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.
Will you be taking some time off this summer? I sincerely hope that’s something you can do. And if you can, I urge you to think about what you need physically, mentally, and emotionally, so that your time off can actually be a break, can be medicine for you.
Have you ever felt, returning to work after a vacation, that you’re just as exhausted as when you left? Have you ever felt unavailable to the pleasures of leisure or travel because you’re just so damn tired? When we’re in burnout or on the edges of it, we can end up sleepwalking through life, not just at work, but on our own time, too. We squeeze too much into our vacation time because the accelerated pace has become our new normal.
When I was in burnout, it felt like the world presented itself to me in the form of an endless to-do list. I began to see people, even the ones I love the most, only in terms of what they needed from me and what I needed to do for them: a mundane, repetitive march of needs and demands. My sense of duty and drive had overridden all other aspects of my being. All the things I’d wished for, sought out and loved in my life – my family, my home, my team, my work — all coalesced into an endless series of tasks in my brain. I saw everything in terms of what was required of me. My days became a parade of tasks which only a checking-off would bring some whisper of satisfaction before I was inevitably onto the next task. I was stuck on repeat, on this treadmill, whether I was at work, home on the weekend, or away on vacation.
Here are some tools to help ensure that you liberate yourself from your treadmill and get what you need from your long weekend, vacation, or day off from work. First, allow yourself to step out of relentless productivity. Purposely set aside time to ask yourself, “What do I need?” If this question stumps you, you’re not alone. Many of us are so programmed to take care of others and manage everything around us, this question is a radical one. The answer might not be readily available – that’s okay. That’s not a signal to jump back into taking-care-of-all-the people-and-all-the-things mode. Let the question linger in your mind, without an answer, and see what arrives.
You are a being who gives — also receives — energy. What energizes and replenishes you? Pause there for a moment and ask again. In your time off, what do you need?
Do you need a break from the relentless pace of your daily life? When you read those words, is there a “Hell, yeah” resonating through your body? If so, think about where you can alter the pace of some part of your weekend or vacation. Where can you let things slow down, let time open up, and do something slowly? Is there container of time where you can meander, dabble, putter – with literally no agenda? If those words are music to your ears, that’s a signal to you—give yourself a container of time where the pace is slower.
What brings you joy? Often it’s the simplest things, right there within our reach. If we’re too much in our heads, we aren’t present to the joys around us. Many of us have become so addicted to multitasking, we’re not fully present anywhere. We can’t relax when we do have down time, so we go into autopilot, buffering and distracting ourselves with false pleasures: mindless eating and drinking, shopping, scrolling. These activities masquerade as rest, providing a temporary escape from how we’re feeling. They don’t replenish us in the long run.
The portals to presence – the portals through which you receive energy — are your five senses. Deploy them intentionally, and they will take you out of your head and into your body. For example, if you’re making coffee on your day off, don’t just get it done. Dial down the pace and deploy your senses. Step away from To-Do mode and experience the miracle that is coffee. Listen to the reassuring hum of water boiling, and that satisfying gurgle of liquid rushing into the mug. Your cup is being filled, literally and figuratively. Receive it. Inhale the wonderful smell, connect with it. Wrap both hands around the cup and feel its warmth, warming you. Notice the delicate curl of steam rising; follow it with your eyes. And of course: really taste that first sip.
You can apply this same conscious attention to any activity that you enjoy but usually must rush through on a typical day. Wherever you can, slow down the pace and allow yourself to connect to what’s around you. The more you can tune into your senses, the more you signal to your nervous system that you’re stepping off the treadmill, and this is a time to refuel.
Turning your attention toward your needs isn’t self-indulgent – it’s strategic. Consciously attending to your own energy is what allows you to sustain all that you give to others and the world. Your mind and body can’t power down into rest and repair without your deliberate permission.
It’s helpful to think of our minds having both a zoomed-out, macroscopic setting, and a zoomed-in, micro setting. Mindset comprises our macro view of the world, the future, and what’s to come, and in a previous post I talked about the power of an optimistic mindset. This post will look at the more zoomed-in setting, our expectations.
While a generally optimistic mindset serves us well in many ways, our expectations about upcoming events can calcify into a kind of playbook about how things should be, creating frustration, disappointment, and what Byron Katie calls “arguing with reality.” Our expectations, if set too high and too rigidly, front-load pressure into our experience of anything, especially those events we’ve deemed to be positive, special or fun.
Have you ever noticed that it’s often harder to be your best self with the people you most adore? Have you noticed a certain tension or strain when you’re finally in the situations you’ve anticipated and looked forward to? Holidays, birthdays, family gatherings, vacations. There is a fine line between the pleasure of anticipating these cherished events and the tendency to write a playbook for How This Should Feel and How Everything Should Go. And of course: How Everyone Should Behave. The latter is an especially powerful tool, called a Manual, that deserves a post of its own: stay tuned for my post on the Manuals we write for our loved ones.
Whether you’re grinding it out on a typical Tuesday workday or experiencing a bucket-list moment you’ve saved and planned for – what’s for certain is you will be having a human experience. Human experiences will contain a mix of positive and negative emotions. You will bring your imperfect humanness to it, and the other humans sharing this experience will bring their humanness to it as well.
When our kids were younger, Himself and I learned over time that the phrase “as a family” should be banished from our planning vocabulary. When we talked of going out for ice cream “as a family” or playing a board game by the fire “as a family” – that very phrase infused a subtle but powerful pressure into the activity. We were no longer only eating ice cream or playing Monopoly; if it had been designated an “As a Family” activity, there was this unspoken presumption about how much we were supposed to be bonding and enjoying each other’s company. Our kids, of course, didn’t get the memo, and carried on as usual: sometimes enjoying themselves, sometimes being miserable. I think they may have felt the pressure, because often when the expectations were high, there were more meltdowns, more parental snapping at them and/or at each other…it wasn’t pretty. This pressure was even worse when we had saved up for the big vacation: how dare anyone be in a bad mood when we were hemorrhaging roughly $100 an hour so that we could have The Time of Our Lives?
Expectations are powerful, and they are, in fact, just thoughts; stories we are telling ourselves. These stories have the power to enrich or to poison any experience. What is the story you’re telling yourself about how things should be as you anticipate the coming day, weekend, or season? Are there places where your expectations are amplifying pressure, and how might you loosen that valve?
As you plan and look forward to this summer’s events – the holiday gatherings or the family vacations or even just a typical workday — the tool I offer you is this: Let your expectations be gentle. Gentle expectations are not low expectations. This is not, “Let me predict the ways this could end up being a disaster.” That thinking sends our brain into primitive, protective mode, hunting for evidence.
Gentle expectations are held loosely. Gentle expectations allow for the mixture of positive and negative emotions in any situation. Paradoxically, when we allow for the negative, we are more open to the positive when it comes around. When we are preoccupied by a narrative about how things should be, we miss out on what is.
Gentle expectations allow things to be what they are and the people you love to be who they are – because they will. Your two-year-old will be a two-year-old. The weather will be less than cooperative. That lunch at the restaurant you read about may not end up being the best you ever had. Much of your experience will not, in fact, resemble what’s documented in your friends’ Facebook and Instagram posts. You’ll get tired, angry, hungry, ill-tempered…in short, you’ll be human, even if you happen to be in a place that advertised itself as Paradise.
Let yourself be human anyway. Meet all of it – your own humanness and that of others, and the unpredictable messiness of this human experience – with openness, compassion, flexibility. No matter what we plan and anticipate, so much of this life is out of our control. Our expectations are in fact a tool that we can control, that we can calibrate. Let your gentle expectations be a kind of raft that allows you to ride the waves of whatever life brings.
Pictured: My sister-mother, Martha, and me.
I have no tools for you in this post—just pure, unadulterated inspiration.
I want to introduce you to Martha, my sister-mother. To be in her presence is to know grace. She is the personification of strength, courage, determination, motherly love. I want to tell you her story, and the story of how I came to know her.
When I was little and dreaming of what my life would be, I always wanted four children. This was initially spawned by an obsession with The Bobbsey Twins mysteries and their two sets of twins, but that number four stayed with me. And although those four children didn’t come to me the way I’d imagined, my wish did come true.
After my bout with cancer left me infertile, Himself and I decided we would adopt our children. We adopted our two babies from a faraway place, Guatemala. I’m ashamed to admit it, but we did so not only because there were so many children there who needed families. In my heart of hearts, my ego and insecurity desperately wanted to ensure that my children would be “all mine.” Naively I thought that physical distance would somehow erase biological bond. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
By the time our babies were school-aged, we were searching for their birth mother, having come to see that she was an integral part of them, and their bond with her was a precious lifeline. We began corresponding with her, sharing letters and videos over the years, and though we never were able to meet her, she is absolutely a part of our family. She became my first sister-mother.
Over the years I have come to realize how much of parenting is in fact about sharing your children with others, and ultimately giving them back to the world – to their own lives. I came to cherish my children’s biological mothers, my sister-mothers.
Later, two other children came into our lives, manifesting that number “four” that had first whispered to me. One was a 12-year-old boy newly emigrated to this country from Africa and living down the street. He and our son became best friends instantly and soon he was at our house daily. He was the youngest child in his family, and while his older siblings and his mother, Martha, were working hard to create a new, sustainable life here, he was still very much a kid. As the youngest child, he was living a hybrid childhood, half rooted in the traditions of his native country and half imbued with all things American. It seemed to make sense that he needed both his family of origin and an American family. Soon we were stepping in to help with field trip forms, sports camps, and basketball shoes. Soon he had a bed in my son’s room and joined us on our family vacations. All the while, Martha welcomed our participation and graciously shared her son with us. She became another sister-mother to me.
Almost ten years later, our families have developed a deep and lasting bond through this shared child who is now a young man. We’ve spent holidays together; we’ve cried together in difficult times and shared joyous milestones. This Mother’s Day weekend was one such milestone: we were privileged to attend the college graduation of our shared son’s older sister.
There is something about a graduation, isn’t there? The literal and musical Pomp and Circumstance, the procession of fresh young faces with their mortarboards placed at that jaunty, hopeful angle. It was incredibly moving to witness all this alongside Martha, who had crossed countries and continents to make this day a possibility for her children. She’d survived war, persecution, the loss of her husband. She and her kids spent years – years! — in a refugee camp in Nairobi, waiting for the chance to come here.
Martha will tell you that her faith is what gave her the strength to keep going in the face of all she endured. She is a deeply religious woman; her faith is unshakeable. Yet on that graduation weekend that I shared with Martha, I kept thinking that another of her lifelines must have been her imagination. What had she imagined when she pictured this day? The quaint New England town, the bagpipes’ melody, her daughter’s mortarboard decorated with an empowering quote. Did she have any reference point for all this? She may as well have been conjuring the surface of the moon.
Imagination allows us to inhabit a world that does not yet exist for us. If we rely only on the evidence of our current circumstances, we often have very little to pull us forward. To take a leap of faith, to reach into the darkness, we must engage our imagination, deploy it in the direction of our dreams, our desires. When Martha lived in that camp in Nairobi, she not only kept her faith alive. She willed herself to believe in things she couldn’t yet fathom.
What do you need to believe that you can’t yet see clearly? Sometimes in our busy lives and the daily grind, our imagination gets muted, tamed. It fades to the background, neglected. Our power and energy are often wasted on things we can’t control, but our imagination deserves some of that attention, that fuel. Our imagination is a renewable resource.
I’ll leave you with a parting image, one that both tickled me and moved me to tears. On graduation day, Martha was decked out in a fabulous igitenge, the traditional dress of her native Congo. And strapped on her delicate ankles were the cutest, most quintessentially American pair of kitten heel shoes. I just love that this pillar of strength, this woman who’s been moving, pushing herself forward all her life, now gets to indulge in some gorgeous but impractical footwear. She has arrived.
I hope my sister-mother, Martha, has inspired you: Keep moving, keep dreaming. Let your imagination be wild. And when you arrive at your destination, strap on your kitten heels, and celebrate.