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Dear Little Susie

Dear Little Susie, (A letter to self to burn off fear and worry)

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 you.

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 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 our 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!

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

Learn more or enroll now 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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Feeling Edgy, Full of Rage

Recently, I woke up full of rage and I had no idea what to do with it. I angry-cleaned the coffee grounds out of the sink. (Angry-cleaning. Verb. To make loud, banging noises and grumble bad words under your breath while scrubbing or vacuuming or generally tidying up.) I yelled at our son to get out of the bathroom so I could get in. Then I sulked around my husband because he didn’t understand a point I was trying to make. I felt lonely in the room with his rational mind and his sharp, straight sentences. I wanted him to immediately understand my non-linear thoughts and the emotional colors that fly out of me. I scolded our daughter for using my iPad. All of this before 9 am.

I poured myself a super strong cup of tea and, like a good girl, took my morning vitamins, and went down to the guest room to write. My throat burned. Since the surgeries, my throat often hurts because the tumor damaged the nerves around my vocal chords and along my tongue. But this feeling was different; I was afraid of what words might come out if I opened my mouth again. I had no idea what to do with these powerful emotions. So I hid downstairs and wrote in my journal.  My hand shook, but I could not stop scribbling angry words on the page. This is what I wrote:

Sometimes there is a rage inside me that is not merely mine, but ours. Rage for the damage done to my throat and how hard I have to work to be heard. Rage for generations of voiceless and silenced people. Rage for living in fear of what my future holds. Rage for those who live in fear just for attending school. Rage for the privilege that I was born into. Rage for the poverty that too many are born into. Rage for the feeling of helplessness. Rage that I am not angrier, not doing more.

The fire behind my throat felt hotter and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I needed water. I stood up to get a glass, but my legs buckled under me. Then, next to the laundry, I threw up into our trash can. The vomit was green from all those multivitamins and tea. I had no other symptoms, no fever, no stomachache. After throwing up, I felt better. In fact, I never felt sick after that one, strange moment. There was nothing wrong with me, except that I took some strong pills on an empty stomach. But was it a coincidence that I threw up after feeling all that rage?

I don’t think so. I have spent my whole life being a good girl, doing what I needed to do to belong and to be successful. It’s no wonder that I have no idea what to do with the anger that consumes me sometimes. I stared into the trash can and thought with the clearest mind I’d had all day; if I don’t figure out what to do with all this rage, I will throw up all over the people closest to me.

In this case, it happened to be our ten year old daughter. I turned on her even after I had the epiphany that I was figuratively retching on the people I loved the most. When dinner was over, she skipped over to me, clutching her newly-created birthday list, dancing with excitement. I was immediately frustrated because she was holding my iPad. Apparently, she had been online, creating a long list of things she wanted for her birthday. I looked at the list. I knew that she had never heard of these toys before, but because they were big and shiny on the screen, she wanted them all. My reaction? I lectured her on consumerism and marketing. My words might have been green vomit, they were so gross. The impact of my throwing up all over her with my misplaced rage was that she crumbled. She lay on the couch crying that she was a bad person. She twisted and sobbed in an anxious, depressed state. I was now raging at myself for being a bad mom.

Finally, I walked into my room and sat down in the corner, on a pile of pillows. I lit a single white candle. I thought again: If I don’t figure out a way to process and express the rage I feel, I am going to burn others up and burn myself out instead of igniting a lasting flame. I pushed play on a guided meditation. I closed my eyes and listened to the recorded voice:

Center yourself. Let go of your day. Now, what is the vision of the future that you can imagine? What is the story that you want to live?

Instead of whipping around the house, spreading anxiety and anger with my lectures and tirades, I needed to ground myself. It helped to imagine a bright future that has us working together to create change. I don’t know what I’ll do with my powerful emotions, but I will figure it out. Whatever the answer is for me, it’s got to include quiet moments like this. They may feel passive, but taking care of myself and processing what I feel might be the most radical thing I can do.

When I opened my eyes, our daughter was sitting right next to me, inhaling and exhaling calmly.

Love,

Susie

Want to join us in becoming more courageous, despite our imperfections? Join our coaching group! Together we’re learning to lead our most joyful, intelligent, productive, and stress-free lives. Learn more or enroll now here.

 

 

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Welcome, Susie! (And our new website!)

Friends! I want you to meet Susie! She and I have been friends since 1995, when we were both hired out of college to mentor teenagers at The Thacher School in Ojai, California. Susie claims that we have been on similar life adventures ever since, but I need to be straight with you: Susie’s life has been a lot more outwardly adventurous than mine. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Susie has lived in Cameroon, France, and Mexico. A beloved teacher and school leader for over two decades, she has directed an education organization whose classrooms included the steppes of Mongolia and the Amazon river. She’s also a champion ultrarunner–which means she’s run, and often won, several acclaimed 50 km races.

At age 45, Susie discovered she had an enormous tumor growing around her brain stem that could kill her in as soon as three months. Needless to say, her running and world travel was put on hold. The idea that she might die young and without a voice focused her writing. Now, Susie writes about her inward travels to face fear and set herself free:

“I’ve spent too much time in life trying to be good, to get it right, to please others, and to keep pain and struggle at bay. Could I live differently, and parent differently, if I let go of my perception of control? If I could see that I already have everything I need?”

You’ll see, on this blog, that her writing is a powerful meditation about what it means to face discomfort and the unknown.

Good news: After two massive craniotomies, and months of daily, proton-beam radiation therapy, Susie’s tumor is now inactive and she is thriving. She is living her dream of being a full time writer. Susie lives with her husband, Kurt, a wildlife biologist, and her two adorable and amazing children in Boulder, CO.

What will this mean for ChristineCarter.com and SusieRinehart.com?

Our websites both have a new name: Brave Over Perfect — this is also the working title for Susie’s forthcoming book. Susie will be posting her blog here. We know that you don’t want yet another email, so I am actually going to reduce the amount of email I send you. If you’re signed up to get email updates, which I hope you are, you’ll now just get one monthly email with links to all our posts (instead of the biweekly “Tuesday Tips”).

Collectively, Susie and I have devoted more than 48 years to coaching people in the art and science of a meaningful life. We are thrilled to be working together again, and we hope you find joy and inspiration here for your Brave Over Perfect life.

Lots of love,

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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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5 Ways to “Be You”

Authenticity is popular these days. Celebrity media campaigns encourage marginalized youth to be themselves. Even my kids’ summer camp has “Be You” listed as a core value–not just for campers, but also for counselors and camp staff.

But what does it even mean to “be you”?

The fabulous Jeffrey Marsh, of #NoTimeToHateMyself fame and author of How to Be You, has a lot to say about authenticity. I love this clip of Marsh schooling conservative TV host Dennis Michael Lynch. Marsh ends the interview with this:

“How to be you involves accepting, loving, and discovering who you are.”

(It’s worth noting, I think, that Marsh has more than a quarter BILLION social media views.)

Authenticity’s appeal is obvious. Who would you be if you could just “be you”? 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?

How does a person even go about being fully authentic, anyway? Here are 5 tips to get started.

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

1. Live your truth.

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. But don’t always speak your truth.

There is an enormous difference between living your truth and always saying what’s on your mind. In a great many instances it is not necessary, or even a good idea, to speak your truth.

Sometimes it’s just not the kindest thing to say what you are thinking. But that doesn’t mean that you get to lie. You can still “Be You” while keeping your mouth shut.

If a friend asks you if you like her dress, for example, and you hate it, instead of wrinkling your nose and telling her it it looks like a mumu, you can ask her instead what she thinks about it, whether she likes how feels. You can invite her to tell you her truth, and then listen carefully and compassionately.

But sometimes this tactic, or just staying silent, won’t work. Often a part of living your truth in a given instance does mean speaking your truth. If that is the case, and you know what you are about to say might hurt or confuse someone, be sure that you are speaking your truth instead of your judgment, or what you imagine to be true for other people. Our feelings are always true; but our criticisms rarely represent objective facts.

For example, if someone is doing something that feels wrong to you, you needn’t stay silent. But you also don’t need to slap down a judgement. Don’t, for example, say “What you are doing is terrible and wrong and I think you should read this book so that you can see the error in your ways.”

Instead, tell them your truth: “I feel nervous and upset when you are doing that. It isn’t the right thing for me, and I don’t feel right about staying silent in this situation.”

3. 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.

4. Stay in your own truth — and out of other people’s business.

Byron Katie teaches that there are only three kinds of business: Mine, Yours, and God’s. (Anything that is out of human control she considers God’s business.) She writes:

Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business. When I think, “You need to get a job, I want you to be happy, you should be on time, you need to take better care of yourself,” I am in your business. When I’m worried about earthquakes, floods, war, or when I will die, I am in God’s business…
Being mentally in your business keeps me from being present in my own…To think that I know what’s best for anyone else is to be out of my business. Even in the name of love, it is pure arrogance, and the result is tension, anxiety, and fear. Do I know what’s right for me? That is my only business. Let me work with that before I try to solve your problems for you. If you understand the three kinds of business enough to stay in your own business, it could free your life in a way that you can’t even imagine.

Authenticity is always about being ourselves, rather than about helping other people be something other than they actually are: That is their business.

5. 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.

Photo by Be You Campaign

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how-and-why-to-go-on-a-real-vacation-christine-carter

How — and Why — to Go on a REAL Vacation

Nearly 40 percent of US employees feel like they have too much work to take a vacation. But research suggests you’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive if you do.

Last year, I was invited by KJ Dell’Antonia of The New York Times to coach Julie, a partner at a law firm who was feeling overwhelmed and inefficient at work. Julie planned to leave for a family vacation right after we spoke, and she worried that she was going to forget everything she learned about finding more ease and efficiency at work by the time she got back from vacation.

But I saw an excellent opportunity: Julie could use her vacation as a way to increase her enjoyment and productivity after she returned to work.

How? For starters, we know that vacationing can increase happiness and lower depression and stress. Productivity increases at work both before and after a vacation. And vacationing can also increase creativity and improve health. (Did you know that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack? And that women who rarely vacation are an astounding 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack; they are also much more likely to suffer from depression.)

Maybe you can’t afford not to take a vacation this year.

There are some caveats, however: Happiness only increases when a vacation is relaxing. So how can we actually relax on our vacations?

First, plan a true vacation — one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work.

This might be blazingly obvious, but not working is a critical aspect of actually taking time off. So don’t do what Julie was planning to do, which was to hide that she was out of the office from some of her clients. She could easily do this by checking and responding to email throughout the day from her vacation. While you might be able to work from your vacation, you won’t reap the many benefits of a vacation if you do so.

So see if you can find a vacation partner, someone who will cover for you at work should an urgent situation arise. (A reciprocal relationship is ideal: They handle your work while you are gone, then you do the same when they take their vacation.)

Then tell your team at work your plan: You are going on vacation. You will be totally unplugged from work. You will not be checking in, or checking email. But you’ve planned well: In case of emergency, they can contact your colleague, who will either handle the situation or, as a last resort, get in touch with you.

Don’t forget to do this for any unpaid jobs you might have as well. If the kids’ swim team counts on you to organize volunteers, make sure you’ve handed this duty off to someone while you’re gone. I’ve found that having someone handle things on my behalf while I’m gone enables me and the people I work with to relax a little more.

Second, remember that all vacations are not created equally. It is possible (as you probably know from experience, especially if you have kids) to return from vacation more exhausted than when you left. Research indicates that having pleasurable and relaxing experiences on your vacation, along with savoring those experiences, are important for remaining happier after a vacation for a longer period of time.

Again, this is totally obvious, but not all vacations are relaxing. The lure of adventure or philanthropic travel for novelty-seeking people like me is great. We pack our vacations with nonstop action when what we really need is time at the pool to nap. Here, from my desk, it seems so much more fun to travel to multiple areas in a new country rather than just see one beach. Our more more more culture leads us to believe that more will definitely be better–more activities, more destinations, more sights to be seen.

Plan a true vacation -- one where you do not do any work. None. Zip. Nada. No work. Click To Tweet

Before you pack your vacation with a lot of stuff that will actually leave you needing a vacation from your vacation, schedule yourself some downtime. Will you be able to get eight hours of sleep each night? (And if you accumulated a sleep debt before you left, will you have time to nap as well?)

Is there some aspect of the travel likely to cause you so much anxiety that you’ll be better off skipping it? Will you have time to truly savor the pleasurable aspects of your time away? Eliminate all preventable stress and time pressure from your schedule before you leave, and don’t let people tell you what you “should” do, or “have to” do while visiting a place that they love. Instead, ask yourself what you need most out of your vacation. Plan from there.

Finally, plan your re-entry. What do you need to do so that your first day back is joyful rather than hectic? Here are a few things that work for me:

  • I have a “no hellish travel” rule — no overnight or complicated flights home that will leave me sleep-deprived and wiped out.
  • I dedicate the first day I’m back at work to just playing catch up — I don’t actually try to accomplish anything other than get through my email, return phone calls, go grocery shopping, and get my laundry done and put away. If I’m traveling home from a different time zone, I come back a day early to allow myself to adjust. (It is tempting max-out vacation time by staying away as long as possible, so I often need to remind myself that my goal is to come back rested and rejuvenated.)
  • I think of the email that comes in while I’m on vacation similar to the snail mail that comes to my house — someone needs to pick it up and sort it while I’m gone. (When I didn’t have an assistant to help me with email, I paid a high school aged neighbor $10 a day to do this for me; she loved the job and it was easy to get her set up.) I create special folders before I leave, and I have someone sort new incoming email into them once a day, deleting promotions and sending personal “vacation responses” where necessary.

My first day back, my inbox is — get this — empty. The emails I need to respond to first are nicely prioritized into a folder. This system isn’t perfect, of course, but it is much better than returning to 1,000 unread messages.

Join the Discussion: This summer, will you be taking a vacation? Will any aspects of it be difficult? If so, which ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Do you need help prioritizing down time? The Sweet Spot, recently launched in paperback and includes loads of tips. As thanks for ordering the book now, I’d love to offer you FREE ENROLLMENT in my 21-Day Exercise Mini-Course! AND my 40+ page “Gain an Extra Day Each Week” eBook! AND the “Cracking the Habit Code” Workbook that will walk you, step-by-step, through the formation of any new habit you are looking to create. Please check out the gifts I’m offering here.

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A Day Lived in the Sweet Spot (Infographic) - Christine Carter

Eight Ways to Achieve More While Working Less

I spend about five hours a day slacking off. Really: I spend that much time doing stuff I enjoy, that isn’t on a task list anywhere. I walk through the beautiful university campus near my house – during the workday. I cook for pleasure. I lay around on my daughter’s bed reading while she does her homework.

You’re probably thinking, “I could never do that!! Because I have to [insert 500 good reasons]!” Maybe you now believe that I am lazier and more pampered than you previously imagined.

Here’s the truth: I slack off not because I’m lazy or don’t care about being productive. In fact, I’ve found that slacking off makes me more productive because I slack strategically – meaning that I take breaks at designated times, for regular intervals, in ways that sharpen my focus when I sit back down to work.

Strategic slacking has enabled me to dramatically increase both the quality of my work and the amount I get done in a given day. It increases productivity because we don’t think or work or create at the same rate throughout the day.

How fast we work doesn’t just depend on the difficulty of what we are working on; it also depends on how well our brain is functioning. Is it well-nourished? Free from stress? Rested and ready to go? To a large extent, how we answer those questions is within our control.

Here are eight ways to achieve more while working less.

(1) Designate time for “THINK WORK.” Late morning is an excellent time for most people to tackle their most difficult work, as alertness tends to be high and willpower is not yet depleted.

I do work that takes a lot of focus at a standing desk that has a small treadmill under it, on a computer that doesn’t have an email application. Walking slowly while I work has a lot of positive outcomes; one of them is that it more or less chains me to my desk. I put my phone in do-not-disturb mode and close any unnecessary applications or windows that are open on my computer. I put on my noise-canceling headphones and put on brain.fm, a website that broadcasts a type of white noise that supposedly helps you focus.

(2) Take “recess” throughout the day. One survey discovered that very productive employees tend to take 17 minutes of break time for every 52 minutes of work. Feel free to do something fun during your break, like watch a funny video or eat a piece of chocolate (research shows that these activities boost productivity by 10-12 percent). Have a snack and drink a glass of water – both things also increase focus.

On my breaks I’ll often read an interesting article, but not one that will be hard to put down after 10-15 minutes. Doing something of interest energizes people for both the current task and whatever it is that they work on next. And taking a real lunch break (away from a computer!) decreases fatigue and increases afternoon productivity. I try to eat mindfully for a few minutes, really paying attention to the texture and taste of the food in my mouth. After about five minutes, I let my mind wander (rather than trying to keep it focused on my food). Staring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance.

[shareable text=”Staring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance. #thesweetspot”]Staring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance.[/shareable]

(3) Change things up in the afternoon. Our self-discipline and ability to focus is like a muscle in that it fatigues over the course of a day. This makes afternoons an ideal time to catch up with colleagues or schedule meetings and appointments.

But afternoons are also a great time to brainstorm solutions to problems or do other creative work. That’s because we are often most innovative when our intellect is fatigued. So when we’re running out of steam for focused work, and we don’t have the energy to censor our thoughts too closely, it’s an opportune time to shift gears. (Think you do your most innovative work late at night? Perhaps it is because you are too tired to focus. Mind-wandering often leads to creative insight.)

(4) Don’t forget to take recess! Repeat after me: Taking breaks increases productivity.

In the afternoon, my recess is an exercise break. Usually, I take my dog, Buster, for a hike. Getting out into nature is key. (This can be a patch of grass or a few trees – it doesn’t have to be Walden Pond.) When we are sick, a view of nature can help us heal faster. When we are distracted, the sight of nature can help us regain our focus. And when we are stressed, images of a natural landscape can slow our heart rates, relax our muscles, and help us feel calm again. Moreover, natural light in the afternoon delays melatonin production, which can keep us feeling alert for longer.

As a bonus, pet a dog while you are hiking, if you have one (or see one): Petting a dog increases serotonin and dopamine levels (in humans), hormones that improve happiness and fight depression.

(5) Have a really good game plan. Here’s the key to an effective task list: Tell your brain WHEN you will complete a task. Scheduling an unfinished task can make a huge difference in our ability to focus. When we don’t know when we will do something on our list, our thoughts will typically wander from whatever it is we are doing to our undone tasks. Our unconscious isn’t nagging us to do the task at hand, but rather to make a plan to get it done. Once we have a plan, we can stop worrying about how much we have to do.

One of the lesser known precursors to getting into “flow” at work is knowing where you are in your workflow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.”

Before I leave my desk each day, I clean up my task list and schedule the next day’s tasks.

(6) Eat dinner with your clan. Research suggests that this predictable time together can help protect kids from the perils of modern society (drugs and alcohol, risky sexual behavior, eating disorders). Fortunately, it is good for adults, too – it is the glue that keeps my husband and I connected and laughing together, and that connection is key to staying in the sweet spot.

(7) Establish a predictable – and technology-free – bedtime routine. You might think that bedtime routines are for toddlers, but sleep experts recommend them for adults, too, to cue our minds that we are shifting into sleep mode.

I make myself a cup of herbal tea to drink in the evening while I read. While the water brews, I take my vitamins, including Omega-3s, which lubricate the brain, reduce inflammation, and generally contribute to our health and happiness.

At 8:30 or 9:00 pm, I shut off my email, social media, and cell phone for the evening. My bedtime routine includes listening to an entertaining audiobook or podcast while I put clothes away and neaten up the house. Even though I only listen for 10 or 15 minutes, pairing cleaning up with “reading” motivates me to actually clean up. I also make sure everything I need for the morning is in its place.

At 9:15 pm, I make a quick pit stop in the hot tub and have a little downtime with my hubby. Our body temperature naturally dips before we go to sleep, and when we soak in a hot tub, our temperature rises – but the rapid cool-down immediately afterward signals to our body that we are headed to sleepy town. I stay in the tub for just 10-15 minutes, and get out before I break a sweat. Bonus: One study showed that taking a hot bath daily for eight weeks was more effective than an anti-depressant at fighting anxiety!

(8) Get enough sleep! I know, I know, you don’t have time to get seven or eight hours. Maybe you wish you could get more sleep, but you just can’t find a way to put sleep above your other priorities.

So what are your other priorities? Your health? Your happiness? Productivity and success at work? Raising happy and healthy children? Here’s the truth: You will not fulfill your potential in any of these realms unless you get the sleep your body, brain, and spirit need.

A mountain of research shows that sleep affects virtually every aspect of our lives, including our intelligence, our satisfaction with our relationships, our moods, our athletic performance, and our ability to learn and retain information. Even 20 minutes of sleep deprivation three days in a row can dramatically lower your IQ.

Now, it’s your turn. Go ahead: Be a slacker! Let us know in the comments your favorite (and most productive) ways to slack.

* * * * *

Do you want more information about my daily routine? Check out Chapter 4 of The Sweet Spot, launching TOMORROW in paperback, for the blow-by-blow. As thanks for ordering the book now, I’d love to offer you FREE ENROLLMENT in my 21-Day Exercise Mini-Course! AND my 40+ page “Gain an Extra Day Each Week” eBook! AND the “Cracking the Habit Code” Workbook that will walk you, step-by-step, through the formation of any new habit you are looking to create.

But wait: There’s more! I’m so grateful for your enthusiasm and support that I’ve got 7 thank-you gifts that I want to send to you. Please check out the gifts I’m offering here.

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