Be nice

Treat yo'self! A little first step to huge self care

Last week I talked about how important it is to be nice to other people but also that that takes energy. It is not easy to give yourself to others all the time. We need to separate and recharge in order to restock our supply of altruism. I have always been "reservedly extraverted" but it was not until a point in college when I learned the true beauty of introspection and self care (to be covered in a later post).

It is not lost on me that so many people in your lives have told you to be nice to others and you likely hear some version of the instruction every day. Whether or not we follow the instruction, we at least think for a few seconds about what it means to be nice to others.

But holy cannoli, we are not nice to ourselves.

We set such high expectations for ourselves and place undue pressure on responsibilities underneath the pressures that others already assign us. That's a lot!

And I am not just talking about work. This intense self-oppression shows up in play too. How many people do you know have told you how exhausting a family reunion is? How they just want to run away and breathe an hour into the party? Yeah. You do not get paid to attend a family reunion on a much-needed Saturday afternoon with your wife and two infants, but it feels like work.  

My family doesn't do tropical vacations. It simply was never injected into our gene pool. In fact, we opt for the total opposite altitude and go on week long ski trips, shredding as much pow as we can regardless of how long it takes to find our lungs and teach them how to breathe that high above sea level. Even though we have skied all our lives and I would choose the mountains over a beach any day, a week long ski trip is exhausting. It is guaranteed that each member of my family says "Vacation is a lot of work" at some point during the week, immediately followed up with "I need a vacation to recover from our vacation."

I digress. The point is that we put our energy toward a lot of things and a lot of people and it is easy to lose sight of ourselves, our health, and our success. My solution: cut yourself some slack. You do so much. You work so hard. Remind yourself of that.

I know what it's like. You get tangled in the vines of responsibility, focus on work during the day and personal health at night, on repeat, and you do not give yourself enough credit for the effort you put into everything. Let me be the one to thank you for your service.

You are a champion. Sit down on top of the podium and take a long breath. Close your eyes even. 

I am not going to tell you to take a vacation now, don't worry. That would be most hypocritical of me. 

Instead I am telling you that you are awesome. You are really talented and you are working damn hard. Believe it or not, it is okay that you do not know something, too, or are dealing with stress. Yeah, it is. You are allowed to not know something. That is part of the human narrative. 

One of the first things I learned in my career was how to label the most simple thing about someone I am serving simply for what it is. Every client comes to me with thoughts and emotions and stories and hopes and has no idea what to do or where to start.

Before we choose a direction, I label how cool it is that they are at a point where they feel totally stuck. I have said things like:

"It's so impressive that you were able to ask for help."

"You described that with so much enthusiasm."

"I'm proud of you for acknowledging something you do not know."

...just to name a few. I help them pause for a hot second and breathe and reflect on what they have already accomplished just to be in that challenging moment. It brings them down to stable ground upon which we can set goals for their narrative work.

I know what you are thinking and I appreciate the compliment but the answer is no, I am not perfect. Nor am I exempt from extreme self-criticism and perceived directionlessness (but at least I can reflect on how confident I am to make up a word like directionlessness and publish it in a blog post. Go me!).   

I have worked on cutting myself some slack my entire life. I still do. A friend and colleague asked me yesterday "How do you maintain your own narrative? Who does what you do for you?" Um, well, numerous people but mainly myself. I practice the labeling tactic on myself ALL THE TIME. I have to. It is about checking in and reminding myself of the things I have done that led to this moment. For instance, writing this post is a reminder in itself. I have stopped several times throughout the drafting of this to think about what has led me here and why the challenges I currently face make a whole heckuva lotta sense. 

As soon as action is taken toward ambition, you immediately find out where your knowledge gaps are. But UGH, that is okay! I become aware of the gaps in my knowledge because I have never needed the knowledge before.

The challenges I face are unique to the decisions I have made. 

What challenge are you facing today? And how does that challenge indicate the progress you have recently made?

Maybe, just maybe, answering that will help you give yourself some slack. And maybe that slack will give you space for a deep breath. And then suddenly you have a nice moment of alone time, supported by the knowledge that we are never truly alone in all of life's challenges.

 

 

 

 

P.S.  Exhibit A: you kept scrolling. You are a curious person. Keep being amazing.

Mother knows best! What childhood taught me about narrative coaching

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Several summers ago I visited my alma mater, Middlebury College, to catch up with my former commons dean. When I left the commons office, which is still down the hall from the luxurious laminate floor and plush Twin XL mattress of my freshman year dorm room (GAHHHH all the memories! Make them stop!), I happened to glance across the way at the Studio Arts building. A dreary, dark colored building snuggled into the dreary weather of the day whose rooms sat chock full of charcoal, rulers, reams of paper, and left over stress hormone from the previous semester.

In the upper right corner window was an abundance of Post-It Notes stuck to the glass that formed the huge words "BE NICE". It made me stop walking. Not only because someone had taken a break from their other art to stick probably a hundred Post-It Notes onto a window - backwards, mind you - but because it was such a simple and powerful reminder. Just be nice.

In high school, a young soccer teammate had been bullied and subsequently had trouble fitting in. I told him that "being mean is easy because it is about domination. It's one-sided. Being nice is hard because you must give something of yourself, open yourself up to someone's experience" (I have since trademarked that. No one can steal it).

People aren't automatically comfortable being open. They're afraid that their kindness won't be "taken well" or "accepted". But that doesn't matter. Kindness is kindness, and it doesn't care if it is "taken well" or not, and neither should you. 

Kindness is the other side of asking for help (see the previous post). Asking for help is difficult because it requires vulnerability, which a lot of humans don't grow to very naturally enjoy. It is like asking for help is the super heavy lever that opens the drawbridge into the castle of someone else's kindness.

But you won't know how awesome and supportive the castle is until you start pulling on the lever. On the flip side, the castle needs to be open to receiving that person in order for both parties to thrive, so just be nice. It is as simple as that. 

Take my mother, for instance. She doesn't know you and you did not ask her for any kind of help, but she will talk to you and within thirty seconds flat she will know where you work, where you went to college, how your parents met, and how you happen to know her childhood friend's niece. She just does that. That is her kindness. That is how she was brought up to be. 

In my own childhood, my siblings and I would roll our eyes when we stood in line at Disney World or tried to leave a restaurant, turn around, and see mom deep in conversation with a totally different family.

One time when I was little and whiney (THE ONE SINGLE TIME, I assure you) I complained loudly to my mom to stop talking to someone so we could go home, and HER mother, who was in the car with me, snapped "Hush!" at me so quickly that a) I have never forgotten that moment and b) I realized, instead of a propensity for discipline, where my mom established her beautiful priority for selflessness.

After all, what kind of battle was I really going to pick with my grandmother, the Kindness Queen from whom my mom had received formal training all her life?

What I've come to realize is that the key to kindness is not only being open to someone else's experience. Even though my mom would respond back and forth and always had another question loaded up, the key is her ability to listen. How do you know what questions to ask if you aren't listening?

One evening in college, I picked up a billiards game with a young man who wasn't a student and asked "Do you play a lot of pool?" And that was it. Drawbridge lowered. He told me how it was what he did to relax and about how drugs had recently ruined his life, how rehab had affected him, what his current goals were without a job, and how his loved ones felt about his choices.

That was a big moment for me because I thought he was oversharing but I did not feel the urge to flee. I just stayed and listened and we played pool.

I am not surprised that moments like that led me to the work I have done. As soon as people in crisis have noticed that I was actually listening to what they were saying, they told me everything. They told me all the stories and all the pains and, because I was listening, I knew what questions to ask next.

That's how I developed my counseling approach. The more I listened and asked, the more stories they shared, and the more personal connections I could help them make. Sure, I have lots of activities and advice and anecdotes that I could share with clients, but often they do not need that at all. Instead they need me to simply listen and ask questions. Little did I know that my whole childhood was training me for narrative coaching all along. 

You see, my mother's kind of kindness lowers the drawbridge for people's stories, and watching her talk to other families in a ski lodge instead of her own is where I first learned how to do what I do now.

When I talk to a total stranger in the street or an elevator or a coffee shop now as a "mature" "grown up" and I learn a lot about them in a mere sixty seconds, or start with a new client and know what ten questions to ask next within thirty seconds, I stop and think about how that is what I whined about my mom doing way back when and I say to myself:

"Damnit. She wins."

Then I hear her kind voice in my head saying, "Watch your language, mister", and I think:

"Darn it. She wins again."