The Frame is Everything

I had a conversation with a client recently.  It was a great session for both of us. I share some of it here not to tell you about him personally, but to use him as an example of a fundamental principle of what I coach about, what I teach about, and what I try very hard to live.

beard-cap-elderly-162547You see, this client of mine is an older man. He is retired and has been having some health issues. He’s been spending a lot of time reviewing his life: looking back at the past, examining and evaluating the contours, the relationships, the activities and events. And the result of all of this examination and evaluation has not been pleasant for him. He concluded at some point in there that he has wasted much of his life. He wanted to meet with me to figure out whether some early childhood traumas were the cause of that waste. His pain was very real and my heart ached for his sorrow.

And as my heart ached I began to ask questions, because that’s what coaches do.

I began by explaining that there’s no way I could legitimately answer the question of whether or not a specific experience was the cause for the mistakes he had identified in his life. I further explained that I wasn’t sure the exercise of pinpointing a a single event as cause was really a valuable exercise if what he wanted was to feel better.

I asked him how things would look if he believed that his life had been a good one, if he was good enough, had done enough.

He sat with that thought for awhile and conceded that he would feel better with that thought.

I asked him if there were things he needed to forgive himself for. He came up with some choices and decisions that have clearly nagged him over the years.

I asked him what things he HAD accomplished in his life. He had a big list.

I asked him what he had done that he was proud of. He had a big list.

I asked him what parts of his life he feels good about. He had a big list. These lists didn’t overlap, mind you, so there really was a lot there.

I asked him if he thought my perspective on his life might be different than his after hearing all of this. He thought it just might.

And then we talked about the brain, and the power of a thought that creates a frame for our understanding.

At some point my client had inherited, created, deduced the thought that his life was not valid, that the things that made him unique were not valuable. This became his frame for the portrait of his life. If we want to talk about it in writing terms, this conclusion about his own worth was his thesis. Each review of his life, his choices, the events that have made up his days was sorted through with the purpose of proving his thesis. This is what the brain does naturally. It likes to help us be right. I mean really, who doesn’t like to be right?

So his brain understood that he believed he had little worth and so it was constantly working on providing evidence for that idea. The brain is incredible. It is powerful. It is efficient. It LIKES to work for us. It likes to sort, categorize, evaluate. It wants to work. The thoughts that we choose are assignments for that amazing machine: “Here, go prove this. Thank you.” It will do it.

And this is how our stories become so entrenched, so convincing, so compelling. The brain will find the evidence for that assertion, no matter how damaging it might be.

Because: human.

We are complicated. We make mistakes. We make choices that in retrospect seem less than brilliant. Human. And for most of us, that’s not a one shot deal. We keep learning our whole lives, so that’s a whole lot of opportunity for choices that could easily be interpreted as mistakes rather than being seen as a moment of real growth. There’s plenty of evidence in everyone’s files for some kind of statement about them being rotten or screwed up or less than worthy. Yes, I mean everybody.

And just as all of us have filing cabinet drawers full of things we might not be proud of, we also have good things we’ve done, moments of rightness/goodness/kindness, excellent choices and graceful recoveries. We have fleeting moments of tenderness. We have times when we felt loved and connected. We have days of wonder. We have moments of pure inspiration. Yes, I mean everybody.

Because: human.

So what makes us able to access those good drawers (and that felt awkward to me because my mother calls your underwear your drawers)? The frame we choose, the big belief about ourselves, the story we have about who we are at the core – that’s what helps your brain decide which files to dig into. And THAT my dear friends, is a choice. The frame that we give our lives, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, the labels we put all over ourselves – those are all choices.

I’m not saying it’s easy to make that choice. Your mind will fight you. It wants to stick with what it knows. Efficiency is highly valued up in there. But consciousness and practice really will do it for you.

I see what I am thinking about myself. I see what it does to me. I KNOW there are likely other possibilities (that might be the part you’ll need to take on faith for the moment). I am willing to try on a different story, even if it is only a teeny tiny bit better.

adult-beautiful-face-774866If that feels like maybe it would be a huge relief, if there’s a little internal happy voice/a little tickle/a sort of weird bubbles in your chest feeling as you consider that possibility, I want to offer you this thought: “I am glorious.” Try it on. Try it on without the smirk or the eye roll or anything else you reflexively do to diminish your value. Think it on purpose with a deep breath in and a gentle exhale. “I am glorious.”

How does that feel?

I’d really love to know. Let’s talk about it.

What Are You Cultivating?

My friend was telling a story to the kids at church (that’s what she does for work – cool, right?). It was a story about a boy who made a garden as his summer project. It was a wonderful story about all that was possible if you just pursue what makes you YOU, unique, special. And as with every garden story, it was also more.

agriculture-close-up-depth-of-field-767240In the garden we never question the need to take care. Initially it’s all about preparing the soil – and this ideally happens WAY ahead of time, something I struggle to remember both on the earth and in any endeavor. Next it’s about tending the soil AND protecting that emerging seedling. In my garden rabbits are usually the culprit and this stage – well, and for later summer seedlings, bugs.

As the plant grows there are a host of things that threaten the soil and the plant. Most of these need to be guarded against, spotted and removed, occasionally even eliminated (I confess I have been known to be merciless at times in the garden). If we get really good at this whole gardening thing, there is an additional category of things to do to encourage help in our garden – inviting beneficial bugs, making the area friendly for the right kinds of birds. Even experienced gardeners continually ask themselves what can help that garden flourish – what would bring it more nourishment? How can I prevent and stop weeds and pests from doing damage and inhibiting growth? We ask so many questions and make so many efforts.

What would it take to turn that lens on ourselves?

How do we prepare the soil for whatever we have to offer the world? What kind of nourishment will best serve us? How much water do we need? How much light and how much dark?

How do we protect tiny new shoots of growth and exploration? How do we keep them from being stomped on by careless acquaintances or by our own doubts and fears?

How do we keep a vigilant eye on creating the best possible conditions for growth while shaking off the pestering worries of how our growth will be received by others, master our resistance to our own change, prevent ourselves from self-sabotage and self-destruction?

Because that’s the work. We tend to think that whatever we do for a paycheck is our “work,” and I get that in our real-world economy, some attention needs to go toward that calculation, but our real work is in the garden. Our real work is tending the soil, having the patience for germination, protecting the seedling, nourishing the plant and being persistent enough to get to the day of harvest. In the garden we celebrate on harvest day – the day we finally get the bloom of the flower or the fruit from the tree or the bean from the bush. In our personal gardens, we can celebrate the whole process.

body-clouds-early-morning-823694We can celebrate what we learn about preparing the soil. We can pay keen attention to our bodies and how they feel. We can enjoy the pleasures of a good night sleep and a delicious and healthful meal. We can celebrate the emotional work we do to be ready to grow again. We can provide our bodies with experiences that make it feel well, whole, strong AND peaceful. We can congratulate ourselves as we enrich ourselves for new work. we can take pride in our capacity for self-care and refuse to allow it to be deemed “selfish” or vain.

adult-autumn-autumn-colors-1122280We can celebrate our growing ability to let the harsh words of others roll past us even in our most tender stages. We can acknowledge our increased capacity to spot and work through situations that we know will stop us short. We can appreciate the wisdom of the spirit that continues to grow even as we are uncertain that this is wise, good, or safe. We can give thanks for the ability to ask for help and the love embodied that brings us assistance.

female-girl-muscles-903590We can celebrate the ways in which our growing strength protects us from all manner of threats, the way we develop an ability to not be seduced by thoughts, plans, and actions of others that would take us off course. We can rejoice in the greater feeling of freedom that comes with each new shoot.

And when it is time to harvest, we can celebrate the miracle of everything we can create from this new vantage point, from this new perspective. And we can look behind us and see everything we were creating all along.

This is the work, and it is gut-wrenching and glorious and we are so blessed to have it. And let’s not forget what comes at the end of all of the work. It’s YOU, it’s what becomes possible if you can find the way to being exactly who you are and cultivating the part of you that can never be replicated. How are you tending your garden?

XO,

julia

Behind the Self-Sabotage Curtain

I have a photoshoot scheduled for later today.

It has been many, many years since I had a photoshoot.

bass-guitar-blur-close-up-167483The last one was during the tail end of my professional musician era and included lots of guitars, sunglasses, and highlighted hair. I knew exactly who to be for that one. And no, this isn’t me, but my seminarian is looking for the shots from that day for our collective amusement.

The photoshoot prior to that was my wedding day: June 5, 1999. That photoshoot featured unseasonably warm temperatures (I think it was about 150 F) and humidity that would have made Louisianians (it’s correct, I looked it up) uncomfortable.

We (my female posse) spent time getting my hair and makeup just right and after about 15 minutes it really didn’t matter. The careful curls were gone. The skin was a little too shiny to be cute. There was dripping.

But none of that is the real reason that I’m approaching this photo shoot with some trepidation. The truth is that for many years I was THAT mom: the Mom who avoided being in the picture at all costs. My inner critic was so merciless that any picture of me was unacceptable.

And here I am thinking I’m on the “other side.” The inner critic has pretty much left the building, although she makes the occasional appearance.

And so in scheduling this photoshoot, I had hoped to be excited about it. I had hoped to really be looking forward to it. I had hoped to get a little giddy in preparation mode – really girl-ing out.

But I’m not.

I thought about buying new clothes for it… and waited… so didn’t.

amplifier-analogue-audio-306088I thought about making a hair appointment for it… and waited… so didn’t.

I thought about getting a mani/pedi (my guitar playing nails are long right now for some reason)… and waited… so didn’t.

So there’s something in there that’s making me screw this up.

There’s something in there that has gotten in the way of my making this as fun and special as I possibly could.

There’s something in there that has told me to tone it down.

And in toning it down, I have let the air out of the proverbial tires.

I have toned it down, and now it doesn’t seem like it will be much fun, or like such a great idea, and hey, it’s probably going to rain again anyway so maybe I should just cancel.

There’s a little cycle happening in there. And I didn’t see it until just now.

I felt it as I worried with my hair the last few days, in our endless rain with a chance of lightning and flooding weather. I felt a kind of inadequacy. “This is never going to work, so maybe I should just skip it. I will never be happy with these pics, so why go to so much trouble?” And so I didn’t go to any trouble. And now I’m stressed and grouchy and pretty sure that all of that is what’s going to be on my face. I’ve never been very good at making the face say something radically different than what’s going on inside.

I know what my friends would say. It would be something nice about me being gorgeous and it will be great. And that’s nice, but I’m not feeling it. I’m feeling like a frizzy headed poor planner who’s going to have to act like someone else to make a go of this thing.

AHA!!! I found it. Thank you for playing backboard.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to act like someone else to make a go of this thing, and I don’t want to do that anymore. I’ve done enough of that. I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime. It’s why it was okay to have a photoshoot in the armpit heat on my wedding day AND why I struggled to be in photos when my kids were young.

On my wedding day, there was no question of who I was going to be. I have always been myself with my husband, bless him. I wasn’t thrilled that I wouldn’t have a Pinterest perfect wedding picture, but I didn’t really care because I was there and I knew who I was and what I was doing.

When my twins were younger I was only one thing: really tired. And I didn’t want to be really tired Mom in the photos. I am in a few, and of those, I’d say 75% show really tired Mom. Like really tired Mom. I didn’t want more evidence of how I felt. I thought I’d have to be someone else to make a nice picture. I thought I’d have to act to have pictures that my inner critic could tolerate.

So there it is. Two pieces: my pictures have to be great (a thought) and I can’t be myself to get great pictures (also a thought). Well, no wonder I don’t want to do this.

What I am going to choose to believe is that I can be myself and be successful (including on my photoshoot).

What changes if I believe that? I relax (which means I’ll feel better and maybe smile without strain). I also remember that I hired a photographer to take a whole mess of pictures so we could be sure to get some shots that even I am happy with. As I believe I can be myself the worries of what to wear and exactly what to do about my hair diminish. Because no matter what I do on those fronts I will still be me, and I just need to remember that that’s okay, like really deeply, fundamentally perfect. Really.

What signals do you get when you’re engaged in a little self-sabotage? Do you procrastinate? Do you diminish yourself/your work/your talent/your beauty so that if the results aren’t what you want you won’t be disappointed? Do you tone it down and then find that you’ve let all of the air out of the tires?

If that sounds like you, I want to ask, what are you thinking? Not like what are you thinking in Mom voice as rhetorical question, but what are you thinking as in what’s the thought that’s at the bottom of that mess? Is it a fear of success or failure? Is it some notion of not being good enough as you are? What if you’re more than that?

coat-dancing-face-794062What if you are more than that and you’ve never had the chance to see it because of all of that toning it down? What would happen if you went full-volume?

I’m going to go listen to some music and pick out some clothes, both at high volume.

XO,

j

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.

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.

How I Lost Weight

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about how I’ve lost weight. I did not have a ton of extra weight to begin with, but I guess I’ve gotten to the point where it is noticeable. I think when people ask me this question, what they are really asking is: “What diet did you try?” OR “What food did you give up?” People want to know what the magic solution is, and I totally get it, having looked for magic solutions many times in the past (grapefruit as the key, really?).

Slide1The truth is my weight loss process has been both easier and more complicated than the answer to the question that folks are asking. I could tell you how I eat, which at this point is pretty significantly different than it used to be, but that would be a woefully incomplete answer. The truth is the first part of my “weight loss journey” (I really hate that phrase), had everything to do with what was going on in my heart and my mind. Why did that have to happen first?

Because I needed to learn how to be happy with myself, no matter what my body looks like. I needed to learn how to build a full life without relying on my dinner to be the best part of my day. I needed to learn to push myself harder so I could figure out what would make me deeply happy rather than being satisfied with knowing another meal or snack was coming.

My relationship with food was complicated. I used it. I used it to cheer myself up. I used it to distract myself. I used it to excel at something while I was a stay at home Mom. I used it exercise some control on my life when things felt out of control. I used it to avoid feelings and to bring on the physical buzz of overeating. I used it to impress people. I used it to practice my writing skills. I made food such a huge part of my life and then was disappointed when the other parts were so small and unsatisfying. I used food as an escape hatch, a wubbie, a friend. Before I could really make good decisions about how to eat, I had to REALLY learn how to deal with my emotions without food making it easier or unnecessary.

Slide2AFTER I did all of that, the question of what I ought to be putting in my body becomes a series of scientific experiments. What can I eat that will fuel me and be pleasurable? It’s so much easier. When I don’t need to eat for emotional reasons, all of these questions about what I choose to eat and not choose to eat just become math and planning that I do rather than some sort of horrible self-imposed deprivation. I get to stop thinking about food all of the time and then beating myself up for it. I get to get on with all of the wonderful things there are to do with my time on this earth. I still celebrate things. I still have friends. I still enjoy myself. All of it is good. In fact, all of it is a whole lot better because I did the REAL work first.

My BARE program will help you do that real work AND it will help you discover what kind of eating works best for you, and if you show up and really give it everything you’ve got, you will blow your own mind. The new school year is coming, a perfect time to make a change. I’m ready if you are.