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!

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How to Be Your Own BFF

Serendipity led me this week to an interesting and beautiful YouTube video by Dr. Kirstin Neff on “Resilience and Self-Compassion.”    Neff’s done a heap of research on the topic of self-compassion and her way of sharing it inspires you to get a whole lot better at practicing it.

Essentially, self-compassion is being kind, supportive and caring toward yourself—learning to be your own Best Friend Forever.  It’s learning to treat yourself the way you would treat people you care about, especially when they are in pain.  And it’s adopting a kind of reverse golden rule:  Don’t do or say to yourself what you wouldn’t do or say to others.

We tend to be awfully self-critical, to beat ourselves up with our self-talk and self-destructive behaviors, when we feel we’ve failed at something, or acted badly in some way.  It’s almost as if we somehow believe that if we tell ourselves what louses we are, we’ll do better next time.  But in reality all we succeed in doing is making ourselves feel worse.

You know how we have this built-in self-defense system to protect us from threats?  Way back in time, it was meant to keep us from getting eaten by tigers or bears.  But in today’s world, the most prevalent threats aren’t to our physical selves, but to our self-concepts.  What happens when we beat ourselves up is that we become both the attacker and the attacked—a truly excruciating situation!  We generate floods of anxiety-producing cortisol into our systems when we do that.

So step one in learning to be your own BFF is to notice when you’re attacking yourself.  When you feel upset, pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself.  And if it’s words of anger or condemnation, stop it!  Instead, give yourself some caring understanding.

Use the phrase “Stop/Look/Do.” Stop what you’re doing.  Look at what you’re doing.  Do something kinder.

Self-compassion, like compassion for others, is a response of the heart.  It’s treating yourself with kindness, with soothing and comfort.  It’s like giving yourself an internal hug.

Another clue that you’re indulging in self-disrespect is to notice when you’re wallowing in your suffering, saying things like “This shouldn’t be happening to me,” instead of acknowledging that life isn’t perfect, that none of us are, and that bad things happen.  Recognize that suffering happens to everybody, even the kind of pain you’re feeling right now.  You’re not alone in experiencing it.  It’s part of the universal human experience.   Psychologist Tara Brach recommends saying to yourself, “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”   It will save you from feeling isolated and singled out when life deals its inevitable blows.

Instead of running away from your pain or disappointment or trying to fight it, let yourself “be” with it, feeling it without judging it, allowing it, accepting it as pain.  “This is suffering.  Everybody suffers.  May I be kind.”   Then be kind.  Open your heart to yourself and feel compassion flowing toward you, from you.

A lot of dividends come from practicing self-compassion.  It creates more resilience in us.  One study found it was the single most important factor in how well people recovered from divorce, for example.  Another study found that those who practiced it were far less likely to suffer from PTSD even when they had experienced more warfare than those who didn’t.  It helps build better romantic relationships, too, and enables us to be more forgiving and to maintain a broader perspective on trying situations.

You can learn more about it at Neff’s excellent website  and can even take a quiz to determine how self-compassionate you are.   For now, a simple way to begin being kinder to yourself is to practice Tara Brach’s simple formula:  Attend and befriend.

Wishing you a week of deeper kindness and friendship with YOU, because you deserve it.

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The Time-Stretching Power of Won’t

“It’s a great dream,” Jerry said, lifting a forkful of salad.  “But it’s just not going to work out.”

Jerry sat across from me, frustrated and discouraged.  He’d been doing everything right, he said, and was still spinning his wheels.

He had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish. He knew what steps he wanted to do next. But every time he got started on one of them, something got in is way.

“I think I’m just going to have to face the fact that it’s not going to happen right now.  Maybe another day, when I have more time.”

By the look on his face, I could see that Jerry didn’t really want to give up his dream.

“Maybe not,” I said.   “Tell me, exactly, what kind of things are getting in your way?”  I asked him.  “Where is your time going?”

I listened as Jerry told me about all the things that were interrupting and distracting him and pushing him off course.

“I see,” I said.  “I think I know what you need. Would you like me to tell you?”

“Sure!” he said, reaching for the shred of hope I was offering.  “Anything!”

“I think you need a Won’t List.”

Time’s Not the Enemy

Here’s a hard truth: It’s never time that’s lacking. The top achievers in the world have no more hours in their days than you do.  

The real problem lies in not having clarity about the choices you’re making.

Sometimes your vision of what you want to accomplish isn’t clearly defined.  Sometimes you haven’t framed the vision well.  You might be saying, for example, what you don’t want any more instead of aiming for what you do want.  You may not be clear about what steps you can take next to move closer to the outcome you want.

But none of these were Jerry’s problem.  He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and what he could to start making it happen.

What he lacked was clarity about how he would—and wouldn’t—spend his time.   Making firm decisions about what you won’t spend time on, I explained, is what a Won’t List is for.  It’s an idea that executive consultant Peter Bregman shares with his Fortune 500 clients.

A Won’t List It frees you from having to make the same decision over and over every time a potential distraction crosses your path.  And that in itself reduces your stress, giving you more energy to spend on the things that mater and reminding you of your focus at the same time.

Setting Time Boundaries

That’s why I told Jerry that he needed a Won’t List.  He needed to get clear about what he wouldn’t give his time to any more so he’d have more time for the things that count.

Our lives are made up of the minutes and hours of our days.  Either we’re deciding how to live them, or someone else is.   If you want to live a self-directed life, you need to be clear about how you want to spend those minutes and hours.

You need to identify the things that aren’t supportive of the things that matter to you and to decide not to give them you time.

When Jerry and I took a close look together at where his time was going, we identified several places where he could recapture some hours.

The Techno Time Trap

Like most of us these days, Jerry found that a lot of the time-eaters in his life were technology-based.   Email was a big distraction, and phone calls and texting.  Sometimes, when he was stuck on a report, he’d take a break by checking out what was happening on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.  Then he’d get sucked into following links to articles and get lost surfing.

Somewhat sheepishly, he admitted he was spending a couple hours a day in front of the TV, too.  And sometimes computer games trapped him.

Once he recognized the problem, he came up with strategies for dealing with them.

He could limit the time he was spending on email, for one thing.  He could unsubscribe to the lists that weren’t directly related to his goals.  He could set aside a specific, limited time at the beginning and end of the day for reading and responding to the necessary mail and phone calls and refuse to give them his attention until then.

As for the social networking, TV and games, they were the first items he put on his new Won’t List.  Yes, he enjoyed them.  But when he compared what they were adding to the quality of his life compared to the quality of life he would enjoy if he spent his time doing the things that really mattered to him, they quickly took second place.

We talked some about ways that he could remind himself where he wanted to put his attention so that he could be directing his life according to what he really valued.

He would set a timer, he decided, and take a break every hour to remember his goals.  That way, he could stay focused on the things that really mattered to him.

The People Connection

“Okay, I can get those things under control, but how do I deal with people?”

Jerry said that his day was frequently interrupted by people who needed things from him—information maybe, or help with something.   And his time was getting eaten up, too, because he was accepting invitations for social events he didn’t know how to decline, and participating in a couple clubs where he’d been a member for a long time.

As he talked, Jerry saw for himself that he could simply close his door for a few hours each day.  He could tell people he’d be available only during certain hours of the day.

I shared with him Bregman’s ingenious “three questions” standard for knowing when to agree to someone’s request for help:

  1. Am I the right person?
  2. Is this the right time?
  3. Do I have the information?

If you can’t answer yes to all three questions, redirect the person or set another time.

Knowing Your Priorities

Jerry saw, too, that saying yes to the clubs and invitations was saying no to what he really wanted to be doing.  But how could he say no to them without jeopardizing relationships he cared about?

We talked about how good relationships are built on authenticity.  Honestly telling people that you have other commitments in your life right now is something they can accept, respect and understand.

I told him I’d read an article from the Mayo Clinic that said that not only was saying no healthy  because it kept you from the stress of overwhelming yourself, but  it wasn’t selfish either, because it opened the way for other people to step up to fill your place.  Saying no, it said, was a way to honor your priorities and devote quality time to them. And that’s something people come to respect and appreciate in others.

Just be brief, honest and respectful, the article advised. And, it wisely said, be prepared to repeat your no when needed so people know that you really mean it.

Jerry and I had finished our meal by then. “Would you care for a piece of our chocolate silk pie?” the waitress as she cleared our plates from the table.

Jerry grinned and said, “No, thanks. I have another commitment.”

“That was easy!” he said.

I smiled at him. “And charmingly said,” I replied. Jerry, and his dream, were going to be fine.

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The Positivity of Saying No

“No.”  It’s one of the most powerful words we can speak.  It defines us.  It says where our boundaries are, and proclaims our standards and our values. It rescues us from the clutches of time-thieves.   It tells others what we won’t compromise, where we’ll stand strong, and what we honor.

Then why is it often so doggone hard to say!

“Do you want to go shopping?” a friend asks.  Or “Do you want to go grab a couple beers?”  And away we go—despite the fact that, just two minutes earlier, we were day-dreaming about the perfect way to spend the afternoon.  What’s up with that?

Why is Saying No so Scary?

We agree to things we don’t genuinely want for a whole host of reasons.  And some of them are good ones.  We might be acting out of kindness, for example, or from a desire to be helpful, and willingly giving up our own preferences because we decided that the other person’s need was greater than our own.

But all too often, we give in to the requests for our time or resources out of fear.

We’re afraid that we’ll hurt somebody’s feelings, or offend them.  We’re afraid that our refusal will start an argument, or that we’ll be alienated from a group.  So we “go along to get along,” even if going along isn’t what we genuinely want, or even when it involves a compromise of our values.

Sometimes we’ve been trained by authority figures—parents, teachers, spouses, employers—that saying no is impermissible, and that bad consequences will follow if we don’t comply.

We’re afraid others will think we’re rude, or selfish, or stingy.  We’ve been taught from the crib, after all, that nice people share.

Sometimes we fear ridicule or loss of status.

But whatever the fear, it’s almost always a clue that we need to boost our confidence in our own worth, or in the resilience of our relationships, or maybe both.

Why It’s Important to Say No

At its core, saying no is about maintaining your identity and your personal boundaries.  It tells other people, “This is who I am.”

When you want to say no, but don’t, you’re being dishonest about who you really are.  You’re showing people a false face—and robbing them of the opportunity to know, appreciate, and respect the real you.

We might think that saying no to someone might damage our relationship, but when your yes leaves you feeling frustrated, irritated, suffocated, or bored, or even angry, bitter or resentful, it doesn’t do your relationship any good either.

Saying no when you want to say no is a matter of personal integrity.  And when we’re being honest about who we are, what we think, what we want, and what we need, we feel in alignment with ourselves.  We’re living our truth.

Saying no is empowering.  It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that you own your choices.  It’s an expression of your freedom to direct your own course.

When you say no, you’re honor yourself.  You’re respecting your values and your time.

It’s Not Always Either/Or

That said, life is a messy place and human relationships are complicated, calling for flexibility and some give-and-take.   Unless your primary ethical values are at stake, it’s good to be able to negotiate and compromise, to look for common ground and for win-win solutions that meet everybody’s needs.  (One great way to learn to do that is to learn how to use the technique of Non-Violent Communication™.)

How to Say No

It’s possible—and with practice, even easy—to say no with comfort and tact.  My favorite list of graceful ways to say no is from Margot Silk Forrest, author of A Short Course in Kindness.   Check this out: 42 Ways to Say ‘No’ (or Buy Time Until You Can).

And Chris Brogan has a fabulous list of ways to say no that’s tailored for the work environment, and that every entrepreneur and contractor, especially, will want to keep on hand.

Awareness and Practice

The key to learning to say no is to be aware of what you’re feeling, to notice  your “I’m not comfortable” feelings.    Learn to spot the times when your fear of saying no is surfacing, and then remind yourself that you have a choice.  Then even if you still aren’t able to say no, you’ll build your awareness.

Another way to build your awareness is to review your day each evening and make a journal entry, or even a simple mental note, of the times you said no, and of the times you were aware that you wanted to, but didn’t.

In a way, learning to say no is learning a new skill, because we’re more often taught not to say it instead  of being trained to say it well.   And like any skill, mastering  it takes practice.

The rewards are definitely worth the effort: You gain a portion of your self back in situations where you were habitually, unthinkingly, fearfully giving your power away.  

And because saying no does have that scary aspect to it, it takes courage.  Keep applying that time-tested advice:  “Fear the fear and do it anyway.”

One technique that helps is to think of someone you admire who is at ease in saying no and to model him or her.  Think of a strong leader, or someone from history, or a celebrity you admire.  I imagine him smoothly saying no without a trace of apology, hesitancy, or guilt.    Mentally place him in a scene you lived out recently where you shrunk away from saying no and watch how he does it.  See his ease and naturalness as he says speaks.   Then the next time you want to say no to something, imagine that you have become your model.  Feel his ease and self-possession and let him do the speaking through you.

Another way to practice is to make a game of saying no five times a day and then noticing the responses you got.  Say it just for practice, even when you don’t mean it, and then tell the other person you were just kidding if you must.

Or pretend that you’re an actor, and your only lines are “No,” and “No, thank you,” –but you say them in a dozen different scenes.  Practice as you pace the living room floor or say them with different facial expressions in the bathroom mirror.  Try them out in different tones of voice and in varying volumes.

The point is to get used to the sound of the word coming out of your very own mouth.  it’s not at all as scary as you thought.  In fact, it makes you feel strong.  And in time, it will be as natural and easy as breathing.

Graphic: Stock.xchng
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Lovable You: A Best-Self Inventory

All Aces--Your Best SelfThere’s an unspoken taboo in our culture that keeps us from seeing our own best self.  Two-thirds of us can’t even name our top personal strengths.

Patting ourselves on the back or singing our own praises is considered crass behavior, self-centered, egotistical, braggadocio.   We have a negativity bias that says the way to become better is to focus on our weaknesses and flaws and to work on overcoming them.

But positive psychology is turning that theory on its head.  The fastest, most effective path to excellence and success, according to its findings, is to focus on what’s best in yourself, and to turn up the volume on the things you love doing, and that you do well.

Not only that, but getting a clear picture of who you are when you’re at your best is a powerful and long-lasting way boost your sense of well-being.   But, because we’re normally discouraged from looking at what’s best in us, how can we go about painting that clear picture for ourselves?

What’s Good About Me?

One way to find the areas in which you shine is to complete the free online VIA (Values-in-Action) Character Strengths survey.  Are you motivated by a love of learning?  A sense of justice and fairness? Does your love of beauty and excellence drive you?  Is kindness one of your top strengths? Creativity?  Taking the VIA Character Strengths survey will let you find out.

You can build a picture of your best future self—the one you’re hoping to become—by doing the Best Possible Self exercise described here.  It will let you see your potentials and the qualities that you aspire to develop.  And just doing it will make you feel good now and fortify your sense of well-being.

Or start by simply upping your awareness of your positive qualities, by paying attention to the lovable parts of yourself and the things that you do well and enjoy doing.   That’s what the questions below are designed to help you do.  Just reading through them will prompt your subconscious to start delivering up its hidden knowledge about your fantasticness.

Exploring Your Best Self

Relax and read through the following questions.  Invite the answers to them to flow gently into your awareness as you go.  Maybe take some notes about the images that come to mind.

If you like, you can get even more from this exercise by writing down your answers and then looking for patterns.   Some people enjoy using their insights as the basis for writing a “My Best Self” description of themselves.

In any case, enjoy:

  • What are some things you most enjoy doing—things that make you feel energized, that you can get so lost in that it feels as if time is standing still?
  • Think about the kinds of situations bring out the best in you?  Where would you be?  Who would be with you?  What might you be doing?
  • What inspires you?
  • What kinds of challenges turn you on?
  • What makes you feel strong?
  • What do you enjoy creating?
  • What kinds of puzzles or problems do you enjoy solving?
  • What would you be doing on your ideal vacation?
  • What kinds of adventures do you enjoy?
  • Where do you most often find and enjoy beauty?
  • How have you bounced back after a disappointment, failure, or setback?
  • How do you make other people feel good about themselves?  In what ways do you make people smile? Laugh? Feel comforted, encouraged, or supported?
  • For which of your personal qualities are you the most grateful?
  • When do you feel that you’re being most truly you?
  • What did each of your family members like most about you when you were little?  Do you still have those characteristics today?  Which ones do you most enjoy today?
  • What did your favorite teacher like most about you?  Are those qualities still something you express today?
  • What do you like most about your job?
  • What does your boss appreciate most about you?
  • What do your co-workers value about you?
  • How about your customers or clients?  What do they appreciate in you?
  • What makes other people seek you out?
  • Who, in your circle of friends and acquaintances, do you highly admire?   What does that person appreciate most about you?
  • Who provides you with guidance?  What does that person like about you?
  • Where do you find the most purpose in your life?
  • What do people complement you about?  What do others seem to think you do especially well?  What do you enjoy doing for others?
  • What can you do to use your Best Self more in your life? In your work?  In your relationships with others?

More Ways to Use the Best-Self Inventory

These questions are meant as a springboard, a way to help you notice the positive sides of yourself.   The things you enjoy and are good at are tools you can use to enrich your life.  By focusing on them, you can find more creative ways to build excellence and to develop those parts of your life where you’re not quite as strong.

Do a Nightly Review: Try asking yourself questions like those in the inventory as you fall asleep at night, as a kind of daily assessment of your best self.  What did you enjoy the most?  What excellence did you notice and appreciate in yourself and others?  What were the highlights of the day, and what do they tell you about you-at-your-best?

Encourage Yourself:  Print out these questions or file them somewhere that lets you access them easily.  When you have a down day or an upsetting experience, pull them out and review them to remind you about the positive parts of yourself.

Create a Best-Self Portrait: Use the images and answers from the questions to write out a description of your best self.  Or make a vision board or scrap book using personal photos, or images from the Net or from magazines that illustrate some of your best qualities.  Put a note in your calendar to update it in six months, or every New Year’s Eve, or on your birthday.  Watch how your best self changes and expands over time.

Form a Best-Self Master Mind:   Break through the taboo.  Start a little “mutual appreciation club” with a few close friends, co-workers, or your family members that’s dedicated to recognizing each other’s specific positive qualities and pointing them out.  Meet at regular intervals to talk about your own best-self discoveries and to point out what qualities you genuinely appreciate in the other club members.   This is a fabulous way to strengthen relationships.  The only rule is to focus on specific behaviors, not giving each other flattering compliments, but real feedback about things done well.

Above all, enjoy the good feelings about yourself that this inventory generated.  Let the insights and discoveries percolate into your awareness over the next several days.  Let it serve to heighten your awareness of the things you most appreciate about yourself, and that others appreciate about you.  Likewise, let it heighten your awareness of others’ positive qualities.  Mention them; see what kind of responses you get.

Your greatest room for personal growth is in the area of your unique strengths and special talents, in all the qualities that make up your best self.   Increasing your awareness of them and building on what you discover will strengthen your sense of well-being and allow you to continuously create for yourself new pathways to excellence and a thriving life.

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