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You’re going to need a really strong foundation

Here’s the thing that no one tells you: if you have a big, crazy dream you want to make come true you’re going to need to focus on your fundamentals. Getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising in a way that feels good in your body — these things aren’t just glamorous distractions; they’re the nitty, gritty details that make success possible.

This is a lesson that has been really hard for me to learn.

In part, this is because our hardest lessons are always more about unlearning than they are about learning.

The places where I struggle the most are the places where what I need to do to move forward runs counter to that which worked for me at some point in the past.

My habit of sacrificing the needs of my body in order to achieve my goals has worked incredibly well for me in the past. After all, I powered my way through a B.S. and an M.S. from MIT under the steam of 100,000 unmet needs.

I denied my body the sleep that it craved, week after week and year after year — all in the name of getting my work done so that I could be a “success”.

I denied my body the healthy movement that it craved, because the honest truth was that I was too exhausted. 

And so on. And so forth.

This approach worked okay for me for a few years. After all, I was young — I had resources to burn.

But eventually my resources ran out and I fell apart.

By the time I graduated from MIT I was utterly exhausted, suffering from chronic back pain, on my way to developing multiple food sensitivities, and so profoundly anxious from five years of constant, severe academic stress that I was pretty much living my whole life trapped between fight-or-flight (see this comic by the delightful Gemma Correll).

A post shared by Gemma Correll (@gemmacorrell) on

If you think that all sounds a bit overly dramatic, I promise you it’s not. All of those things really happened to me. But my point isn’t to solicit your pity or to trash MIT — after all, I was complicit in all my choices.

I was the one who chose to take five classes most semesters when three or four would do and I’m the one who chose to graduate with two majors and a minor when just one degree would have been plenty.

The culture at MIT also played its role — the institute has a culture of one-upmanship that I feel encourages students to stretch themselves beyond their capacity. But ultimately, I’m the one who chose to participate in that culture — and if you’d tried to talk me out of taking on so much, I don’t believe I would have listened.

I am as much to blame for my suffering as anyone and I’m not particularly interested in trying to point the finger of blame at MIT.

What I’m trying to say is this: I no longer believe it’s possible for anyone to live this way and that we only ever wind up hurting ourselves when we try.

If you refuse to care for yourself, eventually your body will give out on you — probably with terribly inconvenient timing.

If you refuse to acknowledge your needs, eventually you will be humbled.

Because at the bottom of it we are all human. We all have bodies and our bodies have needs that we are required to meet if we want to continue to function.

If you want to be strong enough to do something incredible, you need to start with the things that are most fundamental: as much sleep as your body desires, good food that nourishes you, a movement practice that feels good in your body without being overly stressful, and if you struggle with anxiety, chronic pain, or other health issues you might need a regular meditation practice or other mind-body practice to help you bring mind and body back into balance.

And, the more precarious your health is the more important it is that you know the core building blocks that make up your foundation.

These days my health has improved significantly, but it’s sometimes still annoyingly precarious. A bad cold or two is still enough to bowl me over and the road back to well-being can be long and fraught with setbacks and frustration.

But the thing that saves me is that these days I know my fundamentals.

When I’m not feeling well I know what I need to focus on. Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Eating good food. Joy.

I’ve been through this cycle enough times now to know that if I focus my attention here — on listening to my body and paying attention to my fundamentals — eventually the tide will begin to turn. Slowly energy will find its way back in as exhaustion and pain recede and I will begin to feel better.

I know that in time, everything else will follow.

My energy for writing will return. My desire to do more than crash on the couch after work each evening will return. Soon, I’ll tidy my bedroom after weeks of neglect.

But for now I’m clear on what I really need and I’ve learned the hard way that everything else (chores, my job, my dreams) has to be optional.

Sleep. Rest. Yoga. Meditation. Food that nourishes and doesn’t make me sick. Joy.

Cut my life back to just what is essential, and these are the things that I need more than anything else.

If you want to do hard things or make your big, scary dreams come true you have to start here. You have to find your foundation and stick to it like glue.

None of which is to say that this will be easy — your foundation is unique to you and no one can give you the recipe. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself through months or even years of trial and error (and even then you’ll need to stay flexible, because what was working will stop working and you may be asked to start over).

But having a good foundation isn’t optional.

You’re always going to need to have your foundation in place to support and sustain you through the days, months, and years to come — so when in doubt: start here. Because caring for yourself is always the kindest thing you could do.

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

 

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What to do when things go sideways

Here’s the thing. Life isn’t always the smooth and joyful ride we’d like it to be.

In fact, it’s usually not.

Generally, life is more like a turbulent roller-coaster of crises and fears and anxiety. (Or maybe that’s just me…)

All of which is to say that things are likely to go sideways sometimes.

When they do there’s a few things that will help.

Apply the brakes

When things start to slip into dangerous territory it’s a good time to ease up on everything. When things feel like they’re falling apart the best thing to do is to stop and take a breath (or two or three or six thousand).

Have compassion for your struggle

The thing about struggle is that the only thing that is guaranteed to make hard times worse is piling on self-judgement about your struggle. You’re allowed to struggle. You’re allowed to be unsure. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You’re allowed to be all of these things.

Give yourself permission to be ok, even if nothing else is

Just because everything else might be falling apart doesn’t mean you are. When we learn how to be ok in the messy middle we find our truest strength. We learn how to weather the storm without taking a beating. We learn how to take shelter in the gentle warmth of our own open hearts. We learn how to breathe even when it feels like we’re under ten feet of water.

Because here’s the truth.

Each and every one of us navigates dark days and we don’t do anyone a service by pretending to live always in the light.

So why not admit it? Why not allow ourselves to struggle?

Why not give ourselves permission to struggle and still be ok. Permission to screw up and go on with our lives.

Life goes on until it doesn’t.

You’re going to struggle until the day you don’t.

There is no way out but to muddle through each and every messy minute in the middle.

It works better when we allow ourselves to muddle through the middle. When we allow our mistakes and our miseries to be a part of the process — instead of another item to add to our list of “things we did wrong today”.

It works better when we can meet ourselves with a kind of gentle grace — with the kind vision that says: I see you. I see your struggle. And I know that you are doing the best you can right now.

And then we get to the really hard part: you have to believe it.

You have to believe that it’s ok to struggle enough to live it. To allow yourself the space you need, the care you need, the love you need as you muddle through the middle.

We have to navigate the hard times with tears and laughter and anger and naps after the long, anxious nights that find us along the way.

We have to navigate the hard times with hot showers and flowers and cashmere and whatever it is that makes us feel cozy and safe.

We have to navigate the hard times with all the kindness and grace we can muster — and, yes, that means taking care of ourselves first.

Because navigating the hard times with kindness and grace is only possible when we trust that even though we are messy and imperfect we are still infinitely deserving of love and kindness.

And we have to give that love and kindness to ourselves. We can’t wait to receive it from anyone else.

I’ve been stuck in the messy middle more than I’d like recently and these are the things that have helped me through:

Long naps after sleepless nights.
Hot showers.
TV that makes me happy when I’m tired.
Really good books.
My brilliant coaching clients and coach friends.
Morning pages.
Meditation.
Creativity.

Your list may look entirely different than mine. But it’s important that you make one.

Because the hard times are coming.

And you’re going to need that list.

Much love,
Jessica

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!