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The Gift of Discipline (with thanks to Anne Lamott)

Too busy, too tired, too scattered to move forward with your dreams and important goals?  I know.  I struggle with it, too. 

When I’m not too busy or too tired to even start, my blog writing sessions sometimes go like this:

Get excited about a topic!!!  Write one sentence.  Re-read sentence several times.  Check email.  Think about second sentence on way to kitchen to make tea.  While water heats, rummage through purse to locate cell phone.  Check phone messages.  Plug cellphone into charger.  Pour hot water into cup, add tea.  While tea steeps, look around house for book that’s marginally relevant to writing topic.   Return to kitchen without book.  Remove a few receipts from purse while tea cools.  Pile receipts on counter for eventual filing.   Start load of laundry while tea cools more.

Whoops!  Before you know it, I’m either out of time or too tired to write.  Oh, and my tea is stone cold, too.

Sound familiar?

Anne Lamott, one of my very favorite writers, was recently in town at the Miami Book Fair.  She addressed this very topic–how to move forward with our dreams.

Anne took the stage in loose, faded jeans, sandals, and a white cotton peasant blouse.  Her unruly blonde dreads were tied back with a scarf.  She wore no makeup.

 During her talk, a fussy toddler began to protest being confined in his seat.  Anne stopped mid-sentence, and turned to fish around in a large shoulder bag that she’d plopped on the floor behind her.  Smiling broadly, she pulled out a plastic baggie of crayons and stepped down off the stage.  She walked through the auditorium to the baby and gave him the crayons. When she returned to the stage, she mirthfully told us that Sunday School teachers always carry crayons.  

 Anne’s that kind of fun, unpredictable person. 

 Yet, she gets things done.  She writes books.  Excellent, meaningful, funny, wonderful books.  Lots of them.  Many of them were written when she was a single mother with a young child.

 How does this spontaneous, free-spirited person do it? 

We found out when a woman in the audience asked Anne for advice.  The woman wants to write but has a busy life–a job, kids, a household to run, too much to do.  You know, the usual.  Our usual.  She told Anne that in the evenings, she’s only has enough energy to hang out on Facebook.  What can she do, she asked?

 Anne dished up some tough love.

 “The path to freedom is through discipline,” Anne told her.  “You will either write now, or never.” 

 “We don’t have the time to wait,” she continued.  “Treat every day as if it’s your last.  Ask yourself what you will care about at the end of your life?  Having spent your evenings on Facebook? Watching the 10 pm news?  Or something else?   If you want to write, you must commit that every evening at 10 pm you will write for an hour, come hell or high water.”

 Wow!

 The path to freedom is through discipline. Treat every day as if it’s your last.  You don’t have time to wait. It’s now or never.  Commit to do it, come hell or high water.

 Isn’t that what’s required to accomplish any of our dreams, any of our goals?  It’s how books and blogs and stories get written.  It’s how weight gets lost and kept off.  It’s how businesses get established and moved forward.  It’s even how we harness our inner voice of worry or any other self-destructive habit. 

 We don’t wait.  We either do it now.  Or never. 

 Anne’s talk was a beautiful reminder that we can have the self-discipline to accomplish our dreams and still be fun-loving, generous and spontaneous.

 It really isn’t that hard.  Letting a dream slip away is much, much harder.

 The truth is we are all disciplined.  We all have areas of life where we don’t hide behind our lame excuses, where we just show up and get the job done.  We brush our teeth regularly.  We pay the electric bill and feed our kids, too, not just when we’re not busy or when we feel like it.  We do it consistently.  With commitment and discipline.  We do it because we like our teeth and our lights and our kids well enough to take care of them.

 We must treat our dreams with that same commitment and discipline.  We must replace those old “I can’t/I’m too busy/I’m too tired” stories with the truth. 

Here’s the truth:  if we regard our dreams as essential to our well-being as we regard our electricity, we’ll move on them.

 Then, we can take “it’s now or never” to heart.  We can easily give up time on Facebook, watching television, checking email, or whatever words and habits we allow to suck up our precious time.

The result?  Time and energy for writing without interruption, no snacks after dinner, neglected business goals accomplished, freedom from the grip of worrying.

 So what’s your dream?  The one you don’t have the time or the energy for?  The one that, at the end of your life, you will want to have accomplished?  Here are some considerations, based on Anne’s wise advice, that will help you move forward:

 1. Ask yourself what is burning inside that wants to be liberated, accomplished, achieved?  What, at the end of your life, do you really want to have done? Identify the non-essential things you do instead—social networking, reality TV, or, like me, a murky soup of random activities.  Be sure to include all the time you spend ruminating about how you hate some aspect of yourself or your life—it’s a major time sucker.

2.  Identify the stories you tell yourself that get in your way.  The ones like “I don’t have time” and “I’m too busy.”  Get really honest about those stories, and remind yourself of all of the things you regularly do notwithstanding those stories.

 3.  Commit to use your precious time and energy for your dreams.  Remember that your dreams are as essential to your well-being as the electricity in your home.  Turn off the TV, get off Facebook, let the email wait until tomorrow.  Start immediately.  Remember what Anne said—it’s now or never.  Put your time and energy into your dreams, come hell or high water.  You don’t have time to wait.

 4.  Cultivate patience. Remind yourself that a big goal or dream takes time to develop. Remind yourself that changing habits takes time.  Remind yourself to take tiny steps forward.  Remind yourself that this is what progress looks like, and taking time is part of the process.

 5.  Bust yourself with kindness. Gently bust yourself when you need to, and then recommit and get back to work.  And remember—it’s especially important to speak to yourself kindly, reverently, and respectfully when busting yourself.

 Discipline like this—honest, authentic, committed, patient, kind–is a wonderful gift to yourself. You’ll be amazed at how great you feel, too, when you are moving forward toward your goals and dreams, rather than focusing on how tired and time-limited you are. It’s truly the key to your dreams and the path to freedom.

Now, finally!  I’m going to go make myself a cup of tea.  And drink it before it cools off.

What to do when criticism gets ugly

I got a very critical email last week.  It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t constructive, and it hurt.

I’m co-presenting a three-part telecourse with my friend and mentor, the very wise Gail Larsen, author of Transformational Speaking, If You Want to Change the World, Tell a Better Story.  We created the class based on her work.  She’s never done a telecourse before; I’ve done lots of them.  She’s got a powerful body of wonderful work that needs to spread further; I wanted to help with that by sharing my experience with it.  Together, we created a plan.

After the first class, we received a flood of warm, encouraging responses.  Word of mouth led others to sign up even though the class had started.  Gail and I were over the moon.

Until we got one email that got personal.  Very personal.  And it was directed at me.  Gail was wonderful and inspiring, the writer opined; I was not. And the writer explained, in unkind and pointed words, exactly why she thought I should basically shut up for the rest of the course.

My focus tunneled down, laser-like, to the hurtful words in that email.  I felt the energy drain from my body as my mind raced, scattering in a thousand directions at once.  I forgot all about the positive messages.

One of Gail’s powerful Transformational Speaking principles is to “use your authentic power with those who can hear you, rather than the force of argument with those who can’t.”

Obviously this person hadn’t heard me.  Logically, I knew that.  But telling myself to fuhgeddaboutit wasn’t enough.  I needed to work though the sting and the hurt of her words so I could show up for those who could hear me, without flinching, without holding back, and without being riddled with self-doubt.

I’m fine now.  In fact, I’m stronger and more committed than ever.  Here’s how I got there:

Admit what’s happening inside. 

I started by just admitting it–she’d gotten to me.  Her words stung.  I was hurt, upset, distracted, angry. Old memories spiraled up.  I felt deflated, worried, ashamed.  It was personal and I was taking it personally.  I didn’t like it, but that was the truth.

You can start there too.  Whatever it is, admit it.  Admit exactly where you are and start there.

Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be upset, that anger doesn’t help or to just get over it. Don’t try to be wise or enlightened when you really want to crawl in a hole and hide or you’d like to anoint your critic’s face with thick cream pie, preferably in a very public location.

If you stuff your feelings down, they’ll surely pop up later, surprising you like some giant cosmic game of whack-a-mole.  Usually at a very inconvenient time and place.

So, just admit you’re human and that you’re hurting.

Get in touch with your full reaction.

What sensations are you feeling in your body?  Feel the pressure, vibration, movement, density, temperature, location, direction of your sensations. Racing, swirling, stuck, bubbling, churning—whatever they are, feel them.  Curiosity helps at this point.

And stay with it.   In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor says it takes about 90 seconds to fully process our uncomfortable sensations and emotions. But 90 seconds seems like an eternity if you’re not used to doing this.  So stay with it.  Keep feeling what’s present in your body.  Often it’ll completely resolve in a very short time.

What are you thinking?  Let all those worrisome, shame-ridden, and nasty eye-for-an-eye thoughts rip.  Write them all down.  Go ahead.  They’re just words.

Here’s where The Work of Byron Katie can help you realize that the worst thing that can happen is happening in your own mind.  Start with the most painful thoughts and work them through with Katie’s entire process until you can face your critic’s words with neutrality.

Get some wise support if you need it.

This is where your coach, your shrink, your trusted advisor, or your imaginary league of superheroes can help.  Call on them.  That’s what they’re for.

Remember to BMW (bitch, moan, and whine).

Get some unenlightened support, too.  That’s what friends are for.  I told a couple of trusted friends about what the critic had said.  They supported me lovingly, unconditionally, and without reservation. One friend’s response was delightedly over the top—filled with passionate outrage and laced with insults like “poopy-head.”  Reading her email, I laughed hard and immediately felt better.

Defend, justify, and explain yourself.

Write a letter to your critic justifying the choices you made, the words you uttered, the colors you painted with.  Defend yourself. Explain.  Justify. Set the record straight.

Blow your critic’s words to smithereens with your vaster knowledge, your broader experience, your superior intelligence.  Analyze the hell out of the situation.

Don’t forget your excuses.  You were under the weather, your assistant screwed up, your grandmother was hospitalized and the dog ate your homework.

Be truthful, of course, but write it all down.  Then delete the whole thing from your hard drive or tear the page into a thousand little pieces, realizing that you don’t need it.

What you needed was to hear your side and then to let it go.  It’s illuminating, cathartic, and healing.

Look again at the critic’s words, take the high road, and do what is necessary.

After you’ve dealt with the sting and your hurt, when the truth begins to sink in, look again.  Look past the personal, harsh words of your critic.  Get on the high road and decide whether you need to respond, apologize or offer a refund.  If so, do it.  In this case, Gail and I both simply thanked the person for writing and made a full refund to her.

Then, again putting the harsh personal words aside, consider whether there is a kernel of truth in what was offered by your critic.  Is there anything you can use to improve your work?

Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.  The point is to look analytically, dispassionately, and to consider the possibility that there is something you can use buried in the vitriol.

If there is, extract the morsel from the mud, being careful not to drop  any of the sludge on your shoes.

If there is no morsel to be found, let it go.  ‘Nuff said.

Remind yourself that creative expression is about commitment, not consensus.

As the poet David Whyte asks, can you “live in the world with its harsh need to change you” and “look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand”?

When you offer your voice or your creativity into the world, not everyone will agree with you, appreciate you, support you or like you.

Congratulations.  You took a stand for something.  You didn’t go for bland.  You didn’t water yourself or your offering down to the consistency of baby pablum.  You made a commitment, you took a risk and you let us see you.  Now look back with firm eyes and say, “this is where I stand.”

That’s what coming alive is all about

Remember, you don’t need a lack of criticism in your life; you need to express yourself authentically.

Find your courage and stay the course.

To be sure, I’ve been criticized before.  But in the past, I felt that there was truth contained in the message, something I could learn or use, or an apology I needed to make.  As Rumi said, I used the criticism to “polish my mirror.”

This time, someone didn’t like what I had to say and the way I said it.  In a class designed, at least in part, around what I had to say.

What the hell can you do with that?

I think there is only one thing any of us can do in these situations.  Silently offer our thanks to our critics for helping us see more clearly and grow stronger.  Then it’s time to move forward.

As the magnificent Ralph Waldo said:

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”

So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m feeling fine now.  Going through this process helped.  Writing about it helped, too.  It’s time to let it go and move forward.

And I hope that you find a voice loud and strong and bold enough to draw criticism, too.  And when that happens, even if that criticism is not kind or constructive, look back with firm eyes, map your course of action, find your courage, and follow it to the end.

There’s too much important work to do in the world to make any other choice.

Finding courage when you don’t have any.

I was stuck, scared stuck, and nothing was unsticking me.  Someone was not following through on an agreement with me, an important agreement involving money they owed me.   A string of broken promises littered the past, and I was afraid to confront them.  I was just plain scared stuck.

I’d tried the soft approach.  I was nice, patient, good humored, positive, encouraging. (“Of course you’re going to pay me.  I understand.”)  I visualized success, and imagined the feeling of how good it would be to have this problem out of my hair.  (Oh, it was yummy!)

I’d self coached, just like I suggest to my clients and students.  I’d worked with a couple of my brilliant go-to coaches and each time, vowed to move forward.  And didn’t.

Honestly, though, most of the time, I avoided thinking about it.   Months went by, and nothing happened.  My positive energy hadn’t gotten results, visualizing success was getting harder, my courage was AWOL, and every day that slipped by was costing me money and peace of mind.

Not a good place for a personal coach who helps people find the courage to overcome their doubts and fears.  That didn’t feel good, either.

It was time to get tough and to call in the big guns—a lawyer.  And that scared me too, notwithstanding the fact that I am a lawyer.

Late one night as I paced around and contemplated my dilemma, a grand idea struck.  I’d create a courage vision board as inspiration.  I grabbed a pile of magazines, poster board, scissors and glue, and furiously began thumbing through the magazines, searching for photos of brave deeds, ferocious animals, and deering-do.

But there was one problem.

All I had on hand was a pile of Yoga Journals and O Magazines.  Photos of toothy, smiling waifs twisted like pretzels did not inspire courage.  Neither did photos of Oprah’s dazzling gowns, luxe vacation home, or Tom Cruise jumping on her couch.

Where were the lions and tigers and bears when I needed them?

And then, serendipity jumped off of the pages of an old Vanity Fair, written shortly after the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in early 2010.  Haiti, which has been called “The Best Nightmare on Earth,” has a special place in my heart.   I’d been there twice, and it’s people and culture fascinated me.  I knew the earthquake was a gargantuan tragedy in a place that was already at the breaking point.  The magazine featured an article about Camp Penn, the relief site founded by the actor Sean Penn.  Frustrated by the slow and meager response to the crisis from the world’s humanitarian community, and anguished by reports of people enduring unspeakable suffering without so much as aspirin available, Penn took matters into his own hands.  He assembled a team of doctors, a supply of morphine and surgical equipment, an airplane, and flew into Haiti.  He didn’t ask for permission, he simply took action.  Penn personally supervised his operation, despite the huge dangers from the anarchy and panic engulfing the fragile country.  The US military was so impressed with his courage and results, that they invited him to set up his operations within the borders of the military base they had established.

And there it was—Courage.  In living color.  A photo of Penn, squarely planted in a nightmarish, rubble-strewn scene in Haiti, looking as serious as a terminal illness and as mean as a snake.  And in an instant, I got it.  Sometimes that’s the stance that’s needed, that’s appropriate, that’s essential.  Sometimes that’s what right action and love and heart look like.

If Penn could risk his life like that to alleviate suffering, what the hell was I doing draining my energy over collecting a debt, legitimately owed to me and long overdue?  Was I waiting for permission from the other person to proceed?  (Admittedly, I was.  I wanted my money and I wanted to be liked.  Oh, yeah, and respected too, for my kindness and restraint.)   Was that likely to happen? (Duh. No.)  Who was going to give me permission other than myself?  Whose approval and respect did I really need here?

That was all the inspiration I needed.  I ripped out the photo, clipped it to the lampshade in my office, and started moving forward.  Yes, there was a lot of work to do.  Yes, it wasn’t easy.  Yes, my fears were triggered over and over.  And each time they did, I looked at up that photo and asked myself a simple question.  WWSD? What would Sean do?   Would he hesitate?  Hell no!  He’d tell his lawyer to move forward, he’d take the action she recommended,  and he’d say “Absolutely no more delay for any reason!”

Last month, my first check arrived.  It felt so good.

The photo’s still up there on my lampshade, too.  Just in case I need it.

 

Here are some simple exercises to inspire courage when you don’t have any:

1.  Find a photograph (from a magazine, the internet, or your personal photo stash) of someone you admire doing something incredibly brave.  Mount the photo where you can see it whenever you need a shot of courage.  Ask yourself, over and over again: what would they do right now in my situation?

Here are a few examples, but it’s better if you find your own.

Augusto and Michaela Odone, the parents featured in the film Lorenzo’s Oil, who relentlessly searched for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s ALD.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger who masterfully landed a disabled jetliner in New York’s Hudson River, saving the lives of 150 passengers and 5 crew members.

Immaculée Ilibagiza who, during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, stood silently starving in a cramped bathroom with seven other women for 91 days and emerged still infused with hope, spirit, and a heart full of love.

2.  Ask yourself: am I waiting for permission or encouragement from the person or situation I need to confront?  Then ask if you need their consent or approval, whether you are likely to get it, and what life would be like without it.  Ask yourself: am I approving of the way I’m proceeding here?

3.  Hire help if you need it—a lawyer, a coach, an expert consultant.

4.  Breathe.  I’m serious about this.  We tend to hold our breath when we’re afraid.  Make sure your exhale is as long as your inhale.

5.  Proceed forward in tiny little steps.  Remember, the first few steps forward are often the hardest.

6.  Keep going until the entire job is done.   All of it.  Each time you get stuck, take one or all of the above steps.

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

John Lennon was right—life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.  That’s what he told his young son, Sean, in the sweet and loving song, Beautiful Boy.

That song has been on my mind a lot lately.

Because I wasn’t planning to write this post.  I was planning to write a lighthearted Valentine’s Day post.  I’d even started it.  But then life, glorious life, with it’s curveballs and lessons and bewildering and sometimes pain-drenched surprises swept in.

While I was busy making other plans.

That is, until a sunny and golden Thursday morning a few weeks ago, when I sat on my sofa immersed in coaching a very cool client, planning a day full of coaching other wonderful clients.  That was my plan.  It was in my appointment calendar.

Then I heard a rustling noise coming from the bushes just outside my window.  The meter reader is lost, I thought.  Again.

“Excuse me,” I said to my client, and walked to the window to tell the meter reader where to find the meter.  Again.

But it wasn’t the meter reader.  It was a furry black dog and the rustling was the sound created as the dog vigorously shook Checkers, my tiny, frail, nineteen-year-old cat, who was hanging limply in his mouth.

What followed was not pretty, and I won’t go into it.  In short, my little cat died within the next few minutes.

And I had to deal with it.   All of it.  There was no choice.  No option.  My plans were meaningless.

Instinctively, I grabbed the phone.  I needed to talk to someone who would understand, support me, help me cope with the shock. Sitting in the middle of my living room floor, with tears still streaming down my face, I called my good friend Marlene, a cat lover who had a special affinity with Checkers.  I called Susan Grace, a friend and fellow coach, a constant gentle and loving presence in my life.  I called Jane, who has cared for Checkers when I was out of town, and her fury validated mine.  I called my veterinarian’s office, where the kind and helpful receptionist helped me figure out the logistics.  I told my neighbors Sandy and Blaine, who I knew would try to help me locate the dog’s owner.  One after another, throughout the day, they all patiently listened and offered their sympathy and support, all in different ways, all helpful and all received with my deep gratitude.

I called my two children, now young adults.  Checkers had been their childhood pet–a presence in their lives all but a few years. They’d found her hungry and pregnant mother when they were in elementary school, the morning after Hurricane Andrew swept through Miami when we’d had other plans.  We cried together, and shared stories about our sweet cat.

And as I spoke about the unexpected twist that life had taken, I was comforted.  The pain didn’t go away, but it helped immensely to share my pain with others.

Since then, each time I’ve tried to write that Valentine’s Day post, I got stuck.  The words wouldn’t come.  Whatever I wrote seemed forced and inauthentic.  Because it was.  Finally I surrendered to the truth: another plan had to be set aside.  I’d have to write something else, still from the heart, but more reflective of how I was feeling.

I’m telling this story not to seek your solace or your sympathy, but to share with you the power of connection in times of stress, pain, and loss.  This is why we come together for funerals and celebrations of life for those who are no longer with us.  This is why we laughingly have festive divorce parties, why we help friends pack when they are moving away, why we sit with them after their miscarriages.  We sit together with a bottle of wine.  We bring them fresh cookies, hoping to sweeten their lives.  These are not pity parties.  These are times of deep connection and validation.  We need each other in challenging times, and this is especially true for women.

Researchers at UCLA have confirmed that women in particular gather to “tend and befriend” each other in times of stress. Men don’t to do it as instinctively as we women do—men rely more on their fight or flight response.  While women also have a fight or flight response, we seem to also seek out the company of others as a way of coping with our stressful situations.  It’s been theorized that we developed this strategy long ago: in primitive cultures women couldn’t leave small children behind in the face of danger, fighting or fleeing wouldn’t work with babies in tow. So women gathered together to support and protect each other.  They, as we, tended and befriended one another.

So, whether unexpected pain slams into your life suddenly and fiercely, or whether it seeps in slowly and tortuously, notice your urge to gather and to connect with your friends and loved ones.  Heed those ancient instincts stirring within you–they’re healthy and normal responses.

Tending and befriending works.  And I think it’s good to know what will help us through times of upset and discomfort.  Because there’s one thing we can count on for sure.  As John said, life will happen, even when we’re busy making other plans.

The Paradox of Success

“I’ll never get it!” my Inner Nag grumbled last week in yoga class as we practiced shifting between Warrior Pose, a two-legged lunge, and Tree, a one-legged standing position. Instead of gliding back and forth in the seamless ballet our teacher demonstrated, I repeatedly lost my balance and toppled sideways.

With a voice full of mischief, our teacher, Natalie Morales, casually commented to no one in particular, “If you don’t fall out of a pose at least once during class, you might not be taking a big enough risk or having enough fun.”  She doesn’t call this class “Funyasa” for nothing.

Immediately I relaxed and the challenge became interesting again. Natalie’s words reminded me why I was there.  Physical performance is only a small part of it.  I was simply taking a big enough risk to stretch past my safety zone and into my risk zone.  Today’s limits aren’t permanent, and falling out of the pose was a message of feedback, not failure.  Every success I’ve had in that class has been preceded by dozens if not hundreds of failures.

I was also reminded that I was there to play and have fun, not to practice Jaw Clenching Pose, Eyebrow Knitting Pose or Inner Fuming.

Having recovered my good humor, I experimented by shortening my lunge and adjusting my balance … and there it was!  Tree Pose!   For a nanosecond!  Then I teetered, lost my balance, and toppled again.  But I was closer. For a moment, I’d done it.  And, I’d discovered a couple of tricks that might make it easier in the future.

Importantly, I was engaged with my own experiment again, and not thinking about what everyone else around me was accomplishing that I wasn’t.

My shifted attitude is what psychologist and motivational expert Carol Dweck calls our Mindset, a key component of our success.  A fixed mindset tells us, “I’m born with only a finite amount of intelligence, competence, or capability.  I have limits that stop me.”  A growth mindset says, “I can improve with learning, effort, and practice.  I can do more so I’m going to keep trying.”

According to Dweck, fixed and growth mindsets can occur not only in activities like yoga and other endeavors of physical performance, but also in education and learning, leadership, relationships, and even self-esteem.  When presented with an obstacle, those with a growth mindset tend to rise to the challenge. With a growth mindset, we’re less likely to fear failure, and instead, view it as a chance to improve.

Those with fixed mindsets believe that since they have limited amounts of intelligence, talent, and skills, they’d better prove to themselves that they are adequate. They exhaust themselves trying to measure up, comparing themselves to others, looking for external approval, worrying about being judged, and thrashing themselves for falling short.  It’s no surprise that fixed mindsets keep us stuck.

As we move into this New Year, let’s take this opportunity to notice where we have fixed mindsets in our lives.  Where are we believing that we (or those important to us) have limits, that we’re not smart enough, talented enough, courageous enough, lovable enough, or good enough?  When we notice ourselves looking for external approval and comparing ourselves to others, is this simply a signal of a fixed mindset?  Can we then shift to a growth mindset by reminding ourselves that we can get better if we don’t give up?

In virtually everything we undertake, our own experience has a wealth of proof that we can and do get better at everything we try to do.  In virtually every instance, the human capacity to learn, to grow, and to improve is real and provable.

As my yoga class and indeed life itself always demonstrates, our failures are just a part of the process of learning, of growth, and of progress. Failure always precedes success. The exploration of the edge between success and failure is how we learn what works and what doesn’t.  And success isn’t always the achievement of the goal we set out to attain.  Success is more often about staying curious, present, and engaged, taking risks, and having plenty of fun along the way.

‘Tis the Season…for a New Holiday Tune

It’s the most wonderful time of year.  

Or is it?

For some of us, that song, indeed The Holidays themselves, sounds like a thousand reindeer hooves scraping across Santa’s blackboard.  Bah, humbug!

Oh, we all know better than to stress out about The Holidays. This year, we promise, we won’t overextend ourselves.  We won’t overindulge.  We won’t spend time in places we don’t want to go or with people we don’t want to be with.  Never again, we say.

Then we do it anyway.  We buy too much, eat too much, drink too much, decorate too much, push ourselves too much.  Spend too much time in too many places with too many people we don’t really care about.

We even expect too much from others, thinking that this year our family and friends will behave in ways that they won’t, don’t, or can’t.

And we start the New Year needing a week in an isolation tank, four hours a day at the gym, and a very large inheritance to regain our energy, our weight, and our financial health, resolved, of course, to Never Do It Again.

‘Tis the season.

So this year, let’s just admit it and do our very best to show up each day of the rest of this year committed to a new tune–one that will take us to the other side of The Holidays happy, healthy and soulful.

Here are a few tips for a Holly, Jolly Holiday Season:

1.  Don’t wait until New Year’s Day to ring out the old, and ring in the new.  Start right now. How do you want to feel in early January?  What kind of connection and memories do you want to have made with your family and friends?  What do you want your credit card balance, your weight and your energy level to be?  How do you want to feel about yourself?

Decide the answers to these questions and ring in the new right now.  Don’t wait.  Set an intention to begin the New Year today.

2.  Make a list and check it twice. Write down your tendencies—those pesky areas where you know you are challenged.  Do you eat, drink, shop, or cook too much?  Get so frazzled you don’t enjoy your friends and family?

You better not pout.  Decide what do you want instead.  What do you want to have created when the holidays are over?  How do you want to feel?  How do you want to look?  What do you want to weigh?  What credit card balance do you want to pay in January?  What do you want to have accomplished?  Who do you want to have spent time with?

Write down each of your holiday tendencies–the ones that take you away from what you want for the New Year.  Then write down a new behavior  to begin today.  If, say, you are challenged by the avalanche of sweets in your office, note it and add the inspired action that will bring you to the intention you set:  “When I’m at work, I’ll really savor and enjoy one small sweet treat each day.  Then, I’ll stop.”

Check your list more than twice if you need to.  Check it whenever you are tempted to eat, drink or be merry in self-destructive ways.

3.  Hark!  Your body’s wisdom sings! Got a gnawing feeling in the pit of your belly?  That’s  your body saying “listen up”.  That’s how it get’s your attention.  It’s crooning  to you, guiding you towards what you really want.

So what’s on your playlist?  Is it Winter Wonderland in four-part harmony or Welcome to My Nightmare as you agree to bake 400 holiday cupcakes for a school party?  I’ll Be Home for Christmas or the theme song from Dragnet when you’re about to say “yes” to a seven hour drive on snowy roads to be with your great aunt’s long lost third cousin?

Hark!  Those inner songs are clues.  Listen.

4. Over the river and through the woods to Crazytown we go. You know this tune.  You fantasize a holiday gathering that looks like a 1940s Christmas card, with everyone cheerfully bonding ’round the hearth.

You also know what you get instead.  Every year. Your mother asks if you’ve gained weight.  Aunt Betty asks if you have a boyfriend yet.  Your brother’s kids have a burping contest as they launch wrapping paper spitballs into the gravy, while your bro and Uncle Charlie have a loud, eggnog and rum-fueled debate about whether it’s the Republicans or the Democrats messing up the world.

Okay, so they drive you crazy.  That’s what families do, and they’re going to do it again.  And you love them all anyway.  So, don’t expect them to be different.  Count on them being the way they always are.  Bring your sense of humor and your brightest holiday smile to your family gatherings.  Leave your fantasies home.

5.  Deck the halls with boughs of simplicity, meaning, and love. Banish your Inner Martha Stewart from your halls.  The real Martha has teams of elves to help her, and she makes a gazillion dollars to do all that stuff.  You don’t. Need I say more?

So sing out!  Cry out, “No, No, No!” to all of your shoulds. To anything and everything that feels heavy, burdensome, or born of obligation. To all that numbs, distracts, disconnects, or drains you.

Then, jubilantly raise your voice to sing out “Yes!” to all that feels like love, connection, joy, happiness, fun, generosity, gratitude, strength, courage, peace, nurture, kindness, compassion, humor, and appreciation.  To all that nourishes your soul and your ability to connect with what gives your life meaning.  To everything that makes you laugh, that strengthens you, that makes you whole. To all that energizes you, feeds your spirit, and brings you alive.

And whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah,  Kwanzaa, or just the end of 2011, don’t wait.  Let this time be the beginning of a whole new way of approaching the most wonderful time of the year.

 

Best wishes for a fun, happy, healthy, wondrous Holiday Season and a  New Year brimming with joy, peace, prosperity, connection, and laughter.

Finding the Sweetness in Criticism

I recently taught a telecourse on how to develop your intuition. I spent weeks preparing it and was pleased with the result. It was fun to do, well attended, and afterward, I received many enthusiastic thank-you emails and Facebook posts.  It felt great.

But one email was quite critical.  In this attendee’s opinion, I’d done a lousy job, gave lousy examples to illustrate my points, and took longer than the advertised time.  It was a very lengthy and detailed commentary, and it was directed to Martha Beck, Inc., who sponsored the call, rather than to me. Ouch.

In the not too distant past, I would have stewed about this for days.  My stomach would have hurt, and I would have stayed focused on it, disconnected from my good feelings of accomplishment.  Then, I would have dealt with my discomfort by putting on my metaphoric power suit and stilettos, and summoning Portia, my Inner Lawyer.  Portia would have searched for technicalities and loopholes, and argued an impassioned and detailed case for my defense.  My response to the writer would have taken hours to prepare.  Honestly, I really would have gone to that much trouble.

Happily, Portia is kicking back these days, and allowing Susie Q, my Inner Cheerleader, to fill her old role. Susie pointed out that with over a hundred people on the call, and such a subjective and mysterious topic, it was not surprising that someone would have disagreed with me.  Susie suggested that I focus on all of the compliments I received, send a simple note to the unhappy party, thanking her for writing, apologizing for the call going overtime, and offering her money back.

So that’s what I did.  And then I let it go.  And it felt good.  I was weirdly grateful to the writer.  She had a valid point about my going overtime and I’ll be more mindful of that in the future.  But more importantly, I was grateful for the opportunity to practice this simple principle: that other people’s opinions of us are their business, not ours, and when we stay in our own business, we are the happiest and the most productive.  When we stay in our business, our hearts are free to sing to us, and to guide us to what pleases us in the most deeply meaningful ways.

When we move into more public arenas in the world, staying in our own business is imperative.  This applies to any form of expression, whether it’s with words, paint, clay, or another form.  When we express ourselves openly, when we reveal our truth, we’re bound to encounter those who disagree with us.  We have a choice at that point.  We can go back to being small and quiet.  We can play it safe,  water it down, avoid controversy.  We can focus on the criticism and lose connection with our souls.  Or we can continue to connect with the places inside us that want to be heard, accepting the risk of not pleasing everyone.

Emerson spoke of this almost 200 years ago in his essay, Self-Reliance:  “You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

So what about you?  Which choice are you making? These days, I’m choosing to walk into the crowd with the same independence as if I were in solitude, whispering only to myself.  And, as Ralph Waldo said, it’s pretty sweet.

How to Deal with Difficult People

“We need to talk,” your partner says.  You hear The Tone and glance up from your book. They’ve got that look on their face.  You know, The Look.  The closer they get, the more sure you are.  Trouble. With a capital “T”.  Cue the opening bars from the Jaws soundtrack.   A sick feeling in your stomach kicks up, and you feel weak.  Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and your mind races.  “What now?” you wonder from a confused place inside.

Welcome to your brain and body on emotional contagion.  You have literally “caught” the emotional upset of your partner.  It’s not hard to do.  We are actually programmed through several complex physiological systems, electrical, hormonal, and chemical, to literally pick up and take on each others negative emotional states. We can tune into each others positive emotions, too, of course, but catching the negative ones are as easy as picking up head lice in a room full of infected kindergartners.

This made great sense eons ago, when the threat of physical danger was great.  If we missed a positive signal from someone, the stakes were relatively low—we might miss a meal.  But if we missed a negative signal—well, we could be the meal.  So nature prepared us well.  Survival is paramount, so we read each others signals of fear, upset, and stress with great speed and high precision.  And we’re wired to swiftly react with our own fear and upset.

But we don’t have to respond so primitively.  We can actually learn to regulate our own response to the signals that others broadcast. We can keep our heads even when those around us, like Kipling famously said, are losing theirs and blaming it on us.

How?  Before you continue to read below, start by watching this video, understanding that it’s the real deal, not faked or staged or a camera trick.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Now, consider the mood of the diver.  Watch the video again if you need to, focusing on her movements and imagining what  her emotional state is.

She’s cool as a cucumber, isn’t she.  Why?  We all know the answer.  If she isn’t, she’ll be shark food.  This woman is actually one of a handful of the world’s  “shark feeders,” people so attuned to these animals that they can interact with them like this.

Her emotional state is crucial–it keeps the animal calm.  Animals are wired to pick up fear and upset, just like we human animals are.

When we respond to an upset person or animal in a dispassionate, deliberate manner, they are more likely to calm down.  And even if they don’t, we’re able to think more clearly and effectively while we’re interacting with them if we are in a calm, clear frame of mind.

Here are some tips to remain calm when you’re with someone or something that is upset (or upsetting to you):

1.  Breathe. Breathe gently and regularly, letting the exhale last as long as the inhale.  Inhale-2-3-4, exhale 2-3-4.  Do it over and over.  The exhale is important, and it regulates the relaxation part of your nervous system.  Repeat, slow and easy, again and again.

2.  Set an intention to stay calm. Say something like this to yourself: I’m in charge of my own experience, and I am safe.   I will remain calm and peaceful as I interact with this person or situation. Breathe into the power in that statement.

3.  Recognize the inevitable. You know your partner is going to break out in hives every time they get near the credit card bill.  You know your boss is going to get crabby every time his boss comes to town. You know your teenage daughter is going to have a meltdown every time the word “fat” is mentioned within twenty yards of her. If you remember their triggers, you won’t be caught by surprise and you’ll be better prepared to deal with them peacefully.

4.  Shields UP, Scotty. Be like Captain Kirk, and get your shield up.  Imagine a force field around you. It can be as creative as you’d like.  An invisible but very powerful force field like the one that protected the Starship Enterprise.  A fluffy, pink, yet impenetrable cloud.  A sparkly net of little twinkling stars.  A steel shark cage.  Imagine you are safely inside it and that upset and agitation bounce right off of it.  Feel how safe you are in there.  Breathe.  This little exercise is actually a powerful tool that engages the right hemisphere of the brain, and enhances your ability to maintain healthy boundaries and to stay immune from emotional contagion.

5.  Soften your eyes and widen your gaze. Let your peripheral field of vision help you.  When we are afraid or upset, we tend to narrow our focus.  It’s nature’s way of helping us keep track of exactly where the shark is.  When we intentionally soften our eyes and widen our gaze, allowing our peripheral vision to come into our awareness, we are signaling our nervous system that the shark is gone and everything’s fine.

6.  Be empathic without being a sponge. Many of us in the helping and healing professions who work with people in states of upset falsely believe that we have to absorb the toxic energy of our clients in order to understand what they are going through and to help them.  This is simply not true.  Instead of helping, we wind up drained and burned out, and help no one.  These principles of self-protection from emotional contagion apply especially to those of us who work as helpers and healers.  We can learn to shift between a state of feeling into another’s emotional state to understand and explore it, back to our own state of calm and peace.  It may take some practice, but it’s well worth it.   Try shifting your empathic focus in and out of your client’s emotional energy.

7.  Step into your own power. Whether it’s a family member, a corporation, or a client, we are often called on to step into our own power.  We can resolve not to get sucked into the destructive, disempowered vortex of emotional contagion by understanding that we are all the leaders of our own lives and our own emotional states.  This is the underlying thesis of Dan Goleman’s brilliant book Emotional Intelligence, where he states:  “Handling someone at the peak of rage is perhaps the ultimate measure of [emotional] mastery.”  This is best done by staying in our own business, knowing that we have responsibility only for our own emotional responses.

8.  Remember the Truth in the situation. The Truth is always this—there is no situation or person or problem that can be solved or dealt with more effectively, more intelligently, or more efficiently from a place of upset.  Upset states compromise us.  Calm states enhance our resources.

So next time you hear The Tone or see The Look, the next time you encounter someone who is upset, remember these tips to keep calm. These practices will help you deal with any stressful person or situation, whether your partner is freaking out because the credit card bill just came in the mail, or a ten foot long shark is suddenly swimming alongside you.

 

How to Stop Yourself from Chickening Out

Have you ever chickened out from pursuing a dream?  Some of my coaching students are having some fears about blogging.  They asked if I had any fears when I began.

It brought back some funny memories.

I started my own blog when I was in training to be a coach.  I had no idea what I was doing.  (I’m still not sure that I do.)  I didn’t read blogs and didn’t realize that the web itself was a virtual classroom about blogging.  One of my coaching instructors just encouraged me to “start a blog as a way to let people know you.”

So I did.

I read a few posts by my instructor and began writing.  I wrote about why I became a coach.  It was like a memoir, rather than something to inspire or help people solve a problem.  I posted it with a trembling hand.  Arggh!!  What if no one reads it?  Or worse, what if people do read it?  Yikes!  They’ll all laugh and ridicule me, I was certain.

But I simply wouldn’t let myself chicken out.  Why?  I’d already learned this: the humiliation of doing something imperfectly and even foolishly is far less painful than the humiliation and frustration of living a small, contained life where dreams and opportunities wither away from neglect and fearful thinking.

I learned that painful lesson, once and for all, at a workshop with Martha Beck when I began coach training.  There were twelve women in our group, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we all, ahem, hero-worshipped her. On the second day, Martha asked us all to gather on one side our classroom–the spacious living room of a large hotel suite.  Martha instructed us to cross the room in a unique way, a way no one else had done.  She crawled across the wide floor on her hands and knees to demonstrate.  One by one, we hopped, skipped, and arm flapped our way across the room.  “Again!” she commanded.  We went backwards, rolled, and spun in circles.  “Again!” she instructed, over and over, until we began to run out of ideas.

I thought about climbing over the furniture to make a new route to the other side of the room.  But I didn’t do it.  I stood frozen like a six-year-old on the first day of school, afraid I’d look awkward and foolish launching myself over the sofa.

Soon, our group gave up.  We’d run out of ideas.

Martha chastised us.  “You guys gave up way too soon. You could have done all kinds of other things. Who said you had to just use the same part of the room I did?  Why didn’t anyone climb over the furniture?” she demanded, demonstrating exactly what I’d thought of doing. My stomach clenched.

“I thought about it,” I said weakly, hoping to get a small tidbit of praise from her for my creative thinking.

“You THOUGHT about it?  Why didn’t you DO it?” Martha practically shrieked, pointedly and very loudly.  You have to DO IT. Good ideas don’t count unless you USE THEM.” I felt like I’d been filleted, skewered, and roasted over hot coals.  I don’t think I heard another word she said that day.

I made a promise to myself that I have kept to this day.  I would not let my fear of looking foolish hold me back ever again.  The humiliation of looking foolish is nothing compared to the pain of staying small, safe, and stuck.

Now, posting my writing is easy.  My posts are much better, too, because I’ve done dozens of them.  And along the way, I read many excellent blogs and listened to what my friend and blogger extraordinaire Pam Slim and other experts have to say about it.  I educated myself as I went along.

But did I need to know a lot or be good before getting started?  Absolutely not.  I just needed to start.  That alone propelled me to learn more and to do better.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, if fear of embarrassment is clucking and squawking inside you, tempting you to chicken out and abandon your dreams.

1.  Imagine that you do the thing you resist and you are embarrassed, humiliated or shamed. Close your eyes and feel it in your body.  What is the felt sense you have in your body?   Where is it, how big is it, and what kind of movement is it doing?  Can you tolerate it?

2.  If you pay attention to that felt sense with curiosity, what happens to it?  Does it weaken or strengthen?

3.  What do you believe it will mean about you if you flop?  Is that a reasonable, intelligent conclusion?

4.  Who are the specific people you fear will judge you?  Is impressing them or getting their approval worth giving up your dreams?

5.  If you fail, could you find a way to learn from it or to do a better job next time?  Is this a skill that gets better with practice?

6.  Can you absolutely know you’ll flop or that you’ll be ridiculed?

7.  Is there a way to minimize the risk of failure and still do it within a reasonable time frame and budget?

8.  What would you rather live with, the embarrassment of a failure along the way, or life without your dream?

9.  Who inspires you?  Do you think that person has ever failed at something?  Do they ever feel fear? (Hint—if they are alive and breathing, they feel fear.)  Do you think that person lets their fears or failures stop them?

10.  Visualize doing the thing you want to do without feeling afraid.  Imagine having fun and doing it brilliantly and confidently, that it’s well received, that you achieve your goal, and that you move closer to your dream.  How does that feel?  Breathe into that feeling.  Memorize it.  Call it up whenever you are tempted to chicken out.

Now, take that feeling along with you, and just go do it.  And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that chickening out serves chickens way better than it serves humans who want to live their dreams.