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Category: Living Your Best Life

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Lucky us: We live in a world where many of us have an abundance of choices–where to live, what to do for a living, and, of course, who to marry. Or whether to get married at all.

All these choices give us certain freedoms, but they don’t necessarily make us happier. They create certain perfectionistic expectations: If we aren’t perfectly happy with the one we love, for example, might we have chosen wrong? Should I make a different choice now? Would the grass be greener if I were with my high school sweetheart?

Here’s where I find John and Julie Gottman’s seminal research helpful for understanding the problems of long-term romantic relationships. Here are two key things I’ve learned from them:

First, all couples have problems. Think the grass might be greener? Remember you’re trading out one set of problems for another. It isn’t about finding a conflict-free relationship, or even about solving all of your relationship’s problems, but rather about accepting the problems you can live with.

In her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert offers a very useful metaphor for this, quoting her gem-buyer former husband:

A parcel is this random collection of gems that the miner puts together. Supposedly, you get a better deal that way—buying them all in a bunch—but you have to be careful, because [he’s] trying to unload his bad gemstones on you by packaging them together with a few really good ones.

After I got burned enough times, I learned this: You have to ignore the perfect gemstones. Just put them away and have a careful look at the really bad stones. Look at them for a long time, and then ask yourself honestly, “Can I work with these? Can I make something out of this?”

Spouses are much the same: They come with flawed bits as well as sparkly strengths. The question isn’t so much whether you want the sparkly parts (of course you do) but rather whether you can deal with the flaws.

Second, there are really only four types of problems. The key is knowing what type of problem you’ve got, and then deciding whether or not you can work with it. The four kinds of problems are:

(1) One-time, solvable problems. I think many of us bull-headed people assume that all problems are solvable. They’re not.

But some are. These tend to be the types of conflicts that arise from a unique situation rather than differences in our personalities.

Say you want a dog, but your partner doesn’t. This is a conflict that can, in theory, be solved, if you’ve got good conflict resolution skills. If you don’t resolve the conflict, it can turn into #2, below: a conflict that comes up again and again and again, until you just get the darn dog. Or you leave, and then get the dog.

(2) Cyclical conflicts. The Gottmans call these problems “perpetual issues.”  Unlike solvable problems, they are based on fundamental differences in your personalities, emotional needs, or ideas about how you’d like to live life—and they will never, ever go away. Period. Accept that now.

They can become workable, however. The classic example of this is the slob who is married to a neat-nick: She wants the house hospital-clean; he leaves piles of crap everywhere. Being neat is hard for him, but easy for her.

Even if he commits to putting his stuff away, she can’t really turn him into a neat-nick, and so this is a problem that will wax and wane. His efforts to be neat will gradually fade as he gets busy or stressed or just lazy. She’ll get frustrated and the conflict will resurface. He’ll redouble his efforts, and the conflict will fade again, and so on.

The question is not whether you can get the problem to go away completely—you can’t—but whether or not you can establish a constructive dialogue about it and make periodic headway toward solving it.

Cyclical conflicts can actually create intimacy: You’ve worked together to improve a problem, and that feels good. So the question is: Can you arrive at a workable solution, knowing that you will continue to revisit this throughout your time together?

These are the lesser-value gems. Can you work with them?

Some relationship problems are workable. Others aren't. Here's how to tell the difference. Click To Tweet

(3) If you can’t work with those imperfect gems, you’ve got a deal-breaker issue on the table. Abuse is a deal-breaker that sometimes masquerades as a cyclical conflict.

Other deal-breakers aren’t so obvious. I have a friend who couldn’t establish intimacy with her husband unless she was very upset and let him come to her rescue. She got tired of having to be stressed-out (or freaking out) in order to feel connected to him, and she realized this was a deal-breaker for her. If they couldn’t move the problem into a different category—making it a cyclical conflict based on their personality differences—she didn’t want to be in the relationship.

They started seeing a counselor to see if they could establish intimacy in other ways. They couldn’t. After a year of trying in vain to make headway on the problem, they parted ways.

(4) Wounding problems are similar to cyclical ones, in that they can be fights you have with your partner over and over and over. The difference is that you never really make any headway on the issue.

Wounding problems generate frustration and hurt, they get worse over time, and they lead to feeling unloved, unaccepted, and misunderstood. These conflicts are characterized by the presence of the four things that the Gottmans have long found to predict divorce: defensiveness, contempt, criticism, and stonewalling (think of talking to a stone wall: The other person is totally disengaged).

Many couples can move their wounding problems into the cyclical conflict category by learning how to fight differently. Spouses who raise their issues with genuine respect and appreciation for their partner tend to engage in radically different discussions than spouses who launch headlong into a fight and hope to “win” it, blaming and vilifying the other.

So, should you stay or should you go? I shared this framework with a friend who is trying to decide whether or not to stay with her main squeeze.

She wants more romance; he thinks anything that smacks of Hallmark is needy and lame. She’d been thinking this could be a deal-breaker. “It’s NOT a deal-breaker!” she declared with obvious joy. “It’s a CYCLICAL CONFLICT!”

They talked about the conflict in a way that made them both feel understood and loved. He admitted that while romance was hard for him, he enjoyed making her feel loved. They established a dialogue, made some headway (he even brought her flowers the next day), AND have also accepted that this is something likely to arise again in the future.

Knowing that she has a cyclical problem on her hands, and not a deal-breaker, has given my friend some peace.  I hope having a better understanding of the problems that beset relationships also brings you a bit of well-being in this month of love.

Join the discussion: What types of relationship problems do you have? Inspire others by sharing your insights with folks in the comments, below.

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If this post resonates with you, I hope you’ll join our Brave Over Perfect group coaching! Our March theme is all about love and marriage. We’ll show you how to transform even the most challenging relationships, and it’s only $20 to join us for three coaching calls. Get instant access to our group coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

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One Realistic Goal for 2018

I’m going to spend the year with Mary Oliver’s poetry. What can her words teach me about how to live? They remind me to slow down and look. Notice the hawk, but also the cold stones, and winter’s weeds. I believe attention is a form of prayer. So does Mary Oliver:

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks…

–Mary Oliver. From “Praying” in Thirst. 2006.

My resolution for 2018 is to Pay Attention. In 2018, I will know the names of all the plants near my home and the birds who leave their tracks on my windowsill. I will learn the names of the neighbors I don’t yet know. Knowing the names of things is the difference between familiarity and intimacy. I will also pay attention to my body, not just to my thoughts, and unlock wisdom.

Love,

Susie

 


Want advice for setting and keeping New Year’s resolutions? Enroll in our Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching. Our January theme is all about habits and resolutions. It’s only $20 to join us! Get instant access to three live coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, worksheets, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

Cheers to making 2018 your happiest year yet!

photo credit: Blue Iris, William Warby, Flickr

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How to Cope with a Difficult Relative Over the Holidays

My paternal grandmother died young, at age 49; within a year of her death, my grandfather had remarried the woman who would become my grandma. Even though her kisses smelled like cigarette smoke, I adored her. As a little girl, I did not know that she didn’t get along well with her adult stepchildren, my father and uncle.

My parents were very conscious about how they managed conflict in our family, and I learned a lot from that. I do remember some rather tense family gatherings; my parents didn’t hide their conflict with my grandma as much as they encouraged good behavior around her.

Is there someone in your family who stirs conflict? Below are five tactics for dealing with difficult people. You can teach them to your children, and model them yourself.

1. Keep calm like a champion. When you feel yourself starting to get irritated by someone, slow and deepen your breathing significantly. Taking several long, slow exhales can measurably lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

If you can, duck out of the situation so you can be alone for a moment. You may even consider making a “sh sh sh sshhhh” sound as you exhale, as though you are soothing a baby. This triggers the same muscles that you’d use when laughing; UCLA’s Marc Schoen has shown this to be extremely effective at keeping us calm, even when we are uncomfortable. The idea is to prevent our fight-or-flight response, which can make us aggressive and can make it very hard for us to be skillful in a challenging situation.

When we accept a person we find challenging, we let go of the resistance that creates stress. Click To Tweet

2. Accept the difficult person fully. This is a strangely effective strategy. When we accept a person we find challenging, we let go of the resistance that creates stress and tension. There’s a lot of truth to the adage, “What we resist, persists.”

Look at the person in question with kindness and compassion. Say to yourself, for example, “I see you, and I see that you are angry and insecure. I accept that you are anxious and scared, even if I don’t understand why. I accept that you are making all of us anxious, too. I accept that your trouble has become my trouble for the time being.”

Practicing this sort of acceptance is about dropping the fantasy of how we think things ought to be. You might have a fantasy of a sweet, close relationship with an in-law, for instance, and so you feel angry and disappointed every time he or she doesn’t live up to this ideal. But be aware that your in-law no doubt feels your disappointment, and feels judged. It might seem to that person like you’re trying to “fix” him or her, and it’s hurtful. This isn’t a good way for you to improve that relationship.

3. Let the other person be “right.” This is excellent practice for, well, enlightenment. It’s so hard, and our ego hates this practice more than anything. But when we let go of our need to be right, we deepen our acceptance of a situation and we engender peace despite differences.

Rather than simply listening to a family member so that you’re able to counter what that person says, try to listen for the sake of understanding. Where is he or she is coming from? This doesn’t mean you need to agree, just that you’re showing that person a basic level of respect. Research suggests engaging with a person this way – acknowledging the other’s point of view without judging it – can make that person feel more understood. As a result, he or she may be less defensive or difficult. Rather than interrupting with counter-arguments, try to paraphrase back the points you think a person is making, and acknowledge the emotions he or she seem to be expressing.

4. Give yourself permission to take care of your own needs first. This is a critical skill that many people – women especially – tend to feel guilty about. If this is you, repeat after me: “It is not selfish to take care of myself.” If you become weak or volatile from lack of self-care, you are all but useless to others.

For starters, get enough rest. It’s harder to regulate your emotions when you’re tired. In addition, don’t skip meals. Research shows that keeping your blood sugar stable will make you less aggressive if you get angry. And always remember to take a moment to leave the room, if possible, and breathe deeply if you find yourself in a particularly difficult situation.

5. Don’t take the bait. Sometimes it seems like a difficult person’s job is to provoke and incite. Family members know you and know how to push your buttons. Instead of engaging, see jabs and barbs as a cry for attention and connection. For a lot of people, conflict is born from an unfulfilled desire to feel useful and to be a part of something larger than themselves.

Start by giving the difficult person a way to focus on something besides himself or herself to feel connected and useful. If you’re having a meal with a difficult family member, you might ask that person to help your kids set the table. When you ask someone for help, provide a rationale for why that person might do you the favor. One decades-old study that’s still relevant today found that the word “because” tends to trigger compliance. For instance, you might whisper to your mother-in-law, “It would be great if you could show the kids how to set the table, because they need a little guidance today.”

We are all just looking for love, connection and friendship. One of the most wonderful lessons we can teach our children is that the greatest gift we can give ourselves is to accept a difficult person fully, and with love.


Sometimes even very well-meaning and loving people give us bad advice. Next week in my Brave Over Perfect coaching programwe’ll talk through how to stay true to yourself when other people would rather you not.

It’s only $20 to join us! Get instant access to live coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

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When is it Better to Just “Fake it”?

People seem to be taking issue with my claim that happiness comes when we live with total integrity—when we stop people-pleasing and start living more authentically.

I understand entirely why a lot of people fear the sort of transparency and honesty I’m advocating. We are clannish beings, with nervous systems that evolved to profoundly fear being rejected by our tribe. Acceptance can feel like everything, and for some people, it can be a matter of survival.

At the same time, for most of us, it is far better in the long run to be ourselves and risk having people not like us than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone we’re not.

Does this mean, though, that we always say what we’re thinking? Sometimes it’s simply not safe, or smart, to do that. As one commenter recently mused:

Is there anyone reading this who has not had an interaction with a law enforcement officer for at least a minor traffic issue? a tail light out? a parking ticket? And during such an interaction, is telling that officer that you resent being stopped because you believe s/he hasn’t met their quota of fines for the month a wise idea? Or if taking a ticket to court, is it wise to tell the judge you think s/he is a fool? You might think that—but saying so may lead to needing a good attorney.

Granted, a traffic stop is a racial flashpoint and a huge public issue. For some people, a run-in like this one could be lethal, especially if they were to express hostility—however authentic that might be. But there is an enormous difference between living your truth and always saying what’s on your mind. I don’t think that it’s necessary, or even a good idea, in instances like this one to “speak your truth.”

Nor do you need to pretend to be happy about the situation. Being pulled over can be extremely stressful (even life-threatening) and pretending that it isn’t will simply ratchet up your fear response, which is not a good thing. Inauthenticity—in this case, actively pretending to be happy when you’re terrified—tends to increase the fight-or-flight response in both people, and in that way could actually make a scary situation more dangerous.

But it’s entirely possible to internally acknowledge your feelings, while remaining quiet or emotionally unexpressive to those around you.

This is where it gets tricky again. Say you are feeling afraid; is it best to indulge your fear? Even if you don’t tell the officer how frightened you are—or even if you don’t pretend to be happy about the situation—how does one behave authentically in this situation? If you are resentful, is it best to be transparent about your resentment? Should resentment dictate your behavior?

Often this is the way it works: Something happens—or we have a thought or memory—that triggers an emotion. In turn, that emotion triggers behavior.

Sometimes, the behavior is repression—the act of pretending that we aren’t feeling what we actually are feeling. Or an emotion triggers a numbing behavior, so that we don’t really feel something, as when we start to feel bored or anxious and we immediately check our phones. (This doesn’t work, by the way; physiologically our emotions get bigger when we stuff them down. But let’s leave that for another post.)

Emotions trigger loads of behaviors. They may cause us to hug someone we love, or lash out when we feel angry.

So again: If we are trying to live with total integrity, if we are attempting to “live our truth,” does that mean always acting on our feelings?

Again, I don’t think so. Why? Because often it simply isn’t effective. It won’t necessarily make us feel less stressed or more honest. In the same way that we don’t always need to say out loud everything that is on our mind, we don’t need to act on our every emotional impulse. We need to be aware of what we’re feeling, for sure, but we don’t always need to act in the ways that our emotions would dictate.

It can be even more effective to “act as-if” we are already feeling something else. Before you write me off as contradicting myself entirely, hear me out.

Just as emotions tend to trigger behaviors, behavior can also trigger emotion. Think about the wise (and almost cliched) advice to “take some deep breaths” when you are feeling stressed. A particular behavior can help to create a different emotional state than you may be feeling initially. We often think of this as the “fake it ‘til you make it” path to happiness.

There is a catch here, which gets confusing. “Faking it” only works when we aren’t pretending or performing. Consciously faking a smile, for example, to cover negative emotions (what researchers call “surface acting”) tends to increase our distress. This kind of toxic inauthenticity is corrosive to our health (especially our cardiovascular system), and it damages our relationships with others. It also makes it hard for us to access our intuitive or visceral intelligence.

Suppressing or numbing our emotions doesn’t work the way we often want it to. UNLESS—and here is the trick—we consciously foster the emotions that we want to feel in our lives. This is what researchers call “deep acting.”

Deep acting is when we genuinely work to foster specific feelings. When we make an effort to cultivate real happiness, gratitude, hope, and other positive emotions in our lives, we can dramatically increase our well-being—authentically.

Deep acting is what this commenter is asking about:

I’m wondering…if you would suggest that the idea of “acting as-if” for treatment would never work? I suggest the use of breathing, self-imagery, posture…to feel better and improve relationships.

When we are talking about the types of research-tested behaviors this commenter suggests, “acting as-if” can be quite different than pretending to feel something that we don’t.

Here’s the difference: Pretending is about hiding or denying our emotions, while “deep acting,” or “acting as-if” is about proactively fostering emotions, starting with an action or behavior.

It’s a fine line, to be sure. We sometimes become pretty invested in our false selves, in the “representative,” as Glennon Doyle Melton calls it, that we send out into the world instead of showing up fully and authentically as ourselves. We create representatives to protect ourselves, often in response to unstable or abusive situations.

Sometimes, we aren’t yet able to separate our false selves from our real ones. We want to defend the important representative that has worked so hard for us for so long. And that’s okay…so long as we can see where our representative is holding us back, and that it is, of course, the truth that will eventually set us free.


This month in my coaching program, we’re focusing on how to live with total integrity.

It’s only $20 to join our live coaching calls, thriving online community, and online resources. We’ll talk about how we often need to muster considerable courage to lead our most authentic lives—and work together on just how to do that. Learn more or enroll now.

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Accessing Authenticity

What if you didn’t have to worry about what other people think of you? Does your body sigh with relief at the thought of all the freed up time and energy you’d have? Or do you seize up with fear or resistance to the idea?

Authenticity’s appeal is obvious, but how does a person even go about being fully authentic, anyway? Here are 3 tips to get started.

How to be you involves accepting, loving, and discovering who you are. --J. Marsh #BeYou Click To Tweet

1. Become a truth teller.

Being authentic is, of course, at it’s core about being in total integrity with what is true for us. But most of us were not raised to be truth tellers, really–we were raised to people please. We were taught that white lies are totally okay. We were taught to pretend and perform and make nice.

But pretending–even if it is relatively meaningless, even if it is meant to protect someone else–is a form of lying.

And lying, even if we do it a lot, or are good at it, is very stressful to our brains and our body. The polygraph test depends on this: “Lie Detectors” don’t actually detect lies, but rather they detect the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. These tests sense changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, vocal pitch and breathing that the stress of lying causes.  It’s as if all sorts of alerts go off when we lie, as if the body is howling for us to stop.

Fortunately, we become happier and healthier when we live our truth. It is also the only way to be authentic.

2. Let your body point you towards what is true for you.

Sometimes it feels really hard to know who we are and what we want. But fortunately, our body always already knows what we are feeling, even when we aren’t conscious of it.

Try listening to the feedback that your body is giving you right now. Say something really untrue out loud, preferably to someone else. Try something like “I love it when my boss humiliates me in front of my team,” or “I adore having the stomach flu.” Then notice: How does your body react? The response will likely be ever so slight: a minuscule pulling back; or tensing of your jaw; or a tiny shoulder raise. When I say something that my unconscious mind hates, my body tries to tell me through a little heaviness in my stomach. If I spend too long doing something that feels wrong for me, I end up with a stomachache.

Now try saying something out loud that is true for you, and notice your body’s reaction. Try something like “I love the ocean,” or “I love the feel of my baby’s head on my cheek.” How does your body respond? When I say something that is very true for me, or when someone else says it to me, I get “chills of truth”—the hair literally stands up on my arms. And if I’m grappling with something hard, but the right answer comes up for me, I get “tears of truth.” Tears that tell me that something is profoundly true feel qualitatively different than the tears that come from grief or hurt.

What is true for us tends to make us feel stronger and more free. And lies tend to feel like constraint and constriction–our shoulders ache, our back hurts, or our stomach churns.

3. Accept the “ugly” bits of yourself, including the difficult emotions.

“Being You” is massively different from being perfect, or being the best possible version of yourself. We are all human, and by definition that means that we are often messy and raw and wrong.

When we love only the parts of ourselves that we deem to be good or strong or smart, we reject the parts of ourselves that make us real. This sets us up for inauthenticity. We start hiding what is real and showing off what is sparkly, but our seeming perfection is fake.

The only thing to do with all our imperfections is to accept them with forgiveness and compassion. And also to accept how we feel about our flaws, which is probably not so good. This does not mean that we are resigned to never growing or overcoming our weaknesses. It just means that we can be our true selves on this path. As Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem:”

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack, in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Loving and accepting ourselves–and all our flaws, including our anger and fear and sadness and our pettiness–is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to be authentic. It is also the greatest gift that we can give ourselves. It is the reason that authenticity makes us happier and healthier and more connected to those around us.

 


If this post resonates with you, we hope you will join our Brave Over Perfect coaching group.

It’s only $20 to join our live coaching calls, thriving online community, and online resources. Upcoming call topics include:

  • Tapping Into Your Inner Wisdom
  • What To Do When Things Feel Uncertain
  • How To Deal With Difficult People

We’ll talk about how we often need to muster considerable courage to lead our most authentic lives—and work together on just how to do that. Learn more or enroll now.

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Dear Little Susie

(A letter to self to burn off fear and worry)

Dear Little Susie,

Baby girl, you can’t live like this, full of fear and feelings of inadequacy. I get it. There are times when you don’t feel like the world is a safe place. And all you want is for everything to be alright. You just want everyone to be happy. When your father moved out and went away, you thought, if I am less messy, less loud, less emotional, Dad will come back. But it’s life. It’s not in your control. It never was. You are loved exactly as you are: loud, emotional, willful.

I know it’s confusing. You want to be seen and heard and loved. But when you talk a lot, you wonder, Why can’t I shut up? Why can’t I be more like the neighbor girl who is so quiet and pretty, who plays the violin, who knows when to speak and what to say to make everything go smoothly? You think, maybe if I grow up to be calm, pretty, and if I say what others want to hear, then I’ll be seen and heard and loved. 

I see you at 8 years old, around Christmas time. You were supposed to set the table for dinner. You wanted it to be special, so you found red candles and lit them on top of your grandmother’s white, hand-stitched tablecloth. You didn’t know the candles would drip and drip and ruin the tablecloth. You wondered, Why can’t I do anything right? It’s not your fault. You are a perfect human being, growing exactly as you should grow.

And then you notice that you get a lot of attention when you achieve. When you go to see your Dad, he hugs you tight when you show him your perfect score on your spelling test. Your mom tells her friends about the 800m race you won at the track meet and they look at you with sparkling eyes full of approval. Achieving seems like an answer. If you just keep bringing home perfect scores and winning races, then you’ll be OK. Then you’ll be loved. Then you’ll be safe.

I’m here to tell you, as your older, wiser self–you are safe right now. I have seen your future and it’s all going to work out. It doesn’t matter if you fail a spelling test or fifty spelling tests, you’re safe. You will not be left alone.

I’m sorry. I should have been here for you sooner. I’ve been busy running that strategy of achieving in order to earn love. I forgot you needed me in your corner. I’m here now. And I’m never going to leave you.

I want you to know that there is nothing you can do to make me love you less; you can lie to your parents, steal from a store, rip the arm off your brother’s GI Joe action figure, and I will still love you. There is also nothing you can do to make me love you more; no matter how cute you make yourself look, or if you start a non-profit to save the world, I won’t love you more. You’re enough. It is safe to be 100% who you are, exactly as you are. Can you feel the tight hug that I am giving you right now? Feel how good it is to be held. Relax and breathe in all this love. I’ve got you.

Baby girl, there’s one more thing. You never quite grasped how exceptional you are. It’s time for you to believe it. Spread your arms wide and take up space. Shake off that worry. Make as much noise as you want and dance your little pigtails off. Release your wild, abundant, beautiful self. The world is waiting.

I love you,

Susie 

With special thanks to Michael Vladeck who encouraged me to do this!

** If you are interested in releasing your abundant, beautiful self, join our new Brave Over Perfect coaching group; our next one begins Nov. 1st. It’s only $20 for 3 calls, plus an online classroom full of resources, and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.

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Balance Schmalance

I was off-balance all week. I celebrated the elegant evenness of the equinox by throwing up all over a neighbor’s garden. The nausea was caused by the radiation, but the feeling of being off-balance was caused by my expectations that it was going to be different. I imagined that I would spend eight weeks in Boston receiving treatments, yes, but also going for long walks and scribbling deep thoughts in my journal. I thought maybe I could even write a book in two months. I wish I were kidding. My thinking was that since I wasn’t working and the children were back in Boulder, I could be mega-productive.

The first morning after radiation, I felt ok. The second day, I couldn’t even get out of bed to get myself a glass of water. My days became very one-dimensional: horizontal. Then Fear showed up, saying all kinds of mean-spirited things like:  This is just the beginning; How are you going to make it through 37 more treatments? Or You said you were going to write! Get up! I wasn’t practicing good self-compassion because I had these unreasonable expectations. I thought I could balance my time better, but I forgot that what makes balancing a trick is precisely that it is extraordinary, like the street performer who steadies himself on one hand, upside down, on a twenty-foot ladder.

And like the equinox. Twice a year, the earth doesn’t tilt toward the sun nor away from it, but seems to orbit evenly so that night and day come into balance. It’s a beautiful thing worth celebrating, but can you imagine expecting it to stay like that for the remaining 363 days of the year? The way we emphasize the need for balance in our lives makes me feel like I should figure out how to be more physically, mentally, and spiritually poised every. single. day. I get stressed because I work too much and play too little or play too much and work too little or eat too much and exercise too little or exercise too much and write too little.

What if we spent less time jamming a yoga class in after work and more time contemplating that we are living on a spinning rock that is flying through the air in an expanding universe? Maybe then we’d cut ourselves some slack.

I’ve never been very good at balancing my desires with my reality. Last week, I expected to be able to do more, to balance my radiation treatments with time in nature and time writing, and I couldn’t. Not even close. And that’s OK. What I want to change is not my reality, but my expectations. The expectation I had that I would do more only strangled the life out of a good week and made it feel like a bad week. This equinox, I vowed to lower my expectations and trust that a feeling of balance will occur as a rare and wonderful thing. And then when it happens, I’ll be pleasantly surprised, maybe I’ll even give the day a special name, and invite you over for a celebratory dance party.

*****

** If you are interested in learning skills to balance your life, or in how to let go of the idea of balance, I hope you’ll join our Brave Over Perfect Coaching group. It’s only $20 for 3 coaching calls, plus an online classroom full of resources and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.

 

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Awe

The Days of Awe

The Days of Awe are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The idea is to stop, look around, and reflect. What do you want to let go of from last year? Who do you want to be in the New Year? I am not Jewish. Some of my former students call me Jew- “ish” because I like the traditions and ceremonies. As a teacher, it makes sense to me to celebrate the New Year in the fall. This year, I spend the Days of Awe outside, in nature as much as possible. I lie back in summer’s last green grasses. I watch the trees gain color and lose suppleness in their leaves. I notice that the wind smells of apples and wet soil, and that the ducks rise like mist from the pond to fly south. 

I adopt the Jewish ritual called Tashlikh of dropping bread crumbs into a stream to cast away sins from last year. A young friend of mine calls this ceremony, “Kiss the Bad Thing Goodbye.” I take my lunch and sit under the giant willows by the creek. I throw the crusts of my toast in the current, kiss the bad things goodbye, and watch the swift water rush them away. I remember that what makes us human is that we are capable of making great mistakes, and yet we are also capable of great transformation. Maybe this tumor isn’t meant to set me back, but to help me transform.

I am fascinated by metamorphosis. Years ago, I wrote a children’s book, Eliza and the Dragonfly, about the process of a dragonfly nymph becoming a dragonfly. I wanted to show children the magic that exists all around them. But I also wrote it for myself, because I wanted to understand how metamorphosis happens. A dragonfly begins its life in water. When it is young, it breathes water instead of air. And it swims instead of flies. For years, it mucks about in a pond, being itself. Then it wakes up one morning with wings. It crawls out of the water, breathes air for the first time, stretches its wings in the sun, and flies away.

I wrote the children’s book because I kept wondering what I needed to do to transform into something great and become the grown-up that I wanted to be. It helped me to learn that dragonfly nymphs, like monarch caterpillars, don’t do anything to make their transformation happen. They just are. Every time I see a dragonfly, I remember to be myself. I am good enough. One day I will wake up with wings. 

Here’s a poem I wrote in gratitude for this time of year and to celebrate how far I’ve come, how far we’ve all come.

The Days of Awe

These are the days of awe.

Lie back in summer’s last green grasses.

Listen.

Each cricket’s song is slower now,

the wind smells of ripe apples,

the soil devours rain

and coughs up stones.

Mallards rise like mist off the pond

and fly south.

Trees gain color and restraint overnight,

act like old ladies who

snap their purses shut.

Remember

The sun isn’t traveling

East to West.

We are

spinning — West to East,

setting to rising,

beginnings growing out of endings,

not the other way around.

Lie back in the wet grass.

Wait for the sky to grow dark.

Breathe in the moon

like a question

you’re not quite ready to ask.

Be like the river

Who moves toward the unknown,

who doesn’t turn around

and ask the mountain for directions.

Listen to the grace of insects,

then drop, swell, and release

like bread in cool, swirling waters.  

–SCR


Brave Over Perfect Coaching is an effective and affordable way to learn how to live–and parent–with more courage, acceptance, joy, presence, self-compassion, gratitude, and authenticity. It’s only $20 for three coaching calls, two months of online support, and tons of online resources. We would love to have you join us!

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Plan? What Plan?

I have been having a tough time trusting in the unknown. A vacation broke me of that fear. This is the story of how our recent trip to Mexico had no plan. Normally, Kurt and I work full time and the only difference between summer and not summer is the kids are not awake before we go to work.

This year was different. It felt important to do something together as a family to mark nine months since our lives were turned upside down by this brain-stem tumor. And since I felt that the secret of healing was letting go of control, we intentionally created a vacation that left plenty of room for the unknown.

We flew to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on points with Southwest. When we stepped off the plane, we had no idea where we would sleep that night. We knew we wanted to camp in the two 2-person tents we brought with us, but where? Was it safe? What would we eat? Would I be able to sleep flat on the ground?

We had a map. We had a few scribbled tips from friends on a notepad. We rented a mini-van from a super-enthusiastic young woman at the airport. We had sleeping bags and I had an inflatable pillow that I clung to like a security blanket. We had a phone with a Mexico data plan. The kids had no screens. They entertained themselves on the long drives by blowing into empty glass Coke bottles.

Twenty years ago, before cell phones and Google, Kurt and his friend Scott kayaked the entire length of Baja, on the Sea of Cortez side. It was a two-month journey steeped in trust and the slow pace of a hand-powered boat. They moved through a curious new landscape with Cardón cactus as tall as NBA stars, jagged mountains sliding into the water, Frigate birds with a wingspan of seven feet, and flying fish slapping them in the face. When they were too tired to paddle any further, they pulled their kayaks ashore and ate whatever the locals had to offer. That was the last time Kurt had been here.

Things had changed a little since 1997; the roads around the southern tip of Baja were crowded with cars and construction. There were condominiums and conference centers where there were only cactus and quail before. This time, Kurt also had a wife (that’s me ?) and two kids, aged 11 and 13, none of whom knew anything about where we were.

We opened the map, and aimed for areas off the beaten path: sheltered bays on the east coast, out of the wind and away from other spring break tourists. The first night, we didn’t have enough daylight to make it to the coast, so we looked for a place to sleep inland. We had heard there was a waterfall nearby. But we didn’t know where.

When we had been driving on a dirt road with no road signs for an hour, I imagined us stranded in the desert, so I pestered Kurt with questions.

“Do the cactus hold water in their trunks?”

“Not really,” said my biologist husband. “You have to pummel their pulp for a long time and chew on it, spines and all, to get any water.”

I looked out the window at endless dry desert and thought about how crazy it was to deliberately bring my family into the unknowns of this risky landscape.

Just as I was about to ask Kurt to turn around, we made it to the end of the road. A tall, local man in a cowboy hat and handlebar mustache stood there like a mirage, and greeted us warmly in Spanish.

I am Prisciliano Elehazar de la Pena Ruiz. Would your family like to rest? I have cabins you can rent near the waterfall.” I almost kissed him.

Pretty much the whole trip went like that. We pointed to a place on the map and always seemed to find remarkable, empty beaches, and generous locals at the end of the road. One day our son said, “I know we’re getting close to something good when the minivan door squeaks like crazy.” What he meant was, when we left the paved road for the dirt, the bumps in the road shook the whole van. I thanked my little inflatable pillow and always found a way to sit in the car comfortably, without rattling my neck or head.  We didn’t know what we would find at the end of the dirt road, but after several teeth-chattering kilometers, we’d arrive somewhere spectacular: white sand, green water, gorgeous seashells, mangrove trees and ibis birds, plus islands to snorkel around, all to ourselves.

One night we slept on a beach in a town with a sign that said “Población: 41.” But we only counted seven people. Later we found about thirty donkeys wandering around our tents.

Another time, we heard of some hot springs up the next canyon, but the beach “road” to arrive there vanished at high tide. Kurt taught the kids how to spearfish and they hunted for our dinner, while I chatted up the locals to find out where I could buy fish. Let’s just say I liked to have a solid back-up plan. Every night, we ate Barred Snapper and Triggerfish tacos, either caught or bought, and cooked on our Whisperlight stove, powered by gasoline fuel.

Then we’d wash our fish bones back into the ocean and look at the stars. Before this trip, the kids knew two constellations: the Big Dipper and Orion. We brought with us a classic book from 1952, The Stars, by H.A. & Margret Rey, the authors of the Curious George series. The Reys use simple, stick-figure illustrations to connect the stars into the classic Greek characters. Their brilliant mix of art and science gave our kids the tools and curiosity they needed to find over thirty constellations and the permission to make up their own. They were so engaged in their surroundings. Cole had me set an alarm for midnight so he could try to see Scorpio and the Southern Cross, Hazel had fun inventing a giant three-tentacled octopus constellation.

Meanwhile, I slept like a baby. At night, I’d lie there grateful that I could lie flat, headache-free, and take in this beautiful world of stars and sea and family. I didn’t know where we would be the next night, but it mattered less and less. Trusting in the unknown was becoming easier for me. Nine months have passed since I first found out about my brain-stem tumor. I guess I had to slowly birth the discovery that there is a plan, there always has been, it’s just not mine.

Join the discussion: Share (in the comments, below) your stories of times when you let go of control and found something better in the unknown.

Do you need help letting go? Join Group Coaching next month. Each theme is aimed at helping you live your most joyful, intelligent, productive, and stress-free life. We’re kicking off in August and September with Joyful Productivity. Learn more here.

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How to Get Better at Reaching Your Goals

Busy women tend to struggle with similar challenges. We get overwhelmed. We take care of others before we take care of ourselves. We question our careers, our parenting, our marriages, and our priorities.  We feel like we aren’t good enough.

But we know what we want. We want to be seen by people who “get” us. We want to do meaningful work. We want amazing relationships with our spouses, our friends, and our children. We want the peace that comes with acceptance and self-compassion and self-care. We want to enjoy the small moments. We want to focus on what’s important. Most of all, we want to enjoy this life that we’ve worked so hard to create.

We want all this even though life is hectic and uncertain, even though we are not always (or ever) in control. Here’s the thing: It isn’t enough to know what we want.

We also need to know how to get what we want. Enter Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching, where we practice specific strategies for feeling less overwhelmed and more fulfilled. Using behavioral psychologist Sean Young’s framework, below are 10 steps for getting better at reaching our goals — I hope you find them practical and useful in helping you get more of what you want in your life. While here I use my desire to exercise more as a model, this can obviously be applied to many things. (I’ve created a goal-setting worksheet here in the hopes that will make it easier, too.)

1. First, state the big goal. What would you like to accomplish in the next three months or so? My hope is that I’ll get back to an efficient, but well-rounded exercise routine that includes a little stretching, strength training, and aerobic exercise in about 20 minutes, six days per week.

This isn’t a ton of exercise, but because I can do it in so little time, it is realistic. (Six days a week seems ambitious, but I have given myself the option of combining days, for three longer workouts if, say, I’m traveling or something.) One thing I’ve learned a million times, over and over: realistic is better than sexy. I’ll take a small success over an ambitious failure any day. Small successes show us that we really can change our behavior in a lasting way.

2. Next, break this larger idea down into long-term goals. Long-term goals take up to three months to accomplish. My long-term goal is that by the end of the year, I’d like to have had 10 “streaks,” or weeks in which I have completed my exercise plan.

3. Break it down again, into short-term goals, which take one to three weeks to accomplish. I have three short-term goals:

  • Work with a trainer to set up my workouts (the specific exercises and stretches).
  • Memorize the circuits and learn to do them properly.
  • Have two “streaks” (entire weeks where I complete my plan) in a row.

4. Now break your goals down into very specific, ridiculously easy baby steps. What can you do today? Tomorrow? My first step was to call my friend Aaron, a trainer, who put together the exercises for me. Today, a baby step is to learn the warm-up stretches he gave me. Try to break your baby steps down until they are so easy you feel little or no resistance to them.

5. Set up your environment to make things easier. Our environment dramatically influences our behavior. We like to think our behavior is all our personality and preferences, or that it’s the strength of our iron-clad will that determines our success, but actually, we are hugely influenced by the people, places, and technology that happen to be in close physical proximity to us. This means that to be successful in reaching our goals, it’s very helpful to set up our environment to make things easier, to create what are called structural solutions. This usually means removing temptations—if your goal is to stop checking your phone while you drive, keep the phone in the trunk. And make sure that what you need is easy and convenient—if your goal is to eat more kale, keep a lot of kale in the fridge, and a list of restaurants that serve it.

I made exercising even easier for myself by moving my yoga mat and other equipment into my office. I workout at four in the afternoon, when my attention at work is starting to flag and I’d rather exercise than work…and everything I need is right behind me!

6. Involve other people, even if you are an introvert. We humans can often get ourselves to do something we might otherwise resist if it makes us feel more a part of a tribe or a clan—if it deepens or increases our social connections in some way. Other people can also work as a bit of external willpower, getting us to do something we’d rather blow off.

I scheduled a series of Skype calls with Aaron, both so he can make sure that I’m doing the exercises correctly and because I look forward to talking to him. I can tell you that if I didn’t have a call with him today, I’d be very tempted to push my workout time out a little bit, so that I can finish this post. For me, changing the routine is a very slippery slope—10 more minutes at work can easily become 20 and then 40…until it’s time to make dinner and there is no time for exercise.

7. Identify why your goal is important to you. Think less about what you want to achieve and focus in on how you want to feel. Identify a “why” for your goal that will motivate you over the long haul.

We do better when we let go of our logical reasons for why we want to do something. Why? Because research shows that good, solid, logical reasons for doing something—like exercising because we want to lower our blood pressure or ward off cancer—don’t actually motivate us over the long haul. It turns out that emotions are far more motivating than achieving goals in the long run.

So shoot instead for a feeling-state that you want more of (for example, maybe you want more happiness, confidence, or calm). I want to establish this exercise routine because I know it will increase my energy. Feeling awake and energetic is very important to me.

8. Make it a part of your identity. As in: I am a person who exercises. I’ll be tracking the days I exercise, so that I can look back and see: Yup, I’m an exerciser. Collect evidence that you are the type of person who does whatever it is that you are trying to do.

9. Make the behavior more enticing. We human beings pursue rewards: a pretty little cupcake, attention from a mentor, a sense of accomplishment. When our brains identify a potential reward, they release dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger. Dopamine motivates us toward the reward, creating a real sense of craving, wanting, or desire for the carrot that is being dangled in front of us.

Rewards need to be immediate or, even better, built into the routine when possible. This is why I listen to audiobooks while I exercise; when I look forward to listening, I make exercise more enticing.

10. Make the behavior more habitual. Once a behavior is on autopilot, everything is easier—we don’t need much willpower to enact our habitual behaviors. Can you make your behaviors related to accomplishing your goal habitual in any way? Do this by anchoring behaviors in existing habits or routines, or even a schedule, using a When/Then statement: “When I do X, then I will Y.” For me, it’s “When it’s 4pm and the reminder pops up from my calendar, then I will exercise.”

What are your goals? What behaviors will you need to change in order to reach your goals? Leave them in the comments below. And if you’d like help setting your goals and reaching them, I hope you’ll join our new Brave Over Perfect Coaching Group!

Brave Over Perfect Coaching is an effective and affordable way to learn how to live with more courage, acceptance, joy, presence, self-compassion, gratitude, and authenticity. It’s only $20 for three coaching calls, two months of online support, and tons of online resources. We would love to have you join us!

Life is hectic and uncertain. You don’t have to be.

Learn more or enroll now here.

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