just doing this to mess with you. There are evolutionary theories as to why this occurs, but that’s not what I want to focus on.

I want to focus on the simple fact that believing things that are helpful and productive for you can be life-changing. Why? Because your thoughts create feelings and feelings create energy for your actions. When we’re thinking crappy things about ourselves, the actions that come of that usually serve to make us feel worse. Attend ANY of my classes if you want more info on that.

Why it's not workingSo what does all of this mean? It means that in order to get the results you want, you’re going to have to take a look at what’s going on in that amazingly powerful brain of yours. You’re going to have to see what you’re thinking about who you are in the world. You’re going to have to reset some thoughts so that you can stop collecting evidence that you’re worthless or fundamentally flawed or that there’s just something wrong with you. You’re going to have to replace those thoughts with something else. It doesn’t have to be a positive affirmation. It doesn’t have to be all unicorns and glitter. It just has to be maybe a little more neutral. It just has to allow you some space to see yourself more clearly. It just needs to allow you to take in more of what you’ve done and who you are in the world so you can see more than just that selection of data that proves that you’re no good.

Because friends, you’re not right about that. And your brain will reward you for proving it once you decide to believe something new.

You are here. You are valuable. You have unique gifts (even if you don’t believe it and haven’t found them yet). You are worthy.

If you can’t believe any of that, maybe just start with “I’m okay,” and see if you can find some evidence for THAT. I bet you can.

If you’d like a guide on your journey through your thoughts, I’d love to help.

 

xo,

julia

In the Dark Times

I can’t speak for other parts of the globe, but things have been pretty rough in the U.S. There have been horrific hurricanes that have left so many Americans suffering without vital services. There have been political controversies that seem to be rocking us at our foundations. There have been wildfires raging in and around communities in the West. There’s a lot that’s going wrong. There’s a lot weighing us down. There’s a lot to grieve, to mourn, to argue about, to consider. There are a lot of people facing the darkest emotions the human experience has to offer.

What Do We Do With Our Negative Emotions?

We are not taught how to deal with our feelingsUnfortunately, as a culture, we are not very well practiced at those dark emotions. We don’t often actively encourage people to feel how they feel. We prefer that they “pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.” We have legends, books, songs, movies, stories, and cultural icons that show us that this is the way. The pause for grief and sorrow must be brief. And then what? Well, I’m afraid for many people, this means an awful lot of stuffing and swatting. We stuff our bad feelings in. When they rise up, we shove them down, often with food or alcohol, really packing them back in there and creating the dopamine buzz that will make us think we feel better. We stuff and we stuff.

We also swat our dark feelings away. We swat them away like they are insignificant as houseflies. “Now’s not a good time. Go away. I’ll think about that later. I don’t want to deal with that now. Oooooh… look, something shiny.” And then we distract ourselves. We distract ourselves with whatever our favorite and most effective distraction is. We distract ourselves with work. We distract ourselves with social media. We distract ourselves with television and movies. We distract ourselves with busyness. We distract ourselves with chores. We distract ourselves with personal drama because outrage often feels better than grief, loneliness, and insecurity. We distract ourselves with pedicures, lattes, and shopping. Swat it away; find something else to do.

And yet, there is only so much stuffing and swatting a person can do. There is only so much the body and the spirit can carry. Because when we stuff and swat, those feelings don’t go away. For stuffers, those feelings just build up. Eventually, many stuffers explode. If you’re not an exploder, I bet you know one. I know a few exploders and have been the recipient of that eventual boom. There’s nothing cheerful about that scenario. What happens to the swatters? Well, the distraction of that one feeling, that one housefly just grows. Eventually it’s a swarm of houseflies (that’s pretty gross) and swatters can’t figure out why they’re having so much trouble getting things done. Why can’t I concentrate? Why do I feel so tired all of the time? Why can’t I seem to make any decisions? Because SO much energy is going into swatting those emotions away. SO much energy is being used to pretend to be okay.

How Can We Process Our Dark Emotions?

There is only one real course of action here, and if you’ve been playing along it will come as no surprise to you. The only reasonable thing to do is to feel those feelings. The only reasonable thing to do is to just freaking surrender for a few minutes, because in all likelihood that’s all it will take to start to feel some relief, to stop feeling the need to stuff and swat. Heck, even if it takes an hour that’s far less time than you’re losing to that feeling with all of that stuffing and swatting.

But I’m afraid if I let myself feel it, I will never feel good again….

If you don’t let yourself feel it, you will struggle to actually REALLY feel good. You may have temporary relief, but that shadow will remain.

But I can’t just break down. I have responsibilities.

Yes, yes you can. Your responsibilities can wait a few minutes while you sit on the floor and cry your eyes out. If it’s kids you’re worried about, maybe it’s time they saw an adult cry so they know that it’s okay. If it’s other adult responsibilities, lists of tasks, things that need to get done, I PROMISE you will be more productive if you let yourself take a few minutes to be genuinely honest with yourself.

But I’m afraid to feel it.

Yes, I know. But you can take it. You were made to experience the whole shebang on this planet, not just the good parts, and not just the shiny objects. You can venture into the depth of it and come out the other side. And every time you do, it will be less scary. You won’t stop having dark feelings, but learning that you can have them, handle them, recover – that’s priceless. THAT will change your entire existence. You don’t have to be afraid, or you don’t have to let your fear stop you from feeling how you actually feel. You are allowed to feel whatever you are feeling and if you finally write yourself that permission slip, things will change.

How to rise higher than you thought possible
But feeling and crying and doing all of that makes me week. 

Oh no my darling one. Allowing the fullness of this life to touch you makes you resilient, makes you whole, makes you a freaking Phoenix. You can never rise to your highest heights if you are always running from the flames.

Feeling Your Feelings

If you’re ready to try, there’s no official instruction manual, but I can offer you some tips. Next time you feel a big wave of negative emotion, get yourself somewhere where you can feel comfortable, and just focus on allowing it. You don’t have to do anything special, just don’t fight it. Don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Don’t ask it questions. Don’t analyze it. Don’t argue with it. Just allow it. If tears come, let them flow. If you need to make a noise and can do that safely, do it. Just allow it. Notice how it feels in your body. Notice that you are still there, that you haven’t been obliterated. Notice how your body changes as you allow the feeling. Notice how the tension falls away. Notice how the feeling diminishes in time. Notice that you are okay, that you are still whole. Notice that you didn’t have to act on that feeling to have it ease up a bit. Notice that you handled it and tell yourself what an excellent job you did.

If you are in a difficult situation, consider how much easier it might be if you just allowed yourself to feel it for a few minutes. I promise you’ll be alright. If you need someone to talk you through it, I’m here.

Are You Denying What You Really Know?

Over the weekend I was reading a short article by Tova Mirvis. She describes how she left both her faith and her marriage over a very short period of time. When I started reading, I wasn’t really committed to the piece. I was just passing the time. And then she said something that REALLY caught my attention. The author asked a question that I thought was a lightening bolt of a question, so I started to pay a little more attention. Are you ready for it? It’s a good one. She asked: “For how long would I try to deny what I really knew?”

Boom.

If that doesn’t go boom for you, you are very lucky, extremely attuned to yourself, or you’ve not really taken a good hard look at what’s going on inside. Let’s unpack this question a little bit. For Mirvis, the question came after the seeds of religious doubt had been sown repeatedly and she cut down the resulting seedlings in order to maintain a harmonious marriage, and to ensure her commitment to her faith. She continuously found the edges of her beliefs, questioning the reasons for traditions, for practices, and for the systems that were in place in her community, in her faith tradition, and eventually also in her marriage. As she noticed these edges more and more often, it became really difficult to deny what she already knew, that she was an outsider, that she neither believed the same things nor (and perhaps more importantly) did she HOPE to believe them. She didn’t see the benefit of working towards those beliefs or living inside of them without sharing them in her heart. She began to feel that she was living a lie. “For how long would I try to deny what I really knew?”

Slide1When we look back at some of the biggest changes in our lives, we can almost always identify moments of knowing that we had in advance. In a breakup we can look back at the times we knew it wasn’t going to work out or when we became suspicious that things weren’t as they seemed. In a job situation, we can (from the other side) see the ways that a job didn’t suit us or bring out our best; we can identify the moments we wished we’d written a resignation letter. We get these little signals, and most of us dismiss them as anomalies, blips on the radar, one time things. And there are good reasons for that. It is far harder to assume that each of these moments is a little cry from our most essential selves, telling us things are not lining up correctly. Mirvis talks about the struggle to get right with her doubt: “I continued to observe the rules of Orthodoxy, hoping all this activity might eventually take the shape of actual belief. I felt alone in my marriage but warned myself away from the hard places.” This is what we do right? We just keep it up, hoping that the blip was just that and that persevering will allow us to get to something more meaningful.

And hey, listen, don’t misunderstand and think I’m not about a little perseverance, but continuing on a path that contradicts what we really know feels less like perseverance and more like continuing on a path to avoid the pitfalls of the other paths. Making big change creates, well, big change. We cannot renovate one corner of our lives without changing the rest of the room. Every action has a reaction and all of that jazz.

A big part of why most of us avoid major life renovations is the people part. As we make major changes, we often find that it is harder to relate to/be with the people who’ve become important to us or who make us feel safe in the world. Mirvis experienced this fully as she left both her marriage AND her faith community. She lost friends, lost lots of them. She traded feeling out of synch with her real self for feeling terribly lonely.

Slide2But that’s not the end of the story. Over time Mirvis’ perception of her loneliness changed: “I came to understand that the people who no longer spoke to me were part of one small world; with time, there be other worlds I would discover myself.” When we change things, when we renovate our lives, we sometimes leave people behind or make them so uncomfortable they choose to stay behind. And maybe, just maybe, that’s okay. Maybe in addition to really knowing that we need to change things, we could try really knowing that we’re still okay, that being our real selves, that listening to that tiny voice inside is not just acceptable but preferable and will take us someplace new, where there will be new people and new experiences, and new relationships to start, and grow, and nurture. Maybe the secret of life isn’t in persevering and making it work, but in questioning and listening and making it yours.

What are you denying that you REALLY know? What would it be like to admit that you know it? Does it feel like freedom (even if it’s a little scary)?

How SHOULD You Feel?

Slide1I can’t tell you how many times clients and friends, heck everybody I know has come up against a moment where, when we really dig down a bit, the problem isn’t necessarily HOW they feel, but how they think they SHOULD feel. Let me explain.

There’s a bride preparing for the big day. She’s sure she’s doing the right thing. Her partner is the right one for her, no question in her mind. And yet as she is getting dressed with her sisters and mothers, it’s there, that little twinge that makes her tear up. That bit of sadness that makes her pause for a moment and, if she gives herself enough time, maybe even start to doubt herself. Why am I sad? I shouldn’t be sad right now. It’s one of the happiest days of my life. I SHOULD not be sad; does that mean there’s something wrong? Is my subconscious trying to tell me something? Oh no, what if this is all wrong after all?…

You can see how this could get complicated.

Picture a funeral, one that follows a long struggle with an unkind illness. Picture a caretaker who is exhausted and grieving. Watch that caretaker brush aside the moment of relief he is surely feeling in favor of guilt that he should feel that way at all. He should be sad; he should only be sad. Being anything else means he’s selfish or unfeeling or somehow cheapens the relationship. We’ve now gone from grieving to self-abuse.

This is, I believe, a uniquely human trick: the double layer torture. Because we have the capacity to think about what we’re thinking, we are able to load judgment onto our struggles. Great.

I see my clients and friends do it all of the time. I see coach friends do it too – we’re actually extra good at it because we see it all happening and think that means we should know better: “I thought I was done with this. I KNOW this is just a story I’m telling myself. I can’t believe I’m here again.” Double layer torture is often rooted in some kind of feeling that we should know better, we should act better, that we should BE better people, the kind who don’t have feelings that don’t appear to match the occasion, the kind of people for whom life is simple – black and white, good and bad, right and wrong.

“Well, when you say it that way….” YES I’m saying it that way. Because we are all complicated; there is a whole lot of grey and with all of that complication and middle ground, we are, quite simply, allowed to feel however we feel. You are allowed to feel how you feel. You are allowed to feel how you feel. You are allowed to feel how you feel. And feeling how you feel doesn’t make you selfish, or unworthy, or wrong, or mixed up, or anything other than a stunning and complex human being. You get to feel how you feel without judgment, especially from yourself.

So what to do when these moments happen, when our feelings don’t match with how we THINK we should feel and we’re tempted first to torture ourselves with scorn for that and then to analyze that whole scene to figure out how messed up we really are… what to do?

How about a little compassion? How about taking a deep breath and allowing the feeling to be there, getting yourself a kleenex so the tears can come out without ruining your makeup if it’s your wedding day, allowing the smile if it’s a funeral? How about starting by telling yourself that you get to feel how you feel and it doesn’t make you anything other than human?

Slide2You may be startled to find that giving the feeling that room allows it to pass through, and suddenly it will become just a moment of real humanness rather than an indicator of a lifetime of anything. It will become a passing sentiment rather than evidence that you are who you’ve always been afraid that you are. It will just be a feeling, a feeling that you are allowed to have, and then it will be done. It will be done and you will still be worthy.

 

What Good Is Fear?

On my nerdy vacation, we had the opportunity to listen to a series of lectures that were supposed to be about the nature of fear. We noticed pretty quickly that few of the presenters actually wanted to talk about fear, which we got some good chuckles about, because really we all pretty much want to avoid fear whenever we can, right? Being afraid is the pits. People don’t want to feel it; they don’t want to study it; and even when asked to, many don’t want to talk about it all that much. We just don’t want to have anything to do with it, but fear is part of the human condition. It is hard-wired (not necessarily in terms of WHAT we’re afraid of, but that we will be afraid).

Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Economics and all around smart guy at Duke University, answered the question of whether or not fear serves us with a qualified “yes.” I’ll paraphrase the rest by saying that fear acts as a repellant for things that might kill or hurt us (like tigers or grizzly bears), but our fear response hasn’t evolved as quickly as society. There is a phenomenon called the “Identifiable Victim Problem” which makes us afraid of the wrong things. The way this works is that the problems with which we are most familiar through exposure (i.e. media exposure) like terrorism scare us more than the statistically likely death by car accident or health issues related to dietary choices. Our fear is primitive and is ripe for manipulation.

Slide1I would suggest, and I am no longer paraphrasing Prof. Ariely, that our fear is regularly manipulated, but not just by the media or politicians or advertisers. We manipulate our own fear all of the time with an extended chess game in our heads. Our primitive brain tries to manipulate us with fear any time we threaten to change the status quo. We can see this in large and small scale. In the larger world big change, or the threat of big change, often unleashes reactions that are so strong that they could only be caused by fear. The same thing happens within us. We toy with a new idea and before we know it, our primitive brain has us sure that taking even the smallest step in that direction will unleash some version of hell. “We’ll go broke. He’ll leave me. Everyone will know I’m a fraud. Nobody will love me.” Whew. That lizard brain really knows how to get at us, and convince us that change is foolish.

If we’re really good, we can even convince ourselves that all of that wasn’t fear, it was logic, analysis, adulting, good decision-making. We can frame it lots of ways, but the truth is that part of us is trembling in the corner with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn asking for the remote so she can change the channel. This kind of response to fear makes it pretty much useless. Dame Stella Remington (the former director of MI5 – i.e. chief spy of the U.K.) said: “I don’t think fear, which implies sort of sitting in a corner shaking, is ever a sensible reaction to anything.” And I agree with her, at least as far as that kind of response goes. All of this still doesn’t tell us what good fear is to us when we’re not facing the immediacy of a tiger or grizzly bear, or even a celtic warrior painted in blue.

Slide2I’ve been thinking a lot about how we respond to fear and I’ve come to the conclusion that aside from acting as an early warning system, fear also acts as another kind of signal. It raises a flag, gets all of our attention, sets off all of the alarms, but maybe it’s not always to indicate that we should run and hide. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes those alarm bells are there to let us know that there is an opportunity in front of us to grow in some way that will fundamentally improve our lives. What if all of that fear is just your body and your psyche’s best attempt to get you to wake up and pay attention because THIS IS IMPORTANT? The problem is that we get so bowled over by the physiology and brain scrambling nature of fear that it’s hard to pay attention to what’s in front of us. We lose track of where the lesson might be. We look for our familiar bogey men. We try to make sense of the fear, when usually it’s our favorite self-defeating story. Usually we let the fear get big enough that its origin seems somewhat secondary.

At times like this, I like to do something Tim Ferris calls Fear Setting. I didn’t know it had a name, I just stumbled into it when I was really struggling with some anxiety. With Fear Setting you really lean into the fear. What am I afraid of? What am I putting off? What am I not doing because I’m afraid? When you’ve got a handle on that, you imagine the worst possible scenario for all of those things – how bad could this really get? What would happen? If the fear is preventing you from acting in some way, then you imagine the benefits of taking that step. Finally you figure out the costs of inaction. It all sounds very spreadsheety, which is not my usual jam, but leaning into the fear in this way  allows us to measure our momentary fear against the cost of being controlled by our momentary fear. More often than not, this allows us to bring our reactions into line with where we really are RIGHT now. I’m okay. I’m safe. I’m here. There are things I can do. I should do them. I will be okay. In fact, I will probably be better than I am right now.

Our fear is a signal. And it’s super powerful, because of the tigers and grizzly bears, but how we respond to that signal is always up to us. Developing a sense of curiosity in the face of fear may just allow us to see that our biggest gains are just on the other side of a little teeth chattering and quaking.

Accessing Vacation Vibe

My family and I just returned from our annual trip to the Chautauqua Institution. It is a summer ritual that I cherish. Chautauqua is a spectacular place, and leaving is always difficult. We spend a good bit of our drive home in a repeated chat pattern. The first hour or two are usually spent thinking of ways we can spend more time there. Do we want to spend more money? When would we go? What would that look like? We usually come up with a scheme or two on that front in those two hours and then take some time introverting (which is not as hard as it sounds in a car, but takes practice and a good supply of interesting podcasts). After we’ve both recharged by pretending to be alone, we enter phase two of our annual conversation, which is how to extend what we get at Chautauqua into our every day lives.

This vacation we take is unusual in that it is not necessarily about resting and relaxing (no palm trees or umbrella drinks). On our trip we typically see live performances most nights, attend lectures and classes during the day, go to art galleries, take walks by the lake, and ride bikes everywhere. The usual summer vacation indulgences also make it in there (books, ice cream, the occasional nap), but we don’t really spend a lot of “down” time while we’re there. So when we get home, we are sort of pressed to acknowledge how we are spending our time. If we want to feel more often the way we feel at Chautauqua, we may need to change the way we’re doing things at home.

For us this means more engagement. We need to get more intellectual stimulation and banish the buffer box (the TV) more regularly. We need to see more art of all kinds, and plan to do it so we don’t have the option of bailing at the last minute. We need to be more engaged in social and political discussions; being places that are so interesting and stimulating that taking notes seems like a good idea. Perhaps more importantly, we also need to take a look at what we are thinking, because the way we feel at Chautauqua has a whole lot to do with what we think when we are there: “This is a magical place. This is a special place. There is so much here that I cherish. This place makes me feel alive. I wish there were more places like this in the world.” How could I not feel good and have a great time with those thoughts?!

Slide1The contrast with vacation, the reality of vacation letdown (boo hoo, I know) can make home seem kind of boring, but in reality I am surrounded by opportunities that I ignore on a regular basis. I get into my habits, I get into my thought patterns and I miss out on things that I enjoy, and I miss out on just feeling great right where I am.

For a lot of folks vacation means a time of exquisite self-care, a chance to rest, or a time to just play. What would your perfect vacation include? A lounge chair? A window, blanket, and book? A long hike followed by some tea? A puzzle and your kids? What is it that you’re missing that you long for during those vacation days when we allow our desires to take center stage?

Slide2The obvious question is if you are 100% sure you can’t fit some of that in to your every day life. I know, I know, you’re busy. Do us both a favor and just for a minute try on the thought: “I have time.” Just say it to yourself a few times and see what happens. Do you feel a sense of relief? Do you laugh a little and realize that you DO actually have some time, especially if you stop freaking out about being busy? Now, having done that, what part of your vacation dream can you fit in that slot? What nourishment can you sneak in when your super busy brain isn’t looking?

Slide3If you’re really wanting to go the extra mile, ask yourself how you feel on that dream vacation (close your eyes and picture it if you need to). What’s the feeling that you’re wishing you had right now? Got it? Now, ask yourself what you’d need to think to feel that way. What thought would you need to have in order to feel the way you want to feel? Is there a thought that’s getting in the way of the good feeling thought? Because here’s the thing. Those thoughts? The good one, the bad one that’s in the way, all of them… they are a choice. You can unpick them just like you picked them (at least the first time you had them). You can choose a new thought. You CAN feel more like you do on vacation; it’s totally within your power to do so. You just have to think the way you do when you are there.

If you could use a little more vacation brain, but aren’t sure where to start, I’d love to help.

What Feels Like Freedom?

I talk about decisions a lot here in these pages because a lot of people, and I include myself amongst those people, get hung up on decisions. We get hung up collecting information, we get hung up measuring pros and cons, we get hung up with figuring out how we really feel and how much of that is old programmed nonsense that we really don’t believe anymore. We get hung up because we’re terribly afraid that we’re going to make a mistake, do it wrong, fail, look foolish… I could go on. There is a test that helps us get past all of that, at least for the decision-making part. It’s simple, really. Acting after that is a separate discussion, but the test for a decision is remarkably easy.

Martha Beck, the brilliant PhD with whom I trained as a life coach and one of my esteemed mentors, agrees with other brilliant souls that the defining feature to look for in these times is a feeling. WHOA! I realize I may be losing some of you already. If this is not your first time at my personal rodeo, you probably saw that coming. The feeling that Martha Beck suggests we look for is something she calls “shackles on.” Looking for that shackles on feeling requires a couple of things. The first thing you’ll need to do is get quiet; stop the clamor of data in your head; stop the pro and con list (you can have them back later if you really need them). Get quiet and take some deep breaths. Let yourself temporarily let go of all of the reasons you SHOULD choose one thing or the other. When you’ve gotten yourself quieter, imagine one of the possibilities you’re considering, and see how it makes you FEEL.

Slide1Does it feel like you’ve got shackles on? For me that usually means heaviness and a feeling of being drained; my body will actually respond by slumping in my chair and emotions like dread and sadness usually come as well. Does it feel like shackles off? For me that means feeling physically lighter, breathing more fully; my body responds by straightening up, my head drifts upward and back on top of my neck where it is supported. I feel airier, like there’s room for me; I feel unlimited. THAT feels like freedom. That’s shackles off. My body knows where my true preferences lie, without all of the mental gymnastics I torture myself with. When you stop to see how you REALLY feel about options, sometimes the right decision becomes incredibly, even physically, clear.

BUT WAIT you say, I can’t possibly because… yes, I know. You have responsibilities. You have financial realities. You have obligations. I’m not being sarcastic. I TOTALLY get it; believe me. I have them too. Here’s the thing, recognizing what choice feels like freedom doesn’t mean you have to do that thing right this minute. What?!

Here’s the thing about big changes and hard decisions and knowing what makes you feel free, knowing what your deepest desires are; these are treasures, precious cargo, and they deserve to be treated with the utmost respect, and sometimes that doesn’t mean jumping in with both feet into something big. Sometimes that means holding and refining that vision until you know exactly how you want it to go, nurturing it, cultivating it like a tender seedling. Sometimes it means asking yourself: “What are 10 small things I can do to get closer to THAT version of my life? What is it about that vision that works for me? Can I get a little of that while I work on all of this?” and then doing some of that, doing the work that will make it possible to get to where you ACTUALLY want to go; doing the work that will make the voices that tell you that you’re being foolish or that your dreams are impossible have to stop because, look, you’re doing it; doing the work that will make it easier to make a transition that might not be as immediately gratifying as going into your boss’ office and telling her exactly what you think of her. You can start to build your dream with little bricks, little motions, little efforts to tend your garden

Slide2You can do all that, OR you can keep using your spreadsheet and concluding that staying where you are or choosing the thing that most certainly does not feel like freedom is the only possibility, convincing yourself that how you feel about it is immaterial. You can pretend that there is nothing between choice A and choice B because it feels too painful to admit what you actually want. You can pretend that you have no choice because of all of your obligations and you can continue to feel shackled to your current reality.  You can continue to collect evidence for why it’s so awful. You can do that, but I’m not sure why you’d want to. Wouldn’t a little freedom, even if it’s just in the form of a vision and a list of steps, feel REALLY, REALLY good?

If your vision maker feels broken or you’re afraid of what you’ll find if you look for your feelings, I’d be honored to help with that.