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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

May we all be heroes in the dark

heroes in the darkI’ve been struggling to find the right words since the election. I don’t want this blog to become a political forum, and yet I feel like the election is something that cannot go unaddressed — we cannot just pick up and go on with business as usual because what happened on November 9th means that business is no longer as usual.

For many of us the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States was devastating. I count myself among that number.

As a candidate, Trump espoused a platform built on hatred and intolerance that I find difficult to stomach. At this point, it seems increasingly clear that he intends to carry at least parts of this agenda forward into the White House and I fear what this will mean for those of us who are most vulnerable: racial minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQ+ people, and religious minorities.

I do not want to shut out all possibility for hope, because I think that hope is crucial. Hope is what encourages us to keep trying, to keep fighting, to pick ourselves up and keep pushing on. So I remain willing to be wrong — but from where I stand right now it seems not overly-dramatic to say that dark days and hard times lie ahead of us, and that the next four years will likely demand more of us than did the previous eight.

In the absence of a government working to protect our interests we, the individuals, will need to stand up for the rights we believe in more vocally and more visibly than we did before.

We will need to be braver, to be stronger, to be kinder, and more compassionate than we knew ourselves to be.

We will need to be ready to stand up for each other, to stand beside each other, and to fight together for the rights we believe in.

We will, each of us, be called upon to be heroes in the dark.

However it may seem from where you stand today, this isn’t a fight we’ve lost yet. This is a fight that’s only just beginning.

So with that in mind, here’s what wisdom I have for you in these dark times.

First and foremost, care for yourself and your safety.

I can’t know what lies ahead for any of us and I don’t want to be prematurely alarmist, because I know how easy it is for the mind to slip into catastrophizing and catastrophizing (in my experience) only makes us panic and panic leaves us ill-equipped to face the needs of the present moment.

However, I also don’t want to tell you that you shouldn’t be afraid, that you shouldn’t pay attention, that you shouldn’t take whatever precautions seem helpful — because I think you should. You should prepare yourself in whatever ways you can for the days to come.

Do what you have to do to keep yourself safe.

Listen to your fear — it’s trying to get your attention.

Your fear has one and only one agenda: to keep you safe.

However, problems arise when your fear cripples your ability to act in a misguided effort to keep you safe. I have a theory about why and how this happens: I believe that fear cripples us when we are unwilling to feel scared, when we are unwilling to engage with our fear where we stand.

It is this unwillingness to engage with our fear that paralyzes us and leaves us unable to act.

So what to do instead? Be willing to be scared, be willing to listen to your fear when it’s screaming for your attention. When I ask my fear what it needs from me, most often I find that my fear just wants me to know that danger is present — it wants to know that I’m paying attention so that if action is required, I’ll be ready to act appropriately to keep myself safe.

Don’t try to push past your fear, don’t try to ignore it, and don’t try to shove it aside into an unused corner of your mind. Trying to set your fear aside usually only makes it scream louder.

Instead, honor your fear and invite it to make the journey with you — you don’t have to be fearless in order to act with courage.

Practice reconnecting with a sense of calm

Here’s a truth I’ve grappled with in my own life: while the urgency of panic may seem productive or even helpful, the truth is that if you spend your whole life swept up in a state of anxious urgency you dull your ability to discern the difference between true, helpful fear and the false, panicky urgency that naturally creeps in around the edges of our overly-scheduled, busy lives.

Because of this, one of the most important things you can do is to develop a habit of checking in with yourself, noticing what emotions and physical sensations you are feeling in your body, and offering yourself and your feelings compassionate witness.

My morning meditation practice is something I’ve turned to for support in recent weeks. Meditation is just a drill for this more important daily habit of exercising awareness and mindful attention to ourselves and our emotions: I spend 20 focused minutes practicing so that I can build the muscle I need to carry this skill with me throughout the day.

Please note: I don’t believe that meditation is always right for everyone. I spent years trying to “make myself” meditate because I thought it would be good for me. And until recently, it wasn’t. I think you have to be ready to begin a meditation practice and not wanting to is generally a sign that you’re not ready. This is *especially true* for anyone dealing with unresolved trauma, as meditation can unlock old traumas and can be re-triggering and damaging if you’re not prepared. I’ve written more about this here (scroll down to the note at the end of the post for my thoughts on trauma).

Regardless of whether or not a meditation practice is the next right thing for you, cultivating habits that return you to a calm and peaceful sense of being grounded in yourself (this could be writing, a hot bath, going for a walk, making art, etc.) will be a crucial mental and emotional support for each of us in the years to come.

Don’t disdain the power of small actions

I’m so guilty of this, so I want to make sure to mention it. Please don’t disdain the power of small actions. I know how easy it can be to feel that as an individual you have so little power, so little ability to influence anything of significance, that you might as well not even try.

And from where I stand, this belief is a lie my fear-based thinking tries to sell me in order to convince me that I shouldn’t bother risking failure. For me, that’s what it’s really about: my ego hates to fail, my ego hates to lose — and so my ego would rather quit than the run the risk that I might try and not succeed.

Do what you can and let that be enough.

If all you can offer is five dollars or five minutes, then do that — and let that be enough. If you can offer more, that’s amazing — but don’t hold back because you feel that whatever you have to offer isn’t enough.

Don’t discount the power of small actions taken in aggregate. Do what you can, especially if your mind is trying to tell that a gesture so small must surely be meaningless.

It’s really, really not.

Take action in whatever way is right for you

In the days, months, and years to come there will be many people who want to tell you how you should take action. “Come march with me in Washington”, they’ll say. Or “Sign this petition!”. Or “Donate to my favorite charity!”. Or “Call your congressperson about X!”

Not all of these actions that other people will want you to take will be actions that are right for you.

I, for one, will not be participating in marches. I dislike crowds and loud noises and I find the energy of large, excitable, angry groups of people to be utterly draining and exhausting. It’s not a way of making my voice heard that is right for me — I’d much rather sit behind my computer and type words.

I love that people want to march to express themselves — to take a public stand for what they believe in. But I will not be joining them.

This is absolutely okay.

There are other ways I can contribute to this fight: I can donate money to organizations that will fight for our rights, I can sign petitions, I can call my congressional representatives, I can use my voice to speak about my beliefs with others, I can read the news and stay informed, I can bear witness.

Here’s another thing I can do: I can listen to people whose opinions differ from my own, I can challenge my own assumptions about people who are different from me, I can work to build bridges between people who have competing interests, belief systems, or priorities.

There is no one right way to fight injustice. There are always many paths to the same goal.

You don’t have to let other people pressure you into acting in a way that isn’t right way for you.

If you want to explore some different ideas about how we move forward from here, this post might be a good place to start.

Be patient, be kind, be gentle with yourself

This, perhaps more than anything else, is the most important thing I have to offer. The world right now is asking us to step up, to become braver than we have ever been.

This is not something that will be easy.

Over and over again I catch myself in the belief that not only should I be able to do hard things, but I should be able to do them easily, effortlessly, gracefully.

This is not true.

As a former ballet dancer, I know that the appearance of grace is always the result of thousands of hours of hard work and sweat. You have to put in the practice, you have to push against your own edges, before you finally master something new.

The same is true of courage.

If you’re not used to being brave, if you’ve spent your life feeling small, silenced, hidden, or afraid — don’t expect yourself to become someone different overnight.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

So be patient, be kind, be gentle with yourself. You’ll get farther faster if you treat yourself with kindness and compassion than you will if you try to beat yourself into bravery with 10,000 judgemental sticks.

Courage is a muscle you build; it doesn’t happen overnight

Courage isn’t always something we’re born with. Courage is something we develop, it’s something we cultivate.

We grow our courage in the teeny-tiny steps, small acts of daring that slowly accumulate into the ability to move mountains.

Allow yourself to start small, to stretch your comfort zone out slowly. Don’t expect to be able to carry the world on your shoulders overnight.

But if you start small, if you build your courage slowly by taking actions that are just the tiniest bit outside your comfort zone and then the tiniest bit farther than that, your capacity to act bravely in the face of fear will grow and someday soon you’ll be brave enough to move a mountain.

And together we will need to move mountains.

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

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.

You have to be willing to wobble

By Frode Inge Helland [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Frode Inge Helland [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Someone clever once said that “fear is excitement without the breath” (either Fritz Perls or Robert Heller, according to Google).

There’s a lot of truth to that statement — and I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week in that place, suspended between terror and exhilaration as I begin the process of finally, officially launching my coaching practice.

Which is to say that it’s been a great week. It’s also been a hard week, and in many ways an exhausting and stressful week.

For reasons which also have to do with things besides launching my coaching business, I’ve been living on the ragged edge of excitement.

I notice in myself the urge to flee the discomfort of standing balanced on the knife edge between fear and excitement.

I notice the urge to stop breathing, to hold tight to the breath I have as I power through and through and through until I reach the end of this discomfort.

Until I break free into the light.

But there is a wiser part of me that knows that this discomfort won’t pass quickly — that I will have to learn to breathe, to find my balance in this delicate place.

What I am trying hard to remember is that balance is an act of movement.

We think of balance as a moment of perfect poise, a place of stability — and this does occasionally happen momentarily when we balance. But what thirteen years of ballet taught me, is that real balance is a hundred million tiny adjustments as one tips left, right, front, and back. The wobble is an essential part of any balancing act.

True balance has more to do with allowing the wobble, than achieving a perfect, motionless moment.

Anxious. Happy. Scared. Delighted. Thrilled. Restless. Exhausted. Resting.

I’ve been wobbling all week, but I haven’t collapsed out of balance. I’ve just been teetering, teetering, teetering…

It would be easy to forget that this is what an act of balance looks like.

It would be easy to call my week of teetering “failure” and to tell myself that I should be managing to live my life more gracefully. But I think we do ourselves a disservice when we forget the the balancing is in the wobble.

In fact, the best way to guarantee you’ll fall out of your arabesque is to be unwilling to wobble.

The best way to fall out of balance is to hold tight, to stop breathing and tense up. We think that rigidity equals stability but in fact the opposite is true.

In trying to achieve that moment of perfect stillness, we lose the loose the willingness to wobble that is, paradoxically, the very foundation of our stability.

So if you, too, are struggling to maintain balance in the face of it all I’d like to invite you to notice your own willingness to wobble.

And if balance is feeling elusive, here are a few things that might help.

  1. Remember to breathe. It can be easy to think that holding onto the breath will increase stability, but in truth this never works. You can’t balance if you’re rigid. When you are truly balanced the balance moves with the breath — the breath becomes the rhythm that settles you toward stillness.
  2. Keep your focus. It’s much harder to balance if you don’t keep your gaze softly focused on a target. If you feel yourself beginning to topple, resist the urge to look wildly around for a way to save yourself! Remain calm. Remain focused. Breathe. You might need to set an intention to keep you focused in the right direction.
  3. Practice. You’re going to wobble. You’re going to fall off balance. The important thing to remember is that this is a part of the process… and that you’re going to get better with practice.

Much love,
Jessica