Last week, I had a tough week. Now, let me give you some background. I live with my significant other, Dennis, who goes by Dee, my adult daughter, and my two grandchildren., who are 8 and 5 years old We are fortunate to share a house with enough room for all of us and, even now, when we’re all at home all the time, we can be pretty comfortable. But last week was tough.
On Monday, my daughter’s work schedule changed. Changed for the foreseeable future. And will keep changing for a while. We had worked out a pretty good routine so that she could work, I could work, and the kids were taken care of. “Dee” is retired, and he spends a lot of time with the kids, thank goodness. But suddenly, our system was thrown into a state of upheaval and no one knew what we were doing when or what to expect tomorrow.
On Tuesday, I spent hours finishing my taxes. Having my own business, I knew I would owe money. I did not know it would be “that” much money. But that’s ok.
On Wednesday, I got a couple of bills that were more than I expected. And we were still dealing with figuring out new schedules and systems, the kids were out of whack, and we were too. There was more stuff in the house that needed attention. Seemed like everything was demanding my time.
On Thursday, I faced the reality that the kids are not going back to school in person . Not now, probably not for a long time. No, I don’t think it’s safe for them to go back, we probably wouldn’t send them if we could. So in a way it’s a relief to know. But at the same time, the prospect of who-knows-how-long with them home all the time and the on-going support they’re going to need for school to be good seemed overwhelming. I mean, how do you even do kindergarten on line?
So all of that was just weighing on me. But the worst part of it was that even when I had time to spend on my own work, I couldn’t get in the right frame of mind to actually do anything. Yes, I could see clients – when I have a client scheduled, that time is sacred – the door to my “office” is closed and even the kids know to leave me alone. But other work? Blog posts? Making some changes on my website? No. Not even planning – I’d sit down and try to get started but my mind was going in one hundred other directions.
Some of the time, I was thinking, “How am I going to do this? I can’t work like this. Omg, I’ll never be able to build my business the way I want to. I’m going to spend the rest of my life watching kids and doing house stuff and, sigh, nothing will ever get better. I can’t do this!. I just can’t!” I felt trapped, and alone and generally miserable.
But Thursday evening, I got a message from someone I know just well enough to respect them and their work. They wanted to schedule a consult with me to talk about some work I’m doing. And y’all. Suddenly, my world opened up again. Just the fact that they’d reached out to me, and I had the prospect of an interesting, new conversation was enough to shift everything. Like a kaleidoscope. Just one little twist and it’s as if my life had a whole new perspective.
In that moment, with a big AHA, I suddenly remembered that things change. I had forgotten that. For almost a week, I truly felt like things would be the same forever – and THAT is not true. We have no idea what’s going to happen next. Suddenly, I was back to my more usual self, where I can embrace uncertainty on some level and take comfort in the idea that change will happen.
When I look back on it, I have to laugh. As miserable as I was, I didn’t do any of the things that I might tell someone else to do to feel better. I didn’t talk to anyone about how I felt, didn’t challenge my thoughts, I didn’t exercise more, my sleep patterns were messed up, I didn’t journal, basically I did nothing but wallow in my own misery. I was lucky that it didn’t take a whole lot to snatch me back out of that mess. And it was a great reminder for me of what it feels like to “be in the stew.” That’s always how I think of it, when I’m sinking in that sort of soggy, yucky feeling – like treading water, but worse, and just barely hanging in there.
When I do manage to climb back out of it, it’s like a new world. For me, it’s like having a big rock to stand on. The stew is still there, nothing’s changed, but I have a place to stand. I can look at it from here, rather than being directly in the middle of it, about to get pulled under. I have perspective and room to breathe.
Note: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, to use as the basis for my first “Ten Minute Break” FaceBook Live video. When it was time to do the video, I discovered that I had a technical issue and had to switch to my iPad and couldn’t access my notes at all. So the camera is at a terrible angle, and I had to wing it, which I’m not too bad at, but it threw me off track a bit, and then… well, I won’t go into the rest of it. It was a great exercise in non-perfectionism.
In the future, I’ll be posting the video and the blog post together, but if you want to watch this one, I’ll invite you to visit me on FB here. The story starts at about the 7:20 mark because I do a brief mindfulness practice first. Join me on Wednesdays at noon if you want to catch the new ones live.
I am of a mind to leave my anxious self sleeping in the summer heat, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of my life, while I creep down the steps, my younger spirit ready to play, unburdened by the what if’s and why not’s, running out into the wide yard of hope, running in the joy of freedom, chasing the light across the lawn. Come join me. Let your older worries doze in the shade, they will still be there when you return, and stretch your spirit out to the full length of its innocence, the new creation you were meant to be, the child of a brighter day to come.
~ Bishop Steven Charleston, Choctow
I thought about it on my early morning drive to the beach. The beach is my place to reconnect with myself, where I can “stretch out my spirit…” I didn’t go for almost 4 months, early March til late June, and I missed it dreadfully.
This is my second venture back. I’m out of the house and on my way before seven, so I’m confident there will only be a few people scattered around the beach.
Mostly, I go to the beach so I can walk, ankle deep in water, letting the bigger waves wash up over my legs. It doesn’t matter if I get wet, the sun will dry me out quickly enough.
I hear the waves crash, feel the wind, the salty air, and the gritty sand,
while my heart beats to the rhythm of the waves rolling in and rolling out…
I love it all.
I’ve talked before about why I call my business “Fausta’s Place to Ponder.” It’s my reminder that we all need that space to be able to take a step back and reconnect with ourselves. It’s hard to remember that when we’re surrounded by trauma, our own or other people’s. It feels like we have to be there to help, to manage, to take care of everyone and everything.
The truth is if you can’t take a step back and reconnect with yourself, you can’t help anyone, not in the long run. We all need our own “Place to Ponder.”
My favorite place is the beach, that’s what calls to my spirit, but yours may not be the beach at all. My friend, Monika, makes space for herself with adult coloring, especially mandalas. She makes some incredibly beautiful ones.
Adult Coloring by Ms. Monika
What does your Place to Ponder look like?
Is it an actual place or an activity? Is it a person you can be around who helps you find that sense of who you are? How do you carve out that space for yourself?
I work with people who are nearly overwhelmed with the suffering around them, people who are trying to make the world a better place, but feel like they’re drowning in other people’s pain. I help them reconnect with themselves and find ways to get the support they need to keep doing the work they love. If that sounds like you, email me: Fausta@faustasplacetoponder.com and let’s see how I can help.
What do you think – what comes to mind – when I say “mindful self-compassion?” Maybe, like me, youpicture someone on a mountaintop in the lotus position, their arms wrapped around themselves, smiling, blissfully peaceful. Even though I know better, that’s what comes to mind.
We tend to think of self compassion as soothing, nurturing, calming oneself, and feeling better. But that’s only part of the story. Dr. Kristen Neff, originator of Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), talks about the Yin and the Yang of MSC. The yin involves being with ourselves. That part is comforting, soothing and validating. It’s the part we are most familiar with, even if we’re not very good at it.
The yang of MSC focuses on acting in the world. Protecting, providing, and motivating. It is a long way from our vision of the blissfully peaceful person on the mountaintop.
What does Self-Compassion have to do with doing dishes?
Let’s look at Sara’s story.* Sara came to coaching because she “just didn’t feel motivated” to do some of the things she thought she should do. Like the dishes. She said, “I know I need to do them, but then I just don’t. I’ll be running late to go to work in the morning, then I come home and I’m hungry so I fix dinner for my daughter and me. By the time we get through eating and I get her ready for bed, I’m exhausted. So I’ll lie on the couch and watch Netflix when I know I ought to get up and do the dishes.”
When that happened, she would get upset with herself. She’d think:
I don’t know what’s wrong with me – I guess I’m just lazy.
It’s no wonder my life is a mess, I can’t do anything like I want to.
I guess I don’t really want to succeed if I can’t even do these simple things
Sara knew those things weren’t rationally true, but it felt like her inner critic was waiting, ready to pounce to tell her how inadequate she was. It felt like she was attacking herself from the inside.
After she’d felt bad for a while, she’d try to add self-compassion. “It’s ok,” she’d reassure herself. “You’re not lazy, and your life isn’t a complete mess.” To distract herself from all the mean things she’d been saying to herself and feel better, she might watch five more episodes of her current favorite show, eat a bowl of ice cream, drink a glass of wine, or talk to her best friend.
She’d promise herself to do better. “I’ll do them first thing tomorrow,” she’d think. “I’m tired. It’s not a big deal. They can wait.” And she would feel ok again.
But the next day, the whole process would start over.
Sara would eventually do the dishes. She’d feel wonderful then, after she finished, and she’d realize, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad, I’ll do them right away from now on.” But then she’d be tired and wouldn’t feel like it… and the cycle would start over. Not motivated > > Don’t Act > > Feel Bad/ Attack Self > > Soothe Self/ Distract > > Resolve to Do It Soon > > Feel better…
Of course, when you’re caught in that cycle, nothing changes. Sara was going round and round, wondering why she wasn’t making any progress. She thought she was being self-compassionate when she soothed and distracted herself, but was she?
What was her goal? Did she want to feel betterabout the dirty dishes or get the dishes done?
Sara realized that she actually felt better when the dishes were clean. She realized:
If I like having clean dishes, it is an act of kindness and self care to do them. Doing the dishes is a way I can express self-compassion.
It took Sara a minute to absorb that idea. But then she thought:
If doing dishes is an act of self-compassion, why are my dirty dishes still in the sink?
So why isn’t Sara already doing it? If she likes having the dishes done – what keeps her from doing it? Investigating this question, with kindness and curiosity, is at the heart of the next step.
Sara realized that part of her reluctance to do the dishes was connected to old battles with her ex-husband over housework. Her firmly held beliefs that “We should share housework,” and “I shouldn’t be the only way doing dishes,” made sense at the time. And part of her was still fighting that battle. Of course, her ex-husband was gone, so she was fighting with the part of herself that actually wanted to do the dishes.
When Sara realized she could let go of that conflict, she began to look at what she needed. Applying the yang of mindful self-compassion, she asked herself:
What do I need to provide for myself in order to do the dishes?
What part of my life or aspect of myself do I need to protect?
What do I need? What do I really need?
With coaching, Sara found her answers to those question. She decided that she needed to protect some energy to put into this task. She also wanted to provide herself with tools for time management. She was able to problem-solve, and developed a realistic plan to keep herself out of the cycle she had been stuck in. She quit fighting with herself and was able to get the dishes done.
I read what I’ve written here and think, “Wait a minute. How is that different from any other way of accomplishing one’s goals? You identify the barriers to doing it, figure out how to overcome them, and then just do it, right?”
But this approach is different because it changes your relationship with yourself in the process. It’s not just about getting the dishes done. It’s learning to tame your inner critic. It’s learning to befriend yourself so that you can provide what you need for yourself.
Where do you get stuck? What aspects of your life are a struggle for you?
Everyone has their own answer to those questions. Whether you struggle to write a blog post, network at events, or do your paperwork on time, approaching the issue with the yang of self-compassion can make the difference between fighting with yourself and befriending yourself. It’s a powerful practice to build the life you want.
This post starts with a meme from Jennifer Yaeger, LPC- in case you can't see it, the meme says:
I want to acknowledge that living through this pandemic is a trauma.
As a trauma specialist, I think there are a few things that are helpful to know.
- Parts of our brain have shut down in order for us to survive.
- As a result, we are not able to fully process a lot of what is going on around us.
- Feeling somewhat numb and out of touch with our emotions is normal, especially if you have lived through trauma before.
- Some people are also more apt to feel hypervigilant or anxious, while others become more hypoactive or depressed. Neither means anything other than indicating your predisposition to dealing with extreme stress.
- In-depth processing of trauma happens years later, when we feel emotionally safe to deal with it.
- When in the midst of trauma, just getting by emotionally and functionally is okay. Lowering your expectations and being kind to yourself and others is vital.
This is true. Living through this pandemic is a trauma. But it’s not the end of the story. We know that when we’re in the middle of a trauma we don’t feel our feelings – it’s not safe to feel our feelings. We’re focused on surviving. When you’re in fight-flight or freeze mode, parts of the frontal cortex shut down, so it doesn’t get in the way of you taking action. The frontal cortex is the part of your brain that involves logic and reason and helps you make rational decisions. When you’re in a panic, and you say, “I can’t think straight,” that is literally true. Having part of the brain shut down keeps you from standing around being philosophical when you need to fight or run. If a tiger is running toward you, it’s not the best time to wonder if they’re on the endangered species list.
But this is not the kind of trauma where fighting or running is going to be helpful. Freezing, or playing dead, might sound more like what we’re doing, but the immobility of the freeze state is also not going to be helpful. Fortunately, we don’t have to stay stuck in that mode of reacting.
When we can down-regulate the nervous system, we can reduce our level of reactivity. There is nothing wrong with being in fight-flight or freeze, but there are ways to move out of that mode of responding and into more helpful states, when it’s safe to do that. Not necessarily “calm and relaxed” – that’s not going to be helpful all the time. But when we are able to manage emotional regulation, our level of arousal more closely matches the needs of the situation.
That idea branches out into many paths. But for now I want to point out that one way to move out of fight-flight or freeze mode is through your breathing. Just noticing your breathing, focusing on it, can be enough to help your brain begin to engage more fully. When you focus on your breathing , it will slow down. You don’t even have to take long deep breaths, just breathing more slowly, exhaling longer than you inhale, is enough. That sends the message to the frontal cortex that you’re not in immediate danger, that you don’t have to run or fight, that it’s ok to start thinking again. And, you know, that can be helpful.
Focusing on the breath isn’t the right answer for everyone. In fact, some people are triggered by focusing on their breath and become more uncomfortable. Fortunately, that’s not the only way to reduce your level of reactivity. One other way is to focus on your foot. Yes, you read that right, focus on your foot. Your right foot or your left foot, it doesn’t matter. Pick one This is a strategy I learned in the Mindful Self-Compassion course I took and it’s totally legit. If you bring your attention to your foot, bringing the attention back every time you notice it’s wandered, it will help you down regulate your emotional state.
One of the things I do in coaching is help you find your own ways to move from this over-aroused, hyper-vigilant state to a level that gives you more flexibility. You may be overwhelmed with anxiety, unable to sleep or concentrate, and trying to numb yourself to escape this discomfort. Working with me, you can learn how to move from this state to a more effective level, when that’s appropriate. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be calm and relaxed all the time. But it will give you more choice in how you respond to the situation.
There’s a meme going around that asks “Who do I want to be in Covid-19?” It shows 3 states – Fear, the Learning Zone, and the Growth Zone. It describes behaviors associated with each of the zones. The Fear Zone includes grabbing toilet paper you don’t need and complaining a lot. In the Learning Zone, you might start to give up what you can’t control and identify your emotions. The Growth Zone includes keeping a happy emotional state and spreading hope, thinking of the others and seeing how to help them.
It seems pretty clear to me that the Growth Zone is the desired state. Who wouldn’t want to be that happy, helpful person? Although, full disclosure, when I see this meme, I have a fierce urge to complain. But that’s probably just me. The meme doesn’t acknowledge that the pandemic is a trauma. It seems to suggest that being in the Growth Zone is a personal choice, rather than a reflection of your levels of emotional regulation. And it implies that “keeping a happy emotional state” is a realistic goal.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being happy! I prefer it myself. But all my experience, as a therapist, as a coach, and as a person, tells me that when you try to avoid the unpleasant feelings, you lose the good ones too. Following teachers like Pema Chodron and Brene Brown, I work with people to allow themselves to feel all their feelings. Feelings come and go, like waves in the ocean. If we can sit with the unpleasant feelings, we can fully appreciate the positive feelings. And we can learn to respond from a place of thoughtfulness rather than reactivity. Not all the time, but some of the time.
If that sounds like a lot to take on, that’s ok. Remember where the meme at the beginning of this article. Living through this pandemic is a trauma. “When in the midst of. a trauma, just getting by emotionally and functionally is okay. Lowering expectations and being kind to yourself and others is vital.” That’s where we start.
The challenge for many of us is that we don’t really know what it would look like to lower expectations and be kind to ourselves. I’ll be writing more about that, and I’m going to be offering a free 90 minute class on Mindful Self-Compassion every Saturday in May. Stay tuned for more information…
I almost didn’t write this post. I mean, here we are in the middle of a pandemic, when you might expect a pervasive mood of doom and gloom. Instead, I see people thinking positive, reaching out to help each other. People establishing their own self-care routines, finding creative ways to be ok. Why not just savor the moment?
Apparently, I am not the kind of person to leave well enough alone. I prefer to turn over all the interesting rocks to see what’s under them.
In this case, it turns out that SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has some expertise in Disaster Recovery. They’ve even created a template that might show us how this can be expected to go. I think the pandemic qualifies as a disaster, so this could be expected to follow the pattern. An incredibly long lasting disaster. Unprecedented, in fact. So we don’t really know how it’s going to play out. But the Phases of Disaster chart suggests a potential path.
SAMHSA’s website explores each stage a bit, but they’re talking about disasters with a fairly limited duration – a hurricane, for example. Hurricane season might last for months, but the hurricane itself is a discreet event. Hurricane Katrina, for example, led to flooding that lasted much longer, but the floods were still short compared to Covid 19.
SAMSHA describes the Heroic phase as “characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior…” Right now, it seems like we all want to help. I’ve felt this myself. A fierce urge to DO SOMETHING that will make a difference. Whether it’s making masks, delivering food, or opening your hotel to healthcare professionals, like Ty Warner, owner of the Four Seasons hotel in NYC, has done, we want to make things better.
SAMHSA describes the Honeymoon phase as “…characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion. During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly….” . I see people creating community, inviting each other to virtual tea parties, teaching each other skills and offering free classes. People are thinking positive, hoping to build a better future in the space that has been razed by the virus. This Honeymoon phase is short lived. But we may be teaching ourselves how to hold space for each other. I have some hope that our new skills and understanding will help us get through the Disillusionment phase.
In the Disillusionment phase “…optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll…” I can imagine this too easily. People will be sad and angry. Ok, despairing and furious. There will not be enough resources, and what there is won’t be fairly distributed. Racial disparities will be glaringly obvious to all but the most willfully obtuse. My imagination, fueled by fear, pictures a disturbingly dystopian future. This is why I paused – do we really need to think about this? Now?
But of course we do. There’s no need to imagine the worst, but If we don’t understand what’s happening, then we’re likely to misinterpret it. We might think that all our efforts at being helpful and building community have failed and the whole world is terrible. But if we know it’s a perfectly normal development in the process, we can keep working through it. Maybe we can prepare ourselves for the next phases.
Of course, I don’t really know. This is my first disaster. I was around for the tornado that went through Louisville, Ky in the late 70’s. But I didn’t experience personal losses or the need for recovery. I want to go find some people who have survived major disasters and ask them 100 questions.
I might do that, but this is a time for uncertainty. There is no template to tell us definitively how this will go, and no way of knowing exactly how each of us will experience it.
As a trauma expert and a coach, there are a few things I believe that I can rely on. Here are my top four.
Whatever you’re thinking or feeling right now is normal. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling about this over the next year or two is probably going to be normal too.
We’re going to have a lot of feelings we don’t like and will want them to go away. We will try to avoid the feelings in countless ways that aren’t actually helpful.
We will not want to face the damage and pain that Covid 19 is going to cause. We will minimize and deny, we’ll try to bargain it away. We will want it to already be over.
We will get through this We can get through this with less suffering if we can sit with the discomfort, if we can face this with a nonjudgmental curiosity, acknowledging all our feelings, and if we can be compassionate with ourselves and each other.