When Not Having a Choice is Better

pexels-photo-568027-2Years ago I was in a dark place. I had had a miscarriage and had nearly died in the process. My body and my spirit felt pretty broken and I couldn’t seem to see a way out.

Friends tried, in different ways, to help out. Some checked in. Some just sat with me. And one, in a moment of divine inspiration, found just the right thing to say – a goal I don’t really recommend as it is so easy to go wrong.

This particular friend is one of my closest and oldest friends. We’ve known each other since 7th grade. He worked from home at the time and I was a full-time graduate student. He called and asked if I wanted to join him at the dog park with my pooches.

As our canines played (well, and mine caused trouble), I described the difficulty I was having in following my usual routines. I didn’t want to go to class. I didn’t want to do the mountains of required reading. Writing papers seemed completely out of the question. I didn’t even really want to walk my dogs, a flashing neon signal that things were not right with me. He listened, really the best thing folks can do when someone has had a trauma, and during a pause he said: “What if you stopped seeing all of these things as a choice? What if they were just things you HAVE to do?”

Before I go further in, I want to assure you that I am not suggesting that the answer to anybody’s depression is just getting back to work. And I can honestly say that had my state of mind continued much longer, I likely would have benefited from medication to help my brain find it’s healthier pathways again. But in that moment, my friend’s words DID work for me.

Looking back on it now I recognize what was going on. He was reminding me that I had already made a commitment. I had already made a decision. And those commitments were to myself, to what I believed at the time was my highest good. Rather than asking myself: “Do I want to do this,” or “Do I feel up to that,” I might have just as easily asked myself if I was going to keep my commitment to myself that day. By allowing myself so much wiggle room, I was failing myself, and piling self-judgment about that failure onto my aching heart and soul.

It is so much easier to see this now, when I am self-employed and SO MUCH of my day relies on my ability to keep my commitments to myself. I could choose, at any time, to skip writing a blog post or skip creating a new PDF for folks. I could choose to skip networking lunches. I could choose to make bigger chunks of my schedule unavailable to clients. I could EASILY make myself  busy with the domestic demands of having high standards and children in the same physical space. I could do all of those things (and some days I would like to do that), but then I would not be keeping my commitments to myself.

The trouble with not keeping our commitments to ourselves is pretty deep trouble indeed. There is the initial trouble of allowing every action item to become a decision, which is TORTURE. We don’t do this with all of our action items, right? We don’t decide every morning whether or not we are going to brush our teeth. We just do it. We are committed to keeping our teeth clean. I, personally, am committed to not hearing a dentist’s drill any more often than absolutely necessary. So I don’t rethink this decision every day. I just do it. When it comes to our bigger commitments to ourselves, or to ones that we are not trained to do as children, we act like it’s reasonable to recheck our decisions whenever we’re not feeling fantastic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve got news for you. A big part of life is not feeling fantastic. Yep. And there are things you can do about that, but truth is no matter how good you get at managing your mind, you will not feel fantastic all of the time, so there will be days you won’t feel like it, whatever IT is. What can keep you going on a day like that? Sometimes for me it’s just relying on that decision by my yesterday self. SHE, who felt a little better and spent some time making decisions about what to do when, can be trusted and SHE needs me to follow-through, even when I don’t feel my best.

The other tricky bit about not keeping our commitments to ourselves is that we train our brains to distract us. When we so readily desert our plans in favor of whatever is shiny (or on FB or Netflix or even laundry), we are telling our brains that they should divert us in other ways. The message is clear: “I can be interrupted. I can be stopped.” And our brains love to hear that “I can be stopped” message because our most primitive selves, they really aren’t interested in all of this deeply satisfying forward motion. They are interested in keeping things the same. So when you reward the urge to be distracted, when you reward the urge to go off plan, you give that primitive brain encouragement to continue to distract you and tell you why your whole commitment idea really stinks anyway.

I know I’m sounding like a little bit of a hardass this morning, and it may be that I’m just talking to myself because it is rainy and miserable and cold here and it seems like a perfect day to ditch ALL of the plans. And there are times to do that. And there are reasons to not. For me, here in the dark, cold, wet gloom of Maryland February I felt the call of EVERYTHING ELSE. So I checked myself. What are my commitments to myself today? What did my earlier motivated planning self say we should do today if the field trip I was supposed to chaperone got canceled, because you KNOW that bossy bitch had a backup plan. Yes, she did. And it was even pretty nice. Just a couple of required items and then maybe a movie and a game with the kids. She planned it. I’m doing it, because sometimes it’s better not to have a choice.

Letting Ourselves Off The Wrong Hook

I was uncomfortable even writing that title because so much of the personal work I’ve needed to do over the last few years was to let myself off of the hook (the perfect Mom hook, the perfect student hook, the perfect whatever hook), BUT this particular hook that was brought to my attention this weekend intrigues me.

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. day in the U.S. Tributes were plentiful. And I do indeed find it right to honor the memory of that man and his work. One tribute got me to thinking. The speaker suggested that there is a danger in making a saint of MLK, of lionizing him too much, of thinking he was so much more than a regular man.

When we make a hero of someone, they become something extraordinary, something above the rest of us, something unreachable, perhaps entirely unattainable. And as we raise them up in honor, we let ourselves off the hook in our own actions, our own goals, our own choices. We can’t possibly expect that much of ourselves for we are just regular people.

WOW. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

There really can be two reactions to our heroes. They can inspire us to action, or they can make us sure that we couldn’t possibly have that kind of impact, be that good, achieve that much. We raise people up so high that we sell ourselves short.

I’m not going to spend the time here to remind everyone that Martin Luther King Jr. was just a man, because I have hero worshipped him for so long that that position is uncomfortable for me. But I can tell you something interesting that I heard in that same tribute. MLK was away from home 90% of the time during the most active part of his organizing career. He was with his family and children 10% of the time.  I say that not to judge his work life balance, but to point to the effort required to achieve what he did, to point to his doggedness rather than his saintliness, to highlight his determination rather than his salvation. The man worked his behind off. He was not merely gifted; he did the work.

happy kid play superhero , boy power conceptWhat would happen if we made our heroes more accessible? If we stopped believing that they are unicorns and started believing that we are just as capable as they are of making change, of creating new and better ways of doing things, of helping people be better, of becoming better people ourselves? What would happen if we believed that we could be as extraordinary as our heroes? What if, as Jung suggests, the things we admire in others are just untapped potential in ourselves? What would you do first if you could be your own hero?

Get It All Out, Get It All Done

I’ve been talking a lot about our stories lately, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about the world. But a lot of our stories aren’t even as big as all of that. We have stories on the micro-level too. We have stories about our day, about our workload, about our priorities. Well, maybe you don’t, but I sure do.

I have one persistent story that shows up often, especially if I haven’t gotten enough sleep. In fact if I made a chart to track my bad sleep nights and mornings I have this thought, I think they’d line up pretty darn well. When I haven’t gotten enough rest, my morning mantra is “I won’t be able to get it all done.” Now when I say it’s a mantra, that makes it sound like I’m doing it on purpose, that I’m choosing it, that it might be helpful. I know it’s not. This story about my day, about my workload, about the next several hours is completely counter-productive, and that’s what makes it such a great example to demonstrate the value of getting it all out. Let me explain.

How to be more productiveThis very morning I was doing that thing. “I won’t be able to get it all done.” Once the thought happened, the anxiety increased and once the anxiety increased I got a lot less clear about my plan for the day. Once I got less clear, I began to lose track of everything I actually did or didn’t need to do and after this went on for awhile (in the background while assembling lunches and nagging 5th graders out of the door), all I really wanted to do was turn on Netflix, pop Facebook open, and drink a mug of tea – the very things that would, in fact, make my annoying thought true. I wanted to self-soothe by numbing out a little to shut that nattering voice up. But I didn’t do that, at least not today (I won’t go so far as to claim that I am completely and permanently beyond that kind of behavior).

Today I whipped out a clean piece of paper. And I wrote. I wrote it all down. I wrote down all of the anxious, nagging, self-confidence killing thoughts that were whizzing through my head. I just kept writing. I got to the end of the thread and my jacked up brain started just repeating itself, wanting to be sure I really understood that I couldn’t possibly get it all done. I kept writing my thoughts and that one repeated three times at the end of a lengthy paragraph, like a needle skipping on a record. And I laughed a little when that happened. What better sign that my brain was stuck in a loop, what Brooke Castillo calls a “thought error” than having it just repeat the same sentence over and over when it was out of other words? I don’t run out of words very often, as you may have noticed, so that kind of repetition is worth a pause. The point of this whole writing exercise was to get it all out, just let my anxious brain have its moment to say it all.

I gave voice to the fear and the anxiety and in doing so, it lost some of its power. I became the observer of my own thoughts and feelings instead of reacting and feeling like I was trapped. I began to see how allowing that set of thoughts was impacting me. I could acknowledge that the desire for a morning off was based solely on the way those thoughts made me feel, well and maybe a little lack of sleep. I got it all out, like one big verbal vomit. And, well to be honest about the analogy, just like vomit, it made me feel better.

Then I was able to look at my day and decide if that thought was true. Was it really true that I couldn’t possibly get it all done? Was there really so much on my plate? If the answer was yes, I would have a series of decisions to make (as described here), but as is so often the case when I’m stuck in this particular mental trap, I didn’t have SO much to do. I did have some important things to do that I hadn’t thought about very much. I had some items that were at risk of falling through the cracks, but had not yet done so. I made a quick list of those items and set it aside.

How to change your moodAnd then I got down to the business of choosing a new thought, one that would make me feel better, that would allow for action beyond the great escape of Netflix and Facebook (I will always drink tea), and that would give me results that DON’T prove the negative thoughts I have about myself. Instead of “I won’t be able to get it all done,” I chose the perhaps only mildly ambitious but totally believable: “I will be able to get everything important done.” It didn’t make me feel like Wonder Woman – because I’m tired and that’s just not somewhere I need to try to go today. But it DID make me feel calmer and infinitely more competent. It also reminded me that some list items CAN be let go in the interest of clear-headed productivity.

I got it all out. I checked out my thoughts. I chose a better one. And that better thought allowed me to feel capable, calm, relieved and competent. Feeling that way allowed me to sit down with my planner and figure out exactly what needed doing and when, making a schedule for myself that I could follow and get results. And you know what happened? I got it all done. I got it all out and then I got it all done.

Concerning Resolution Bashing

I’ve seen a lot of memes out there… I could probably start many different blog posts with that same phrase… I’ve seen a lot of memes out there taking a poke at the idea of making a resolution or starting afresh in the new year. And I get it.

pexels-photo-221247I think I’ve probably been in the resolution bashing camp in the past. I’ve decided it was silly to make myself a promise of change just because the calendar says it’s time to and when I know that in the past those promises have worn out by mid-February. So I get it. I get that hearing someone declare that they’re going to be a new person in the new year makes some folks roll their eyes and maybe even utter a chuckle or a sigh. I get that we know that those kinds of promises can be hard to fulfill. I get that so many of our good intentions don’t turn out the way we want them to. I get that seeing someone rearing with enthusiasm we don’t feel can be uncomfortable. But really?

Are we really against the idea of someone deciding to try to change, even if it’s never worked before? Are we really wanting to mock someone who’s trying to improve themselves? Are we so sure that you wouldn’t succeed that we’ve decided the whole enterprise is ridiculous? I think there are lots of reasons behind this resolution bashing thing, but I can only talk about my own.

When I was a resigned resolution basher, it had everything to do with previous failures and being terrified of success. When it came to my weight I didn’t want to make a resolution because I knew my enthusiasm would wane in a few months. Why make a promise I can’t keep FOREVER? When it came to changing some of my habits, I decided that “I yam who I yam” (even if I don’t like it very much). When it came to taking some risks in my professional life, well, yeah, no resolutions there because that’s just WAY too frightening.

I’ve done some work on all of those things – without resolutions, and looking back at those moments from the other side makes me wonder if making a resolution is all about success. Maybe there are other things to be gained in that whole process. Maybe trying and failing is better than staying firmly planted exactly where we are. Maybe a resolution is an opportunity to force a little action, and sometimes a little action is all it takes.

pexels-photo-636243The truth is that this opportunity of celebrating the new year with a new goal is one that shouldn’t be missed. Maybe you’re not interested in buying a gym membership that you will only use for a month. But maybe you DO have a super secret goal, a tiny burning desire that you haven’t told anyone about. Maybe this moment in time when we get to start new things on a clean page of a fresh planner is a great time to ask yourself what you can do today to get just one step closer to that super secret goal. And then tomorrow? You can take another one. Maybe that’s all it needs to be. You don’t need to tell anyone. You don’t need to declare it on Facebook. Maybe you just need to say it to yourself so you can stop hiding it from your heart and from your amazing brilliant brain. Give that dream some energy and some air; maybe something can come of it after all.

Happy New Year Friends.

xo,

julia

In the Post-Present Quiet

One big last hurrah for 2017!

Or maybe it’s not a hurrah for you.

Maybe you’re totally ready to get rid of 2017.

It’s a mixed bag for me. There are parts I would prefer to never do again and parts that make me excited and proud.

Making 2018 greatI find that the time after all of the present and food madness is a really nice time to take a few minutes to reflect on the year that has passed, well before that moment of resolution-making rears its annoying head.

I like to think about what went well this year, acknowledge my growth and my accomplishments. I like to take the time to see the changes I’ve created in my life and, by extension, in the lives of people around me. I make a note of steps I’ve taken, things I’ve done (even if terrified while doing them), and impacts I’ve had. I also like to take a tour through the precious moments that deserve a second showing.

And then, feeling pretty well-buoyed up by all of that goodness, I give some air time to the things that didn’t go so well. Mistakes I made, things I failed at, stuff that didn’t work out, plans I abandoned, battles with myself (lose-lose). I review the heartache and the sorrows. And I ask if there is anything more I need to learn from those moments. I ask the sky, the universe, anyone who might be listening if there is something more to gain from all of that, just on the off chance they might just tell me so I don’t have to sort it out myself.

My review of the past year complete, I do my best to have a vision of the next year. I picture myself on a regular day, perhaps before all of the holiday madness next year. What will I be doing? Where will I be? Who will be there? How will I feel? What parts of my day are exciting? What will have changed? And I notice.  I notice what parts of that vision feel good. I notice what parts of that vision are scary, but still good. I notice what parts of that vision I am perfectly ready to discard as impossible (and I question that thought). I notice what parts of that vision show me the work that I have yet to do.

Making next year betterAnd I use that vision. I use the feelings of the future to guide my present. I set a flag firmly where I want to be and begin to navigate a path with thought, word, and deed that will make that destination inevitable.

So when that moment comes, and someone asks me, I will answer that IF I have a resolution, it is only this: to act on my vision in 2018.

XO,

j

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

What To Do When You’re Too Busy

I remember seeing a couple on a TV show (or maybe a movie) scheduling a time to have sex. I remember nothing else about the show, the context, anything else. I just remember my horror. I remember thinking that was crazy. I remember rolling my eyes at how people could let their lives become that busy, rigid, regimented. I remember all of those feelings. I think I was around 23. And now I shake my head at my own darned self.

Adulting Can Be Extremely Busy

My family has entered an extremely busy phase. I thought we were in this phase before, but it turns out that the previous phase was just a very busy phase; THIS is the extremely busy phase. The exact circumstances aren’t that important, but I will share that my husband is a full-time seminary student on top of working, so if you have any experience with some version of that, you may have a sense of what things are like here. I am also nurturing my fledgling business, and oh, right, the kids. I won’t go on and on, because like I said, the circumstances aren’t that important. What is important is the way that we handle this phase. We’ve been bumping around a bit, trying to get to the place where we can actually observe ourselves so we can make adjustments. It has been a rough couple of months, but we reached meta this morning – we took a look at ourselves and realized there was a lot to improve on.

How are we going to make this crazy whirlwind better? The short answer is that we’re going to schedule things that are important to us. This will now be a mark of the level of priority – if it makes it on the calendar, it is important. I realize, however, that that is a short answer indeed and that it is not very helpful if you’re not already good at the whole scheduling thing. So, let me break down some other things we’re doing.

8 Steps to Fix “Too Busy”

  1. If it’s a triage situation – like you’re emotionally bleeding out/exhausted/freaking out: Get Real Clear on What’s Not VERY Important and eliminate it. I was going to say “scratch it off your list,” but ELIMINATE feels better right now. Get rid of it. My husband and I are both crossing one thing off our respective lists this morning because we realized he is leaving town and we needed to talk about all of this AND just see each other for a few minutes. I’ve been sick, and oh, yeah, the kids. We each found the least important part of our respective days and are eliminating them.
  2. Feeling better when you're overwhelmed.Stop allowing yourself to be “overwhelmed.” Overwhelm makes us spin, which is incredibly unproductive. The thoughts that create overwhelm are usually some version of: “It’s too much. I can’t possibly do it all,” or the classic circular: “I’m so overwhelmed.” Spinning won’t help that feeling. When I get that spin feeling, I try a thought like: “I need to figure out how to do this day/week/month” so that instead of feeling more overwhelmed, I feel determined to get down to business. That always feels better and is far more productive than the “I don’t know” freaking out that comes with overwhelm. This is particularly difficult if I am tired, which leads naturally to…
  3. Recognize the importance of, and schedule self-care. When we are extra-busy we have a tendency to make cuts in the worst places. We stay up a little later to finish one last bit of work or to have 10 minutes to ourselves. We get a little less careful with how we eat because we think we don’t have time to cook and eat proper meals. We skip taking a few minutes to just breathe because we’re sure we just don’t have time for that. I say all of this without scolding because I’m just as guilty of it as everyone else. I am especially guilty of the sleep part. And my body lets me know. I get less productive. I get WAY more grumpy. I get SO tired of it all. And if I keep pushing, I get sick. Usually not terribly sick and not for very long, but my body lets me know. Want to go from busy to totally UNPRODUCTIVE? Push hard enough that you get sick. Make your body force you to stop. The benefit? You may get some rest. You may recognize that you’re doing yourself in. The cost? All of that stuff you had to do just gets moved around more. Being busy does not get solved by being tired, poorly nourished and stressed out. It’s really that simple. If you don’t take care of you, it will all get worse.
  4. Sit with your goals/plans/big list for a few minutes each day. Check in. What is it you are trying to accomplish? What takes priority this month/this week/today? What steps do you need to outline for yourself to get from where you are to there? When are you going to do those things? Write it down or type it in – whatever your planner penchant is – do that.
  5. Make planning a part, but not a terribly LONG part, of every day. I’ve talked here about my morning meeting and how invaluable I find it. Every day I move from looking at my goals/plans/objectives to actually planning out when I’m going to do those things. I allot very specific amounts of time, not depending on how long I think it will take, but based on how long I want to spend on each item. 90% of the time I actually finish in that amount of time (which is always shorter than I think it will “take”).
  6. Check in with involved parties on a regular basis. We have in the past, and will begin again, having the Sunday evening meeting. This is when we review what’s coming up in the next month and in the next week so we know who’s going to be where and when. So we identify gaps (oh yeah, kids) in case we need to enlist childcare. So we don’t get caught off-guard by someone else’s meeting or travel. So we can prepare for events rather than constantly reacting to them. AND so we can thank each other for picking up one another’s slack.
  7. If it’s important to you, schedule it. And yes, I mean everything, including haircuts, naps, walks, extra long showers because you have a cold, trips to the drugstore because someone’s prescription is ready, lunch dates with your spouse. If it’s important, treat it like it’s important. Schedule it and honor your schedule… which leads me to….
  8. You can handle it all. Learn to trust yourself.Honor your schedule. If you MUST make a change, be conscious about it. Think it through. Recognize all of the implications. Review the rest of the day and see what impact it will have. Never do it because you don’t “feel like” doing what’s next on the schedule. Honor your commitments to yourself and the overload gets a lot less stressful because you will know that you can count on yourself to meet your obligations. You will know that you are reliable and capable. You will know that you are trustworthy with your own time.

You Are In Charge

There’s a lot more I could say, but I’m looking at this like an emergency room situation. These are the basics for moving from insanely and overwhelmingly busy to just plain busy – but busy that is directed, goal oriented, planned, and all-inclusive. This is busy that assumes taking care of oneself in all of the ways. This is busy that allows for productivity skyrocketing because you actually feel good AND feel able to do it all, and you can, OR you can make some decisions that make it all work.

You may fight me on this but you really are in charge. I know, I know, we’re not all self-employed, BUT we are all able to make can keep commitments to ourselves. We are all able to adjust our level of effort so that we can actually complete tasks in a reasonable amount of time. We are all able to use calendars and timers. We really are, and if you are where I was, if you scoff at the use of such tools to mark the time in your day, that’s okay. Just call me in a few months when you’re EXTREMELY busy and I’ll tell you how I do all of that.

 

Freedom From Failure

A big part of my job as a life coach is to help people who feel “stuck.” Now stuck can mean a lot of different things. It can mean: “I don’t know what to do next.” It can mean: “I know what to do, but don’t want to do it.” It can mean: “I don’t believe I can do it.” It can mean many, many different things to different people. One of the things it seems to mean pretty regularly is: “I’m afraid if I do the thing (whatever the thing is), I’m going to fail.”

Well boy howdy do I know what that’s all about. If I’m really honest I’m afraid I’m going to fail every single day. Wow. I never really think about it that way and just saying that out loud felt pretty awful, but it’s true. Starting a business is no small thing, and you have to do a lot of new stuff that makes you uncomfortable, and you have to do it even when you think you’re going to fail. The same is true lots of places, though, isn’t it? It’s not just all of us loony self-employed people who face this.

Failure is part of doing something bigger than what you're doing now.Anybody who wants something big, who wants to get to the next level in their own personal and/or professional development is going to have moments where they think they could fail. I experience it as a musician. We try harder songs; we use more complex arrangements. We choose styles we’ve not worked with before. We don’t do that ALL of the time. We have a base of stuff that we do with confidence, and then a couple that are heart pounders until we’ve played them enough that they become part of the base and we choose a new really hard song. THIS is how we grow.

This is how we grow unless we quit before we get anywhere. See growing, changing, being more, feeling better, feeling different, expanding, evolving will ALL lead to fear and discomfort. They will. As evolved as we may be technologically, our primitive brains are still pretty simple and clear about what they’re interested in: survival. How do we survive? Well, we stick with what’s working. Never mind if it is not fulfilling; that is not the question your brain is interested in. For your primitive brain, only one question matters: has it kept us alive? Yes? Great – that works. Don’t change because THAT might kill us. Done.

So when we move to change, to grow, to experiment, our brain unleashes every story it can think of to keep us from moving down that road. Some of these are subtle: “But you’re really great at what you’re doing right now.” Some of them are not: “If you do that you could lose EVERYTHING and then we’ll be homeless, and then we’ll die.” We are so afraid to fail that we quit before there’s even the slightest possibility of failing. And as a result, we stay the same. We don’t learn new skills. We don’t learn to conquer (okay, manage but conquer sounds so glorious) our fears. We don’t learn how to be even better than we are.

You get to decide what failure is.The thing about failure is that we can be free from it without quitting. Brooke Castillo recently reminded me (and whoever else was watching) that we each get to define what failing means. You cannot fail anywhere but in your own mind, because you are the one who decides when you have failed. You are the one who decides that what you have done isn’t enough or has no value or isn’t just the rocky beginning to something new and amazing. You get to decide what failing looks like and THEN you get to decide what to do when that happens. Failing is both inevitable and totally optional. You have total control over failure. How’s that for some freedom?

You may decide that failure doesn’t exist at all. You may decide that failing at new things is the best way to figure out how to do them. You may decide that building up some grit by failing a few times will help you get through the work to follow. You may decide that failing is a thing, that you will do it and that when you will do, it will be your job to figure out what did and didn’t work and to see if there’s something you can do different, better, if there’s a thought you can take away from it that will change how you interact with the world. You are totally free from failure, because each failure is our own. We define it. We react to it or embrace it. We recover or retreat. We are free.

What would you do today if you weren’t afraid to fail?

Rules For Freedom: Dealing with Overwhelm

 

Look, there are plenty of good reasons to get overwhelmed in the modern world. Everywhere we look there are SO many options. I used to joke that I would do better in really small grocery stores that only carried one brand of the the thing. ONE kind of ketchup, one kind of mayonnaise, whatever. I know, I know, what would we do without the battle over Hellman’s versus Duke’s? Seriously. At times I just wanted to stop spending time on this level of decision-making. Why? Because then some time would be free and I wouldn’t be thinking about mayonnaise – right? And then the shopping would be done.. don’t worry I don’t really spend that long on mayonnaise, it’s just an illustration.

Slide1But the same level of possibility can apply to big decisions. And there’s a lot of information out there for us. We can get so caught up in the details and comparisons, data collection and analysis, worry that we’ll pick the wrong thing that we never do anything. In fact, I can’t tell you about how many adults I’ve talked to who say they’d rather be doing some other kind of work but then they get bogged down in the logistics, the details, the worries about whether or not it will work, the need to know the future. All of that becomes overwhelming, and so they stay exactly where they are, unhappy but safe. Sometimes they’ll try to put some whipped cream on that by telling me about their nice coworker.

I have a couple of reactions to this. First, it’s actually really good to stay in the blah job long enough to learn how to be happy even though your circumstances aren’t ideal. If you  can’t learn to manage your mind and emotions, you’ll just be taking that stuff with you. On the other hand… if you are just staying in a job because it’s safe and you can’t decide what to do next, the problem isn’t the number of possibilities, it’s the way you are looking at them.

Slide2When we’re taking on a new project, there are three phases involved with getting started: the idea (which may involve some dreaming), the logistical details (which often includes anything but), and action. SO many people spend an enormous amount of time in the second phase, the one that’s supposedly about logistical details. I like to call that phase: “I can’t because…” This is the time when we start with some logistical details (maybe we have some scheduling issues) or concerns from previous jobs (maybe we’ve been burned before) and those really just become the centerpieces for a big feast of reasons why we can’t ever change anything. It feels like thinking about our options, but really it’s just a whole bunch of storytelling. How do I know it’s storytelling? Because it involves predicting what will or won’t be possible in that next big career move when you have NO idea what could actually happen because you haven’t talked to anybody about anything. All stories. You made it all up. You may find that offensive because it’s based on something real. That’s okay I can take it. You still made it up. What happened to you in the past is past. The best way to allow that injury to continue is to allow it to limit you forever.

Slide3So when I have a client who’s in this kind of overwhelm, the analysis paralysis, I encourage them to focus on the other two steps: focus on the idea and the vision for what could be next, including how they want to feel and what they want to do with in great detail and THEN? Then I encourage them to act. “But I don’t know what to do….. I’m going to get it wrong… I will fail.” 1) Make a list of 10 small actions you could take to support your idea or vision. 2) Yes, you might, then you try one of the other 10. 3) Yes, you might, and you will be okay, and you will like yourself better for having tried, and you will learn what NOT to do so you can try again.

Sitting in overwhelm is paralyzing, and it’s also a choice. A good rule for freedom? Don’t allow it. Focus your sights on your vision and action. Before you know it, you just may be somewhere totally new.

Trading Places

No, I’m not talking about the old Eddie Murphy movie (and to show my age I felt weird about calling that old, but I digress). I’m talking about the idea of trading places with another person in order to get a fresh perspective. We talk about this pretty regularly, particularly when we’re trying to encourage our kids to be aware of other people’s feelings.

“How would you feel if someone did that to you? What do you think she felt like when you said that? Do you think he was happy? Were they trying to hurt you? What do you think they were thinking about?” Maybe it’s just me and my poor tormented children, but these discussions happen pretty often when trying to untangle whatever happened at recess. This notion is a big part of our adult culture as well: “Walk a mile in their shoes.” Now, don’t misunderstand me all of this talk we’re talking doesn’t mean we’re walking the walk, but that is a subject for a different post altogether. Right now I’m just interested in this idea of ways that we can shift our perspective by trading places.

we get so afraid of the futureThe difference for me right now is that I’m less interested in developing empathy (just for the moment, no worries) and more interested in gaining some perspective on the things that are going on for me. One parent in seminary and one parent as a fledgling entrepreneur can make for a lot of household uncertainty. Some days the uncertainty feels daunting and we just want more information. We just want to know what’s going to happen. Where will we be? Will all of this work out? Should we be doing things differently?

When I’m feeling freaked out or if that freaking out turns into some kind of b.s. self-abuse about being good enough, it is a good mental exercise to trade places with a friend. Let her look at the situation and tell me what SHE thinks. We’re not always good at being kind to ourselves. We’re not always good at seeing the big picture when we’re part of the landscape. We’re not always good at taking a longer view, but oftentimes someone else who knows us can, and sometimes we can access that without even talking to them. When our self-kindness and calm fails us, we can borrow some from someone else. I do this regularly. When I need calm and compassion I mentally trade places with my sister and see what she would say. When I need business advice, I mentally trade places with my mentor and see what she would say. When I need a pep talk, I imagine what my dear Dad would say. When my own capacity to be kind to myself and pick myself up is out of gas, I call in for a little mental trade.

But this trading places thing can go farther, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Every now and again I make it a point to imagine my future. I choose a point down the road, maybe a year, maybe five, sometimes ten, and I picture everything I can about that time. I try to get detailed. I try to see everything. I try to know exactly what’s happening, not by pushing, but by inhabiting that mental space, seeing it, being the me of THAT time. When that vision is really solid and I’ve been living there for a few minutes, I ask HER for advice for today. What do I need to know? What should I do? How can I get there?

using a vision of the future to guide actionIt’s been fascinating. She always calms me down, and I guess that part isn’t surprising, but the rest of it is. There’s real advice there. There’s steps to take to get to the future I’m imagining. There are things to consider and plan, with a vision of what that will bring. THAT is powerful magic. THAT is motivating and grounding all at the same time. THAT makes moving forward feel both brilliant AND safe, like of COURSE I’m going to do X because that’s how I get THERE. And when I’ve gotten my questions answered, I trade places back. I return to my present with fresh eyes, a fresh perspective, a list of next steps on the road, and a vision to guide me.

What would your future self tell you about where you are today? What would you ask? What would happen if you tried trading places for just a few minutes? I can help you with that.