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The breakdown is also the breakthrough

Years ago at a college party someone remarked to me that drunk people walk like this: fine, fine, fine, fine — oh sh*t, falling. Parties were really never my scene, but that image stuck with me and I remember it to this day because it seemed like a really good metaphor.

I think for a lot of us life goes something like this: fine, fine, fine, fine — oh sh*t, falling apart.

I know it goes this way for me sometimes.

Sometimes that’s just the way things are. Sometimes life is unexpected and hard and we didn’t want it to be this way and then suddenly it is and we’re falling apart. Sometimes it’s all beyond our control.

But sometimes I think there’s something else at play — sometimes I think it’s the same for us as it is for the drunk person: we’re trying so hard to prove something (that we’re doing okay, that we’ve got this, that we’re fine, no really) that we don’t see our downfall coming until we’re landing on our face.

The truth is that pretending works for a while — right up to the point where I start to feel a just a little more confident, start to think that maybe this time I’m going to get away with it… And then it catches up with me and I trip spectacularly over how not-okay I’ve been all along.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of chronic pain (but the lesson applies more generally) — because about a month ago I spent a week walking in Wales with a friend and experienced seven glorious, pain-free days and because my back wasn’t hurting and I was tired from walking, I actually slept. Which is to say that by the end of the week I actually felt kind of amazing.

It’s been a very long time since I felt amazing. So long that I had mostly forgotten what amazing feels like.

And then I came back to Boston and my back started hurting and I stopped sleeping well (the two go together for me), and all of a sudden there I was: tripping over how not-okay I was and fraying apart at my edges.

I’m not even sure that the last four weeks have been worse than “normal” — I think maybe it’s just me that’s changed. Because I’d forgotten what it was like to feel good, until suddenly I did.

In the end it doesn’t matter: the truth is simply that I am in need of a new “normal”, that I am no longer willing to push on as I have been.

Somewhere in the last four weeks my strength for fighting through being in pain ran out. All of my toughness disappeared on me.

This is what the breakdown looks like.

It’s not always loud and messy and tear-soaked. Sometimes it’s quiet and gentle.

But here’s the thing: I’ve fallen down and out and over enough times now to know that the breakdown can also be a really, really good thing.

Because reaching the end of your rope is always immediately and immensely clarifying.

You thought you still had some wiggle room, but then suddenly there it is: the end of your pretending leaves you with nowhere left to hide from your truth.

It’s terrifying and terrific: the breakdown is also the breakthrough. Or at least it can be if we’re willing to let it be both.

I used to be so afraid of falling apart that I never learned how to let the breakdown become the breakthrough. Whenever I felt myself falling apart, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I held on to anything I could reach as tightly as I could, to try and keep the pieces of myself together.

But in order to get to the breakthrough we have to stop pretending.

We have to hit the bottom and let ourselves shatter a little.

We have to stop to take a really good look around, instead of immediately getting up and heading on our way — hoping that no one noticed our stumble.

The breakthrough demands our curiosity, our willingness to linger, to take stock of what hurts and what’s broken and what are we no longer willing to put back together.

What is true for me today is this: I am no longer willing to be tough on pain.

What is true for you will inevitably be different. Your breakdown and your breakthrough are yours, and yours alone.

But you’ll know when you’ve found the truth you’re looking for because it will land in your body with a thump, an almost-visceral sensation that lies somewhere between a punch to the gut and an enormous sigh of relief.

And if you thought that getting to this knowing was the hard part, I have unfortunate news for you. The truth is that knowing is only the first step that makes the journey possible.

Insight without action is really just another form of hiding. And (because the truth is always a paradox…) there’s really nothing wrong with hiding.

It’s okay to be not-ready.

Just be honest with yourself that not-ready is where you’re at. Say: not today, but maybe someday — and let yourself sit with that.

Someday you’re going to be ready and, when you are, you’ll get to face the scariest part: the part where you take your knowing and you use it to reshape your life around some new principle you’ve never lived by before.

For me, today, that new principle is this: I want to be soft with pain. Wherever pain shows up I want to meet it with gentleness.

None of this will be easy. Change never is.

Our lives aren’t designed to accommodate the messiness of our human needs. 

To be soft with pain I’ll have to make changes at work and at home, I’ll have to have uncomfortable conversations with managers and untangle old habits to make space for new ways of being.

Being soft on pain demands that where pain shows up I will pull up a chair and give pain its very own seat at my table. It demands that I carve out new spaces in my life, to make room for pain to be present and to allow pain to have whatever it needs.

And the very worst part: I have no idea if any of this will be “worth it”. I have no guarantee that any of this will “work”.

After seven years of chronic pain, I live perpetually in a state of both really believing that not feeling this way is possible, and not really believing that any particular change will be the one that finally makes a difference. (I keep making them anyway, because you really never know…)

But what I do know is that I’m tired of fighting with pain and I can choose to put my weapons down.

The pain may or may not go away — but I can choose today to end the war.

Because today I am willing to admit that sometimes our strength lies not in our toughness but in our softness. In our willingness to lay down our arms and let what is true for us right now matter more than any story we might have about who, what, or how we are supposed to be.

At the end of the day, this is always the real breakthrough: the moment we choose to end our war with reality and turn instead toward allowing what is to shape us into the people we are ready to become.

Much love,
Jessica

What to do when your comfort zone feels like a prison

Here’s a puzzle for you: what should you do if your comfort zone feels like a prison?

I used to feel this way a lot. My job was comfortable, but I hated it. My hobbies were comfortable, but they bored me. Living in Boston was familiar, but I hated the ceaseless bustle of the city.

I felt like I was perpetually chafing against the edges of my life, haunted by the idea that surely there must be more out there than this.

Maybe you’ve had this problem, too.

Maybe your life is familiar and comfortable… but maybe comfortable is also kind of awful. Maybe you’ve secretly dreamed of running a way to a cabin in the woods and hiding there forever (or at least until things seem less-awful).

Or maybe it’s just me.

But here’s the interesting thing — in the past year almost none of my circumstances have changed. I still have the same job. I still live in the same apartment in the same city.

Nothing has changed materially, and yet today I can say that for the most part I like my job and the city doesn’t really bother me — on good days I sometimes even like living here.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what made this shift possible. And the short answer is always that I did. I changed my relationship to myself, and in doing so I changed my relationship to my job, my life, and my city.

Sometimes it works this way — sometimes uncomfortable circumstances in our life are signposts guiding us to turn inward, to look toward some way in which we are unknowingly creating our own suffering.

And sometimes it’s the opposite — sometimes situations are toxic and we need to get out of them. Sometimes the discomfort is there to help us see that it really is time to move on from a situation in which we have been comfortable for too long.

The more I experience, the more certain I become that truth is always a paradox: do what is easiest, except for when the hardest thing is the right thing for you. Stay put unless it really is time to go. Leave, unless it is time to stay.

Unfortunately, this kind of truth is generally unhelpful — which is why learning to navigate the path to your happiness is ultimately about improving your ability to tell the difference between the loud voice of your fear and the quietest whisper of your heart.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that have helped to guide me along the way.

The first thing is this: are you moving toward joy or away from discomfort?

I used to believe that moving away from discomfort was the same thing as moving toward joy — that if I reduced my discomfort, I would inevitably experience more joy.

In practice, this never worked out for me. My attempts to make my life more comfortable left me feeling imprisoned rather than free — and today, I no longer believe that this idea to be true.

Because the truth is that we manufacture a lot of our own discomfort.

We tell ourselves scary stories that turn benign situations into nightmares. We create rules about the kind of perfect person we are supposed to be that leave us feeling inadequate and crushingly alone. We are terrified of being vulnerable but angry that our lives are so lacking in meaningful human connection.

The problem is that it’s impossible to move away from the discomfort you create for yourself. If we want these things to change, we have to be the thing that changes.

Otherwise, we inevitably bring our story with us.

I hated my job, but if I’d moved on to a new job, I would have hated that too because the problem wasn’t with my job — it was with my story about what it meant to be a “good employee”.

My job was actually irrelevant — a distraction that I used to avoid facing what was really going on.

Which, again, isn’t to say that you should never move away from discomfort — because sometimes I really believe that you should. But be honest with yourself: are actively moving toward joy or are you just trying to dodge discomfort?

If you’re just trying to dodge discomfort, get really curious about that. What’s the source of your discomfort? Is it really your circumstances (and it might be!), or is it you or how you show up in those circumstances that is causing discomfort?

Because if the problem is really with you (your story, your habits, your mindset), you’re never going to fix it by changing your situation. You’re going to have to face inward and decide to change yourself.

And the second thing is this: what do you need to be okay?

Because sometimes the problem is outside of us, but a lot of the time we’re at least playing a partial role.

Sometimes your boss really is terrible or the situation really is unworkable. But it’s worth asking yourself the question: what do I need to be okay in this situation?

And maybe the answer will just be “LEAVE”, but maybe it won’t be. Maybe some voice inside will whisper that you could learn to set better boundaries, or improve at not taking on another person’s criticism as your own truth.

(Because it’s not the criticism that hurts, so much as the moment just after when we buy into what was said…)

It’s worth asking the question because it is in the asking and the listening that we reclaim our power.

It is in the asking and the listening that we reclaim our right to choose: to choose how we respond, how we show up, how we interact with others, and what we will do moving forward.

Because here’s something I deeply believe to be true: when we trust ourselves to take care of ourselves, even disasters can be handled.

When I trust myself to check-in with myself, to ask myself what I need to be okay, to listen and provide for myself my moments of need — when I trust myself to really do this, I find that it becomes increasingly hard to imagine situations in which I could not find a way to still be okay. There is tremendous freedom in that.

I believe that the definition of empowerment is trusting you to take care of you, over and over and over again.

And when I am able to live like this, suddenly getting out of my comfort zone doesn’t seem quite so scary anymore.

Much love,
Jessica

You’re going to need a really strong foundation

Here’s the thing that no one tells you: if you have a big, crazy dream you want to make come true you’re going to need to focus on your fundamentals. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising in a way that feels good in your body — these things aren’t just glamorous distractions; they’re the nitty, gritty details that make success possible.

This is a lesson that has been really hard for me to learn.

In part, this is because our hardest lessons are always more about unlearning than they are about learning.

The places where I struggle the most are the places where what I need to do to move forward runs counter to that which worked for me at some point in the past.

My habit of sacrificing the needs of my body in order to achieve my goals has worked incredibly well for me in the past. After all, I powered my way through a B.S. and an M.S. from MIT under the steam of 100,000 unmet needs.

I denied my body the sleep that it craved, week after week and year after year — all in the name of getting my work done so that I could be a “success”.

I denied my body the healthy movement that it craved, because the honest truth was that I was too exhausted. 

And so on. And so forth.

This approach worked okay for me for a few years. After all, I was young — I had resources to burn.

But eventually my resources ran out and I fell apart.

By the time I graduated from MIT I was utterly exhausted, suffering from chronic back pain, on my way to developing multiple food sensitivities, and so profoundly anxious from five years of constant, severe academic stress that I was pretty much living my whole life trapped between fight-or-flight (see this comic by the delightful Gemma Correll).

A post shared by Gemma Correll (@gemmacorrell) on

If you think that all sounds a bit overly dramatic, I promise you it’s not. All of those things really happened to me. But my point isn’t to solicit your pity or to trash MIT — after all, I was complicit in all my choices.

I was the one who chose to take five classes most semesters when three or four would do and I’m the one who chose to graduate with two majors and a minor when just one degree would have been plenty.

The culture at MIT also played its role — the institute has a culture of one-upmanship that I feel encourages students to stretch themselves beyond their capacity. But ultimately, I’m the one who chose to participate in that culture — and if you’d tried to talk me out of taking on so much, I don’t believe I would have listened.

I am as much to blame for my suffering as anyone and I’m not particularly interested in trying to point the finger of blame at MIT.

What I’m trying to say is this: I no longer believe it’s possible for anyone to live this way and that we only ever wind up hurting ourselves when we try.

If you refuse to care for yourself, eventually your body will give out on you — probably with terribly inconvenient timing.

If you refuse to acknowledge your needs, eventually you will be humbled.

Because at the bottom of it we are all human. We all have bodies and our bodies have needs that we are required to meet if we want to continue to function.

If you want to be strong enough to do something incredible, you need to start with the things that are most fundamental: as much sleep as your body desires, good food that nourishes you, a movement practice that feels good in your body without being overly stressful, and if you struggle with anxiety, chronic pain, or other health issues you might need a regular meditation practice or other mind-body practice to help you bring mind and body back into balance.

And, the more precarious your health is the more important it is that you know the core building blocks that make up your foundation.

These days my health has improved significantly, but it’s sometimes still annoyingly precarious. A bad cold or two is still enough to bowl me over and the road back to well-being can be long and fraught with setbacks and frustration.

But the thing that saves me is that these days I know my fundamentals.

When I’m not feeling well I know what I need to focus on. Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Eating good food. Joy.

I’ve been through this cycle enough times now to know that if I focus my attention here — on listening to my body and paying attention to my fundamentals — eventually the tide will begin to turn. Slowly energy will find its way back in as exhaustion and pain recede and I will begin to feel better.

I know that in time, everything else will follow.

My energy for writing will return. My desire to do more than crash on the couch after work each evening will return. Soon, I’ll tidy my bedroom after weeks of neglect.

But for now I’m clear on what I really need and I’ve learned the hard way that everything else (chores, my job, my dreams) has to be optional.

Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Food that nourishes and doesn’t make me sick. Joy.

Cut my life back to just what is essential, and these are the things that I need more than anything else.

If you want to do hard things or make your big, scary dreams come true you have to start here. You have to find your foundation and stick to it like glue.

None of which is to say that this will be easy — your foundation is unique to you and no one can give you the recipe. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself through months or even years of trial and error (and even then you’ll need to stay flexible, because what was working will stop working and you may be asked to start over).

But having a good foundation isn’t optional.

You’re always going to need to have your foundation in place to support and sustain you through the days, months, and years to come — so when in doubt: start here. Because caring for yourself is always the kindest thing you could do.

Much love,
Jessica

Bringing your body back into balance

Here are two things I know to be true.

First, things have been unusually hard for those of us here in the US since the inauguration of the Trump presidency. It seems like every time I look at the news there’s some fresh heartbreak splashed across the front page.

Second, the body’s natural response to fear is ultimately counterproductive in situations like this.

The highest priority of body and brain are to protect you from danger and remove you from stressful situations.

Unfortunately, there is no way to remove yourself from the situation of the Trump presidency.

For better or worse, we’re stuck with him for the time being. Which means that the brain, left to its own devices, will try and remove you from the situation not by changing your circumstances, but by removing your experience of those circumstances through numbing and apathy.

The problem with this approach is that there is no way to selectively numb the body or the emotions. They only way to stop ourselves from feeling the bad things is to stop ourselves from feeling everything. And if this happens to us, we begin to lose touch with our joys alongside our sorrows, and our lives become leached of their vibrancy and vitality.

My point is not that you shouldn’t be afraid — I personally think you should be at least a little bit afraid. Your fear is there to help you pay attention. Your nervous system has correctly identified a possible threat to your well-being.

The problem is that the Trump presidency isn’t an immediate and present danger you can physically fight or flee from. And when the body’s fear response is triggered in an ongoing way and the danger can’t be fought or fled, it has only two last-ditch responses: freeze or shut down altogether.

As we move forward we need to pay attention to our fear — but we also need to recognize that if our nervous systems remain highly activated in response to an ongoing situation, we’re going to end up feeling emotionally wrecked, physically ill, and possibly even traumatized.

Because when the body is locked in fight, flight, or freeze in response to fear it turns off a lot of key functions. When our fear-response is a short-lived response, a natural reaction to a passing danger this works beautifully. But in the presence of an ongoing threat, the system starts to break down.

The good news is that if we are conscious of what is happening in our brains and in our bodies we can take proactive action to protect ourselves from stress and to create a more productive response to fear.

We can begin to do this by noticing that the threat isn’t immediate and allowing ourselves to return to the safety of the present moment. Yes, the Trump presidency is awful and many heartbreaking things will probably come to pass in the next four years. And yet, for most of us, we are as safe today as we were six months ago. The worst has not yet come to pass.

So for now we can take refuge in the recognition of this fact. We come back to our body, to our breath, in this moment in which we are still safe.

This isn’t about hiding from what’s happening and it’s not about burying our heads in the sand. It’s about returning our bodies to balance so that we can be strong enough to continue to fight.

When we return to safety in the present moment, it allows the nervous system to relax. The fight or flight response eases, the body returns to a healthy equilibrium, and we become more resilient and able to take constructive action in the future.

My preferred technique for bringing equilibrium back to the body is meditation, which is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for reconnecting with my body and engaging with the present moment.

But here’s the thing most people don’t tell you about meditation: it’s really freaking hard! It’s sort like the black-belt of mindfulness practices — highly-effective, but not necessarily for beginners. It took me years of off-and-on practice to really see a benefit from it.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes it means it’s best to try a different approach. If you’ve tried meditation before and feel like you “can’t meditate” or you’ve benefited from meditation before but now find yourself struggling, here are a few simple things to try.

  • Focus on your heartbeat. I do this lying in bed at night sometimes when I’m having trouble sleeping. Just lie down flat on your back somewhere comfortable and put your hands over your heart and feel it’s steady thump-thump-thumping. I’m convinced there’s something primally comforting about the rhythm of a heartbeat left over from our time spent in the womb.
  • Try a guided body scan. This is a mindfulness exercise that is similar to meditation but gives the mind a task to latch onto — bringing the attention to the physical sensations in the body. You can find a ton of these on the internet, so feel free to google for one you like. If you’re new to the practice I recommend starting with a ~10-minute recording such as this one, which is technically intended to help you sleep but could be used any time.
  • Express yourself creatively. If you have a lot of stress and emotions flying about doing something creative can be really helpful. I’m a writer, so I turn to my journal for this, but you might try painting, coloring, dancing, singing — whatever you love to do, really.
  • Practice yoga. I really like yoga because it is fundamentally an embodied practice that unites body and breath. It can be particularly helpful in situations where you might be feeling too unsettled to relax easily into meditation. Yoga encourages the body to relax into movement and into the rhythm of the breath. If you’re looking for resources, Yoga With Adriene is my favorite way to practice these days.

As we slowly and persistently practice bringing our attention back into the physical sensations in the body and to an awareness of the present moment, we accomplish two important things. We learn to find a visceral experience of safety in the body in any moment which allows the activated nervous system to relax, and we increase our tolerance for experiencing uncomfortable sensations.

We begin to teach ourselves that fear or sadness or pain are just sensations we experience in our physical bodies in response to stimulus. A lot of the struggle we experience around these emotions is our own resistance to feeling what we’re feeling.

When my chronic pain flares, I make it worse by believing that pain is something “bad” and that I shouldn’t be feeling it. The truth is that pain is just a sensation — a hot, stabbing, fire in my nerves.

When I drop my story about it and just feel the sensation in the present moment, I learn something that is obvious, but easy to overlook: I’m always able to handle my pain; I’m always already doing it. In each moment, I’m already feeling the full intensity of the sensation and I’m still breathing — I’m still fundamentally okay.

When I remember this, I find the pain eases — the sensation might remain but my resistance to feeling it diminishes and the pain becomes easier to bear.

This is what I mean by returning to a felt-sense of safety in the present moment: I might be scared or hurting, but if I sit down with myself in the moment, I realize that I can feel these things and still be okay. In fact, I’m always already doing it.

I believe that being able to return to this felt-sense of safety, to being grounded in our bodies, and aware of the present moment is the foundation from which all courage is born.

When we learn to see that we are always already handling our difficulties in the present moment, it becomes easier to see how safe we really are, to see that “bad” things can happen, that we can be hurting, and still be fundamentally okay.

It is this belief in our own safety, even in difficult situations, that makes it possible to act in ways that require our courage — because courage always requires taking the risk that things will end badly.

The coming years are going to ask each of us to be as brave as we have ever been.

The courage that we will need starts here: it starts with paying attention to our fear, returning to our safety in the present moment, and helping ourselves feel safe from the inside out, so that we can show up in the world with all the courage as we can possibly muster.

Much love,
Jessica

You don’t have to be fierce to be strong

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage and strength the past few weeks. Like many of you, I’ve felt called to step outside of my comfort zone in new ways — in forms ranging from contacting my congressional representatives to beginning work on a new ebook.

I used to have a really narrow definition of courage and strength: a definition in which both of those things revolved around fierceness and speaking up and striving.

But this isn’t the kind of courage and strength I’ve felt called to lately — instead, I’ve looking toward a quieter, gentler kind of strength.

A strength that endures instead of burning out in a fiery blast of fierceness.

This kind of strength seems different to me — it is equal parts fierceness and kindness, strong but also gentle.

This kind of strength checks in to notice how I am doing.

When I am tired, this strength listens and rests. It doesn’t push me beyond my own limits, it doesn’t tell me that I have to finish, that the work isn’t done, or that I have to keep going.

This strength puts me to bed when I am tired and feeds me when I am hungry and it asks me to take a break and move my body when I am stiff and aching from too many hours at the computer.

This strength wakes me up in the mornings and chooses to take time for my meditation because it knows that I am stronger when I dedicate some time to calming myself, to noticing my thoughts and feelings, to offering myself my own attention and dusting out the cobwebs so that the light can shine through.

This strength knows what I myself have long struggled with: that a life is more than just the sum-total of words written or Senators called. That a life is ultimately a taking-care, an act of devotion to the needs and desires of a single human body bearing a single human soul.

This strength knows that both body and soul require nourishment if they are to remain healthy — that the heart can be strong only when the body that carries it is not aching with hunger, pain, or exhaustion.

And finally I have come to a place from which I cannot see these things as anything other than what they are: the necessary things that strengthen me.

This taking-care is not a frivolous waste of time that could be dedicated to more important activities.

These are the more important activities.

Not because the other things are not important — but because without taking time for the things that strengthen me, my fierceness will burn out and when I am nothing but ash I will have nothing left to offer to anyone else.

So I’m going to say it again: You don’t need to be fierce to be strong.

A fire is fierce and strong but it burns its fuel and dies.

A tree is not fierce, but it is strong, and it may survive hundreds or even thousands of years.

Always in the past I have been the fire, burning out and then healing and rising again from my own ashes. But this time I wish to endure — to be more like the tree.

I think that now more than ever we’re going to need this new (to me) kind of strength — a strength that endures instead of burning out. A strength that takes punches and keeps going. A strength that can see through dark days without losing faith.

Because I’m sitting here with my eyes wide open. I’ve been reading the news. I see what we’re facing. But I want to believe there’s a possibility for goodness to be born here, that there is possibility that those of us who (like my favorite sign from the Women’s March) went to sleep on November 8th, 2016 Democrats and woke up Activists.

I believe that where we were asleep now we might choose to be awake. And that in our awakening we might be strong enough to change everything.

But it starts here.

It starts with us and our strength — not the fiery fierce kind that burns but the gentle, enduring kind that’s capable of standing, not just for a day, or a month, or four years — but the kind that might support us for the rest of our lives.

This kind of courage and strength starts with us.

It starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: our fears, our anxieties, our needs. It starts with each of us meeting ourselves with kindness: soothing our fears, quieting our anxieties, and tending to our needs so that we are strong enough to show up day after day after day — not just for ourselves, but for ourselves first and then for everyone around us.

Because where we were a nation divided, we will need to be a nation united. And I don’t know how exactly we get there, but it starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: the fears of those who are “other”, the anxieties that keep people awake at night, the needs of those who are different than us.

And so the question I want to leave you with is this: what will you seek to create in the coming days, months, and years?

Because this kind of strength doesn’t feed on fear, it feeds on the possibility that even darkness can be transmuted into light — if only enough people are willing to open their hearts and take a stand.

This is one those moments when we all have to choose: not just how we will fight, but how we will heal.

We get to decide what new goodness we will bring into the world to meet the ugliness around us — so that this might not just be an ending but also a new beginning.

Much love,
Jessica