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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

One day, one hour, one breath at a time

Once again I find myself sitting before the blank page trying to find something helpful to say on a day when everything seems hard. I don’t know about you, but for me personally, it’s been a rough January.

I started off the year full of ideas and enthusiasm (as one does), and rapidly succumbed to a cold that I’m still fighting off traces of. But it hasn’t just been my health I’ve struggled with. It’s been hard to read the news, and last week it was hard to watch the Trump inauguration.

All of which combines to mean that I spent the first part of January mired in a haze of illness, exhaustion, and anxiety.

But I can’t help but suspect that maybe it’s been a hard month for you, too — if not for all the same reasons.

And if that’s true then I want you to know that you’re not alone, that it’s been hard for me too — and I want you to know that it gets easier.

Because this haze of exhausted anxiety is a feeling I’m familiar with; I’ve been here before.

So if this month has been hard for you and in the wake of the inauguration you’re feeling understandably anxious and fearful, here is the process I’ve been using to navigate difficult times.

Step One: Offer yourself compassionate witness

The first step in navigating any hard time is always to notice you’re having a hard time (I know this sounds silly, but bear with me). This can be as simple as offering yourself a thought like “Wow, I’m feeling really anxious right now”.

The point is to take a step outside of the direct experience of the feeling (“I am anxious”) to create space between you and the feeling (“I am experiencing anxiety”). In the first instance, anxious is what you are and in the second anxious is only a feeling that is happening to you.

This creates space which allows you to work with the emotion instead of being overrun by it.

So if you haven’t already, or if you’re presently feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to step back and notice exactly what it is that you’re feeling — and then notice that that feeling is simply a sensation that is happening to you right now.

And as you do that, offer whatever it is you may be feeling compassion. Don’t try to make it go away; don’t tell yourself that the feeling shouldn’t be there.

Just step outside of the feeling a little bit and notice its presence. That’s all you need to do right now.

Sometimes I like think of my feelings as unruly children who are seeking my attention, care, and affection. But feel free to choose any metaphor that works for you.

Step Two: Slow everything down

When I’m struggling I never have the same capacity to accomplish things as I usually do (be they grand visions or small mundane things like folding the laundry).

It’s important to understand and expect this because it allows you to give yourself permission to slow down.

When I forget to do this I invariably get lost in a shame-spiral that starts with letting things I’d meant to do slip, at which point I judge myself a “bad person” for not doing things I meant to do, and get mired in guilt and shame, which exacerbates my anxiety, which leaves me with even less energy, and causes things to slip even farther.

If you have this tendency too, then I invite you to skip the spiral. Start with permission to accomplish only as much as you have already accomplished (and, hey, some days that might be literally nothing if you’re really struggling).

I invite you to let being where you are be exactly enough.

I promise all those things that you’d planned to do will still be waiting for you when you’re feeling well enough to tackle them again — and, maybe more importantly, the world probably won’t have ended between now and then just because you didn’t get around to folding the laundry.

And anyway, I’ve found that somehow the truly critical stuff always manages to get done.

Step Three: Create a sense of safety

When you’re mired in a hard place, the journey to the other side begins with safety. It begins with creating a place where you can face into the storm while remaining anchored in an internal felt-sense of safety.

How exactly this sense of safety is created will depend on you and the storm you are facing.

Meditation and mindfulness practices are my favorite approach — I can face into mental or emotional turbulence while remaining anchored in the safety of the breath. But the effectiveness of this approach depends a lot on how well I am able to separate my sense of self from the immediate experience of whatever I am feeling — and how able I am to offer myself kindness and compassion instead of judgement.

If you feel like exploring this kind of approach, I particularly like the practice of RAIN which meditation teacher Tara Brach describes here.

Beyond meditation, other ways that you may be able to face into the reality of your experience from within a safe container include confiding in a journal, expressing yourself in any sort of creative activity, going for a walk, taking a bath, or rolling yourself up in a blanket. Sometimes working with a guided meditation can also help you create a safe space for yourself.

Feel free to experiment and get creative here and, if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no shame in asking for help.

A really important note: if you are really struggling or dealing with any sort of unresolved trauma you may be so caught in your experience you are unable to separate from the emotional experience without the presence of another person to hold safe space for you.

If this is true for you, then please don’t pressure yourself to keep trying — if you can’t confront your feelings while staying rooted in a sense of safety then it is kinder to seek the help of someone who can hold a safe space for you while you navigate the issue. Depending on your situation, this person might be a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach. If you feel like this might be true for you I’m always happy to talk with you and help you find the help you need, you can contact me here.

Step Four: Have patience with the process

This process isn’t a miracle cure (I wish it was, but it’s not). There’s no straight line from suffering to peace… it’s never going to be once-and-done.

You’re going to continue to struggle. You’re going to have good days and bad. You’re going to have days where it feels like you’re right smack back where you started.

You’re going to need to have patience and trust the process.

You’re going to need to trust that by offering yourself compassionate witness in the murkiest depths of your struggle and by calmly, gently, kindly turning inward to face the storm, that strength and courage will ultimately prevail.

This process isn’t magic. It’s hard and gritty and it usually takes longer than you’d like.

And when you’re in the middle it can be deeply, profoundly uncomfortable because the ego likes guarantees and it wants a promise that things are going to get better. But in the middle of a profound transformation everything feels uncertain and nothing feels like a guarantee.

But the truth is that this is okay, too. You don’t need to be comfortable if you just keep gently nudging yourself toward facing into the truth.

Just take it one day, one hour, one breath at a time.

Much love,
Jessica

What I learned about courage in 2016

A year ago I decided that my word for the year in 2016 was going to be “DARE” (you can read more about that here). When I chose that word I had a vision in mind for what daring would look like in my year. Specifically, I intended to:

  • Live courageously
  • Take bold actions
  • Let myself be seen
  • Trust my body
  • Honor my need for rest
  • Ask for support when I need it
  • Admit when I’m overextended

Looking back now, I think that I actually did a really good job of honoring all of those intentions — the process just didn’t take me any of the places I expected it to…

Instead of building a coaching practice, I significantly scaled back the amount of coaching I was doing. Instead of continuing to blog regularly, I dramatically reduced my blogging frequency. Instead of working on the memoir I’m (oh-so-slowly) writing, I spent the year deeply immersed in self-reflection but didn’t really manage to put words to paper.

I started off 2016 full of energy — when I declared my word for the year was going to be “DARE”, I had bold plans. And then I started to pursue those dreams the way I had always accomplished everything in my life to date: by working and working and working until I was exhausted and miserable.

The initial pursuit of my plans led me to a totally different challenge: how do you do hard things in a way that’s exhilarating and fun without being exhausting and awful?

Because here’s what I really want to tell you: you can set the most amazing goals in the world and you’ll never achieve them if you believe that the only way to achieve them is by working so hard it makes you miserable.

Pushing through even though I was exhausted and miserable is how I’d always accomplished hard things. I’d made myself miserable through five sleepless years and two degrees from MIT. From the outside I seemed very successful… but the reality was I was totally exhausted and burnt out.

In 2016 I learned a lot about daring — but mostly I learned a lot about how it’s impossible to be courageous when you’re already beating yourself up for not being more than you are.

Because ultimately that’s exactly what I was doing.

Every time I pushed myself to do this thing or that thing because I felt I needed to in order to meet my goals I was operating from a place of scarcity. And every time I beat myself up when I didn’t do something I “needed” to I was telling myself that I was inadequate and that my efforts would never amount to anything of worth.

So 2016 was ultimately the year I chose to put my self-directed weapons down.

I declared that I wasn’t willing to do anything if the price was feeling miserable.

I stopped using guilt to torture myself over the things I thought I “should be” doing.

I learned a whole new way of approaching everything I wanted to accomplish.

I started really listening to my body again. I started paying attention to how I was feeling, to what it was that I really wanted.

None of this was easy. 

I spent months mired in anxiety as I shed layer upon layer of old habits that were no longer helping me. But when I started doing things again, I knew where to start: I started with what felt good.

I returned to my meditation practice. I returned to yoga with more mindful awareness of my body and less focus on making perfect poses. I returned to my journal and to my writing. I returned to cooking and eating really good food that makes me happy.

I let my desires and my curiosity take me in new directions, too. New languages, new interests, new projects. I’m really excited to be learning Russian and I’ve got something new brewing for this blog… more on that soon!

In some ways I feel like a whole new person, and at the same time I feel more like myself than I’ve ever been.

It was a long and difficult process, but in the end I’m so glad I stuck with the experience and let it change me — because transformation isn’t easy and it takes a lot of courage, but the results have been nothing short of amazing.

As we move into 2017, I’m feeling calmer and clearer than I have in years. My energy is picking up again, albeit slowly. I’m in touch with my body and really listening to myself in a way I haven’t been able to in years. I know what I want to create next.

And, maybe most importantly, I’ve learned that real courage isn’t really about boldness or audacity and it isn’t about killing yourself trying to make impossible things happen.

I believe that most real courage is compassionate and quiet — it’s about inquiring into the truth in your heart unflinchingly, it’s about bearing witness to your hurts and fears as much as to your joys, it’s about being willing to admit that “this isn’t working” and to not make that mean you’re a failure. It means giving yourself permission to tear things down and start over.

Real courage starts silently. It’s the work you do at home behind the closed doors of your own heart.

But what starts as purely internal work begins to change everything about you: they way you get things done, the way you talk to people, the way you show up in the world.

Real courage unfolds softly, quietly, and eventually it takes you by surprise because it seemed like nothing was changing right up until the moment you surprised yourself by speaking up in an uncomfortable situation or daring to try something new.

So if you, like me, grew tired of beating yourself up in 2016… If you, like me, needed to learn how to be brave in a way that didn’t involve white-knuckling your way through fear — then I invite you to turn inwards.

Turn inwards to the truth in your heart and start with the courageous act of admitting what isn’t working; just having the courage to admit where things suck is more than enough for today.

Much love,
Jessica

Healing has its own timeline

As I’ve been watching the seasons change here in Boston, I’ve found myself unexpectedly at odds with the Earth’s natural rhythm: as the world slips into the dark winter months, my energy finally seems to be returning.

I feel hesitant to say such things out loud because this isn’t the first time I’ve hoped I was recovering only to find myself slipping back into familiar lassitude.

And yet, here I am again, quietly announcing that this time I hope it’s true.

You might think that after however many months (has it been four or five now? I’ve lost count…), I’d be used to the slowness with which this healing has proceeded, but it’s still so easy to trip over my own impatience.

I’ll have a really great day where I feel amazing and get a lot done… and then I’ll spend the next three days recovering.

But here’s the thing: this is just what healing looks like.

As much as I wish that healing was a straight line from unwell to well, a steady climb from rock-bottom to dazzling new heights, the reality of it seems to be that healing looks more like a rambling mountain road filled with unexpected twists, sudden turns, and jarring bumps.

And, just like when driving that winding road, it is easy to get frustrated.

It is easy to feel that after months of malaise there hasn’t been any real progress. But if I take the long view — if I compare where I am now to where I was three months ago, or twelve — it becomes easy to see how different things are now from how they were then.

I think that the changing season serves as a really good metaphor for how change proceeds in our lives. I can predict the first snow of winter no better than I can pin the day on the calendar when I’ll be “better” or “ready” or “healed”.

As much as my mind might wish to do so, there’s no line to be drawn in the sand — no well-defined boundary to cross between “when I was there” and “now that I’m here”.

At the change of the seasons, the weather is often volatile and contrary — a dizzying tour of hot, then cold, then hot again. And yet, there’s an underlying trend: summer’s heat yields inevitably to winter’s cold, and eventually cold will yield to warmth again. But the exact progression of days and temperatures that will lead us from here to there is impossible to guess.

I’m increasingly convinced that all change proceeds like this: a dizzying tumult of ups and downs, that mixes us up until we’re not quite sure how far we’ve come or how far we’ve yet to go. A series of largely-random fluctuations that catches us so off-guard it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

And my mind hates this.

My mind hates being unable to predict, because what I cannot predict I cannot control, and what I cannot control seems dangerous.

My mind wants to say that if I cannot predict when I will be well again then there is no way to know I will ever be well. And yet when I look at the trend over the past few months, it remains clear to me that I am getting better.

And here’s another truth: it’s when I let my fear run away with me and forget to trust the process that I trip myself up.

When anxiety wins I stop listening to the needs of my body, I overdo things, I relapse.

When anxiety wins I lose patience, I become unable to remember all the reasons there are to hope, all the evidence I can see pointing to signs of improvement.

When anxiety wins I slip back to where I was a month ago, or two — I slip back until I fall into something familiar. A pattern, a rhythm, a habit that I recognize because we’re old friends now: I spent my summer becoming intimately acquainted with their shape and heft.

And so now when anxiety wins I slip back, but in backsliding I find myself once again on solid ground. Familiar, well-worn ground I’ve walked four dozen times before.

When you think about it, it’s almost magic: the process itself catches me.

Over and over I return to where I began and each time it gets easier to crack the puzzle because I’ve practiced this now. This place is familiar but time has moved on and I’m not the same person I was the first time I landed here.

The more times this happens, the more I trust myself to hit the bottom and rise up again.

It is this trust that offers us real freedom, I think. When rock bottom is something we fear hitting, fear holds us prisoner. It becomes impossible to do anything that might trigger any sign of collapse for fear it might grow into an inescapable, all-consuming collapse.

When fear holds us prisoner, we inevitably find ourselves unable to risk anything at all.

But when we trust in our own ability to bottom out and pick ourselves back up and try again, the paths that used to seem too risky might begin to seem more enticing.

And if we can learn to navigate the dark days with kindness, with awareness, with compassion and gentleness — then we can learn to bring these qualities to the bright days, too — and ultimately everything gets better.

So if you’re muddling through a dark time right now, I’d encourage you to make friends with the process. Learn how to comfort yourself through the dark times.

Because falling apart is inevitable. 

No matter how much we try to control things, no matter how hard we work to protect ourselves — our hearts will always be vulnerable to life’s bumps and bruises.

But if you can learn to greet the dark days with gentle curiosity instead of fear or anger, if you can learn to comfort yourself with compassion instead of beating yourself up with self-judgement — then I really believe that you can do anything.

Much love,
Jessica

 

What’s the kindest thing you could do for yourself right now?

You may or may not have noticed that my blog has been on hiatus for almost two months now. At first this wasn’t on purpose — I didn’t plan to stop writing. But I did and one week became four, became six.

For the past two months I’ve been turned inward, moving through a phase of transformation that has left the rest of my life on pause. I haven’t been blogging. I haven’t been marketing my coaching business. I haven’t been keeping up with the chores and minutiae of everyday living the way I usually do.

This is what the first phase of change looks like.

It’s inward-turning and silent. It’s still to the point of motionlessness.

When you’re deeply buried in the first quiet stirrings of a profound shift, you move so slowly that some days you might not move at all — a breath caught in your own tightened throat.

To pause in this way can feel so uncomfortable.

In the first weeks after I slowed all the way down to my stop, I felt like everything was falling apart — or maybe that I was falling apart and taking my life down with me.

It was hard to watch.

It was hard to watch myself fall apart, to watch the habit and abilities I had attached my self-worth to fall away until it felt like there was nothing left but me — naked, needy, useless.

In part, I stopped writing because I felt I had nothing to offer, nothing to give.

I don’t want to sugar-coat this because this is what the beginning of a transformation looks like.

In order to make room for what will be, what was needs to fall away.

And in between what was and what will be you may feel as raw and naked as a newborn baby, squalling with the first stinging breath of air in your unaccustomed lungs.

I think that all change begins like this. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and ungainly and in many ways objectively awful-feeling.

And when it happens to you, here’s what you do.

You take care of yourself.

It sounds nice on paper, and maybe what you imagine in your head when you read these words is a kind of retreat or idyll. Cozy mornings, long baths, quiet hours spent reading or journalling — but in my experience taking care of yourself in the middle of a meltdown is not nearly so romantic.

Because when you get down to brass tacks, taking care of yourself in a meltdown looks mostly like giving yourself permission to not-do all the things you want to be not-doing.

  • It looks like making oatmeal for dinner instead of cooking when you’re tired.
  • It looks like calling in sick when you wake up in exhausted and aching and feeling awful.
  • It looks like not-doing anything that isn’t essential: laundry when you’re out of underwear, the grocery store when you have literally nothing left to eat

If you’re like me then you have words for yourself when you live this way.

Lazy. Useless. Irresponsible. Worthless. Slob. Slacker. Whiny. Disappointment. Burden.

They’re not very nice words, are they?

Your words would maybe be different than mine, but I think most of us tend toward self-judgement when we feel like we’re falling apart.

I think that most of us have a habit of feeling like letting things fall apart is not okay.

It’s hard to recognize in the moment that these words are lies.

There’s no actual difference between “barely holding it together” and “thriving” — you’re living your life whether you made oatmeal for dinner or three loving courses from scratch.

It’s good. You’re alive. It’s enough.

You are doing enough.

In moments of meltdown it can be hard to remember this, which is why it’s your job to keep remembering.

In the middle of the meltdown taking care of yourself looks like giving yourself permission to fall apart.

To keep whispering softly: “hey, it’s okay, you’re okay, it’s going to be okay” to that scared little part of you that’s deathly afraid of letting things fall apart.

When you’re ready to make a big shift it’s going to feel like you’re falling apart. This is because the old you is falling apart… you are shedding the skin that no longer fits you and it’s going to look ugly at first.

(There’s an awkward beauty to that ugliness if you look long enough.)

So when it happens — because it happens to all of us eventually: take care of yourself.

From moment to moment, just keep asking: “What’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”

Do that.

Much love,
Jessica