Mindfulness

You Are Thinking About "Right and Wrong" All Wrong

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DO THE RIGHT THING.

YOU ARE DOING THIS WRONG.

IS THIS RIGHT?

WHERE DID I GO WRONG?

Do you ever ask these questions? Better yet, do these questions rule your life? Are you distracted by doing things "correctly"? "I want to do it right" is probably the most common problem I hear clients complain about when we discuss obstacles to their success. I hate this notion that there is a right or a wrong way to do things in life. That is right, I just said Hate. Oooo, strong word! It is the most unhealthy mindset because it puts so much pressure on you to be perfect. Look back at my post on making imperfect action a few weeks ago. So many people think that something has to be perfect for it to be put to market or submitted to a boss. 

WHAT TO THINK

Of course you want to complete something well and feel proud of it, like that science project you spent a week constructing in high school for the science fair, but using the words Right and Wrong puts more pressure on you than is already there for the task.

Example 1, Creating a logo: Holy cannoli people think this has to be perfect. The first pressure in getting a logo made is whether or not you as the business owner likes the logo. A mere emotional reaction. The second pressure is when the business owner worries whether or not it is perfect for their brand. Uh-oh, now there is a double stack of pressure and only one of them actually matters! 

Spoiler alert: the emotional response one has to the logo is the only answer you need. It determines how well suited the logo is for the brand. It is a beneficial double whammy. Which means you are left with the extra layer of pressure dangling off the side that relates more to how the world will perceive your brand, and not the logo itself. Which means you do not need that pressure while the logo is being made. Which means you need to chill out. There is no right or wrong. 

Example 2, Nobody likes your product: This is where right or wrong really hits home like a wrecking ball for people. When an owner gets feedback that their service was not effective or the customer did not enjoy the product, this must mean the entrepreneur is a failure. Better luck next time. 

NOPE. This means that you now have data to inform how to change your product...if you WANT to. That is the key. What do you WANT to do with the feedback? 

Feeling like a failure is a choice. You call yourself that. It is another story you tell. 

Do not worry, I am guilty of it too. I am guilty of thinking that there was a right way to progress in life. Originally I thought that the right way was to get good grades in high school so that I go to a good college, work hard there so I get a job, go to grad school so that I can become an "expert", and then settle into a career that makes money. A lot of people do this, and it is not wrong to do so. But thinking that there is one single right way to do this life thing is not true and it is not healthy. 

I thought it until I got a bad grade in a class and realized that it was not going to impact my work prospects after college. I thought it until I realized that my gut was not compelling me to go back to graduate school as I thought it "should" have over the past six years. It does not matter when you do something, because it is YOUR choice based on YOUR desire. It is nobody's business to tell you when you must do something. 

I know what some of you are thinking: "But Taylor, there is definitely right and wrong. I could lose my job if I do or say the wrong thing."  True, sure. There is a wrong answer to math problems (I would know, I struggled with math). There are inappropriate things to do at work that threaten your employment (I would not know because I am an angel). But I encourage you to think of the words differently.

WHAT TO DO

"Right" and "Wrong" have a heavy, sharp, pressured connotation to them. Even if you feel like you did something "right", you feel the pressure about it. I want you to change the words. I want you to try saying "Healthy" vs. "Unhealthy" for YOU instead of "Right" vs. "Wrong" based on someone else's expectations. Doing so alleviates the pressure and makes the outcome positive. Not only that, it taps what you feel good about.

Try it out: Instead of thinking that you did something wrong when your product receives criticism, ask yourself "what do I want to do about it now? What would be healthy for me to put effort into adjusting?" 

In the absence of extra pressure, there is more space to be inspired. 

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

Right vs. Wrong relates to following what we think of as rules and acceptable behavior, but what we do not think about is the fact that we humans made up the word "rules" and "morals" and defined "acceptable behavior". Now that I dropped that knowledge bomb on you, I am not telling you to go kill someone because morals do not exist. Instead I am telling you to take the pressure of perfectionism off of your task because no human has the power to tell you a one single right way to do things. 

By thinking about what is healthy for you or what you want to do instead of what you have to do or should do, you promote your own confidence and growth while connecting why your work is healthy for you and why your work is healthy for the world.

You are promoting healthy human evolution instead of addressing a single microscopic moment of pressure.  

I have a client right now who knows she must have a difficult conversation with her mother in order to move forward as a confident, independent adult. She began saying what she "needs" to do and why she "has to" do it, but over the course of a few conversations she has shifted the language and realized that she genuinely "wants" to have the conversation because she recognizes its beneficial outcome.

Her body language has changed, her motivation has changed, and now she wants to face the challenge because she sees it as an opportunity for growth. Not just popping a stress bubble that will come back in another form later on. 

This is the resilience I wrote about a few weeks ago. If you face challenges with the question of what next move would be healthiest for you, you will never experience setbacks as failure again. You will take a next step, and then another, and then another, because there is no right way to move through life. There is only the way that you want to. 

Just A Friendly Neighborhood Reminder To Do Something Your Body Should Do Automatically

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Let us stay on this whole mindfulness thing for a bit because I literally had to remind myself to take a breath earlier today. Like consciously speak to myself in my own head to chill for a hot second and deeply breathe in. Let us all take a second for a breather. In fact, let us take this whole week as a breather. Let us just chill. Holidays are over, resolutions are "adjusted", and it is somehow actually February. Remember a month ago when people were fighting each other for pasta on the shelves at Whole Foods? Let us all just chill for a second. We need it. 

Last week I was 1. in a different country and 2. amongst tall mountains. I prepared some work things to bring with me that did not require a lot of time or, more importantly, brain power and attention to start working on in case the trip got boring (really, Taylor??), such as content design and product development brainstorming. Did I look at it once last week? Nope. Sure didn't. Not for lack of trying, though. I definitely thought about the tasks a few times but when it came down to reaching into my bag and cracking open the notebook, my hands did not move. The week also 3. involved physical activity on those mountains, so my physical fatigue and the mental shift that I was so totally in a different culture somewhere else on the globe kept my hands to my side and my mind on the present. I am lucky to be able to change the channel in my brain and be wherever I am on most vacations in the past, but there are some in which I simply cannot do it. And it is painful. One trip last year I could tell on the plane ride out that I was not going to be able to tune out the world I was temporarily leaving and, unfortunately, I turned out to be correct. 

Life moves. Whether it is "too fast" or "way too fast" is subjective, but nothing ever stops. Molecules are always in chaos, air and weather are always in flux, waves and nature are eternally restless. Sharks have to keep moving in order to breathe. Translation: if they stop moving, they die. WHAT? Ironically, so many humans - particularly Americans - act like sharks. If they slow down, they will die. If they stop what they are doing, they will fail. UGH, it is exhausting. I am exhausted just thinking about it while I write about it. The sad part is that we all know that it is unhealthy. Sure, some people "thrive" off of a fast-paced lifestyle or are most productive under pressure, but that does not mean that their hearts and blood pressures enjoy it. I have always lived a very busy life with days and weeks jam-packed with everything I can fit in, mostly related to work. Go me! I am super hard-working, but none of that matters if I do not know how to slow down.

It took me until junior year of college to learn how energy should be prioritized and allocated in life in order to remain a healthier version of myself, and I have continued to practice that allocation ever since in the big, bad, real world. That is why I am entitled enough to help people with a) slowing down to breathe and b) figuring out how best to allocate their energy in their work, relationships, and everyday life. You are never done practicing how to slow down, but the practicing becomes easier. And you do not have to do it alone. 

Where I was last week was an isolated bubble. A remote microcosm that forces you with limited WiFi and perilous roads to stop moving and surrender. No one is watching, do not be scared. At night, stars glistened over the mountain peaks and I all but fell to my knees and cried in surrender. Instead of the dramatic display that that would have produced, I chose instead to take good, long, full breaths of the brisk mountain air. It was all I could do, and it is exactly what I needed. Fast forward to today when I had to consciously remind myself to take that same kind of revitalizing breath. Yeah, I am not in the mountains of another continent, but slowing down is possible here too. So no matter how "fast" you feel your life is right now, remember that that is okay as long as you know how to stop and take a deep breath. 

Do it right now (please). I dare you.

No matter what you are doing right now, you could use a deep breath. If you are self-conscious about it, this is me giving you permission. If you are scared, this is me offering support. If slowing down makes you cry, there is no shame in meditating in a bathroom stall. If you are embarrassed that you have to set a reminder in your phone or on your Apple watch to take a deep breath, just know that I am going to go tell myself to take another deep breath in just a couple minutes. 

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.

Why Meditation Is So Darn Difficult But So Darn Helpful

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In a couple days, I am going on vacation. Somewhere NOT awesome, I promise you. Definitely not out of the country and definitely NOT unplugged from my computer. There is NO REASON WHATSOEVER for you to be jealous. 

Now that that is cleared up, yes, vacation. This silly eight letter word that we all have heard but rarely get to experience firsthand. It refers to some kind of "break" or "free time", but those are things that us millennials and millennial-esque individuals (you know who you are) have never even heard of. The only break and free time we know is when we break a bone playing a sport and have free time when we are not allowed to practice. And think about THAT negative association... Along the same lines, "rest" is like the snow leopard of physical wellbeing. It is rare, blends in with your surroundings, and when you finally see it, it disappears almost as quickly as it had appeared. But it is so damn beautiful. "Why hide?!?!?!" you want to ask it. "Why will you not stick around for me to enjoy you?"

Unfortunately the answer is that we do not know how best to take advantage of rest when the opportunity arrives. I will be the first to admit, it is really difficult. Even sitting for a whole afternoon binging Netflix sometimes is not the full rest that you want. Sometimes I feel just as unrested after lying on the couch in the very same position watching a whole season of House of Cards. Why, though? I did not move for so many hours! 

The other option for "full rest" is napping, but napping is like the tylenol of physical wellbeing. Everyone's dosage will be different. If I nap for 22 minutes, I feel good but come on, I never nap for 22 minutes. No, I end up napping for an hour and wake up feeling like my brain stayed on the pillow and my body became a baby giraffe taking its first steps. 

So how do we actually rest? 

A dear friend of mine has been meditating hard for almost thirty years and now gives lectures on how meditation affects and promotes a healthy mindset. In his talks, he discusses how meditation is actually an extremely active activity (redundant, yes, but YOLO) instead of the common assumption that everything stops, slows down, or shuts off when you meditate. Your physical movements slow down, yes, but you do not shut off your brain. On the contrary, you slow your body down in order to open your mind up and let it explode however it wants to. Then do nothing. Just watch the thoughts. Sounds simple but you know it is difficult if you have ever tried it. 

Meditation is interesting in this way because it has become such a trendy topic in mindfulness and yoga has become the be-all-end-all cure for everything. But meditation is super hard! Watching all of your crazy thoughts while trying to focus on the sound of your breathing or the 3 hour YouTube video of a mountain stream is a lot of work! It makes sense that so many people will not even try to meditate because it does not sound restful at all. 

I meditated quite a bit back in high school and some in college before I created my own Mobile Meditation that I would use on the go when I am in the car. I got into a good habit in high school and even got to that point where I actively saw the black glittery void that I was breathing into (it was pretty cool) and my Mobile Meditation became the appropriate dosage for my post-college lifestyle. I recently got back into it at home and, even though I am not yet seeing the void as I did in high school, I am able to feel the separation between my body / breath and my thoughts. It is a little trippy, yes, but you have to be open to it. I have learned that my brain is so in need of that unloading because of all the stimuli it filters every day that it busts the door down when I close my eyes and take the first breath. I have to be okay with that. I have to remember that it is the same thing as a muscle getting the toxins and stress massaged out of it at the spa. It is active and sometimes painful but will feel good afterward. 

I often feel like the meditation was all over the place or "did not work", but then I notice that my breathing is much smoother and my head feels lighter regardless of the onslaught of thoughts it just endured. 

Just like you, I am going to keep experimenting with what is most restful for me. When I am on the long plane flight that is DEFINITELY NOT GOING OVERSEAS, I am going to try to meditate, nap, and watch movies and we will see which one is most restful. I wonder what is most helpful for you. What do you like to do to "rest"? And does it actually help? Since you have already given up on your New Year's resolutions, what can you recommit to trying in order to help yourself rest and recuperate?

How A Snow Storm Shows You Who You Really Are, Part 2: BACK TO YOUR ROOTS

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It has been a week but there are still giant snowbanks on the side of the road that test how skinny I can make my SUV on a two lane road. Last week I wrote about how the imminent snow storm was like the zombie apocalypse for which everyone in Massachusetts had to prepare by buying groceries on groceries all day the day before and how tension was high enough to inspire some to fight over certain items on the shelves.

Ugh, fighting over certain items on the shelves. As though Whole Foods does not have other options for food somewhere else in the store that we could stomach for a single day of precipitation. Last week's post was about reflecting on the idea of Need. This week we reflect on where that comes from. 

I was born and raised in Vermont, which means that my childhood was sponsored by The North Face and I was acquainted with sub zero temperatures before I was a single year old. My siblings and I grew up ski racing and, following my retirement at age 13, my party favor was circulation issues in my feet and hands because of the blisteringly cold days on the mountain that froze my toes and fingers. I am not that bitter about it because I realized over time how much more tolerant of the winter I became from such early and frequent exposure. Fast forward to college when I walked around campus in January in a plain old sweatshirt and laughed at the freezing wind like a boss.

I bring this up because I will always be thankful for my frostbitten upbringing. Strangers, coworkers, friends, and family talked to me about the storm last week and all I could do about it was shrug. It was simply another snow storm in my lifetime of snow storms. It is a form of adversity that I tolerate much more confidently than, say, walking in the Sahara desert (I am lightheaded just thinking about it) while someone who lives in a desert climate would not be able to handle a snowflake. The pressure of a snow storm on our immediate environment produces a stress to which people react very differently. I agreed that food would be good to have in my fridge for the snow day, but I was not so emphatic that I needed to fight someone for it in the grocery store. 

I am also not holier than thou. I am just one individual with his own unique journey. The fact that I accept snow storms as they are does not make me special; instead it is how I learned to survive during the winter. Those who fought for food in Whole Foods may not be as accepting of the cold and wet so they project their angst into their food supply. That is fine. That is their journey. But think about last week's post: Where does the need come from? Better yet, where does the angst about a snow storm come from?

If you have lived in Boston for a long time but still get anxious about the snow, what taught you that it would be a stress-provoking situation? Do coworkers talk about snow storms so much that you absorb their anxiety? What were the environmental conditions of your childhood? Maybe you developed a scarcity mentality at some point (do not fret, a lot of people do) and register the first sign of stress as the potential loss of resources. As we count days further from 2017 and closer to when we give up on our New Years resolutions, I challenge you to consider this question:

HOW DOES YOUR PAST AFFECT YOUR CURRENT SENSE OF NEED?

The need that Whole Foods shoppers felt last week does not remain isolated to the grocery store. Our brains are large and powerful but still small and contained in the space of our skulls, so the same brain circuits and power are used in multiple situations to streamline the way we respond to perceived stress or need. Using the same systems enables us to see choices that will benefit our evolution. So think about what your needs are and where they come from. In fact, map it out or make a chart. Here is how:

  1. Use the basic headers of HEALTH, WORK, and RELATIONSHIPS as a starting point and write them however you want on a sheet of paper.
  2. Reflect on the needs you feel in each category (i.e. food to eat, money to have, interpersonal support) and write them down.
  3. Now go deeper - i.e. what kind of foods, why do you need money, what specific kind of interpersonal support?
  4. Write them down
  5. Reflect on where those needs come from - i.e. did someone tell you it was a necessity at some point? If not, how did you internalize the need for, say, a certain amount of money, or a certain type of connection with others in the past?
  6. And now you have a flowchart of your personal needs and nowhere to hide.
  7. Bedazzle it as you see fit.
  8. Frame it on the wall.
  9. Post it to Instagram. 

Like a while back when I wrote about how to "reverse-engineer your stress", this simple activity helps you rewind your stories and figure out why you react to stress the way you do in different situations. It is a fun exploration if you open yourself to the process and maybe, just maybe, it will help you breathe a little easier when someone takes that last veggie sampler at the store that you wanted for your snow day. 

Why The Holiday Is The Perfect Time To Hire Me, Part One: Holiday Dinners

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Christmas is four days away, which means that Christmas Eve dinner with the family is only three away. Here is the skinny: whether you celebrate Christmas with a huge family and a huge meal, celebrate Hanukkah for eight separate days of family time, you do not see your family for the holidays but attend a lot of friends' holiday parties, or stay at home by yourself mixing eggnog and Maker's Mark and watching the Grinch on repeat, emotions, self-esteem, and self-talk play important roles in the holidays. You cannot avoid them. I spent New Year's Eve all by myself last year, intentionally thinking "2016 was a drag. I am going to relax, treat myself to dinner and a nightcap, and watch the ball drop" and, even though that is exactly what I did and it was wonderful, holy cannoli did the thought "is this going to be forever?" slip into my head and spark some worry.

I enjoy alone time but I am also confident that it would be quite challenging for my personality to maintain it for a long time. On the flip side, I enjoy spending time with my family but I can feel overwhelmed around the holidays easily with all the bodies and voices and schedule demands. 

If you have followed along for the past few weeks, I have written about topics of personal narrative that relate directly to navigating "the most wonderful time of the year". Today's post is the first of two that will explain why this is the perfect time of year to give me a call.

Let us run through a typical holiday reunion dinner of a friend we will name Brian:

Brian drives to it in his quarter zip sweater and corduroys. He has not seen his family or his distant cousins in a long time and he feels a ping of excitement about showing up like a celebrity that everyone has waited for. He also feels some apprehension because of the absurd amount of social energy he will have to muster for chit chatting all night long about whatever the fam wants to bring up, especially that uncle who "hates to bring up politics again" but always brings up politics again. He slaps on a huge smile and hug everyone in the room with the same greeting, sighs as he stands amongst the group, fields a couple questions, and then he is ushered toward the cocktails. As soon as a drink is poured, conversations continue as they were and he stands and waits to hear in which one he could participate.

Then it hits him. He is just one of the crowd again. The ping of excitement dims and the apprehension from the car waves at him from the inside. He wonders what to talk about, if he should ask a question, if he really cares about the discussion your dad and brother are having about Bitcoin, if he should sit down and see what mom put on the TV as background noise, or if that would seem antisocial having just gotten there. And then he notices that his cousins have children, and he considers his own relationship status. 

At dinner time, he notices that mom took the liberty of assigning seats and he learns that he will sit next to his sister's eight year old son who does not know how to use a fork or communicate without a cell phone screen lighting up the lenses of his huge glasses. Brian wonders why he deserved this. He just got home. Why couldn't he be allowed to sit next to his own siblings at least? He takes another swig of wine.

He eats too much probably to fill the emotional space the experience has thus far created. Now he thinks about the last time he worked out and how his sister runs so much more often than he does. An easy enough task, considering she mentioned her marathon training progress no less than seven times since you got there. He feels a huge surge of anger and jealousy, and then irritation that he is so jealous. When she asks if he has run recently, he struggles to push that massive amount of anger back down into his stomach with a scoop of mashed potatoes and says "Oh, some" when really he wants to ask the arrogant fitness freak for advice and support around getting into a healthy running habit. 

Then the extended family leaves because of the little ones and he sloths over to the couch like Jabba the Hutt and mindlessly listens to his dad while wishing his mom had asked him more about his life throughout the evening. He goes to bed thinking that they do not care about him as much. 

SOUND FUN?? More importantly, does any of this sound familiar?

On the surface, every one is functionally happy but everyone is emotionally reacting to their many unique triggers underneath. Like all feelings, happiness is a mobile occurrence. It can be fleeting. It may last for a while but cannot stick around for too long. Some kind of trigger reminds you of something frustrating, reminds you of your fatigue, something you forgot to do at work, or an off-hand comment from your cousin. Triggers cause a reaction that is yet another temporary feeling state. The quality of a feeling never remains the same within you. It ebbs and flows, grows and dwindles. Your behavioral response, however, can get cemented the more it is repeated. 

New awareness of these triggers and emotional-behavioral reactions can foster a healthy sense of contentment instead of sharp spikes into myriad emotions and unpredictability.

This is where I come in.

The situation I described is wrought with triggers: memories of past holiday dinners, disappearing in the crowd, your assigned seat, your sister's tone of voice, your parents' perceived ignorance. None of these are intentionally presented to hurt Brian's feelings but Brian reacts with hurt feelings. 

Negative self-talk and judgments that Brian believes to be true come next. The belief and the emotions combine to create a narrative in Brian's mind about how he relates to those around him and the world at large. In my example, Brian's narrative is quite discouraging based on limiting beliefs that his family does not care about him. As a result, the narrative will likely show itself in how he behaves and interacts with his family during the rest of the vacation. 

Fun fact: my greatest strength is organizing people's emotion and thought patterns. I either make it visual, such as drawing out cycles of behaviors that always feed the initial trigger and keep the person spinning in the same la la land of frustrating interactions, or I make it a written timeline that links triggers, emotions, behaviors, and responses into a chronological order as a narrative. Either way, I record it external of the person's brain.

Therein lies the magic. I do not fill gaps for people. I do not put words in their mouth. Instead, I take the words that they share with me and I organize them into something comprehensible. And let me tell you, being shown your behavior patterns and why you feel stuck in life or work or love is mind-blowing. I have done it for myself many times. Sometimes it is scary too because it makes it too real. But that is why I am there for methodical support: Because at that point they have a choice to either take that new awareness and roll with it on their own to make change or stick with me and learn how to apply the new awareness to concrete situations in their lives.

Take Brian's triggers and imagine those same triggers in a work setting, out on a date, or in every day interactions with strangers (or myself when stuck in traffic). Take a second to imagine how much more productive and respectful and healthy those situations could be with a little more nonjudgmental awareness and insight.

What I speak about regarding personal branding is exemplified in Brian's reactions, both verbal and nonverbal. I can picture his body language as pretty mopey by the end of the night even if his face is still trying to hide his feelings, not to mention his curt verbal responses. I may spend a lot of time with a client on one particular interaction or dynamic in order to examine what stories a client's body language, facial expressions, self-talk, and verbal expression may tell. Often, the stories you express in one situation are very similar, if not the same, in most other situations so learning about your storytelling in one situation will draw awareness to and improve your storytelling in any situation. 

As we all finish up our work and plan for our respective holiday celebrations, consider for a second your own triggering situations. Does your mind immediately identify them?

Does it take a second or do you automatically know what has been frustrating you?  

What change would you like to make in those situations, if you were able to?

Better yet, what change is in your control?

And lastly, what triggering moments can you predict in your own life this holiday season?

How will you prepare yourself for them?

TRIGGERED! How To Reverse-Engineer Your Reactivity

In the business world, triggers are what companies like Facebook and Instagram exploit in us to tailor content toward our interests and habits to keep us using their platforms. Triggers can also code for something negative, such as when someone or something pisses you off. 

Personally, a MASSIVE trigger for me is traffic and drivers who I identify as dumb. Anger to 1000 in half a second flat. Triggers are called triggers because they cause something to happen. Think about the trigger of a gun. It causes a major reaction. But the trigger is just a trigger. It is not positive or negative itself. Even though the trigger is the first step of causing the gun to shoot a bullet, the trigger itself can't be labeled as positive or negative even if the bullet does something we would deem negative. We assign the emotional meaning to the trigger event. We say whether it is good or bad. When Facebook or Instagram exploit mental triggers to get us to continue using their platform, whether or not it is a bad thing is subjective. 

I bring this up because last week I mentioned the dreaded experience of seeing family over the holidays and the difficulty therein about communication. Family triggers all of us in one way or another. So many kinds of strong reactions engrained in us since we started developing consciousness just simmer under the surface as a holiday draws nearer, ready to lash back at any comment.

"Hey, can you pass me the stuffing?"

"OH, YOU WOULD ASK ME TO DO THAT!"

It happens at work as well. I am guilty of not liking a certain coworker and so I let rage boil up in me when he / she literally says anything. Whether at home or at work, the problem is that our interpretation of the triggering event dramatically affects the relationship downstream between the two parties as well as your relationship with yourself. When I get angry at traffic, it feels natural to blame every driver around me. It is not their fault, though. In fact, I am equally to blame because I joined all of them in driving that main road at that moment during rush hour. But I still feel anger. Then the interpretation of every other driver's idiocy cements itself into a mindset I adopt whenever I get into the car, which puts me on edge and may potentially make me feel a lingering tension when I get to my destination. If the destination is a social event, that tension may then affect my countenance and sociability with other people and thus relationships are damaged.

Think about someone or something that really stokes that rage fire in you. Coworker? Ex love interest? Starbucks barista? What do they do that you would call the trigger? Keep in mind, their behavior isn't positive or negative. We label it as such. So, why does that super specific trigger cause such a reaction in you? Do other things elicit that same level of reaction?

Our reactions to triggers can be very different. For instance, the anger I feel well up in traffic is very different than the frustration I have felt when my siblings have pushed my buttons in the past. I do not think my siblings are dumb and should consider retaking a driving test like I do for the people I encounter in traffic, but things they have said or done in the past have triggered me to react with anger. Except for some occasions, the truth that is frustrating for many to accept is the fact that those who trigger you are not - at least most of the time - doing so on purpose. Maybe the way someone talks makes them really happy but sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you. That person unfortunately cannot be blamed for your reaction. It is how they talk. 

What to do about this hard truth is even harder. It is a form of radical acceptance. It is okay to feel angry and be triggered, but it is not okay to let it ruin the rest of your day or extensively affect your life going forward. That is completely on you. In my example, I do not want my current and potential social connections to be negatively impacted just because another driver did not use their turn signal, so I have to work backwards. Like in the design world, it is a matter of starting with the end in mind. 

If I want my relationships to be spared the flares of my previous anger, I must somehow check that anger in the car and leave it there. To do that, I must reword the story that my anger narrates.

That way, "Every driver in the entire world is an absolute waste of space" changes to "Wow, there is a lot of traffic right now. I bet I am not the only one stressed out."

Now that the story has changed about the situation, I understand that I am not actually angry that a ton of other people chose to go out driving right when I did, but instead that I get angry when something stops me from getting somewhere. My anger is no longer generalized to blame all others, but instead it is connected to something very personal about me.

See what I did there? It is a simple process of reverse engineering. By starting with my preferred outcome in mind, I was able to bring awareness to what was actually pissing me off in the moment and thus created a new choice when I get angry at traffic in the future. I still get angry at traffic, but I am much better able now to remind myself why and leave it at that. Radical acceptance. 

I help clients with this quite often, actually, especially in their daily work life and in networking situations. Reactivity is RAMPANT. It becomes so patterned and rigid that it is very difficult to break. It becomes a reflex. Think about it for yourself. If you are going to see family for the holidays, I bet you can probably predict how you might react to each member regardless of what they say or do. Write that down. Start the process. I am not telling you to ever change the emotion because the emotion is not a bad thing. How you behave in response to the emotion can be. So as you think about your holiday triggers, ask yourself: "what is the outcome that I want?" and go from there. 

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. 

ALL WE HAVE ARE STORIES: how our life paths have a lot to do with the stories we tell

I first connected with a friend in California who travels to new parts of the world apparently every week (FOMO much?) when I stumbled upon her beautiful Instagram account a couple years ago. Above her contact info, the only words were "We are just visitors, all we have are stories" - words that I totally fell in love with and about which I had to cold-message her.

Every day when I am not immersed in a client session or in restful solitude at home, I am constantly thinking about the overwhelming chaos of human movement. Strangers walking, driving, bussing, stuffing themselves into trains, they all have their own reason for being right there in that exact moment. People driving in traffic are distracted by their unique thoughts and emotions at that time when they nearly hit the car in front of them at a light or they are frustrated enough by their own unique triggers that they express themselves by honking at a pedestrian. 

You know what I see? I see stories. I see thousands of storybooks walking, driving, passing by every day. It overwhelms me because I am equally entranced by my ability to help people tell their stories and daunted by the sheer number of stories out there. So I take a deep breath and remember the quote: All we have are stories, and that is okay.  

It is so true. That is all it is. We are filled with stories and experiences and events and images that have affected the evolution of our personalities. That is great that we acknowledge what makes us unique, but then we have to share those stories in order to learn what to do with it. We build communities through stories, we make friends through them, find love through them. We start religions and businesses because of stories. 

In college, I took a 99% worthless anthropology class that consisted of three months of my professor bragging about her own research, but the 1% value I pulled from the semester was learning for the first time about Ethnography, which is defined as the scientific discipline that "describes the customs of individual peoples and cultures."  A powerfully broad concept I pulled from this section of the class was the way that ethnography studies how history is simply a process of storytelling. In the beginning of civilization in the middle east, tribal elders would gather round a campfire and tell their life stories and the stories of their tribe to the youth in order for the youth to know the significance of their own lives. Even the point of school is to catch us up on what has already happened or that others have learned. 

Stories are all that we have to offer one another. Explaining something at work, telling your spouse about your day, teaching your child how to wipe for the first time are all stories based on stories we have heard and expressed in ways that we have learned to express them. 

This is also true of stories we tell ourselves. You say you rock at cooking, you hate your job, you love your family first above all else, but what do these stories say about your personality? Why are these stories that you tell yourself? And how do they affect your daily life?

If we are only made up of stories, then we are extremely sensitive to them. Emotions underly the stories we tell ourselves. As soon as the stories become verbalized, they are then made real-er and presented to the world for feedback. The way that others react to those stories then close the feedback loop and affect the way we feel about ourselves in the world, new emotions are created, and the cycle starts again. 

Pick a story for yourself that you notice keeps replaying in your head and in conversations. For a lot of people, it is that they hate their job. Whatever that story is that you come up with, how do people react to it? If you keep telling the story and do nothing about it, what does that mean about your life right now? How can you adjust the wording of that story? Or do you not want to change the story?

Every story that comprises us has served a purpose and precedes the many more stories that have come and are still to come. Perhaps you are content with the stories you are telling, good or bad, but all I am saying is think not what your stories can do for you but instead what you can do for them. 

MY CELL PHONE DIED FOR TWO HOURS: Here is what happened.

My cell phone died for two hours. A hush falls over the crowd. "What could he do?!" One person whispers. "How did he survive??" Another one cries. 

My cell phone was officially pronounced dead at 11:30am, when I was leaving central Massachusetts after having met a client. I had used my phone's GPS to get there, but now that was not an option. Here's the thing: I knew parts of the town really well, but not where I was that morning, so I figured I would be able find some familiar landmark and orient from there. I drove down Main Street for a bit but nothing looked familiar. Cue the dramatic, low-tone background music.

Self awareness step one: I knew what turn I had made to get to the library, and the name of the street off of which I turned to get on to that street. So I backtracked. Luckily I have a very strong visual memory and was able to get back to Route 2. From there I knew exactly how to get home. Smooth sailing, right?

Not right. I shall thicken the plot by mentioning that my left front tire had been slowly leaking air for the better part of a week but I had not been able to get an appointment at the shop. Usually the pressure lives at 37psi, but that day it was down to 21. I probably could have made it home safely, but I did not want to push it. I knew where there was gas station and so I made my plan. I still had two hours before I had to meet another client, so I casually counted my quarters and slid them into the air machine. I awkwardly squatted there holding the tube handle tightly on the valve and saw the meter reading that the pressure was increasing. Solid.

The one catch was, the tire was flattening before my eyes. My car reading said it was down to 6psi. Confusion and panic ensue. I think "okay something must be wrong with either the machine or my tire. I'll call AAA and my client and let them know what is going on." Oh wait, I do not have a cell phone. Panic fire rises. 

I then resolve to try the air again, thinking if I re-screwed one portion of the handle that that may make some kind of difference.

Nope. 3psi.

$2.50 and a faulty air machine later, I have a flat tire. And no cell phone. It is like that time you go on a field trip in middle school to a place you know will have an epic snack bar and you realize that you left your wallet at school. You try to play it cool and you know you will still be able to participate in the activities, but secretly you are crying your eyes out on the inside and worry that you are going to starve.

Self awareness step 2: Plan B is the thing people are most afraid of. Asking another human being for help - in this case, to use a phone. But that is the thing. It took me a solid minute through the panic and dread to remember that I have the social skill to ask the station attendant if I could use the station phone - or even his cell phone - to call AAA. I am glad that I reminded myself of that skill, but I do not enjoy how long it took for me in the moment to remember that I possessed it. I do not spend anywhere near as much time on my cell phone than peers and friends do, but it is still a necessary appendage to my tripod of keys-phone-wallet that I compulsively "must" have on me every day. 

Let us just say that the station attendant - whose name will remain confidential but rhymes with Jean and starts with a D - was less than empathetic about my situation. And when I say less than empathetic, I mean he said "Yeah I don't know. Others have complained about that too. I can't do anything about it" so bluntly back to my explanation that my dumbfoundedness overcame my ability to plainly suggest that a sign be put on the machine or that a phone call be made for repairs. I made the mistake of asking for his brilliance to advise what I do, and he so eloquently stated "I don't know. It's a separate company and I'm the only one here so I cant't do anything about it" in such a curt, defensive way that it made it sound like I was the one who flattened his tire and now I was convincing him to give me a Slim Jim for free. 

I do not get angry often. Well, okay I get irritated often but I very rarely show it. I am thankful, however, in this instance that my irritation came through in the form of a facial expression that Jean-with-a-D was actually able to perceive, because by the grace of his own kindness he told me that the building next door was an auto shop and maybe they could fill up my tire. 

There was all this panic and anger and shock and confusion swirling in a barrel inside of me, not so much to overflow, but just to keep my brain kind of awestruck at the situation. Imagine how sexy I felt driving one mile an hour fifty yards in a car whose front end I could feel was slanted toward the ground and whose tire gasped as it flopped through one dilapidated rotation at a time.

Thank goodness the auto shop attendants were angels from heaven and the nicest guys in the world. They mentioned I had not been the only one who had come by and they filled my tire in two seconds.

At that point I had forgotten that I had not had a cell phone. I had not needed it. The timing was such that I could still make it back home and even stop for lunch before meeting my next client. My phone sat lifeless and dark in the front seat as I drove. Humorously, now that the panic and confusion had subsided, I thought "hey this would be a good time to give my mom a call. I haven't talked to her in a while." Smack my head. I even thought of a couple people I needed to reply to via text (voice dictation of course). Smack my head. We are so programmed to think that the phone is available and we can do anything we need on it right away at anytime. Even after all the horror-story material of the Reverse Air Machine, my brain still had not learned that my phone was dead and could not be used. It impulsively still thought it could be used right then. 

If you can believe it, I even stopped to pick up lunch without my cell phone - "whaaaaaaaat, another half hour you intentionally cut yourself off from the world?!" Yup, a conscious choice. Because my cell phone is not the world from which I am being cut off. The world can still be accessed without a phone. Short of manually walking into the airport and asking the human behind the desk to give me a ticket to the world, the grocery store in which I bought lunch was filled with a world of people with whom I could connect or from whom I could ask for support if needed. 

Sure, my back pocket felt significantly lighter, but I survived.