Charlotte’s Web was my first self-help book.
At age seven I read it over and over, during the chaotic year of my parents’ divorce. It was then that I first discovered the incredible power of words and of stories. EB White’s novel transported me from the turmoil of my broken household into a barnyard full of new friends. Of course, I loved Wilbur, and of course, I wanted to be Fern. But the imprinting on my soul came from Charlotte. I can trace a line, albeit a circuitous one, between her words below to my decision to become a counselor, and then a coach, to my writing these words to you today.
We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.
There are few gifts as meaningful as a book. No other gift allows us immediate escape to another world or helps us feel a little less lonely in our own. We can be inspired by the life of another soul. We can think more deeply about what it means to live. We can find a road map to the next version of ourselves. A book is a life-changing gift, whether it makes a challenging time a little easier, teaches us to see something through a different lens, or becomes an inflection point in our growth.
Here are some of the life-changing books that I’ve read and loved recently.
For the people on your list who are overcoming adversity and doing hard things:
The Choice: Embrace the Possible, by Dr. Edith Eger
Dr. Eger’s memoir of her life, from her childhood in Budapest to the horrors of Auschwitz to her calling as a psychologist is simply one of the most inspirational stories I’ve ever read. Dr. Eger somehow manages to be uplifting on every page, while never flinching in the telling of her trauma-filled life story.
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
In this memoir, Trevor Noah tells of his adventures, both hilarious and harrowing, growing up as a biracial child in apartheid South Africa. He takes us along for the ride, and there is so much to learn as we witness his resilience and his mother’s unconditional love. Narrated by the author, this is a great gift as an audiobook.
For your loved one who could use a little wisdom in navigating life, love, and relationships:
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed
This book is a compendium of essays from Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” online advice column. The author delivers tough love with spot-on emotional intelligence, humanity, and honest stories of her own misadventures. This is also a great choice as an audiobook.
For anyone contemplating their next chapter in life:
Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
With humor, honesty, and astounding vulnerability, Glennon Doyle chronicles her awakening to her authentic self, and how she found the strength to walk away from the life she thought she was supposed to live.
For those going through the isolation and loneliness of grieving:
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner; and H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald
Grief can leave us feeling lost, adrift, and cut off from the world; a memoir about grief can be a lifeline. Both of these memoirs take us on the journey as the author finds their way back from devastating loss.
For the one on your list who takes care of everyone and everything:
Real Self-Care, by Dr. Pooja Lakshmin
For those of us wired to be caregivers to everyone except ourselves, this book is a reckoning. Dr. Lakshmin calls BS on the false promises of the wellness industry, and more importantly, offers an insightful and actionable path to genuine, authentic self-care.
What about the person on your list who just doesn’t have time to read?
Page-a-day books can be a great choice for the busy people on your list, offering them a daily dose of wisdom or inspiration without the pressure of book.
Some of my favorites are: A Year With Rilke, The Artist’s Way Every Day, and A Year With Rumi: Daily Readings.
I hope that these recommendations are helpful. I also hope that somewhere in the midst of your shopping and holiday to-do’s, there’s time for you to lose yourself — and find yourself — in a great book.
“I stopped listening to myself and started talking to myself.” – Ocular Surgeon Dr. James Gills.
I bring you this post in mid-November when many of us find ourselves having a harder time of it. The world is darker, and the holidays are around the corner. It’s a time when we may be more prone to melancholy, more apt to regress into old patterns, and marking the milestone of another year passed.
In this, perhaps challenging, time: Can you start with being gentle with yourself?
So often I hear my clients say, “I thought I was done with this!” or “I thought I was further along,” when they find themselves grappling with an all-too-familiar theme in their self-development. It might be some long-discarded reactive tendency or old struggles with a certain family member, or even moving through grief and loss.
What I’ve come to believe in my work as a coach, counselor, and recovering perfectionist, is that there are themes in our lives, in our beliefs about ourselves, in our family-of-origin stories, that will come up for us again and again. And again.
There are sentences we’ve repeated in our thoughts so many times, they’ve become the soundtrack to our lives. This is just the way of it – we have central struggles that make up who we are and how we are. And our work on ourselves leads back to these themes, in different ways, from different angles; back, in order to move forward, as we grow, develop, and mature through all the seasons of our lives.
All of this is completely normal and human and okay – until we make it mean something about our progress and how we haven’t come as far as we “should.” In answer to the age-old question, Are we there yet? Yes and No. We’re never there… and we’re already there… and there is no there there. (This is actually good news.)
In their book, Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe this “Are we there yet?” reflex. They refer to this mechanism in our brains as The Monitor, a sort of sentry that constantly tracks our progress in all that we endeavor, whether we’re climbing a mountain, tackling a project, or simply driving to pick up our kids. This Monitor knows our goals, watches our progress, and has some very insistent opinions about how much headway we should be making, relative to our efforts. The Monitor tends to skew negative, its voice a combination of a drill sergeant and our most judgy critic. Does this ring a bell? Are you familiar with this voice? It’s actually coming from inside the house – and we get to moderate, modulate and work with it, instead of letting it berate and belittle us.
Whether we’re focused on a big goal, the daily grind, or any kind of task — if we let our Monitor tell us we’re not making adequate progress, this ushers in a host of negative emotions: exhaustion, overwhelm, and frustration, to name a few. It can spur on burnout and cause us to underperform or to give up. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant notes that “the strongest predictor of engagement at work is a sense of daily progress.” This tendency to monitor our progress (or lack thereof) and incorporate it into our narrative about ourselves is pervasive, powerful and so worthy of our attention.
In whatever goal you’re trying to pursue, especially in this work of self-development, be gentle. Be generous with yourself. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and mark your progress with the most positive data available to you. Let the graph of your journey be an oscillating spiral or a zigzag – and still notice the positive trajectory. Allow yourself to double back and revisit old issues. In our growth as humans, we often need to learn things in many ways, from all different angles, to truly evolve and integrate that learning. What if you just let that be okay?
I know, I know – my perfectionist sisters out there are gasping at this advice, worried that if they actually gave themselves a break, they might become – dare I say it? – slackers!
So often we think that if we’re just hard enough on ourselves, mean enough, critical enough – we’ll locate the sufficiently swift kick that finally gets us in high gear. We’ll finally achieve the perfectionist fantasy. Nothing could be further from the truth: this self-critical approach in any endeavor is so painful. It’s not sustainable, and we inevitably give up. How many times have you abandoned your effort toward something you truly want, because it just felt too hard? Now ask yourself: who was making it so hard on you?
What if we meet ourselves out on the path, in whatever chapter we happen to be – with patience, kindness, self-compassion?
What if we told ourselves the truth: that perfection is a lie, a fantasy, a distraction — and progress is almost always slower than we think it should be, but it is forward motion nonetheless.
I promise you: this is not a “think positive” platitude; it’s actually very pragmatic. It’s about telling yourself the truth rather than recycling an old story. It’s about moving yourself forward rather than giving in to self-sabotage. All growing things need to be nurtured, fed, and tended to gently; not undercut.
Ironically, when you allow yourself to be “enough” right where you are, that’s what creates the will, the strength, to go further. Stop giving so much airtime to your harsh Monitor and tell yourself the loving words of encouragement you need, and deserve, to hear.
I’ve been talking about burnout a lot lately. I’ve had the privilege to speak at conferences on the west and east coasts, and to continue to help my clients change their relationship with their work.
Despite burnout being such a topic of concern in our cultural conversation, its incidence continues to rise, especially in health care and across other essential worker industries. Especially among professional and leadership roles.
I believe that one of the reasons burnout is so intractable for many is because the conversations – and our thinking about it – begin with a false choice. It’s our fault or it’s their fault. We’re broken or the system is broken. This binary thinking leads us to shame or blame – two places from which actionable solutions never come.
This false choice thinking doesn’t just apply to burnout; it’s often our default response to any problem in our lives. There’s a righteous satisfaction when we place the blame on others; especially when we’re venting with someone else. It’s often a welcome respite from shaming ourselves. It’s a momentarily relief, like the donuts in the break room, until the inevitable crash.
Let’s be clear, though: holding someone else, or the situation, accountable for your emotional experience gives them, or the situation, all the power. It keeps you stuck. Their suffering doesn’t increase, yours does. The emotional exhaustion, the cynicism, and the sense of disempowerment continue or get worse.
The place to solve any problem, burnout or otherwise, is out beyond shame and blame. It’s a place of curiosity and openness, a place of heightened understanding. No matter how far we get in this life, there’s more to learn: about our own default thinking and emotions, our own patterns, and how we meet and interact with the world around us.
There is no solving problems without growing ourselves. That’s the bad news and the very good news.
When we see our current negative emotions as a call to learn and evolve, we can shake off the mantle of shame and blame. We can move ourselves to a higher place, up the mountain of our own development. Yes, it takes work and energy, but the view from the next level is amazing.
This is why I love being a coach: helping people step out of shame and blame and connect with their own power in their lives is like being a sherpa on the most beautiful mountain in the world: the human capacity to transform. Isn’t that what we’re here for? To learn, grow and explore? To know and love the world and ourselves more fully and more deeply?
Rumi put it so beautifully:
“Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Are you ready to go “out beyond” your current chapter? To step outside your default patterns and the false choices that keep you stuck?
I’d love to meet you there.
If you’re looking for a place to start, check out this video series.
If you’ve never experienced coaching, you may have some questions about it, and perhaps you have some assumptions…I know I did. A few years ago, I heard the term “Life Coach” and as a clinical counselor, I felt immediately dismissive of the concept. It sounded like a new age fad, a vapid practice of papering over complex issues with positive affirmations.
I’m so glad I took a second look.
What I found, when I gave coaching a chance, was an incredibly potent set of tools and skills to apply the insight that years of therapy had already afforded me.
The most foundational coaching tool I use with my own clients is called Thought Work: a process of stepping out of your stream of thoughts and observing them for what they are, sentences in your brain.
As an example, let’s take critical self-talk, something with which I and so many of my clients struggle. When we’re swept up in a pattern of negative self-talk, we let these thoughts feed on each other and snowball. We don’t see them as optional; we experience them as a call to action. This is how we get caught in the spin, a spin that feels purposeful and righteous but is really just a conveyor belt of negative emotion.
The first skill my clients learn is to notice the self-criticism without reacting. This can take some time and practice. Gentle practice, not white-knuckled effort. Sometimes the change is slow and incremental, sometimes there are breakthroughs, but my clients see the results immediately: they begin to feel better.
When we learn to label our thoughts in the moment, we have already begun to detach from them. The very act of noticing and labeling a thought gives us distance from it; power over it. The judgmental thought is just that: a thought. It’s not who you are. It’s not reality. It’s not a directive. It’s not a moral imperative. It’s not the truth. It’s simply a sentence, made up by you.
When you label a thought as a habitual judgement, a relic of the old self-critical tapes from your younger years, you’re giving yourself distance and perspective from it. You catch the thought, notice it, and tell yourself the truth. Is this even real? Is this serving you now? Imagine standing by a stream, catching thoughts that flow by. You won’t be able to gather them all; just pick one that catches your attention. You get to decide what to keep, and what to release.
As we learn to watch and label our thoughts, we begin to separate the signal from the noise. For so many of us, the noise is a stream of judgment: of ourselves, of others, of the current set of circumstances.
Coaching teaches us to comb through the noise and find the signal: what’s most true and important moment to moment? Where can we most effectively allocate our limited, precious time and energy? Where are we magnifying or layering on more pain?
If you want to be more empowered in your work or your life, or if you just want to feel better, coaching may be best tool you’ve never tried.
Any Ted Lasso fans out there are familiar with the character Dani Rojas and his oft-exclaimed proclamation, “Fútbol is Life!” Ever since I fell in love with paddleboarding a couple of years ago, whenever I’m out there on the water, my musings take me to a similar credo: “Paddleboarding is Life!” Here’s what I mean.
Smooth, calm water is lovely when you have it, but the water is ever-changing and impossible to predict.
The anticipation of the wave is worse than the wave itself. Let the wave come. If you resist it, you give it more power. Allow the wave; receive it graciously. Let it move you.
You’ll be tempted to over-analyze what’s coming – your brain is always trying to preempt possible danger. This is just your human brain, trying to protect you. Talk to that part of your brain lovingly, like you would to a child.
If things get a little scary, your attention will be pulled to all that is outside of you, but the key to keeping your balance and riding the waves is not found outside of you. The key to your balance is in your center, your core. Go there.
You’ll feel the stab of panic, the cascade of fear; these are signals and nothing more. Feel them as information in your body and move forward.
The headwinds will come, and it will seem that you’re making no progress at all. Measure your progress in inches.
You will fall. You’ll be knocked down. You’ll be finding your way back to the surface with water up your nose. This is called living, and you were, in fact, built for it. You were built to go out into the world and put yourself in harm’s way, on purpose.
Nature is medicine. The sky, the water, the trees – they are nourishment. Your body is the portal to experience these things.
We humans can spend too much time in our heads: solving problems, trying to out-think everything. We treat our bodies like second-class citizens, just along for the ride that’s happening inside our minds. We need to learn to listen to and connect with our bodies – to just be in our bodies, in the world. This is where the healing happens.
Sometimes the most powerful tools in our personal development are the ones we must unlearn. In my training at The Life Coach School I was introduced to the concept of Manuals, and this was so transforming to me and my relationships, I want to share it with you here.
As we’ve talked about before, it is our human nature to attempt to control all that we can in our environment…often and especially, other humans. Often and especially, other humans with whom we have close relationships. We create intricate rules for these particular humans — about how they should feel, act and behave – in order for us to feel certain emotions. In effect, we create manuals for them. Then, we decide what it means when they do or don’t follow these manuals, and worse: we create rules about how we should feel based on their actions.
When we create manuals, we outsource our emotions to others. It’s crazy, right? In our attempt to control someone else we inadvertently give away all our power. These thoughts about how someone should or shouldn’t behave and what we should therefore feel or not feel – these thoughts pretend to protect us, but instead actually create a lot of struggle and negative emotions.
Here’s the thing: our emotions are an inside job: created by us, through our own thoughts. No one else “makes us happy” ….or sad, or mad, or anything else – our emotions come from the thoughts we think. Period.
I get it – this is hard to take. I’ve written many, many manuals in my time…and suffered accordingly.
When Himself and I got married, I developed a multi-volume manual with appendices and footnotes, detailing how he should act, what he should say and not say, and pretty much all the things that were his responsibility in order for me to feel “loved,” “complete,” “happy.” This manual existed only in my mind, of course. I never shared this manual with him – but somehow, he was supposed to have memorized it.
Actually, he was just supposed to know what I needed or wanted (p.7 of my manual). He was supposed to do things without my telling him (p.9). If he did things because I requested them, that somehow “ruined it because it wasn’t romantic.” (Chapter 4.)
Letting your feelings be regulated by someone else’s actions is emotional childhood, and it leads to resentment, frustration, even contempt. We give all our power away trying to control others and waste energy in a tug-of-war with reality. Liberating yourself (and those you love) from your manuals can be one of the most empowering things you ever do. Developing awareness about and letting go of my manuals has transformed the connection and the quality of many of my closest relationships.
This doesn’t mean you abandon your standards about how you wish to be treated. When you take responsibility of your own emotions, you can make requests of others from a place of strength and ease. You set boundaries with more confidence, knowing you’ve got your own back, no matter what.
The catch of course is that taking responsibility for your own emotions means looking within and developing a relationship with yourself. So many of us, particularly women, neglect ourselves profoundly and then blame others for our feeling neglected. Doing the work to improve your relationship with yourself, and meeting your own needs, frees you to simply love and enjoy the people you love and enjoy: minus the scorecards, the expectations, and yes, the manuals.
Uncovering your own manuals is deep work, the gist of which can only be touched upon in a blog post. But if this awareness strikes a chord, I encourage you to explore more deeply. Ask yourself: do you have unwritten rules for your loved ones? How much are your emotions predicated on the actions of others? Questions like these can reveal the optional struggles we often unconsciously create – and work in this area can create profound improvement in the quality of your life and your relationships.