Ready Or Not . . . Just GO!

ready or notOne of my goals for 2014 is to write a book. In one year. Not like those crazy Nanowrimo overachievers, whose goal is to write a novel in one month. No, no, I’m giving my self a whole year. But we’re more than halfway through January already and I don’t have much of anything to show for it. And today looks like the seventh day of a pretty fabulous writer’s block.

I am trying to trust that the creative stream will offer me something if I just dip my bucket in, but I am skeptical. I think there may have been a drought, as my bucket keeps coming up empty. Nonetheless, I have assumed the writing position. I am putting my fingertips to my keyboard. I am typing.

I am typing mostly boring drivel, as you can see, but at least it’s SOMETHING.

I have a cold. And I think this is part of the problem. My head feels like it’s grown into a size Extra Large, my ears and nose are plugged up, and my eyes are tired and squinty. I’m like some alien creature from Star Trek with a huge, meaty head and itty bitty eye, ear, and nose holes.

In this state, my creativity, which I usually imagine as a fluid, flowing thing, is mired down in snot and swollen sinuses, struggling to break free and swim on up to my consciousness. Come on, dude – put your back into it!

I am typing in my pajamas.

I know, I know. The common stereotype of a writer is that we’re lazy and can’t be bothered to pull ourselves together in the morning before we start our day of “work.” In fact, as everyone knows, the whole reason we choose to write is that it’s a profession that allows us to maintain our naturally sloth-like, bed-ridden lifestyle.

However, as anyone who knows me can attest, that stereotype doesn’t really fit me. I am actually an obsessive, card-carrying, neatnik who would very much prefer to wash my face, brush my teeth and get dressed before I sit down to write. Truly. I feel exactly as lazy and worthless as you imagine I am as I sit here in my flowered flannel pjs, oversized robe and fluffy slippers, unwashed and uncoiffed.

The problem is, so spectacular is my ability to procrastinate, that once I start a few morning ablutions, I can’t stop.

So, sure, I might enter my bedroom intending to just throw on some clothes, but once I’m there I decide to splash my face with water to help me wake up. Then, since I am already at my sink, I go from washing my face to using my Neti pot.

Once my face and sinuses are clean, I notice my teeth are not, and so I brush them. I also take my vitamins. Then I get finally get dressed, and as I am getting dressed I notice my dog standing by expectantly, hoping it is time for our morning walk and, feeling guilty, I take her out.

After walking the dog, I notice I’ve already got my heartbeat up, and so decide I may as well go ahead and take my morning turn on the elliptical. Then I’m so sweaty I decide I’ll go ahead and take my shower.

SEE HOW IT IS? If I give myself any wiggle room at all, if I allow myself any time to prepare to write, to set up for the activity, I will not actually write. In fact, I will do absolutely ANYTHING other than the hard, boring task of sitting in my chair waiting for inspiration. And before you know it, it’s time for me to go into the office (to do the work that actually pays the mortgage) and I haven’t written a thing. And if I don’t change my ways, it’s wash, rinse, repeat, for the rest of the year.

It’s like an adult-themed “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.”

So, for me, the moral is that, once I’ve decided something is important to do, I just need to DO it, Nike style. If I wait until everything is prepared, until I’m all set up, it’s highly likely that I’ll never actually start. I have to just sit my butt in the chair and write. I have to just go.

So here I sit, in my pajamas, robe and fluffy slippers, hair unwashed, teeth unbrushed and my nose full of snot. My dog sits on her bed beside me, thinking wistful thoughts about the walk we are not having but will hopefully get to later. I have assumed the writing position. I have put fingertips to keyboard keys and, ready or not, I am typing.

I strongly encourage you to take a similar stance. January is almost over, people, and we only have eleven short months left to accomplish our goals. The teeth, the house, the errands, the dog – they can all wait. That goal you deemed important enough to make a resolution quite simply cannot.

Ready or not, just GO.

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What about you? What goal are you setting up for, preparing for, but just not doing? Tell us about it in a comment below and then, ready or not, go do it!

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also like Roadside Assistance for Resolutions Breakdowns or This Isn’t It (Or Is It?).

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What’s Next? Moving Past Shame To Action

shameRadical change is like crack to me. I live for the adrenaline rush of a big, new thing.

So when I sit down to make New Year’s resolutions, I’m like a sugar addict opening up a new bag of Oreos, or a shoe fanatic at a DSW sale. The switch flips and I just go. And I go big.

But then, not surprisingly, my grand resolutions for change often fall apart. Because, if left to my own devices and my mad rush for a new start, I tend to envision, not considered change, grounded in what’s come before and incorporating lessons learned, but change made out of a wild and blind optimism. It’s not the really the big changes that are the problem here, but more my ill-considered way of getting to them.

Clearly I need some sort of help. “Hi, my name is Anne, and I’m a change-a-holic.”” Hi, Anne.”

For the past couple of years, my help has been Suzanna Conway’s workbook, Unravelling the Year Ahead.

Conway’s template has many elements that recommend it (not the least of which is that you can print it out for free from her website), but I believe its special gift is its considered attention to the act of reviewing and saying farewell to the old year, a year that, depending on its success-to-failure ratio, my positivising change addict self might want to avoid revisiting.

As I work through Conway’s exercises, I am asked to contemplate the past year in its entirety, not just its achieved goals and other happy successes, but also its disappointments and hurts. And not just those hurts perpetrated by others but also, perhaps most especially, those I perpetrated.

In other words, I am asked to consider my failures. And I am asked to forgive myself. Completely.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find the act of forgiving myself to be hard work. Because I tend to feel a lot of shame about my past mistakes. And that shame keeps me stuck.

But this is why I think Conway has hit on something important here.

Most shame researchers agree that there is a distinct difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is about wishing you’d done something differently; shame is about wishing you were someone different. Shame is a feeling that you, at your core, are not worthy, not good enough.

So when I say I tend to feel a lot of shame about my past mistakes, what I am really saying is that I feel so bad about these mistakes that I feel really bad about me. And this emphasis on the badness of me vs. the badness of my actions, if I allow it to fester underground, tends to stop real change in its tracks.

shameBecause if you think about it, there is truly nowhere to go from shame, from a sense of unworthiness; it’s a stuck place. If I’m not worthy, if I’m truly a bad person, then how in the world will I ever be able to make amends or make a different choice the next time around? And if I can’t make different choices, then why should I even bother to take this New Year’s resolution thing seriously?

Conway’s template, with its emphasis on – no, it’s absolute requirement of – self-forgiveness, attacks this shame-based stickiness head on and robs it of its power to hold us back.

Which is why it works for me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we should sugarcoat our past actions and avoid feeling guilt about the ways in which we’ve screwed up. Quite the contrary.

Guilt, while admittedly uncomfortable, is also a particularly helpful emotion. If faced honestly and from a place of empowerment, it allows us to accept our mistakes, broken promises and goals unachieved, grieve the harm we might have perpetrated on ourselves or others, forgive ourselves for being imperfect and move on with the intention of making a better choice next time.

It’s only when guilt morphs into shame that it becomes unhelpful and disempowering. Sticky.

Now, I don’t know Conway personally, nor do I have any professional interest in her work. So I’m not particularly invested in whether or not you use her template specifically. I’m sure there are many New Year’s resolution tools that will work in this same way, and you are encouraged to find one that works for you.

Just make sure that, whatever tool you use, it’s one that first encourages you to take a long, perhaps hard, look back at the old year before you begin planning the new. One that helps you accept and forgive the old regrets and disappointments, the goals unreached, the wish-I-could-haves, the why-didn’t-Is, and moves you out of any shame you feel about what’s come before so that you can envision, with clarity, purpose and, yes, optimism, what’s next.

Because the new year is upon us. And it may be time for some big changes.
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What about you? Are you feeling guilt or shame about some part of this past year? If so, consider writing about it in a comment below. According to shame researcher Brene Brown, outing shame is the first step in robbing it of its power.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Every Fall Makes You A Better Rider and Roadside Assistance for Resolution Breakdowns.

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To Those Who Are Waiting

waitingYou know that final scene in the movie Love Actually when everyone is greeting each other in the airport? I was THERE, in that very scene, on Wednesday night when my husband, daughter and I went to the Omaha airport to greet my 20-year-old son, Sam, as he arrived home from school for his winter break.

We’d made this same trip before, of course, for both children, and arrived expecting to find a small group already clustered at the top of the ramp leading to the gates, waiting for their own loved ones. We were never alone on these nights. But this time there were probably forty-to-fifty people at this place, people of all ages, all colors, all manner of attire . . . all waiting.

There were so many people that I seriously thought they might be congregating for a flash mob. We hung around for a while, even after Sammy arrived, just in case. But, no. They, like us, were all just waiting for their loved ones.

  • The large, quiet, rough-looking man was waiting for his young, fresh-faced son, who seemed just as surprised as we were by his father’s joyful bear-hug greeting.
  • The small, stylish boy-man almost knocked over his returning soldier girlfriend with his embrace, an embrace from which neither of them wanted to break, even as her khaki duffle bag rolled out the little door and past them on the conveyer belt.
  • The happy woman with the funny hat was waiting to greet (and embarrass!) her adult son and new fiancé. She turned on her hat when they arrived and it sang a Christmas greeting as its pointy tip swayed jauntily back and forth in time to the music.

And there so any others others . . . the noisy group of college kids in sweatshirts and boots; the pretty, young woman in the business suit; the large, older woman in the pajamas and slippers. One by one, they each greeted their own loved ones as they arrived home for the holidays. Just like the movie.

Else where in this blog, I have attempted to dissuade my readers from waiting:

Don’t wait on the world to change. Change it yourself! Don’t wait for everything to fall into place so that you can have the life you want. Have that life now, in spite of its imperfections!

Like that.

But in this liturgical season of Advent, waiting has another face – a patient, faithful and, yes, joyful one. So I am going to reverse myself. I am going to encourage you to make room in your life for waiting.

Because some things – like growth, change and resolution of grief, for instance – should not, cannot be pushed or manhandled into fruition.

And because some things – like having your scruffy son home from college – really are worth waiting for.

All of these good, important things take time. But they will come, to those who wait.

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What about you? What are you waiting for? Tell us in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out All in Good Time: Traveling at the Speed of Life and Roadside Assistance for Resolution Breakdowns: 5 Things to do When You’re Stuck.

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The Don’t-Fix-It Guide To Feelings

feelingsI was having what you might call a bad morning.

First up, the plasterer settled into my living room at 7:00 am for the second day in a row. This sounds so innocuous, I know. Plasterers can be so quiet and unassuming. But my particular plasterer was tasked with the job of spraying new stucco on my living room walls, a process involving the relentless ear-ringing, teeth-buzzing clatter of the stucco-sprayer-thingy, as well as the continued annoyance of having our living room furniture scattered through every room in the house except the living room.

Next, around 9:00, perhaps because of the construction noise and confusion, my new, anxiously attached rescue Golden Retriever lost his mind and shredded his new bed while I was taking my shower. So on an already rushed and stressful morning (would the stucco-sprayer-thingy never stop?) I found myself having to corral a pile of clingy foam bullets into the trash as quickly as I could, while mourning the fifty dollars lost and wondering when we might be able to leave this new pup alone.

Then there was the email from my business attorney confirming the sad news that, yes, I would have to pay an unexpected $500 fee for the privilege of having inadvertently and illegally used a copyrighted photo on my website, an expense my fledgling private practice could ill afford. (I know, I know. Stupid me. Live and learn.)

But the proverbial last straw was the moment I learned, ten minutes before the start of my first psychotherapy session, that a close acquaintance from my church had died unexpectedly the past evening. Which kind of put everything else in perspective, if you know what I mean.

Oh, and all this was happening while my husband, normally my rock, was away on business travel.

feelingsI’m not gonna lie. My first impulse was to barge into my colleague’s office and demand an emergency therapy session. In my heightened state of anxiety, I felt the only option I had was to quickly figure out how to fix my dog, handle my business expense and grieve for my friend, all in the ten minutes before my first client showed up. I felt I needed to do something – anything – to just feel better, to fix my bad feelings RIGHT NOW.

I got a hold of myself just in time. (You’re welcome, Kendra.)

Instead, I did something I don’t usually do, something pretty out of my Type-A character. I turned on the meditation app on my phone (yes, there is an app for that) and gave myself the gift of a three-minute mini-meditation sit.

And I just breathed.

In and out, deep and slow, riding the wave of my breath as I have learned to do in my weekly yoga class. (Thank you, Rebecca.)

And this act of just breathing led to a kind of letting go, a release . . . not of the stress and sadness itself . . . but of the need to immediately do something about it, to fix it.

If you know me, then you know what a surprising (okay, miraculous) development this was.

But there’s more. This letting go then led to a quiet calmness, a quirky (for me) centered feeling and, of all things, a sense of contentment (the yogis call it santosha, I think) . . . and I was able to gather myself into a more or less therapist-shaped ball so that I could be present with my clients that day. And I actually felt . . . well . . . better.

Honestly, maybe I’m the last one to figure this out, but it’s amazing what being REALLY QUIET, in both body and mind, can do for your mental health. Clearly, there was no way I was going to be able to handle all of my worries in that moment (who am I kidding? I haven’t even handled them all now, a month later). Moreover, my need to change the way I was feeling was contributing a lot of additional stress to my already bad morning.

But thankfully, in that small, quiet moment, a moment of breathing in and out, in and out, I realized that I did not, in fact, need to do anything to fix my feelings because I discovered I had the ability to accept, tolerate and just . . . feel them.

feelingsGird your loins, people. We are headed into the craziness of another holiday season, one that pressures us to stay busy, buy more things, make time for our nutty family, and look and act happy even when we aren’t and don’t want to. You know the one.

This season might be hard for some of us. It might take its toll on our soul, stress us out, and make us want to rush in for an emergency therapy session so that we can find something – a strategy, a pill, a snicker doodle – that will fix our feelings and make us feel better RIGHT NOW.

Instead, what if we all took a minute, or three, to just breathe, to relax into our feelings and accept them. Maybe, in uncovering our ability to tolerate what previously felt intolerable, we might also discover that we are stronger than we know and aren’t, in fact, in need of any kind of fixing.

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What about you? Have you had feelings that you thought needed fixing? Times you were able to relax and let go? Please tell us about these moments in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out the Equanimity app, or these posts on Embracing Emptiness, Living Messy and yoga.

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Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

come outI remember playing hide-and-seek as a child with the neighborhood kids, and how there was always an inherent tension built into that game for me.

See, the competitive side of me wanted to find the best hiding place EVER, somewhere no one would think to look, a place from which I could emerge triumphant after all the other kids had been found and, despairing of finding me, were starting to call my name for me to just COME OUT ALREADY so we could start the next game.

I imagined the looks of awe and wonderment on my friend’s faces upon my return from such a place, and their repeated queries as to where, exactly, I had hidden. I’ll never tell.

But another, softer, side of my childhood self thought that the actual act of hiding was kind of boring and lonely. Scary, even. And so, in the middle of a game, I would often start to panic a teensy bit as the minutes went by and I was still hidden. Hearing the repeated cries of “I found you!” echo out across the yards as the other hiders were, one by one, discovered and, to my mind, released, this part of me wanted desperately to be found.

come outThese cats hiding badly know what I mean. They aren’t hiding to be hidden. They’re hiding to be found.

Even today, though I am well past the age of neighborhood hide-and-seek, I find I still experience this same hiding tension. Because, truth be told, the competitive side of me still has a major interest in hiding from the rest of the world.

So, I often don’t say what I really think, for fear of looking stupid. Or I hesitate to reveal my true feelings, especially if they are particularly soft or needy, because I worry someone might take advantage of me if I do. And when I am feeling most broken and alone, I am REALLY wary of revealing this, because I’m convinced no one will understand or, worse, will think I’m incompetent to help others. I’m a psychotherapist, after all.

come outSo, fearful of what others might think of me and wanting, as I think many of us do, to be seen as the smartest, strongest, and most emotionally stable gal in the room, I keep my real self hidden. And I am a very proficient hider, if I do say so myself.

But the softer side of me feels bored, lonely, and even despairing, when I go to this hiding place. Bored because I am so one-dimensional here. Lonely because I am not truly, authentically connecting with anyone. And despairing because I lack the context in which to see my brokenness and vulnerability as universal and normal.

And it’s not just about me. Despite several decades of training to the contrary, I really believe a certain kind of larger tragedy occurs when I’m too scared to offer the world my unique perspective, my one-of-a-kind Annie-shaped puzzle piece.

When we change ourselves to fit into a situation, we may be depriving that situation of the very element it needs to become what it can become.
– Anne Wilson Schaef

So it turns out, in life and in hide-and-seek, I THINK I want to have the best hiding place ever, and try my best to foil everyone’s attempts to find me. Until they keep not finding me, not seeing me. Until I get lonely and a teensy bit panicky.

434592_43023491Then I realize that, deep in my soft little heart, I don’t really want to be hidden. I want to be found and, ultimately, KNOWN for the unique bundle of goodness and darkness, strength and weakness, beauty and ugliness that I am. And so I continue to work to find the courage to come out, come out, wherever I am.

There’s nothing more daring than showing up, putting ourselves out there and letting ourselves be seen.
– Brene Brown

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What about you? Are you struggling to show your weaker, more vulnerable side? Please tell us about your journey in a comment below. Come on out!

And, if this post got you thinking, check out That’s Mine; You Have Yours: The Importance of Being You and Brene Brown’s fabulous Ted Talk about the power of vulnerability.

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How My Dog Taught Me To Live In The Moment


“What day is it?”

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.
A.A. Milne

live in the momentLola – my 4-yr-old, 70-lb Labrador Retriever – is still quite the puppy.

She wriggles and whines and loves to push on her squeaky giraffe toy. She cuddles up beside you to sleep, and insists on tummy scratches in the morning. She interrupts my morning work by butting my hand off the keyboard with her big Labrador head and bringing me toys she can’t believe I’m ignoring. And she greets our visitors as if they are her long lost best friends.

Lola also happens to be a really good girl. She doesn’t pee or poop in the house (never has), will heel on a leash for miles if you ask her to, and comes when she’s called, every time. (Okay, there was that one time she was distracted by the discovery of chickens living on our block, but even then she did eventually come. And, seriously, who WOULDN’T be distracted by chickens?)

Lola, it turns out, also has her priorities straight.

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Well Lola’s Hierarchy of Needs, in the order of non-negotiable to optional, goes something like this:

  • Love
  • More love
  • Play
  • More play
  • Food
  • Time to pee and poop (only if there’s nothing better to do)

I kid you not. Lola is the first dog I’ve ever had who not only doesn’t stand at the back door with her legs crossed when I get home from work in the evening, but actually refuses to go out to do her business before she’s had her tummy scratch and dinner.

And, even then, when I finally do manage to get her outside, Lola brings me toy after toy – her Frisbee, her ball, her stuffed bunny, a stick, one right after another with an ever more serious “Oh my God, will you not throw me ANYTHING?” look on her face – until she finally realizes I’m much more stubborn than her and that I simply will not play until she’s had a good pee.

One such night, I arrived home after a full day in my office to a puppy that had been cooped up in the house alone for a good nine hours. Once inside and past the quivering, bouncing greeting machine, I moved to the back of the house and opened the door to let her out (I always try). Predictably, Lola went immediately into a downward dog pose to tell me she simply wouldn’t think of it. So I scratched her tummy and head, and poured her some food, and she was happy.

Later, when I finally convinced her to go outside and made it absolutely clear that it was not play time, Lola at last went about the job of sniffing out her spot to do her business, assumed the familiar crouch, and began to pee a big long one.

By the way, anyone who uses the term “pees like a racehorse” has not seen my dog do her thing.

live in the momentSuddenly, in total puppy mode and right in the middle of her pee, Lola caught sight of a Monarch alighting on the birdbath by the north fence line, stopped her flow in what could only have been an incredibly uncomfortable way, and made a bolt for the butterfly, stopping just short of it to gaze with interest, and seeming delight, as it fluttered and waved above her in the patchy sun.

Now, I don’t know exactly what might move me to cut off an “it’s been 10 hours since my last one” pee, but I’m pretty sure a butterfly wouldn’t do it.

But, as I said, Lola has her priorities straight.

So I’m enjoying Lola enjoying the butterfly, marveling at her childlike preference and focus, and wondering if/when she’ll think to get back to her business when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see a bunny dart out from under the fire pit and begin to bound quickly across the yard, ears up and white tail bobbing.

Now, live bunnies are Lola’s absolutely FAVORITE THINGS. She loves to stalk and chase them in our yard. She never catches them, mind you, but that’s okay with her. The chase is the thing.

I am praying Lola doesn’t see this bunny, because not only is she not on a leash but we also have no south fence line at the moment (it’s in the process of being replaced), and I’m a bit worried that my excitable canine might just chase the bunny out of our yard and into the street (yes, she’s a good girl, but a puppy can only be so strong). So I remain very still, with only my eyes moving back and forth – Lola, bunny, Lola, bunny, Lola, bunny. And I’m prepared to yell out a command if she starts to bolt.

But, miracle of miracles, Lola doesn’t see the bunny, and it bounds safely past the nonexistent fence line, across the street, and under the neighbor’s chain link fence. I start breathing again, and Lola wanders off to resume her interrupted pee.

live in the momentThe wonderful thing is, Lola didn’t see the bunny because she was already giving her full enraptured attention to a lazy butterfly, and then to a scent near the butterfly and then to a sunflower waving near the scent, and so on. You get the picture.

Now, given the choice, would Lola have chosen the bunny over the butterfly? Perhaps. They are her FAVORITE THINGS, after all. But, lucky for her, Lola doesn’t think in terms of gradations of joy, saving her energy for the big event, or holding out for something better.

Instead, Lola throws her whole ecstatic and wriggly self into the observation and admiration of what’s in front of her in the present moment, whether it be a good, long pee, a lazy butterfly or that most precious of sights, a running bunny.

And so she is able to find the joy in each and every moment, the small ones as well as the big. And she has taught me to try to do the same.

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What about you? Are you, like me, in need of a constant reminder to live in the moment? Do you have a canine friend that helps you out with this?

Also, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out All in Good Time: Traveling at the Speed of Life or Ride Every Stride: Mindfulness in Writing, Riding, Running and Relationship.

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All In Good Time: Traveling At The Speed Of Life

all in good timeSo I’m driving down a medium-sized street in Omaha on a recent summer morning, headed out to a couple of midtown errands. Although it’s a major thoroughfare, the street runs through a quiet neighborhood, so the speed limit is a very reasonable 30 mph.

Of course I’m not going the speed limit. I’m going about 33. This is because I recently heard that you won’t get pulled over for speeding if your top speed is only 10% over the limit. I don’t know whether this is actually true or not (any police officers reading this should feel free to weigh in), but it gives me a nice rule to follow. And, as many of you know from a previous post, I really like following rules.

Taking it slow on the road also makes certain members of my family a little twitchy, which is a nice little bonus for me.

Anyway, as I’m driving down this street, secure in the knowledge that although I’m breaking the law I’m not breaking it enough to draw attention to myself, I suddenly become aware of a middle-aged man in a smallish blue car behind me. I become of aware of him because he is driving up my butt.

Now, I really hate this type of driving behavior (so rude!), and I’m also a little worried about a school zone coming up in a few blocks. And, okay, I can be a little ornery. So I slow down to 30.

Speedy Gonzales slows down too, but only to keep his car from driving up my bumper and hitching a ride on the top of my Saturn. And it’s clear from the way he grips the steering wheel and sits up in his seat that he’s impatient and not at all happy with the calculations of his pacesetter.

Not surprisingly, eight blocks later (and right before the school zone!), he whips around me really fast and speeds off into the distance. I quickly lose sight of his little blue roadster.

Wait for it.

Yes, as I approach the red light at a large intersection ahead I notice Speedy sitting there, cooling his jets. Despite his hurry, then, he has arrived at the light just a few seconds before me. And so, in the end, Speedy and I find ourselves idling side by side, chummily waiting together for the light to change. I couldn’t help but crack the tiniest little smirk as I pulled alongside him. Like I said, I can be a little ornery.

all in good timeIt’s a shocker, I know, but I was not always the calm and centered non-anxious presence you see before you now. I used to be a lot like Speedy. I used to be quite impatient.

Okay, that’s a big fat lie. The fact is, I’m still incredibly impatient. The only thing keeping me from speeding like Speedy is the thought of my already shockingly high insurance rates going up.

So don’t get me started on the line at the bank, the time stretching out before a vacation, a few of my children’s developmental stages, or certain friends’ speech patterns – I want it all to go faster, faster, can we move it along, people, for Heaven’s sake so I can get on to the next thing?

Most recently, I was trying to move along the writing of this blog post.

My efforts were not terribly successful.

Because I am publishing this post about two months past its original deadline.

Only I know this, of course, because my writing deadlines are of my own making. Because, you know, life doesn’t have enough stress already, so why not add a little more? And because staying in control of the timing of my life gives me the exquisite illusion of being in control of the rest of it. And because – and I know you’re all with me on this one – when you have a task with a deadline and then complete it, the act of checking it off your list is fabulously gratifying.

all in good timeThe problem was, I was bored with writing, and impatient with the writing process. I was annoyed with how hard it was to get anything good on the page, how much work I had to put into it. And I became just the teensiest bit depressed, which made it even harder to sit my butt in the chair and assume the writing position.

Yes, I fought off the gloominess for a while, in true therapist fashion, insisting with a cheerful inner CBT voice that all would be well. But that didn’t help. Because all was not, in fact, well, and insisting it was, pushing the pace along, only made me feel worse. So I finally succumbed to my lethargy and sadness and let go of the need to make my deadline. And a miracle occurred – I immediately came out of my funk and wrote 20 good pages.

No, not really. I actually wallowed in the funk for quite a few weeks before the light changed and my mood shifted. And then, when the time was right, I was finally able to put my butt back in the chair and write some crappy stuff that eventually turned into this little post on taking time.

[By the way, contrary to what you may be thinking, I actually did not set out to take my time writing a blog about taking time. It’s a great conceit, and I wish I had I had thought of it, but the reality is that the struggles of my life just aligned in such a way that I began to practice what I eventually ended up preaching. Go figure.]

So what did I learn from my “no deadline” experiment? Pretty much the same lesson Speedy got on the road that day.

all in good timeI learned that sometimes it’s better not to force things. I learned that if we can slow down and travel at the speed that life gently encourages, things really do happen . . . all in good time. And I learned that all of us, regardless of the pace we take or the amount of control we think we have, all of us at some point in our hurried lives have to just sit still together and wait for the light to change.

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What about you? Have you figured out a good way to slow down your inner Speedy? Please tell us about it in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out the post Hurry Up! And Then Wait and this post on what you can do when you find yourself in a stuck place.

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Snot Rockets And Sailing Ships: Making Meaning Out Of The Mess

messSnot Rockets
My daughter Emily has never been much of a hiker. Bright and beautiful, and possessing a quick wit and an exceptionally kind heart, Emily has many talents and interests. Walking in the woods until you sweat is just not one of them.

Nevertheless, she will sometimes accompany the rest of the family if we’re determined to get in a hike on one of our yearly trips to the Rocky Mountains. She’s a social girl, after all, and doesn’t want to be left behind. And she is a remarkably good egg.

Part way through one such hike last summer, Emily happened to turn her ankle painfully on one of the many roots and rocks on the path. And seeing as she was pretty tired and out of her element to begin with, she kind of fell apart emotionally as she limped pitifully down the rest of the trail.

Thankfully, Emily’s younger brother, Sam (who might on a different occasion have been the one to trigger her tears) came to the rescue. He walked along beside her, talking, cheering her up. And before I knew it, they were both moving toward the side of the path and doing something that looked very much like blowing snot out of their noses.

Turned out they were actually blowing snot out of their noses. Sam had taken the opportunity to teach Emily how to blow that most sacred of teenage creations – snot rockets, and they were both putting in good practice time on the task as they walked along. And laughing hysterically as they did so, like the young teenagers they no longer really were, but still held so tightly in their hearts.

You had to hand it to Sam. It was the perfect teaching moment. First of all, Em had been crying for a while and had a lot of snot to work with, so the rockets were spectacular. But even more impressive, my wise boy had found a way to help his sister make something fun and social out of an experience that, at first glance, seemed just an embarrassing and painful mess.

Sailing Ships
There are many items in my therapy office to which I look for inspiration as I work with and for my clients:

  • Surf-smoothed stones from a favorite Maine beach remind me the power of time to smooth out the rough edges of a life marked by trauma and loss.
  • A triptych painting of the stages of a dandelion’s life alludes to the natural cycle of newness, growth and loss that permeates so many aspects of our human experience.
  • A metal sculpture of a creeping snail nudges me to slow down and follow my client’s pace.
  • A glass paperweight embedded with an etching of a horse, a gift from a past student with whom I thought I had little in common, affirms to me that we can all connect around something.

All of these objects hold meaning for me, but the one I find myself turning to most frequently is a training handout, now framed, that came to me when I was a baby therapist. At the top of the handout is a pen and ink drawing of a tall sailing ship moving through the rolling surf, sails unfurled. Underneath the ship, written in simple but elegant calligraphy, is the following quote:

“There are parts of a ship which taken by themselves would sink. The engine would sink. The propeller would sink. But when the parts of a ship are built together, they float. So with the events of my life. Some have been tragic. Some have been happy. But when they are built together, they form a craft that floats and is going places. And I am comforted.” (There was no name after the quote on my handout, but I have since found an attribution to Ralph W. Sockman.)

I refer to this quote at some point in my work with nearly all of my clients, because almost every client with whom I work is struggling to make sense of a messy, broken past that feels exceedingly heavy to them, like a large boulder they carry around in a back pack. Or like the engine of sailing ship that is so heavy it can’t float.

I believe most of us, in fact, are working to make sense of a past that includes this broken messiness. I know I am. So I refer to “the boat quote” (as one of my clients named it) for my own growth as much as for my clients’, to remind myself that the dirty, messy parts of our lives, the parts we don’t reveal to others if we can possibly avoid it, are every bit as meaningful, formative and transformative – perhaps more so – than the pretty, shiny, organized parts we take out for guests.

Like Br. Curtis Almquist so wisely reminds us: “Your past, whatever it is, will provide the firm foundation for your life. Even if there’s rubble, the rubble will be reformed into an edifice far stronger and more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.”

Yes. And, if you’re lucky, and you have a brother named Sam, sometimes the strong, beautiful edifice that arises out of the messy rubble will also be hysterically funny.

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What about you? Is there a messy part of your life that has transformed you? Tell us about it in a comment below.

And if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out some other posts here, like Living Messy or Things Get Worse Before They Get Better.

 

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A Grief Re-Observed: Re-Experiencing Loss In Times Of Tragedy

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history . . .”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

griefWe are stunned, once again, by an extreme act of violence, and impacted beyond measure by the grief and loss involved. Those families affected most directly, the families of the victims, will of course feel this grief and loss most acutely.

But even those of us more removed from the events can re-experience our own history of loss in some measure, a history we thought for sure we were past. At times like these, it is helpful to be reminded of the nature and course of grief and of a few things we can do to help it along:

1. Grief is very personal. Everyone is different, so you will experience the thoughts and feelings connected with the loss of a loved one in your own, unique way. The advice of the experts and the wisdom of friends might speak to you, or they might not. Use what works, ignore what doesn’t, and be strong in your insistence on experiencing your grief in your own manner.

2. Grief can be very tiring, both mentally and physically. So it’s important, whether you’ve just lost a loved one or whether someone else’s loss has triggered memories of an earlier grief, to take special care of yourself for a while. Cut back on your responsibilities where you can, be sure to get enough sleep, engage in more activities that bring you joy, and surround yourself with people who can support you through this difficult time.

3. We tend to experience grief in stages. The five most common stages are: Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Note that these are not the kind of stages that progress neatly from one to another, but the kind that overlap and skip around. And they can each (or all) reappear in some fashion when a current loss reminds us of an earlier one.

4. Grief doesn’t follow a calendar or clock. Going through the stages of grief takes as long as it takes. People in your life, largely in an attempt to be helpful, will say things like “you should be over this by now,” or “didn’t that happen a long time ago?” In the face of these well-meaning, but decidedly inaccurate, sentiments you have to remember that everyone’s experience of grief and loss is unique (see #1), and so no one else can tell you how and when you should be over it.

Actually, it is likely you will never really get all the way “over” it, as the memories of your loved one, while bringing you joy and comfort, will also likely spark feelings of sadness at times, even when you are many years past their death and have largely entered the “acceptance” stage of grief. This can happen most vividly when a new loss, perhaps even one experienced by someone else, reminds you of an earlier one.

5. Feelings of grief and loss, like other strong feelings, have a beginning, a middle and an end. And you can, and will, get through them in one piece. In order to do this, however, you must first be truly mindful of your feelings. This means first taking the time to sit with them, name them, and accept that they are what they are, and then bravely wading into them with the belief that you can and will bear them. The simple, but sometimes hard, truth is that you can’t take a shortcut here; the only way to get to the other end of a feeling is to allow yourself to feel it.

Most of us find that, with lots of time and a good support system, we are eventually able to integrate our loss, even a very profound one, into the ongoing story of our life and move forward to brighter things, carrying the memories of this important person with us as we grow, change and go about the business of living. This is the natural course of grief if we allow it to flow.

But there is additional redemption possible here. Because our experience, or re-experience, of our own grief can help us empathize with others when they suffer a loss, and can bring us together as a community in a powerful way when something really horrible happens. In this way, experiences of grief and loss are a part of the fabric of being human, and have the power, ultimately, to uplift and transform.

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What about you? Do you sometimes find yourself re-experiencing grief you thought you’d left behind? If you’re comfortable telling us about your experience, you are encouraged to leave a comment below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out this one on building a community response to loss or this one on letting others help.

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“That’s Mine; You Have Yours.” – Why You Should Do You

do youSnowflakes are falling outside my window as I write this, big and little ones together, and I can’t take my eyes off of them. Most of the flakes are gliding on the wind at the same diagonal angle, like the “from the heart” pattern on an English rep tie. And when a more horizontal wind picks up, they all go that way too, the whole group moving in the same pattern, all in fluffy lockstep.

Occasionally, however, there is one little rebel flake that takes a different path, a twisting, turning, zigzag line, exhibiting – in a rather bold expression of independence – an absolute refusal to go along. “Do you, little snowflake,” I think to myself as I watch this rebel do its thing.

Lessons From My Daughter
The toddler years can be trying ones, can’t they? Willfulness added to boundless energy and shaken with a bit of emotional reactivity; it’s a potent cocktail that can put us right over the edge on some days, and not in a good way. Turns out there’s a reason we call them the terrible twos, the traumatic threes and the fearsome fours. (Okay, I just made that middle one up.)

But in the midst of all of the chasing, herding, explaining and insisting that marks these years there is also, of course, magic and wonder. Everything is so new to a young child, and as he or she works to explore and make sense of the world around them, we are privileged to travel with them on this journey of discovery, to see things through their eyes.

And they say the weirdest, most delightful things, don’t they?

Being that our daughter, Emily, was our first-born, we of course have more data on her. My son, Sam, never lets us forget this, convinced that the paucity of photos and observations marking his early years means either that he was adopted, or that we didn’t love him as much as we did his sister. Truly, like most parents, our recording secretary energy just petered out one day, and we became more interested in living the moments with our children than in saving them for posterity. I feel bad for Sam, but there you have it.

do youSo we wrote down a lot of the things Emily said during this time. And as I look back through the small notebook reserved for this task, I find that a lot of her observations were pretty funny. Like the time when, after a very unusual noise came from Emily’s direction, I asked her, “Was that a toot?” and she replied, “No, it was a toot in my mouth.” Or the time she held her eyes in a wink at the dinner table and announced, “I have one eye sleeping and one eye up!”

Other times, her observations were heartbreakingly sweet, like on the evening she sat in my lap to comfort me as I teared up after a hard day, put her cheek to mine in a soft hug, and whispered gently, “Mommy, you got your sad on my face.”

Her most repeated comment, however, usually precipitated by either her father or I invoking parental privilege and attempting to steal a bit of food from her plate, was: “That’s mine; you have yours!”

Now, there was a lot going on in that statement. Yes, my young daughter was absolutely claiming what was hers, like any good capitalist toddler would. And she was, of course, engaging in that toddler willfulness I mentioned earlier. But I believe she was also asserting, to herself and to us, that she was Emily and we weren’t, thus exhibiting the beginnings of a healthy delineation of self and other. She was beginning to know, and do, Emily.

Doing Me Again
At the age of 48, a year after a cross-country move to a newly empty nest, as I work to explore and make sense of this new life I’m in and notice myself taking those same baby-steps toward selfhood now that Emily took so many years ago (yes, at the age of 48 I am doing that again), I find that I lean on Emily’s childhood observation like a mantra.

do youCarving out my identity, my desires and my beliefs from those around me, like a sculptor scraping and slicing to reveal the bust that has been, until just this moment, surrounded by extra clay, I work through the possibilities and make the decisions:

No, I don’t believe I am THAT mother (or friend, or therapist, or writer); I am more like THIS. Scrape, scrape. No, I don’t feel THAT way; I feel THIS way. Cut and smooth. No, I don’t want to do THAT, I want to do THIS. Scrape and smooth.

And as I scrape, cut and smooth my clay, I speak Emily’s words: “That’s mine; you have yours.” Sometimes I speak them loudly, brazenly. Other times, more softly and tentatively. But I assert these words on a daily basis, and they help me find my self.

I am trying, like my daughter before me, to do me.

But it’s scary.
Yes. It turns out that sticking out, going against the grain, is hard, scary work, even at the age of 48, and some days I’d rather some other snowflake took the risk.

Because it feels so much safer to just go with the prevailing wind. There is strength in numbers, isn’t there? And comfort in having my perspective affirmed by others. After all, how could we all possibly be wrong?

But there is also sameness in a numbers. And stagnation. And a lack of something. What was it? Oh, right – authenticity.

Here’s the thing that I’m just figuring out. We think we are doing the world and ourselves a favor by holding back our true selves, like if we gave it our all, our REAL all, it might upset a cosmic balance or something or, even worse, people might gasp and mutter to each other things like, “Who does she think she is?” and “What the h___ is she doing?” Or at least this is how I think.

But the reality is, when we dumb down our presence in the world, when we “sand off the interesting edges” as Seth Godin remarks in a recent blog post, we are actually withholding the one unique thing we have to offer – our singular perspective, the way that our particular brain and heart has tried to make sense of our particular set of experiences. No one else can offer this. No one.

Emily Still Has Hers
My daughter inspires me even now. She is graduating from college next month, and has discarded all of the usual post-college options like graduate school and psychology research positions and has chosen instead to spend a year by herself in Cape Town, South Africa helping people. “That’s mine; you have yours.” She’s still doing Emily.

So, inspired once again by my daughter, I keep scraping, cutting, getting down to me. Doing me. And, all the time, repeating my mantra: “Do you, little snowflake.”

Let other people have theirs. Let other people do themselves.

We, each of us, have ours. And we all can, and should, do us.

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What about you? How are you doing you? Any lessons learned along the journey? Feel free to share your experience in a comment below.

And if this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out There is a First Time For Everything or these other posts on the process of change.

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