Keep Your Coat Handy: How Expecting Setbacks Can Help You Spring Forward


Once, about this time of year as the first signals of spring began to say hello, I found myself captivated on an ordinary walk around my neighborhood.  10845761_10206450374404885_9128268406355584200_oTiny, purple crocuses were beginning to bloom amid the still brown grass, an eager bee delighted in the almost forgotten taste of pollen.  The contrast was striking, vivid colors against muted hues, new beside old, spring and winter sharing the same space.  To capture the scene on camera, I laid down on my belly in the mud, despite what the neighbors must have thought.

The natural world has much to teach us about the process of change, and spring is a worthy instructor.  The transition from winter to spring is never a smooth process, particularly not here in Indiana.  Temperatures swing wildly from one day to the next, confusing tender new blooms and migrating birds as well as us in our wardrobe choices.  

There is an adaptive strategy many of us adopt to survive in the midst of such wild weather roller coasters.  We embrace these early, spring-like moments with whole-hearted abandon — we go for walks, do our yard work, play outside, fire up the grill.  Yet (here’s the secret), we keep our winter coats hanging at the ready.  We live in love with the taste of spring now, but we also know this warmth is fleeting and remain prepared to enter back into winter’s chill.  

When the cold inevitably returns, it’s paradoxically both more frustrating and more tolerable.  Going back indoors and bundling up feels especially stifling after we have recently felt the freedom of fresh air and bare arms.  Yet, we can also be encouraged by the vivid reminder of the temporary nature of these last cold days.  We put our ready-to-wear coat back on and keep comfortable enough while we wait for spring to arrive in full.    

What if we could adopt the same adaptive mindset in our process of change?  

We often like to tell ourselves that change unfolds in our lives in smooth and steady ways, gracefully, and settling in gradually.  But spring teaches us that change can just as beautifully present itself in fits and starts.  Change can come on suddenly, then appear to leave us as quickly as it began.  Change can tease us, eluding us right at the moment we believed it was ours to possess.  Just as soon as we think we have mastered a new way of being or relating, there we are, humbled to find ourselves back in the old.   

(Here’s the secret:) Keep your coat handy.  

In other words, welcome change fully, play in it and with it, delight in the new experiences and sensations it brings into your life.  And, expect this welcome change-visitor to come and go for a bit in the beginning.  That way, when the chill of past problems returns, you can grumble with frustration, but you can also be encouraged by your recent encounter with change, knowing it will return to you soon enough.  These past-problem-days are now numbered.  

When we can anticipate setbacks to be a temporary but regularly occurring part of our change process, we can be less distressed by the appearance of cold-snaps.  Remembering that we are prepared to move through past problems when they resurface allows us to gently create an unhurried opening for change to return to our lives.  Celebrating change fully in the moment it appears while holding it loosely as an unexpected visitor frees us to be present to the process with less self-judgment and greater calm.    

These early days of change, when the old and the new exist side by side, see-sawing back and forth, are not for the impatient nor the faint of heart.  Yet, there can be surprising beauty in this transitory space … if we are willing to pause, lay on our bellies, and look with open-eyed wonder.

Featured image credit: Allef Vinicius // Unsplash

One Moment: Anxiety in Slow Motion


“And this will be/The one moment that matters.”

 — OK Go, “The One Moment”

One of the most disorienting aspects of anxious moments is the way our thoughts and physical sensations can race ahead of us.  In these instances, we typically can’t quite catch up to our minds and bodies long enough to make sense of what we’re experiencing, which only serves to add to our already heightened feelings of worry and distress.  Frustratingly, while everything is moving quickly on the inside, we often simultaneously find ourselves paralyzed on the outside.

A powerful strategy for overcoming anxiety consists of learning to play back these internal hyperspeed moments in slow motion.  We’ll look at how to do this, but first let’s examine why this is so effective.  For an illustration, we turn to a brilliant music video by the always inventive band, OK Go.    

In their video, “The One Moment,” OK Go takes 4.2 seconds of footage and extends it in slow motion across the length of their song, which lasts nearly 4 minutes.  When you first watch those 4.2 seconds in real-time, it’s almost impossible to make sense of what you’re looking at.  It’s a head-spinning, chaotic blur of colors and explosions.  But when you see the same moment slowed down, you begin to experience wide-eyed awe and wonder at every detail as it unfolds gracefully in time with the music.  

Take a minute, watch it right now.   Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

At the end of the video, the same 4.2 seconds plays again, in reverse.  When you see this “one moment” the second time around, suddenly it begins to make more sense.  You can now pick out and appreciate individual elements (like bursting water balloons, shattering glass, and exploding guitars) to an extent you couldn’t before.  

The same thing can happen for us after we’ve practiced putting our moments of anxiety into slow motion: we can begin to make better sense of all the fast moving pieces in ways that shift our entire experience and empower us to generate new responses.

Back to the question of “How?”  Just as we can only put a moment caught on video tape into slow motion after the fact, we can only put anxiety into slow motion retroactively.  In a calm, quiet moment, we can return to a recent experience of anxiety and review each detail of what happened, effectively slowing it down before our very eyes.  

I created an easy format to help you practice this, you’ll find it here.   

Once we’ve replayed the details of one anxious moment in slow motion, we begin to find a new ability to attend to all kinds of aspects of our experience that might have moved too quickly for us to observe before.  The next time an anxious moment comes to visit, we are better prepared to pick out individual elements — even as they play out in real-time speed.

This gives us a new competitive edge in the games anxiety likes to play, because now we can more quickly make sense of what we’re experiencing.  We gain a greater sense of control and mastery amid the chaos when we can say, “Aha, I know what is happening here!”  As we feel more sure of ourselves, anxiety loses its grip on us.  Disoriented and powerless feelings move to the background, replaced by a growing confidence that enables us to step forward into new possibilities for calming our thoughts and feelings.  

Your most recent anxious moment can be the “one moment” that matters.  Go ahead, play it back in slow motion.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.    

Featured image credit: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

Paint the Elephant: Daring to Enjoy the Holidays


“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

A couple of months ago, I found myself painting an elephant.  It was one of those events with an instructor taking a sizable group of us through the intricacies of elephant portraiture stroke by stroke.  You can see the end result for yourself — this canvas will not be finding its way into any fine art galleries any time soon!

paint-the-elephant

But you know what?  I enjoyed the heck out of creating that ill-proportioned, awkward-looking behemoth.  I savored the feeling of the brush squishing in fresh paint and the whispering sound it made as it whooshed across the textured canvas.  I marveled at the colors I created on my paper plate pallet; the way such a tiny drop of white could shift the entire vibrancy of a hue.

Meanwhile, all around me, my table mates could be heard grunting and grumbling, with mounting frustration and discouragement.  Harsh self-judgments, embarrassment, comparison, and shame echoed all around.  I found myself feeling sorry for these disenchanted artists.  They were so busy holding themselves to lofty standards of elephant painting that they were missing out on all the joy I was relishing.  But I could well identify with their plight: how often have I found myself similarly criticizing my imperfect efforts when I could have been having fun with my shortcomings instead?

It was a moment that crystallized for me the importance of focusing on being present to the process over evaluating the outcome.  The difference between me and the grumblers wasn’t that I was a better painter or a more naturally cheerful person, it was simply that I had set a different focal point for my experience.  Being present to the process set me up for joy and wonder; focusing on the outcome set them up for frustration and disappointment.

The holidays are coming, and with them increased opportunities for grunting and grumbling.  Between social pressures and self-imposed expectations, we often hold unexamined, lofty goals that turn our attention toward evaluating outcomes.  Such an outcomes-over-process perspective sets us up for anxiously trying to avoid perceived failures and harshly criticizing ourselves when we fall short, both of which make it more difficult to relax and enjoy the (supposedly) “most wonderful time of the year.”

What might happen if we could apply the same principle that leads to joyful elephant painting to our holiday endeavors?  As you anticipate upcoming holiday plans, which ones are most likely to bring out anxious thoughts or self-critical feelings?  What are the outcomes on which you might tend to focus, distracting yourself from opportunities for finding joy?  Now take a moment to shift your focus to aspects surrounding the process of those activities that you are most likely to enjoy.  Imagine what it might be like to hold those life-giving elements of your experience in the forefront of your attention.  How might your experience shift as your focus shifts?

As Elizabeth Gilbert aptly stated, enjoying anything in life is often a courageous act that sets us apart.  When the expected stress of the season arises within and around us, “paint the elephant” can serve as a motto that redirects our thoughts and restores our sense of calm.

“Paint the elephant.”

Bring your attention to being present to the process instead of worrying about outcomes.

“Paint the elephant.”

Relish whatever goodness you can cling to in your experiences, even when they fall short of your hopes or expectations.

“Paint the elephant.”

Allow yourself to make mistakes, to get it wrong, and yet … to have a grand time anyway.

Featured image credit: RhondaK / Unsplash

Sailing Into the Wind: Pacing Change


As a young child, I once darted away from my parents and gleefully jumped into the deep end of a pool.  I had done this many times before with my water wings on to keep me afloat, but this time was different: I jumped in bare armed with no inflated support to buoy me.  Fortunately, my folly was spotted quickly, and I was fished out of the water before I could quite comprehend what had happened.  In time, with support and swimming lessons, navigating the deep end on my own became second nature.

As adults, few of us would jump into the deep end of a pool if we hadn’t learned to swim, and yet we conceptualize change as requiring that we “take the plunge,” ready or not.  We often view change as an all or nothing prospect, requiring grand gestures that lead to dramatic results.  Once we are fed up with the way things have been, we can can trick ourselves into believing that the only way forward is to dive immediately headlong into everything different.

When we approach change this way, we unintentionally set ourselves up for frustration and self-doubt.  If we try to take on too much change too quickly, we may end up thrashing about haphazardly while gasping for air, like a child in the deep end of a pool.  Once we’ve experienced that kind of unpleasantness, it becomes a lot more appealing to sit by the side of the pool than to get back in it.  We start to tell ourselves that change is too scary, or that we don’t have what it takes, or that it’s not really going to be that great after all.

That’s why it can be helpful to think about making change a little bit at a time, like dipping toes into the shallow end.  Once we get a feel for the water, we are more comfortable wading in a little deeper, and a little deeper, and a little deeper.  Perhaps we can even find a trusted teacher or friend to model strokes for us.  If we take our time, not only are the changes we are making more enjoyable, but we might even take off swimming before we are fully aware that we’ve learned the motions.

You have probably heard that change is difficult and that we have a human tendency to resist anything new; yet, some schools of thought embrace change as a natural process and view people as inherently wired for transformation.  Solution-focused therapists, for instance, believe that change is “inevitable” and “always happening” (Gehart, p. 337).  Similarly, collaborative therapists observe that “we are never at a standstill; our meanings, our bodies, and so on are always in motion” (Anderson & Gehart, p. 11).  In other words, perhaps change is already in us, and all around us — not something “out there” that we have to “make happen.”  In fact, an underlying thread throughout postmodern methods of counseling is the notion that we are likely already living into the changes we wish to make to a greater degree than we realize.

A favorite metaphor of mine for change is sailing into the wind.  When sailboats are heading in the direction that the wind is blowing, they can move quickly and easily toward a destination.  But often a sailboat needs to move against the wind.  It seems impossible, doesn’t it?  Yet experienced sailors tackle this feat regularly.  How?  The practice is called “tacking upwind,” and you can watch a quick illustration of it here.

When a captain tacks the sailboat upwind, she moves the ship forward in a gradual zigzag pattern — back and forth, back and forth, a little bit closer to her endpoint with each turn.  Click here for a diagram.  If the captain were to attempt to sail directly upwind, she wouldn’t move an inch; she would be stuck.  Sailors have a name for this experience: “caught in irons.”

Whatever the change you are wanting in your life, it may help you to make your way forward one zig or zag at a time.  Be patient with yourself and with those around you.  Take a moment to notice and celebrate even the smallest steps you make; recognizing one experience of success, however small, lays the foundation for your next move.  If you have already found yourself floundering in the deep end, or “caught in irons,” that’s okay, too.  Step back, calmly take stock of your surroundings, and look for a gentle entry point to try again.  If you don’t see a way forward immediately, allow yourself to rest and come back to your goal in a few days.

Wherever you are at right now in the process of change, congratulate yourself for being brave enough to start the journey.  You have already begun to make a change, just by deciding where you would like to go.  Keep at it, no matter which way the wind may blow — the change you are seeking is already unfolding.

Featured image credit: aragami12345 / 123RF Stock Photo