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Making sustainable changes in 2018 (and beyond)

As I’ve been taking stock of 2017 and pondering where I might to let life take me in 2018, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we make changes in our lives. You see, in the past I’ve always struggled a lot with New Year’s Resolutions.

I’ve experimented with other ideas, like setting an intention world for the year, but honestly those things never really worked for me either.

But something magical happened last year: I picked up some new habits and I deepened some existing ones in a sustainable and lasting way.

In 2017, I meditated more regularly and for longer than I had in any year previously.
In 2017, I practiced yoga more regularly and for longer than I had in any year previously.
In 2017, I studied Russian more days that not, sometimes only for 10 minutes, sometimes for an hour or more.

In a lot of ways, even though 2017 didn’t turn out at all the way I had hoped and was harder than I had expected, I feel really good about these small accomplishments.

My meditation practice has deepened into something really beautiful that nourishes me daily. My yoga practice in conjunction with other things is slowly improving my chronic back pain. And I can have some simple conversations in Russian these days and understand a lot of simple texts.

So, this year, I would invite you to not set any resolutions but instead to find a couple of tiny habits that would make your life better if you developed them or existing habits that you might want to deepen.

I think so often we see the New Year as an opportunity to tear down everything we don’t like about ourselves and we think that this will allow us to finally build the life we’ve been longing for. But in my experience it’s making tiny little shifts and taking tiny little steps towards the things that we love that makes more of a difference than anything else.

So, if this sounds intriguing to you, then here are seven things you can do to make sustainable changes in 2018 and beyond.

Choose the right goals

This one sounds easy, but it’s really not. So often in the past when I have set goals for myself I have set all the wrong goals for all the wrong reasons. So here are a couple of tips for setting the right goals this year.

Don’t set goals just because you feel that you “should”. Don’t set goals that don’t light you up inside. If you’re already dreading the effort it will take to achieve something then please do yourself a favor and find a new goal — trying to grit your way through something unpleasant because you think the end result will be “worth it” is almost never the kindest thing you can do for yourself. Make sure the activities required to pursue your goals are mostly activities you genuinely enjoy.

Do set goals that make you happy, even if they don’t make any sense. Learning Russian makes no sense; I don’t have any use for the language except for a vague interest in reading Russian literature in the original. But the truth is that I just really love learning languages and it makes me really happy — if this is your only reason for setting a goal, let it be enough!

Don’t set goals just because everyone else is. I feel like most New Year’s resolutions fall into any number of cliches: lose weight, watch less TV, be less distracted, meditate more, etc. None of these goals is necessarily the wrong thing, but make sure you’re setting goals that really matter to you, not just blindly following along with the herd.

Make the time to begin

Here’s a simple truth that I believe is often easy to ignore: you’re already using every minute of your days. There are 168 hours in every week and for the last month you’ve spent each and every one of them — I guarantee it!

It’s easy to overlook this when we think about setting new goals for the New Year. We think “oh, I should exercise more” and so we buy a gym pass, but we overlook the part where actually going to the gym means taking 3-4 hours a week (or more) away from something else that we were already doing.

Making time for new habits inevitably means saying goodbye to something old.

For every habit you want to create in the new year, make sure you’ve decided what you’re willing to let go of.

And keep an eye on yourself as you begin to implement because it’s easy to dismiss the hours we spend surfing the web or bingeing on Netflix as “time wasted”, but for a lot of us these activities fill a real need for rest, relaxation, and recharging.

Make sure you don’t inadvertently throw out all of your down time in order to make time for “healthier” habits.

Expect to make mistakes

In the past, I’ve gotten myself into so much trouble by expecting everything to be perfect right from day one.

The truth about life is that it’s messy: some weeks you get sick, some days you’re exhausted, or there’s just a lot already going on and trying to squeeze in anything extra would just add extra stress.

This means that your new habits are going to fly off the rails. You’re going to be doing well and life is going to intervene with something you didn’t plan for, and it’s going to cost you an evening or a week or three months.

Expect this to happen. Let it be okay.

It’s important to have priorities and it’s important to be able to let go of what’s not so important when something truly urgent comes up.

Missing a day or two or three or four isn’t the end of the world. Just pick your habits up again when you can.

Practice self-forgiveness

Self-forgiveness is the secret elixir that makes it possible to fail at your goals over and over again without giving up.

Notice how missing a day or a week makes you feel. The truth is that feeling like you’re failing hurts: it’s disappointing, it feels like you’re letting yourself down, or those around you. And if you’re not careful, feeling like a failure deepens into the acrid bitterness of a constant self-loathing that lingers in the background, tainting everything.

So allow yourself to notice how it feels when the plan gets messed up. Notice if you’re judging yourself for not being good enough, notice if you’re hurting.

And then place your hands over your heart and feel their warmth in your chest and whisper to yourself, “Forgiven, forgiven.” You’re hurting, but nothing is irreparably broken that cannot be fixed.

It’s all going to be perfectly okay.

Learn to start over

Each time you fall off the wagon, practice noticing and self-forgiveness — and then, when you’re able, start over.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that perfect execution looks like starting something once and then never failing, never stopping.

But this idea just isn’t realistic. So learn to start and stop and start over and over again. Just keep starting over whenever you need to, whenever you can.

Practice starting over by returning to the practice the same way we return to the breath in meditation. Don’t judge or make it into a big deal. Just notice and come back to the practice.

Every day is just another day to begin again. No big deal.

Celebrate how far you’ve come

The beautiful thing about this approach is that if you implement it diligently you really will make progress.

Focusing on the habits and goals that really matter to you every day and not expecting it all to go perfectly, but just forgiving yourself and starting over every time your habits get disrupted — it really works.

If you practice in this way, on the vast majority of days you do the things you intended to do. You make it to your yoga mat, your meditation cushion, and your Russian lesson.

At the end of the year when you look back at where you were when you started and where you are now you can see that real progress has been achieved, even though on any given day it didn’t really seem like hard work.

Let the cycle unfold over and over again

This practice doesn’t stop; it just keeps going. In 2018, I’m going to continue to deepening all of my existing practices and I look forward to seeing where those journeys take me.

And I’m going to start just one new thing: I’m going to set the intention to write more in 2018.

And, you guys, I’m starting so, so small with this goal because I’ve set this goal for myself so many times and disappointed myself so many times that I know that I need to be extra-gentle with myself.

So I’m starting not by writing more for this blog, or writing more poetry, or anything else.

I’m starting with my journal. Because writing in my journal has always felt safe and nourishing to me and I genuinely enjoy bringing my troubles to the page and finding my answers there.

And I’m not making any rules about how many times a week or how much I need to write. My intention is simply to honor the truth that my journal is a tool that supports me and makes me healthier and happier and that it would be a shame to overlook that.

My hope is that this journaling practice will begin to spill over into other kinds of writing, but I refuse to put that kind of pressure on myself right now. So for now, I’m starting here where my habit is so small and so enjoyable that it feels easy — and we’ll see where that eventually takes me.

I wish you the very best in 2018!

Much love,
Jessica

P.S. If this post resonates with you but you aren’t quite sure how to really apply it, I’d like to invite you to consider the option of private coaching with me. While the concepts that lead us to freedom are in some sense universal, the barriers are often very individual and working privately with a coach can be the most effective way to overcome your unique barriers and see real results. If this interests you, click here to schedule a free conversation with me and learn more about what I offer my private clients.

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!