Hardness vs. Softness: When to push and when to let go

When dealing with tough emotions, sometimes it’s hard to figure out when to go easy on myself and when to give myself a kick in the butt. Similarly, when faced with anxiety or fear in the face of work or creativity, do I let things slide and take a break or do I push through and check everything off my list?  I recently started thinking about the value of hardness vs. softness as I observed how MTW reacts to my anxiety and bad moods. At times he uses a gentle voice and tries to soothe me, and at other times he comes across as more stern as he tries to help me move past it. The stern voice is hard for me to handle – it feels harsh and judgemental. But I’ve come to realize that when I’m really wallowing in self pity, that’s exactly what I need. I need a voice to remind me to come back to the present moment and be realistic.

At first this realization made me think I was going too easy on myself and I decided I needed to be a little harder – to stop pouting and start moving. As with many things, when I start out too far in one direction, I tend to swing too far in the other direction before I’m able to find equilibrium. In this case, I started shoving my emotions aside in an attempt to be strong and found that it made me feel tense and angry. Not surprisingly, it turns out that anxiety management requires a balance between the two sides: hardness and softness, strength and weakness, tension and release, and momentum and rest.


What it looks like to me: pushing myself to be better, to try harder, to do what I think I cannot do.

What I do: cleaning, cooking a healthy meal, strenuous exercise, getting work done, putting on a smile and being outwardly positive even when I don’t feel it inside, putting the needs of others before my own.

This strategy is necessary whenever I start to feel those “woe is me” thoughts creeping in. I need to be a little stern with myself. I need to remember that I’m better than this, I’m stronger than this. I am not a victim of my own mind and I do have control over how I feel. When the stories of how the world is conspiring against me start to spin, I need to switch them off. I need to return to the present moment and realize that everything right now is fine.

Yesterday I came home after a stressful weekend and felt very afraid of being alone all day. MTW dropped me off and I felt darkness closing in. I sat on my bed, had a good cry, then stood up and started literally putting things away. I tidied, vacuumed, washed the floor, scrubbed the stove and the fridge, did two loads of laundry, made dinner and washed the dishes. During those hours I had no opportunity to sit and think about how miserable I was – I was in the moment, focused on what I was doing. And when I finally rested many hours later I felt like I had been scrubbed out on the inside as well. There were no more stories to spin and the world seemed a whole lot lighter.


What it looks like to me: comforting myself, accepting things the way they are, doing things that are safe and that make me feel good.

What I do: reading, watching TV, scrubbing and massaging my feet, going for a walk, easy stretching, journaling, playing with Tarot cards, creating a nest in my bed – surrounded by books that make me feel good, treats and tea, calling a friend, asking  for a hug

When I’m emotionally spent and feel like I’m shaking in my boots, sometimes I need to just wrap a soft blanket around myself and disappear for awhile. And the key here is that I need to allow myself to disappear. If I’m worrying that I should be doing something else then I should probably get up and do that something else.

After a big blowout with MTW or with a friend, I’m usually feeling pretty shaken. I feel regret and sadness over what I might have done or said, my confidence is low, and my energy is spent. At these times I know that I need to take it easy, to not do anything physically or emotionally demanding. I need extra hugs and extra compassion for myself. The same thing happens after I teach a workshop, work a craft show, or spend a whole day around people I don’t know very well. These things take a lot of energy so I know I need to recharge and be gentle with myself.


In addition to seeking balance between the two approaches, I’ve found that I can often use them both at the same time. At the first sign of anxiety, fear, or any discomfort, I go inward and find a place of compassion and gentle care. I acknowledge what I’m feeling and accept both it and myself wholeheartedly. And then I get moving. Instead of focusing on the emotion and all the reasons I may have for feeling it, I focus on feeling love for myself, feeling safe, and then moving forward.

A few months ago, MTW and I started using the phrase, ‘Get up and get moving’ to refer to the need to do something when flooded by emotions. Usually I just need to do anything other than sit and feel sorry for myself. No matter what the situation, getting up and getting moving is always the right answer, though what that looks like can be quite different. Sometimes it literally means get moving: dancing, cleaning, walking, riding my bike to the library. Sometimes it means asking for support. Sometimes it means staying perfectly still and retreating to another world inside a book. Sometimes it means making a big pot of healthy food so that I feel good about what I’m eating and sometimes it means ordering take out so I have more time to rest. The key is in choosing to do something, and then doing it with intention. The smallest action, whether it’s a push or a release, can set me on the path towards making the right choices and feeling better.



Beating Anxiety by Creating New Habits

During the last six months I have developed an entirely new way of being in the world. I am making changes so monumental a few years ago I never would have thought they were possible. There are many reasons for this, but I’d like to share the biggest reasons with you here.

It started with the reading of three important books. I shared my work with the Desire Map in my last post. Here are the other two, both of which I highly recommend:

The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

This book talks about how influential habits are in our lives, our businesses, and society as a whole. It covers how these habits are formed, and, more importantly, how they can be changed. Reading this book I realized that the only way for me to make lasting change in my life would be to create new, more positive habits.

The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

This book explained the process of managing key energy areas to feel and perform better. What I took away was the importance of making tiny changes and monitoring those changes daily.

The system I developed as a result is pretty simple, yet it is a total game changer.

Using my Desire Map work, I first came up with my core desired feelings. Then I used those feelings to determine three areas of my life where I experienced the most pain, frustration, and anxiety (where I feel the farthest away from my core desired feelings) and came up with yearlong goals to help make those areas feel better.

1. Establish habits of relaxation and self-care.

2. Establish habits of openness and communication.

3. Establish habits of productivity.

Each month I set smaller goals in these three areas to help get me closer to those goals. For March – the first month I started working with this system – they were:

1.  Take time (at least 15 min) to do nothing (breathe/meditate) every day.

2. To share emotions with MTW easily and without being prompted.

3. To decide what productivity means to me and what it looks like in terms of my business.

Then each week I set even smaller goals. These are meant to be tiny actions that I can easily accomplish. An example week from March would be:

1. When mindfulness bell goes off on my phone, stop, breathe, check in with compassionate centre.

2. Compliment MTW every day.

3. Figure out what I need to do to feel satisfied at end of day and make sure I do that.

The first thing I wanted to work on was figuring out which helpful habits would bring me closest to my goals. But setting these goals and determining weekly missions alone wouldn’t get me there. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried something new and have given up on it because I didn’t see any progress. So the second thing I knew I needed to do was to keep track of my progress. I decided to create a system to see what was and wasn’t working. Every night before I go to bed, I journal on the following three topics:

– What I did that made me feel good/got me closer to my goals

– What happened that was outside my control that made me feel good/what I’m grateful for

– What I can improve tomorrow

Under the first two topics I make sure that I write at least three things. On the last one I don’t write more than three things – usually just one important thing that I can do differently.

I also write a number from 1-10 to record how happy/how to close to my core desired feelings I felt: 1 being absolute despair, 10 being euphoria. After reviewing the last few months I’m happy to report that the number rarely dips below 5.

This second part is probably the most important part as it not only holds me accountable to my goals each day, but, more importantly, it helps me celebrate all the small successes, and to focus on what is going right. This alone has probably had the biggest effect on me.

If I don’t accomplish my weekly goal (ex. meditate every day), I carry it over to the next week. I don’t judge or criticize myself. I just keep working on it until I can do it consistently. Or, if I find it’s really not working, I switch gears and try something else. I try keep a feeling of curiosity, engagement, and excitement about the whole thing. I’m not fighting myself any more. Instead I see myself as a scientist or a detective, trying to figure out the best way to get results.

Every week I review my progress and set new goals and at the end of every month I look back and write down the major changes I made and things that I learned. This way I’m constantly engaging with the process and its effect on my life.

Since I started I’ve been dealing with stress so much better, my relationship with MTW has improved, I sleep better, I feel healthier, and my productivity (or at least my sense of satisfaction with my productivity) has improved. The biggest change that I’ve noticed has been the development of a strong emotional resilience. Even on days when my happiness indicator goes below 5, the next day it’s usually back up to a 7 or 8. And even when it seems like I’m backsliding and having a hard time, going back and looking at all I’ve learned and how far I’ve come usually makes me feel better.



How Do You Want to Feel?

In many of my readings I’ve come across the idea of focusing one how we want to feel vs. what we want to do or get. The idea is that when we focus on those feelings, we become clearer about what we really want, what we need to do to get there, and how we want to feel along the way. I first started thinking about this while reading Martha Beck’s books and blog posts and, being an emotional, intuitive person, the idea really resonated with me. I started to think seriously about putting it into practice after reading the chapter in Danielle Laporte’s Firestarter Sessions on deciding how you want to feel. Danielle was so inundated by people asking her about that chapter that she wrote another book expanding on her practice, called The Desire Map. In it she helps readers identify their core desired feelings then offers a guide to using them to set goals and intentions. With the coming of the new year (and an Indigo gift card) I decided to treat myself to the Kobo version of the book and for a couple weeks you could barely pry it from my fingers.

Normally when I read self help books I read through quickly, trying to soak up as much wisdom as I can before I move on to the next. I rarely actually do the exercises they prescribe. But with this book I read carefully, and repeatedly, and I did every single exercise she suggested. Something about this practice seemed super essential, like it might have the key to helping me actually feel happier. It took me about a week to come up with my core desired feelings. I’d like to share them with you, and what they mean to me. In a future post I’ll share how I’ve been implementing them in my life.

The first one I came up with was Ease. This came out of a need for calm, for peace, for not struggling and pushing. I want things to feel easy. I want to move gently, and gracefully, through my space, through my relationships, my career, my ups and my downs. I want to take it easy, ease into it, ease up. I want to soften and let go, release and open up. I want to flow like water, to be carried along like a leaf in a stream.

Next came Empowerment. I was looking for the feeling I get when I finish a project, when I close up Facebook and Candy Crush and get some writing done. When I do something scary, step out of my comfort zone and feel that rush of confidence. I want to stand tall and take charge of myself. I want to feel capable and competent. I want to push past barriers, emotional and physical. I want to feel strong, like I can hold up under pressure and fear, and like I can help win a dragonboat race, pedal my bike up hills, climb a mountain, dance complicated choreography.

Soon after, I discovered Expansive. All my choices feel good but this one feels delicious. This is what joy feels like to me. It feels limitless, like I can see into the future, like I can touch the edges of the universe. This is how I feel when I perform on stage, or dance in a club; when I’m larger than life, and I feel the boundary between inner and outer selves start to blur. When I’m having a conversation with a good friend and our combined energy lifts us higher and higher and the possibilities seem endless. I want to feel flexible, boundless; I want to feel like I can fly.

* A note on grammar. Part of me wants all my feelings to be the same type of word: all adjectives or all nouns. But Danielle emphasizes finding just the right way to describe the feeling. Empowerment feels better than empowered because it implies progress. Expansive feels better than expansion because expansion seems like adding something to a house or growing a company. Expansive feels like growing within myself. So I have a couple of nouns, an adjective,  a verb and a phrase. And each feels just right.

Rooting was based on how I felt when I came back from my trip to South America. I felt centered, grounded, and connected to myself in a way I never had before. My mom pointed out that this is the opposite of expansive and I love the dichotomy. I don’t believe these terms are mutually exclusive but that I can expand out while rooting down at the same time. Just look at any yoga pose where you feel connected to the earth while still reaching. This feels like having a firm foundation – a solid sense of self – from which to reach beyond. It feels like belonging,  community, and home.

The last one took a bit more effort and brainstorming. I wanted something to describe the sense of connection I feel when I’m sharing energy with someone. Connection felt too business-like, communion too religious. Finally I came up with In Tune. It feels like sharing energy, like being on the same wavelength. And it extends beyond relationships with other people, to my relationship with my body, with my community, and with the world as a whole. It feels like being in sync, like understanding, like clarity.

I have these words posted on my bulletin board and scrawled on many pages of my notebook. I’ve incorporated them into my breathing practice. Three times a day I sit with my hand on my heart and breathe these words in and try to feel the emotion behind them. When things don’t feel good I remind myself of these words and instead of focusing on what’s going wrong I think, “I want to feel ease. I want to feel empowerment.” I’m also using them to try to develop goals for the week, month, and year and I’ll talk about that in a future post.

Until then, what are your core desired feelings? How do you want to feel each and every day of your life?

Emotional Hangovers

How many times in my life have I come home after an event feeling joyful and energized only to crash hard at home, with the joy fizzling out into anxiety and loneliness? Often enough that when it happens I understand that I’m having some sort of emotional hangover: after such soaring highs come crushing lows. I understand it but as far as I know, I’ve never really tried to do anything about it. I usually just ride it out, knowing that eventually I’ll feel better.

This year, after cooking Thanksgiving (celebrated back in October in Canada) for 23 people and spending an entire weekend preparing and socializing, I came home on Monday to a serious low. Everything felt flat and scary and I felt more lonely than I have since meeting MTW. I knew that what I needed was rest after so much activity, but I couldn’t relax. I knew I needed time alone to recharge but all I wanted to do was call all my friends, get out of the house, talk to someone until I felt better. After walking circles around my apartment, complaining to MTW over text, and playing endless games of Candy Crush, I finally sat down and googled “emotional hangover”.

I was impressed that I found something speaking to exactly what I was experiencing. In his article, Scott Dinsmore describes the symptoms like this:

” Feel empty and alone ; Are craving attention ; Feel anxious, hurried and stressed ; Lose your motivation to be healthy (mentally and physically) ; Experience a feeling of excitement quickly replaced by feeling lost. “

The advice that followed was carefully thought out and ended up being quite helpful. Here’s what I ended up doing after reading the article:

  • I journaled about the weekend. I wrote down all the reasons that it was hard and fun, I wrote down what I learned and what I wanted to do differently next year. In the article, Dinsmore talks about focusing on gratitude so I thought about how thankful I was to have so many people to celebrate with, that I was able to prepare such fresh, local food, and that MTW was there with me the whole time, helping in any way he could. Already I started to feel the tension and fear soften and I realized that this was the first time during Thanksgiving weekend that I had stopped to give thanks.
  • Next on the list is “moving and breathing”. It was a beautiful day so I got on my bike and headed to the mall to buy a fancy tea mug that I had been thinking about all month. The exercise, riding my bike through piles of leaves, the sunshine, and treating myself to something I really wanted all served to calm me right down. When I got home I felt both relaxed and energized. I spent some time practicing my belly dance choreography and felt the last lingering anxiety float away.
  • Dinsmore also recommends “eating foods that serve you”, so I made myself a tryptophan sandwich (the mood-lifting hormone found in turkey), and a great big salad for dinner.

Later my Dad called to tell me about how much he’d enjoyed the meal, and to explain why he had left early. He said that he was feeling so good, but knew he would need time to come down emotionally and prepare for work the next day. He needed to prepare for his emotional hangover. It was great to talk to someone who understood exactly what I had experienced, and to share some of what I had discovered.

In the end it turned out to be the relaxing, comforting day that I needed. In fact, I ended up feeling so good that I had a hard time getting to sleep because I was feeling so excited about the week ahead.

In the month since then I have had other opportunities to practice these techniques, with varied success. I find, as is usual where emotions are concerned, that it’s too easy to be complacent and tell myself that this is how I feel and I can’t do anything about it. Still, I know that if I make an effort to practice gratitude, to think deeply about the things that make me happy, and act in ways that nourish and strengthen, I feel better.

In the Arena

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”  Theordore Roosevelt

Who errs. Who comes short again and again. And again, and again, and again. Every time MTW has to remind me that I’m not doing the things he’s told me he needs I feel crushed by shame. I can’t believe I haven’t learned yet how to fulfill these seemingly simple requests. And I feel like the worst girlfriend. I want to love him the way he deserves but sometimes it feels like I just….can’t. Every time, though, he reminds me that I’m new to this long-term relationship game. And that there are things he’s still working on too. He jokes that I can’t expect to be perfect at everything the first time I try it. If this was anything else, I would have given up by now. I would have said this isn’t meant to be and moved on to something else. But I know this is worth it. And so I’m trying to learn to get up, again, and again, and again, and again. To wipe the dust from my brow and keep trying, keep looking for new strategies and ideas. I renew my commitment to celebrate small successes and to remember everything I’m doing right. And to imagine myself years down the road, looking back and applauding myself for staying strong, and staying in the arena.

Change Your Reality

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” R. Buckminster Fuller

Usually when confronted with a problem, I don’t let it out of my sight. I stare it down, waiting for it to transform into a solution. I sit and stew in it until the world starts losing colour and I feel sad and bleak.

Occasionally, however, I choose to be a coward and I refuse to think about the problem. I go about my day, I think about other things, I even allow myself to smile, laugh, and witness beauty. And surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly given how many times I’ve had to learn this lesson), the problem diminishes. Solutions become apparent, and I feel capable of implementing them. Buckminster Fuller’s quote floated to my mind today as I relaxed into a yoga stretch. I was feeling good today after a lovely date last night, some inspirational blog reading, and a good lunchtime yoga session, whereas this weekend I had been struggling with unpleasant emotions and unpleasant relationship schisms. I knew there were things I needed to work on, but I felt overwhelmed and talking about what I was doing wrong had left me feeling diminished and defeated. I just didn’t know what to do next.

There are so many ways of describing this strategy. Look where you want to go. What you resist persists. Let go of struggle. I could find dozens of quotes expressing this idea. But for me it comes down to something very simple:

I need to feel good before I can fix things.

I was feeling bad and wanted to feel better, but didn’t seem to realize that focusing on feeling bad, and on the bad behaviour that my feelings led to, was only making me feel worse. A better strategy would be to do the things that I know help me to feel better, to practice radical self-care and self-love until I found myself in a better place to look at what went wrong, apologize, make amends, and work on doing better next time. I tend to punish myself for my bad moods, and end up punishing the people around me too. I don’t want to do that any more.

“But it is not only by touching our pain that we can heal. In fact, if we are not ready to do that, touching it may only make it worse. We have to strengthen ourselves first, and the easiest way to do this is by touching joy and peace. There are many wonderful things, but because we have focused our attention on what is wrong, we have not been able to touch what is not wrong.” Thich Nhat Hanh

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

“Trust that still small voice that says, “This might work and I’ll try it.” 
Diane Mariechild

Over six months into my mission to live my dream life, I feel like I haven’t gotten anywhere. I’m not making more money – I’m actually making less – and I don’t have any clear ideas about what to do next.

I’ve been working with both a psychologist and a career coach to try to figure things out, and I emailed them both recently to ask them about blocks I’m having. Both responded with, “That’s a good question. I don’t have time to answer right now but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” I haven’t heard from either since.

I was looking through my junk mail folder today for a lost email and came across one sent by the organizers of the Art Walk a few weeks ago. It was informing me that I was one of the artists selected to be featured on Breakfast Television’s piece on the art walk – if I responded to the email before July 8th.

I’ve been trying to make connections and talk to people about what I’m doing, but every attempt has fallen flat, with people not returning messages.

I feel so stuck. So what am I going to do about it?

Here’s what I have been doing: constantly thinking about my “business” and trying to figure out what I should do next; writing endless to-do lists; pushing myself to do more; reading enormous amounts of business advice; trying to figure out who my ‘ideal customer is and what services I can offer them…

All this is important work. But I’m not getting anywhere. And I’ve learned in the past that when it seems like the universe is putting up roadblocks, it means I need to try something different. Not quit and start from scratch, but change my approach. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to get results, for things to happen, for what I’m doing to take off.

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises, by itself? 
                  Tao Te Ching

“When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
                  Tao Te Ching

“There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day, you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”
                  Mary Oliver

These three quotes are from my journal of six months ago. What they’ve helped me remember is that yes, it’s good to push forward, but it’s also important to leave time for stillness. To do the things that make me really happy, and to focus on what’s going right. Finding myself in the same head space as six months ago makes me think that I haven’t progressed, haven’t budged from that spot. But I think the truth is that I have moved and I have made progress. I’m just not quite sure in what direction I’ve gone, and I’ve forgotten the practices that got me moving in the first place.

This seems to be an ideal time to return to those practices. To keep digging but to take the pressure off. To get quiet and listen for ideas instead of trying to force them out of my head. To relax and enjoy my life instead of wishing it was something different. Because my best ideas and successes have always come when I’m doing things I enjoy, when I’m living my best life, and when I’m taking good care of myself.

In the hustle of everyday life it’s easy to forget or ignore that “still small voice” and assume that you don’t know what to do next. But the voice is always there, we just need to trust ourselves and give ourselves the space to listen to it. It might be saying, “Try this new project”, or “Learn this new technique” or it might just be saying “Take a breath. It’s okay”.


Something I’m learning:

If you want to feel good, if you want to be happy, if you want to love yourself and the life you’ve created, if you want to feel confident, if you want to feel brave, if you want to feel joy…

You must work on these things.


Relentlessly. Every minute, every hour, every day.

If you want to settle for feeling okay, and living a sort of good life, then let your self-improvement efforts slide, don’t worry too much about self-care. Work till you drop, use up all your energy, leave no room for contemplation or reflection. Allow the negative thoughts to run like a freight train through your mind, chugging and chugging until your world fills with black smoke and you can’t see the people you love and can barely take a breath.

If, however, you want to feel peace, you have to LIVE peace. You have to spend time every day, many times a day, feeling peaceful. You must read peaceful stories, think peaceful thoughts, hear peaceful songs.

If you want to feel love you have to LIVE love. You have to hold the beauty of the people you care about right in front of your eyes in every moment because it’s so easy to forget how good they make you feel.

If you want to feel confident you have to LIVE confidence. You have to stand confidently, speak confidently, remind yourself constantly of all the confident things you have ever done and then go do more confident things.

You cannot wait for these things to come to you, hoping that someone will drop a little joy in the mailbox today. You must create these things in your life, at every turn. It’s entirely up to you.

At the same time, if there’s something you don’t want to feel, you can’t scrunch it up like a ball of tinfoil and throw it in the trash. It will fly back like a grimy newspaper, stuck to your face in the wind and choking you. If there’s something you don’t want to feel, you have to call upon your reserves, call up your knowledge, remember all the times you’ve felt better than this, and sit there with those feelings, remind yourself of the good, over and over and over and over again until light seeps into dark and you can feel something start to crack and give way. Then you must continue soaking your consciousness with light and love and all good things until whatever it was that was bothering you crumbles like dried up paint and falls to the ground.

This past week I have felt by turns terrified, lonely, depressed, anxious, stuck, frustrated, and insecure. And I turned each of those challenges into feeling safe, loved, excited, peaceful, creative, joyful, and confident. In the past I used to think that once I overcame a problem that it was gone for good. And it’s true that we can diminish our problems, our negative emotions, and move in a general positive direction. But there will always be things that drag us down, and there will always be sudden sneak-attacks from our subconscious of things we’d long since dealt with. I’ve learned that the process of feeling good is the most important process and the most satisfying process. Without these positive emotions nothing else in my life matters as much. If I don’t deal with my terror and loneliness I will not be able to love effectively. If I don’t deal with my depression and anxiety I will not be able to appreciate beauty and experience wonder or appreciation. If I don’t deal with my frustration and insecurity, I will not be able to create a business or live an inspired life – and I certainly won’t be able to inspire others to do the same.

Right now I am making a commitment to myself to make feeling good the number one priority. Even if it takes an entire day, or an entire week, even if I have to go through my entire list of things that make me feel good (I recommend that you make this kind of list), I commit to doing whatever it takes. I will not be selfish, thinking someone else has to solve these problems for me and I will not allow myself to believe that these emotions “happen to me” and that I have no control. I’m better than that, and I’m stronger than that. I will relentlessly pursue the best possible life for myself, and thereby insure that I will have the best possible impact on the world.

Will you join me in being relentless?

The Simplest Thing

Yesterday I made an amazing breakthrough.

I have been working on anxiety for years. I’ve been addicted to self-help books. I’ve been seeing a therapist. I’ve been reading about Eastern philosophy, practicing yoga, eating more greens.

But yesterday it was the simplest thing that brought me from the brink of darkness back to the light:


Almost by accident I stumbled on a technique that seemed to help me calm down better than anything else. Deep breathing is probably the number one technique prescribed for anxiety reduction. And I have a lot of practice with it: I learned breathing techniques in acting classes in university, I taught myself how to breathe properly while swimming, I use deep breathing to help me through challenging yoga poses. But I had never been able to breathe myself calm during anxiety, particularly when there were other people around. I would do the breathing, taking deep breaths into my diaphragm like I’d been taught, but they never brought the calm that I had been promised. I discovered a few months ago, however, that I’d been going about it wrong. That when I breathed deep into my chest, rather than my abdomen, I felt better. I could almost feel the air passing through my heart, cooling it and comforting it. Soon after my mom sent me links to a Ted Talk that explains scientifically what I had figured out accidentally: that slow, rhythmic, consistent breathing through the heart is the best way to calm down the nervous system.

I’ve tried meditating for years and always found it left me more frustrated and anxious than before. I always felt a sense of pressure, like I was expected to achieve something while meditating. At the same time, I’ve been feeling like I needed to establish a daily practice of some kind to work on calming and clearing my mind. A couple weeks ago I decided to set aside some time – five minutes twice a day – to breathe into my chest. It’s like meditating in that I sit still and focus my mind, but when I call it something else it seems to take the pressure off and I can relax into it a bit more. I’ve decided to call it “tuning in” because it helps me gain clarity. In the morning and after work I sit in front of a little table in the corner of my apartment and light a candle. MTW gave me Buddhist tingshas which I ring once while thinking, “With this sound I let go of fear.” I put my left hand on my knee and my right hand on my heart and breathe slowly into my chest, counting to four on the in-breath and the out-breath. I usually set a timer for 5 minutes and once it rings, I blow out the candle with this thought: “With this breath I welcome love.”

A couple of times I’ve done longer sessions where I’ll light a stick of incense and stay put until it’s done burning – about 40 minutes or so. I use this when I’m feeling really worked up about a problem. Instead of thinking about it, turning it over and over and getting more and more stuck, I focus on breathing and usually, if I let them, solutions come.

This weekend I was at a 4-day music festival with MTW and it was hard. I got very little sleep and my emotions were all over the place. Unintentionally I grew cold and distant towards him, and, not suprisingly, this upset him greatly. As we talked about it, I started spiraling downward into guilt and negative self-talk. I felt selfish and awful. I was quiet on the car ride home, trying to clear my thoughts and figure out a way forward, but still feeling trapped and powerless. I was imagining how I would spend my evening, a shower followed by Sex and the City until I fell asleep, when a small voice told me that I needed to breathe through this, that I would find the answers there.

When MTW dropped me off and said goodnight things were feeling very dark. I was full of self-loathing and I couldn’t see a way out. A few things happened differently than usual, however. I remembered the small voice telling me to breathe. As I turned hot water on my dusty, sweaty body, I heard that voice again telling me that I was loved. That I was deserving of love. And though I felt heavy and tired and confused, I believed it. A while back a friend and I had come up with a code to let each other know when we were feeling down but didn’t want to talk about it. I used it for the first time, texting her simply ‘hug’. I think this small action cemented the belief that I was loved, and set me on the path to healing. After eating a simple meal and watching one episode of Sex and the City to take the pressure off for a few minutes, I circled around my breathing space, unsure about whether I could actually do it or not. I decided to turn on some music, a soothing album of Bach cello sonatas, and lit some incense. The plan was to sit and breathe until the incense burned down. Then, if I still didn’t feel good, I could watch more tv, or go to bed if I felt like it.

I breathed, I let the music soak in. I thought about the weekend, remembering how I felt, and feeling those emotions deeply. I was gentle with myself. I allowed things to come up, and allowed them to go. When I thought about MTW, such love poured through me that I felt the fog lift. Suddenly everything became so clear: I love him, and he loves me. That’s all we need to do. Neither of us were on our best behavior this weekend. I was self-absorbed and stuck in my head. He was feeling hurt and overburdened and pulled away as well. And that was it. All the other stuff I’d been obsessing over, all the faults and “problems” that I’d been overwhelmed with an hour ago were gone. The incense had only burned halfway and I was ready to call MTW. I wanted to look him in the eyes and tell him everything was going to be okay. And I did.

I’d been looking for something simple I could do everyday that might make a difference. And this was proof that the tiny step of setting aside time every day to breathe was working. I’ve never overcome that depth of despair that quickly. If I had been able to do that at the festival things would have turned out differently and I wouldn’t have sunk so deep in the first place. But when I’ve tried to practice this technique in public places it never works: instead of feeling soothed by my breath, I feel like I can’t get enough air in. And that’s okay. I’m confident that if I work on this consistently every day, I’ll be able to work up to doing it when I’m with MTW, when I’m with other people, when I’m in public, until I can do it anywhere. When I get to that point I won’t have to worry about spiraling because I’ll be able to stop it every time.

As soon as the fog cleared that day and I felt love again, I realized how strong I actually am. How capable I am. I felt like a superstar, to be quite honest. It was one of those moments that I remember and cherish, when I find myself thinking, “If I can do this…. what can’t I do?”

Celebrating the Good

This morning, as I was reading another self-help book (I’m a little bit addicted) and the author was describing people who were caught in negative patterns, I thought about how far I’ve come in the years since I decided that I needed to learn how to calm down. I felt miles ahead of the people he was talking about.

I’ve decided that my first step in learning to live like water will be to acknowledge all my hard work and the progress I’ve already made. Many people might look at the way I live my life and wonder what exactly I need to change. On my good days, I think the same thing. On my bad days I feel like I’m stuck in the same ruts that I’ve always fallen into. I’ve found that celebrating successes and focusing on what IS working are huge boosters towards overcoming whatever isn’t working. So I’ve made a commitment this week to actively think about how good I’m feeling, rather than think about what I wish was better.

Here are some of the ways I’ve changed in the last 15 years or so:

Then (from high school up until I left for a 10 month trip two years ago) Now
Afraid of social gatherings Comfortable around strangers, able to start and maintain conversations
Unable to maintain a romantic relationship 8 months into a relationship with someone who may very well be my soul mate
Felt like there was never enough time Trust that everything that needs to be done will be done, when it needs to be done
Road rage Much more patient (usually)
Didn’t trust myself or my intuition Make daily decisions based on intuition and truly believe that I have the wisdom I need to live my life the best way possible
Didn’t think I was capable of accomplishing my dreams Traveled for 10 months alone making various dreams come true and realizing that there isn’t much I can’t do
Didn’t like myself – near constant negative self-talk Still have negative self-talk during the really hard moments, but the rest of the time my mind is on my side
Felt like the world was a scary place Feel like the world is a beautiful place
Felt like I didn’t have a good social structure, felt lonely frequently Almost never feel lonely. Am grateful every day for the amazingly supportive and uplifting friendships I’ve developed
Mornings were intense, hectic, stressful Am able to get up on time and usually have no trouble leaving the house on time. When I am in a hurry, I move quickly and efficiently without freaking out.
Room was constantly messy. Still often make messes, but now have my space organized so that everything has a place and cleaning up takes very little time and energy.
Didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do with my life. Have a loose five-year plan and am consistently working towards doing what I love for a living. Don’t have all the answers and am usually okay with that.
No concept of self-care Have a huge artillery of self-care tactics to help me through hard times. Am very conscious of getting enough sleep, eating the right things, getting exercise. Still working on consistency.
Perfectionist Have lowered my standards for myself enormously. Realized a while ago that most people don’t care as much as me and am now able to balance high performance with ease and self-care.

By no means am I 100% with everything on the list. I still have bad days and feel like I’m slipping in a lot of areas. But as I look at this list I feel a lot more confident about my mission to live like water. I’m already mostly there. And putting myself in the mind frame of success makes it possible for more success.