What I learned from a smelly, underwater, pothead.

In one week, I had four clients tell me that their work environments are going through rapid changes:  finance, government, health care, and pharmaceutical sales. If there is an industry that isn’t experiencing these kind of changes, I don’t know what it is.  Real estate, education, retail, computer engineering:  between outsourcing, budget cuts, and automation, it’s easy to assume the jobs you or your spouse hold today will not be around, or be dramatically different, by the time your kids are in the job market. When the world seems to be changing fast there are a few ways we tend to cope with these changes.

A common reaction is to panic.  When we see changes happening around us, we look for familiar structures to cling to:  “If I have an 8 month emergency savings, then I’ll be safe”.  “If I just work harder, I’ll be safe”.  We look for rules and systems to believe will make us feel secure.  This leads to generalized anxiety, stress, sleep disturbances, and health problems.  Worrying about an uncertain future and placing your security in rules that are constantly changing, can turn “making a living” into “making a dying”.

Another common reaction to change is denial.  (Imagine high pitched voice here) “Everything is great and peachy, nothing will affect me, I’ll just keep drinking, spending, overeating, blaming and whatever else it takes NOT to notice that I feel scared.”  This helps people by giving them something else to focus on “I need to lose weight, spend less, get my kids grades’ up”. This method distracts from, but doesn’t resolve the core issue.  Believing scary thoughts like, “I have no choice but to stay in this job I hate” causes you to feel fear.  Ignoring this fear by focusing on other problems, just leads to a lifetime of feeling crappy.

When panic and denial fail to solve the problem, there is one method left.  I learned this personally from a smelly, pot-smoking, scuba diving instructor who was the last person I expected to gain such wisdom.  (The stench of his body odor was so profound that they are embedded together in my memory). In order to get certified, I had to remove my face mask and snorkel, 30 ft. underwater, and put them back on.  To say I was scared was an understatement.  I reassured myself that I new “the rules”, I had memorized the procedure and was prepared.  But as soon as it was off, I started to PANIC.  I frantically swam toward the surface as fast as I could, crazy, flailing around in a terrible state.  My dive instructor firmly grabbed arm, held me down, and tapped the side of my head.  Somehow, that tap on the side of my head, ignited another part of brain:  my instincts.  I calmed down immediately, cleared my face mask and snorkel, and was fine without ever thinking about it.  It was weird, like “how did I just do that?” All it took was someone else to grab my arm and tap my head.  We are all built with these innate instincts to help us through times of fear, the problem is we don’t have access to them when we are in panic or denial.

My work as a life coach is similar.  I hold my clients down by making them relax and stay calm on the phone. Then, I tap into their instincts by asking them to question the thoughts they have been thinking. “Is it true that security comes from your job?” “How do you know the changes that are happening are bad ones?”

Once we let go of the old ideas that are no longer working for us….

”Government work is stable”      “No one quits in this economy”      “It’s ok to suffer if you are close to retirement”,

then, we can allow in some quiet wisdom we didn’t even know was there.

“I’m more capable than I thought.”    “Now’s the time for change, everyone else is scared.”   “I only have to please myself.”   “The possibilities for my future are endless.”

Think about times in your life when you have been genuinely scared.  (Being robbed at gunpoint, seeing a bear in the woods, crashing a car).  How did your instincts step up to help you?  Maybe in our cushy lives, we don’t encounter enough real fear and we forget that we have this built in, instinctual system to help us out.  Look at the difference between fake fear (stress, anxiety) and real fear, and tell me about times when you felt your instincts kick in.

-Instincts are quiet and easy to ignore.  Anxiety is loud and takes over your ability to think about anything else.

-Instincts offer a clear, actionable step to take.  Anxiety suggests pacing, eating, general yuck…oh, I just hate anxiety!

-Instincts can be a thought that pops into your head but usually just one (not 1,000) and it’s often funny and always clear and calming.

-Instincts can be a physical sensation in the body (hairs go up on back of neck, goose bumps, nausea, etc.) but again, easy to ignore.  Anxiety is a runaway train that you can’t get off until your brain thinks it is safe.

If I can find wisdom from a smelly, underwater, pot head, I am confident you can find your quiet wisdom, too.

Welcome to the Land of Crazy

Do you have friends telling you to take a break, relax, get a massage, hire a babysitter?  Do you have a doctor telling you your ailments are related to stress?  Or maybe you relax too much and your friends keep encouraging you to get out more, exercise, do something exciting.  It’s easier to notice other people living in the land of crazy than it is ourselves.  Yvonne just had her first baby and is completely in love and so grateful to be a Mom.  She also is a wreck and feels completely out of sorts.  She can hardly think straight.  She feels stressed and anxious all the time. She is quick to complain or get mad at those around her.  Friends keep telling her she needs to sleep when the baby sleeps, but it’s too hard.  Her husband sends her for a massage but she can’t relax.  She tries to take deep breaths and she just can’t do it.  Something is lost.  Is it her sanity?  Is it her sense of herself?  Sleep?  A feeling of accomplishment?  Social circle?  Support?  Confidence? YES, YES and YES.  She is missing all these things and more.  Even though she wanted to be a Mom SO desperately, she is in a stage I have learned to call, SQUARE ONE.

Square one sucks, even when you it’s a change you really wanted.  It feels like everything you once knew has changed and you are hanging on to sanity by a thin thread. If we were to record Yvonne’s thoughts it would probably look something like this.  “Holy &%*#!”  “What the #%&@ am I doing?”  “Why did I do this?”  “How am I going to do this ?”  It’s what I call “the land of crazy” and my teacher, Dr. Martha Beck calls it, “nobody nowhere with no one and nothing.” If you haven’t been through this stage yourself, I’m sure you’ve witnessed others going through it.  It is a qualitative change in who you are in this world and it’s really normal.  Most people go through about 5 or 6 of these transitions in their lifetime.   Becoming a parent for the first time is a major change in identity and involves grieving the loss of your old, pre-parent self.  If you’ve ever seen anyone who can’t get past an old relationship or keeps recreating the same bad situation over and over, you know what being stuck in square one looks like.  Moving through square one requires patience, kindness and acceptance.

Perhaps you survived new parent crazy land, but you are finding yourself in square one due to economic changes, the housing market, divorce, family illness or death. The best way to get through the crappiness of square one, is to allow yourself to be completely in it.  To grieve the loss of your old self and feel the feelings of sadness, fear, anger, frustration, resentment, or whatever else comes up.  Pour it out in a journal, find a compassionate listener, and stop “shoulding” all over yourself.

“I should be happy”,  “Something’s wrong with me”, “This should be easier”,  “It shouldn’t be this way”, “My husband should be more helpful”, “My Mom should be ____” ,“My kid shouldn’t be so ________.”  “My boss should be ______.”

When you argue with reality, you never win.  If it’s hard, let it be hard.  If you are sad, let yourself be sad.  If you miss that job you couldn’t wait to leave, so be it.  If you are mad, be mad.  Be where you are and feel what you feel.  A forced smile and pile of denial will only keep you stuck in square one longer. Instead, start reclaiming some of your power.  The feeling of helplessness is one of the worst things for the human psyche and we do it ourselves all the time.

Write down a list all the things you feel you “have” to do.  Here is mine:

I have to do the dishes

I have to pick the kids up at school

I have to make dinner

I have to write my newsletter

I have to pay bills

Now change “I have to” to “I intend to”, “I choose to”, or “I will” and see how much better you feel.  In reality, there are very few things we have to do, but when we think that way, we feel trapped & awful.  Realizing you have choices helps to move you into a feeling of personal power.

Here is my revised list:

I will do the dishes because the thought of them piled up for days creates a feeling in me that is worse than doing this repetitive task.

I choose to make dinner because I believe in healthy eating, table manners, and family dinner conversation.

I intend to pay my bills because I don’t like late fees & extra charges and ignoring them will not make them go away.

I will up pick my kids up at school because it is aligned with my values of the kind of Mom I want to be.

I will write my newsletter, oh look at that, it’s done.  Now it’s your turn.

 

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