Stress. Pressure. Tension. Worry. Nerves. Whatever you call it, as beautiful human beings we’ve got it in all sizes and colours. A never-ending supply. Stress is a two-sided coin; on the one side it is an early warning and guidance system to ensure we attend to the things that matter most. On the other side it is expectations of ourselves on steroids, with no basis in reality. Wait! How does that happen?
We cannot eject stress completely from our lives; the parts of our bodies that generate stress do so for many important and good reasons. From being our moral compass to ensuring we stay tuned in to what is happening around us, (both physically and emotionally) these parts need to exist. Cortisol, adrenaline and the neural pathways that trigger them are unconscious and autonomous – to put it more simply…stress happens.
If we become better at naming stress when it is present, then we have a tool to manage it before it manages us. Think back to a stressful time in your week, how did your body feel? As an example, my blood pressure goes up, just enough to make the ring on my hand feel tight, my brain moves at a million rpms. Stress is in the house! Unlike fear, you cannot take stress out for coffee, and you cannot dance with stress either. Stress is situational, so you need to counter the energy it brings with kindness and compassion. You need to sit with stress, slow it down. This is an intentional act, deep, slow breathes are a great way to start. Once you have named it and started the process of de-escalating your body, you are in a better position to find well-being in the midst of it.
The next step is to attend to the story you are telling yourself about the stressful circumstance. If you have just received extra work files to complete from your boss, it’s understandable to have a narrative of “Why me?”. Sit with this for a moment and look a little deeper; is your body also responding to a silent narrative of “OMG, now they will find out I really can’t do this job!!!!”? This is very important to pay attention to, because this type of narrative creates a circumstance where you don’t feel you can ask for help. So, in addition to stress undermining your best self, it further prevents you from using your common sense, and your voice, to alleviate the problem, causing even more stress. Find out what you may be saying silently to yourself (think of it as the problem underneath the problem).
Deep breathing can help, but so can looking at a different perspective. Ask yourself “What’s the best that could happen?”. We can’t be positive all the time, that is not what this is about (no lipstick on pigs). This is a simple question meant to start your thinking in a new way that allows you to attend to what is most important in this situation. When we see something from a different perspective, we access more of what is needed to attend to it, and that is what you are really after. These are important steps to support yourself in your work, because when you are kinder to yourself you think clearer, and that may include advocating for yourself; “Love to look after these files, let’s discuss what needs to move off my plate in the short-term to make this happen.”
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem”
~ Captain Jack Sparrow
Strong emotions come in many disguises. I’ve spoken in the past about feeling fear, and how taking my fears out for a cup of coffee is an effective way to step into this strong emotion, exploring it in an objective way. There are other strong emotions, and while I have tried to take them out for coffee too, that hasn’t proven as effective as it is with my fears. Take my “worst-self” as an example. Petty, resentful, judgmental and gripping a burning need to be right, my “worst-self” emerges by flinging emotions at me like a toddler emptying a toy box. Fast, furious and fueled by righteous indignation (or fault-finding glee) there is less opportunity here to shift the pace and sit down for a cuppa (the caffeine would probably make things worse anyway). So, what to do?
Acknowledging when my worst self is emerging (or right here) is key, so is doing it without judgement. You cannot jettison these emotions, they love a good “street fight” and are pre-packed with reserves of energy, which means judgment, self-recrimination, etc. just feeds them (and they are hungry). These emotions have the strength to beat your best self into a coma. It took me some time to realize that the energetic quality of these emotions meant I needed a different approach. When these emotions are present, I feel it; my body becomes larger, I take up more physical and emotional space, leaning in, tight neck muscles, arms and hands pulsing into the space around me. Finger pointing. That’s usually when I become aware; I see my own finger flashing about like a sword. What does your “worst-self” feel like to you? No judgment, we all have one.
Which is the key. “Worst-self” shows up for a reason. These emotions, while a reaction (rather than a response) are trying desperately to tell you something, they just don’t have the words. Use their energy, their fire, and invite them to dance. Name them one by one as you tango, look them right in the eye and discern what they are trying to tell you as you traverse the floor in a complicated mix of sensuous, intimate, steps. Listen to what they express without becoming attached, because underneath all that reactionary self-expression is something that needs your kind and loving attention. You were hurt, ignored or hindered for too long; you benefit from exploring what this is doing to your well-being with compassion, wisdom and energy. Your “worst-self” is about giving you agency, permission (albeit in a passionately unskilled way).
Sweaty but satisfied your “worst-self” cedes the floor with a bow, letting you take it from here. What did you care so deeply about that you had a physical response to its presence (or absence)? What is it now calling on you to attend to in a gentle and kind way? Thank your “worst-self” for taking you out of your comfort zone, and know you’ve got this (it no longer has you).
“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful… This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”
~ Agnes De Mille
One of my intentions this year is to practice gratitude. It’s a simple intention, but one that demands a degree of mindfulness; I write down what I am grateful for once a day. Five minutes a day (more if I want to) to write down one thing. I’ve kept it simple. The benefit I am getting from this practice isn’t gratitude alone (and can I just say WOW, that is proving to be really powerful), it is the conversation I have with myself when I say I don’t have the time to do it.
The richness in this conversation is self-awareness, because it forces me to explain to myself why I don’t have five minutes to do something that I know is of direct benefit to me and indirect benefit to everyone around me. I go through all the usual side-steps. I get angry with myself for the impertinence of the question (“Seriously! Can’t you see how overwhelmed I am with work right now?”). I justify my actions (“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I will do it later!”). I agree with myself with no intention to follow through (“Yes, yes, yes, I know writing what I am grateful for today is highly beneficial…”). Or I avoid the feelings of failing myself through numbing out with screen time (the easier it is not to hear my better self who is annoyingly right).
Yes, I am a human being. And so are you. Go through the reactions that all of us beautiful human beings have when we are trying to over-ride common sense (whatever they may sound like for you) and then be compassionate with yourself, listening to your mental narrative. In my example you can hear that I may be working hard (do I need a break?), that I am annoyed with myself (hmmm…what is that all about?) or that I am dismissive…of myself (OK, red flag here to explore). This is important, because if we do not have these conversations with ourselves, we miss out on valuable insights that can help us better attend to our own needs, our awareness and our welfare. This is the critical point where our happiness is either supported or sacrificed; it is in these conversations that we choose ourselves and our well-being (or leave ourselves as collateral damage in a life we live for others but not ourselves).
It is not what you are promising to yourself per se, it is in the way you attend to that promise. As you move into this New Year, become less concerned about the number of times you did the thing you promised yourself you would do and be more open and curious about why you didn’t do it. It is in these conversations that you will grow and make this year your best yet. Miraculously you may find you also honour your commitments to yourself, in a joyous and heartfelt way, without pressure. The first promise we should always keep is the one we make to ourselves.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
Robert Frost, excerpt from the poem “Stopping by The Woods on A Snowy Evening”
For 2019 I am going with a simple commitment to practice daily gratitude. I’m looking for all the benefits the science tells me I can access when gratitude is more present in my life. But there is a catch. When we approach something like gratitude it is easy to “check this box”. In order for gratitude to truly provide the scientific benefits to our well-being that we seek we need to attend to it in a mindful way, one that involves more than just listing something for which we are grateful. We need to feel it and to know it. True gratitude is expressed through our head, our heart and our intuition. Tapping into all three of those areas takes a bit of time, not a long time, but intentional time. Here is an example.
On my first day of writing down something I was grateful for I listed “I am grateful for my warm and comfortable home”. Done. 10 seconds. Wow, this commitment was going to be a snap to keep! Not so fast. As I look back through what I have written so far, all of the things I’ve noted sound good, but I am not writing this for others, I am writing this for myself, and those items are also sounding quite hollow to my ears. We get better at doing things with practice and this is one of those times for me. I sat down with my book and really thought about what I had written and then something interesting came up.
While I am truly grateful for my warm and comfortable home, it is not what really matters to me. When I paused and really thought about it, I am grateful for the ability to care for and create a warm and cozy home. When I unpacked that, there was depth to it. I have not always had the mobility I enjoy today, and that meant my home was cluttered and unkempt as a busy household will quickly become when one of the adult members is side-lined. I also realized that as time goes on our house of three floors will not always meet our family’s needs; we may want to down-size or live without stairs. This is a likely reality in the distant future, but I know that a house is more then it’s architecture, and I feel confident that wherever we live we can create the kind of spaces we enjoy living in, in all stages of our lives.
I am grateful for everything that enables me to have a warm and cozy home, my health, my employment, my creativity, my family. In acknowledging all of that my head, heart and intuition are now all present and I can feel that rich goodness that science says comes with being grateful, and not just a few times a year, but each and every day. I am calmer, I smile more. Give yourself some goodness each day too, and see what it can do for you.
“…is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep a priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.” ~ David Whyte, Consolations
It is January 3rd and already my resolution to make adjustments to how I want to be in this new year are being tested. How about you…did you make a New Year’s resolution or two? Did you remember to plan for the near constant interference of your “old self” on what you are trying to build in your “new self”? It is hard work. Oh, beautifully flawed human self why do you make it so hard to be good? So, where does that leave our New Year’s resolutions? On a very tricky path, with no support rail, unless we should choose to build that for ourselves first.
Some light on this path would be better still, as things get dark and murky quite quickly here in the “new”. It feels rewarding to be open to what is different, fresh, altruistic and it is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Looking deeply into the nooks and crannies of self is daunting, so when you come out with a realization that there is something you feel empowered to tackle it is a very empowering thing. There is much research around how good we feel when we make a decision to embrace a positive change, to quit smoking, eat better, buying the gym membership (because putting it on the credit card shows real commitment). All those good feelings may in fact make us feel so good we ride those for a while and don’t do the thing we said we would do…crashing down to reality with shame, self-loathing and a deepening (via a non-refundable, unbreakable, one-year contract) sense of debt - both morale and financial.
The New Year’s resolution hang-over.
So, back to the light. Start where you are, with the assumption you are perfect the way you are right now. You are valued, valuable and worthy. Everyone is flawed, so you are imperfectly perfect, which is really a thing. You don’t get very far only seeking out your flaws, because you end up in “fix it” mode, where there is no compassion, only urgency (quick, get on that flaw and fix it before your resolve collapses…). It’s the third day of the New Year and I have shifted my resolution. I am going to be compassionately honest with myself. In his book Consolations, David Whyte writes “Every human being dwells intimately close to a door of revelation they are afraid to pass through. Honesty lies in understanding our close and necessary relationship with not wanting to hear the truth.” (page 117).
Explore your relationship to your truth by being honest with yourself. Start with the mental chatter that arose when you read “You are valued, valuable and worthy.” (yes, even from here I could hear what you said to yourself…and what you didn’t). Only when we are willing to compassionately and consistently look at our truth will we be in a position to leverage our strengths, building something that does not set us up for a fall. When we work with honesty in our truth there is no support rail needed, it’s already there. Start with compassionate honesty, because only then will you be able to be the change you want to see in the world, this year and every year that follows.
"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." ~ Rita Mae Brown
(as correctly attributed at https://www.businessinsider.com/misattributed-quotes-2013-10)
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.