Exhibit 1: My daughter's ukulele on the coffee table, between the TV remote and a stack of beckoning library books (and Allie, the judgmental cat).
Exhibits 2 and 3: A pdf of a ukulele chord chart, thanks to rainbowmusic.com, and me subscribing to The Ukulele Teacher onYouTube.
This takes me three turtle steps closer toward learning to play the ukulele. It's not much. But it's a start.
And, rather than feel like a flop because I haven't learned any actual chords like I intended this winter -- while my daughter is out of the country (without her ukulele) and I recover from foot surgery -- I can at least tell myself I made some progress toward the goal.
Exhibit 3: An in-your-face turtle image I just ran across from a calendar page, a year old. Breaking down goals into the tiniest of turtle steps -- and doing them one at a time -- moves us slowly forward. It's better than doing nothing at all.
A year ago -- when this calendar page was just past current -- I was three months into a coach training program with little idea where it would lead me. My goal was to do the reading, practice and show up for class online each week. The turtle steps I took each week were sometimes as small as scheduling a practice session with a cohort member or even just choosing a friend to ask if they'd work with me.
The formula is simple: Break a task down into as small a step as you can. And do it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
For a student with a seemingly insurmountable backlog of reading, that might mean choosing a three-page section as a turtle step for one evening. If that doesn't seem doable, then break it down further. Maybe it's just a step of getting the book from the library. Or emailing a professor to say, "I know I am behind, here's the scoop..." Break it down. And do it. It's progress.
On a larger scale, the process might look like this...
Overarching enormous aspiration: Make a career switch.
Turtle step: Have coffee with a friend who is in a career you are curious about. Too much? Break it down further.
Smaller turtle step: SCHEDULE coffee with a friend who is in a career you are curious about. Still too big? Break it down again.
Even smaller turtle step: IDENTIFY a friend you might want to have coffee with who is in a career you are curious about.
See how it works? And see the magic of being able to look at that step completed at the end of the day and feel progress toward a goal, rather than shame or anger at staying in the same place?
The turtle and hare folktale comes to mind. But this isn't about winning a race. It's a tool for moving through life with intention, rather than letting it happen and looking back with regret at projects untackled, dreams unexplored, and goals unmet. It can work on everything from cleaning the garage to writing a dissertation (not that I'd know, but I've heard...).
It's a tool that requires practice, at least for me. So this March 2017 calendar is staying out where I can see it each day. Today's ukulele turtle step: Get the thing out of the case and tune it.
What turtle step can you take today to make progress on that ever elusive project or goal?
For years I told myself demeaning things I wouldn't say to someone I didn't particularly like, much less a friend... or even my cat. I most certainly would be devastated if my children said these things to themselves. So why was I stuck telling myself things like:
Hello?! (knock on forehead). Is this ridiculous spiral and self flagellation useful in any way? Is this story I tell myself about myself serving any purpose other than to cause suffering? Nope!
This kind of negative self talk perpetuates itself and creates neuropathways in our brains that are like ruts in a road. It becomes easier to repeat these thoughts -- even though they make us miserable -- than to get out of that familiar brain rut.
Thankfully, there's neuroplasticity, the "muscle-building" part of the brain. Neuroplasticity is "the physical basis of why making a thought or action over and over again increases its power," according to BrainWorks, "Over time, it becomes automatic; a part of us. We literally become what we think and do."
So, obviously, changing that negative self talk to positive self talk is the answer. Not so easy. It's really hard, I found, to re-train our brains!
I Notice That a Part of Me is Thinking...
A transformation began for me in re-training my brain when I learned some basic concepts from Acceptance Commitment Therapy. Simply this...
When I realize my inner critic is telling me I AM... not enough, unworthy because I am not doing what so and so does, or a failure because of blah de blah... I step back.
And I change the I AM to A PART OF ME IS FEELING that...
Try it. Does it feel different? Give you a little distance?
Now try the next step. Add to it: I NOTICE THAT A PART OF ME IS FEELING that...
For me, it was nearly revolutionary to realize I was defining myself by a negative thought. When I re-framed the thought and noticed that a part of me was feeling whatever negative thing, the power of it began to diminish.
I AM ENOUGH
I was relieved. And I began to notice cracks in the rutted road of my brain. And I began to create new ruts with more positive thoughts. Vulnerability expert Brene Brown notes the power of creating a new simple neuropathway when those negative messages pop up. When you notice that negative self talk, try instead to tell yourself "I am enough."
After reading Brown's book Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms our Ability to Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, I started with these small steps. I put sticky notes around reminding me "I am enough." I breathed in and breathed out as I meditated, walked, did yoga stretches, "I am enough." Most importantly, I stopped myself when "I am such a failur..." started to come to my consciousness, and switched it. "I am enough."
Try it. Let me know how it goes.
A clothespin clasped to a friend with words of encouragement, handwritten notes, and painted rocks... last week, students at Eastern Mennonite University beat the winter doldrums by spreading words of appreciation, gratitude and encouragement with these simple tools. Today as I walked across campus, the rocks' simple messages got me out of my hectic brain and made me focus on this moment.
Thank you to artists for slowing me down and being in the moment. It's really all we have. Moments, one after the other. Fixating on what happened yesterday or a decade ago and obsessing about what will happen tomorrow or next year occupies too much of our brain space. In The Joy Diet, 10 Daily Practices to a Happier Life, Martha Beck, PhD, provides a recipe to achieve the immediate gift of joyful living in the here and now.
Coach training was transformative for me in this simple way. I learned that when my brain swirls with thoughts of "what if" or "if only," I run on a vicious hamster wheel to nowhere. When I stop and tell myself, "Hey, I am okay right now, in this moment," my anxiety plummets... at least for the moment.
Let me not imply I have mastered this or rid myself of anxiety. This remembering that I am okay this moment is a discipline. As human beings, we get dozens of opportunities throughout the day to practice. We are bombarded with messages that send our brain into lizard mode -- fight or flight; scarcity is coming; we don't have enough; we're doing this all wrong.
Those messages aren't true and don't help us. One turtle step you can take toward managing anxiety is simply being aware when your thoughts are focused on the past or the future... call yourself home to this moment. Notice the painted rocks and other messages along your path that bring contentment and awareness that you are okay, right now.
And while you're at it, listen to any nudge you feel to share a note or message or hug or words of appreciation with a friend to let them know they too are okay, in this moment.
Whether it's rearranging furniture or dreaming of a move to South Africa, my energy pumps when I think about change. Some people I know (even live with) are wired precisely the opposite: They avoid change. An affinity toward change is neither right nor wrong; it just is.
But like it or not, we all go through changes -- mammoth and mini -- throughout life. I learned about a helpful framework for understanding the change process in life coach training. Martha Beck's change cycle model uses four quadrants and a butterfly metaphor.
Square One is the chrysalis, a time of melting down. In fact, rip open a chrysalis and you will find goo. Sometimes we feel like goo on the inside during a change, even if it's a healthy, longed-for, anticipated change. A mantra for Square One: I don't know what is going on... and that's okay.
In Square Two, we begin to dream and scheme without the limitations of practical boundaries. What is my ideal day? What would I do if money weren't an issue? What do I do that I completely lose track of time? Could I do that instead of my day job? As people move deeper into Square Two and ideas begin to take shape, they often change their hairstyle, redecorate or find a new clothing style. It's a healthy exciting time. Beck's Square Two mantra is: There are no rules, and that's okay.
Square Three is implementation time. It's the real world and both exciting and terrifying. In fact, it can throw us easily back into square one. The butterfly is emerging; if you've ever witnessed a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, you'll see the process; if a human interferes and tries to help, it will kill the butterfly. It's a process that has to happen at its own pace. Similarly, chicks hatching from eggs have the same work to wrestle out of their cozy cocoon . Square Three's mantra? This is harder than I thought it would be, and that's okay.
In Square Four we are in full flight as a glorious butterfly. We soar. We inevitably encounter challenges and roadblocks. The square's mantra? We recognize that we are in constant change, and that's okay.
My personal square
Right now -- post job of 12 years with a clear identity and focus, and learning about being a "solopreneur," gaining confidence as a coach, doing my own work daily -- I am firmly in Square Three... and Square One. It's a bit of a whiplash experience. And that's okay.
Part of doing my own work or "living it to give it" as we learned in coach training, is daily reflection and meditation, figuring out "turtle steps" to take each day toward my goals, paying attention to my inner racing thoughts and being aware of how those thoughts -- and my lizard Rico -- can cause unnecessary suffering.
Jan L. Richardson, artist, writer and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, wrote about change in her book, In the Sanctuary of Women, which I have found particularly helpful as I flop between squares one and three in my change process. Quoting Kim Chernin in her book Reinventing Eve, she says change is like this:
"It circles around, snakes back on itself, finds detours, leads us a merry chase, starts us out it seems all over again from where we were in the first place. And then suddenly, when we least expect it, something opens a door, discovers a threshold, shoves us across."
Richardson closes her chapter with this blessing which I embrace for today and offer you...
Editor's note: Two days after this original post I changed my lizard's name from Coco to Rico, this being the namer's prerogative. Rico was the name I wanted to use all along (which will become apparent in his story). I wanted a female lizard and Rico didn't work. So I am at peace with a "he" lizard as I decided to listen to my inner voice and go with the name that first came to me. More on listening to that inner voice in future posts.
Meet Rico. He’s my inner lizard.
I discovered found him slinking among the ruins in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, last summer.
Actually, Rico has been with me all along… I mean ALL along. It’s only recently that I named him and captured an image to help me visualize, talk to and calm him.
Rico is my amygdala, that part of my reptilian brain which makes me focus on “lack or attack,” according to Martha Beck, PhD. On one hand, Beck notes, our reptilian brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: We don't have enough love, time, money, everything. On the other hand, she says, our reptilian brain is also sure that something terrible is about to happen. It’s why so many people are stressed out, burnt out, anxious, depressed and, well, miserable.
Our lizard brains were beautifully created to keep us safe. In STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) training at Eastern Mennonite University, I learned how it kicks us into fight or flight mode. Long ago, the extra zing of adrenaline it provided to help us run from, say, tigers, was a good thing.
However today, this same system is triggered by all kinds of non-life threatening stimuli like traffic jams, rushing from one activity to another, a zillion emails we can’t answer, the bing of a text coming in. We don’t have the physical release of running off the stimuli and the rest that should come after the surge to regroup. Instead, we hunker down in office cubicles, behind the wheel, in front of a screen... I like this video depiction of how fight or flight can play out in modern day life.
During life coach training through the Martha Beck Institute over the past year, I got quite familiar with my inner lizard. Our mentors encouraged us to name them and draw, capture or find an image of them. Thus, Rico was born.
Now, when my thoughts spin, heart races, fear creeps, I take a deep breath and say, “Well, hello Rico. Thank you for visiting. I know you mean well. But I don’t need all you are offering right now. Take a chill pill.”
This simple act of becoming aware of your inner lizard -- of what is happening to you physically and physiologically when he or she jumps to attention -- is a first step in easing unhealthy anxiety and stress.
Rico has been especially active in recent weeks since I left full-time meaningful employment and decided to launch my own life coaching business. Thanks to the many tools I learned during my life coach training -- and the network of coaching friends who I can contact for a coaching session when needed -- I’ve been staying on good terms with Rico.
I look forward to sharing tips, tools and reflections on thought work in future posts as my understanding and my business grow.
For now, consider getting acquainted with your inner lizard. Let me know if you name him or her and how you’re doing together.
A 50-something life coach living in the Shenandoah Valley. Grateful. Growing. Giving... and receiving.