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

Anxiety in Slow Motion

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

Enjoy the Holidays

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

The Gift of Anxiety

The Gift of Anxiety

One Christmas, when I was much younger — perhaps just into my teenage years — my grandparents gave me a very special gift.  Although I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I still very clearly recall feeling terrifically excited one moment, terribly confused and disappointed the next.  When I pried open the large cardboard box, after tearing through the wrapping paper and enough Scotch tape to make a clear, adhesive straitjacket for one of my younger brothers, what did I find?  A heavy wool blanket for my bed!

Obviously, I did not initially regard this blanket as a very special a special gift.  This shift in perspective did not occur for years, really, until I was away at college, and living on my own.  During my junior and senior years of college, I lived in an off-campus apartment that had a single source of heat — a very small electric wall-unit in one of the corners of the living room.  On cold winter nights in that apartment, I would have been freezing in my futon bed without that wonderful wool blanket to keep me warm!  I still think of that blanket, which became so worn over time that I finally had to give it up, let it go.  I remember how painful my experiences of that blanket were at first (what kind of Christmas gift is a wool blanket for a teenage boy?), but also how I learned to value it, even treasure it, in later years.

Those among us who struggle with experiences of anxiety know all too well how intensely painful these experiences can be, and how easily the pain can begin to blanket our sense of anything positive in our lives.  As if the emotional anguish of anxiety weren’t enough, it often comes with physical discomfort — muscle tension, upset stomachs, and headaches, just to name a few common examples.  The emotional and physical distress combine to take a toll on our confidence, then, convincing us that something must be wrong with us, and that withdrawing or giving up are the only options that make sense for us, or are even the only options that are possible.  With such feelings of limitation and compromised self-esteem, we frequently experience increased emotional pain — a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, even what we could call depression.  No wonder those of us who struggle with experiences of anxiety tend to see anxiety as a curse, a way in which we’re broken, a wound that doesn’t heal.  Who wouldn’t feel this way, given what we go through?

As valid as this view is — and it is completely valid, given our profoundly and repeatedly painful experiences of anxiety — it seems to me to have the very unfortunate effect of perpetuating the very affliction from which we seek relief.  Seeing anxiety as a curse or a wound sets up a relationship between us and anxiety that is dominated by our sense of antipathy, resentment, and fear.  In this kind of relationship, we tend to polarize with our anxiety, identifying it as our enemy and taking up a defensive position against it; as we do so, we often generate an even higher degree of tension for ourselves, and not the increased sense of calm, courage, confidence that we desire.  Personally, I wonder how our experiences might be different if we were able to see our anxiety in another light, not as a curse or a wound, but as a blessing or a source of healing, as odd as those ideas may sound.  What if, in keeping with the holiday season, we were able to see our anxiety as a gift?  What kind of relationship with anxiety would be possible for us if we were able to adopt this perspective?  What might the benefits be?

For me, the key to seeing anxiety differently — as a gift, for instance — lies in exploring those ways in which I can say that I am thankful for my experiences of it.  Sure, on the one hand, the very idea of being thankful for anxiety sounds absurd — even offensive, perhaps — given all the pain that we associate with feeling anxious; however, the frame of mind in which such an idea is absurd or offensive is the same frame of mind that is dominated by anxious, fearful, tense, and defensive thinking.  I am not intimating that we consider experiences of anxiety pleasant — I have already mentioned the myriad ways in which they are profoundly painful, in fact; what I am suggesting is that these very unpleasant, painful experiences call our attention to certain habits of thinking, associated feelings, and ways of responding in behavior that are not helpful to us — that limit, constrain, even debilitate us.

Anxiety, then, provides a doorway to healing, a prompt to us to examine our thoughts about ourselves, others, and our experiences, and to evaluate how well these thoughts are working for us.  If we don’t like the way that our thoughts are working for us, if we determine that they are exacerbating our anguish rather than helping us to feel more calm, courageous, and confident, we can decide to exchange them for thoughts that support us in having the different experiences that we want.  The curse, the wound of anxiety, becomes a source of healing, a gift for growth.

When I think about this idea — the gift of anxiety — I think back to the wool blanket that my grandparents gave me for Christmas when I was in my teenage years, and how, eventually, I grew to feel so thankful for it.  At first, of course, I felt only confused, disappointed, and frustrated — even a bit hurt and upset, to be honest.  I hadn’t asked for the blanket.  I didn’t want the blanket.  I even hated the way the blanket felt.  Who would ever be glad to have such a thing?  The very notion seemed preposterous to me.  Now, as I reflect on my experience, I know that I couldn’t have reacted any other way, given how I was thinking about the blanket at the time.  In the years that followed, as I learned to see ways in which the blanket was helpful to me, I began to think differently about the blanket itself, and my relationship to it changed, eased, became much less dominated by tension and aggravation.  Finally, I stopped thinking about the blanket as the heavy, scratchy burden on my bed that I had received instead of a new bike, music player, or something else that I had really wanted; instead, I thought about how the blanket served me well in ways that I had not expected, but came to value very much.

What are some of the ways in which you can say that anxiety has been a gift to you?  What welcome differences in your experiences of anxiety, and of life more generally, might experimenting with a perspective like this one might make possible for you?

With my very best wishes to you for increased calm, courage confidence during this holiday season, and in the coming year!



Updated: 01/13/2019

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

Got Angst? Give Thanks!

This month, many of us will be celebrating the U.S. holiday that we call Thanksgiving. We will gather together with family and friends, ideally over a hearty harvest meal, and take time to give thanks for the people we love and what is going well in our lives. We will count and share our blessings.

Many of us, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, will also be aware of feeling anxious. Our sense of anxiety may be a response to thoughts about the social situations involved in celebrating Thanksgiving itself, or we may already be thinking ahead to the myriad pressures, social and otherwise, that we so often experience as part of the rest of the holiday season. Lucky for us, Thanksgiving provides a ready antidote — in the form of its very focus on gratitude!

A cognitive-behavioral approach to anxiety often looks at how we may be fueling our feelings by what we pay attention to and what we remember. Many of us who experience anxiety tend to focus on what is consistent with our self-doubt, our sense of the world as unpredictable and unsafe, our assumptions that others are thinking negatively of us and will reject us, our expectations of a worst-case scenario, and the like. We dismiss or minimize, if not completely ignore, experiences that we could describe as positive and for which we would likely feel thankful. If we are giving a talk and notice that some members of the audience seem bored, we do not see that others appear to be enjoying our presentation. If we muster our courage to talk to someone we like at a party, we remember only having tripped over our words at some point, rather than how smoothly the rest of the conversation went. We engage in selective attention and memory.

I suggest that, as a response to anxiety, the practice of gratitude does not simply help us think more positively; it supports us in thinking more realistically. For those of us who struggle with feeling anxious, giving thanks balances out our tendency to concentrate on what we fear and interpret as negative, our inclination to “screen out” all other aspects of and ways of looking at our experiences; it helps us shift our perspective. Some of us may practice gratitude by writing down what we’re thankful for in a journal each day; others of us may take time to meditate on the topic, or to share our sense of blessings with friends or family members. Whatever methods we choose, the practice of gratitude can, in time, help us develop an increased sense of calm and confidence — one more thing for which we can be thankful!

I hope that you will find ways to give yourself the gift of thanks when you’re feeling angst, not only in the coming weeks — or on Thanksgiving — but throughout the whole year. What are ideas that you have about how you can practice gratitude? What are ways in which you already do?


Updated: 01/13/2019

Featured image: Photo by Kendall Lane on Unsplash

Worries Dancing with the Wind

Worries Dancing with the Wind

I think of the trees and how simply they let go. — May Sarton

When she was ready, she let her worries go like falling leaves; released at last from their long obligation, they danced with the wind as they went. — Scott Kahler

For many of us, our worrying parts work very hard. If asked, these parts might contend that they are helping us — protecting us, even — by keeping us thinking ahead and preparing us for what could happen.  Unfortunately, what our worrying parts do for us, and the intensity with which they do it, both frequently come at a cost — to our physical well-being, and to our peace of mind.

Imagine if these parts had their own sense of performing more extreme roles in our lives than they actually wanted to play.  They would be glad to give up some of their responsibilities, if only they felt that they could.  To feel free to relax, even just a little, they would want to believe that we no longer needed them to behave in the same old, exhausting ways.  And in all honesty, wouldn’t this assessment be absolutely accurate?  We really would do fine without all that worry; we might even find ourselves thriving!

Just think: With this understanding, this new perspective, we could negotiate new roles for these long-suffering, worrying parts.  They could always return to their old jobs — temporarily — if an experience of anxiety ever really seemed necessary; otherwise, however, they could support us in ways that would leave us with a much greater sense of calm, courage, and confidence.  Perhaps they would want to serve as trusted advisors or consultants, helping us simply to notice what’s around us, and then to consider — rather than fret about — how we want to respond.  Freed at last from chronic overwork, liberated from their extreme worrying roles, these parts might celebrate!  Wouldn’t you?

What worrying parts of yourself would you like to release?  How will you know when you’re ready?  How will you proceed?


Updated: 01/13/2019

Photo by Nine Köpfer on Unsplash

What Do You Choose to See?

What Do You Choose to See?

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.

— Barry Neil Kaufman
duck-rabbit_illusion

What do you see when you look at the image to the right?  A duck?  A rabbit? Both?  If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”?  If multiple ways of seeing the image are possible, which one of them do you prefer?  Which one works better for you, in a manner of speaking?

What We Choose to See Makes a Difference

While these kinds of questions may seem a bit silly when we’re talking about an image (You may be asking yourself, “Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), I contend that the considerations they represent have significant implications in our day-to-day lives.  To quote Barry Neil Kaufman, “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.”  In my own experience, I’ve noticed over and over again that what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact.  Seeing multiple possibilities for meaning in any given experience gives me a wider range of possible responses; I’m often able to choose one of the more helpful options, then.

An Example of Choice

Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase.  The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business.  In this situation, I could see the cashier as “rude” or “disrespectful,” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong.  With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again.  I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.

Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked.  Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries.  If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her.  Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment.  If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “disrespectful,” I might be able to wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfying service the next time that I experience it, if I experience it again.

The Difference a Choice Makes

From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others.  If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I responded, with a sense of calm and confidence — happier all around!  Although I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.

What Do You Choose to See?

There is always more than one way to look at things.  In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us, given the kind of experience that we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more.

In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that aren’t working?  What would a different way of seeing be?  If you saw differently, what would the benefits be?  What would support you in making this shift in perception?  Why are you waiting?


Updated: 02/14/2019

Featured Image: Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Embedded Image: File:Duck-Rabbit illusion.jpg (Wikimedia Commons)