Life Ain’t for Wimps

Not for Wimps

When I first got the news that Hurricane Nate was going to pummel our southern shores this weekend, my head reeled.  I felt like one of those inflatable punching dolls that pop back up as soon as you knock them down only to get another blow to the head.

“Holy Mackerel!”  I said, right out loud.  “What next?”

What was next, it turned out, was a vivid memory of Uncle Ron’s stern, booming voice informing me in no uncertain terms that he had studied the Bible extensively and could assure me there was no such thing as a holy mackerel.  I felt roundly chastised at the time and took great care never to mention the fish in my uncle’s presence again.  It took me years to realize he was teasing me.

I always smile when I think of Uncle Ron.  His deep voice may have been intimidating, but he always had a twinkle in his eye.

Maybe that’s why the phrase “Holy Mackerel” came to mind when I pondered the stream of mind-boggling events that’s been confronting us lately.  It was to remind me of Uncle Ron and how he taught me that fear could be a foolish response to life’s confusions.  You see, my Uncle Ron was a learned man, possessed of great intellect, humor and wisdom.  If I hadn’t interpreted his voice as threatening, I might have had some interesting and enlightening conversations with him.

And so it is with life.  News of fires and earthquakes, hurricanes, terror acts, and floods can be frightening.

Or not.

Life ain’t for wimps.  It comes with its bruises and blows.  But it’s we who decide whether to respond out of love or out of fear to what’s happening in the world around us.  Choose fear and you could be cheating yourself out of a great conversation with life.  Choose love and you open the door to unlimited possibilities.

Author Anais Nin wrote, “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.”  And courage is nothing more than keeping on even in the face of fear.  We come equipped to survive, so we respond to threats by going into full-alert mode.  And that’s a good thing.  If a tiger’s coming at you, you want to notice it and get the heck out of its way.  But once you’ve done that, or have determined it wasn’t a tiger at all, you gotta switch back into love-mode even if you’re still charged up with adrenalin and suffering from knocking knees.   There’s always something beautiful out there that you can do.  Pick a flower.  Smile at a stranger.  Pet a dog.  If you just cower in a corner because somewhere in the world tigers roam, your world gets awfully small, and you with it.

But get back out there and love, baby, and pretty soon all that energy that was fear converts into amazement and gratitude and a willingness to engage in life, whatever it brings.  Look at it and whistle, “Holy Mackerel!” at its string of surprises.  Then get yourself some mustard and have that fish for lunch.


Slaying the Dragons of Chaos

Dragons of Chaos

I’ve been listening lately to lectures by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson,  a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, whose complex thoughts attract me with their depth and insight.  When you listen to him, you need to stop doing anything else and truly listen.  He speaks quickly and packs each sentence with layers of meaning.  But listening thoughtfully is worth the effort it requires of you.

One of the ideas he conveyed in the lectures I heard this week is that dragons, in mythology, represented (among other things) chaos.  And that slaying them makes you a hero.

Our own lives are a constant battle between chaos and order, and to be a hero in your own life means you slay the dragons that are bringing chaos to it so that you can have less confusion and greater clarity and competence in your life.

The first step in battling your dragons is the toughest.  You have to face the fact that they’re there.  You know that they are, and that they’re keeping you from being all that you can be.

Dr. Peterson says that the secret of overcoming your dragons is to take responsibility for them.   Taking responsibility builds you character and gives your life meaning.  It allows you to aim for a living on a higher level than you are now.

Here’s how he says to do it.  You know there are things in your life that aren’t in order, where you’re not together, and they’re causing you some discomfort or suffering.   Every morning, or every night, ask yourself what those things are.

Ask as if you’re asking someone you really want the answer from, not telling yourself or preaching, but sincerely asking what need to be put in order.  You can easily name five of them he says, “Bang. Bang. Bang.”  These are the little dragons of chaos.  “And they’re just little, but that’s good, because you’re not much of a hero warrior, so maybe little dragons are all you can put up with right now.”  So you name them and the begin sorting them out.

You ask yourself which one you’ll put some work into, even if the work is tedious or boring, or whatever it is that’s been allowing you to put it off.  And you do the work.  You sort those things out.

And what happens is it will bring more order into your life and when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be just a little more focused and together.  Then you ask the same question, and the next problems will be a little more complex and challenging, and you sort those out.  And you keep going with this, and you become stronger and more clear-headed for the next set of dragons you take on.

If you continue to do that, you’ll find that your room gets cleaned, your health improves, and your house gets put in order, and then maybe you can stick a finger out and begin looking at the dragons in your community.  By that time, you’ll have some real personal power and self-confidence, and some practice at identifying dragons and taking them on.

Now that, he says, is an interesting and exciting game.  “If you started doing the things that you know you should do and you did that diligently, what the hell would you be like in ten years?”  You might not reach the very pinnacle, but you’ll be a lot better off than you are now, a lot less self-pitying and resentful, with a lot less suffering in your life, a lot less cruel to yourself and other people.  “And that’s a pretty good start.”

So here’s to slaying dragons.  Which ones will you start with today?

Wishing you a sharp sword and hearty determination!


4 Easy Tips for Building Will Power

Fancy ChocolateWhen you hear the phrase “will power” do you feel yourself sort of cringing inside?  Does your Inner Saboteur leap up to remind you that you have none? That it’s no use trying?

Well, good news!  Your Inner Saboteur is absolutely wrong.  According to willpower expert Kelly McGonigal, inside your very own brain there’s a whole complex system designed especially to keep you on the right track.  And you can actually build that system’s strength with only a tiny bit of effort.

Your Magical Pause and Plan Response

You’ve heard of the “fight or flight” response, right?  When your brain spots a threat in your environment, it automatically sends messages to your body to prepare it for action.

Well, it turns out that you have another automatic brain response that’s triggered when you’re about to do something that’s against your best interests, such as yelling at your boss, or putting a charge on your credit card when you’ve sworn off.  University of Kentucky professor Suzanne Sergerstrom calls it the “pause- and-plan response” response.

It gets activated when the threat to your well being isn’t something outside of you, but a conflict going on inside you between the short term satisfaction of an impulse and your long range good.

Instead of sending a rush of chemicals to your body, the pause and plan response directs resources to the decision-making part of your brain.  It works to calm you, giving you an opportunity to make a better choice and exercise self-control.

The pause and plan response isn’t, however, a super power.  All by itself, it won’t stop you from giving in to your impulses.  But it will give you a real edge—some space for making a deliberate choice.   And you can do a lot of things to ensure that when it points to right door, you have the willpower to walk through it.

Willpower Boosters

1. Tweak Your Health Habits

Everything you can do to enhance your overall health helps build your store of willpower.   Health is a state of dynamic ease, where you’re moving through life with an abundance of energy and a minimum of stress.  So consider giving some attention to the basics:  sufficient sleep, more wholesome nutrition, less junk food, adequate hydration and exercise.  All of these contribute to your ability to be more resilient and to experience less stress.  Use a little of your willpower to begin tweaking those areas that you may have been neglecting.

2. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

“Practicing mindfulness meditation for a few minutes each day can actually boost willpower by building up gray matter in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and govern decision making,” says Deborah Kotz in her article on willpower for US News.

Just sit quietly with your eyes closed and let your attention rest on your breathing.  You can focus on the way air enters and leaves your nostrils, or how your chest rises and falls, how your belly moves in and out, or to your whole body breathing.  When you notice that your attention has drifted to your thoughts, gently let them go and return your attention to your breathing.

McGonigal suggests that you begin practicing for 5 minutes one to three times a day, then building up to 15-30 minutes at a time once or twice a day.   If you do, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the pause and plan response with a clear, calm mind.

3. Know What You Want –  and Don’t Want

Knowing what you want to achieve and why you want it is a primary key to developing your willpower.  When you remember what’s important to you, and when the picture of what you want is clear in your mind, you’re more motivated to consider making the changes that will turn your dream into your reality.

Knowing what you want and value lets you become aware, too, of what you don’t want in your life any more.  And research shows, says Kotz, that when you think about the long-term consequences of doing the things you don’t want, you’re much more likely to resist the immediate temptation of a negative habit—like grabbing a gooey candy bar, lighting up that next cigarette, or putting that impulse item on your charge card.

Invest some time in creating vivid pictures of two possible futures for yourself—one where you move toward your ideal outcome, and one where you stay mired in your current habit.   Then flash the pictures alternately in your mind when the pause and plan response offers you a choice.

4. Share the Love

One of the most pleasurable ways to strengthen your ability to make right choices is to spread some love around.   Spending time with friends and loved ones increases our stores of happiness and well-being.  And doing an act of kindness for someone is one of the most powerful happiness-builders around.

When we’re happy, we’re not only less stressed, but our perspective broadens and we’re better able to see more possibilities for ourselves.   We’re better able to envision the positive consequences of choosing the better path for ourselves, and to take advantage of the pause and plan response it’s triggered in our brains.

A Yahoo health article  tells about a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that demonstrated additional strength and physical endurance in subjects who either donated a dollar to charity or imagined themselves doing good deeds.

How about that!  Even thinking about doing something nice for someone else makes you stronger.

Want to get started on building your willpower right now?   Let a friend know about the pause and plan response.  It’s easy.  Just click one of the buttons below.


6 Positive Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism

blue ribbon medalAll of us have some drops of perfectionism running through our veins.  We love to be winners, to take the prize, to hear the applause, to come in at the top of the list.  That aspiration to reach higher and to be the best we can be pushes us forward and urges us to grow.

But when the desire to excel turns into the need to be perfect, it robs us of our power.  In fact, it can stop us dead in our tracks, suck the joy from life, and keep us from growing at all.

The Pain of Perfectionism

How ironic—and sad!–that the very longing that stems from wanting to be the best can actually send our sense of self-worth into the pits and keep us from producing anything at all!  But that’s what happens when we fall prey to perfectionism.

When you’re caught in its grips, perfectionism leads you to:

  • Overemphasize your setbacks and shortcomings
  • Focus on and criticize flaws, mistakes and shortcomings in yourself and others
  • Believe that you’re inadequate, that you don’t measure up
  • Be immobilized by fear of both failure and success
  • Suffer from heightened stress, ill health and depression


Changing Mindsets: Being Good vs Getting Better

Heidi Halvorson, Ph.D., author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and a thought-leader in the field of motivational mindsets, has begun promoting awareness of the difference between a two mindsets that she calls “being good” and “getting better.”

Perfectionists tend to look at the world through the “being good” lens.  Their emphasis is on validating themselves—on proving how smart they are, how talented, how skilled, how good-looking, how successful.

When they take a class, people with a “be good” mindset want to get an A to prove how smart they are.  When they produce a great report at work, it’s to prove how talented they are.  When they work on their diets, it’s to look more attractive.

People who look at the world through the “getting better” mindset, on the other hand, see their goals as a way to develop their abilities and master new skills.  To them, the A in school means they learned a lot.  Writing the report at work gave them a chance to develop their talent.  Eating better improved their health.

It’s all a matter of where you put your attention, Halvorson says.  Are you looking for information about how you compare to others or to some external standard?  Or are you looking for information that you can use to improve yourself, seeing others as a source of learning and expertise?

What’s interesting about these two mindsets is the result they generate when times get tough.  People with “be good” mindsets get anxious and withdraw in the face of setbacks or failure.  People with “get better” mindsets roll up their sleeves and get to work.

The “get better” mindset allows people to be more cooperative with others, to be more responsive, sensitive and supportive, too. It allows people to see everyone as having value.   So they build more connections in the world, and keep gathering information that contributes to their own development and success.  All their experiences become fodder for their growth.

The good news is that you can teach yourself to switch lenses, to adopt the “getting better” mindset more frequently in your life.

Shelving the Perfectionist Lens

Your “be good” lenses can serve you well sometimes.  In some situations, a strong competitive spirit is exactly what you need.  But for the most part, you’ll enjoy life more, be open to a broader range of experiences, form more and better relationships, reach higher levels of success, be more motivated, and have more resilience when you look at the world through a “getting better” lens.

Here’s how:

1.    Strive for balance.  Nobody’s telling you to stop wanting things to be better.  Valid criticism has its place.  The key is to recognize that few errors are fatal.  While excellence is a worthy goal, in a whole lot of cases, good enough is good enough.  It really is okay to let the small stuff slide. Remember the Pareto Principle: “Of the things you do during your day, only 20 percent really matter. Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results. Identify and focus on those things.”

2.    Become aware of your criticisms and complaints.    Becoming aware of an automatic behavior is always the first step to changing it.  Set an intention to notice when you’ve put on your critic’s hat.  Set up little triggers to help you remember it.  A couple years ago a whole “anti-complaint” movement swept the country where people wore a brightly colored wrist band to remind them not to complain.  Whenever they caught themselves complaining, the participants moved the band to the opposite wrist.  It was a great trigger.  You could try that.  Or just put sticky notes where you’ll see them.

3.    Try asking yourself positive affirmative questions: “Why am I noticing so many good things now?”  “Why am I seeing so many strong points now?”  “Why am I appreciating myself so much now?

4.     Work on boosting your positivity ratio.   When you notice that you’re focusing on mistakes, faults, or shortcomings, stop.  Just stop, midstream.  That’s a first step—and it may take some practice to master.  Your critical focus is a habit and breaking it means stepping outside your comfort zone.   But you’ll be trading that small discomfort for the big rewards of a broader, happier, more productive world.  Then, as soon as you halt your critical statement or thought, look for three good things, three strengths, three qualities you can appreciate or enjoy.

5.    Exercise your self-compassion.   Remind yourself that it’s human to make mistakes. How you do is not who you are.   You, like all the rest of us, are learning as you go.  And that’s not only okay, it’s healthy and wonderful and leads to a richer, greater life.

If you need to be perfect at something, become a perfect experiencer.  Let yourself feel the whole range of human emotions—even the disappointment of failure, or loss, or of only winning the bronze.  There’s real joy to be found in letting go of perfectionism.  Let yourself experience appreciation for our incompleteness, to be touched by how hard we try, to be thrilled by the process of mastering and excited about becoming more each day.  Be in the journey.  It’s where the treasures are.

If you have overcome perfectionism, leave a comment and share with us how you did it or how your life has changed.



Graphic: stock.xchng


Overcoming Overwhelm: The Mountain and the Path

Busy Businessman
There’s no getting around it: overwhelm hurts!  You feel like you’re drowning in a sea of pressing tasks.  Your confidence and self-esteem are nowhere to be found.  You’re tired, and on edge, and you don’t even know where to start.

If that’s you, b-r-e-a-t-h-e!  Help is on the way!

First of all, know that you’re not alone.  Overwhelm is one of the most common complaints I hear from my coaching clients these days.   And it’s not just these high-achievers.  Some days it seems that everybody I talk with—friends, neighbors, family members, people at the gym—is griping that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for all they have to get done.

Second, maybe because the complaints about overwhelm are so universal, dozens and dozens of fixes are available.  I’ll share the best of them with you in soon.  But before we look at ways to handle the effects of feeling overwhelmed, let’s dig into its cause.

Understanding Overwhelm

At its core, overwhelm is a perception that we’ve lost control, that we’re being swept along by a rush of events and demands and they’re threatening to totally engulf us.  

That’s why it makes us feel so anxious.  We’re afraid of losing our very identities to a cascade of external events.

Ironically, the people who are most prone to it are people with generally high levels of confidence in their ability to perform.   They thrive on achievement and love to be active.  They get satisfaction from being helpful to others, to serving and supporting their employers, family members and communities.  They take pride in their abilities to get things done.  And then one day, things just get out of hand.  The list of commitments and obligations suddenly looms as large as Mt. Everest.

But regardless of how it happens or to whom, overwhelm is rarely due to the number or complexity of tasks in and of itself.   It’s the way we’re viewing them.

Looking at the Mountain

I can tell right away when somebody is in a state of overwhelm.  Not only are they agitated, but they quickly launch into reciting huge lists of everything they have to get done.

I call this  syndrome “Looking at the Mountain” because they’ve piled their list of tasks into one big towering heap so high that it threatens to eclipse the sun.  And they think they’re supposed to reach the summit by four o’clock this afternoon–or by Friday, at the latest.

Now to be honest with you, for a few people, the overwhelm is pretend.   The person with Pretend Overwhelm might be listing everything she has to do in order to motivate herself to get going, or, in a subtle way, to remind herself how extraordinary she is to dare such a daunting agenda.  Her agitation is more excitement than fear, and more often than not, she’s come to me only to get her bearings before she sets off to tackle her tasks.  If you’re in that category, take a breath, roll up your sleeves, and get to work!

But for most, the mountain looks very real—and frightening.

Seeing the Path

But remember: overwhelm is a perception.  It’s only a thought, an idea that we hold in our minds.  Like all thoughts, it triggers emotions to match itself.  Then the emotions trigger more thoughts.

“I have to climb this big mountain,” you say to yourself.  Your body feels pressure and anxiety, and your brain, interpreting and justifying your feelings, says, “Oh!  You should be scared! Just look how high it is!  You’ll never make it.  You’re going to fall, you loser,” and it triggers more emotions.

The trick is to interrupt the thought-emotion cycle.  First, you need to take a few deep, slow breaths and consciously direct your body to relax.  Then present it with different thoughts.

You may, for instance, remind yourself that you have climbed many mountains before, and some of them were much taller than this one.  If you can deeply relax and vividly recall a past success, all the better.

Then, instead of looking at the entire mountain, bring your attention to the single steps you’ll be taking to get to the top, choose the first one you’ll take,  and keep your focus on just that one that you’ll take right now.

While a lot of motivators and time-management gurus will tell you to do the hardest or biggest things first, when you’re in overwhelm, that’s often not the best advice.  Take a few small steps first; do a couple of the easy things.  That will get you in motion and help you create some momentum.  Plus it will help you regain your sense of control.

So begin by taking time to physically relax, to breathe, to release the tension from your body.  Then pick a couple easy tasks and get them done.

Fixes for Overwhelm

The best way both to prevent and to overcome overwhelm is to find a system for organizing your tasks and identifying your  priorities that fits your personal style and works for you.

There’s no one-size-fits-all system that works for everybody.  It takes a little bit of trial and error to evolve one that’s right for you.  But the key is to DO the trial part.  Choose a method and give it a fair shot.  See if you can stick with it for a couple weeks.   Keep the parts that work for you.

Christine Kane offers some good suggestions in her article 5 Practical Secrets to Peaceful Productivity.  And  Kathy Baker’s method for getting focused on your priorities is solid, too.

If you’re in overwhelm right now, consider their methods emergency first aid and apply them immediately.

If your need isn’t urgent, but one that you encounter more often than you like, start designing a task and priority management method right now.  You’ll find a list of 106 truly excellent suggestions from achievers of every stripe in a wonderful article from Stephanie LH Calahan at Calahan Solutions.  I guarantee you’ll find several that appeal to your personal style.

In the meantime, just breathe and pick one simple thing to do.  It’s not really a mountain, and all the control you could possibly need is already in your hands.
And remember, your friends deal with overload, too.  Do them a kindness, and pass this article along. Just click one of the sharing buttons below.




Photo: stock.xchng