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The breakdown is also the breakthrough

Years ago at a college party someone remarked to me that drunk people walk like this: fine, fine, fine, fine — oh sh*t, falling. Parties were really never my scene, but that image stuck with me and I remember it to this day because it seemed like a really good metaphor.

I think for a lot of us life goes something like this: fine, fine, fine, fine — oh sh*t, falling apart.

I know it goes this way for me sometimes.

Sometimes that’s just the way things are. Sometimes life is unexpected and hard and we didn’t want it to be this way and then suddenly it is and we’re falling apart. Sometimes it’s all beyond our control.

But sometimes I think there’s something else at play — sometimes I think it’s the same for us as it is for the drunk person: we’re trying so hard to prove something (that we’re doing okay, that we’ve got this, that we’re fine, no really) that we don’t see our downfall coming until we’re landing on our face.

The truth is that pretending works for a while — right up to the point where I start to feel a just a little more confident, start to think that maybe this time I’m going to get away with it… And then it catches up with me and I trip spectacularly over how not-okay I’ve been all along.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of chronic pain (but the lesson applies more generally) — because about a month ago I spent a week walking in Wales with a friend and experienced seven glorious, pain-free days and because my back wasn’t hurting and I was tired from walking, I actually slept. Which is to say that by the end of the week I actually felt kind of amazing.

It’s been a very long time since I felt amazing. So long that I had mostly forgotten what amazing feels like.

And then I came back to Boston and my back started hurting and I stopped sleeping well (the two go together for me), and all of a sudden there I was: tripping over how not-okay I was and fraying apart at my edges.

I’m not even sure that the last four weeks have been worse than “normal” — I think maybe it’s just me that’s changed. Because I’d forgotten what it was like to feel good, until suddenly I did.

In the end it doesn’t matter: the truth is simply that I am in need of a new “normal”, that I am no longer willing to push on as I have been.

Somewhere in the last four weeks my strength for fighting through being in pain ran out. All of my toughness disappeared on me.

This is what the breakdown looks like.

It’s not always loud and messy and tear-soaked. Sometimes it’s quiet and gentle.

But here’s the thing: I’ve fallen down and out and over enough times now to know that the breakdown can also be a really, really good thing.

Because reaching the end of your rope is always immediately and immensely clarifying.

You thought you still had some wiggle room, but then suddenly there it is: the end of your pretending leaves you with nowhere left to hide from your truth.

It’s terrifying and terrific: the breakdown is also the breakthrough. Or at least it can be if we’re willing to let it be both.

I used to be so afraid of falling apart that I never learned how to let the breakdown become the breakthrough. Whenever I felt myself falling apart, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I held on to anything I could reach as tightly as I could, to try and keep the pieces of myself together.

But in order to get to the breakthrough we have to stop pretending.

We have to hit the bottom and let ourselves shatter a little.

We have to stop to take a really good look around, instead of immediately getting up and heading on our way — hoping that no one noticed our stumble.

The breakthrough demands our curiosity, our willingness to linger, to take stock of what hurts and what’s broken and what are we no longer willing to put back together.

What is true for me today is this: I am no longer willing to be tough on pain.

What is true for you will inevitably be different. Your breakdown and your breakthrough are yours, and yours alone.

But you’ll know when you’ve found the truth you’re looking for because it will land in your body with a thump, an almost-visceral sensation that lies somewhere between a punch to the gut and an enormous sigh of relief.

And if you thought that getting to this knowing was the hard part, I have unfortunate news for you. The truth is that knowing is only the first step that makes the journey possible.

Insight without action is really just another form of hiding. And (because the truth is always a paradox…) there’s really nothing wrong with hiding.

It’s okay to be not-ready.

Just be honest with yourself that not-ready is where you’re at. Say: not today, but maybe someday — and let yourself sit with that.

Someday you’re going to be ready and, when you are, you’ll get to face the scariest part: the part where you take your knowing and you use it to reshape your life around some new principle you’ve never lived by before.

For me, today, that new principle is this: I want to be soft with pain. Wherever pain shows up I want to meet it with gentleness.

None of this will be easy. Change never is.

Our lives aren’t designed to accommodate the messiness of our human needs. 

To be soft with pain I’ll have to make changes at work and at home, I’ll have to have uncomfortable conversations with managers and untangle old habits to make space for new ways of being.

Being soft on pain demands that where pain shows up I will pull up a chair and give pain its very own seat at my table. It demands that I carve out new spaces in my life, to make room for pain to be present and to allow pain to have whatever it needs.

And the very worst part: I have no idea if any of this will be “worth it”. I have no guarantee that any of this will “work”.

After seven years of chronic pain, I live perpetually in a state of both really believing that not feeling this way is possible, and not really believing that any particular change will be the one that finally makes a difference. (I keep making them anyway, because you really never know…)

But what I do know is that I’m tired of fighting with pain and I can choose to put my weapons down.

The pain may or may not go away — but I can choose today to end the war.

Because today I am willing to admit that sometimes our strength lies not in our toughness but in our softness. In our willingness to lay down our arms and let what is true for us right now matter more than any story we might have about who, what, or how we are supposed to be.

At the end of the day, this is always the real breakthrough: the moment we choose to end our war with reality and turn instead toward allowing what is to shape us into the people we are ready to become.

Much love,
Jessica

What to do when your comfort zone feels like a prison

Here’s a puzzle for you: what should you do if your comfort zone feels like a prison?

I used to feel this way a lot. My job was comfortable, but I hated it. My hobbies were comfortable, but they bored me. Living in Boston was familiar, but I hated the ceaseless bustle of the city.

I felt like I was perpetually chafing against the edges of my life, haunted by the idea that surely there must be more out there than this.

Maybe you’ve had this problem, too.

Maybe your life is familiar and comfortable… but maybe comfortable is also kind of awful. Maybe you’ve secretly dreamed of running a way to a cabin in the woods and hiding there forever (or at least until things seem less-awful).

Or maybe it’s just me.

But here’s the interesting thing — in the past year almost none of my circumstances have changed. I still have the same job. I still live in the same apartment in the same city.

Nothing has changed materially, and yet today I can say that for the most part I like my job and the city doesn’t really bother me — on good days I sometimes even like living here.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what made this shift possible. And the short answer is always that I did. I changed my relationship to myself, and in doing so I changed my relationship to my job, my life, and my city.

Sometimes it works this way — sometimes uncomfortable circumstances in our life are signposts guiding us to turn inward, to look toward some way in which we are unknowingly creating our own suffering.

And sometimes it’s the opposite — sometimes situations are toxic and we need to get out of them. Sometimes the discomfort is there to help us see that it really is time to move on from a situation in which we have been comfortable for too long.

The more I experience, the more certain I become that truth is always a paradox: do what is easiest, except for when the hardest thing is the right thing for you. Stay put unless it really is time to go. Leave, unless it is time to stay.

Unfortunately, this kind of truth is generally unhelpful — which is why learning to navigate the path to your happiness is ultimately about improving your ability to tell the difference between the loud voice of your fear and the quietest whisper of your heart.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that have helped to guide me along the way.

The first thing is this: are you moving toward joy or away from discomfort?

I used to believe that moving away from discomfort was the same thing as moving toward joy — that if I reduced my discomfort, I would inevitably experience more joy.

In practice, this never worked out for me. My attempts to make my life more comfortable left me feeling imprisoned rather than free — and today, I no longer believe that this idea to be true.

Because the truth is that we manufacture a lot of our own discomfort.

We tell ourselves scary stories that turn benign situations into nightmares. We create rules about the kind of perfect person we are supposed to be that leave us feeling inadequate and crushingly alone. We are terrified of being vulnerable but angry that our lives are so lacking in meaningful human connection.

The problem is that it’s impossible to move away from the discomfort you create for yourself. If we want these things to change, we have to be the thing that changes.

Otherwise, we inevitably bring our story with us.

I hated my job, but if I’d moved on to a new job, I would have hated that too because the problem wasn’t with my job — it was with my story about what it meant to be a “good employee”.

My job was actually irrelevant — a distraction that I used to avoid facing what was really going on.

Which, again, isn’t to say that you should never move away from discomfort — because sometimes I really believe that you should. But be honest with yourself: are actively moving toward joy or are you just trying to dodge discomfort?

If you’re just trying to dodge discomfort, get really curious about that. What’s the source of your discomfort? Is it really your circumstances (and it might be!), or is it you or how you show up in those circumstances that is causing discomfort?

Because if the problem is really with you (your story, your habits, your mindset), you’re never going to fix it by changing your situation. You’re going to have to face inward and decide to change yourself.

And the second thing is this: what do you need to be okay?

Because sometimes the problem is outside of us, but a lot of the time we’re at least playing a partial role.

Sometimes your boss really is terrible or the situation really is unworkable. But it’s worth asking yourself the question: what do I need to be okay in this situation?

And maybe the answer will just be “LEAVE”, but maybe it won’t be. Maybe some voice inside will whisper that you could learn to set better boundaries, or improve at not taking on another person’s criticism as your own truth.

(Because it’s not the criticism that hurts, so much as the moment just after when we buy into what was said…)

It’s worth asking the question because it is in the asking and the listening that we reclaim our power.

It is in the asking and the listening that we reclaim our right to choose: to choose how we respond, how we show up, how we interact with others, and what we will do moving forward.

Because here’s something I deeply believe to be true: when we trust ourselves to take care of ourselves, even disasters can be handled.

When I trust myself to check-in with myself, to ask myself what I need to be okay, to listen and provide for myself my moments of need — when I trust myself to really do this, I find that it becomes increasingly hard to imagine situations in which I could not find a way to still be okay. There is tremendous freedom in that.

I believe that the definition of empowerment is trusting you to take care of you, over and over and over again.

And when I am able to live like this, suddenly getting out of my comfort zone doesn’t seem quite so scary anymore.

Much love,
Jessica

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

One day, one hour, one breath at a time

Once again I find myself sitting before the blank page trying to find something helpful to say on a day when everything seems hard. I don’t know about you, but for me personally, it’s been a rough January.

I started off the year full of ideas and enthusiasm (as one does), and rapidly succumbed to a cold that I’m still fighting off traces of. But it hasn’t just been my health I’ve struggled with. It’s been hard to read the news, and last week it was hard to watch the Trump inauguration.

All of which combines to mean that I spent the first part of January mired in a haze of illness, exhaustion, and anxiety.

But I can’t help but suspect that maybe it’s been a hard month for you, too — if not for all the same reasons.

And if that’s true then I want you to know that you’re not alone, that it’s been hard for me too — and I want you to know that it gets easier.

Because this haze of exhausted anxiety is a feeling I’m familiar with; I’ve been here before.

So if this month has been hard for you and in the wake of the inauguration you’re feeling understandably anxious and fearful, here is the process I’ve been using to navigate difficult times.

Step One: Offer yourself compassionate witness

The first step in navigating any hard time is always to notice you’re having a hard time (I know this sounds silly, but bear with me). This can be as simple as offering yourself a thought like “Wow, I’m feeling really anxious right now”.

The point is to take a step outside of the direct experience of the feeling (“I am anxious”) to create space between you and the feeling (“I am experiencing anxiety”). In the first instance, anxious is what you are and in the second anxious is only a feeling that is happening to you.

This creates space which allows you to work with the emotion instead of being overrun by it.

So if you haven’t already, or if you’re presently feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to step back and notice exactly what it is that you’re feeling — and then notice that that feeling is simply a sensation that is happening to you right now.

And as you do that, offer whatever it is you may be feeling compassion. Don’t try to make it go away; don’t tell yourself that the feeling shouldn’t be there.

Just step outside of the feeling a little bit and notice its presence. That’s all you need to do right now.

Sometimes I like think of my feelings as unruly children who are seeking my attention, care, and affection. But feel free to choose any metaphor that works for you.

Step Two: Slow everything down

When I’m struggling I never have the same capacity to accomplish things as I usually do (be they grand visions or small mundane things like folding the laundry).

It’s important to understand and expect this because it allows you to give yourself permission to slow down.

When I forget to do this I invariably get lost in a shame-spiral that starts with letting things I’d meant to do slip, at which point I judge myself a “bad person” for not doing things I meant to do, and get mired in guilt and shame, which exacerbates my anxiety, which leaves me with even less energy, and causes things to slip even farther.

If you have this tendency too, then I invite you to skip the spiral. Start with permission to accomplish only as much as you have already accomplished (and, hey, some days that might be literally nothing if you’re really struggling).

I invite you to let being where you are be exactly enough.

I promise all those things that you’d planned to do will still be waiting for you when you’re feeling well enough to tackle them again — and, maybe more importantly, the world probably won’t have ended between now and then just because you didn’t get around to folding the laundry.

And anyway, I’ve found that somehow the truly critical stuff always manages to get done.

Step Three: Create a sense of safety

When you’re mired in a hard place, the journey to the other side begins with safety. It begins with creating a place where you can face into the storm while remaining anchored in an internal felt-sense of safety.

How exactly this sense of safety is created will depend on you and the storm you are facing.

Meditation and mindfulness practices are my favorite approach — I can face into mental or emotional turbulence while remaining anchored in the safety of the breath. But the effectiveness of this approach depends a lot on how well I am able to separate my sense of self from the immediate experience of whatever I am feeling — and how able I am to offer myself kindness and compassion instead of judgement.

If you feel like exploring this kind of approach, I particularly like the practice of RAIN which meditation teacher Tara Brach describes here.

Beyond meditation, other ways that you may be able to face into the reality of your experience from within a safe container include confiding in a journal, expressing yourself in any sort of creative activity, going for a walk, taking a bath, or rolling yourself up in a blanket. Sometimes working with a guided meditation can also help you create a safe space for yourself.

Feel free to experiment and get creative here and, if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, there’s no shame in asking for help.

A really important note: if you are really struggling or dealing with any sort of unresolved trauma you may be so caught in your experience you are unable to separate from the emotional experience without the presence of another person to hold safe space for you.

If this is true for you, then please don’t pressure yourself to keep trying — if you can’t confront your feelings while staying rooted in a sense of safety then it is kinder to seek the help of someone who can hold a safe space for you while you navigate the issue. Depending on your situation, this person might be a trusted friend, a therapist, or a coach. If you feel like this might be true for you I’m always happy to talk with you and help you find the help you need, you can contact me here.

Step Four: Have patience with the process

This process isn’t a miracle cure (I wish it was, but it’s not). There’s no straight line from suffering to peace… it’s never going to be once-and-done.

You’re going to continue to struggle. You’re going to have good days and bad. You’re going to have days where it feels like you’re right smack back where you started.

You’re going to need to have patience and trust the process.

You’re going to need to trust that by offering yourself compassionate witness in the murkiest depths of your struggle and by calmly, gently, kindly turning inward to face the storm, that strength and courage will ultimately prevail.

This process isn’t magic. It’s hard and gritty and it usually takes longer than you’d like.

And when you’re in the middle it can be deeply, profoundly uncomfortable because the ego likes guarantees and it wants a promise that things are going to get better. But in the middle of a profound transformation everything feels uncertain and nothing feels like a guarantee.

But the truth is that this is okay, too. You don’t need to be comfortable if you just keep gently nudging yourself toward facing into the truth.

Just take it one day, one hour, one breath at a time.

Much love,
Jessica

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