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First you have to be willing

The last time I wrote anything for this space, I wrote to you about kindness. I wrote about falling apart and asking, “What’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”. I wrote about starting there, about doing that.

Here’s the thing that happens when you start asking yourself this question: you get some unexpected answers. In the month since my last blog post I’ve learned a lot about what kindness is (and about what kindness isn’t).

Pop quiz: What comes to mind when you think about kindness?

I think of some kind of warm, gentle, mother-figure come to swoop me up and hug my hurts away. I think of generosity and tenderness and baths and soft blankets and space to call my own.

And, hey, sometimes a bath really is the kindest thing you could do for yourself right now.

But most of the time kindness is less obvious. Kindness might also be hard, overwhelming, or scary.

Because it turns out sometimes kindness looks like this:

  • Not procrastinating something stressful because it would be kinder to get it over with.
  • Speaking up for yourself and having a difficult conversation because it would be kinder than letting your emotions fester.
  • Cancelling on a friend if it would be kinder to risk disappointing them than it would be to make yourself go.
  • Taking a crazy risk because it would be kinder to risk failure than to live with the regret of never daring to find out.
  • Saying no to someone who wants your help because you can’t help them and take care of yourself at the same time.

Sometimes kindness asks really difficult things of us.

As I navigate this exploration of kindness, the metaphor I keep coming back to is about baby birds. There comes a day when a baby bird has to leave the nest and fly if it wants to survive. There will come a day when the kindest thing is to try and fly, no matter how unsure that bird might be. (And if you think baby birds swoop gracefully out of the nest on their first try, I’m afraid that’s not how it works!)

Sometimes this will end disastrously. Sometimes it will end wonderfully. Either way, trying was still the kindest thing to do.

Sometimes the hard things kindness asks of us turn out much better than we’d feared. Sometimes the hard conversation goes more smoothly than we’d imagined. Sometimes our friends understand when we cancel on them. Sometimes the person we said no to is really nice about it.

And sometimes this doesn’t happen.

When things go as badly as we’d feared, it doesn’t make them less kind.

Which is why kindness is key, but I think there’s a second piece to it that’s equally important and that piece is willingness.

You have to be willing to have the hard conversation.
You have to be willing to feel like a disappointment.
You have to be willing to have it all turn out exactly as you’d feared.

You have to be willing to have the whole experience — glee and fear and sadness and frustration and everything in between.

You have to be able meet that experience with kindness and compassion.

Being kind to yourself isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s hard and scary and asks you to be braver than you’ve ever been.

And that means that if you want to be kind to yourself you have to be willing to be kind with yourself, too.

You can learn to extend kindness even to the parts of you that are angry or scared or uncomfortable, the parts of you that maybe you wish would go away. You can to learn how to be okay even when you’re uncomfortable. You can learn how to witness your discomfort, to sit with it, and to hold gentle, compassionate space for yourself in the midst of your discomfort. You can to learn to have patience with yourself when you notice how unwilling and uncomfortable you are.

If you’re like me, this won’t come naturally.

If you’re like me then there’s a part of you that is scared and small and hurting and it staggers about in you like a two-year-old having a tantrum when you ask it to stay present with any kind of discomfort. (You get to learn to be kind to this part, too.)

So if you’ve been struggling to be kind with yourself in the face of life’s upsets and disappointments, then here’s something to try.

I’ve been reading True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart by Tara Brach, which I’m finding to be one of the more helpful books I’ve read in awhile. In it she writes:

“Many students I work with support their resolve to “let be” by mentally whispering an encouraging word or phrase. For instance, you might feel the grip of fear and whisper “yes,” or experience the swelling of deep grief and whisper “yes.” You might use the words “this too” or “I consent.” At first you might feel you’re just putting up with unpleasant emotions or sensations. Or you might say yes to shame and hope that it will magically disappear. In reality, we have to consent again and again. Yet even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like “yes” or “I consent,” begins to soften the harsh edges of your pain. Your entire being is not so rallied in resistance. Offer the phrase gently and patiently, and in time your defenses will relax, and you may feel a physical sense of yielding or opening to waves of experience.”

Brach, Tara (2013-01-22). True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (p. 63). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“I consent” is something I’ve been playing with, and it’s one of the most powerful tools I’ve found.

When I feel scared or overwhelmed or angry or hurt, “I consent” is a gentle reminder that I’m choosing this, that I’m willing to have this experience — no matter how difficult. “I consent” is a reminder that I want even this — because I know it to be the kindest thing I could do for myself right now.

“I consent” allows me to find the willingness I need to keep going, to keep choosing and trying and failing and falling.

“I consent” helps me to feel my hurts and my fears and my shame and to be kind with myself through the whole of it.

“I consent” reminds me that it is enough to show up and allow the truth of what is here and now, to greet myself in this moment with all the kindness and compassion I can muster.

Because life is hard and messy and beautiful and brilliant and there is no part of it that is not ours to experience — and the miracle of it is that even the hard and messy bits take on an air of grace when we learn to open our hearts and stay present with the truth of what we’re feeling in each moment.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE:

If you are dealing with unresolved trauma, then this may be too much for you right now. When we are coping with trauma our emotions and the physical sensations in our bodies can be so overwhelming that making contact with them might feel profoundly unsafe. It is important to realize that this is totally okay. It just means that you may need to relearn how to feel safe with yourself before you are ready to practice anything else.

It is also important to realize that you may be dealing with trauma even if nothing really “bad” has happened to you. I believe that a lot of my trauma stems from experiences of physical pain that I have no control over. My pain isn’t anyone’s fault — no one beat or abused me — but physical pain in many forms has been a part of my life since I was very young, and I’ve been living with chronic back pain and headaches for roughly five years now. The near-constant presence of physical pain eventually left me feeling unsafe in my own body. This is still trauma even though nothing that happened to me was particularly “traumatic”.

If you are struggling with trauma it’s important to realize that you may not be able to move past the trauma without help. Being traumatized separates us from our innate sense of safety and it may be difficult to find our way back without someone to guide us. When we don’t feel safe in our bodies and able to stay present with ourselves even in calm moments, trying to stay present with uncomfortable physical sensations or emotions may do more harm than good.

Please don’t do this to yourself.

If trying to stay present with uncomfortable sensations or emotions is overwhelming, then go back to the beginning and ask “what is the kindest thing I could do for myself right now?”. If the kindest thing you could do would be to stop pressuring yourself into doing something that scares you, please start there.

If you think you might be struggling with trauma and want to know more, feel free to contact me. I’m happy to talk with you about what kinds of resources are available and help you figure out how you can move forward.

Much love,
Jessica

 

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

Should you treat yourself for “bad” behavior?

Here’s a question: what drives us to do things that seem self-defeating or self-destructive?

Now obviously, this isn’t a question that has a single simple answer. There are lots of reasons why we do things that aren’t in our own best interest. Some of which are more obvious than others.TreatYourself

We might be numbing ourselves to avoid feeling discomfort, or honoring a hidden agenda of self-protection that is in opposition to our stated goals and “best interest”.

However, I think there’s another common reason why we do this that’s less talked-about: you might be forcing yourself to do too many things you don’t want to do and not allowing enough time to do the things you really want to do.

In Martha Beck’s book, Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, she introduces the idea that we each have two selves inside of us the “essential self” (the wild, untamed, impulsive, child-like part of us) and the “social self” (the grown-up, responsible, law-abiding self).

You can watch her describe these two selves and their relationship in this hilarious video. (It’s one of my favorite things on the internet).

The idea is that as we go about or grown-up, responsible, adult lives these two selves come into conflict with each other.

The social self tells us to get up or we’ll be late for work when our alarm goes off in the morning but our essential self is tired and wants to go back to sleep so we compromise and hit snooze for 10 more minutes.

At 11 am the essential self wants to buy a cookie but we’re on a diet so our social self buys us a grapefruit instead.

By 3 pm the essential self is ready to pack up and head home for the day but the social self tells us firmly that we aren’t allowed to leave for two more hours. The work day isn’t over yet.

If you are like me, your natural inclination is to follow the rules, to march along to the dictates of your employers and institutions, and to brush off your essential self’s desires all day long.

Particularly for those of us who are high-achievers, setting aside the social self’s dictates in order to follow the essential self’s whims can feel intensely dangerous and uncomfortable.

Our academic and professional success seems to have hinged upon our ability to set aside our own needs and wishes in order to dedicate ourselves to achieving someone else’s priority (a teacher, a boss, a parent).

However, there’s a hidden cost to treating our essential selves this way. 

What happens is I get home at 6 and I’m exhausted but I haven’t had any fun yet today so my essential self stages a revolt. Instead of going to bed, which would be reasonable under the circumstances, I find myself watching silly videos on YouTube until past my usual bedtime.

At the end of the night neither self is happy.

The social self is spiraling in a guilt trip and envisioning how dreadful work will be tomorrow when I’m tired. The essential self isn’t satisfied because the fun it got wasn’t what it was really craving and it’s busy sulking about how the only time we get to have fun is when we’re too tired to have fun anyways.

The solution, as best I can figure, is to treat your essential self to the real fun it craves during the day when you have the energy to play.

Maybe you need to pull out your journal at 3pm and noodle for a bit when your essential self feels ready to call it quits.

Maybe you need to go for a walk outside on your lunch break instead of eating at your desk and then returning immediately to work.

Maybe you need to take every second Friday off in order to let your essential self roam free for a day.

Only your essential self can tell you what you need to do.

But if you have a history of “self-sabotaging” behaviors and nothing you’ve tried to date has worked I’d encourage you to try consulting with your essential self and identifying some treats you can give to yourself throughout the day.

Until your essential self is satisfied there’s always going to be a war going on inside you. And it’s so much easier to get on with things when both your selves are on the same side.

Much love,
Jessica

 

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

What it really means to invite rest into your life

I find I keep returning to thoughts about stillness and rest and what it means to invite stillness into our lives — what it means to invite rest. Perhaps this is because I still feel deeply tired most of the time, and so restless. Perhaps this is because I still struggle daily to invite rest into my life.

To invite rest into my life feels so radically counter-culture in our ever-busier modern society.

To invite rest is to turn off the TV even though you haven’t seen the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory and it’s airing next.

To invite rest is to put down the book, perhaps even to choose not to finish the book at all, even if you’re a hundred pages in.

To invite rest is to put yourself to bed even when you really don’t want to.

And then to invite rest is to remember that falling asleep is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to lie in the dark, warmly snuggled beneath the covers, and to remember what it is to rest: a body prone, a body still, a body breathing slowly. Your responsibility is to close the eyes and calm the mind, to rest in that contentment and let sleep do what it will.

To invite rest is to take a walk in the middle of the work day even though you don’t feel you’re supposed to or to get up for another glass of water or to use the bathroom even though you just got up for another glass of water or to use the bathroom not very long ago.

To invite rest is sometimes ten minutes alone in the empty bathroom, doing nothing at all except pondering the freckles on your thighs and listening to the hum of the fans overhead — buzzing like your own unsettled thoughts.

To invite rest is, inevitably, to say no.

To say no to your friends and your family, to say “I’m going to bed now” and then to walk out of the room, to say “Sorry but I can’t go to your party” even though the only thing you had planned was a quiet night at home.

To invite rest is to create space for yourself in the face of your obligations, in the face of your dreams and desires — to say no to the 10,000 things that compete for your attention in every moment, the ideas, the inspirations, the notifications on your phone, the ever-scrolling social media feeds, the news ticker tape that scrolls and scrolls and scrolls with a million human tragedies you didn’t know about until now.

To invite rest is to clear the decks, to pare down to just what is essential and then to carve out hours and minutes for your rest

For sleep, for meditation, for writing, for going on a walk to no-place in particular, for coloring or painting or sketching, for meeting yourself on the pages of your journal or inscribing your dreams into physical reality with a pair of scissors and a glue stick and all the hope you can muster from the very depths of your heart.

And the thing I am trying, but maybe also failing to say is that we talk about rest like it’s supposed to be easy and I think it might be the very hardest thing in the world.

To invite rest is often to take your own needs and put them higher than everyone else’s.

It’s dangerous to think that this placing of needs as priorities is an act of selfishness — an ungenerous act of greed. That this lying down in the dark when we are tired is a luxury that might prevent us from being the kindhearted and generous people we know deep down we were meant to be.

And, of course, it isn’t easy to put our needs first — it isn’t easy because there’s so much muchness out there: so many books to read, TV shows to enjoy, children to feed, friends to spend time with. There’s so much out there to be and see and do.

But in order to be and see and do all the things we want to we have to first honor our limitations.

The change has to start in us and for us and it has to start with our ability to care for ourselves, with our ability to reclaim our need to rest, our need to eat and to drink and to pee.

The story of making life beautiful and kind and meaningful begins with our ability to reclaim the worthiness of our untended needs and our ability to say no.

The world doesn’t need us to show up tapped out and numbed out and drugged up and exhausted.

There are enough of us walking around like that already.

The world needs us to show up strong and rested and ready to rumble so that we might find hope of healing in our broken and battered places.

And healing begins, as always, with a period of heightened rest.

What are you healing from? Let me know in the comments below!

 

I hope you don’t mind that I’ve cancelled December…

I had big plans for December.

December was going to be the month I put myself out there in a big way and started coaching people outside of the Martha Beck Life Coach Training student group.

December was going to be the month I finally did all the things I’d been thinking about but avoiding and/or hadn’t gotten around to.during all of my travel in November.

December was going to be the month in which I finished strong in 2015.

Do you ever have months like this?

Months where you sit down on Day 1 and decide that *this* is going to be the month when you finally do that thing you’ve been meaning to do (you know the one!).

Because I do. If I’m being honest, more months than not I fall into this trap. The trap of thinking that this month is going to be the one month to rule them all.

It’s a dangerous line of thinking because it never works out.

The bigger you set your intention the harder it seems you fail. (Or at least, I do.)

So in December I’m trying something radical. I’m trying something new. I’m clearing the decks of tasks and to-do’s. I’m setting aside all of the things I didn’t get to in November.

Instead, I am allowing myself to expand into the wide-open stretch of December.

I am choosing to sit on the bus and not read — just ponder.

I am choosing to do just three push-ups a day and call it exercise. (Hey, it’s three more than I was doing!)

I am choosing to meditate.

I am choosing to dream.

I am choosing to sleep.

And for now, I am not looking ahead to January, to 2016, to New Year’s Resolutions.

For the moment I am looking no further than the span of my next breath — because for the moment I am waiting and waiting is always best done fully present.

And because I’m waiting and I’m present — I’m noticing things, too.

I’m noticing the woman on the street urgently tugging her tiny dog out of the path of an oncoming bicycle as I glide by in the bus on my way to work.

I’m noticing the tree on my walk to the bus stop that is still stubbornly holding on to beautiful, ruddy leaves when all the other trees have long since faded to patchy clumps of dismal brown.

I’m noticing myself speaking up in meetings when I would usually have held my tongue. I’m noticing myself being afraid and still doing it anyways.

I’m noticing myself becoming someone new.

And I’d like to invite you to notice yourself becoming, too. Because we’re all becoming in every moment — even in those when it seems certain that, for now at least, we’ve stopped.

And so before the next round of holidays hit and the exhilarating rush of New Year’s Resolutions I’d like to invite you to take a week and just slow down until you’d swear you’d stopped.

And in that moment of stillness I invite you to notice who, exactly, it is that you might be becoming.

Because I think that the noticing is the preparation — the step that lets you know where it is you’re headed.

And so while everyone else is already busy dreaming up their 2016, I’m going to invite you to wait, to pause, to rest, to notice, and to take stock.

Because it’s not until you’ve done these things that you’ll have any idea where it is you’re going.

And only then will you be ready to tackle the journey.

 

When was the last time you gave yourself the luxury of living life slowly? Let me know in the comments!

 

Embarking on a new adventure

There’s always something perilous and exhilarating about embarking on a new adventure; a risk taken in the name of a hope always feels equal parts terrifying and exciting.

Which is why this week I am equally excited and anxious to announce that a few months back, I myself embarked on a new adventure.

It is an adventure that started more than a year ago now, at the moment I first read the beginning of Martha Beck’s book, Finding Your Way In a Wild New World, in which she writes:

“The mother rhino paws nervously, and I feel the impact tremor in the ground beneath my own feet. She is huge. She is nervous. She could kill me as easily as I clip my fingernails. But my mind is filled only with wonder, distilled into two basic questions:

Question 1: How the hell did I get here?

Question 2: What the hell should I do now?”

Those two questions have haunted me since I first read them because, though I have never faced down a consternated mother rhino, I found the questions equally well described how I have felt about my life since I graduated from MIT.

How the hell did I get here? What the hell should I do now?

These two questions have run over and over in my head like a mantra or a Zen koan that I couldn’t possibly solve.

The promise of finding the answers to those questions tantalized me, because the startling truth was that I found I did not know what the answers might be.

I knew in some sense how I had wound up as I had: two degrees from MIT and reading Martha Beck on the shuttle bus to and from work as I dreamed of a future free of the mathematical snarls I was daily expected to untangle…

The sequence of events of my life stretched out before me and I could see some sense in the way they connected as Point A led to Point B and Point C.

But the fuzzy spaces in between the bookends of my life plagued me.

Eventually, I began writing memoir as a way of understanding how the experiences of my past had shaped me into the person I am today and had informed the shape of the life I live today.

I started to find my answers to Question 1 in words laid down upon the empty page.

But days ticked into months ticked into nearly a year and I still had no idea how to answer Question 2.

What the hell should I do know?

I had half-baked dreams and desires but no plan and no real sense of direction…

Which is why earlier this summer I enrolled in the Martha Beck Life Coach Training Program. (And if the words “life coach” make you cringe, then trust me, I am cringing harder.)

At the time I couldn’t have given you a better reason for why I did it except that every time I thought about it my skin crawled with full-body tingles… and that seemed as good a reason to enroll as any (laugh if you like — but those tingles were well-correlated and strangely compelling).

As a scientist and a skeptic I was afraid that any program billed as “life coach training” could not possibly be of use and substance.

But here’s the thing, I’ve been in the program since the end of July (with a number of months still to go) and already I can tell you that it’s been nothing short of amazing.

So why am I only writing about the program now?

The answer is because at first I was uncertain. I didn’t know if I was making the right decision. I wasn’t certain the training wouldn’t be a smashing disappointment.

At first, I only knew that deciding to do the training felt big and scary and uncertain and I wasn’t ready to trust my fragile decision to the mercy of other people’s judgement.

But those ridiculous tingles crept over my skin and something inside of me kept urging me to do it.

And so I did.

I’m three months into the program now and I can tell you unequivocally that those tingles were spot on.

The skills I have been learning in the training program are some of the coolest I have encountered in my life and I am super excited to share them with you.

Which is why I’d like to make a gentle request…

A couple of weeks ago I passed the point in the training where hours spent coaching folks outside the student cohort count towards certification and I would love to share with you everything that I’ve been learning.

So if you’re a little bit curious, if you perhaps have a skin-crawling tingle or two, or if you find yourself wondering how the hell you got here and what the hell you should do now, then I want to invite you to work with me. I can work over the phone, so location is not an issue, and because I’m still in training I’m working with people for free 🙂

If you’re interested, or if you know someone who might be interested, please hop on over to my contact page and get in touch.

And if you have questions (I hope you have questions!) please feel free to contact me directly or leave them in the comments below. I look forward to answering them!