Self-Care for a New Year

2021 is on its way. As we bid goodbye to a difficult year and welcome in the unknown joys and challenges of the next one, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on one insight this year brought me. 

As a therapist and a caring human, I understand the concept of self-care. Simple, right? Take good care of yourself. I know this is important, and that in order to serve others, I have to tend to my own basic needs first. 

If you know me, you know I have a lot of plates spinning, pretty much all the time. But coming down with and recovering from COVID earlier this year led me to take a look at and eventually come to terms with some aspects of self-care I hadn’t been as aware of. This is what I realized: I can give myself permission to do nothing, go for a walk, take a bath or a nap…and then it is also important to notice what my brain is doing. 

That’s why I want to ask you: When you intend to unwind, what is your brain doing? Of course, your brain is part of your body, but even when we’re resting, most of us don’t really get a brain break. In my case, I could be lying in a hot bath and still worrying about a list of things. I could be falling asleep, or trying to, while simultaneously problem-solving about any number of things, for instance a tough conversation, a difficult decision, or how to improve my online course. This habit led to considerable fatigue over time, and I had to come to terms with it in order to fully recover from COVID and keep my business, and my dreams, moving forward.

You don’t have to get sick; you can learn from my experience, and I sincerely hope we can all take many important lessons forward from 2020. So I ask you: Are you giving your entire body a break, including choosing kind thoughts that create relaxed feelings? Or are you still running that little checklist in the back of your mind, worrying about a client, friend, or relative, telling yourself about a list of “shoulds” or being mean to yourself about what it means to nap at 3 pm? 

I want to talk about this because I think it is likely that a lot of people, like me, may intellectually value the importance of recharging, while missing the most important aspects of it. Allowing yourself to really rest is a critically important part of functioning. Never completely unplugging, and running at a low-grade of worry all the time, is a recipe for burnout, not to mention ill health. But still, our to-do lists expand, and self care falls off the list. How can we bridge that gap between theory and practice?

I want to offer a reframe that might help. We tend to think of resting as “doing nothing.” But, knowing what we do about the importance of rest to physical and mental health, maybe we should reframe resting, and start thinking about it as “fulfilling our most crucial and basic needs.” It’s not the thing you do once you’ve checked everything else off your list; it’s an indispensable part of functioning. I’m sure none of this is news to you, but if you’re feeling fatigued, stressed, exhausted, and burned out nonetheless, I hope this message can be the reminder that encourages you to take a real break. 

To ring us into the bright and hopeful new year, I’d like to close with some tips for accessing your parasympathetic nervous system and getting a real break:

  • Take a nap
  • Meditate
  • Have an orgasm
  • Bask in a sunbeam
  • Listen to some beautiful music while doing nothing else
  • Do just one thing at a time
  • Get out your markers or colored pencils and make some marks on a page
  • Play with your child’s play doh
  • Go for a relaxed stroll just for the fun of it
  • Take a leisurely bath or shower
  • Ask yourself “what would feel positive, or at least neutral, right now?” and do it
  • Follow your emotional guidance system; choose the action that sounds like the most fun of the options before you
  • Practice thinking thoughts that bring you positive feelings, no matter what you, the weather, or your relatives are doing (or not doing)

Most of all, I wish you health, happiness, and true wellbeing. This is the season for consolidating learnings, rekindling hope, seeking inspiration, setting intentions, and moving together into the deep and beautiful unknown. I’m so lucky to be moving into the future in community with you.

Setting Meaningful Goals: New Year’s Edition (Part Two)

Welcome to 2020, everyone! It’s the beginning of a brand-new year and a brand-new decade. Milestones like this can be both exciting and intimidating. They invite us to look back on the past decade, assessing experiences, successes, and failures. They inspire us to look toward the future, and imagine what we could do, and who we could become, in the future. 

To celebrate the season, I’m sharing a few more thoughts on setting meaningful goals. I know that many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions. I think goal-setting is an art form worthy of careful consideration. In my last post, I talked about the value of assessing the past year and envisioning who you aspire to be in the next one. Today, I’m going to talk about what you can do next, to start bringing those beautiful visions to fruition.

It’s important to acknowledge that effective goals are those that feel meaningful to you. If a goal is not alignment with your beliefs and values, you’re probably not going to be motivated enough to pursue it. Changing our ingrained habits is challenging, and you need pretty strong motivation to help you push through the inevitable setbacks; you’ll have trouble with follow-through if you’ve only chosen your goal because it’s what you think you’re supposed to want, or because someone else wants it for you. 

It’s also worth noting that, if your goal is a bit of stretch, you will probably not have a smooth road to success. You will encounter obstacles, forget your goals, get distracted or frustrated, and probably even meet with some opposition from others around you. There’s just no way around it. The key is to keep moving forward, however gradually, and keeping your eye on your own dreams and desires. If you think it will be straightforward, you might become discouraged and give up. Far better to go in with the expectation that progress will come slowly, and the process will not be linear. 

For that reason, I encourage you to start by focusing on small but meaningful steps, rather than huge leaps. Return to your hopeful Technicolor vision of the life you want, and the person you will be in that life. Ask yourself, what is one thing you can do that is a part of being that person, in that life? This should be a small but meaningful step, something you have at least 80% confidence you can accomplish. Ideally, it should also something you can feel excited about.

Next, make it real. How will you actually do it? Maybe you have a somewhat abstract goal. If that is the case, find a specific, actionable step that will lead you closer to your larger aspiration. For instance, if your goal is “I would like to cultivate compassion for myself and others,” you might resolve to carve out ten minutes at the end of each day to practice a loving meditation or to journal with a mind towards compassion, or develop a gratitude journal. Whatever your goal, whether concrete or abstract, figure out a first action step to put into practice. Following through will help you build confidence, while also creating the life you want.

Of course, your goal might be anything, but whatever it is, here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Make sure you are 80% confident you can follow through on your action step exactly as you intend. If you’re not there yet, adjust your action step until you can actually do it. Being reliable to yourself is extremely important.
  • It’s inevitable that there will be days when you don’t follow through. That’s fine, and you should forgive yourself easily. But don’t just ignore it either. Figure out what got in the way. Did feelings get in the way? Thoughts? Inadequate self-care? Circumstances? Figure out if the thing that got in the way was in accordance with your values. If not, maybe you want to make an adjustment to how you respond in circumstances like that, so that you can do what you intended. For instance, let’s say cultivating compassion is your bigger goal, and a gratitude practice is your action step. If you don’t do it one day because you were helping a friend in need, you have cultivated compassion anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t do your gratitude practice because you’re exhausted and depleted, you will need to figure out how to manage exhaustion and depletion. Realistically, exhaustion and depletion are going to be part of your life at times, so if you want to still move towards acting in the way you aspire to act, you’ll need to consider how to cultivate compassion despite the inevitability that you will at times feel grouchy and worn down.
  • You should feel excited about your action steps. That might require a bit of a mind shift. This is what I mean: when you think about doing that thing, you should be able to connect it in your mind to something meaningful to you that comes with terrific payoff. For instance, taking out the trash might not sound fun, but if it represents being the kind of person you want to be, and you are very excited about creating that life, you can shift the way you think about taking out the trash so that it feels a little more fulfilling. Keep your focus on that connection: how do your action steps move you toward something that is wonderful?

As you practice your action step, it get easier. Eventually, it will become just a part of how you go about your life. Whenever you are ready, add another action step, or simply switch it up. But whatever you do, don’t overwhelm yourself with a list of things you have to do! That is a surefire way to prevent yourself from changing your life in the ways you want.

Setting Meaningful Goals: New Year’s Edition (Part One)

As 2020 approaches, I know that many of you are probably taking some time to assess the past year: its joys and sorrows, high points and lows, successes and failures. I know that you’re probably also looking ahead to the next year, and wondering what it will bring. Perhaps you’re also thinking about New Year’s resolutions. 

Many of us are familiar with the rinse-repeat cycle of New Year’s resolutions: choosing too big of a goal, or the wrong goal, and then falling short and being overcome with disappointment, shame, or guilt. This all-too-common phenomenon is entirely counter-productive; it’s not self-loving, and it discourages us from trying again when we falter. 

Setting good goals is an art form. It takes some real skill and self-knowledge to identify a goal that is achievable while still being a meaningful stretch. In this two-part series, I’m going to explore the topic of meaningful goal-setting, and provide some guidance for how to create an effective resolution. 

First, let me be clear: an effective goal is a self-loving goal. Often people go wrong with their resolutions because they are actually a little bit punitive. Don’t do that!! You can’t hate, shame, or guilt yourself into lasting change. Speak kindly to yourself about your dreams and desires, using a loving, playful, or nurturing voice, rather than a scolding or critical one, and see how much more effective you are at achieving your goals.

Setting a good goal starts with self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions, and answer them on paper:

  • What went right for me in 2019? List at least 5 things. Feel free to list 20 or 30. 
  • For each item on your list, add: What did I do to create this, encourage it, or not get in the way of it happening? No matter how much your successes appear to have come from outside of yourself, you did play a role. Figure out what you’re doing right.

Next, start dreaming. Write down some thoughts about these questions:

  • What do I want my life to look like in the next year?
  • What kind of person am I, in my vision of the life I want to create for myself? 
  • How do I want to feel, in my relationship with myself, others, and work?
  • What do I want to give to the world?

As you read over your dreams and desires, picture them in vivid Technicolor. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings associated with your successes, present and future. Let it feel real. What does it look and feel like to get where you are going?

Is it difficult to feel the feelings you will feel in the future, when you have succeeded at your goals? I bet you have some experience with success. Remember a moment when you felt fabulous. Call that up, make it vivid, and then sit with it. Get comfortable feeling as fabulous as you want to feel.

The first part of goal-setting is allowing your imagination to roam, and allowing yourself to feel the feelings associated with success. In part two, I’ll walk you through the next part of the process: taking small but meaningful steps, and making it real by setting achievable intentions.