In a Hurry? Me, too!

I’ve always been in a hurry. My father said that I went straight from crawling to running.

When I was in college and law school, I drove a VW Beetle back and forth between Miami, my hometown, and Gainesville, where I attended the University of Florida. The car was slow–it had a 50-horsepower engine. Most modern cars have close to 200 HP.

For seven years, I went back and forth on a long, boring drive. Five hours up, five hours back. The only frill in the car was an AM radio and there were few stations along the way. No podcasts, no Spotify, no chats with friends.

The moment I got out of Miami traffic and on the highway, I’d push the gas pedal to the floor. I tried never to let it up until I arrived at my exit in Gainesville. The car rarely went faster than the 70-mph speed limit.

When I got to Central Florida the road became hilly and going uphill the car would slow down to about 55. So I’d push the gas pedal harder.

But the pedal was already on the floor. No matter how hard I pushed it, the car wouldn’t go any faster up those hills. No matter how frustrated I was, or how badly I wanted to arrive sooner, the car wouldn’t comply. Going uphill the car always slowed. Every time.

I still find myself doing this from time to time, in a hurry and trying to move faster than is mentally or physically possible, pushing my internal gas pedal when it’s already floored. The result is as predictable as my trying to get my car to go faster up those Florida hills–it doesn’t work.

And pushing a car’s gas pedal harder than it will go doesn’t hurt the car. But people are not machines. The stress when I’m pushing myself too hard is exhausting and counterproductive. I’m less creative, more anxious, and predictably less efficient.

So now when I realize I’m hurrying beyond my capacity, I try to back off the gas pedal. I’ve found there’s a sweet spot that allows me to work efficiently without the stress of unnecessary pressure. It requires me to stop for a moment and become aware of what I’m doing. I need to feel into my body and recalibrate. When I do this, I can usually get more done in less time. And maybe I can even enjoy what I’m doing.

How about you? Are you in a hurry, too? Can you find that sweet spot and get up your daily hills without bringing unnecessary pressure along for the ride? You might find, like me, you’ll travel with less stress and get there just as quickly. And maybe even enjoy the ride!

Is Your Anxiety Looking for a Place to Land?

When my son went away to college, he lived in a small campus residence with three other young men. One of them was struggling emotionally. One Saturday night, the roommate drunkenly stabbed his arm in the bathroom and left a bloody mess.

What I remember most clearly about this was a deep anxiety and troubling thoughts. Drunks do all kinds of irrational things! That kid is full of rage! He might stab my son! My son is in a dangerous situation! Something needs to be done about this!

I asked my son to go to the housing administrators at his college to report the incident and have this kid removed from their room. “I’m not going to do that mom,” he said. “He’s not going to hurt me. I don’t want to make trouble for him. He’s already a mess.”

So full of heart and forgiveness, my son. But my worry remained.

I called the school myself. They told me, rightfully, that they couldn’t discuss other students due to privacy concerns. I hoped they’d hear me anyway and remove him. They didn’t.

My anxious feelings continued until after the holiday break when the young man dropped out of school and a new roommate moved in. I finally could relax.

For a while. Before long, I was worrying about something else and I was upset all over again.

I began to see that I felt anxious pretty much most of the time. As soon as things settled down with my son’s roommate, I was anxious about something else. And when that passed, I was anxious about yet a new situation, about myself or someone or something I cared about.

I realized that this was the way my life had gone for a long time. The anxiety was in me and had been all along. Only the situation provoking me, changed.

As I began working as a coach, I noticed the same thing in others. Many clients moved from one anxious situation to the next. Their stressful feelings remained more or less constant, and the resolution of one anxious situation gave rise to another, often without real evidence of actual trouble.

Why is this? Why do we do this?

Our wonderful brains love stories. They help us make sense of the world and our experience in it. So, the brain takes snippets of memories and information from all over the brain; that’s how we store memories–as fragments in various locations. Then it fills in the blank spaces to create a complete narrative, much like we can see an image of a circle when looking at a series of slotted lines.

This is how we make assumptions without real evidence. This is how we create stories that are often wildly untrue. This is how our anxiety–a feeling stored in our body–makes sense of itself.

And this is how I came to conclude that my son was in grave danger based on no evidence.

For those of us who grew up in less-than-ideal circumstances, it’s easy to go there. It doesn’t take much for stress to overtake us and to create stories to explain our stressful feelings. The anxious feelings live in us, and they amplify easily.

It’s a system meant to protect us. Stress is actually deeply protective. However, it compromises our ability to think clearly.

The inability to think clearly and logically is a natural consequence of stress and fear, which impels us to protect ourselves from danger. The ability to do long division is of no use when we are being chased by a bear. So the brain literally diverts energy from our logical minds to our physical bodies. We need resources to run or defend ourselves–this is known as fight or flight–and how we protect ourselves from physical danger. Like bears.

But few of us encounter real bears.

Our powerful imaginations–for example, my son is in grave danger–can provoke the same stress response and the same shut-down of logic and clarity that actual danger does.

I have a retired client who thought that she would be stress-free once she left her job. Her never-ending to do list overwhelmed her. But her body still carries the anxious feelings, and she’s now stressed about the volunteer activities she’s involved in. Her totally voluntary to do list seems as overwhelming as it was when she worked.

The lesson here? The external circumstances of her life weren’t the cause. They usually aren’t. Her body has carried anxiety for years. It didn’t stop when she retired. She found new explanations for the feelings inside her, feelings she’s carried all along.

The solution? It begins, like all transformation, with awareness.

We can begin by acknowledging our feelings, feeling them fully, and doing what we can to calm ourselves. Then we can ask ourselves this question: Is this stress coming from certainty? Is this really a dangerous or difficult situation, or am I creating a story that may not be true?

Either way, a calm mind is in a better position to deal with whatever is happening. And we better equipped to see through a story we might be creating about a bear that doesn’t exist. Or a roommate who might be deeply troubled, but isn’t a danger to others.

And, I’m happy to report, my son graduated from college and never once got stabbed!

Anxiety’s Big Lie

Olivia, a kind, soft-spoken woman with an allergy to conflict, is about to jump out of her skin with anxiety.  She’s in business with a former friend. “She can have it,” she told me at our first meeting. “I think I just want out.”

Olivia is in a startup with a former friend. The friend has a hot temper and a less than professional way with words. Instead of discussing opposing viewpoints, the partner bullies Olivia, calling her a liar in business meetings. She’ll tell Olivia that an idea is stupid, using that word. Not surprisingly, the business has stalled and can’t grow.

The business was Olivia’s idea, she told me. It’s deeply personal and meaningful to her and she’s done the lion’s share of getting it up and running. Moreover, if it grows as expected, it’s got the potential of being sold in the high six figures.

“And you really want out?” I asked.

“Not really,” she said, “but I can’t stand feeling like this. It’s not worth it to me. I’m creative, I can come up with another idea. That’d be easier than living like this.”

I suggested that we start with some simple tools to quell her anxiety. “If you make decisions while you’re feeling like this, you are likely to make poor ones.”

I explained how stress compromises our thinking and leaves us exhausted. Our bodies think we are in physical danger and respond with fight or flight hormones that impact our brains. When anxiety has us in its grip we’re unable to think our most critically or creatively. We can’t communicate clearly and powerfully. It’s draining, too—our energy is easily depleted.

I know from personal experience that when we’re caught in a difficult situation, anxiety is a horrible feeling. Our hearts race, our minds roil, our stomachs churn, we lose sleep. When I’ve been anxious like that, I pace in circles, going nowhere, lost in visions of a dreaded future.

Often, anxiety urges us to do something. Sometimes it shrieks. It says it will go away and leave us alone if we HURRY UP AND DO SOMETHING. Frequently it suggests that we give up and run away from a difficult situation.

I first noticed this as an attorney handling divorces. Then I went through one myself.  Anxiety screamed at me. Give up. Get out! Give him everything! He can have the house, the bank account, your clothes-anything! Everything! GET THIS OVER WITH!

And then the biggest lie of all: You’ll feel so much better if you DO SOMETHING.

Anxiety told me it would go away and leave me alone if I took swift action. It told me I’d manage somehow, raising two kids as a single mom with a fraction of what I was entitled to. So I did exactly what my clients did–I told my lawyer to settle the case any way she could. Luckily she prevailed over my irrational pain and fear.

I explained the same thing to Olivia–that anxiety might be telling her it would leave her alone if she took abrupt action, but she’d have to deal with it again at some point, during the buy-out negotiations or later, when reality set it and she realized what she’d given up. Or next time she was faced with conflict.

Because when we run from a problem or conflict in order to manage our anxiety, we’re bound to get into another situation where it comes right back. We walk away from what we are entitled to, settle lawsuits for pittances, or quit jobs abruptly without a back-up plan.

Then we deal with the new situation–we’re divorced with limited resources, we’ve given away our business, or we’re looking for work under pressure.

Sure, we might get some temporary relief, but it’s typically short lived. Why? Because we’re making decisions and taking action at our most compromised. Our beautiful minds, hobbled by powerful fight or flight stress hormones can’t find what is truly in our best interests or how to get it.

So what’s the answer when we feel like we’re about to jump out of our skin? The same thing we do with any intensely unpleasant feeling. Name it, feel it, and move.

Here’s a simple, effective way to work through anxiety and it’s DO SOMETHING NOW messages:

  1. Name what you are feeling—anxiety, upset, tension, stress. Give it a name.
  2. Drop the narrative, the words, the story of why you’re anxious. Obsessing with words, the situation, the who did what, the dreaded future, the I should haves. Stop thinking and drop your attention into your body.  When we drop the story of why we’re anxious—the he said, she said stuff—we’re able to feel.
  3. Feel the sensations in your body. They’re not really as bad as you think they are once you pay attention and yield to them. The resistance and the avoidance of our feelings is actually much worse than the bodily sensations themselves are. Feelings come for a reason—to be felt.
  4. Feel what you are feeling all the way through. Feel without words or diversions like food, alcohol, television, internet shopping or whatever temporary distraction may be calling you. Typically, an unpleasant feeling will intensify and build to a peak, and then slowly subside like a wave pulling back from a beach. So stay with it through the peak and to the other side. This can happen in a span of a few minutes.
  5. Practice non-judgmental awareness. It doesn’t serve us to trade one story for another, for example, I shouldn’t be so sensitive or I should have known better or I’m so screwed up. Attacking yourself for being human or having feelings is simply another way to prolong them.
  6. Move your body. Those shaky, vibrating sensations need release. Animals lie in the grass and tremble after a threat passes. They’re releasing the stored up stress hormones that they didn’t need for fight or flight. We need to do the same thing to fully function.  So after you’ve really felt what you are feeling all the way through, stand up and shake it off. Literally. Arms, legs, torso. Shake, shake, shake. A few moments will do wonders. A two-minute dance break to raucous music will do the same thing if you let yourself move.
  7. Allow the truth to come into your awareness as the feelings pass. Realize that there is very likely no emergency action to take, nothing to do in this moment, no reason to act right now. Slowly allow yourself consider the situation with a clear mind and a calm heart.

Typically, with these steps, anxiety will settle down within about five minutes. Sometimes we may need to repeat them, if the Do Something Now stories pop up again. And be aware that I’m not talking about the kind of debilitating chronic anxiety, usually driven by trauma, that requires treatment by a therapist. If that’s what you are dealing with, get the professional support you need. But the kind of anxiety that comes with life’s curve balls can typically be resolved on your own.

Then, when your body settles down, and your brain comes back on line, you can decide what to do about the situation. What’s the truth here? What is the best decision for me? What options do I have? What do I need to say to this person that is going to solve the actual problem? Is there something I can do to improve this situation?

When the brain is no longer compromised by the running tape of the story, the brain shut-down of fight or flight, or the numbing from food or wine, solutions we may never have considered can come to us. Our true desires can be felt. We can take action, or not, based on our best interests.

As for Olivia, after a few sessions and some practice with the above steps, she went to her next business meeting with a plan. She calmly told her partner that they needed to end the partnership and that she, Emily, was prepared to buy the business. The partner shouted, name-called, and tried to bully her into continuing the partnership, but Olivia stayed steady. Within about twenty minutes, she was shocked when her partner agreed to sell to her.  She stayed steady as she spoke. They agreed to hire a business evaluator and start the process immediately. Olivia still has more work to do, both inside and out, but she’ll get to keep the business she loves. Importantly, too, she’s learning how to deal with conflict, to stand up to a bully, and to deal with her own anxiety.

So next time anxiety comes galloping in to your life with all of its awful feelings and a Big Lie to DO SOMETHING,  don’t believe it. Instead, let the truth arise. Try these simple steps and see what happens. Like Emily, it might surprise you.

A Time to Speak Up

I StandAs I’ve watched the events of the last two weeks unfold, I’ve felt deep pain and horror. Like you, I’ve felt angry, sickened, and paralyzed as the racism and injustice in our country has been exposed and protested around the world.

And yet, I’m a white woman. I cannot possibly understand the experience of living in this world as a black person, any more than a man can understand my lived experience as a woman. I can feel my own pain from the sexism I’ve endured, I can listen to black voices and provide support where I can, but I cannot ever truly understand what it’s like to be black. For I have the privilege of walking in the world in white skin.

Because I’m white, I can forget the color of my skin most of the time. I can go where I please without suspicion. I don’t worry about my son’s safety when he visits a convenience store. It’s all too easy for me to forget the realities that have been going on around us for years, realities that I can no longer forget or ignore.

The videotaped murder of George Floyd made it indelibly clear and impossible to forget. He was only the latest in a long line of others that I too easily forgot about: Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, LaQuan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.

This time I will not forget. And I will do better. An important step is to be absolutely clear about where I stand.

I am facing my white privilege more transparently. For me, it’s deeply personal. I was raised in the segregated South by a black maid. I loved her deeply, more than my biological mother. Her labors contributed to my privilege. I was fed, dressed, and cared for by her because my own mother couldn’t. I slept on clean sheets, wore clean clothes and did my homework in a clean bedroom because of her daily efforts. Her work, for which she was undoubtedly poorly compensated, gave me a stability that allowed me to do well in school and go on to higher education. And I never thought twice about it.

I grew up in a neighborhood forbidden to her to live in, ate food she prepared at a table she couldn’t sit at with me, and went to shiny, well-appointed public schools forbidden to her children. And I never thought twice about it.

I am now committed to understanding more deeply what it means to be anti-racist. That means I must do more than to silently believe in racial equality and justice. I must be active about it. And so, I write this post, a small action in that direction.

Below are resources that can help you, if you are white like me, understand these issues more deeply.

I encourage you to search your hearts and join me.

Are You Still Working on Yourself?

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Jill came to our first coaching session saying that she’s been “working on herself” for twenty years but still feels she has more work to do.

Every time I hear that phrase, “working on myself,” I visualize a car with the hood up and someone bent over the engine with a wrench. Frankly, it makes me cringe.

Like many women I know, Jill’s taken workshops, trainings, and courses with top self-help experts–the best out there. Meditation, spiritual direction, success training, more productivity, self-compassion, better thinking, building confidence–she’s done them all.

She even saw a therapist to see if she was depressed. The therapist told her she wasn’t and sent her away.

“So what’s the problem?” I asked.

“I just don’t ever feel good about myself,” she said. “I’m a phony and a quitter. I procrastinate. I don’t use the tools I learn. I keep trying, taking courses, listening to podcasts, but I think I’m just not good enough.”

“Jill, what if the real issue is your self-attack? You’re believing what you’re telling yourself–that something is wrong with you that needs work. What if you don’t need more confidence or self-compassion or productivity? What if the key to feeling good about yourself is accepting yourself right now, this minute, just exactly as you are?”

This is a novel concept for Jill and for many of the women I talk to. It’s as if there is a far-off destination, the land of “I’m fixed and don’t need to work on myself any more.” It’s always a faraway destination, miles from where they are.

But here’s the truth: We have good days and bad days, times we screw up and times we succeed. Sometimes we’re articulate and confident, sometimes we’re withdrawn and awkward. Sometimes we’re kind and sometimes we’re not, especially to ourselves.

In short, we’re human.

When we listen to the inner voice that attacks us, we forget our victories, our successes, and our kindnesses. We don’t remember our loving acts towards others and we can’t see the beauty that surrounds us.

The biggest problem Jill and many other bright, competent women share is believing the inner voice that tells them they’re not good enough exactly as they are

Consider these words from “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

We’re all magnificent and messy, fabulous and awkward, deeply spiritual and disappointingly profane. And we don’t have to crawl on bruised and bloodied knees across a desert, futilely trying to be so good.

So how about getting your nose out of the engine of your heart and soul and gently lowering the hood. Walk away from the idea that you need to be fixed, tinkered with, worked on.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Can you quiet and listen to its soft whispers?

Can you let that story go?

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Last week, my sweet Aunt Millie was hopping mad. She called me at 7:00 am from her assisted living facility.

“I want to move right away,” she said. “I don’t want to stay here any more.”

I sighed. We went through this last year when she and her sister, my 99-year-old aunt who lives in the same facility, had gotten into a spat.

She wants to move whenever any bit of stress crops up. When you’re 97 and living in close proximity to twenty-five or so other nonagenarians, there are apparently plenty of opportunities for hurt feelings.

This time a new resident parked her walker behind Aunt Millie’s chair in the dining room. Aunt Millie politely asked her to move it. The new lady refused. She might have even smiled slyly.

“But what about your sister and your boyfriend?” I asked, trying to cajole her. “You will miss them.”

“I won’t miss them. This place is terrible. They won’t accept my claim against her.”

“Your claim?” I asked.

“Yes, I made a claim and they rejected it.”

It took about ten minutes to unravel the fact that Aunt Millie meant her complaint, not claim. She’s a little confused sometimes and doesn’t hear well, so there was some shouting, too.

“They won’t accept my complaint,” she said. “And they said I’m an adult and can move anywhere I want if I don’t like it here.”

I patiently tried to explain to Aunt Millie that there were no other places as nice in our budget and that I couldn’t take off three weeks like I did two years ago to get her moved. Nursing home regulations require doctor’s exams and reports and when you’re 97 and have multiple medical issues like she does, that’s a lot of doctor visits and reports.

“And we’d need a truck and people to move your furniture,” I added.

“I don’t care,” she said. “I want to move.”

I sighed again and told her I’d think about it and call her back.

I hung up and began to grumble in my head. Why me? Why am I always the one she calls? Why does she always have to react like this? Ugh. I can’t believe this. Why does she always have to call so freaking early? She’s not moving and I’m not going to drive five hours up there to explain it to her. Again.

I picked up my phone and began to text my cousin, to let her know that there was another incident. Another crazy request. One. More. Thing.

Later, I’d tell my friends, too. What a sacrifice I was making! What B.S. I put up with! What a wonderful niece I am!

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. I felt my stomach tighten.

Halfway through the text I looked up. The sun was shining and a light breeze was blowing through the palm fronds in my back garden. There was an orchid blooming on my back porch. I’d just made a pot of fresh coffee and could smell it. A little pan of steamed macadamia nut milk was ready to add.

I didn’t need to text my cousin. She didn’t need to know what had happened. We weren’t going to move our aunt.

I poured a cup of coffee, added the milk, and took it outside. I breathed deeply and looked at the bright green around me. The tension in my belly relaxed.

I’d call the facility administrator later in the day to make sure my aunt had calmed down and that the parking rules for walkers was explained to the new resident. That was all the situation required.

I’d been on the verge of “story fondling,” Martha Beck’s description of unnecessarily keeping an unpleasant situation alive by retelling the story over and over. I’d momentarily wanted to milk the full drama out of this, which would only keep me aggravated and perhaps get my cousin stirred up too.

All I really needed to do right then was to savor my coffee and enjoy the quiet morning.

Which is exactly what I did.

I had been right on the verge of ruining my morning when I came to my senses.

I’m sure you have your own version of “Aunt Millie wants to move again.” Most of us do.

Maybe your friend canceled dinner plans at the last minute again. Do you really need to stew about it all evening or complain about it to another friend? Really?

Maybe the traffic made you late to an important meeting and you charged in feeling frazzled. Do you really need to keep telling yourself that you probably looked ridiculous? Do you really need to keep worrying about the impression you made? Are you sure?

Maybe you sprained your ankle and you’ll be on crutches for a couple of months. Do you need to tell everyone you encounter how clumsy and stupid you were? How much weight you’ll gain since you can’t go to the gym? Is that going to make you feel better?

What if you could just let it go? Just stop and breathe and look around for the beauty that is pretty much always somewhere nearby.

Whether you can sit outside or sit by a window or look at the beauty of the faces of the people or pets you live with, there is always something else better, more nourishing to focus on. There always is.

When I catch myself hanging onto unnecessary stories, maybe finding drama in ways that make me feel worse, and I let it go, my whole system settles down. My day can open into a possibility, a creative idea, or a bit of magic just waiting to be discovered.

We don’t have to hang onto our unpleasant stories.

Truly, we don’t. Take a breath. Look at what’s around you. Let the story go.

Try it and see.

How to Have the Life You Yearn For: An Evening with Liz Gilbert

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“What are you willing to give up in order to have the life you pretend you want?” Liz Gilbert, the wildly successful, beloved author of Eat, Pray, Love, told an audience of several hundred women at Miami’s Unity on the Bay Church that this has been the most important question in her life.

At the time, Liz was in her twenties, working a string of menial jobs in order to survive in New York City. The question was posed to her by a woman she deeply admired. She yearned for time to write and wasn’t finding it. This “older” woman, in her fifties, had what Liz wanted most of all—a full-time creative life.

The question devastated her. What are you willing to give up in order to have the life you pretend you want? She realized that until she was willing to claim that life by devoting herself to it, and even sacrificing herself to it, she was pretending.

The woman had even more tough love for her–going on to tell her that she’d have to not only say no to things she didn’t want to do, she’d have to say no to things she did want to do.

This, Liz told us, is how claim what we care most about. We may have to give up things we want to do. And until we do that, we are only pretending. To have the lives we yearn for we need to set priorities and to honor them.

Today’s woman, Liz said, is fierce, courageous, badass, fabulous, compassionate, giving, but we lack the most important quality we need to have the lives we want.

We are not relaxed.

And being relaxed she said, is the key separating the wheat from the chaff of life—finding what is truly and deeply meaningful, important and worthwhile. Separating what we want from what we pretend we want.

But this doesn’t mean taking the occasional hot bath or a nap and waiting until the chaos and the difficulties are over. We cannot wait until everything settles down, sprinkling a few guilty breaks in between the 10,000 things that demand our attention.

My coaching clients, who often come to me in crisis situations—divorce, illness, job upheaval—have heard me say this very thing over and over. We cannot wait. We must meet even the deepest challenges, with an attitude of calm, both inside and out. It’s the key to being at our best as we handle our very full lives. It’s the key to protecting our time, our health and immune systems, our ability to make decisions, and the only hope we have for deeply and lasting joy in our lives.

Imagine that tomorrow you wake up to the exact chaos and demands that exist in your life today, but with one significant difference. Imagine you wake up relaxed. Imaging that you step into the fray of your life with ease.

Imagine you are handling your same life, from the minor annoyances to the major crises, from the traffic jams to the divorce, from the red wine spilled on the rug to the upheaval at your workplace, imagine handling that life, your life exactly as it is, from a state of relaxed ease.

This doesn’t mean we’re blithely ignoring the realities of our lives. This isn’t denial or irresponsibility. But we take responsibility for only that for which we are truly responsible, and we approach it all as calmly as possible. We understand the difference between worry, which debilitates us, and concern, which allows us to respond appropriately.

To do this, Liz pointed to three necessary elements:

  1. Priorities: What do we care most deeply about? What and who do we want to spend out limited time with? What are we willing to give up to have the life we want? Facebook? Television? Wine?  The pull of other people’s business—things they are totally capable of handling on their own?   Setting priorities means we let our friends and families manage their responsibilities. And we protect our very limited time and energy wherever possible.
  1. Boundaries: To set boundaries, we need to know our priorities, and from there, we draw a sacred circle around them.Joseph Campbell was once asked the question what is sacred. His response? You draw a circle and say everything within it is sacred. We can do it ourselves. It isn’t up to a priest, a pastor, a rabbi, or an imam. We can do it privately, alone. We get to say what is sacred for us, what comes inside the circle and what stays outside.For women, Liz reminded us, the sacred must include our bodies. We must protect and respect our amazing, sacred bodies.
  1. Mysticism: If this is the only world we are tuned into, it’s brutal–full of chaos, suffering, and dysfunction. To stay calm and relaxed, we must have a sense of the magic beyond us, that ineffable inner awareness that lets us know that “every little thing is gonna’ be alright” and “this, too, shall pass.”We may not get what we want. People betray us and leave us and accidents and illnesses still happen, but the message of the mystics is always this: it’s all going to be alright.Liz told us about how when my mentor, Martha Beck, did her PhD on successful women, they told her all the the obvious things about attaining leadership—finding mentors, setting priorities, etc. But the more she pressed the question, the more these women began to confide in her about their mystical experiences. I heard a voice, I had a dream, I was guided. They said things that made no logical sense.It’s such a common experience, isn’t it? Why did you do that, choose that, how did that happen? I have no idea. It’s beyond logic.

    I’m often asked why I dropped out of another coach training after spending a year and $10,000 on it to start over again with Martha Beck. I have no idea. I just knew I had to. I wanted to in a way that was beyond reason. And this action which made no logical or financial sense was the single most important action I ever took to turn my life around from one dominated by doubt and anxiety to one filled with deeply meaningful work and joy that abides.

So sit with this question until the answer comes: “What are you willing to give up in order to have the life you pretend you want?”And as you wait for the answer, find as much calm as you can, wherever you can.

Let’s start the New Year with Liz’s formula. Let’s set priorities, let’s protect them with strong boundaries, and let’s listen to those whispers and inner voices and internal tugs, calling us to go beyond logic and fear, and into the magic and connection and love that awaits us all.

Emotional Contagion—What Every Leader Needs to Know

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“Mom, something’s wrong with my eyes. I have some weird blind spots that aren’t going away.”

My son, 33 years old, was calling. He sounded scared, and I knew exactly why. My son’s father had gone blind with a progressive eye disease that started in his thirties. True, it was a rare genetic condition and the chances of my children getting it are almost infinitesimal.

But still…

My mind immediately jumped to a horrible thought and I brought myself back to the present, to reality. Immediately.

Because I knew my son would be having his own frightening thoughts and my job was to keep him as calm and grounded as possible. To do that, I needed to be calm and grounded.

There are a lot of good reasons to face any challenge, whether a crisis or a more routine problem, in a calm state. We think more clearly, problem solve more creatively, and have greater physical stamina.

For me to stay calm with my son, I had to avoid the impact of emotional contagion, the tendency that we humans have to synchronize our emotions to those around us. Emotional contagion can transmit either positive, supportive emotions, or negative, anxiety-laden ones.

Dealing with emotional contagion is a crucial quality for anyone in a position of leadership, whether it’s in business leading others, in coaching working with upset clients, or in family situations dealing with anything from medical emergencies to agitated toddlers.

In this situation, I didn’t want to absorb my son’s upset and get agitated. I wanted to set a positive tone for him to absorb. I wanted to be the emotional leader.

I do this routinely in my daily encounters with clients and their anxieties and upsets. Before I work with clients, teach a class, or lead a workshop, I make sure I’m aware of my mood. If anything is happening in my personal life that might negatively impact my mood, I will consciously set it aside, and take steps to lift my mood.

Admittedly, avoiding emotional contagion from my son was much more challenging. It’s always more challenging with someone close to us, but it can be done.

Emotional contagion transmits easily in-person, but it can take place over the phone, too. We humans are sensitive enough to each others voices to pick up negativity mood, agitation or anxiety, even when we can’t see the other person or feel their physical presence.

In business settings, studies have confirmed that both positive and negative emotions, spread among employees like viruses. Feelings can be “caught” by others when working together in groups. Not only is employee mood affected, judgment and business decisions are impacted, as well.

Emotional contagion can even take place in writing, over social networks. Facebook drew a lot of criticism a few years ago when it revealed that it had manipulated the news feeds of more than a half-million users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw.

Facebook did this is in a research study with Cornell University, confirming the existence of emotional contagion in this context. The people who viewed more positive posts responded with more positive content and those seeing more negative posts responded with more negative posts. Facebook was accused of violating ethical boundaries by turning users into lab rats without obtaining their informed consent.

And the study proved how easily our emotions are impacted by others.

Because I could think clearly and brought up my son’s mood, I was able to get enough information to help him decide whether he could wait though the weekend until Monday morning, when we could find a better place for him to be examined. We decided that waiting was a better option.

On Monday, he went to an excellent eye clinic and was told that he had a couple of very tiny retinal tears that had no similarity to his father’s eye disease. The doctor he saw was confident that he would fully heal without treatment.

Within a few days, he called to say he could already tell that the blind spots were getting better.

And for an added bonus, he said, “Thanks for helping me through this. I would have really panicked without you.”

This was a very happy ending. It confirmed my commitment that any anxious or distressed person I’m dealing with is going to synchronize to me and my emotions, where I intend to always remain the calm, grounded, positive leader.

Here are some tips I used that can help you stay away from emotional contagion:

  1. Set your intention to be the calm, grounded leader, to stay in a positive emotional state, and to let anyone else you are encountering synchronize to your mood.
  1. Harness your out-of-control imagination. Your mind may want to create a narrative out of the few facts you have. It’s what our brains do automatically to keep us safe. But those narratives are generally based on speculation and predict terrible outcomes. Remind yourself that you can’t know that the situation will have an unhappy ending.
  1. A regular mindfulness practice is really helpful in building the skill to stay away from imaginary scenarios. So can regular use of my heartbreathing meditation. (You can obtain a free mp3 recording of it and a descriptive worksheet by emailing support@terrydemeo.com and putting “Heartbreathing Meditation” in the subject line.)
  1. When dealing with an upset person, put your attention on them, on what they are saying and doing. If you are in person, make eye contact. If on the phone, you can give them your full attention by closely listening to them.This will help divert your attention from your inner world and your mind’s imagined parade of horrible outcomes.
  2. Breathe slowly and regularly, inhaling and exhaling to a slow count of four. Inhale-2-3-4-exhale-2-3-4. Over and over. I use a simple mantra, “Breathe and stay calm, breath and stay calm, breathe and stay calm.”
  3. Move. If you start to feel distressed, adrenaline and cortisol will be released into your system to prepare you for battle. This is what is known as fight or flight. When you aren’t having to run or fight, you will get a jittery feeling from the hormone buildup. Shake it off any way you can, with physical movement. If you need to go into another room and close the door, do so. This simple tool only takes a few minutes to work.I hold a lot of tension in my arms in tense situations, so in this one, I stood and shook my arms and let my body tremble several times over the weekend when my son was in distress.
  4. Keep this in mind: you don’t need to DO anything to convince the other person to change their mood. Your job is to hold a positive mood. Our bodies naturally want to synchronize. Be the one that gets synchronized to.

Thoughts Coming at You Like a Runaway Train?

runaway train #2
When the email came in last week, I was puzzled. I’d received a notice that an Emergency Motion and an Emergency Court Order had been filed in a probate case I’d handled twenty years ago. My thoughts began to spiral:

  • I need to file a Motion and Order to Withdraw. UGH! What a hassle!
  • Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe that’s what this is about.
  • I probably did do something wrong.
  • I’d better read the court file and see what is happening. Maybe it’s online. I’ll ask a clerk to help me find it since I don’t practice law any more.
  • UGH! They are probably too busy to help me. I’ll have to go downtown. UGH! That’ll take half a day.
  • For sure I did something wrong.
  • Yes, I absolutely screwed something up.
  • OMG! How long is the malpractice statute of limitations?
  • What if my malpractice was only recently discovered and the statute of limitations won’t apply?
  • What if I get sued and everything is taken away from me?
  • Everything will be gone!
  • What should I do?
  • There’s nothing I can do. I’m screwed.

Within moments, I’d gone from casually checking email to eating government cheese and living in a van down by the river. The Inner Lizard–that part of the brain that is always on high alert, ready to screech urgent warnings—was, as always, preparing me for disaster. It doesn’t care whether we’ve encountered a spider or a shadow, it’s job is to determine that there might be danger and to scream, “MOVE QUICKLY OR YOU WILL DIE!” It doesn’t think critically. It doesn’t care about truth. Its job is to save our lives.

It’s a brilliant system that causes us to needlessly jump out of our skins if there is any possibility that a fuzzy little bunny rustling in the bushes could be a venomous snake. It’s simply trying to keep us safe.

For lawyers, this powerful system tends to go on overdrive, as our training teaches us to intentionally look for what could go wrong in any situation. After years of looking for the worst, we find it easily. But lawyers aren’t the only ones and it doesn’t take special training to over-react like I did.

But here’s the important part of this tale. For the past ten years, I’ve personally applied the principles I now teach others. I don’t automatically believe everything I think, like “I’m screwed, I’m going to lose everything.”

I now know that thoughts like these need to be critically examined if I’m in no immediate physical danger. I’m aware of the signals that my body broadcasts and intervene early with breathing and focusing techniques when I begin to feel the symptoms of fight, flight or freeze. I practice mindfulness techniques regularly so that I’m ready for emergencies like this one.

After a few deep breaths, I was calm and knew I needed more facts. My body is primed to immediately calm down because of my practices.

Then, I simply called the attorney on the paperwork and learned that years before I ever was involved in the case, the decedent sold a piece of property without signing the proper documents. This attorney reopened the case to clear title for the subsequent property owners. She had to notify me because I was attorney of record on the original file. There was nothing for me to do. She got the necessary court order and I would stop getting notices in a few days.

Okay, said the Inner Lizard. Nevermind.

Here’s the important point: my mind-body tools and practices didn’t stop my capacity for catastrophic thinking. But my reactions to those thoughts were significantly different than they use to be.

In the old days, thought spirals like this would trigger high stress, panicky symptoms like a stomach ache, trembling hands, and sleep loss. I might have avoided calling the attorney for a few days, frozen in physiologically triggered fear, and worrying the whole time.

Now, I can think clearly. “Oh, I’m having a bunch of crazy thoughts. What do I need to do? I need to get the facts. What’s the easiest way to do that? Oh, look at the documents more closely and see if there is an attorney I can call. Look, there’s a name, now find her number.” In several minutes, it was over.

Taming the Inner Lizard is not the equivalent of a lobotomy. Your brain will still strive to look for catastrophe, always looking to keep you safe. You may still have spirals of disastrous thoughts.

But with the right tools, your reactivity will be reduced significantly. It takes some time and practice, but it’s so, so worth it.

My Inner Lizard is now warming herself on a rock, her eyes half-closed, just waiting for our next adventure. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to my email, just waiting for the next time to take a few deep breaths.

Next time your thoughts are coming at you as fast as a runaway train, here are a few simple tools that can help:

  1. Drop your attention into your body by feeling your own weight. Feel the weight of yourself on your chair, of your legs and feet, of your arms and shoulders. Then take three slow, easy breaths, concentrating on a long, slow exhale that is at least as long as the inhale. Exhaling triggers the relaxation response of your nervous system, telling your brain that you are safe.
  2. Ask yourself which of your thoughts are true. In other words, which are factual and provable, and which are merely thoughts or conclusions without evidence? In the example above, the only thought I had that was factual was the one that said I needed to get more information by calling the attorney who filed the Motion.
  3. Try my Heartbreathing Meditiation Tool. For a free worksheet and mp3, just drop a note to support@terrydemeo.com and put the words “heartbreathing” in the subject line.

The Importance of Thinking Like a Four-Year Old

Alice Artwork 2018

This is a drawing done by Alice, my four-year-old granddaughter. She was exuberant as she made it, yet concentrated hard. She presented it to me as a gift, slowly and proudly naming and describing each color and shape.

How many of us do that as adults?

How often do we have the exuberance and passion and confidence to put color or line or words on paper, or music in the air, or dance on the floor and take pride in it?

How often do we create something for the simple joy of creating and to feel the joy of being fully alive?

Would we ever give our creations to as gifts? Or play our music for our friends?

Too often, if we even show something we’ve made to someone else, we diminish it, saying, “It’s not that good.”

Worse, we give up altogether and leave creativity to others.

How many times have you heard a friend say, “I’m not creative”? I’ve heard it countless times and even said it myself until I discovered that that very statement stopped me in my tracks.

We lose a huge source of joy–a simple, available, cost-free way to come alive– when we disconnect from our natural creativity.

What happens to us, to our enthusiasm, to our pride in our creations? Where do we lose that exuberance and passion? How is it that we begin to compare ourselves to others, to hide our creations, and then ultimately to stop creating altogether?

How in the world does that happen?

We can certainly trace it back to clueless teachers, parents, older siblings. A school system that grades our art and song and dance. Or chooses academics over creativity, even when studies show that programs in the arts improve brain development and student performance.

But does that even matter now that we’re adults?

A lot of the problem happens in our very adult, very reasonable heads—we give ourselves the very messages that thwart us.

And that does matter. It matters a lot, because we can do something about that.

Your creative brain will shut down whenever you switch into critiquing what you’re doing. Creativity and critical analysis are different brain functions and don’t work at the same time. They’re both good and necessary, but they need to be separated.

We have power over when we analyze what we’re doing and the stories we tell ourselves about our creativity. And that’s really good news.

So next time you’re tempted to criticize or deny your creative endeavors, or to not even try to attempt something you might be secretly yearning to do, remember how it felt to do something with the exuberance of a four-year-old.

Let’s think like they do. Let’s all reclaim Alice’s artistic exuberance and joy. Let’s reclaim a four-year-old’s passion to create, just because we’re alive and have two hands capable of putting crayons to paper!

Creative expression is such a precious resource for feeling fully alive. And we all have it.

All you need to do to reclaim it is to give the critical part of your brain a rest and let the creative part take over.

So grab your paints and brushes or your guitars and harmonicas. Sign up for a class that interests you. Tie on your dancing shoes.

And then think like a four-year-old.