3 Small Mindfulness Rituals to Create Stillness and Focus
As usual, I am writing about what I am currently dealing with in my life and practice as a career and life coach for academics in transition. What is on my mind right now is mindfulness, particularly how to create stillness for yourself, in order to grow and move in your life from an inspired place. For those of you who are oriented to a more theoretical way of thinking, this can also be called the science of positive neuroplasticity.
The brain is not just some three-pound muscle that resides in your head; it may exist both inside your skull and through mind or consciousness, outside your head, too, in connection with the other minds around you. Mindfulness is about tuning into your own mind, and keeping your awareness on the present moment. I am often asked about “time management” and really that is another way of saying, “How to I deal with being overloaded?”
The surprising answer is “cultivate mindfulness” because it teaches you how to focus on just one thing at a time, and let’s you know what to do “right now, in this very moment.” It helps you get in touch with what is truly the next best step. Being still is about step one, just learning to be with your mind, by putting your mind in a restful mode that stops the on-going chatter. The next step is decreasing the negative aspects of your mind, and the third step is increasing positivity so that the mind can become an ally for you by building inner strength.
Today I want to give you ideas for increasing the stillness in order to hear the rest of the story in your mind. Many of you know the expression in yoga that the mind is like drunken monkey, jumping from branch to branch and never settling in one place. Many of you have also heard “sit still for at least 15 minutes a day” and for many busy people that feels like an impossible goal. So, let’s start smaller, with three simple actions that will help you develop focus. Pick something you do every day and turn it into a more mindful ritual.
- Pay attention to brushing your teeth. Do it mindfully, actually concentrating on the feel of the brush against your teeth and the flow from one tooth to another. It allows you to be more conscious of the beginning of your day.
- Pay attention to eating. You have to eat every day. Can you put away all other things that might distract you from what you are eating, newspaper, tablet, cell phone, and then concentrate on exactly what you are putting into your mouth. What is the texture of the food? Is it crunchy or soft? Does it taste good because it is fresh and ripe? This helps you become more present.
- Be grateful for those near you. Actually look at them with gratitude and hold them in your gaze. Be thankful for having those people in your life, and know that being here for each other is truly what our life is about. It’s a reminder that no matter what form the day takes, and no matter what happens in the course of the day, we have people to care about and love and people who care about and love us. This helps us with gratitude.
Each of these very small practices can help to still the mental chatter, remind us to focus on just one thing at a time, and to create the stillness in your mind. From this place of stillness, we can more easily answer the question, “What am I being called to do now?” Remembering what it feels like to focus on just one thing at a time will help you stay with the answer to that question.
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5 big tips (and one bonus one) on how to let go
Since 50% of us will make resolutions for the New Year, and 90% of us who make them will break them, according to Dr. Gregory Ramey, I have decided to continue with the theme of letting go. This month, I want to focus on the how rather than the why, with these 5 big tips on exactly how you practice letting go. This practice can stop you from beating yourself up when you fail to live up to your own aspirations. It’s not that aspirations are bad: I actually believe they serve a very important purpose in helping us create our own ideal life, one that is good for those around us, too. However, I have realized that without creating the space for myself to think and contemplate, I will wear myself out and produce little of actual long-term value, and I am practicing what I preach by letting myself let old stuff go as part of the my 2015 game plan.
That said, here are the best 5 BIG tips I know on how to let go:
- Appreciate abundance: Too often, people think of abundance in financial terms. Are you rich in love and joy? I am extraordinarily rich in terms of familial and friend relationships. Where are the areas in your life where you are rich? Sometimes I get caught in my own rhetoric of scarcity, and thinking that I will never do enough, be enough, have enough, etc., etc., but the truth is all around us in the natural world. Walks in nature continuously surprise me with joy. Nature is abundant: witness this huge mass of shells in the photo above along Edisto Beach. Nature produces such abundance precisely to make sure there is enough, knowing that not every seed will sprout or egg will hatch. You have to try many different things as they won’t all succeed and that means letting go of the ones that are not working.
- Take small actions: There are plenty of things you cannot control, like the weather and the world economy. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing whatever you can do to change your own life. We have far more control over our daily actions than nearly any other creature on earth. And many of us have far more control than we realize over how we make a living. You can reach out for an informational interview, research a different organization, and apply for a new job. Who knows, you might even get it!
- Live in the moment: What is in front of you, right now? Meditate or do yoga to help you stay in the present, instead of dwelling on old hurts or failures. One technique for this is to visualize a box in your head labeled “Expectations.”Whenever you start dwelling on how things should be or should have been, stuff that thought into this box. You can create a real box, too. A friend of mine calls it her “God Box” to remind herself to “let God handle it.” If that sounds too religious to you, just adapt the name to “Let Go.” If you are worrying about how to get a new client or finish that big project, write down your worry, and put in the box. Then take that big worry, and go back to Tip #2, and start taking small actions.
- Fully experience emotion: A psychologist friend of mine likes to say that the word “emotion” contains the word “motion” in it. You don’t get over something without moving through it. Try giving yourself “a rant window” or a “grief time” to fully experience whatever emotion is keeping you from letting go of something or someone, maybe 15 minutes or so a day for a week or a month. After venting or sorrowing for a specific amount of time, stop! If you do something too much, you create neuronal pathways, like ruts deepening from wagon wheels, getting harder and harder to jump out of over time.
- Express your feelings creatively: Draw your feelings, free write in a journal, play a musical instrument to express your anger, happiness, frustration, joy, whatever emotion is currently ruling your life. Once you’ve finished, remind yourself that you have now released those emotions. You might even want to burn that picture, throw away those journal pages, or pound out some scales to move on.
- Be who you are now: If an old love, teacher, parent, child, friend, or anyone else in your life, has a way of describing you as “Good old loyal so-and-so, s/he’s always there to clean up the mess,” is that still descriptive of who you are now? Is there an old voice telling saying “You can’t?” You might need to let go of a pre-conceived notion of who you are, to get to a new version of yourself. You can still be loyal, but no need to be a doormat or a punching bag. Start 2015 by respecting yourself. The new you can let go of the old self that was being hurt or abused by others. Your new self may even enjoy life more.
As we come to the end of 2014, what are you ready to let go of that’s no longer serving you well in your life? I am asking myself this question in relation to myriad items: in life, love and friendships, and in work from clients to accounting and all the other administrative tasks that must be accomplished to maintain a soloprenuer practice. It’s not easy, letting go. I dread it, actually, because it brings up loyalty issues for me. However, I have come to realize if I do not let something go, I am going to continue working too much and playing too little. As a friend of mine (now dead) used to say to me in the cubicle we once shared, “No one gets to their deathbed and says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’ ”
Ironically, this is the very thing I talk to with clients about quite a bit. As a career coach specializing in working with higher education professionals, such as professors and administrators, we discuss what happens to your brain when you fail to let it rest, and give it a chance to play. Rest is what restores our brain chemistry, and that in turn, restores our creativity.
“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” This aphorism of Stuart Brown, M.D. (quoted in Brown & Vaughn’s 2009 book, Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul), noted play researcher and president at The National Institute for Play, has been extensively quoted because it resonates with so many people. Play is a catalyst for good work and learning at any age. Working on something new—letting the mind play—will ease feelings of being overwhelmed and lack of fun. Google is one company that has taken this idea to heart. For 20 percent of their time, employees may go where their minds ask them to go. The proof is in the bottom line: fully 50 percent of new products, including Gmail and Google News, came from the 20 percent “free,” mind-wandering time according to John Medina (2008).
“Sleep on it,” your mother might have said, and in fact that is excellent advice at two levels: your brain repairs the chemistry it has expended during the day making all those thousands of decisions (What to have for breakfast? Which project to tackle first? What do I really want to say here, anyway?). Your subconscious noodles away on the big issues as you sleep, often presenting you with solutions upon waking.
I know this works for me, and I even try to encourage it by asking myself the big questions just before drifting off, and keeping a dream journal by my bedside to record the answers on waking. It’s a practice David Whyte, poet and career advisor, recommends. I recommend his poem on the topic, What to Remember When Waking (2013): “…coming back to this life from the other…there is a small opening into the new day which closes the moment you begin your plans.”
So back to letting go: The hardest part of business and life for me has been learning to let relationships go that no longer serve me. This may sound selfish at first, but the truth is that you can’t serve others well if you are not taking care of yourself. I had to let go of my family of origin to go to school and start a family of my own; I had to let go of my husband when he died in a car wreck; I had to let go of my children in order for them to fledge successfully, and I am now learning to let go of old friendships or business relationships that I have simply outgrown. And it ain’t easy!
I fight the old voices that tell me loyalty is more important than how I am treated, and that if I want a relationship to succeed, I have to do all the work. But again, that’s not a useful way to look at it. The truth is that putting energy into a one-way relationship just drains me, and leaves me with less to give the people that really do matter, like the man I married six months ago.
As a semi-retired academic, he holds the mirror up to me and my behavior and says, “I’m playing, why aren’t you?” Ouch. Inside, the pusher voice says, “Don’t listen to that man! The only way you are going to succeed in this life is to work harder than everyone else.” Never mind that my rational mind actually knows this is a lie. It’s really hard to break old patterns, to play more and work less. Not to mention that I actually love a lot of the work I do, exploring one-on-one with clients what direction they want to take their lives. This part doesn’t even feel like work: it feels like play. The work part comes in all the other administrative details that have to be taken care of in order to do the play-of-work.
As you find your own way forward by letting go, here is my seasonal blessing for both of us (with thanks to Jim Koehneke for sharing his version):
In the good, we trust,
With the good, we let go,
In the good, we receive and share
In the good, we know joy.
Smart Leadership™ Embraces Diversity and Paradox
In October, I had the privilege of being one of the first speakers at a new pilot program begun by the Center for Women here in Charleston, SC. The purpose of the program is to engage both women AND men in learning to lead by managing paradox. As we set forth in the Participant Guide, “Smart Leadership™ is the process of recognizing, balancing, and using conflicting yet complementary attributes to drive cultural change for success in a global economy.”
The problem many leaders face is being focused too often on a single outcome, looking at only half of an equation at any given time: short-term results OR long-term-results; task completion OR relationship outcomes; quality work OR quantity of goods and services. The reality for the modern leader is actually the need to deliver both. The real formula is: short-term results AND long-term-results; task completion AND relationship outcomes; quality or work AND quantity of goods and services. The fundamental nature of using paradox to lead is learning to hear both sides of the equation at the same time, and acting on that information even if it initially appears to be contradictory. As professor, consultant, and author Charles Handy put it so succinctly and beautifully in his book The Age of Paradox (1995), “Paradox does not have to be resolved, only managed.”
Smart leaders need to embrace paradox. As they participate, smart leaders will find the usefulness in engaging with what may initially appear to be contradictory, and be able to create a new middle path. The word paradox assumes an equally weighted set of choices, but that is not necessarily so. Sometimes, the paradox comes from listening to the minority point of view. A smart leader is going to have a team that allows for different perspectives and points of view, and is going to be happy to hear from the minority position on any given topic.
Why does a smart leader do this? Because as Liane Davey explains in You First (2013), it helps leaders with seeing opportunities, spotting threats, leveraging strengths, and mitigating weaknesses that might otherwise have been missed. Here’s what she says about the challenge leaders face: “Diversity of thought slows you down. At least it feels like it slows you down. In reality, without diversity you might rocket through the decision-making process only to grind to a halt during implementation.” Differing perspectives leaders need to include on a team must include those from diverse functions and roles, stakeholders inside and outside the organization, and different “thinking styles” from the big picture to the minutia of execution. It can be truly uncomfortable to listen to alternate points of view at first, but you are ultimately going to serve the greater needs or your organization if you can find a way to listen to the minority voices.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whether that minority is the number of women to men, white to black, introverts to extroverts, gay to straight. What matters is that the minority gets heard, and that any paradoxes get addressed. Not necessarily resolved, but certainly managed.
So, how do you make room for the other side? You must create the space for them to be heard first. Use your agenda and let folks speak for or against any particular item. If you only hear from one person on the issue, use your power as a leader to appoint a different person in order to get a different voice. Some teams use personality tests that are color-coded to remind themselves to look at the red and the blue, the green and the yellow perspectives.
You can specifically ask members of your team to take particular points of view: How does this challenge look to the relationship-focused client? How does this look to the task-oriented administrator? What will be lost AND what will be gained by changing from a quality to a quantity output? Where is the third way, the middle ground between that takes both paradoxes into account? As a smart leader, it is your job to notice if someone on the team is being stifled or never speaks up, and directly inquire into their position.
Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, just came out as gay in a Bloomberg Businessweek essay (published October 30,2104), saying that while he never before has publically acknowledged his sexual orientation, he has “come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” He quoted civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, saying: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”
He added that “being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in a minority and provided a window into the challenges that other people in minority groups face every day,” and finished with the statement that he has been lucky to work for a company that “loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences.” That is exactly what Smart Leadership™ is all about: interdependent apparently paradoxical situations that require great social sensitivity to manage, thus allowing both the leader and the leader’s organization to thrive in the global economy of the 21st century.
Energize your workplace: Making work fun!
What makes work fun for you?
Last month, I gave you a few tips for re-entry when you are headed back to a truly toxic workplace. (Toxic work environments and 5 strategies for repairing them). This month, I want to look at the other side of the equation, by asking “What energizes you at work?” For me, it is having colleagues to share the joys and woes of dealing with challenging clients, and help with research and writing.
As a solopreneur, I most often meet with colleagues “virtually” on conference calls. We often find ourselves emailing cartoons back and forth that better express our current frustrations to bring humor to our stuck places. As members of a “helping profession” that truly want to save the world one client at a time, sometimes letting go of the ego is a pretty tall order. It often boils down to “take the work seriously, but hold yourself lightly.” Laughing at ourselves, especially when we get too pretentious, is a fantastic release.
You might remember the New York Times bestseller Fish!? (2006 Ed.). Subtitled “A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results,” there is now a whole series of books and services based on the “Fish Philosophy,” including staff development for schools, by authors Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen. Fish! is a fictional parable about managing in a toxic work environment, based on the transformation of a real place, the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, WA.
At Pike Place today, fishmongers literally throw their products around as they serve customers and entertain themselves. Someone shouts, “six crabs flying to Montana,” and then there are literally crabs flying through the air from one stand to another to package up for a customer. The place fairly hums with positive energy. Recognizing that there are boring but necessary components to anyone’s work, the authors identified four simple practices to bring new energy and commitment to work:
- Make their day
- Being present
What’s the first thing these authors recommend to counteract a group with the blahs or truly suffering from toxicity? Hold a meeting. Yikes, I hear you exclaim. That’s the last thing we want to do. Meetings have a pretty bad rap, and there are good reasons for it. Here are some sobering statistics about meetings in the United States (and these date back to a 1998 study commissioned by MCI in the early days of video teleconferencing, so you know it must be “worse” now):
Approximately 11 million meetings occur in the U.S. each and every day. Most professionals attend a total of 61.8 meetings per month and research indicates that over 50 percent of this meeting time is wasted. Assuming each of these meetings is one hour long, professionals lose 31 hours per month in unproductive meetings, or approximately four full work days. Professionals who meet on a regular basis admit to daydreaming (91%), missing meetings (96%) or missing parts of meetings (95%). A large percentage (73%) admit to bringing other work to mandatory meetings and fully (39%) say they have dozed during meetings.
Here’s the problem: How do most organizations get anything done? They hold meetings! So, let’s return to the list enumerated by Luden, Paul and Christensen to transform a toxic environment. They suggest you call a special meeting to address the issue of morale, and recommend that leaders speak from their heart about the challenges being faced. “There is always a choice about how you choose to work, even if there is not a choice about the work itself,” says one of the characters in Fish!
The very first thing to discuss in your morale meeting is “choosing the attitude” you bring with you to work. You can enjoy it, as you will likely spend 75% of your life working, or you can mope around hating everything and everyone. Which attitude do you choose? We know that emotions are infectious, so bringing your positive attitude will actually help everyone else.
Next comes “play.” This is not about “not working,” but bringing a child’s sense of play to the work. Neuroscience has shown us that play helps shape our brains in a way to keep them flexible, leading to both adaptive behavior and innovation. There are a lot of ways to play at work, including at meetings. Have a silly hat day, give out candy kisses to the person with a good idea, wear your favorite dance shoes and have disco breaks, post pictures of family and friends in the hallways, build a charity box pose stuffed animals around it holding a meeting, stick cartoons on your door. There are plenty of ways to lighten up.
Make Their Day
The third item is “Make their day.” This is about celebrating each other’s accomplishments. Did someone publish a book? Tell everyone else. Did someone get a $1.5m grant for a workshop? Put it in a newsletter or ezine. Did someone do something especially kind for you during a stressful day? Mention it at your meeting. This builds engagement in the workplace, and it turns out that engaged employees are happier, more creative, more productive and more profitable.
Finally, the Fish! folk recommend “being present.” This not only means being present to others around you, and attending to their needs, but being present for yourself. Stop yourself from being so busy. Give your brain a chance to drain. Living in the moment is the only way anyone can ever affect the future. Allow yourself to feel the pleasure of a job well done, and then give it a rest. Your brain and your colleagues will be glad you took the time to slow down.
Practice these four simple steps, and you can move yourself and your organization to a better way to work.
Toxic work environments and 5 strategies for repairing them
For many people, September is the month that feels like the start of an exciting and fun new year as kids and teachers return to school at every level and a more regular routine is reestablished. It can also be a period of extremely high stress if reentry is associated with a toxic environment. The dread and apprehension can paralyze people, and make them seriously consider bailing out at the last minute. Sadly, I hear this all too often from my clients working in academia.
The good news is that there are some simple steps to take from reminding yourself to treat others with respect to active strategies for dealing with difficult colleagues.
But first, let’s talk a little bit about what is going on. In their classic work, Influence without authority (2005, 2nd Ed.), Allan Cohan and David Bradford write: “… when dealing with colleagues, mutuality is critical, which can be difficult if the organization tends to reinforce competitive views” (p. 216). This is often the case in the world of academia, whether you are a student or a teacher at any level. Just noticing this, and naming it, can help with reducing the stress. The second thing to notice and name is the intrinsic power hierarchy and where you may fall on the “level of authority” scale.
To summarize Cohan and Bradford’s research, the ability to gain influence without authority is about self-empowerment. You empower yourself by knowing what others need and helping them achieve their objectives. Or in the pithy words of motivational speaker Brian Tracy, “Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others. Unsuccessful people are always asking, “What’s in it for me?” (As quoted in The Lost Art of General Management (2004) by Rob Waite, p. 96). Influence is not the same as manipulation.
In other words, it’s all about the relationships with others. Jane Dutton (2003) makes a distinction between “high-energy” connections and “corrosive” connections in the workplace. She emphasizes that interactions creating either type of connection need not be big, damaging actions or long, drawn-out discussions, but are most often built through the small interactions of every day life. In an organization, corrosive interactions can be small incivilities creating a sense of disrespect, from simple inattentiveness to active words of cruelty like, “I told you that was a stupid idea.” Taking actions to make it difficult for others to get a task done or actively sabotaging someone else’s work product can leave people feeling unsupported and deeply unhappy, such as when a superior promises help but fails to deliver it, resulting in rightly placed misapprehension and distrust.
Dutton discusses the “spirals of incivility” that can result in a “death spiral turning competent performers into basket cases” (p. 114). Caught in a corrosive relationship, people start to doubt their own efficacy. This, in turn, impacts their sense of self-worth. (It is interesting to note that in one 2001 study with 12,000 participants conducted by Christine Pearson, Lynne Andersson and J.W. Wegner, the people instigating incivility were three times as likely to have more power than those targeted, suggesting that civility or politeness may also be a survival strategy.)
So what is one lone person to do? Here are 5 strategies for coping with corrosive relationships as presented by Jane Dutton. The first two are short-term, while the last three are long term.
- Name the problem: Understand the dynamics of the relationship as corrosive and understand the negative emotions being induced.
- Create a sense of control: Refuse to become powerless by setting your own goals, even if they are relatively smalls. One example is creating a game where you keep track of how often you can get the corrosive connection to smile.
- “Bound and buffer” interactions by eliminating any interdependent tasks you can, as well as disengaging psychologically, up to withdrawing from any unnecessary social interaction.
- “Buttress and strengthen” by building your own personal resources through meditation, constructing a more positive self-image, reducing negative self talk, finding your own meaning in the connection, using a long time horizon to see past the immediate behavior, looking optimistically at the future, and building supportive relationships outside the corrosive connection.
- “Target and transform” is the most long-term of strategies, to alter the corrosive connection. Take these four steps:
- Clarify your own needs;
- Seek information about the other’s needs;
- Think through alternatives to any form of negotiated agreement; and finally
- Engage in collaborative dialogue through the “high-energy” connection strategies of being present, being affirmative, actively listening, responding through supportive communication, enabling the other person, and being trustworthy yourself.
Noticing whether a workplace relationship is “high-energy” or “corrosive” at the outset of your reentry to the school year can help you determine what you can do on your own to limit negative interactions or work toward long-term positive change, one conversation at a time.
How to take a vacation when you can’t leave
We can’t always get away on vacation when we need to, here are ten ideas to help you:
- Spruce up your home or office so that it makes you happy. If you already have photos of family, change them out, because eventually those photos are like wallpaper and you won’t see them. If you have toys on your desk, change those out, too, for the same reason. Hang something colorful on your cubicle or office wall, maybe a quilt or abstract piece of embroidery from someplace like Guatemala, but not an “encouragement poster.” Those will just make you cynical after a while.
- Express gratitude for all that you have. You may not be able to afford a vacation right now, but can you get away to a coffee shop one afternoon with a friend? Do you have groceries in the refrigerator, a roof over your head, a sense of safety and being at peace when home? If you write down both what you are grateful for, and what you did to make it happen, you are also simultaneously building your confidence.
- If there is someone you should thank, a spouse that picked up dry cleaning, a child that made dinner without you asking, express your thanks aloud and see their joy. Positivity lights up mirror neurons and helps you feel good, too. Definitely a momentary diversion from the daily grind.
- Schedule a massage or some other form of self-care that you enjoy. An hour on the table when you cannot do anything else is a wonderful break from the demands of daily life. Call your local vocational and massage schools to see if they have especially low prices if you are willing to let a student practice on you. Listen to music you like, take a yoga class or engage in some other form of exercise. Or spend just one day at a water park with a friend or family because social engagement is also a form of self-care.
- Do a mindfulness meditation. Research shows as little as 10 minutes a day can start impacting your ability to cope more resiliently within a few weeks. Sit up straight, concentrate on your breathing, (in-out, in-out) and pay attention to the sensations in your body. If you become distracted, simply bring your focus back to your breath. Some people find it helps to focus on an item, like a candle flame, but it is not necessary. If you want to add a sense of helping the wider world, you can go to the Buddhist practice of tonglen: breathe in the pain for all the sentient beings in your situation, and breathe out peace.
- Learn to identify your own emotional triggers. Are you getting upset because everyone else (it seems) can afford to get away? Try thinking about exactly what getting away represents to you: Is it freedom? Having enough money? Available time? If it is one of these, what small thing can you do that will make you feel more free, like taking a hike nearby? If it’s more money, can you create a “playtime” account for next year’s vacation? If it’s more time, are there small things you enjoy that you haven’t done lately, like knitting a sweater, reading a novel, painting a picture? Doing any one of these things will help you feel like you have had a break.
- Be compassionate with yourself. Empathy for others is grand, but don’t neglect yourself in the process. Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development at the University of Texas who pioneered research on self-compassion has an autistic son. When he had “fits” in the grocery store, she reminded herself to practice kindness to herself, by practicing her own mantra “this is a moment of suffering and it will pass.” If you want to know how compassionate you are with yourself, take her test here:
If you are wondering how in the world this connects to not being able to go on vacation, it’s because being kind to yourself helps reduce the stress of daily life.
- Hug yourself. The physical sensation will be comforting to your body and therefore your mind—a handy trick when you can’t leave the office, or are up against a writing deadline, or caretaking someone else.
- Give yourself a technology holiday on the weekends or whenever you are not at work. Turn the ringers off your phone, don’t look at email, step away from that computer! Skip the news and other “feel bad” items. Leave the bills unopened until a set time when you plan to pay them. Take off your watch, leave your phone inside, and sit outside in the backyard watching the birds without knowing the time. No working from home!
- 10. Find a local festival to attend: there are more than you can ever imagine, and many are free to enter. From arts to farmer’s markets, check out what’s local that you would enjoy, and take a day off to enjoy it. Even better if it happens to be outside of the 20-mile radius you most likely traverse on a regular basis to give you that sense of getting away.
Now You’re Done: Post-project Depression
Post-project depression. Yep, it really does exist, and it has a name.
Psychologists have known about it for a long time. Many academics, authors and creative types go through it after “giving birth” to their particular obsession, whether it’s a dissertation, novel, play, painting, sculpture, or organizing a big event like a retrospective show or an opera. It’s akin to “post-partum depression,” what many women go through after all the excitement leading up to the birth particularly of a first baby. They just don’t anticipate feeling so exhausted, depleted and out of control.
I’ve been going through a bit of this myself after making my move to a new house and getting married over the Memorial Day weekend in May, so I was curious to see what other folks had said about it. Here’s the good news: it isn’t really true depression. It’s a completely normal reaction from running on adrenaline (and sometimes fumes) to get all that we need to get done to make the big project a success. We are totally obsessed, and our focus narrows down to the details of what must be done to get this project finished.
For brides, it’s details like finalizing the menu with the caterer, making sure all the people supposed to be there know where they are supposed to be for both the rehearsal and the event, that the florist can find a way to leave the flowers refrigerated until the appropriate time.
For authors and academics, there are piles of papers to sort, research materials to file, decisions about whether or not to keep the edited copies or just let them go. For all of us, there may be relationships or physical environments (that’s another way of saying the house is utterly filthy!) that we have not attended to in quite some time. Not to mention, there is a sense that a great big hole in daily life has suddenly appeared. What am I supposed to be doing now with that time set aside for the big project?
Here are 5 tips to help us get through your post project depression (whatever kind it may be):
- Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate…then rest! First you want to recognize that all that adrenaline and attention to details got you to finish a successful project, whatever it was. It’s important to give yourself some time to just breathe and be in the world, before you take up the next project. Some people watch back-to-back DVDs, some begin exercising strenuously at the gym, some bake cookies or do car repairs themselves. Whatever works as “veg time” for you is what you need to give yourself a break.
- It’s important to allow yourself to experience the range of emotions that comes from finishing a project even when it’s a big success. Dustin Was writes, “It’s natural, too, to feel sad, disappointed, even depressed at the end of a big project, even one that’s a resounding success. The things we do define us as people, and the biggest things we do are the biggest part of us; losing them, even by choice and design, is hard. I think this is why so many people seem to experience a fear of success that’s as paralyzing, if not more so, as the fear of failure: they are not prepared for the changes in their life that success would bring.” So let yourself feel all those mixed emotions. It’s part of the process.
- Begin to take stock by asking yourself some questions about your project: what went right? What went wrong? What was the best/worst thing about this project? Did I enjoy/dislike working on the project? Would I do it again? Or do it differently next time? Has my perspective/status/income changed as a result? How do I feel about that? How will I answer the infamous “What’s next for you?” question.
- Look for what inspires you. Inspirer, from Latin inspirare, from in- + spirare, means to breathe. Allow yourself to get excited again after making sure you have actually just hung out for a while and rested, given yourself whatever nurturing and care you need. Determine whether it’s a passing fancy, or something your can actually imagine sticking to all the way through the boring, tedious middle phase that every project goes through before completion.
- Finally, give yourself time to plan the new project. Here’s where having a deliberately vague answer to “What next?” can come in really handy. When asked, just say, “I have several ideas that I am working on, but I am still in the exploratory phase.” (This is also a great answer for anyone that has decided to change a career trajectory!) Think about it for a while before jumping into action.
Take a little time to reflect on your finished project. See how you might build on the success you’ve already achieved. Then get ready for the next big thing.
Caveat: If the sense of deflation hasn’t left you after a few weeks of trying all these tricks of the trade, then it might be time to look into professional help for actual depression.
Big changes using small steps.
I will be using some very small steps on May 24th this month as I walk down the aisle to marry my fiancée of one year. It will be nearly 2 years to the date that we met, and have we ever been through the changes! Big changes. Changes in lifestyle that have literally taken me 17 years to make.
You see, this is the first time in the 17 years since I became a widow that I have actually been in what you might consider a fully successful adult relationship with someone where we actually talked ourselves blue, in terms of who we really are in the world and what we really want in our lives. I really wanted to get married again: I’d had a good relationship (overall-everyone has their ups and downs) with my husband, but Rick really did not want to remarry, having left two previous marriages. He was afraid that the third time would be a strike-out leaving him too wounded to ever explore any relationship; I felt like the third time could be the charm, and his life would change for the better.
I am happy to say that last year on Memorial Day weekend he proposed to me aboard his boat, the Lady Joy, while anchored in Molasses Creek, complete with a vase of flowers and a bottle of wine. It was a memorable and joyful (excuse the pun!) day, and we were in that state of blissful obliviousness concerning the details to come. And did they ever come!
First, we had to make a decision about where to live: my house, his house or a new house? Looking over all our options, the strength of his roots in a particular neighborhood, and realizing the cost of real estate in our area for new homes, we decided to build on to his house. Want to test your relationship? Build an addition to one house while your partner is still living and working at another house across town over two rivers and 17 miles away. Every little choice that had to be made, I was making at the end of a long day, and usually in a state of near exhaustion. But instead of letting myself become overwhelmed by it all, I began to say to myself, “all I have to decide today is where to put the electrical sockets.” Or, “all I have to decide today is what color to paint the new upstairs office.” I began to refuse to make more than one big decision in the evening when I was too tired to think.
It took a little longer than we expected, but has anyone ever done an addition that did not? We had permitting issues with our town over the need to take out one dying oak tree that the town required be mitigated by planting three new oaks. The electricians put some wiring in wrong, and that led to all kinds of weirdness until it was found and corrected. We changed our minds about 100 times over whether or not to replace the old front windows to match the additional windows, and finally decided “the place is a mess now, why not get it over with and update the look of the whole (1964) place?” Bit by bit, project by project, decision by decision, the addition took shape, and there was now space for me to have my own office to continue my practice from a home base. On January 15, 2014 I finally made the move across town to my new permanent home.
No, I haven’t unpacked all the boxes, and no, I haven’t finished all the decorating I do want to do, and no, we haven’t even rehung all the pictures that came down with the paint jobs or added all of mine into the mix. But it feels like home with all my books unpacked in the office, and a space to work that has a lovely set of windows looking out over the creek.
So, now I am concentrating on the wedding. All the big stuff has been lined up: minister, church, parish hall for reception, caterer, photographer, electronic invitations, family discussions about who will stay where and how long they will stay. It is coming together, bit by bit. Rick and I are even taking dance lessons so that we can do the first waltz together. As klutzy as we are, and as little time as we have had to practice, I have no doubt that some guest will film it on their iPhone and send it to funniest home videos. But no matter. We are enjoying the process. And therein lies the key. Let go, enjoy the process, and remember the wisdom in the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “One bite at a time!”
The Impostor Syndrome: It’s More Common Than You Know
It’s finally spring, and I have been thinking how delightful it would be to open up my scalp and give my brain a thorough cleaning, shaking out the old cobwebs and beating the mites out. I’d especially like to find a way to connect my neurons for success, instead of letting my mind wander down old, hard-worn pathways that take me to places I’d rather not go: certain I am a fraud doomed to failure in every aspect of my life. Wouldn’t it be great to wake up every day feeling perfectly confident, upbeat, excited to face the challenges of the day, without wrestling the dreaded demon most commonly known as “The Impostor Syndrome”?
The term dates back to at least the fall of 1978, when Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes published “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. It’s defined as the feeling that you are a fraud and that any day the people around you will discover the truth. Or as Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian newspaper puts it, “A classic case of comparing your insides with other people’s outsides.” It’s a bit like looking in a fun house mirror and believing the distorted picture to be what you really look like.
In other words, only you know what’s going on inside your head, and you assume that means you know the truth about your abilities. Although women do seem to suffer from this syndrome more than men, plenty of men suffer from it as well. Margot Gerristsen surveyed engineers and earth scientists via Facebook in 2012 and got 220 responses in 24 hours (80 male, 140 female respondents), out of 2,000 people that actually viewed the post. She found 43% of men and 62% of women “often or always” think “I am afraid to be found out.” To quote Gerristsen’s results further, when asked whether having “impostor feelings” affected performance, 52% of men said, “Yes, negatively” (“scared,” “avoidance behavior”) and 27% said “Yes, positively” (“work harder”). In comparison, 87% of females said “Yes, negatively” (“scared”, “avoidance behavior”, “exhaustion”, “negative impacts on personal relationships”) and only 7% said “Yes, positively” (“work harder”).
“The impostor syndrome describes the countless millions of people who do not experience an inner sense of competence or success,” writes Dr. Valerie Young in her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It. She adds, “Despite often overwhelming evidence of their abilities, impostors dismiss these as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error. Because people who have the impostor syndrome feel that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.”
If you do get better and better at whatever you do and rise to the top of your profession, it may not fix the sense of being an impostor. Actually, the feeling could get worse, because the higher you go in your own field, the more people you encounter with knowledge equal to or greater than your own. The insecurity induced can paralyze a person.
The cruel irony is that the impostor syndrome can lead to both success and failure. You succeed when you change your self-talk to something more positive, and you learn to embrace the times you feel totally in control and competent. On the other hand, if you hold yourself to a standard of rarefied perfection that no one can possibly achieve, you may stop yourself from even trying… a sure way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a fraud.
Graduate school was the place for me that I felt the sense of being an impostor most keenly. It is possible to beat it, as I know from personal experience, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to beat it back again and again. Getting out of academia helped me put my abilities back into perspective somewhat, but the fear still rears its ugly head from time to time. So, what can you do?
“Research shows that one of the best things we can do is name impostorism, to give students [and I will add, anyone else, too] the sense that what they are experiencing is more common than they believe,” blogged Jessica Collett, an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame in Scatterplot on September 5, 2013. She adds, “Researchers find that impostorism is most often found among extremely talented and capable individuals, not people who are true impostors.” The bottom line is you are probably not going to be able to completely rid yourself forever of these feelings of being an impostor. Tina Fey, an amazingly successful comedian, is quoted in Dr. Young’s book as saying, “The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.”
Other steps you can take:
1. Celebrate successes, big or small;
2. Remind yourself that everyone makes some mistakes, and the vast majority of those mistakes are not fatal;
3. Remember that other people (advisors, mentors, supervisors, bosses) hired you because they think you are perfectly capable;
4. Know that feeling like a fake may just mean you are out of your comfort zone and into a learning zone; and
5. Realize that challenges lead to growth, personally and professionally.
By the way, there is a flip side to the impostor syndrome, which is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is when people greatly overestimate their abilities and competence and come to grief. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.