Tools in Your Pocket:  Thoughts

Tools in Your Pocket: Thoughts

This post is the second in a series of posts I’m calling “Tools in Your Pocket,” the powerful (and often overlooked) tools we all can leverage to create more of whatever we’re after in our lives.

This next tool in the series is perhaps the most useful and versatile one of all – our thoughts — because everything else in our consciousness flows from there. Thought work, the practice of awareness, inquiry, and calibration of our thoughts, is perhaps the single most potent way to change our experience of the world and what we can create within it.

Remember our need to control things? Our own thoughts are the most effective place to apply that energy.

To begin, simply notice that your thoughts are separate from, and therefore not 1) who you are, or 2) reality. Thoughts are sentences in the brain. These sentences in our brain create our emotions, moods, our lived experience. Our brain constructs tens of thousands of these sentences each day – they enter our stream of thinking rapidly and surreptitiously throughout our waking hours. Our direct, concrete observations of what we experience with our senses (“It’s sunny outside”) are interspersed with assumptions, opinions, judgments and predictions about ourselves and other people. We call all of this “reality,” when in fact it’s more of a virtual reality – a story our brain is writing in real time.

If our entire experience of the world, our emotions, and our behavior stem from these sentences in our brain, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the default settings of the brain that created them.

1. The human brain evolved to protect us from physical danger. Its primary job is to detect threats in our environment and keep us safe from them. Over time, it has developed a negativity bias: The brain attends to negative information more readily and is more likely to store it, learn from it, and think about it repeatedly.

2. Another evolutionary adaptation of the brain is efficiency, ensuring our basic survival needs are met while saving energy for emergencies. To do this, the brain has developed a kind of “low battery mode” setting wherein it uses habitual thinking to oversimplify information, generalize complexity, and recycle previously used thoughts, over and over.

3. The human brain is also a pattern-recognition machine, and it loves to organize information into patterns and stories. It connects dots of information into a narrative structure to better remember and understand them—this becomes a story. Once that structure is established – the initial storyline – our brain selectively scans for evidence to support it and filters out information that doesn’t fit.

This beautiful machine between your ears, just doing its best to protect you, is writing a story for you, about you. The story it constructs has more of an effect on your emotions, your mood, and your life than any external event or circumstance.

This beautiful machine needs you at its control panel.

Left to its own devices, your brain will offer you a downer of a story, often a nail-biter too — with darkness lurking around every corner. It will be rife with assumptions, predictions, mind-reading, black-and-white oversimplifications, catastrophizing. The plot points are often well worn: based on old, outdated programming. This narration is not what we want to put in charge of how we feel. It often perpetuates the opposite of what we’re trying to create, whether it’s a goal we’re going after or what so many of my clients say they want most: more internal peace.

How do you liberate yourself from your thoughts? It starts with perspective. Step back from the stream of sentences in your brain before reacting to them. Step onto the safety of the riverbank and let the stream flow by. Become the observer, watching the parade of thoughts your brain offers. From the edge of the riverbank, you can catch, examine, and release your thoughts. Decide what to keep and what to let go.

Select one thought that seems to have particular import. You will know it’s a potent thought when you feel the rush of emotion it creates. Ask yourself: Do I know without a doubt this is true? How is this thought serving me? What emotion is created when I think it? What story am I telling myself? Is this thought really just a habit?

While we can’t get out ahead of all the thousands of thoughts we think each day, we can begin to observe them differently. Observing takes us out of reactivity. Observing takes us out of the fray, into the eye of the storm: our own mind. Observing allows us a window into how we create our own emotions and experience, and how we can make change — from the inside out.

If you find these tools helpful, please share with friends, family, colleagues — anyone who could use them!

Curious about Coaching?  Check This Out.

Curious about Coaching? Check This Out.

No matter the life we’ve been able to build, no matter our level of functioning, we all have pockets of struggle and suffering. We all have places or chapters in which we wish we could feel better, do better, show up differently. This is why I love to spread the word about coaching and its power to transform any aspect of our well-being. This month I had the privilege of writing an article about coaching for the New Hampshire Bar News.

Here is the full article as published:

Coaching: A Powerful Tool for Well-Being

If there is a silver lining to be found in the disruption of recent years, it may be the heightened awareness of the importance of well-being and the recognition that mental health plays a critical role in our overall health. The cultural conversation has opened to the fact that no one is immune to psychological distress. More than ever, there is an interest in proactively cultivating well-being across multiple facets of our lives. In this pursuit, coaching has emerged as an effective tool.

Coaching is not therapy, and therefore not treatment for psychological disorders or active addictions impairing daily functioning. Human functioning exists on a continuum, and there is plenty of room for growth beyond baseline. To move from basic functioning in our work and our relationships to a place of thriving and well-being – there’s a lot of ground to be covered, skills to be learned and integrated.

The prevailing myth in our culture is that growth and development are relegated to the first quarter of our lifespan. There is an expectation that by the time we reach our mid-twenties, we will have completed our cognitive, emotional and relational growth. While we may have acquired the skills and knowledge to start a career by this age, the process of knowing and understanding ourselves and the world has only just begun. Throughout our lives change is constant: We are in the process of change, always. To evolve and grow through change requires attention, intention and awareness. Coaching creates a vehicle in which we can be more deliberate in this growth and evolvement.

No matter what our resume or Instagram feed indicates about our level of functioning, we all have pockets of struggle and suffering. Life happens to us despite our attempts to control it.  We feel stuck between knowing what we should do and actually doing it. We see the gap between who we want to be in a given situation and how we actually show up. We default to our negative habit loops and reactive tendencies. We have places where we can’t get out of our own way.

Meanwhile, we are navigating a VUCA world with a human brain. VUCA, the acronym coined by military leaders in the eighties to describe the rapidly changing landscape of the late twentieth century, rings all the more true in 2023. Our world is more “Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous” than ever.  Much of the human brain’s evolution occurred in a harsh world of physical danger: Its ability to scan the environment for threats was paramount. The human brain in our current reality, left to its own devices, can become ensnared in a never-ending cycle of stress, worry, and reactivity. We often attempt to escape this cycle through numbing agents such as food, alcohol, shopping, and online activities. Never in human history have there been more opportunities to escape negative emotions, and ironically, by buffering against our emotions, we feel worse than ever.

To disengage from this negative cycle and create what we truly want in our lives, we need tools and skills. We may know intellectually that yelling at our teenager isn’t effective, or we may have memorized the tactical steps to losing the last ten pounds, but until we are able to manage our own minds, we can’t make progress. This sense of failure often ushers in a stream of self-criticism, which is also not effective in creating what we want.

Coaching creates a space and perspective for us to step out of our default modes and examine our patterns. There are many frameworks and methods of coaching. Because it is an unregulated field, anyone can call themselves a coach; vetting and research is important before engaging in this work.  The framework in which I was trained is grounded in cognitive behavioral theory and positive psychology research, distilling these disciplines into concrete, pragmatic tools.  While therapy may often be past-focused, coaching centers on the present and the future, where current thoughts and emotions fuel behavior. Just as it is hard to count the coins in your pocket, it can be difficult for us to get enough distance from our own mind to see our thoughts as separate from us, to see our own consciousness as distinct from reality.  Coaching is a conversation that allows this perspective, a space of heightened awareness from which we can examine the belief systems holding us back, the fears sabotaging our best intentions, and the inflection points to shift patterns no longer serving us.

Coaching can be helpful in navigating any kind of change, whether we are proactively pursuing a goal, changing career paths, or transitioning to a different phase of life. Our human brains have not evolved to embrace change. In any transition, coaching can help us focus on creating more of what we envision, value, and aspire to, rather than getting stuck in resistance or reactivity.

The mind is a formidable machine, one that requires maintenance and upkeep. The wear-and-tear of chronic stress takes its toll, and patterns of thinking and working that served us well earlier in life can calcify into an overdrive that we can no longer regulate. Burnout is a classic example. The mental toughness and admirable work ethic that elevates us to a certain point in our careers may eventually become a maladaptive cycle leading to exhaustion, cynicism and disempowerment. Coaching can be an ideal tool for unwinding from burnout, or any negative cycle – perfectionism, people pleasing, risk aversion, procrastination, and low-grade anxiety.

Our habitual patterns create, little by little, the lives we lead: Nothing could be more worthy of our attention. There are a wide variety of supports to assist in managing your mind, and coaching is one of many tools. Whatever tool you employ, taking charge of your own well-being is perhaps the most powerful thing you will ever do.


Penelope Perri, MSW, CEAP is a certified Life Coach with a practice in Concord. For the past fifteen years she was a counselor and Director of the Employee Assistance Program at Concord Hospital. Penni helps individuals with life transitions and has created a program to help professionals overcome burnout. 

Please use this link if you would like to download the PDF version.


The Tools in Your Pocket:  Attention

The Tools in Your Pocket: Attention

(Pictured: Fable, demonstrating the power of undivided attention.)

Today’s post is the first in a series I’m calling The Tools in Your Pocket, and we’ll start with your Attention

Often when we want to feel better or do better, we seek fixes and solutions outside of ourselves.  If you’re a Control Enthusiast like me, you know what I’m talking about.  We try to change our circumstances.  We try to control other people.  We buy things.  We overestimate the potency of what’s “out there” and underestimate what we have within us.

If you read my first blog post, you may remember I talked about finding the space in which you choose your response to any given situation.  “The Tools in Your Pocket” are tools you already have for leveraging in that space.  These tools are always available to you, at your disposal; you need only be aware of them and use them with intention. Like any tool, they’re not useful sitting in a drawer somewhere.  Like any tool, the more you practice using them, the more useful they will become.

The first tool I’d like to highlight is your Attention. Attention is the concentration of your focus, through your senses and your thinking, on anything, to the exclusion of other things.  In every moment of your waking hours, you are paying attention to something. By the time your head hits the pillow at the end of each day, you’ve given your attention to thousands of things, events, tasks, people.  This often happens by default, and that’s the problem.

I want you to think of your attention as a powerful laser beam, literally containing your life force.  It sends your energy and your power to whatever and wherever you direct it.  If this sounds overstated, think back to the last time that you felt someone give you their full attention: fully present to you, holding space for you, listening deeply.  Feeling someone else’s full attention can feel as potent as the rays of the sun.   And like any energy, your attention is finite, precious.

When we’re in default mode, we let our attention, a conduit of our energy and power, be frittered away.  We give it away to things undeserving of it.  We multitask. We let our phones siphon off hours of our attention each day.  Because of our brain’s negativity bias and its evolution in protecting us from danger, we automatically employ much of our attention scanning for threats in the environment.  We overspend our attention — and therefore, our energy — on the things least worthy of it:  the vague email from a colleague, the weird look someone gave us in a meeting, the upcoming dreaded event on the calendar.  Attention is a precious resource to be allocated, and if our brain is left to its own devices, it will squander it.

Whatever we give our attention, we are giving our power.  This is why it’s so important, inasmuch as you can, to be intentional and conscious about where you direct and redirect your attention, moment to moment.

To be more deliberate with your attention, this powerful “tool in your pocket,” ask yourself throughout the day: What is currently most worthy of my energy and my power?

Hint:  It’s most often the things you can actually control.

Inner Skills for Managing Stress: Small, but Mighty

Inner Skills for Managing Stress: Small, but Mighty

Here they come!  Small, but mighty.

One of the joys of this work is the chance to collaborate with amazing people I admire.  I have long been a fan of Dr. Laura Jones and her colleagues at Whole Health Concord, and this month I’m proud to contribute to their Healthy News column.

You can view my article, Inner Skills for Managing Stress: Small, but Mighty, here:

I hope you’ll check it out and share with anyone who could use it!

A Pocket of Un-Hurry

A Pocket of Un-Hurry

(Pictured: Fable, local expert on the art of un-hurry.)

How we do anything becomes how we do everything. If you, like me, find yourself in a flurry of busy-ness much of the time, trying to fit as much as humanly possible into every minute of your days, consider carving out a pocket of un-hurry for yourself.

I get it: there’s so much pressure to do more, be more, and you’re doing your best to meet the demands and needs of your life. But here’s the thing: at some point, RUSH becomes our only speed, and we get stuck in that gear. Time scarcity infects our mindset. We transfer a frantic energy to every moment of our waking hours, injecting a false sense of urgency into everything we do. We never get a break from it.

Pause for a minute and ask, when is the last time you did something slowly, on purpose? Lingered. Dallied. Took your time…instead of feeling like you were borrowing time. Has your patience with yourself and others evaporated? Do you notice a tight, rushed feeling in your chest even when you’re supposed to be relaxing?

If this resonates with you, consider claiming and designating a small part of your day, a particular activity, where you will downshift, on purpose. You need only a handful of minutes for this to create a positive effect.

In this container of time, promise yourself: you will not hurry; there will be no rush. Maybe you’ll leave for work with enough time to stop and get your favorite coffee, and actually taste and enjoy it. Maybe as you’re doing the dishes, you’ll let this task take whatever time it needs, allowing yourself to be present to the smell of soap and the feeling of warm water on your hands.

Whatever activity you choose, narrate the experience to yourself. Your brain will need some reminders as you shift gears. Tell yourself that just now, there is no hurry. Let those words sink in. Let your brain and your nervous system feel the pleasure, the exhale, of deliberately slowing down. Welcome to your pocket of un-hurry.

Outside the Overwhelm: There Will Be Flowers

Outside the Overwhelm: There Will Be Flowers

Welcome back. Today I’ve set out some flowers for you.  In this space there will be flowers — lots of flowers. Because they’re beautiful, of course…but they are so much more than that.

I don’t think of flowers as a splurge or an indulgence – I think we need them, just like we need art and music.  We need reminders that life is beautiful, in the midst of all the chaos.

It’s not only their beauty that inspires us – it’s their transformation.  Just weeks or months ago, they were seeds.  Scattered randomly, inert.  Buried in the cold, dark earth.  Seemingly powerless…but stirring inside. Not yet knowing light, but able to imagine it enough to move toward it. Did their need to break open feel like pain or hope, or perhaps the pain of breaking itself compelled them to hope? What else could they do but grow?  And so they did.

They trusted their yearning, their will to grow, and became something magnificent, astonishing, unrecognizable to the selves they once were.  Their life cycle is half hardship, half glory — and all too short – but they give themselves to all of it, moving bravely through its seasons.

Here, outside the overwhelm: what stirs there inside you, if you quiet yourself enough to listen?  What would you like to become in the weeks, months and years ahead, if you allowed space for your own yearning? What light compels you to grow?  This is so worthy of your attention.  You are so worthy of your attention.

Flowers are gestures of care, tokens of love.  Let’s have lots of them here.