My Resilience Journey

For those determined to fly, having no wings is just a little detail” ~Princess Sassy Pants & Co.

I have gone through my life with this low level, gut feeling like I have been an underachiever.  Settling for work that stays well within the confines of my abilities and the hours I spend there, I could leave work at work.

I could fulfil my duties without much sweat and no need to stretch upwards to reach towards something creative and challenging.  I felt confident in my abilities within those small spaces that were filled with limited duties.  This is probably why I did not seek out challenges in my life and why I used to shrink from taking on tasks that would not require me to leap out of my comfort zone–my need to appear competent.

And I will say that this need is just the flip side of my fear of stumbling and falling flat on my face.  I have not been sure that I was more fearful of other people seeing my mistakes and sneering or of facing my own incompetence.

I honed in on memories of those times when I perceived I had epically failed…being bullied in middle school.  Being told I was “stupid” by a history teacher in high school.  Believing I was one step behind so many of my excessively high achieving classmates, I just assumed that I was a slow learner.

It was just so easy to focus on those mini-traumatic experiences, that I lost sight of everything else.   I could remember all those many mistakes I made, but recalling my successes…not so much.

This fear also applies to speaking my truth such as expressing my feelings or just getting out there in the world, showing my world my heart, my wisdom in my own quirky way.  It all comes down to that terror of revealing my inadequacies in public.

And how did these fears come about? Exploring the past is an interesting exercise, but I have come to realize that the past is not that important to me anymore. The past is a spotlight on which to explain symptoms, but in my experience, it is not a path forward.

Because I now know that resilience can grow.  So, I have shifted my focus from drilling down on the past, to how I am living my life now and how I want to be in the world.

I heard once that pain is a powerful motivator, but so can having a vision.  For me, it took both the pain of what my life would look like if I did nothing different and the vision of what my life could be if I leapt off that cliff to fly.

I was 55 and knew that it wouldn’t get easier to make the leap.  I had this overwhelming feeling that if I didn’t make the change now, I would never have the guts and it would never be just the right time.

Like having a child, you have no idea what it will feel like and you really can’t step in those parenting shoes until you actually wear them.  I was about to embark on a journey that would push me in directions I had never gone.

So, last April I took that leap.  I had been working in corporate settings for years.  Working for myself has always been my dream, but I always justified my inaction as practical.

However, no matter how often I told myself these messages, underneath, I knew that if I didn’t take the risk of creating my own work, done in the way I believed most helped people, pushed myself to learn new skills, used my creativity, I would be dishonoring my values and shutting down my dreams.

My inaction had little to do with practicality and everything to do with the fear that I just could not do it!  And if I believe that I am not capable, why would anyone else believe in me?

 Resilience

It all comes down to growing your resilience.  And what is so important about this?

In the past researchers looked at people with mental health issues: their environment and genetics that influenced their illnesses such as: trauma, childhood neglect and abuse, broken or insecure attachment, family history of mental illness.  They explored what this did to people, and the best methods to treat them.

More recently, researchers noticed that some people have had horrible experiences in their lives, but somehow, they were inoculated from mental illness.  And they started asking themselves how were these people able to avoid the effects of such traumatic experiences? Thus, the research on resilience and how to help individuals use certain tools that could build their resilience muscles in order for them to thrive grew enormously as a topic of interest.

Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset

Who are these people who can have horrible, traumatic pasts and yet, still manage to remain intact?  And not just intact, but with tensile strength: they can flex, but don’t break. What are some of the common characteristics that they share?

There is a ton of messages out there that discuss failure as integral to learning.  As I said before, failure can feel lousy!  So, if you avoid failure, you don’t have to be faced with all the difficult emotions that come with the struggle, but, if you evade it, you will certainly miss that incredible feeling of elation from mastering a difficult task!

A Growth Mindset has to do with believing that failure is not a bad thing: in fact, it is key to successfully reaching your goals.  It is part of the process of learning, so if you don’t fail, you don’t learn!  And having a growth mindset means that you know you CAN learn—even if the subject does not come easily to you.

So, with a Growth Mindset, you are more likely to try new things and to persevere when challenges come up.

A Fixed Mindset limits us, because then our actions become dependent on our perceptions about ourselves: whether we believe we are good at something…or not.  So, if we think we are not good at something, why try?  If we don’t do this thing we are not good at, we can’t fail, right?

Embrace Those Tough Emotions!

And failing can bring up a lot of unpleasant emotions—those difficult feelings that, if we are honest with ourselves, we all feel.  But, our language around these feelings has a lot to do with discounting them.

If someone asks you if you are angry, how many of you will say, “not really angry, maybe just a little frustrated,” even if you are mad as heck!  We minimize our feelings or outright deny them. Somehow, emotions are to be managed.

It is incredibly hard to just allow ourselves to feel them. They get under your skin and make it difficult to sit still, to quiet your mind. They feel like powerful, sharp punches in places you can’t reach and are desperate to soothe or a permanent lump in your throat and your chest that makes it difficult to breathe.

So many of us just want to get up and walk away from these experiences, because it just feels…so…excruciating.

However, short-term relief from pushing feelings away, stuffing and minimizing them, and then when we can’t, beating ourselves up for feeling them, come at a very high cost. Because they leak out in other ways that become destructive to our physical and emotional health, our work, our personal relationships.

Over time, we disconnect from our ability to have the full range of human emotions.  It is a truism, that if you can’t feel pain, you can’t really feel pleasure either.  You just. Can’t. Feel.  Anything.

If you can just acknowledge your feelings without judgement, they lose their power over you.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Accepting and allowing yourself to experience all of your feelings without judgment is a key tool to growing your resilience.

Because it changes the perception that feeling these emotions is bad into celebrating that to be able to feel all of your emotions is profoundly human and all feelings can lead to powerful lessons.

When you realize that emotions contain important information from which to learn, only then, can you make lasting changes.

Cultivate Your Own Witness

Strong emotions have the ability to ensnare us, if we let them, so we can’t see, do, experience anything else.  We become blind to other options.  Becoming captured by our emotions creates tunnel vision.

So, how, in the face of a powerful feeling, can you step back and just notice it without getting caught up in it?  Cultivating your witness is the ability to notice a difficult inner experience without it consuming you.  It enables you to feel your feelings without all the other secondary suffering that can get you caught in that cycle of crud that keeps you stuck in the feeling.

When you cultivate your inner witness, you can act with intention rather than react.

Cultivating your own witness requires that you slow down.  Simply put, you stop, notice and then name your experience as an observer.  This does not mean you don’t feel all these feelings, but you are not adding that layer of judgment that keeps you waist deep in the muck.

Acceptance

“But doesn’t accepting how you feel and where you are in your life mean you are just giving up,” you ask?  It is a fact that in our culture, we believe that we always have to act.  So, we are constantly evaluating and criticizing ourselves, because we see that as an impetus to change and grow.

Shame, however, is an enemy of change.  Research has shown that those who view slips as learning opportunities—not as personal failures–and then use these learnings to move forward are more likely to succeed.

 You can accept where you are, and at the same time, continue to work towards making changes in your life.

 Comparing Yourself to Others is Bad for Your Health

 Brene Brown once stated: “Stay in your own lane”. 

 Much of my suffering came from comparing myself to others and feeling like I was never good enough.  When you do this, you will always be the loser, because there will always be others who are younger, richer, smarter, more “successful” than you depending on how you define success.

You are the best yardstick for your own growth.

When you focus on your own path, at your own pace, you can let go of all that other secondary suffering of believing you are falling short of others’ performance and expectations.

 Stay Connected

 Don’t go at life alone!

 Embarking on any new path requires asking for help, having accountability partners and also staying connected with your tribe. If on that journey called life, you believe you have to do everything alone, you are cutting off the opportunity for deep connection.

Those friends who will be truly supportive of you will come to feel closer to you if you share the positive times as well as your struggles. 

 Strong social ties have been linked to lower risk of dementia in older people as well as better physical and emotional health.

 So, as I launch a new venture that requires me to stretch in many different directions, I am reminded every day, often multiple times a day, how often we box ourselves in with false limits.

Creating this new path is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am constantly tackling new skills, so when I bang up against the wall of my fear, I remind myself to stop, take a breath, call a friend, take a break and remember that these struggles are growing pains, and I am developing my wings so I can fly.

 Ray Hennessy from Unsplash.com

Mindfulness Lite

 Kosal Ley from Unsplash.com

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.” Thich Nhat Hanh

I signed up for a class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction several years ago because I recognized that my low tolerance for stress had me…well…stressed out.  My stress centered around parenting, my job, driving in traffic…you name it and I was stressed about it.

I was feeling signs of distress in my body: headaches, neck pain, insomnia and just a low level of constant anxiety that lived with me from the first sip of my coffee to bedtime.  Easily frustrated when something did not go exactly right and irritation at the drop of a hat were behavioral clues that I lived with for years.

A Different Approach than Therapy

I had heard about Thich Nhat Hahn and Jon Kabat-Zinn from other people in my life, but had little idea how this Mindfulness thing worked.  Given that I am 98% in the past or the future: worrying about what I did wrong and what could go wrong, I truly had not lived in the present since I was a young kid.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the state of being completely in the present without self-judgment.  Think about a day from hell when just about everything that went wrong did go wrong.  First, your kids decided they did not want to go to school that day so getting them to get dressed and out the door took Herculean efforts.  You then messed up on a work project and found yourself behind.  When you got home from work—later than you anticipated, you were faced with making dinner, helping your complaining kids with a last-minute project due the next day, and, on top of that, you and your spouse had an argument—you get the point.

That night, you lay in bed thinking about all the things you could have done differently and judging yourself for feeling frustrated, angry, stressed.

How often do you allow yourself to feel these challenging feelings or thoughts without trying to control them, push them away or to simply feel like a failure for being overwhelmed?  It is part of the human experience to try to control or fix what feels broken or to beat yourself up for it.

But, what if you could just allow yourself to notice your very human reactions and all that comes with them without judging yourself? What would life be like then?

When you cultivate your own witness, you can stand back and notice what you usually don’t–all those things around you such as what is in front of your eyes, sensations in your body, the sounds in your environment.

Ask yourself this question: how often are you noticing what is happening right here and now?

Even challenging emotions are worthy of notice because they are part of your experience in the moment.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Taking an MBSR course requires a level of time, energy, motivation and commitment that many people don’t have.  8 classes for 2 ½ hours weekly, then each day an average of an hour of meditation homework including yoga can be a major stretch for most of us.  If you can make it through this experience, I fully recommend you do it, because it could transform your life.  But, you don’t have to go to an M.B.S.R. course to get started.  However, if you decide to invest in the class, I recommend that you truly commit to it.  It takes the willingness to give yourself over to the experience without trying to control it.  It is worth it.

The Process of Mindfulness Meditation:

Simply put, Mindfulness meditation has you take deep breaths and focus on your breath while allowing thoughts, feelings, sensations of the present moment to enter your experience as an observer.  Sitting still and focusing on your breath sounds stunningly easy, doesn’t it?  Well, I am here to tell you, it is not.  At first, I gave myself permission to use that hour to daydream and the time went by fast.  Hey, I thought, this is fun! I get to carve out an hour a day to daydream! Who wouldn’t enjoy that?  But when I realized I was simply to focus my attention back to my breath whenever my mind wandered, I could barely get through 15 minutes without wanting to jump out of my skin.  Now there was a lesson for me in pushing through that discomfort.  It is often difficult for us to face boredom, grief, anger or sadness.  We are taught to push through it, to distract ourselves and not think or feel.

What would it be like to give yourself the gift of space and time to allow yourself to feel and breathe?

Mindfulness Lite

Most of us won’t be able to spend that time on a class.  For many of us, it is challenging to find even a half an hour a week for self-care.  For those of us that are too busy to find an hour at least out of our day, I recommend a Mindfulness Lite approach.

The soundbite version of Mindfulness…is to just…notice and breathe.  

For 30 seconds….1 minute.  Take a deep belly breath, take a bite, notice the texture of the food, the smell. Truly savor the taste. Take a look around you, feel your feet on the floor, the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Be aware of the thoughts and feelings that are moving through.  Notice with wonder and curiosity.

These experiences are part of you.

Making it a Part of Your Day

But, first, you will have to find a way to remember to do it.  Mindfulness practice is just like any new habit—you start in small steps and commit to it by scheduling it in.

Put an alarm in your phone to breathe for 30 seconds before you start work or before bed or during a work break.  You can slowly work your way up so you are meditating for longer periods of time.  For luddites, a sticky note might be just as efficient.

You will find that the more you do this, the more this becomes part of your routine.  Then when it really counts during those tough times, the persistent practice of mindfulness becomes a way of being that can help you develop self-compassion and perspective.

As always, “peace is every step”. -Thich Nhat Hanh.

My Morning Meditation

 Rares Piecu from Unsplash.com

This morning, I sat for my 15 minute meditation. In no time at all, I noticed that I had shifted my attention away from my breath and was in deep: worrying about my dog who had eaten a sock the other day…the Physical Therapy appointment that I have to get my son to this afternoon. The fact that I need to go to the pet store to get dog food…you get the picture.

Meditation can feel like a MAJOR frustration when you are bringing your attention back to the present…over and over again! I hear people tell me…what’s the point? It is SO frustrating… I can’t keep still…!

Anyone who has ever meditated can tell you, it can feel like a big commitment and takes a very long time to learn how to focus on the present for more than a few moments at a time.

But I had sort of an epiphany this morning. I thought: what if I realize that this is part of the process of meditation and mindfulness, this back and forthing between past, future and present? Because, this is MY process and MY experience. Which is what mindfulness is really all about. With that realization, I don’t have to beat myself up about being “bad at mindfulness” anymore. Mindfulness is really about noticing one’s own experience without judgment. And this is mine.

WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH MINDFULNESS?