It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

There. Be with that for a moment. I read that line in an insightful post from Marita Fridjhon, the CEO and Co-Founder of CRR Global. She wrote an eloquent piece called “The Case for Taking Space: A Bigger Picture Approach.” I am writing this article in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve found myself on auto-pilot when friends and co-workers ask, “How are you?” and I, on auto-response, say: “Good. And you?” No. Actually, I’m not good. I’m not okay. I’m getting by. I’m coping. I’m trying to find some semblance of control. I so appreciate when there is permission to not be okay, whether I give that permission to myself or it’s offered by someone else.

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Here are some thoughts on being not okay:

Don’t rush.  Marita writes: “Let’s not rush through to the ‘everything is okay’ stage. Otherwise, the steam is going to continue to build and reactivity is going to direct our choices. Instead, we could take some time to be with this. To process what we’re going through and to grieve what is lost.” This resonates for me. I want to push through to get on to the next step. I don’t want to scrap a trip to visit my mother in her new home on the west coast. I want to wave a magic wand and make this all go away so I can get on an airplane (again) and just go. My absolute fatal flaw is impatience (inherited, ironically, from my mother). I want to skip all the chapters and get to the end of the book and see how this all ends. This is like pushing a rope, it’s frustrating and gets me nowhere closer. Don’t rush.

Feel the feelsThis is not the time for a stiff upper lip. I think of Marita’s analogy of continuing to build up steam. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of steam billowing out of people. The steam shows up as anger, frustration, tears, shutting down and stonewalling. Co-workers crying at work (virtually), managers popping off in knee jerk reactions, and directors passive aggressively ignoring urgent requests. Some of us are releasing the pressure while the rest try to keep it bottled up. Let the pressure go. It doesn’t need to be public but don’t be surprised if it is. I was taking a walk two days ago listening to a podcast and suddenly, there were tears streaming down my face. Marita wrote, “Take the pressure off yourself to be super positive and cheery so that you don’t end up feeling stressed about being stressed or sad about being sad. These emotions are understandable and taking space to honor them will help you to eventually shift them into something else.” Let go of the pressure and feel the feels.

You have permission to just process.  You have a hall pass on your exercise regime, starting your book, clearing out your closets, learning guitar, planting a garden, reading War and Peace, and painting. It’s fine if you do and it’s fine if you don’t. Take time to reflect on this experience and see what is present for you. It’s great to invite others to process as well. Marita suggests asking: “What’s been the most challenging thing for you about working from home?” I’ve tried this out and it can have humorous results from, “I’ll be a big fat drunk by the end of this” to “I had no idea my dog was so neurotic” to interesting insights like, “I like these four walls, I just want four different walls.” I need to give myself permission to be lazy. To process. To let go of expectations and be safe.

A step back.  Marita posited, “Before we innovate and create, we need to take space. If we create space to process reactivity, we can choose to respond differently. Instead of letting fear and worry drive the show, we can step in with the response pattern that will best serve us, and others, in the situation.” For me, this is about slowing down and letting things be. It’s allowing what will happen unfold and to be an observer. I let go of my inclination to be the fixer and to have the broom out in front of the mess before it happens. Taking the space to be curious instead of consumed by anxiety and dread. I wonder what career my daughter will pivot too.  I’m curious if my son will be able to compete in Korea in October. I’m curious if world travel will be as accessible going forward and how will my life change if does. It’s about stepping back and responding with an open mind and heart.

Annie Grace wrote an interesting quote, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay, We’re All Not Okay.” There is that comparative suffering where we feel guilt for not being in worse shape. Not exactly survivor’s remorse but close. It’s okay for me to suffer even as there are those who are suffering as well. Process this time in our lives and try not to skim through as fast as possible. Be present. Be safe. Be here right now.

How to Stop Comparative Suffering

Brene Brown has a new podcast called Unlocking Us, which is phenomenal and very timely as the COVID-19 pandemic creeps across the globe. The title of the podcast I listened to was: Brene on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth and Settling the Ball. Comparative suffering is a new concept to me, although I have been in its clutches for weeks! I’ll feel pouty because I’m suffering from cabin fever on my third week of house arrest…err, stay-at-home order. But then there are the 450 employees my dear friend just had to lay off. How can I possibly have it as tough as she? And what about the employee whose stepfather is in the ICU suffering from the virus in a medically-induced coma? Shame on me for even whining about being cooped up. What Brene made clear was that we are all suffering and that comparing our suffering helps no one. In fact, it hurts us.

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There is a new vernacular for this comparative suffering: The Hardship Olympics.  I love this quote from Erica Layne: “So what if we all agreed not to evaluate, dissect, tally, and rank each other’s pain right now? What if we opt out of the Hardship Olympics and make a pact to lead with compassion instead?” What do you say we opt out and embrace compassion?

Here are some suggestions on stopping comparative suffering:

Empathy is not a finite resource.  Empathy is standing in someone else’s shoes and understanding how they feel. This ability is infinite. So, if I can empathize with my friend’s big layoff, I can also empathize with my daughter’s unemployment claim taking more than three weeks; and I can empathize with my co-worker’s fear over her stepfather’s condition. One does not get negated by the other. I think of the practice of Tonglen and how it’s possible to take on each other’s pain and suffering of each situation regardless of size. I can empathize with all of New York City, Italy or the continent of Asia. There are no limits to empathy. There’s no need to dole it out by severity or size. Practice empathy without limits.

Comparison is the thief of joy.  Theodore Roosevelt famously said this. There are so many inherit issues with comparison. First, you rarely if ever know all the facts. Second, it steals valuable time that you could spend elsewhere. Third, there is no end to it…ever. So, if my co-worker vents about working from home while home schooling her three kids, I need to just listen and be present. It’s not the time to bring up your other co-worker with three toddlers or your friend who just lost his six-figure job. Comparing someone’s suffering to someone else’s just makes them feel guilty. I am completely guilty of this and I’m trying hard not to engage in one-upmanship in the suffering department.

Listen to understand.  Stephen Covey posited this many years ago. If your coworker is venting about working until midnight so he can help his son get his schoolwork done, actively listen to him vent. Ask clarifying questions like: “How many times this week did you work until midnight?”, “What sort of support is available right now?” or “What other options have you thought about?” This is not the time to shame them. No need to bring up how many people died in Spain today or how many kids your sister is homeschooling while working for a bank. Just be present and listen. It’s our deepest need to listen and be understood by someone. It’s the greatest gift you can give, and you can even do it remotely, over the phone, video conferencing, or a safe 6-feet apart. Give the gift of listening.

Connection.  Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Connection during social distancing and virtual work is an enormous hurdle right now. I’ve been working on this for the last two weeks. I’ve tried and failed to FaceTime with my eighty-five-year-old mother, but we were able to connect “old school” on the phone. I finally was able to FaceTime with my children yesterday and it was terrific to see their faces and listen to them joke with each other. I rarely talk to either of my brothers, but they have both called me in the last two weeks. My boyfriend Roy and I drove to New Bern to sit on his mother’s deck at a safe distance from his sister, brother-in-law and mother. It’s reassuring to see folks. To have evidence that they are safe and sound. To connect with a joke, compare store lines and mask usage at your local grocery, or give Netflix recommendations. Think about ways to connect.

It’s also important to forgive yourself. None of this is normal for any of us. We were used to handshakes, hugging and sitting on the same couch as our relatives. This is just another challenge we need to take on. It’s fine if you aren’t perfect at this and can take just one small step for now. Maybe it’s reaching out to one co-worker, friend or neighbor with an email of appreciation. What step can you take?

8 Ways to Minimize Anxiety Contagion

I didn’t realize that anxiety was contagious until recently. It seems obvious in retrospect, as the shelves in my grocery store remain empty of toilet paper, bread and water from the spreading global virus that is COVID-19. I can remember a month ago when folks at work started reporting that the toilet paper was gone. I thought they were nuts. I heard rumblings of stores being out of items. I said to myself: “Oh, that’s their store, I’m sure my store has it.” Once I ventured into my store with a full grocery list and slid past the toilet paper aisle (I didn’t need any and sure enough, it was empty). Somehow, suddenly, I was panicked. Mind you, I had at least twelve rolls of TP at home, plenty for at least two weeks. But there I was scared into scarcity mode. I had caught the anxiety contagion. I realized it was irrational. I had paper towels, tissues, and as my boyfriend Roy previously suggested, thousands of leaves on the ground outside. Why was I caught by the grips of this anxiety?

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It was about two weeks later, after stores started rationing each customer to one toilet paper package per visit, that I was finally able to purchase one package. I had no idea if I needed it, but there I was throwing a package into my cart. Better safe than sorry. I recently saw a story on CBS Sunday Morning about toilet paper and the reporter said that people want control and by having a stockpile of one item, it’s one less thing to have to worry about. So, there it is. I have a gift of true love. Acts of love amid COVID-19 are not flowers, not chocolate, not champagne…it’s a 24 pack of 2 ply Charmin.

Here are 8 ways to minimize the anxiety contagion:

  1. Soothe with sensations. Sit out in the sun. Make a hot cup of tea. Take a warm bath. Cuddle up in your favorite down comforter. Take a long hot shower. Listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings (thanks, Susan!) or Echo in the Canyon Soundtrack (thanks, Sandy and Seth) or The Intouchables Soundtrack (thanks, Natalie!). Put your bare feet on the grass. Light a scented candle. Watch Sunrise Earth (sunrises from around the world in real time) on YouTube. Rub your forefinger and thumb together with so much attention you feel the ridges of your finger print. Listen to the birds’ songs or the wind speaking through the branches of the trees. Using your senses dampens anxiety.
  2. Stop checking the news. It’s all the same stuff packaged in short teaser bites to keep you glued to the channel. By the time you read this, I assume the apex will be past us, which will only increase the speculation about when we will get back to “normal.” The news just increases your cortisol level, which is likely the result of and feeds your anxiety. I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on in the world, just be sure to pick the time, the source and limit your exposure. I view the news like radiation. I should only expose myself in small doses. Stopping the news minimizes the contagion of anxiety.
  3. Curate your sources. I have to say that I appreciate that many news sources online have made their resources free during the pandemic. Find a trusted source like the CDC website or covid19.healthdata.org and check it at a designated time. Be sure to know the latest mandates for your area before you head to the store for groceries. I check my state’s department of health and human services website. Be careful listening to friends and coworkers, I’ve heard that the virus could live on metal anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks. Make sure you trust your sources.
  4. Get outside! (if you are able). Do whatever is possible under your current conditions. As Dr. Zoffness wrote for Psychology Today, “Research shows that nature – trees, birdsong, sun, sky – improves mood, lowers stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, and improves an overall sense of well-being. Stand outside in the sun and breathe fresh air.” I have really missed the ability to take a hike in the state park near my home but even walking to the mailbox or for 2 miles in my neighborhood has made me feel so much better. I try and use all my senses (see #1) to take it all in. The cardinals, the blue jays, blue birds, robins, mallards and cormorants are plentiful right now and I so appreciate their presence. Nature has its own language that it shares with us.
  5. Get a mindfulness practice. There are dozens of apps offering free trials or free versions. Give a few a try. I personally recommend Headspace and Calm, but find the one that works for you. My friend Susannah has free yoga classes online available here. I have personally used the meditation I learned at the Art of Living’s Happiness Program and they now offer that class virtually. Zoffness recommends doing the class twice a day, which is an excellent idea. If you take an anti-anxiety pill twice a day, why wouldn’t you take a mindfulness break twice a day?
  6. Keep or establish a daily schedule. I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits last year. He suggests that one way to add a new habit is to stack it with an old one. So, if you want to add a mindfulness habit, maybe you fit it in as you brew your coffee in the morning. I have about 10 habits that are all stacked with each other that I do every morning. During these uncertain times, even on the weekend, I always do the same morning ritual and I find it to be grounding. Keep your schedule.
  7. Maintain social connection. The worst thing you can do is be socially isolated. As Dr. Zoffness wrote,”We’re genetically wired to need each other for food, shelter, and protection against predators. This is never as true as it is during a crisis. In the presence of others, your brain releases chemicals like serotonin (which raises mood), dopamine (confers feelings of pleasure and reward), and endorphins – your natural pain-killers. So even if you’re avoiding group gatherings, make sure to keep in close touch with friends and family. Figure out FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. There are free versions available. Try to reach out and connect either by phone or video.
  8. Make sure you move. You may be quarantined in your home, a dorm room or hotel room. Take an online yoga class (see #5) or sign up for Zumba class online. Every business in the world is trying to figure out how to be virtual–take advantage of it. As Dr. Zoffness posited, “Our bodies are built to move, and we need exercise to stay healthy and sane. When we exercise, our brains produce important neurochemicals that regulate mood, like serotonin, and our bodies eat up stress hormones like cortisol. This makes exercise particularly important in times of high stress. Go for a run or walk outside in the sun someplace remote.” Try to move at least once a day.

Eight different things sound like a lot but what’s important is that you can do two, three or four at once. Maybe you take a walk every morning outside with your partner (you just did #1, #4, #6, #7 & #8). I feel like this is all about us flattening the curve for anxiety. We all need to do our part to get through this the best we can and be the best we can. What can you do to slow the anxiety contagion?

9 Ways to Take Back the Reins

I’m at end of week two of working remotely. I find it remarkably incongruent. I love my home. I love my dog. I love my boyfriend. I am so comfortable here. It’s my safe little nest. Why in the world do I feel so lost? Why am I so tired? Why am I so hungry? Why am I so distracted? I feel like, regardless of where you are, even the most comfortable, warm, happy place; one still wants to be in control. Regardless of how wonderful my living situation is, this virus is on a rampage and I have absolutely, positively no control over the outcome. Yes, yes, much like voting or washing my hands, I can do my part but whether I wash my hands or wear a mask to Food Lion, it feels like I cannot move the needle on the amount of deaths in New York City.

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This leads me to taking back the reins on what I can control; on what I can do in my very small corner of the universe to feel sovereign over my trajectory. It’s like steering a boat in a raging sea or taking one small step up a steep mountain: I can take back the reins to my reality.

Here are 9 ways to take back the reins:

  1. Make your bed. How long does it take to make your bed? I’m not saying wash the sheets and all the bedding. I’m saying, straighten the covers, the sheets and pillows. I’m guessing this will take about 30 seconds to a minute. That one small step? It makes my day so much better. I’m not staring at a mess every time I’m in my bedroom. Odds are you are going to walk into the bedroom several times a day. You’ll be seeing that bed totally ready for you to slide into tonight. It’s neat, inviting and creates an environment of peace and stability.
  2. Buy an orchid plant. I got into the habit of buying orchids at the grocery store about four years ago. Orchids are incredibly resilient, and they will bloom for months. I used to buy cut flowers once a week (which is still a great idea to bring some color, beauty and scent into your life) but they fade and die after a week. Orchids? Their blossoms last for anywhere from 6 weeks to 4 months. Doing the cost benefit analysis of buying flowers weekly or an orchid once every two months, the orchid wins every time and I feel like I am taking care of myself with a beautiful blooming plant in my space.
  3. Clear the counters in your home. I read the book The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker a few months ago. It helped me identify many things that were cluttering my home. One of the main areas I decluttered was my kitchen counters. At one time I had a toaster oven, blender, utensil holder and cookbook holder on my counter at all times. Joshua suggested that it didn’t make sense to have something you use once a day or once a week, sitting on your counter taking up space and cluttering your line of sight. I moved everything off the counter and into a cupboard. It’s amazing how freeing space up makes room for new things to happen. I started baking and cooking more because there was a clean slate to work from.
  4. Turn off the news. You can get all your news on a device other than a television. It’s all so sensational now. It hijacks my amygdala which sends me into fight/flight/freeze mode. It’s exhausting. There may be a news conference from your governor, but they publish those advisories on your state’s website. The written word is not as cortisol-inducing as watching a highlight reel of the latest impacts of this pandemic. I feel in control of my news diet this way.
  5. Mindfulness. I’ve been meditating for ten years once a day for fifteen minutes. It really helps me get centered and present, which helps me feel in control of my day. There are other ways to be mindful like yoga or walking. Find what suits you and get back to the present moment.
  6. Be grateful. I’ve been writing a gratitude journal for over ten years. Currently, I write down five things I’m grateful for and one thing I’m grateful I did, like “completing a workout” or “hiking two miles.” It reminds me of all the things that are going right in my life, it helps me reflect on the good and what I am doing for myself (and what I’m in control of).
  7. Get outside. There is no greater cure for being cooped up in a house than getting outside. Most of the stay-at-home orders let you exercise. Our beaches and state parks are closed here in North Carolina but in the last week, my boyfriend Roy and I went kayaking on the Bogue Sound and hiking in the Croatan National Forest (all currently allowable). I have never felt better and more in control than paddling a kayak to where I want to go.
  8. Single tasking. I have found that one of the biggest issues I have with video conferencing is that I will pick up my phone and see if I have notifications, typically while someone else is talking in a large meeting. I end up missing half the conversation because of my habit of picking up my phone. Multitasking is draining and makes me feel out of control. Put the phone down, on airplane mode or in the other room and single task your next meeting. I promise you will feel more in control and present.
  9. Help someone out. Altruism is the cure for almost anything that ails you. Pick up your neighbor’s overturned garbage can, call your friend and see how they are doing, check in with your parent who is quarantined, sew face masks, make donations, see if that nurse you know needs her front yard mowed or offer to pick up a package of toilet paper if Target is restocked (you will be a hero). Looking outside of yourself helps you feel like you have forward motion on the path that you want to be on.

Taking the reins makes me feel like I’m in control. With so much uncertainty in the world, give yourself one small win. As James Clear wrote in Atomic Habits: “Every action you take is casting a vote for the kind of person you want to be.” Take action. One small step towards taking back the reins of your life is empowering during this time of chaos. What small step do you want to take to get the reins back under your control?

5 Steps to Feeling Safe and Sound

I’ve been battling emotional overwhelm, paranoia and unease for the last few weeks as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpassed every other country in the world. I want to feel safe. I want to feel sound. I want to feel all right, right now. I want my kids to be safe and sound. I want my mother to be safe and sound. I want my boyfriend and his family to be safe and sound. I want my brothers and their families to be safe and sound. I want all my co-workers and their families to be safe and sound. I want my friends to be safe and sound. I want all the small businesses in the country to be safe and sound. I want all the unemployed restaurant workers to be safe and sound. Tall order.

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I am very grateful that I work in the insurance industry, which at this moment, is considered safe and essential. I know so many people who are now suddenly unemployed. My daughter in Seattle was recently laid off from a startup and my son in Miami was recently laid off from a restaurant. My mother is quarantined in her room at a senior living center in Washington State. This impacts everyone unilaterally. I can get spun up on all the ways this will impact us in one month, one year, one decade from now. Stop. Breath. Pause. There are ways to come back to yourself and feel safe and secure. To come back to this present moment and know that you are all right, right now.

Here are the five steps to feeling safe and sound:

  1. Be sure

As I write this, it’s high pollen season in Eastern North Carolina. Every time I would sneeze, cough or sniff, I started thinking maybe I was getting sick with COVID-19. A friend of mine had sent me an article about symptoms of COVID-19 and they suggested taking your temperature twice a day. If there is anything that I have adopted in the last week that has brought peace of mind, it’s taking my temperature twice a day. I usually take it once in the morning and once at night.  Today it’s 80 degrees here. I was feeling warm. Prior to COVID-19, I could care less. Now? I take my temperature. 98.2. Fine. I just read an article from Peter Diamandis about a new ring for medical professionals to wear that is called the Oura Ring. What does it do? It monitors your temperature and other vital signs around the clock. I feel so much more relaxed because I’m not wondering if I have a low-grade fever. I am sure that as of right now, I don’t. My suggestion? Get out your thermometer and take your temperature. Be sure.

  1. Know your oxygen level

I was talking to my brother, a retired nurse, and telling him about my temperature twice a day. He said, “Get a Pulse Oximeter.” I asked him why. He said, “It will tell you if you are getting enough oxygen and they are inexpensive.” Sure enough, Amazon had one for $30 and it was delivered in two days. I have a history of allergy related asthma, so knowing if I am actually short of breath or coughing or coming down with COVID-19 is critical information. I don’t need to bother a Teladoc, go to urgent care or stress out that I’m on the verge of pneumonia. It’s comforting to know that I don’t need to venture out and expose other people or be exposed to others to figure out if my health is fine. It’s pretty inexpensive and gives your oxygen level really quickly. Know your oxygen level.

  1. Limit your exposure

I have started mapping out my week. If I went to the store three times a week, now I go once. If I can meet by phone or video, I do. If I can hand off something at a distance, I do. If I need to go to my regular office, I make sure it’s a combined trip where I do multiple tasks all at once. I go to the grocery store early in the day to minimize the amount of people I am exposed to. I have delayed everything like appointments and services (not that I had a choice) for several months. I saw something on social media that asked, if you came up positive for COVID-19, could you retrace your steps over the last 15 days? I can. Limit your exposure. It’s good for everyone.

  1. Present moment

Being present can be difficult as we all face so much uncertainty. Thinking and ruminating can be paralyzing. I can start worrying about my daughter’s rent, my son’s cancelled weightlifting competition or if my friend’s business will fail. Whether I worry about it or not, it will not change the outcome and it can physically weigh me down and paralyze me. I think of a book I read by Shirzad Chamine called Positive Intelligence, in which he talks about getting back to the present moment by rubbing your index finger and thumb together with so much attention that you can feel the ridges of your finger print. Go ahead and try it. Amazing, right? You cannot be stuck in your head when you are rubbing your index finger and thumb with so much attention. Getting back to present moment helps me be reassured that I am safe and sound right now.

  1. All right right now

Rick Hanson in his book, Just One Thing, asks the question: “Are you all right, right now?” Chances are, you are. I know I am. It’s a beautiful day and my dog is next to me on the coach. Outside of a few aches and pains, I am all right, right now. There is a roof over everyone’s head that I care about and everyone’s health is, on the whole, just fine. I was able to go kayaking this weekend on the Bogue Sound with my boyfriend Roy, and I stopped several times during the one-hour paddle just to take in the air, the birds and the water. To feel the tide. To feel the wind. To smell the sea air. To take it all in for two beats longer. You are safe and sound right now.

Roy says that I am a planner. I want to have every trip planned out for the year with my calendar up-to-date, my plane tickets purchased, and hotel reservations made. There is none of that right now. My future is open. It makes me uncomfortable to know that there is nothing planned for the rest of the year until this pandemic plays itself out. I don’t know where I will be in a year and that’s OK. I’m feeling safe and sound right here, right now and that’s fine with me. Are you safe and sound?

Coping with COVID-19

Perhaps the title should be how I am coping with COVID-19. My current state is that I’m working mostly remotely but I can still go into my office, my boyfriend Roy is still coming to stay with me on the weekends, and most retail stores are open with limited hours. Most importantly, no one I know is ill or quarantined with anyone who is ill. We are all just working to flatten the curve and keep the surge down for all the healthcare workers out there. I have my moments of catastrophizing as both my adult children are unemployed as I write this. It’s so easy to get caught up in the whole whirlwind of “what ifs” but I’m trying to step back from the edge of the cliff and come back to the present moment.

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I think the main underlying theme I have felt over the last few weeks is that as we face all this uncertainty, we all just want some semblance of control. To know that we are sovereign over the country of “me”. There are so many directives coming at us rapid-fire, every day and ever-iterating, it comes down to knowing that we can have control over something, sometimes ANYTHING, to bring us back to self-efficacy.

Here are some ideas on coping with COVID-19:

Breathe

It is amazing to come back to your own breath. I had the occasion to remind a few co-workers and my daughter this week about breathing. I could hear the angst in their voice. The piling on of all the obligations and possibilities as something else came down from some known or unknown authority. A new directive, order or policy. I said, “Can we take a minute?” With relief, “YES.” I said calmly, “Let’s sit down, put your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. Pause. Now take a deep breath in. Hold for three, one, two three. Now let it out.” We took three deep breaths. I have to say that everyone I did this with in the last few weeks has thanked me. For me, having control over my breath is one of the most empowering things I can do. Give it a try.

Gratitude

The other thing that I can get wrapped around the axel for is focusing on everything that is wrong right now. “My vacation is scrapped, my court date is moved indefinitely, I can’t visit my children, my mother is quarantined, and what happens if my favorite restaurant never reopens!” Easy to fall in that hole and it’s not very comforting. So what is the opposite of all this catastrophizing? Gratitude. After I breathed with my daughter and my co-workers, I asked them to name 5 things they were grateful for. It wasn’t very hard to do and it brings about a whole new perspective. I’m grateful for my home, my loving (somewhat neurotic) dog, my toilet paper-bearing boyfriend Roy, my 86-year-old mother’s health and all the wonderful azaleas that are in bloom! Gratitude points to everything that’s right with the world.

Outside

It’s so great to get outside. This may or may not be possible, depending on your current situation. If you can get out and keep your social distance, do it. There is nothing more grounding than to walk outside. At this point, in Eastern North Carolina, there are hundreds of birds migrating, nesting and singing to each other. The trees are leafing out and the thousands of flowers are starting to bloom. Nature and being outdoors restores me. I think that being able to walk and move unencumbered by the walls of an apartment or home is emboldening. It makes me feel free to go where I please (even if I can’t).

Information

I try to be selective in turning on my hose of information. I quit watching the news several years ago and I have never regretted it. Even today, as each new bulletin from this state or that county or some foreign land comes out, I am selective about reading the headlines or article. I’ll focus on just my county or state’s latest mandate and try to tune everything else out. It makes me feel helpless, when I am overwhelmed by all the news that is available. There is nothing that makes me feel more out of control than when I am being bombarded by information. I’m not suggesting that you shut down. I’m suggesting that you curate what information you are receiving, and then move forward as needed.

Best

It was Brene Brown who first posited that: “All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best.” I’ve seen several disagreements and run-ins with several folks the past few weeks. I said to one coworker, “Do you think that maybe we are all pretty stressed about the current situation? We all just want a little control in all this uncertainty.” She agreed. She wasn’t as mad at her coworker. I had one coworker say that they swept off their front porch and that gave him a sense of control. It’s easy to blame others for our state of mind. I try to take back control by doing one thing at a time and giving others the benefit of the doubt. We are just doing our best.

Coping comes down to having a sense of control in the midst of all this uncertainty. Wash the dishes, water the plants, play your clarinet, feed the dog, bake a cake or write a blog post. Bring sovereignty back to your life. One small act at a time. Be here now. Remain present.

Lost in the Woods

Before I headed out with my boyfriend Roy on our short, but steep, section hike on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), I had read a few books and listened to several YouTube videos about hiking the A.T. Between going off-trail to relieve yourself to heading down the wrong trail to just not paying attention, you can end up getting lost in all the information. So many options! I figured that the odds of getting lost on our journey were slim to none since Roy was a veteran, having hiked 531 miles of the A.T. before (yes, he is a badass). We were also only going to be on the trail for two days, so how lost could we possibly get?

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Being lost is relative. Being lost is not being sure of where you are in relation to either your hiking partner, your pack, or the trail you “thought” you were on. I can’t tell you I was ever actually lost on the trip, but I know I definitely felt lost several times. Perception is reality and there were many moments where I wasn’t sure where I was.

This is what I learned about being lost in the woods:

Plain sight

Water is essential for life. On day one of our hike, I was clambering across a slide of fallen trees, grabbing onto roots above for dear life, when one of my two water bottles fell out of my pack. It slid down about 10 feet off the trail into the slide area. Roy and I looked at it for a bit. Roy thought about taking off his pack and going after it. We weighed our options and, although it was in plain sight, the downside of retrieving it was too great. We had three bottles of water remaining between the two of us. Although it was in plain sight, it was lost.

Wrong trail

After we found the shelter we were going to camp at for the night, we hung our packs in the shelter and went off to look for water. Before arriving at the shelter, there were some double blue blazes indicating a trail to either water or another destination. There was a sign at the top that read: “Wesser Creek Trail.” The guide book had indicated that there was a water source within a tenth of a mile of the shelter. Somehow, I had confused “creek” and “water”. We headed down what seemed like a six-inch-wide trail. I was glad we didn’t have backpacks on, as the trail was precarious. There were several switchbacks and a few blue blazes, but no indication of water. I was exhausted and just wanted to get into my sleeping bag. I felt guilty for having lost a full bottle of water earlier. Roy soldiered on for a few more switchbacks, but by now, we had gone at least a half mile more and the shadows from the trees were lengthening. We gave up and started hiking back up to the shelter. As I contemplated not being able to find water and what that might mean, we ran into a young guy running (yes, jogging shorts, t-shirt and no pack) on the narrow trail. We asked about the water source and it was down the main trail (white blazes) about a tenth of a mile. We may have been on a trail, but it was the wrong trail. Creek and water are not the same.

Naked

No. I was never naked. Meaning, I was never without clothes. But when we went down the Wesser Creek Trail, I felt lost from my belongings. When I thought we were venturing off for 10 minutes to find water, I wasn’t concerned about being without the pack. As we went down our precarious detour, I started getting nervous about our packs hanging in the shelter. They were hanging so that mice would not get into them. There was a warning about bears in the area. I started to get anxious and concerned that when we arrived back at the shelter, that there would be a full-on party of bears and mice tearing our packs apart. Had I left anything uneaten in my pack that would attract bears? After carrying all my earthy things all day, I felt naked without the pack and nervous that we would be stuck in the woods overnight without our things. We arrived back to the shelter to find everything intact. I felt lost from my essentials.

Separation

As we descended down the mountain on the second day, we started to get warm as the sun came out. We stopped to take off some of our layers and Roy decided to change into shorts. About a quarter mile down the trail, Roy realized he didn’t know where his cell phone was. He headed back up the trail to see if he dropped it when he changed. I stood and waited. He returned. No phone. He realized that it might be in his sleeping bag located in the bottom of his pack. I decided to head down the trail while he unpacked. I knew his pace was much faster than mine and I didn’t want to slow us down. I soldiered on down the trail. Pretty soon, I couldn’t see any white blazes marking the trail. I started to panic. I turned around to walk back up the trail. I started yelling for Roy. I figured that he should have caught up by then. As he arrived down the trail, the white blaze appeared again. He confirmed that I should have turned back to make sure I was on the trail. For those five to ten minutes of separation, I felt lost. Without my hiking partner and white blaze to guide me, I felt lost.

The hike is a great metaphor for life. Things may be in plain sight, but you can still be lost. You may be temporarily lost, on a detour, down the wrong path, but you can still find your way home. You may feel lost from something you feel is essential, but you still have you. You may be separated and unsure of your next step; it just might require doubling back. The greatest gift from the experience is that regardless of where I thought I was or wasn’t, I could rely on myself to find my way out.

You Are Enough

Have you been waiting to hear those words since say…kindergarten? I have. I generally have stayed uber-focused on my penmanship (horrible), my height (too tall) and my value as a human being (a work-in-progress). This happens to the distraction from my more valuable traits like writing, coaching and being present. I am more worried about the illusive atta-boy (-girl) from my sixth-grade math teacher or my parents finally being happy with the career I have chosen.

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Unfortunately, if you go looking for someone to say: “Cathy, you are good enough,” you will be waiting a long time. Your value is not determined by those outside of yourself. It’s an inside job. It’s between your ears. You need to decide you are good enough. No one is going to do it for you. Decide today. You are worthy. You are good enough. Go ahead. I’ll wait right here.

These might be the reasons holding you back from being enough:

The yardstick of perfection. Anne Lamott wrote brilliantly in Bird by Bird, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” It’s OK if my handwriting isn’t that legible. It’s OK if I am taller than the rest. It’s OK if I have honestly wasted half a Saturday getting over vertigo and not writing. I just spent part of the morning criticizing myself for not going to the gym first thing or writing a post. Really? Like the exercise and blog gods are sitting around judging me for recovering from half a day spent getting to the bottom of my vertigo? So what? As Lamott says, you will die anyway. Spending time trying to be perfect is empty and completely unrewarding. You are good enough right now.

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A gold medal won’t change a thing. Lamott famously quotes a 400 pound has-been coach, “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” Interesting. If you are not enough before you lose 30 pounds, you won’t be enough after. If you are not enough before the big promotion, you won’t be after. If you are not enough before the divorce, you won’t be after. Worthiness is not a line in the sand. It’s not a point in time. It’s not after the big achievement or disappointment. You are worthy right now. And now. And now. Sit in that. Let it sink in. A gold medal will not make a difference.

You are uniquely you. The mold is busted and there is only one of you and your individual view on life. As Dr. Seuss famously said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Even you and your identical twin would have different shortcuts on your desktop. One of you was picked last or first on the soccer team. It has made all the difference. You now fight for the downtrodden or represent soccer player’s rights. Neither is better or worse. Just unique. Be you. Own it. Embody it. Be the unique you that you are.

Comparison is futile. Lamott said, “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.” You have no idea what your neighbor is going through or your coworker or your dog for that matter. You may be jealous of that new car but don’t realize they had to take over payments for their daughter. Your coworker is battling stage 4 colon cancer. Your dog has been barking at that neighbor dog for the last ten years and has yet to get the last word. We really have no idea what is going on for someone else and comparing it to your current situation is a recipe for disaster. Comparing does not make you feel worthy or enough. So stop comparing.

What other people think of me is none of my business. This is a Wayne Dyer quote that stops me cold. You have absolutely no control over what other people think of you. Let it go. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not. We’ve spent so much time on worrying about what others think. I remember having 11 different pairs of colored corduroy Levis in high school. It did not increase the number of friends I had. AND I was probably the only one who noticed. If you cannot move the needle on it, don’t bother worrying about it. Besides, you are perfectly good enough right now.

I was the last pick a lot in elementary school. My mother was upset with how I held a pencil in my hand. I didn’t have a ton of friends in high school. It’s OK. Let the past go and move on. It has no impact on my worthiness right now. Let go of the judgments from the past and be enough. You are good enough. And so am I.

How to Practice Tonglen

I’ve been listening to the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Pema is an American Tibetan Buddhist and has written and taught extensively. She speaks of Tonglen, a foreign concept to me as I listened to the book. I decided to investigate further. As defined by Dhaval Patel for Zenful spirit, “Tonglen is a Tibetan word that is contrived of two terms tong, which means to let go and len, which means to accept. So Tonglen means To Let Go and To Accept.

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As Pema writes in Lion’s Roar Magazine: “Pema Chödrön teaches us sending and taking an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.” I practice meditation every day and have used the Loving Kindness meditation frequently, but this awakening of compassion was a new concept to me and I found it very intriguing. It is one thing to wish others love and kindness; it is quite another to take on their suffering and send relief. It’s so easy to steer clear of pain and suffering to keep ourselves safe.

Here is what I learned about Tonglen:

Be imperfect

I was talking about meditation with my daughter a few weeks ago and she stated that she wasn’t any good at it because she kept thinking. I’ve been meditating for over seven years and I still continue to have thoughts. It’s easy to think: “Whelp…I had a thought so I guess this isn’t working.” My current mediation from the Art of Living is about of series of breathing techniques. While I think about my breath, I still have thoughts. I am not perfect. You won’t be perfect. Being perfect is not the point. My first attempts at Tonglen were imperfect. That’s OK. Embrace imperfection.

Be open and still

The first step to Tonglen is to be still and open. I envision coming out of my head and the whirlwind of thoughts going out and back into my body. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your shoulders and focus on your big toe or on opening your heart.

Close your eyes

Bring someone into mind who is suffering. Many suggest focusing on someone close who you know is suffering. If your dog is lame, or your daughter is being bullied, or your parent is hospitalized, these are assessable. I think of this as low hanging fruit and easier to identify with. In other words, don’t bring to mind a large event, like an earthquake, war, or refugees during your first few attempts. In addition, don’t focus on your arch enemy or ex-girlfriend on your first few attempts either. Bring to mind someone you can identify with and want the best for. As Dhaval wrote, “Imagine someone that you want to help. Perhaps it is a friend or a loved one. Focus intently on this person and on their struggle.”

Breathe in

As Pema writes, “Work with texture. Breathe in feelings of heat, darkness, and heaviness—a sense of claustrophobia.” I imagine colors of red and black. Pema says, “Breathe in completely, taking in negative energy through all the pores of your body.” This visually is very powerful for me. Taking the energy through the pores of your entire body illustrates complete openness and compassion for me. As Dhaval writes, “As you do focus on the heaviness of their negative energy and of the things that ail them, imagine yourself breathing in their condition or suffering. As you do this, picture that you are breathing in their pain so you remove it from their bodies, giving them room for comfort, healing and positivity.” I imagine it as taking someone’s burden so that they can be free. I visualized a friend who recently gave up alcohol. I imagined taking in the anxiety and burden of finding that next drink. I swallowed the poison so that she could be free. It’s a powerful experience to embrace the suffering instead of ignoring it or hoping it will go away.

Breathe out

As Dhaval writes, “As you breathe out, breathe happiness and peace out into the world. Think about what you believe would bring them comfort or joy. Focus on that and breathe it out into the world. Imagine that breath traveling to those you want to help and having it fill that empty space with what they need.” I find that the colors of blue and purple work best for me. I imagine filling up the hearts and minds of those suffering with a fog of blue and purple. I also imagine them being lifted up. Perhaps even held up with renewed strength and love. Pema espouses, “Breathe out feelings of coolness, brightness, and light—a sense of freshness.” Breathe out sunshine and unicorns. Breathe out hope and happiness. With my newly sober friend, I imagine freedom, lightness, and courage. This is the letting go.

Repeat and expand

I meditate for 20 minutes. That is lot of suffering and happiness. Dhaval wrote, “Continue this practice of breathing in pain and breathing out peace over and over again until your session is over. Remember, this doesn’t just apply to others either. If you are in pain, you can breathe in and out your own suffering.” When I focus on my own pain or suffering, I can incorporate others in similar pain. I have had some knee pain recently and I breathe in for others suffering physical pain. As Pema says, “Make it bigger than just that one person. You can do Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others.” Start small and close and then expand out as you practice.

Pema wrote, “Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, your compassion naturally expands over time, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought, which is a glimpse of emptiness.” In practicing this over the last week, I feel a sense of oneness and belonging. I don’t have to tell someone that I took on their suffering last Friday morning. I just know that I feel like I relieved someone else’s suffering and gifted them happiness back. It feels powerfully unselfish and loving. Whose suffering could you let go and accept?

The Obstacles You Face Are Moving Your Story Forward

This is a repost from over two years ago:

I’ve been taking Patti Digh’s Project 137 for the last few months. Project 137 has activities each day to help live your life to the fullest. This is what came up the other day:

Where are you, right now, in your journey? Be fully there.

                     Don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s.

                     Be fully where you are. The obstacles you face there are moving your story    

                     forward. Embrace them.

This was really enlightening. I have written about staying off someone else’s path before, but actually viewing obstacles as moving myself forward was completely new to me. It’s so easy to get discouraged by an obstacle and letting it demoralize you. Put your hands up in the air and throw in the towel.

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Here are some thoughts about how having obstacles can move you forward:

Re-frame the obstacle.  I received some life-altering bad news yesterday. I was angry. I felt deceived. I felt like I just could not catch a break. And then, as I do with many of my coachees, I re-framed it. This news was not a death sentence. It wasn’t even a health issue. It was just about money. I realized, by the time I went to bed, that it was just money. I didn’t lose a loved one, my health was fine and my career intact. So it’s just a challenge I need to get past and will be stronger for it. Put the obstacle under a new frame.

Take stock.  I write in a gratitude journal every day. This is incredibly helpful when life throws you a few challenges. I had a serious scare earlier this week with a loved one. I took stock in the fact that the loved one was just fine and how happy I was that they were fine. I’m happy my dog is safe when I return home from being on a business trip. I appreciate that a friend took time to speak to the class I was facilitating. I am grateful that my career is so successful. I write five things (sometimes more) that I am grateful for every day. It helps me realign the universe to having my best interest at heart. Take stock.

Take the turn.  Have you ever used the GPS to get through something like the Hampton Roads area of Virginia? I cannot make it through the Norfolk/Newport News area without taking the wrong exit, or being in the wrong lane while my exit is three lanes over. So I have a choice. I can get angry and beat myself up, or I can take the next turn and get back on track. Just because it didn’t go as planned, just adapt. Be flexible and don’t let your inner critic hijack your emotions. Just relax and take the next turn.

Stay positive.  As Patti writes in Project 137, “Don’t let your struggle become your identity.” When I went through a huge life pivot point some 6 months back, I defined my entire life by the pivot point. All my worthiness was wrapped up in a decision that someone else made. I was not moving forward. In fact, I was trying my hardest to move backwards. I was living in the space of constant struggle. It took a few months, but I finally figured out that forward positive motion was the only answer. I couldn’t live in self despair. I had to see what was possible instead of wallowing in grief. Staying positive lets you see what is possible.

Understand your story.  Brene Brown writes in Rising Strong: “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Mean making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how best to self-protect.” Knowing that you are filling in the blanks for data that is missing is important to recognize. It’s amazing how paranoid I can get when I am missing a few data points. When I acknowledge that I am “fabricating data” for the story in my head, it brings me back to reality and helps me redraft the story with more positive data. You are the author of the story in your head, and you are allowed – actually encouraged – to rewrite the story for the happy ending.

In an era of constant change and ambiguity, it can be overwhelming when a challenge arises. It’s important for all of us to remember, including myself, that it’s our response to the obstacle that is what’s most important, rather than the challenge itself. What obstacles are you facing?