Goal setting

Peace From Peril: How To Turn "Defeat" Into An Advantage

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Last week we talked about achievement and this week we are talking about defeat, so here is a cute puppy to help.

Now that the Olympics are over, all of the athletes are probably meeting multiple times a week with their sport psychologists to talk about what they did wrong, what mindset they could have maintained instead, and how to deal with the regret of messing up that one turn on the course. In the Olympics and athletic world, "defeat" comes most explicitly in competition, which does not occur every day. In the real world for all of us common folk, even more factors impact our pursuit of success that the defeats can be much more frequent and of many magnitudes. A particularly rough day could include tons of little defeats, a few medium sized defeats, and one or two big ones, all even unrelated. And that is in the regular ole work force and corporate jungle. In entrepreneurship, it can feel like defeats are constant, as though the pressure you feel is a champion boxer sitting on your shoulders and swinging their arm down to punch you in the face every hour or two. But just like last week, defeat means different things to different people. 

As far as I can tell, I am human, which means that competition is hard wired into my DNA. I accept that, though I despise competition now. I grew up playing soccer and tennis and I downhill ski raced. I loved skiing but did not care or know how to take seriously the competitive element of the races. Maybe I was too focused on playing Game Boy at the time. Tennis I took seriously because of the skill involved and the finesse needed to get through a match, but soccer was my primary sport because I loved the stimulus of running around while I was simultaneously proficient at scoring goals. I held a high performance standard for myself throughout my soccer career. It was not until college, though, that I realized it was more about pressure on my self-concept as opposed to pressure related to the competition of the sport.

That was important. Certain experiences early on in college taught me to rethink what things in life warrant stress, worry, and concern, and this helped me realize that athletic competition is not one of them. I found much more pleasure in my sport from that moment on. Pressure was lifted. It did not matter.

Now I own two businesses on my own and feel pressure for...umm...let us see...survival?....all the time.  Of course success in business involves competition, but as an entrepreneur you get to choose against whom you want to compete. When I think about competition in the working world, I automatically picture the corporate landscape of sales quotas, red tape, and cubicle claustrophobia. A large corporation that looks like that would not be any competition of mine, so that stressful image is deleted. Sure, I have performed a lot of competitor research but, no matter what industry we are all in or if you are some kind of entrepreneur, your greatest competitor is your very own brain. 

Oh yeah, it can be a real bully. Because your skull is only so big, your self-concept hangs out with your self-talk, which then gossips its way over to your self-worth, and while they are spreading rumors, you feel more and more like crap and then spin the vicious cycle in such a way that the gossip only gets worse and affects every part of your day. 

Enter the "defeats". Once your self-worth is demoralized by your self-talk to the point where you think that one more second not getting an email response from a prospective client means you are a waste of space and organs, every little thing becomes a defeat and the entrepreneurial F-word (failure....) starts slinking in from the shadows to join the conversation. 

But who is telling you that you are a failure? You are.

Whose expectations have you failed to meet? Yours.

"But...but...but..." No no. It is your pressure. It is the value you place on the work. Sure, your boss or your dad tells you what the task is and how you need to perform, but he or she is operating under the assumption that you care enough about the work to get it done. Stressing about the task is simply your reaction to it. 

I have a long list of projects I have not finished and about which I sometimes keep myself up at night worrying, but that is because I have placed value on them. No one else told me that those things are important to finish and deliver. Just me.

Of course, the pressure to complete tasks by a deadline is something different, but calling their incompletion a defeat is simply my own perception and label. Like the achievements I discussed last week, however, defeats are equally subjective. I see successes as moments of gratitude and I see defeats as opportunities to learn. After all, if I curled up and cried when I hit an adverse moment but did nothing about it to try something different in the future, I would never have made it past six months with a business, not to mention five service evolutions.

Let us be real, we all have curled up and cried about work before, but I am lucky that it did not keep me from wanting to try something different.  

Defeats are moments that stop you and give you a chance to say "Well, crap. I don't know XYZ" and learn something new if you  care enough about the work you are doing. If you do not care about your work and you go home knowing ahead of time that you are going to impulsively complain about the day, then it is time to reassess your goals and outlook on achievement. 

Think about that for a second...

 

Really think about it... 

 

Let it sink in...

Now that you have decided whether or not you care about evolving in your current work, do what you did last week for achievements but flip it to be about defeat:

  1. Create a working definition of defeat or failure for yourself. What comes to mind? How easily do you come to an answer?
  2. List out examples of "defeats" that you have experienced recently, and 
      1. note why you think they are defeats (external or internal? hate your job? consequences of the "failure"?)
      2. note what can be learned from that defeat

You will love the relief that comes with realizing you are not actually a failure at life. As usual, it is about perspective. It does not matter if you are a professional athlete, you work in a cubicle, you own your own business, or you are in medical school. Any stress of pressure and competition as well as any fear of failure is yours and yours alone.

Now that you really know if you care about your work or not, the choice is yours: want to curl up in a ball and cry and stay the same or do you want to curl up in a ball and cry and then evolve into a more authentic, aligned, and purposeful you?

How To Win Olympic Gold Every Day In Life And At Work

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Here is a fun fact about me: I cry every time I watch the Olympics. Yup, that is right. Huuuuuuuuuge sap right here. With a foundation of pride the athletes have in representing their country to how impressive they are in their individual skillsets, the Olympics get me EVERY. DAMN. TIME. Watching the competition can be so stressful, too, though (#Womensicehockey last night, anyone?) even though I am not competing and I have no personal stake in the outcome. I cry because no matter what the result, it is such a cool achievement to simply be there and compete in the sports about which they are all so clearly passionate. I am always fascinated, though, by the athletes' focus on winning medals as the ultimate emblem of their achievement when any athlete who has ever participated in the Olympics that did not earn a medal can still call him/herself an olympian and garner almost as much recognition for their athletic prowess than the medaling superstars. Obviously not the exposure and press conferences and sponsorships and book deals that come from winning medals and world cup championships all the time, but exposure nonetheless for the foundational reason that they are at the olympics: to compete in an athletic sport.

I have always had an odd relationship with competition and achievement. I have become more comfortable as an adult with certain forms of confrontation and in fact have become strong at conflict mediation in professional settings. My engagement in competition, however, ended after college. The subject of competition relates so much to narrative, both on the individual and cultural levels, that I will dedicate a whole post to it soon, but for now the Olympics has made me think a whole lot about the idea of achievement. 

When I watch Alpine Skiing in the Olympics (my favorite sport to watch), the cameras never stay on the competitors after the last run is skied for me to see how the athletes who did not make the podium or better yet who were pushed off the podium in the last run react to not getting a medal but still acknowledge that they did pretty darn well. Some athletes who get interviewed have trained themselves in the mindset that their effort is only worth it if they get a medal at the end. Some even focus only on gold and nothing else is acceptable. I am just an objective spectator who used to ski race (which means I know what the competitive aspect feels like even though I do not know what it is like to ski at 90mph down an ice rink in South Korea) but my personal mindset is if I ended up, say, in the top ten in an Olympic event, I would think that that is pretty darn cool! I would blast that all over social media. As a matter of fact, I may lose a medal somewhere or stress every night when I go to bed that it would get stolen. 

I have trophies from athletic exploits growing up but they are simply that: trophies. I would be disappointed if they were lost or stolen because I am an extremely sentimental person, but I would soon understand that they are simply representations of something I experienced and I do not need to hold on to the object in order to remember the achievement. Similarly, I gave away some shirts and sweaters a few days ago that I remember loving when I wore them and guess what? I am already over it. They are just fabric. 

I have thought in the past and currently think a lot about my sense of achievement with regard to starting and owning businesses like I have. I started wanting to own my own company way back in high school without a clue in the world a) how to start anything and b) what the heck it would be about. But that did not matter. I knew that was a goal. And the seed only grew.

So when I started The Tailored Quill in 2015 and I had multiple clients paying me for services before I even had a name, logo, or website, I of course saw it as an achievement. I had finally done it. I had created a business that I could call my own and I was immediately making profit. But what happened next? The same thing that happens after Shaun White wins a gold medal at the Olympics. New work begins. I had to provide what the clients asked for. I cannot rest on my laurels because then my enterprises will not survive. I can learn form my achievements just as I can learn from my failures and keep going. When I officially launched a crowdfunding campaign and blasted out announcement emails, I said "Okay, that is cool" because I achieved the learning experience of building those two campaigns, which I had never previously needed to know how to do. And that is the extent of that achievement because I then had to build the rest of the business. It is not like that automatically garnered me a hundred paying clients or meant that I could retire. On the contrary, that hardly caused a ripple. My brain made the mental note of the achievement but I knew I could not spend the rest of the day drinking champagne saying "that email campaign was so sexy. I have earned the day off."

Definitions of success have to be subjective but so many people and entrepreneurs listen to the objective societal definitions of it. You know, millions of dollars, big house, nice car, the latest clothes. 'merican Dream! I sort of fell prey to those ideals for a while until I realized that I have absolutely zero interest in living in a ginormous mansion. As soon as I was able to ground my goals and interests in contrast to those of society, new goals for myself and my companies were dramatically different. Achievement is no longer assigned to a monumental accomplishment but instead takes the form of teeny tiny things. 

For example, I bought a cardboard box and packaging tape at the post office this morning. There was no line (which is a miracle in itself), the box is the perfect size, and the tape does not get all bunched up and stuck on itself. The post office should get a gold medal for that because it started my day off so nicely and smoothly and it even got me stoked to tackle the other tedious items on my to-do list today. 

I have learned that achievement of the tiniest things make the biggest difference to me. I do not need to have a multi-billion dollar business on my own and I also do not want to deal with all of the staff members that a multi-billion dollar business would require. Instead, testing out a new social media strategy yesterday for the fun of it was a win. Feeling confident and comfortable expressing myself over this platform every week is a victory. Maintaining two businesses that have been profitable since both of their inceptions is my gold medal.

In reality, achievement is recognizing that for which you are grateful. I am grateful that my businesses are profitable but I am not bragging about it as though it means I have attained enlightenment over all other business people in the world. I am thankful that I was taught the new social media strategy and that it is something I can comfortably sit down and put into action. Gratitude moves you forward. 

There is an awesome scene in the military film Jarhead in which a couple soldiers are talking animatedly about the video game level that one of them is about to beat and another soldier flatly chimes in "You know what happens when you beat that game? Nothing. You start over." Humorous buzzkill but he has a point. I can be excited when I beat a level in Candy Crush but all that means is that I move on to the next level, the next challenge. I am grateful for the skills, knowledge, and strategy I used to beat that level, though. 

Achievement is what you make it, so here is your homework:

  1. Rewrite your to-do list, but this time double check to see if any tasks could be broken down to even smaller chunks that are more easily achieved. Make sure your goals are realistic for the time and resources you have available. 
  2. Define success for yourself. Whether a casual brainstorm or a formal statement, getting something down on paper that does not appease society or your mom or your overzealous business partner will feel oh so good. What is success to YOU? A bulleted list of long term goals is just as acceptable as a fantasy paragraph about where you want to live. You will not be graded.

Start thinking about what achievement looks like in your daily lives. That way, you can be like me and say "huh, that was cool" when you learn something new and cross your unique personally realistic goals off of your list every day. I am grateful to you for reading this post and I count that as an achievement. No medal necessary. 

How Working With Me Is Like The Best Cave Diving Trip You Will Ever Take

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When I tell people that my career has been in mental health and that my business helps individuals with self awareness around their self-talk, ambition, and authentic expression through writing, speaking, and communication, I am often asked if meditation is involved. If you read my post last week about how active an activity (redundant again. You are welcome) meditation is, I find it interesting that meditation is so front of mind when topics of mental health and introspection are discussed. Those same interactions proceed into a discussion of how the persons are "not good at meditation" or "cannot meditate" or are "scared of introspection." I get that. Let us be honest, meditation takes time, introspection is scary, and deep internal personal change is like pushing a boulder up a hill forever (google search: Sysiphus).

But I am going to zoom out a bit. People get nervous about mindfulness as a discipline because they think there is a right or wrong way to "do it", when really the only wrong way to do it is to not practice mindfulness at all. But yes, that is when it gets super scary because it is like "Umm, where do I start and how do I stop?" People may start with meditating, then devote a couple hours a week to journaling, then over time become comfortable turning inwards at will. The problem is: the moment when you open the hatch too far and tumble down into your self and cannot find the way out of the caverns of your inner world, you straight up panic and thrash around in the previously tranquil pools of your consciousness. People freak out, climb out of the hatch, and lock it up tightly because it was too scary. No more introspection. No more journaling. No more deep breathing. Just shallow breathing and surface level thoughts from now on.

That is where people get stuck and they settle for handling life on their own without mindfulness. That only lets new panic take the place of the other panic. You will become unhappy at work, irritable at home, and antisocial with friends because you feel all the tension build up inside of you while the hatch behind your heart remains triple locked. And THAT is where I come in.

Mindfulness is scary because it requires vulnerability and no one else can be mindful for you, but that does not mean you have to do it alone. Why do we get the most out of yoga at a yoga class? How do we come to write our thesis papers in college? How do we learn to chill out the hormones and comfortably speak to a crush in middle school? We benefit from the support of a teacher, advisor, or caregiver. Yes, it provides accountability and accountability is a good motivator, but more importantly having someone there to support your introspection reassures you that you will be safe and cared for no matter how scary it gets. As soon as I begin working with a client, it is deeply collaborative. I meet them on their level and we journey into the abyss together. Sounds daunting? Duh, but that is the point of every exploration. Exploration inherently involves the unknown and tackling the unknown is so much more fun when you have a teammate committed to the exact same journey with you.

Here is what happens:

  1. We open up the hatch together.
  2. I help you dive into the pool of your inner consciousness (I do not push you off the diving board, I promise)
  3. I will hold your cell phone so it does not get wet
  4. I will hand you a big inflatable donut so that you do not drown
  5. We bob there, letting the current of the water gently bounce us along the path of your narrative goals
  6. You feel more comfortable in the water as your awareness becomes more grounded
  7. You hand me the donut floatie while you dip your head into your new empowering self-beliefs
  8. You start swimming freestyle further and further toward new communication styles and authentic expression. 
  9. You exit the hatch, rejuvenated like after a long swim in a calm lake instead of a frantic flail in the shark tank at Seaworld.
  10. Repeat.

You want to get to know yourself better? Want to improve your communication with friends or coworkers? Want to stop beating yourself up about your ideas and ambitions? All you have to do is take the plunge.

How A Snow Storm Shows You Who You Really Are, part 1: NEED

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Today, the eastern united states is witness to a large snow and ice storm. We up here call it a nor'easter and know that all it really means is to lace up our L.L.Bean duck boots a little tighter and make sure to keep the hood of our North Face parka in place over our heads when we inevitably leave the house. It is supposed to accumulate up to a foot of fresh snow. 

Even though there are a lot Boston-area residents who have lived here for a long time and are no stranger to winter conditions, this funny thing happens when the forecast calls for a dumping like today: people think that it is the end of the world. It is as though meteorologists reported that the zombie apocalypse will, in fact, begin at the stroke of midnight on Thursday morning and that we all better be indoors and out of sight forever. I drove past Whole Foods and Trader Joe's yesterday at 2:00pm(!) and both parking lots resembled a Los Angeles interstate. Random horns were honking somewhere, pedestrians looked both ways twenty times in the ten foot walk to their cars, and a hundred other cars piled into the through spaces to get a spot that can no longer be vacated because too many cars are piled into the through space. Smack my head.

Admittedly, I recognize the value of stocking up for a snow day and I wanted to get provisions myself, so I waited until 8:30 to go. Traffic had died down and there were parking spaces, but checkout lines still extended down the hallway to the bakery at Whole Foods. Judging how slow the line was moving as I meandered through the threadbare aisles, I was prepared to take a loaf of bread and ration it out to people in line to fortify them on their journey. 

Produce baskets were just baskets at that point, the pasta section was destroyed, and all of the pre-made food shelves were completely empty. Does anyone else remember the Millennium Bug scare and how we all prepared for a new Dark Age? That was right around New Year's Eve, too... What a coincidence. Anyhow, I miraculously found everything I wanted (cheese pizza, macro bars, and a deformed yellow bell pepper that was not damaged, just misunderstood) and asked the cashier how he was holding up. He told me he would be off today and could not believe the day they had had. That is reasonable. He went on, though, to tell me that he saw people earlier in the day fighting over food on the shelves. I did not ask him to elaborate on what he meant by the word fighting (but I absolutely pictured Catness Everdeen and all three of the Hunger Games movies), but let us stop for a second and consider the typical shopper of a place like Whole Foods: GROWN UPS. ADULTS. FIGHTING for non-perishable food that they want for a single day of bad weather. Even millennials and hipsters I know who shop at Whole Foods would not actually argue or lunge for that last box of almonds and cashews. It was like a scene from every virus outbreak movie ever after a pharmacy or food shop had been looted. 

So what the heck happened? Did a looming snow cloud make us resort to baser instincts? Maybe. But does a snow storm make us need to fight over food? No. What it boils down to is our perceived sense of need. Sure, hunger is one of Maslow's Foundational Needs we have to satisfy to survive, but what food does Maslow say is necessary and how much should be bought when there is a snow storm? 

I choose to write about this after last week's post about New Year's Resolutions and making realistic personal change because a lot of people's "commitment" to make change starts with a perceived need, and I think that is wrong. 

"I need to lose weight"

"I need to make more money"

"I need to get my life in order"

Are these not desires? See, stating a need assumes some external pressure. A reasonable need is to complete a certain work assignment by noon so that your boss can use the information for a board meeting. The need comes from a pressure outside of you that bears down on you in order to instigate action. An external pressure that invites action like that is also known as a stressor. In that sense, acting to satisfy that need requires acting through a level of anxiety. Exhibit A: yesterday at Whole Foods. There was a whole lot of anxiety-fueled need swirling around based on the external pressure of a snow storm. 

Now think about your Resolutions that you may or may not have set last weekend. How many were born from some external pressure (i.e. a fitness freak coworker who has passive-aggressively made comments for the past six months about how little cardio you do) and how many were out of a genuine desire born within you?  

Turning Needs into Wants eliminates the external pressure and the subsequent anxiety. There is more comfort in pursuing a change that you genuinely want and it is typically much more interesting and healthy. Not to brag or anything, but I went to Whole Foods last night with the desire for some food to have available today instead of the pressing need for a certain kind or amount of food to ensure my survival. That way, if there was no Annie's White Cheddar Mac & Cheese left on the shelf, it would have been okay with me and I would have found something else. After all, I chose to wait until just a few hours before the snow was supposed to begin, so you were not going to see me pointing to the far wall and stealing a ton of stuff from people's carts as they dumbly look toward the far wall. The fact that I was not in any state of anxiety allowed me to laugh about the sad state of the shelves with other shoppers and have a calmly supportive conversation with the cashier about the Civil War he had just endured. 

Make realistic goals, people! You need food for the snow day? How much do you actually want to have available for your family? You need to lose weight? What do you actually want to do to start (Hint: start by reading last week's post)?

We do not need to be savages in an upscale grocery store. We simply want to survive. Google Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. What is the minimum amount of quinoa necessary for you to survive a snow storm? 

Why The Holiday Is The Perfect Time To Hire Me, Part Two: New Year's Resolutions

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Allright, folks. You are back to work in a wobbly haze, still wondering how you were able to fit that Toll House pie around the stuffing and dinner rolls in your stomach. On your commute home right now, you realize that tomorrow is Friday, which means that it is almost the weekend and this weekend is when we say goodbye to 2017. "Another party? I suppose I could get dressed up and be festive one more time. Maybe just a few drinks this year." But another year done and gone? Yikes. All done. Bye bye. 

2017 was supposed to be our savior. It was expected to be the beam of sunlight bursting through the clouds of 2016 and warming us with the grace of hope and optimism. Instead, another cloud rolled in and it started raining. Even if people do not make a big deal about New Year's Eve, I do not know of anyone who does not stop for a mental millisecond to consider the fact that another whole year has past and you need a new calendar to hang up. I personally never put much emphasis on going out and watching fireworks with thousands of other people in the freezing cold, but I without fail always feel very sentimental about the turning of the year. It is a strong mental marker for the memories and experiences that occurred in the time span of twelve months, the nostalgia of which immediately transforms into the "Holy s***" moment of "what the heck is gonna happen next?"

We cannot control the future but we can control the choices we make as the future comes our way. As such, humans make these funny things called "resolutions", which are steadfast promises - mostly about physical health and lifestyle - that people get stoked about and talk about for a whopping couple of weeks before the reality sinks in of having to maintain that promise FORRR-EHHH-VER. A sudden amnesia breaks out and not a soul says a word about resolutions for another 11.5 months. 

My question about resolutions that I never hear anyone ask is "Why should making intentional personal change be deflected to one time per year, only to be dismissed after mere weeks?" I know what you are thinking. You are sitting there reading this with your freshly typed list of potential resolutions in a word document just behind this window, and I seem to be conveying to you that they are meaningless. As they are written right now, yes, most of them are meaningless. But read on.

The root word of resolution is resolve, and the google searched definitions of resolve start with the verb to mean "to settle or find a solution to a problem." If this were the only definition listed on the interwebs anywhere, it would affirm the classically American "fix it" mentality (just think about health care for a second). Luckily, two more definitions are offered: 

1) to decide firmly on a course of action

2) a firm determination to do something

These are better. I like how both include the adjective firm as though we would not believe the focused nature of the word determination when left on its own. A resolution is rooted in the framework of someone wanting to do something and then FIRMLY choosing a course of action. It sounds so empowering like that, like the determination in Aragorn when he turns and runs by himself toward the whole Orc army in the final battle of Lord of the Rings. We can get jazzed up about resolutions because it is exciting for us to think of something that we desire to change and then come up with a plan to pursue that change. Feel that new strength!

So why does that excitement crash and burn before January has even finished? The majority of resolutions are meaningless not because they are invalid or poor choices or you are an idiot for even thinking about those in particular, but instead because they are simply unrealistic. 

I will let that sit there for a second. 

Your resolutions are not wrong, they are just unrealistic. A lot of people commonly set resolutions about losing weight. Say you want to lose fifty pounds. Okay, awesome. More power to you. But how are you going to do that? And by when? And then what? What is the actual plan around losing fifty pounds? What list of changes and commitments must you fulfill in order to reach that one goal? People would like to lose fifty pounds but they do not consider that within their lofty resolution is a ton of hidden resolutions such as but not limited to: seeing a nutiritionist, taking their advice, changing what food you buy, how you cook it, how much to eat, what gym to go to, to get a personal trainer or not, what kind exercise to choose, how to improve, how to recover, how to maintain. 

That is eleven individual resolutions that people could choose as an alternative to the lofty hope of losing fifty pounds and are so much more connected to reality. They are quantifiable. So what is wrong with stating the resolution to see a nutritionist and let that be it? That would be so easy to achieve in January. Just one consultation. Then make one single food item change based on their advice. Two steps in to our list. You are killin' it. Am I the only one who feels like these goals are so much easier than the one we started with?

Think about it for yourself. Are your goals for the new year realistic for you and your lifestyle? Here is where I come in and why you should hire me in January. For years now, I have practiced the aforementioned goal setting technique and taken it a step further to strategize the actual action steps for each one. That way, starting several years ago, I no longer set one or two distinct resolutions to pursue above all else at the turn of the clock but rather I concretely and chronologically organize my to-do list in a logical order that is realistic for me to work on. An example is completing a self-paced online course for a new certification that really should be done before I do anything else on my list so now it is the first priority in January. Instead of resolving to make a million dollars this year, I resolve to work on something much more tangible about my business that may (hopefully) eventually lead to making a million dollars. 

This form of strategic goal setting is something I have used to help clients in their entrepreneurship, for instance once they have defined a brand narrative and their products are all packaged up, but I am using it more and more now with clients in their personal relationships. More specifically, how to communicate with others close to them. We humans get into habits at a young age with regard to interpersonal communication, so many then do not have any clue how to adjust / improve their communication in a time of need. As such, the desire to improve communication is unrealistic because the individual does not know how to even begin. I help clients break down their lofty goals in order to create realistic, step-by-step action plans. They say "I would like to improve the communication in my relationship" and we break that down together. They say "I want to get clients for my business" and we make a plan together.

Do not think that you have to set a lofty resolution to be like everyone else. How many people do you know have actually accomplished a legitimate resolution? You still have four night to choose your promise so take your time. Here is a four day plan:

  1. Tonight (Thursday): think of a lofty goal for yourself.
  2. Tomorrow (Friday): make a list of what would need to happen in order to achieve that. Really break it down into its parts.
  3. Saturday: look at that list of simpler goals and choose one that feels realistic for you to achieve in January. Write it down.
  4. Sunday: while you dress up for your party, take a look at it again. If you still think you can realistically achieve it in January, then you have your resolution. Go forth and prosper (Do not throw away the other list, though. You still have to achieve the other items, too, just in their own time). 

Cheers to you, to your realistic resolutions, and to your success in 2018.

DECK THE HALLS WITH FIVE QUESTIONS THAT HELP YOU ASSESS YOUR RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNICATION STYLE

Andddddd suddenly it is December again. Even though Christmas music has been playing and Starbucks has been using the red cups for over a month, now is when we buckle down and freak out about gift-giving, snow tires, and, of course, even more time with the family.

I love my family and I am lucky to have a family that communicates through an endless group text message, but every family has their own version of pervasive challenges that never quite go away. Especially around the holidays, personalities clash, arguments happen, the house is suddenly THAT MUCH smaller as "grown up, mature" kids try to prove how grown up and mature they are. 

For the majority of families whom I have served in the mental health field, holiday time together is an impassible terrain of anger, sadness, and trauma. In every case, all of the tension is caused by the absence of a single tool: respectful communication. It is very difficult for a child to have a parent or sibling yell at them and relentlessly blame them for something they did not do and for that child to simply shrug it off with a "well, something is going on with them and they are projecting all over me. I wonder what is wrong."

When you are getting berated for no reason, it is human and normal to feel sad, angry, resentful, and defensive because you are being attacked and your self worth is threatened. I am one of the billions of people who have been bullied before, and I still get bullied to this day. Think about bullying, though. It is so sad that a bully is so insecure about him or herself in some way that they have to exert negative control over peers who they deem to be weaker in order to feel less powerless and more worthwhile in the world. What if that bully instead approached some of the "weaker" kids, asked to sit down at their lunch table, and be friends with them, and over time be able to talk about their anger and stressors to friends who would show him or her compassion?  Why does the bully not do that?

Because it is DIFFICULT.

It is difficult to express your feelings. It is difficult to trust others with your vulnerability. It is difficult to be authentic. It is difficult to take a deep breath and remind yourself that it is not your fault. 

Why do you think we had a section in high school health class when we were formally taught how to use "I" statements to express our feelings and have a respectful conversation? Because it is difficult to say "I felt hurt when you said ____  to me." It takes a lot of self-awareness to know how specifically your feelings are hurt, and even more self-assuredness to verbally express them.

And therein lies the big issue.

Not many children or adults know how to put words to their feelings and calmly discuss them. A lot of people know what they are feeling but, because they do not know how to verbalize it, they resolve to believe the only way to express them is through action or argument, leading to fights and resentment.  You cannot change others but you are always able to make change in yourself.

Last week I wrote about gratitude for the connections we make, and respectful communication is the fire that forges those connections into healthy relationships. You see, how you carry yourself day to day and communicate with those around you comprises the story you tell the world. We will never be done working on personal expression and respectful communication, myself included. But we cannot do it alone. I am proud of my own ability to openly express my thoughts and feelings and I had a lot of help along the way. Now I help people identify the stories that they are telling the world, how it is getting in the way of their goals or their relationships and, most importantly, what to do about it.

I have helped clients effectively present wedding toasts, strategize comfortable and authentic networking for their new startups, and hold a respectful conversation with HR about a boss that they absolutely hate.  Our presence is not enough to make a strong relationship. Healthy connections with others comes down to how you communicate. And let me be clear. We all need connections.

So now that we are riding fast toward the New Year, stop and think about the connections you have right now (family or otherwise) and ask:

  • How do I communicate with them?
  • What tone do I use or emotions do I feel during the interactions?
  • Can I feel that I want some kind of change?
  • Is something missing in the connections that I wish was there?
  • Can I put words to what it is?

That is where you start. 

SOME THINGS CHANGE, BUT MANY THINGS EVOLVE: the concept of Stable Evolution in Narrative.

I am currently home in Vermont for a couple of days visiting family, and my mom made a dentist's appointment for me. She made it last week before it was even confirmed that I was coming home. I am not sure if it is the evolutionary predisposition of a mother to care for the health of their child that it is still raging in my mother or if sending me to the punishment of having sharp metal objects scraped across my teeth like a dagger across a chalkboard is somehow sadistically enjoyable for her. 

It does not really matter which, but it suffices to say that she has not changed. And that is awesome. Some things really do not change in life. Childhood bullies still might be jerks, siblings will fight no matter how much "maturing" they have accomplished, and my mother will always stay on me about going to the dentist. If you recall from an earlier post that calling the dentist to make an appointment was a huge learning experience for me when I was younger, this time around is a good example of my mother's personal narrative. 

See, narrative evolves. There is no beginning, middle, or end to narrative. It simply evolves and reiterates infinitely. Even when someone dies, their legacy maintains characteristics of their narrative. Any long dead historical figure currently lives on well past the individual stories of their life because of how their stories are told now. 

Despite how one's narrative evolves, though, one does not fundamentally change. Yes, of course you can get plastic surgery or transition your gender, or suffer traumatic brain injury that alters your personality, but you as a human specimen have not changed. You are the same person that takes up space on this planet, but you have evolved into another version of yourself. 

Stick with me.

This is the concept of Stable Evolution that I teach clients and students about in the world of narrative. You remain the same person but you evolve over time. I share so much with the little child Taylor in the photographs here in my childhood house, but so much has happened to me in the years since then that has transformed the sense of who I am. My mother's care about my dental hygiene has not changed for my entire life while she has experienced so many things that have caused her to evolve. The things we experience are events and the events are stories that affect us, one way or another, because we are at the very least aware of them if not intimately involved in them. These stories affect us and contribute to our narratives, which is the neverending evolution of each of our lives. 

I reunited with my college soccer teammates last summer. It was fascinating to hear how each and every one of us had such a different career path and different set of goals for ourselves. Some guys were married, some were talking about buying houses, others about moving across the country for work, most about still playing soccer somehow. We were the same people I knew in college (myself included), the same personalities, but we had all evolved. We had all remained exactly who we were/are while remaining open to the events we experienced since college that have transformed our day-to-day activities and goals. 

"Stable" has a heavy connotation to it because so many in western culture associate it with mental health and use it as an idealized goal to become stable or maintain stability. The problem is that there is no such thing as true stability for a human being. Sorry. It is not possible. The countless things we look at, react to, feel, say, move toward, and think about make it impossible to sit down and say "Yep, all settled." People even think that meditation is the way to shut everything up in your head and turn everything off. Nope, not true. Instead, meditation presents the space to be accepting and aware of all the thoughts and chaos. To let them happen, not to suppress them, and be okay with them. This is why our existence remains stable but our identity is never defined. It continually evolves. The only stability we can achieve is the consistent openness to this evolution. Even ignoring some kind of thought or emotion is still an action that will inform future responses and thus evolve how you personally handle certain situations.

At first listen, a lot of people have trouble understanding this idea of Stable Evolution because the words are contraries. I like to tell them it is characterized by consistency. If you are open to accepting the fact that you are constantly evolving, then your sense of self will remain consistent. One is dependent on the other in that the stability of your sense of self depends on your openness to personal evolution. 

Before I spin you down the rabbit hole any further, here is an activity:

Pick an age in childhood. Imagine what you were like at that age, what you looked like, and what you remember your personality traits to be. Write down everything that comes to mind. Does your current recall of yourself at that time seem very different than who you are now? If so, why? What personality traits are similar or different now?

Now think about all the events of your life that have occurred since that age. Okay, not ALL of them, but run through the timeline in your mind. Imagine how those events have affected you. What did they change about you, if anything? Hopefully, if you are human, you learned something from every event (whether consciously or subconsciously) that has made you evolve but who you are as a person has not actually ever been "changed".

Some things do not change, but a great many things evolve. My mother made dentist appointments for me when I was little until I learned how to do it not because she enjoyed calling them but because she cares about my wellbeing. Even with the multitude of events and situations from which she has evolved since my childhood, she still made an appointment for me to see the dentist today. 

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.