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Entries Tagged as 'self-criticism'

Lessons from My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Wonderful Day

October 1st, 2015 · 9 Comments

ace key

It was one of those important and tightly-scheduled days where everything needed to go as smooth as silk, so of course it didn’t.

My daughter and 20-month old granddaughter were coming to visit me in Miami from New York for my birthday.  I had allowed a thirty-minute window before rush hour to get the baby’s car seat from my storage unit. Then I’d have just enough time to tidy the house, start dinner, and drive to the airport.

Lesson #1: Expect the unexpected, especially when it’s really inconvenient. We set ourselves up for stress and turmoil when we don’t allow time and space for unforeseen events.

I vaguely remembered having some confusion about the storage unit key the last time I was there, so I grabbed the box of extra keys from my desk and drove off. I congratulated myself for my brilliant foresight—every key I owned was with me.

When I got to the storage unit and couldn’t find the right key, I began to worry. In my upset and rush, only found one key that was the right size.  But it said “Ace” on it, so I assumed it was a duplicate key from the hardware store.  Since I’d never duplicated the storage key, I left without trying it in the padlock.

Lesson #2: Don’t make assumptions when you are upset or in a hurry. Your thinking isn’t as clear when you are stressed.

Lesson #3: Don’t give up without trying, especially if the effort is minimal.

On the way home, my worrying increased. I couldn’t imagine where that key was. I considered a rapid succession of possibilities–my desktop, a purse, my jewelry box, a bowl in the kitchen. I forgot to quiet my racing mind, even though I teach and practice mindfulness and stress management.

Lesson #4: We perform better and think better when we’re calm. Take de-stressing action at the first sign of upset. Disconnect from unhelpful thinking, regularize your breathing, and allow your body to relax. 

Instead, I rushed home and rummaged through every nook and cranny that could harbor a key. No luck.

My heart began to pound.  Thoughts flooded my mind: Where is the nearest baby equipment store? Do I have time to buy another car seat? What if I can’t find one nearby? Can I get one delivered by tomorrow? That will cost a fortune! What will we do in the meantime? We’ll be stuck in the house!

I caught myself and stopped the runaway train in my mind. I focused on my breath and grounded myself by feeling my body.  I began to calm down.

Lesson #5: Better late than never. 

I looked through the key box once more and picked up the Ace key.  That has to be it! I didn’t even try it! How dumb! How hard would that have been? I shouldn’t have been in such a rush! What’s wrong with me? 

Lesson #6: Let yourself be human.  Humans make mistakes. Irritation and self-scolding only drive up stress levels and make mistakes more likely.

Again I calmed myself, then drove back to the storage unit. The key fit! The door opened! Life was good!

My daughter’s plane would be landing momentarily.  I texted her that I was on my way, dragged the heavy seat down to my car, and headed for the airport. At a red light, I opened my purse to get my phone so I’d be sure to hear her text telling me where she’d be waiting.

But I couldn’t find my phone. I pulled off the road and searched purse, pockets and car. No phone.

I remembered that I’d texted her just before I took the seat to the car. Ack! I bet I left it inside the unit.

My thoughts raced more intensely than ever: I’m going to be late! The airport will be bedlam! I need my phone to know where she’ll be! I won’t be able to find her! How did people ever find each other at airports without cell phones? This is a disaster!

In an instant, my hands began to tremble and I was no longer able to think clearly. 

Lesson #7:  Stress begets stress. Cortisol—the hormone that prepares us to run or fight for our lives when we’re in fear–has a half-life of about an hour.  This means that an hour after an initial stress response, half the cortisol is still revving us up, and an hour after that, half of that half is left, and so forth. Each time we react stressfully over a short time frame, more cortisol is dumped into our systems before the prior load has dissipated. So our reactions come more quickly and more powerfully.  By this time, after multiple doses of cortisol, my reactions were swift and overwhelming.

I turned around and headed back to the storage unit for the third time. When I arrived, I raced upstairs through the warren of hallways and opened the door to my unit. The phone wasn’t there. I felt the blood drain from my face.

I remembered that a group of men were down the hallway when I’d picked up the car seat. I must have left the phone on the floor in the hallway and those men—those thieves—took it! If they get through my ridiculously simple password, they’ll have access to my bank account information. My identity will be stolen! Why didn’t I use a better password? Why did I keep information like that on my phone? The weekend is ruined!

I urgently felt the need for a plan, but I was so confused.  Halfway to the airport, I turned around.  I’d go home, call my daughter, and ask her to take a cab. Then I’d delete the confidential information from my laptop and hope it would sync to my phone before those thieves messed up my life.

My heart thundered as I crawled through rush hour traffic. My mind was reeling: This is taking forever! My daughter must be exhausted. I bet the baby is starving! And my phone is gone! Those thieves are laughing at my stupidity! This will take weeks to sort out!  I blinked back tears.

Lesson #8: Stress can hijack us emotionally and cognitively. By this time I was exhausted and my thinking was very compromised. Driving in this state could easily lead to an accident.

Luckily I calmed myself enough to realize that driving was my only priority at that moment.  Everything else could wait until I got home.  It wasn’t easy. But I got very present and focused on my driving.

Once again, I began to calm down. At a red light, I saw the clear purples, pinks and blues of the evening sky. I remembered the beautiful birthday gift of my daughter’s visit.  I thought about reading stories to my granddaughter.

My thinking cleared up: Everything is going to be okay. The only thing I know for sure right now, is that my daughter has to take a cab and my phone is gone. Whatever else happens can be straightened out when and if it happens.

Lesson #9: Keep things in perspective. Identify what is really at stake, not what your runaway mind is imagining.

About a block from my house, I heard a pingggggg that sounded exactly like a text coming in. A few moments later another pinggggggg. It was a text.  My phone was somewhere in the car!

I pulled into my driveway and found the phone lodged deeply under the passenger seat. I didn’t waste a moment trying to figure out why I hadn’t found it earlier. I called my daughter, apologized, and asked her to take a cab.

Tears welled up in my eyes again, and I laughed aloud at the same moment. All that for nothing! Except perhaps a good story of how not to deal with unforeseen events, stress, and upset.

Lesson #10: When all else fails, find something to laugh about, including yourself. In the School of Life, laughter always earns you extra credit.

My stories could wait. I had just enough time to shower and get dinner ready before my special guests arrived. But before I did that, I went inside to my desk and put a label on the storage unit key. That fake duplicate key would never fool me again.

Tags: fear · laughter · self-criticism · stress

Maps to Manage Your Mind Chatter, Part II: Tips from a Self-Taught Master

March 27th, 2011 · 2 Comments

“The Camp” Courtesy of Judy Fuller.

“What makes you think you can paint?  You’re not an artist.  You’re kidding yourself!”  This is Judy Fuller’s inner voice at two a.m., when she wakes up churning about a painting she’s working on.  Judy is a self-taught artist whose extraordinary, luminous landscapes of the Florida wetlands are sold for thousands of dollars at an upscale gallery in my neighborhood.

Judy’s bright smile, twinkling eyes, and obvious success might suggest that she never hears a mean-spirited voice like this.   Not true.  Like the rest of us, Judy is human.  Like the rest of us, her mind can spin out of control.

“What do you do when you hear that voice?” I asked.  We were both at a party in the gallery, and by chance, happened to begin chatting.

“I just tell myself that I’m tired, that I worked hard today, and that I deserve to rest now,” Judy tells me.  “I remind myself that I’ve worked through blocks like this before, and I remember how wonderful it feels when I finish a painting and it pleases me and I just know it’s beautiful. That’s the truth.  The voice in the middle of the night isn’t.  And I get up the next morning and go to work again.”

“I have a post-it on the studio light switch. ‘The painted ponies go up and down.’ I see it at night when I turn off the lights.  It prepares me to remember the truth if the voice comes in the middle of the night.”

Judy’s not only a self-taught artist; she’s also a self-taught coach, who coaches herself when she hears the nagging, nay-saying inner voice that keeps so many of us from our dreams.  She gently reminds herself of the truth.

Here’s exactly how Judy stops her mind-chatter from stopping her:

1.  Pay attention to what is happening. Judy didn’t avoid the voice. She didn’t surf the internet or eat a quart of Chunky Monkey ice cream straight out of the container.  It’s important not to distract yourself at this point.

2.  Be compassionate. She spoke to herself gently and kindly.  She didn’t make herself wrong for having the thought, and didn’t berate herself further.  In other words, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up.

3.  Find “the why.” Judy found reasons why the harsh voice was acting out.  She was tired.  She had been working hard.  She had an artistic problem that was unsolved.  She was discouraged.  You can similarly ask yourself: why could this voice be speaking out?  What’s it afraid of?  What’s it trying to tell me?

4.  Find evidence that the critical message is untrue. Judy reminded herself that she’s heard from this voice before, that she produces many beautiful paintings and loves what she does, and that her work in on display in galleries and is purchased by others.  This kind of specific, detailed, truthful evidence is exactly what we need to find when we are disputing the mind chatter that threatens to derail us.

5.  Acknowledge the real truth. Judy remembered what is true for her and what that truth feels like–when she finishes a painting and sees its beauty, she feels it, too.  In those moments, there’s no doubt.  She knows she’s an artist.  When you land on the real truth, your feelings will shift.  It feels so much better.

6.  Give yourself an immediate, healthy solution. “I tell myself to rest, that I can come back to the painting later, that I’ve worked it enough for now,” Judy said. Taking a break from a problem is a proven strategy for moving through it.  So is resting.  Three slow, gentle breaths, a walk outside, or a bath with lavender oil are remedies that work, too.  With experimentation, you can find what works for you.

7.  Don’t give up. The next day, Judy went back to her work.  She didn’t believe the voice and didn’t let its message stop her.    You don’t have to, either. You don’t have to believe everything you hear, even if it’s coming from inside your own head.   That critical voice doesn’t mean you should give up your dreams–just go back to work.

It’s a fantastic example of masterful self-coaching.  The proof?  Her beautiful art exists on canvasses, not as unfulfilled dreams, existing only inside her head.

So, the next time a voice inside your head says you can’t have what your soul yearns for, remind yourself as Judy does, “The painted ponies go up and down.”

Tags: self-criticism · thinking · truth · Uncategorized

Did you make a mistake or get feedback?

May 18th, 2009 · 2 Comments

pregnancy1Last week, the topic of mistakes and failures came up in many client sessions.  It was also a huge topic in several classes I taught.  “I’m afraid I’ll fail,”  “I’m afraid of making a mistake,” and “I can’t let go of my failure or a mistake I made in the past,” were the themes.

This morning a passage in Deepak Chopra’s little book, Creating Affluence, practically jumped off the page at me:  “In reality, there is no such thing as failure. What we call failure is just a mechanism through which we can learn to do things right. . . . This is the principle of feedback.”

There’s nothing really new in the concept that “there is no such thing as failure” or “there are no mistakes,” but I got really excited when I read this.  A huge light flashed on for me:  I have a whole new way to conceptualize setbacks, mistakes, and failures—it’s FEEDBACK.

I’ve spent plenty of time wrestling with being fearful about mistakes, and having utterly no tolerance for my own. When I was beginning my own deep inner work, I remembered that my dear mother (who passed away when I was in my early twenties, so I don’t think she’ll mind my sharing this now) had told me when I was about ten years old that I was “a mistake.”

This was intended to impress upon me the importance, in her view, of not having sex before marriage.  But that’s not what I got from it.  I think that I somehow internalized this message and was extremely intolerant and fearful of making mistakes.  I was dedicated to avoiding mistakes at all costs.

And, even though I’ve made light years of progress in my personal “mistake and failure acceptance,” I’ve never had much of a sense of humor about it until this morning.  It struck me for the first time that I wasn’t a mistake—I was FEEDBACK!

The more I thought about it the funnier it got.  I was notorious as a child for being into everything; incapable of walking, I only ran. Some handful of feedback, eh?  The facts of life being taught to a young, small-town Southern girl, courtesy of a curious toddler who would never be still.  Somehow, being of such great educational value to my mother made the sting of her words completely vanish.

So thanks, Mommy.  Thanks for the lessons we taught each other.  Perhaps our journey together can help someone else.

And now, how about you?

Can you find any more ease, lightness, or humor in your “mistakes” and “failures” if you see them as feedback?

Could you look forward to your new challenges and activities with more excitement, more enthusiasm, if the worst thing that could happen is that you got feedback?

Tags: compassion · fear · laughter · self-criticism