Of growth and fear

I recently took stock of all of the major decisions that I’ve made in my adult life. I looked at personal and professional decisions, including active and passive decisions. It is amazing what one will choose to contemplate when one really needs to be cleaning out the basement storage room, but I digress. Included on my list were the decisions to change the trajectory of my career (more than once), the choices to enter, stay in, or leave relationships, the decisions I made on behalf of my children, and more. I even listed a few seemingly smaller decisions like where to take a vacation. The challenge was to then break those decisions into two categories: were they fear-based decisions or were they growth-based decisions?

Let me step back for a moment and talk about what I mean by fear-based and growth-based decisions. I define them for myself like this:

  • a fear-based decision is rooted in avoiding real or perceived catastrophe;
  • a growth-based decision is rooted in expanding toward my passion and my purpose.

The concept is really fairly simple. Am I moving toward something or merely trying to avoid something? Could it be true that all decisions can be boiled down into one or the other? Without giving myself a chance to overthink it, I sat at my desk and quickly wrote “FEAR” or “GROWTH” beside each life decision. To my surprise, yes it is pretty easy to boil it down. Nearly every decision I’ve consciously or subconsciously made are unambiguously one or the other. I also discovered an uncomfortable truth: more of my decisions have been fear-based rather than growth-based.

In her podcast, Chiara Mazzucco shares eight ways to know you are making a fear-based decision. In my list, there were two recurring red flags that I recognized from Mazzucco’s podcast. First, too often I made a choice based on the notion of scarcity. The fear of not having enough. My post-divorce career decisions perfectly reflect that fear of scarcity. Prior to my divorce, choosing to return to graduate school in counseling was absolutely growth-based. It is where my purpose, passion and talent resided. Shortly after earning my Master’s degree in counseling, I divorced my husband of seventeen years. Enter fear, stage right. I was a newly single mother with three young children with a brand new career that paid very little while I was not fully licensed. In the midst of anxiety about the future, an opportunity opened up in non-profit management. It was a good job with a higher salary and still in an organization whose mission was important to me. The catch? It would require me to leave the counseling profession and step away from earning my licensure. I would be an administrator, not a provider. It was a good and an important job, but taking the job was a move away from my passion and purpose. I left a career I love out of fear of not having enough financial security had I stayed.

The second red flag that trends in my fear-based decision making seems like a paradox to the first red flag. Where the first was all about fear of not having enough, the second red flag is all about making choices that deep down we know is causing us to sacrifice too much. I call this “accepting the scraps from the table.” What does this look like? It might look like staying in a relationship or job that doesn’t meet our basic needs, or worse yet, even degrades our basic needs because we are convinced that something is better than nothing. The fear that is at play here is our fear of being unworthy. We convince ourselves–or we allow others to convince us– that we are undeserving of experiencing that bounty of having our needs met, so we settle for less.

I am here to tell you that nothing actually IS better than something. Why? Because it leaves us space to grow from the inside out. It is the extra space in the toe of our shoes and the extra cuff turned up in our pants at the beginning of each school year. Our mothers knew we had growing to do. That empty space that feels like “nothing” is actually a plot of really rich soil waiting for something new and delicious to be planted. It is only when we insist, out of fear, on planting those same pitiful seeds over and over again expecting a different harvest, that our plot of land dries up and cracks with bitterness and regret.

We can also judge our decision making based on where we find our locus of control. Our fear-based decisions are externally focused: What will keep ‘the bad thing’ from happening? Who in my life can I please with this decision so they won’t be mad/ disappointed/ want to leave/ fire me? In every single decision I made that was fear-based, I can look back and see that it took me farther away from my passions and purpose in life. Simply put, I was living someone else’s life.

Here’s the flip side. When I looked at my growth-based decisions that were internally focused…WOW! It made my spine tingle! While some of those choices were not easy and certainly not a guaranteed success, they made me feel ALIVE with passion and purpose. I was making intentional choices that brought me closer to who I really am; the choice reflected my authentic nature.

Last spring, I had a week’s vacation time to spend and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Newly single again, I considered staying home and, well, sulking. But I had an itch to do something more…something bigger…something I had never done: travel to Europe alone. I laughed it off almost as soon as it entered my mind.  To travel alone could be scary or unsafe for a woman (fear), and potentially cost too much money (fear), or raise some judgmental eyebrows that were all around me (fear). To travel alone could also expand my tolerance to being solitary with my own thoughts (growth), or learn how to navigate hurdles without relying on anyone else (growth), or simply be able to craft my day based solely on what I felt the urge to do for the first time in countless years (growth). So I did it. I choose growth. And Barcelona. And Picasso. And tapas with wine. And crying intermittently along old and narrow streets.

Our decisions are sometimes big and life-changing related to relationships and careers. They are also a series of small choices about vacations and experiences. Each combine to make up who we are. Resilient and growth oriented? Or avoidant and fear oriented? The hope I hold for myself is the same one that I hold for you: that with each resilient and growth-based decision, we strive and stretch to be our most authentic, purposeful and passionate selves.

Self-care for Social Justice Warriors

A little more than year ago I wrote self-care guidelines for social justice workers as I watched the events unfold at JFK airport following Trump’s travel ban. The scene looked strikingly familiar to the scenes of crisis I have witnessed personally. The faces of anxious family members trying to process the swirling deluge of information. The palpable strain of trying to separate useful answers from unfounded gossip. Fear and worry choking their throats and ringing in their ears. The airport floor scattered with pro-bono attorneys and advocates hunch-backed over laptops pecking for the scraps of truth that might allow them to take action. Hungry, tired, confused, agitated…and then feeling guilty for feeling hungry, tired, confused and agitated knowing that those they are working for and waiting for have suffered greater pains of insult and injury.

As a former therapist and crisis responder, I have worked directly with those who have suffered great trauma, as well as worked with the first responders and humanitarians who come to their aide in the minutes and days that follow. Some traumas are acute blows: singular and shocking. Others are sustained and long-term, slowly gathering weight like an executioner adding rocks to one’s chest. One rock alone is a discomfort; added up, they are crushing. What I have discovered is that it is the long term strain and crushing weight of being a “helper” is the trauma that often goes unnoticed and untreated.

In the last year we have seen the sharp rise in need for helpers and humanitarians. They are the therapists and teachers working with children and families to allay fears, the government staffers responding to frantic constituents, first responders, and even every day citizens who have been activated toward advocacy. To them I say, “I see you. Breath with me.”

We have learned since the travel ban and the chaos that ensued that it was not  a singular, acute blow that we can grit our way through. We’ve lived through Charlottesville, more bans, more divisive rhetoric, more confusion. This is a piling of rocks and we must take heed to push each one off before another one comes. Working toward social justice takes resilience and repair. We must be aware of our own needs, we must be willing to care for ourselves and we must be willing to let others care for us. Here are some ways to do that:

Check Engine Light: How Am I Doing?

Helpers (my generic term for a myriad of people who does just that: help) are often other-oriented when it comes to assessing need. This is what makes them good at what they do. All too often, they are terrible at assessing their own needs. It is also a major contributing factor for what makes them burn out from doing what they are good at doing. If you are a helper in anyway, you need to check your engine at least once a day. Stop. I mean literally stop. Step aside, preferably somewhere private, and put one hand on your head and one on your heart. Close your eyes. Take three slow deep breaths and scan your body. Is your head aching or your stomach growling? Is your heart racing faster than it should? Did tears unexpectedly start burning the back of your eyes the minute you allowed yourself to breath? Those are your check engine lights flashing.

Fix-it: Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That

Yeah, I know you think you don’t have time for that. But here’s the thing: a car might be able to lurch forward on a flat tire, but it’s going nowhere on an empty tank. Here is a quick way to add a couple of gallons to your tank before you need to completely refuel. Did you feel tears welling up when you checked yourself? Good. That’s your pressure release valve. Throw that valve wide open. Emotional tears are found to have more stress hormones than tears from when our eyes simply water for physical reasons. They also activate your parasympathetic nervous system to physically relax tense muscles. In other words, tears literally drain stress from your body.

Feed What You Want to Grow

We all know about Maslow, right? There are just some basics that we need and there is no getting around it: water and food. Yet, those are the things we toss out the window first when we are in a stress inducing crisis. Our fight or flight response knows that we can’t wrestle a lion on a full stomach of chicken parmesan. Which is great except that sometimes our fight or flight response doesn’t know that there actually ISN’T a lion in the room. There are, however, a bunch of really nasty tomcats that we need to deal with and that takes sustained energy. Even if you don’t have the luxury of a home cooked meal, or even anything that could constitute the word “meal” for that matter, feed your body. Eat something. You have the time. Yes, you do. And drink some water while you’re at it. Those tears you just cried aren’t going to replenish themselves. A well-fed and hydrated body is not only stronger physically, but stronger emotionally and intellectually. It repairs the damage from previous stressors and builds your resilience for the next wave.

Give It a Rest

Speaking of Maslow, turns out that we need sleep, too. Crazy, right? Sleep can be elusive for helpers. Sometimes it is because our physical environment is not conducive to sleep, other times because our mind won’t slow enough for sleep to find us. In either case, creating restful routines can help us get either a solid 8 hours or at least a break enough to recharge. Find your space and make it sacred. Whether it is a room in your home or a corner in a quiet spot of a crowded venue (hospital, airport, government building), seek a place where you shut down. Take a break from the phone, email, and news. Allow yourself to not be hyper-vigilant for a time. Give yourself a bonus point if you find some of that space outside with fresh air occasionally.

The Buddy System

Helpers are also pretty good rule breakers, rebels and all-around bad asses. That means these suggestions might be met with the response “Yeah, fine, I’ll do it when I get around to it or really need it,” (subtext, “But I probably won’t.”). Here’s where your buddy comes in. Choose a person who you will listen to when they tell you that you’re due for a time out. Someone who’s not afraid to hold you accountable and whose wise counsel you trust. Give them your stress “tells” ahead of time so they can recognize them when they show up and what you are likely to need most when it starts to feel overwhelming. In other words, be proactive.

And while you’ve got your buddy there, ask for a hug, a back rub, hand massage or even to sit quietly shoulder-to-shoulder. Human touch is proven to lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and increases a sense of connection and safety (there’s that guy Maslow again, btw).

No one is perfect in the practice of self-care and all too often it’s the case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. Remember, though, that even the smalls stones stress and pressure will add up to make a mighty weight. Starting with a daily self-check and then replenishing your most urgent need first can keep you resilient and responsive. We need you…and more importantly, you need you.

Intensity, Not Drama

“Whoa, that was intense!” Do you remember the last time you used that phrase in the office? Most of the time when someone describes something as “intense”, they often mean something related to an event that that was emotionally charged and sometimes even chaotic. Think of it as the “reality show reaction” to work environments: a chair pushed across the room in frustration, a loud outburst of demands or quiet, yet seething, threats. When the issuer of those outbursts is challenged on his behavior, he will often fall back on the excuse that he is “intense about his work.” This person (man or woman) shouldn’t mistake a propensity for anger, however, as positive intensity.

When we talk about “intensity”, we are referring to the magnitude of energy that is concentrated toward a focus, specific goal and not the flailing explosion of emotion or frantic energy of a chaotic work environment. Positive intensity (focus, drive, concentration, passion) pulls people in. It is joining force that serves to bring teams together toward the common goal. Negative intensity (erratic, bullying or histrionic behavior) pushes people away and slows progress because it diminishes trust. We cannot trust what we cannot predict.

What does this have to do with resiliency? It all comes down to what we are choosing to cultivate. We cannot cultivate resiliency within ourselves or our organizations in an environment of mistrust. It is like expecting a plant to grow in crumbling concrete; if anything grows at all, it’s likely to be a weed (resentment, burnout, stress, low morale).

The book Speed of Trust, by Steven M.R. Covey, describes a lack of trust as an “organizational tax.” When trust goes down, cost goes up: cost associated with disengagement, turnover, politics and even fraud. The next time colleagues (or even you) are tempted to blow up and then blame it on the intensity of the job, consider the results you are actually cultivating, instead of the results you wish you could be cultivating.

February Valentine for Non-profits: FREE Resiliency Engagement Session!

Are you a leader of a non-profit organization in the Charlottesville, VA area? Do you wonder if your team is as resilient as they could be? Are you looking for an engaging trainer and speaker for your 2018 professional development calendar?

I am sending some Valentines and want to send one to your organization!

During the month of February, I am offering a one hour, pro bono, engagement session on building resilience for up to four local (Charlottesville and Richmond, VA) non-profit organizations. Using personal stories, humor, compassion, and research, my engagement session will introduce concepts of organizational burnout and organizational resilience.

Session must be booked in February and can be scheduled any time during 2018.

This is a one hour session that is ideal as a retreat keynote, lunchtime brown-bag “Lunch & Learn”, or single session on a professional development day.

Contact Renee: renee.branson72@gmail.com to schedule your session!

 

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Monday Motivation: Protect Your Energy

I admit it, I’m all about the #hashtag life. I get a kick out of what is trending on social media. Every Monday comes the flurry of #mondaymotivation on Twitter (61k and counting as of 9am this morning). There is a lot of “go-go-go” and “slay” and “can’t stop/ won’t stop”–and it is GREAT! Except that by Wednesday at 2pm our “SLAY” turns into “S-L-O-W.”

My Monday Motivation to you is #PYE: Protect Your Energy. It is a precious commodity! Here are some ways to do that every day of the week:

Put up your force field. Knowing your boundaries (and, with that, saying “no”) is the single most effective way to preserve your physical and emotional energy. It’s okay to cancel that commitment, change your mind, choose to spend time alone, or step back from engaging in something that feels draining. That might sound like letting others down (guilt is STRONG on this one, folks!) But consider this: in research conducted by Brene Brown, she found that the most compassionate people also happened to be the most boundaried people. Boundaries help us protect and build up our reserves not only of compassion, but energy and resilience.

Listen to your body and be good to it! I am an extrovert; I get energy from being around people. Last week, I had dinner with a friend with whom I rarely get to socialize. She and I were enjoying our girl-talk so much we even skipped the event we were planning to see and lingered over our meal instead. After we said our goodbyes and I was heading back to my car, my phone lit up with a text from two other friends who had just left the event I had missed: “Join us for a night cap?” The extrovert in me said, “YAY! Let’s do all the people-ing!” even though my body was whispering, “Psst…it’s a work night and you’ve had a long day already.” I’ll give you a guess at who I listened to. Yep. Extrovert Renee. And while I didn’t stay out much longer, it was enough that the next day I felt drained and not my best. I didn’t listen to my body. Listening to our bodies can be tricky when what feels at first like a treat become a drain. For me, even though being around people gives me energy, there IS a point of diminishing return. For you, it might mean getting more sleep, dialing back on screen time, eating healthier, or getting more exercise. Know yourself and heed your body’s advice!

Avoid toxic interactions and negativity. Engaging in water-cooler gossip or getting sucked into situations that truly are not about you is like eating a bag of Doritos or that third bowl of ice cream. It feels pleasurable and fills you up, but then soon after leaves you feeling bloated and gross. My mother’s favorite line to remember not to get pulled into someone’s drama is “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” To stretch that metaphor as far as it will go, ask yourself, “How will I benefit from being a juggler in someone else’s circus? And if it truly is a three-ring circus of chaos, do they really need another clown in the mix?” More often than not, the answer is “No” and “Probably not.” Negativity breeds negativity, and it can be a sticky substance. Toxic and negative interactions change our lens, color the rest of the day, and impact how we see ourselves in the world. This is a perfect time to practice our boundaries and step back.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Is your Monday Motivation about chasing someone else’s trophy or building your own treasure? Comparison (which is really just jealousy) is yet another drain on our energy. It gets in the way of managing our own healthy expectations and imposes the unrealistic “shoulds” of life: “I should have gotten a raise by now/ purchased a home/ lost more weight…”  If you have read my other posts, you know how I feel about the word “should.” It’s a trigger for shame and nothing good from a place of shame. Comparing efforts and achievements to someone else steals our own agency and leaves us feeling powerless. Finding ways to honor and have gratitude for the journey that we are on can be a powerful way to protect your joy and energy.

So, YES—go out there and #Slay. Protecting your energy will keep your motivation all the way through the week.

The Sneaky Problem with Gratitude

pexels-photo-424517.jpegGratitude is the foundation of living a life that is wholehearted and joyful. I believe this even in the midst of feeling less than grateful. I understand the truth of it because I can’t think of a time when I’ve felt joyful and not also felt grateful. No gratitude, no joy.

Google the word “gratitude” and you will find a million and one practices for and benefits of gratitude. What you won’t find is one single article, meme, or infographic on its one sneaky problem: that it can be used as a weapon. Hard to believe? Tell me if any of these fill-in-the-blank phrases have ever sounded familiar:

  • “Who do I think I am asking for [rest/ help/ more than what I have now] when people all around me get so much less. I should be more grateful.”
  • “Anyone with your [baggage/ history/ mistakes] should be thankful for having a [partner/ spouse/ job/ home] at all. Who are you to ask for more?”

These are messages that we tell ourselves and sometimes they are messages that others thrust upon us. Regardless of where those messages originate, here is what I want you to know: that’s not gratitude speaking. That is shame in gratitude’s clothing. The result of this shame is that we begin to mistrust our own cues for needing. We feel ungrateful for needing self care, nurturing, healthy boundaries, respect, dignity, or meaningful relationships with ourselves and others. We fall into the trap of believing because someone has it worse or because we have failed to prove ourselves worthy, we don’t have a right to have our needs met.

Left unchecked, this shame becomes a dangerous part of our narrative. We run ourselves into the ground, becoming fatigued and burned out. We are more vulnerable to toxic and abusive relationships. Our physical, spiritual, and emotional health suffers because our sense of worthiness has been stolen from us.

Here’s a litmus test for discovering shame hiding in gratitude’s clothing. Does it contain the word “should?” The problem with should is that implies we are doing or thinking something wrong. “Should” is a shame word that seeks to steal our worthiness. If there is one truth that I would have us make a mantra is that there are no prerequisites to worthiness. And if that is true, then there are no hoops to jump before we can ask for, and receive, what we need. It is only then that true joy and gratitude–the kind that comes without ‘shoulds’–can be a part of our new narrative.

It’s time.

It is time to take stock. It is past time, actually. I can see it in our eyes, a weariness that comes from running on fumes. We are in a time of conflict and crisis in our country, our world, and within each of ourselves, unlike ever before. We are also in a time of growth and regeneration, of passion and renewed commitment to a greater good. We are in time when we are coming to terms with harsh realities: that the political is personal and the personal becomes cultural. We are a society wrestling with the fallout of that toxic culture. A culture created by the values we act upon, not necessarily the values we claim to cherish. We are #resist-ing and #metoo-ing and learning how to be allies while tending to our own reopened wounds. Lest we pat ourselves on the back for finally facing this, we must also come to terms with our own personal shortcomings and failures to live within our integrity.

This is my story too. Against the backdrop of the cultural and historical moments of 2017, I went through a bitter breakup of a long term relationship, dealt with the reopening of wounds from past sexual trauma, confronted the reality of living outside my own values, practiced being brave enough to say what I needed, and figured out how to love my own damn self not only in spite of it all, but because of it all. Spoiler alert: I’m still working on it. We are always going to be working on it.

We. Are. Working. Hard.

This work of being authentic—of living within our integrity and values—can be draining work under the best of circumstances. When doing that work requires us to push against internal and external opposition, it can derail us. We experience compassion fatigue— we lose compassion for ourselves, for the important people in our lives, and for the collective. How many times a day do we read (or express) glib phrases like “I can’t even, anymore” or the blunt, “IGZF (I give zero f__ks)?” Yes, I say it too and would gladly have it stitched on a throw pillow…because it is a REAL thing. Those pithy throwaway lines go bone deep. We really can’t even, anymore. That moment when we become hopeless, helpless, and afraid, is the moment that our growth stops.

At the point when we most need to rise up, we discover that our tank is dry. And here is the scarier part: nature hates a vacuum. The empty spaces left unfilled are the spaces where self-doubt, shame, anger, and blame seep in. We begin to believe the stories that we are not enough. If we aren’t enough, then what does it all matter anyway? Our life stops being about growth and starts being about avoidance. Stuff the feeling; numb it with food or alcohol or sex or shopping. The behaviors we use to numb the feeling create more self-doubt, shame, anger, and blame. We become trapped in this cycle of avoiding our hard truths.

The antidote to all of that is resilience. Each of us has a certain, natural capacity for resilience. Regardless of how much (or little) natural resilience we have, it requires cultivation, nurturing, and maintenance to grow and stay strong. That effort is self-care. Self-care encompasses how we treat our bodies, the words that we speak to and about ourselves, the boundaries we set to protect our integrity, and the time we allow ourselves for that care.

Resilience is an entire box of goodies…a gift to ourselves. Think of it as the “Bark Box” of emotional wellbeing. Inside of that package, we find worthiness, self-awareness, grace, gratitude, and courage. Guess what else is tucked in there? Forgiveness; forgiveness of ourselves and of others. That box of resilience is the fuel we provide ourselves so that we can drive toward authenticity. There is a bounty, an abundance, to be found in living authentically and with integrity. That is not because what we need or want falls from the sky like manna from heaven, but because we realize that what we need is something that we can generate.

This work is deeply personal and internal. It requires us to sit alone with ourselves and all of our messy painful stories. Then it insists that we share those stories with those who have earned the right to hear it. Only then does it open the space where we can finally be vulnerable enough to love ourselves wholly and be loved by others wholly.

It is also work that should be encouraged, supported, and developed externally in families, workplaces, and various circles of community. Why? Because resilient people create a resilient culture and a resilient culture is positioned for authentic, positive change. My aim is to partner with people and communities as they seek to build resilience and experience bounty.