Growing Roots (A Series): Part IV

Rooted in Possibility

Several years ago, I decided it was time to go back to work. The plan had been, and continued to be, that once our twins were in full-time school, I would return to teaching. While I would not be available for the kids in the morning, the relatively early high school dismissal would allow me to be home, even if still working, for their arrival in the afternoon. I would have summers off so we wouldn’t need to pay for childcare. All the bases would be covered. It was the perfect plan.

achievement-adult-book-1043514I proceeded to take the courses I needed to renew my teaching certification and then signed up to substitute teach in my home county with the idea that I could get to know the principals and have an easier time finding a job once hiring season rolled around. Another perfect plan. I am an excellent planner.

I started to receive the calls to sub. The auto-dialer would begin to ring me in the afternoon and continue until the next morning. As these calls came in, I began to notice how they actually made me feel… nauseous. I chalked it up to nerves after staying home for so long and forged ahead with the plan, because that’s what strong-willed and determined people do, right?

But here’s the thing. I went in; I subbed. I did the job and it didn’t make me nervous. I didn’t find it particularly difficult. I wasn’t scared to go. And yet, that queasy feeling persisted. I found myself turning off the ringer on my phone to avoid the feeling rather than digging any deeper.

There have been many ties in my life where I’ve ignored my intuition – my “gut” feeling about something, but when my “gut” threatens to vomit all over everything, I confess I get a lot more attentive.

Right about that time I had a phone conversation with a friend who was in crisis. Her marriage was in a downward spiral. She was filled with fear and doubt and heartache. We talked for a long time and as we did I had the strangest sensation. It was sort of weightless. As she talked about the difficulties of her situation, I seemed to just know what to say. Everything came naturally. While it felt odd to feel good the the face of her feeling so bad, I did. I felt really, really good – and not one little bit like I was going to throw up.

It occurred to me that maybe that’s how work could feel, rather than vomit-inducing. So I began to explore ways that I could become some kind of therapist or counselor.

As soon as I acknowledged the desire to shift gears, the mental barrage began. Any of these new ideas would require more schooling. Already having two master’s degrees made me reluctant to pursue a third.┬áIt seemed selfish to even consider more schooling while my husband plugged away at a lucrative job he hated. We had already invested so much time and money in my education; clearly I should just find a job with the skills and training I already had. Besides, starting something new would delay my ability to help financially by years.

I felt completely trapped. I also felt like I’d been caught in this decision-trap before. I’d already changed careers once, twice if you count getting a “real” job after being a musician for a few years.

Given how I felt about the prospect of teaching, I could only conclude that I had made the wrong decisions before. I didnt’ trust myself with this decision at all. I talked it through with friends and trusted family members. I went round and round, never actually landing on a decision.

Finally I did make one decision, that I needed help from a pro to sort this out.

I found a local therapist and presented her with what felt to me like a very straight-forward and practical conundrum – what to do for work. I imagined that a fresh set of well-trained eyes would help me to see it all differently. And she did.

It didn’t involve any personality testing or strengths-finding. It didn’t involved specific career counseling or consideration of my training could be used. What it did involve was rooting myself in possibility.

I had already figured out some version of what I thought I might like to do, but couldn’t even seriously consider it because of the wall of can’ts and shouldn’ts that I had constructed. I had boxed myself in with a host of nos and the only yes I had allowed myself made me literally physically ill.

All of my thinking about my problem was firmly rooted in impossibility, a web of rules and assumptions that I had generated without much help from anyone else. That sticky web was holding me firmly in place. I was steady for sure, but growth was out of the question.

adult-beautiful-girl-blue-875862Growing roots in possibility began with the simple question: “What if you could? What would that look like?” The list of reasons that was impossible emerged and my skilled therapist traced all of them back to their source – thoughts about myself that could generate all of the required negativity to prevent progress.

We began to challenge those beliefs, and as we did, the question: “What if you could” began to feel more approachable, like something I could afford – that I was allowed to ask myself.

I began to feel the truth that we don’t have to judge prior choices as mistakes in order to change course. I began to sense the open territory that came with the idea that I was allowed to explore this world in search of that weightless, good feeling. As each of these new thoughts and feelings emerged, I felt the relief that comes with dropping the burden of impossibility.

And I felt myself begin to grow, beneath the soil at first, but it didn’t take long for those healthier roots to bring changes above the dirt as well. It didn’t take long to feel entirely different.

I couldn’t make a decision about work because all of my thinking was rooted in false beliefs that led me to conclude that anything I wanted to do was impossible. As I cast those beliefs aside, I become rooted in possibility, a playful and delightful anchor for growth.

So I ask you, gently, and with so much love: “What if you could? What would that look like?”

What’s A Story?

Yesterday I did a workshop on Rewriting Your Story – it’s my thing right now and I have to tell you that this material is transformational at the foundational level. Sounds important, right? It is. I mean it.

We spend a lot of time exploring what our stories are in this workshop and in order to give participants a boost on finding their stories, I offer some categories of kinds of stories and some examples of my own. To be frank, this is also necessary to make this a safe space. I am asking people to think up some of the most painful stuff they’ve got going at the moment, I feel compelled to show them some painful stuff of my own.

pexels-photo-261763At any rate, I offer these categories to you as a way to think about what kind of baggage you might be carrying around. One kind of self-limiting story is based largely on an event in your past. It doesn’t really matter what kind of event. It doesn’t matter how old you were. It doesn’t even, for our purposes here, matter what happened to you (which is not to say that it doesn’t matter at all what happened to you). This story, this event from the past is something that you repeat to yourself, something you return to again and again. You may see it as an explanation for how things have turned out. You have likely identified it as a turning point of some kind. It is an event that led you to some conclusion about yourself that may have seemed logical or reasonable at the time but has now become harmful to you.

The other major category of story that I see is the type that is a general idea about who you are, who you can be, what you’re capable of, maybe even what you could never do or have or know. These are trickier. Sometimes they come from a specific event, but sometimes they are a little harder to pin down. Sometimes they come from family beliefs. Sometimes they come from family roles. Sometimes they are just conclusions we have drawn at some point and just keep fueling up with new evidence.

I had a vague story like that that for all of its lack of specificity, created a great deal of trouble in my life. Somewhere along the way I got the idea that there was something wrong with me. You’re wondering what that means, but you see that’s the beauty of that belief. It can mean anything. What it definitely means is that there is something about you that is inherently bad or damaged or broken. What it also means is that every time something bad happens in your world, you know why.

And guess what? Bad things happen. So when I had pretty normal teenage angst – something was wrong with me. When I had a hard time feeling like I had “real” friends – something was wrong with me. When I struggled to feel connected to family – something was wrong with me. When I struggled to figure out what to study in college and rejected things that I loved and filled me with joy – something was wrong with me. When I struggled to figure out what to do with myself professionally – something was wrong with me. When I married young and made a mess of it from the very beginning – something was wrong with me. When I experienced a 7 year battle with infertility – oh brother was there something wrong with me. You see where I’m going with this. Anything can be evidence when we have a general crappy story about ourselves.

And sometimes we use that story to generate more evidence. If there’s something wrong with me, I can’t really let people see who I am because then they’ll know. If there’s something wrong with me, I might as well give up on big dreams, big projects, big demands because it won’t go well anyway. If there’s something wrong with me, I’d better do everything I can to make things alright for everyone and then realize how annoying and exhausting that is so I can resent them. See how that works? Now THAT’s a great shitty story. It cuts both ways. It gives explanations for why things will never be better AND it fuels the internal meltdown fires. It allows you to both keep your distance and feel the devastation of loneliness. It allows you to self-sabotage at the deepest level.

pexels-photo-261734-2Do you have one of these, one of these horrible generic stories? Do you collect evidence for it? Do you use it to excuse yourself? Is it deeply written in your wiring even though you are starting to see it and your wise self KNOWS it’s the worst kind of b.s?

There’s work to do there. There’s work to do on that thing you’ve decided about yourself. And here’s the thing. That story? The one you’re already looking at with side eye – it’s a choice. It’s a choice you’ve made so many times it doesn’t even require you to participate any more.

So the work involves making a new choice, but that can be a really big step. So what about taking a smaller one. What about just noticing? What about just bringing that unconscious story you’re telling into the forefront? What about REALLY seeing yourself? What about deciding that MAYBE, just maybe thinking on purpose could be helpful and starting with noticing where you are today, right now, how often you have that thought, how often you retell that story, how strong and sure it feels, how ready you are to tell me that it’s a fact. Notice. That’s the first step, and even if you never take another, it will be different.

If that’s too small a step, dive into really changing things with my free mini book. It will tell you how to change that story of yours so you can watch your life change as a result. It really CAN be different.

Better Mornings Guaranteed

I’ve noticed something.

Every time I don’t get enough sleep I greet the day with the same thought: “I have SO much to do.”

It’s not the mother of all negative thoughts to be sure, but it is not a good way to start the day.

I’ve talked about the way this one affects me before, but for those of you who are new to my little corner of the universe, I’ll give you the short version.

startup-photos-5When I think “I have SO much to do,” I get anxious. I feel nervous and flustered and nothing has really even happened yet. Then I get grumpy about some of the normal everyday person stuff I have to do that is keeping me from getting to the looming list. The next bit can go a couple of ways, I can grump at people or I can kind of spin, not really being productive and just feeling generally overwhelmed. There is usually some digital time wasting in there too – not sure exactly how that happens, but I suspect it’s just my attempt to buffer the discomfort of the anxiety or the self-judgment at my grumpiness.

Yep, it can get complicated up in here.

So when I don’t get enough sleep, this is how my day starts. And I’ve noticed this because of a practice that I do in the mornings.

coffee-cup-desk-penI got this particular tool from Brooke Castillo, but other folks (including Julia Cameron) recommend similar practices. When I’ve gotten a cup of coffee or tea and have made sure the young people are tended to, I sit down and do what Brooke calls a “thought download.” It’s a free-write. I just write whatever is in my head for let’s say 10 minutes. I use a nice clean sheet of paper and a pen that feels comfortable (arthritis in the hands makes tool choice important) and I just write down whatever is going on in my head. I just transcribe it. I don’t try to make it pretty. I don’t choose my words carefully. I don’t repeat phrases for emphasis. (See what I did there?)

The immediate impact of those actions is that I feel a little relief if there’s something going on up there that is negative or not helpful. And I chalk that up to the fact that I am listening. The internal chatter, even when it is stupid and ill-informed, really wants to be heard and it will get louder and more urgent if we don’t attend. So writing it all down is a form of listening: listening to my most primitive self, listening to my least mature self, listening to the really bratty sometimes angry sometimes sad part of myself. Being heard allows the message to soften. As I’m writing I sometimes laugh a little because it seems so ridiculous as I actually give voice to all of it. And the laugh isn’t one of judgment; it’s not sarcastic and nasty. It’s more of the kind of laugh when a child has done something totally predictable and silly that you KNOW they will grow out of soon. A little shake of the head: “Of course you’re thinking that.”

The secondary impact of taking a few minutes to write down what’s going on in there is that I get to see what thoughts are rumbling around in there and when I find ones that are really giving me trouble, I can challenge them. “Is that really true? Is it absolutely true? Does it make me feel terrible? Is there something I could believe that feels better and is just as true or truer? What do I want to believe to have this day be what I want it to be?” It sounds like a lot, but when you do it over and over, it really isn’t. And it works. It creates the space where you can make some choices about what you are thinking so you can decide what kind of day (or at least the next half hour) you are going to have.

The long-term impact of this practice? You get to see patterns. You get to notice what your go-to crappy thoughts are and you get to notice what makes them pop up. Seeing the pattern of bad sleep/anxious thoughts allows me some space from it. It reminds me to get better sleep for one thing, which is something I can always use, but it also creates some perspective, some distance from those icky anxious thoughts. “Oh, that’s just that thing that happens when I don’t get enough sleep.” I see you tired brain. I see you bumbling around and making a mess, throwing a really clumsy tantrum. I see you.

When we know what some of our go to icky thoughts are they become so much easier to manage. They’re like irritating old friends. “Yep, here you are again. I figured you would show up. Man, you are really persistent.” It’s much easier to think something different when you see a thought that way instead of thinking that it is THE TRUTH.

What thoughts are getting in the way of your good mornings? What would change for you if you just wrote them all down? If you give it a try, I’d love to hear how it goes.

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.