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Is your “bubble” big enough?

Remember how when you were a kid and you had a “bubble” of personal space around you that the other kids were supposed to stay out of?

I remember fighting with my sister in the backseat of the car, scraping lines down the fabric with our fingernails, dividing the car solidly into “my side” and “her side”.

(Much, I am sure, to my parents’ dismay.)

I haven’t thought about my “bubble” in more than a decade at this point, but I’ve been reading Karla McLaren’s fascinating book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You and suddenly I find my “bubble” is all I’ve been thinking about.

McLaren’s book is about bringing your emotions into flow and about the helpful messages your emotions are trying to bring to the surface (for example, anger is the emotion that helps you set healthy boundaries).

She suggests that part of setting healthy boundaries is about maintaining energetic and emotional protection and definition between ourselves and the world around us.

She writes, “Luckily, this boundary already exists. In the metaphysical community, it’s called the aura, and while it has had a lot of wacky metaphysical connotations attached to it, your aura is simply your personal space. In the neurological community, this personal space is now understood to be your proprioceptive territory, and it is created by specific neural and muscular networks throughout your brain and body. Your proprioceptive system maps your body and your position in relation to everything around you; it helps you stand, balance, move, and understand your body’s relationship with its environment.”

McLaren goes on to suggest than in most people the proprioceptive space your brain lays claim to is roughly the area that exists within the reach of your arms — i.e. your “bubble”.

But here’s what blew my mind.

As I was trying out McLaren’s boundary-setting, proprioceptive-space-claiming exercise I suddenly found myself feeling much larger in the world than I usually do. My breathing deepened. My stomach unclenched. I felt my internal self unwinding to expand out into the world around me.

I realized in that moment that at some point growing up I stopped getting bigger and instead started to become very small.

I don’t know when it started — maybe when I was in first grade and my space was defined by the small carpet square I sat on or in high school when the boundaries of my bubble could extended no further than the borders of my desk and my limbs were expected to remain neatly confined in close proximity to my body, not spread helter skelter to hither and yon.

Regardless of how or when it happened, at some point my bubble seems to have shrunk so small it no longer takes up even the space occupied by my physical body. At some point my bubble shrank until it was nothing more than a leaden knot that sits in my stomach and makes me feel anxious and sick.

And so here’s the question that just about broke my brain.

Is this how big I’m supposed to be?

I’ve thought a lot in the last year or two about what it means to be “playing small”. In many ways I’m playing small with this blog — I’m not doing the outreach I should be if I wanted to grow my small community of readers into something “big”.

But what if it’s not just about “playing” small? What if I’ve been being small, instead?

And what about the corollary: What if I’m allowed to be as big as I am? What if I’m really as big as my proprioceptive space?

Because what I know is that when I imagine my edges expanding out to fill the inside of a big oval-shaped shell arms-width out from my body, I *feel* bigger. I feel more allowed to take up space in the world, more allowed to be who I am, more allowed to want what I want and need what I need.

I feel like, just maybe, I’m allowed to become as big as I can reach.

And after so many years of shrinking, it’s a very odd thing to be so large.

I’m still not sure yet what, exactly, this means which is why I’d love for you to try it out and let me know your experience.

Here’s what you do (adapted from The Language of Emotions):

  1. Ground yourself before beginning. Focus your attention on your feet. Feel them growing heavy as if your shoes had turned to concrete and feel your energy settling low in your body and then sinking down into the very center of the earth.
  2. Stand up and reach your arms out to either side of you. Move them front and back and over your head. Get a feel for the space your body occupies.
  3. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a bubble extending out to the edges of your reach and flowing down under the ground to close beneath your feet. Imagine the boundary of this space in a way that is natural to you — you can imagine a color, a sound, a texture. I personally like to imagine mine as a shimmering, like heat.
  4. With your boundary clear around you ask yourself the question, “Do I claim this much room in the world?”

I’d love to know what you find — how much room do you claim in the world? Is your “bubble” teeny tiny and neglected like mine? Who would you be if you took up as much space as you could reach? How might you behave differently if you claimed all that space as your own? Let me know in the comments below!

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

How do you feel about saying no?

It occurs to me, perhaps belatedly, that I may have a dysfunctional relationship with the word “no”.

The topic came up this week as I was tasked to some new projects at work and while, on the one hand, I don’t mind (I like it when other people ask me to help and the tasks are useful, just not interesting), on the other hand, some of the tasks that I was asked to do aren’t things that make me feel zippy inside. Some of them feel more like a weighty ton of bricks.

There’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps I shouldn’t have said no.

This state of self-inquiry is particularly acute because I have been reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and it’s been really useful for crystallizing a lot of the ideas about priorities that I’ve been toying with for a while.

The basic tenant of his book is that we should do “less, but better” — i.e. say “no” to more things in order to focus on that which is essential. It’s a great idea, a great theory; I found myself nodding along with something on nearly every page as I read.

And yet this week I didn’t think to say no when asked to do things that I already know will not be my highest contribution.

There’s a lot packed up in this idea. On the one hand, I think saying no is just hard: it is an act of rebellion, a distancing of oneself from the rest of the tribe.

On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of my personal baggage wrapped up in it, too.

I wouldn’t bother to share my baggage, except that I’m beginning to learn that it’s all the same baggage — we use different words and have different reasons, but our issues are usually the same: at the end of the day we’re generally insecure, worried that there’s something wrong with us, and that the rest of the world might find out. We therefore conclude that our wrongness means we’re not worthy of whatever good the universe offers to us.

For me personally, this means I’m often overly-eager to play the drudge. I operate from a place of “it’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it” and because of my feelings of unspecialness (my own particular flavor of unworthiness), I feel like that person might as well be me.

The consequence of which is that I wind up working on projects I don’t love and feeling like everyone else gets to solve problems that are cooler than mine.

My rational brain knows that to some extent “the grass is always greener”, and other people’s problems probably aren’t any more exciting than mine. But then I wonder — is that true? Or do I just think that’s true because I believe that important work is often unpleasant and has to be done anyways?

Our thoughts get slippery when we try to work our way around them.

I don’t know my answers yet. I know that it’s easier to agree than to say no when I’m at work. And I know that it’s easier to say no than to agree when someone invites me to a social outing (even if there is a part of me that wants to go).

And I know that, as Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, “When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us… We often think of a choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice — a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.”

This week I felt myself not-choosing, rather than sincerely saying yes.

The point of this blog is not for me to whinge on about my inability to set boundaries around my time at work. The point of this blog is to perhaps help you think a little more critically about what it is you are or aren’t saying “no” to in your life.

My hope is that by shining a small light into my dark and nebulous corners, you might find the shadows a shade lighter in yours.

Where could you do “less, but better” in your life right now? What would you need to say “no” to to make your highest contribution — whether at work or at home? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Is it really a good idea to keep your options open?

Confession: I have too much on my plate again.

It’s a problem that occurs every month or two as I struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to fit all the things I really want to do into a finite number of post-work hours.

I try to do this because in theory I want to do it all. But the reality (which I have a hard time remembering) is that when I’m busy trying to do it all I invariably end up exhausted and unhappy.

Instead of cramming more and more into my already-busy schedule, I find that I make the most progress when I have wide open space and only a few tasks competing for my attention. Into this wide open space my creative endeavors unfold gracefully, effortlessly.

But as soon as my schedule starts to get cluttered again, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. And once I’m overwhelmed I stop getting things done.

Learning this lesson has been hard for me because I taught myself to manage the opposite when I was at MIT. And so I know that the opposite is also true.

You can motivate yourself to achieve impossible tasks when your schedule is so cluttered it is beyond overwhelming and begins to induce panic.

Martha Beck would say that when the to-do list get to panic-inducing levels of overwhelm we shift into the place beyond fear (an idea from her book, Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny) and from this place we can act with calm and clear precision, taking highly effective action toward our goals.

As a student at MIT I usually completed my work from the place beyond fear. The amount of work was so extreme that I had to stop worrying about if I could do it at all because every drop of my energy was focused into getting as much done as I could. I didn’t need to prioritize or schedule — I just started with the assignment that was most pressing and worked until I was too tired to press on.

In this way I accomplished impressive, impossible tasks as a student at MIT. But most of the time I was miserable.

Because this place-beyond-fear ridiculousness isn’t a healthy way to get things done in our day-to-day lives, but as a student it became the only way I knew. I didn’t know the steady effort of healthy progress — I knew the reckless, careening drama of a panic-stricken dash to meet a looming deadline.

And so I’ve struggled with finding a model for getting things done that works for me out in the real world, and especially one that works for me in my own personal life.
Because my personal projects don’t have deadlines really, and if they do have deadlines those deadlines were usually arbitrary goals I set for myself.

I’m not good at keeping myself accountable to my own deadlines. I expect to disappoint myself and so I usually do — partly because my deadlines often assume a willingness to pursue the kinds of herculean efforts I invested as a student, and partly because I find it hard to feel motivated when the only person my failure is disappointing is myself.

All of which is to say that I have a history of feeling ineffective when it comes to achieving my personal goals and it’s taken me a lot of experimentation and observation and practice to start to figure out why I struggle with this and what to do differently.

But I’m starting to get a handle on the answer. I’m slowly, grudgingly coming to the conclusion that I can’t do it all. I’m finding I can’t have more than one or two personal projects I’m focused on at a time.

Which brings me back to the title of this post, because i’ve lived most of my life in an attempt to keep my options open. When I didn’t want to get my PhD after finishing undergrad I got my Master’s degree instead because that seemed to “keep my options open”. When I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated with my Master’s degree I accepted the first job that came along (a job that happened to be in science) because that felt like “keeping my options open”.

In some ways, the whole story of my life since I was a student at MIT has been a tale of keeping my options open about having a career in science.

And I apply the same principle in my personal life. I hesitate to cross projects off my list because leaving them on feels like “keeping my options open”.

Crossing off a project means saying I’m not going to work on this right now and making that decision can be scary.

What if I’m making a mistake? What if I decide something isn’t a priority and then find myself wanting to spend my time on it?

These sort of nonsensical concerns weigh on my heart and I think the real problem is that I still think it’s best to keep my options open.

But, increasingly, I believe that keeping one’s options open is a fool’s journey. Instead I think it might be better to slam doors shut early and often — after all, we rarely close a door that can’t be opened again.

The more I spend my energy keeping all the doors open, the more paralyzed I feel.

When all my energy is spent holding doors open, I don’t have anything left to make progress toward reaching the goals that lie through those very doors I’m so busy holding open.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation, and not a monologue! How do you feel about keeping your options open? Do you need white space to get things done? Do you struggle to prioritize? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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

 

Do you live in your body? (I don’t.)

Here’s an item from the list of things you might not know about me: I exist in a state of near-constant physical pain. Some days this pain is worse than others and during the past couple of weeks it’s been particularly bad. But fear not! This post is not going to be a long-winded elaboration of my discomfort — instead, I want to talk about our relationship to our bodies (or at least, my relationship to my body!)

Because here’s what I know about pain: when it gets bad enough it forces me literally, viscerally back into my body. When the pain is bad enough I find I can’t do anything except feel how much I hurt. Pain can force me directly into the present moment.

But when the pain is not so bad, when it is only a little tingling and twinging and soreness, that is when I find I exist outside of my body entirely. When the pain is not so bad, I retreat into the fortress of my mind and busy myself with thinking, with anything really, anything to keep my mind occupied so that I don’t have to feel the discomfort in my body.

This is easy to do because we live in a culture that idolizes the intelligence and value of the mind. We measure our worth not in the ableness of our bodies but in the cleverness of our thoughts — and so my physical pain does not threaten my self worth on the days when it is only a small discomfort. It does not call into question my utility.

And so I divorce myself from my body whenever I can and get on with the business of being human.

But there’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps this course of action is not so wise as it would seem. If you wander around in more woo-woo spiritual circles (as I have done in the past few years) you’ll encounter the idea that symptoms in the body can be messages pointing to where we are out of alignment in our lives.

I do not really believe in this theory. I have a very rational explanation for my pain involving too many hours spent at the computer compounded by bad posture and ergonomics leading to muscle imbalance, tension, and nerve pain.

And yet when I think whether this very rational story might carry a message, I am tempted to conclude that it does. Perhaps my pain carries a message about not caring for myself, about not standing up for and defending my needs, about not asking for help, about keeping my pain and my secrets tucked away safe and hidden where no one can find them and judge me wanting.

Because on the days when the pain is so bad that I can hardly bear to think or sit still, I inevitably pick myself up and get out of bed and go to work (easy, because lying in bed is the most uncomfortable thing I ask my body to do). At work I hurt too much to really think, but I try anyways because I am at work and at work I am supposed to be working. But there is very little that is easy about my job and when I am not at my best I find the work is sometimes too hard. I find myself stuck between bullying myself into working even when I’m aching or feeling guilty for idling away the hours when I hurt too much to think.

Our culture teaches us to value the mind and to set aside the needs of the body. Our entire medical culture is built around this principle — which is why, when I discuss my pain with my doctor, she suggests a low dose muscle relaxant instead of offering to refer me to physical therapy. We treat our bodies like disposable vessels, rented rooms that provide the comfort and safety of the mind.

But our bodies are more than that and we often don’t do enough to give them their due. So, no, I’m really not sure that our bodies hold messages for us about the things in our life that we’re trying to ignore. But I do know that it’s hubris to think that the mind can function when the body is unwell, and as such, we could all do more to take better care of our instrument.

I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a monologue! How do you care for your body? Do you believe your body carries whispers from a deeper, wiser part of you? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Some thoughts on faith

This week I had the pleasure of reading Glennon Melton’s Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. The book is series of short memoir essays that read similar to blog posts (unsurprisingly, since Melton blogs at Momastery.com). The book is a quick read and delightful — honest and wise and laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The book is also rather Christian. Melton makes many references to Jesus, to God, and to her faith — unorthodox as her faith may sometimes be. (Her position, I believe, is that as a recovering “ex-everything” she really has no right to judge). But her faith is very much front-and-center in this book and I was surprised by how triggering I found that.

Not because I was unaware that religion makes me uncomfortable, but simply by how much it bothered me to have someone be so candid about it. And so I think reading this book was really important for me (and I’m very glad I did!) because it forced me to reconsider a lot of my beliefs around religion and about faith.

I wasn’t raised in a religion or with a faith. If I was raised with a faith, it was probably “logic” or “science” or “reason” — and in retrospect these things make miserable faiths because they leave no room for our perfectly imperfect humanity. But I did not know this until I was much older and I never questioned these ideas of faith because organized religion does a terrible job of marketing itself and so I really thought that I was better off.

From where I stood, the advantages of a religious faith were invisible. In my admittedly limited experience, religion usually seems to do more to make people anxious and narrow-minded than to create space for more kindness and compassion in the world.

While I know that, in practice, this is not true, and that there are many people (perhaps even most) for whom faith is a comfort that increases their ability to extend kindness and compassion toward others (the “Christian feeling” of the 19th Century), the truth is that these days, from an outsider’s perspective, “Christian feeling” seems often to be more about hatred than kindness. (And I’m picking on the Christians here a little; I think the same is true of many of the world’s religions.)

So I don’t love religious doctrine or institutions, but what I realized in reading Carry On, Warrior is that Glennon Melton and I share a lot of the same ideas about faith.

Because as much as I don’t ever see myself participating in an organized religion — in the past few years I’ve been busy reinventing my idea of faith. And that idea doesn’t look much like Melton’s Jesus. But increasingly I think that faith is important, and a faith in Jesus seems to me no worse than any other.

My faith is not so well defined as any religious symbol — it is a faith in nature, in beauty, in goodness. I believe that nature is good and beautiful and that, as part of nature, we are good and beautiful, too. And perhaps this is not so different than what Jesus would have us believe — but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever worship in a church.

I prefer my worship out beneath the open skies or here, upon the altar of the empty page.

But I do believe we all need a little faith. Without faith we cannot trust or hope, and without hope we have no reason to act with kindness and compassion in the world.

If there is anything I feel certain of, it’s that the world today needs every drop of kindness and compassion we can bear to part with right now. We’ve spent the industrial era moving away from these ideals, I think.

The industrial era asked us to sacrifice our humanity in order to better play the part of the machine and we’ve done so. But now the machines are taking over and the only thing we’ll have left to call our own will be the strength our humanity. (Check out this article from The Atlantic if you want to know more.)

So I don’t know much about faith and nothing at all of God — but if I have to believe in something, I guess I choose to believe in the power of compassionate humanity to save the world. To believe in anything else seems just too dang scary right now.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a monologue! Do you have a faith? If so, how does your faith impact your experience living in the world? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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