The What If Experience

Explore a new "What If..." question about life each week with some thoughts, some answers and some action steps. Share my journey of personal growth and living in possibility.
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Now displaying: May, 2017
May 28, 2017

I might be a bit of an emotional mess. Last summer was different than most. Last summer, my ex-husband was having some surgery and my son unexpectedly spent almost his whole summer with me. Usually, he's with his dad for all but a week or so of his summer break. Our schedule has been fairly grueling since February. We haven't had major disasters, just a lot of intensity for too long. I'm drained. Yesterday I drove 9 hours and dropped my son off for a month with his dad.

Turning my son over to his dad for the summer is usually hard on me because I love having him around. I'm not the parent that can't wait for school to start or Christmas break to be over. I enjoy his company. A lot. This year it's especially hard, because we've had some concern about whether he's going into a safe environment. I'm in physically better shape than ever before, but I'm just over jet lag. I'm tired. And all the sudden I find myself alone, with a schedule undefined by school or activities, without parental responsibilities and no control over his well being.

I crashed.

I'm an introvert and that comes out in strange ways sometimes. I'm in my home state this holiday weekend, where I've lived for most of my life. Last night as I drove away from the drop off and the emotions hit me, I needed the back roads. The quiet countryside of Amish country with its flat fields, tidy lawns and well tended gardens. I took the long way to my overnight stay. I couldn't deal with the speed, activity and congestion of the toll road. I needed scenic, quiet. open space. A pastoral landscape.

And it helped. I'm not even sure I can name the emotions that this situation triggers annually. There's some sadness, which is as much about the guilt of its necessity as for the parting itself. There's some release I suppose as I tend to feel the responsibility for parenting very deeply. There's some sense of being out of control, some vague unease that things aren't how they're supposed to be. I know this mostly because when he comes back each August there's a very real sense of rightness and relief that returns. It's like unconsciously coping with a broken arm and then suddenly you have full use of it back. And I'm aware that this is completely subjective, because his dad may feel that when the roles are reversed. I'm not making a judgement call about where he belongs, but describing how I feel. It mostly shows up as as a very raw, emotional period of time. I waver between feeling emotions deeply and feeling lethargic and confused. I just crash.

I thought I'd share a few thoughts about the process with you today.

Some years the crash lasts longer than others. I remember one year when I was spending the summer house sitting in Bloomington, Indiana, I spent ten days on the couch binge watching the first season or two of Downton Abbey and watching movie after movie. If you know me, that's really, really out of character. Other than sports, I haven't watched a TV show in a few years.

Usually it takes a few days to a week for me to find my footing again. I think it has a lot to do with how healthy I am overall. I've been intensely busy this year, but I've also been very intentional about my health, both mental and physical. I have more mental and emotional reserves than I usually come into this time with. And, while the trip to Greece last week was definitely not a beach vacation, it was emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.

Friends, life has some hard moments. Take care of yourself along the way. You'll process difficult situations more easily and bounce back faster when you're healthy inside and out. It might take time to get there, but working on your emotional and physical health will pay big big dividends in the long term.

You might not have to hand over your son for a few months every year, but I'm guessing you'll come up against a situation you find emotionally difficult every so often. It happens to all of us. Sometimes you know something will be hard and sometimes you don't. Sometimes it takes us by surprise. This year, I'd forgotten about the crash. It's been two years since I had this situation and I've been too busy and distracted to think about the after. So, it took me by surprise. Not so much that it happened, but the intensity.

When that happens to you...when you have an emotional crash find it harder to deal with something than you expect, don't worry about how you "should" be reacting. Allow yourself the time to work through it. I needed that ten days a few years ago. This year, I feel remarkably good this morning. Last night, I was curled in a fetal position in the dark watching the rain and feeling emotionally raw. This morning the storm has passed (both inside and outside) and after a good night's rest and breakfast, I think the worst of it is over. I'm less lethargic than I expected. But if I needed several more days to recover, I'd take them and not feel bad about it. If I have another round tomorrow or when I get home to a very, very quiet house. I'll allow myself the time to recover, process and heal what I'm experiencing.

Allow yourself to adjust your expectations. I've mentioned that I'm a perfectionist. I'm hopefully going to be a recovering perfectionist in the next year. I'm practicing this week. I'd intended to share with you about my trip this week on this episode, but that's not where my heart is today. My heart is in recovery mode. So, that's what I'm sharing. I still have some things to work through that happened on the trip that I don't quite know how to talk about. And, even if that wasn't the case, this emotional mess I experience every year has taken over for a few days. So, I'm going to allow myself to sit with the thoughts about the trip for a few more days and share this process instead. And I'm sure that I'm not doing it as well as I'd like to. And I'm ok with that.

Also, in the interest of recovery this weekend I'm also going to take the week off from the coffee talk worksheet and emails. So, if you're following along with me in those ways, be aware, they won't be in your inbox this week. Instead, I'll give you a few things to think about right now. If you're in an emotionally messy or difficult situation, here are the three things I've mentioned today.

  1. Make healthy choices on an ongoing basis.
  2. Don't worry about how you "should" be reacting. Allow yourself time and space you need to recover.
  3. Adjust your expectations as you work through it.

Here a few applications that go along with those ideas.

  • What do you need to do on an ongoing basis to be healthy both physically and emotionally? What one small thing can you do today to start?
  • Do you allow yourself to process and adjust to emotionally difficult things or do you bury yourself in a favorite coping mechanism and ignore it?
  • Do you allow yourself to adjust your expectations in a difficult time?

Episode Artwork

Today's image is simply a picture of my recovery morning. today. Breakfast looking out over the quiet countryside of my youth.

May you find peace in your journey today, my friends.

May 21, 2017

This is part two of my episodes on worry. A few weeks ago while doing some research for another episode, I compiled a list of top ten ways to stop worrying. And because I'm taking a trip to Greece the last full week of school, which is the busiest season for my little family...I'm all the sudden in the midst of a lot of anxiety about all the details that have to happen before I leave. When you hear this, I'll actually be on my way home and I know that it's going to all work out. The things that have to get done will and some of the not-quite-as-necessary things might not. But, I'll get on that plane and the trip will happen. Knowing that, though, isn't quite enough to halt my worry over all that has to happen in the next few days.

I'm working through the list of ways to stop worrying and we're going to see how effective they are together. I covered the first five items on the list in last week's episode, so here's the second half in no particular order.

Focus on Others. A lot of our worrying is about ourselves. It's really internally focused. It's about something that will or won't happen to us. So, one way to combat this, is to choose to shift our attention to someone else. Frankly, I think this item on the list isn't quite as good as it could be. Worrying for me is a hamster wheel in my head. What I really need to do is get out of my head and off that hamster wheel and the best way to do that is to not just think about other people, but to actually do something.

Here's how that's going to play out for me this week. I'm going to pay extra careful attention to my son's stories, his questions, his chatter about his games and his requests for my attention. I also have some letters I'm supposed to write for this trip. So, I'm going to be spending some time in an activity all about other people.

Get Some Sleep. Friends, I know you don't sleep enough. I'm tracking my sleep with a Fitbit these days and so now I know that I'm not getting enough! Getting sufficient rest will do wonders for your ability to ward off anxiety and worry and it helps us cope with the reality in front of us as well. But, it's a vicious cycle isn't it? Worry often keeps us from sleeping and then lack of sleep makes it harder to keep the worry monster at bay.

Here's what I'd recommend. Treat sleep as a priority as much as you can. Do all the things that help sleep happen and all the things you can to curtail your worry. On the sleep side, wind down an hour before bed, establish a routine, stop looking at screens in that last hour before sleep, create a sleep only, dark environment. These aren't new suggestions, I'm sure you've heard them before. Make them a priority.

Also, you can create a worry offload routine. Some of the things that we've talked about on this list could be done before sleeping to help offload your worries. Write them down, give your mind permission to put them away until the next scheduled worry time, write a grateful list, review what you're measuring or your daily routine.

Start paying attention to making your evening circumstances and routines as sleep friendly as possible instead of dropping into bed with no transition time and expecting to immediately switch to sleep mode. Not that I've ever done that!

Note and Accept. This is a great practice to get into and works for other things besides worry as well. The idea is that as worries come up, quit letting them wriggle around the outsides of your consciousness creating background stress. Don't let them take over your internal dialog feed either. You're in control of that feed, you can make the decisions over what happens inside your head. That takes some practice but can be done. Note and accept works like this: a worry comes up or you feel it around the edges of your mind as generalized anxiety. Take a moment to recognize it. "Oh, there's that worry that I'm not going to get everything done. I hear it, I recognize it. Got it. Ok, move on to the next thought." You're simply recognizing it for what it is and choosing to move on.

Change the Subject. This is a great follow up to note and accept. Once you've acknowledged the thought as a worry. You choose to change the subject. I know you're skilled at doing this around the Thanksgiving table when Aunt Emma wants to know why you don't have kids yet. Or, you do have kids and you need to redirect their attention away from the candy at the checkout counter. Put those skills to work inside your own head and choose to think about something else that will grip your focus instead of the worry.

When I start to worry about the details of my week, I'm going to change the subject to how much good will come out of this trip, how it's going to help other people, change my own perspective and how it will feel to feel to be traveling again. I've missed it, so I'm excited!

The last one for this week is to brainstorm solutions. This only works for worry over something that you actually have control over and studies show that most of our worry is over things we don't have any control over. But, if you do, taking some time to face the worry and generate as many solutions as you can will help you get a handle on ways you could address the situation. We can spend an awful lot of time worrying about things and not ever address the actions we can actually take. I control my time this week. Yes, there are certain things that really have to be done before I leave. But, I know that I'm also choosing to add some extras onto my plate that probably aren't necessary.

Here are some ideas I generated for my situation. I can do is divide up the to do list I made last week into "must be done" and "hope to get done" and not feel bad if I need to drop some of those "hopes" off the list. I mentioned I needed to take some letters with me. I'm actually printing some of my artwork, writing notes on the back and taking those along. I want to take 23 of them. I only have to take two of them. Here's my solution. I must get them printed before I leave. If I have to, I can write the notes on the back on flights, on train rides and in the airport. I also must get last week's and this podcast ready to go. But, if I have to, I can have this one recorded and do all the other work on the trip or on the way home. Those are some ways to lighten my load if I need to this week.

To recap, here are this week's five worry-busters:

  1. Focus on others
  2. Get some sleep
  3. Note & accept
  4. Change the subject
  5. Brainstorm solutions

Episode Artwork

The artwork this week is another "boxer in flowers" portrait. Because you just can't have enough of those! Please meet my dog, Wiley. He's the rescue that ended my foster career. He's not quite as grouchy looking as Ms. O was last week, but he certainly is very serious looking in that field of flowers. His expression doesn't at all match the pretty wildflower area he's standing in and it's a reminder that worry is often a mismatch to our life too. Usually, what we're worrying about doesn't happen (I've heard statistics ranging up to 85% of worries don't happen), so don't let worry cause you to miss the wildflower fields of your life that are right in front of you.

Episode Downloads

Want to explore the ideas in this post further? Download the Coffee Talk Worksheet or put this week's art on your phone:  Episode 33 Downloads

May 14, 2017

Last week, I talked about worry and if you're a worrier, I have a short, really practical episode for you today. I also said I'm typically not a worrier. For example, I really haven't worried about this upcoming trip much. But, this morning, waking up to a new work week, the crazy end of school details, figuring out how to pack a backpack for a 9 day international trip and some assignments for that trip that I wasn't anticipating...I'm a fair bit worried this morning! The reality of 4 days until I leave was glaringly obvious when I checked the week's calendar and I have a lot to do!

I haven't noticed being worried before today, but I know I'm getting close to overload because I'm doing things like losing my keys at church yesterday. I'm sure they'll turn up, we know what happened and I'm sure someone picked them up and hadn't turned them in yet. But, I had to be rescued with delivery of my valet key...because my original set has been misplaced in my house somewhere for the last few days! Yes, this is a good indication that I have too much going on! But, now the worry is showing up alongside the overload missteps.

I want to talk through the top ten things I found last week in my research for dealing with worry. Actually, I'm going to split this into two posts. I'll share five of them this week and five next week. Now, I need to insert my typical disclaimer that I'm not a doctor and didn't even sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so if you need professional care for anxiety issues, I'm not your girl. This is for the everyday worrying that keeps us from sleeping occasionally or impacts our life in average ways.

I'm going to treat this like an experiment. I'll talk you through this list using my worries about my week as an example. In no particular order, here we go.

Remove uncertainty (or in other words, measure something). For example, if you're worried about your health, your weight or your fitness and you chose to measure--not your weight--but something that helps you address the problem. Like, the number of daily steps you take or walking for 20 minutes each day. Measuring something combats worry by giving you active progress toward a solution.

For me, I think I'm going to apply a to do list to this one. I need to sit down and do a massive brain dump of details onto paper, then assign each task a day and measure the tasks completed rather than cope with this overwhelmingly large mental list I can't keep track of. From previous experience, I know that helps me know how it's all going to get done and assures me that all the things will get taken care of and I don't have to worry about them all right now. Which leads me to the next item.

Shift Your Worry. This is similar to the "measure something" I just spoke about, but is more about shifting your attention. So, if you're worrying about a long term problem, shift your focus to a daily routine that will address the problem. If you're worrying about saving for your kids college funds, how can you create a saving routine that you can focus on that will help you reach your goal instead of worrying about the goal itself? So, I'll shift my attention to today's to do list instead of freaking out about the sheer number of details for the whole week.

Write a "Grateful List." Studies have shown that people who journal about the things they're grateful for and that make them happy manage stress better, have happier days and even experience less physical pain. I don't have a regular gratefulness practice, other than in prayer, but I know that it's had a huge impact for a lot of people who do it regularly. So, let's try it, here's my list right this minute.

I'm grateful for the small moments with my son this week. I'm grateful to sit and let him teach me how to tie knots he needs to know for scouts. I'm grateful he wants to teach me his favorite video game and watch me play (which provides a great deal of amusement to him) and I'm grateful for a few fun moments this morning during a surprise fire alarm at the school. It involved donuts and his eyes lighting up. I'm grateful for the 11 years spent with him so far. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to take this trip, for all the things happening to make it possible. This is a perspective shifting exercise and I do think it helps.

Exercise. Exercise reduces stress and clears thinking. Usually, I'd have worked out on my own this morning and I was planning on running after dropping Cody off for school. But, the surprise fire drill ate up my workout time. My temptation is to say I'm too busy the next few days and I should skip the gym, but even though I did skip today, I'm making a public commitment to my group to not skip, to meet at the regular time Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I know I'll feel better and be better able to cope with life.

Plan Worry Time. This suggestion is to respond to your worries by allowing a specific time to hear them out. So, for example, I'll let myself worry while I'm making dinner, or driving to get my son from school or at 7:00 every morning. So, when you start to worry, tell yourself. "Oh, that's a, I'll think about that on my drive to the school this afternoon." Giving it a formal hearing acknowledges the worry and allows you to take it off your current plate of things to deal with. I've never tried this before, but it's worth a shot. I'll allow myself to worry when I wake up (this will get me alert) for about 15 minutes...when I bring the dog in from his morning walk, I'm done and need to get on with my day.

That's the five for this week. To recap, here they are again:

  1. Remove uncertainty/measure something which helps you take action and control over the problem
  2. Shift your worry to a daily routine that will address the problem
  3. Write a grateful list,
  4. Exercise
  5. Plan a specific worry time.

Episode Artwork

The art this week is about what worry can do. I love boxers, but they do have a perpetual scowl. This was a foster pup of mine a few years ago, the first boxer I ever had in my home. Her name was Ms. O. And on a beautiful Spring day she could stand in a beautiful field of blooming daffodils (or buttercups as they're called here in the South) and create a virtual rain cloud with her expression. The contrast in this image has always made me laugh. We can do the very same thing in our lives with our worry.

Episode Downloads

Want to explore the ideas in this post further? Download the Coffee Talk Worksheet or put this week's art on your phone:  Episode 32 Downloads

May 7, 2017

In a little over a week, I'm leaving for a nine day trip to Greece! I love to travel, to learn and I'm also a natural planner. So, normally, if I have a big trip coming up, I would be thinking about it a lot. I'd be researching. Learning. What's it going to be like? What should I know? What can I expect? What's the history? What are the customs? I can spend months thinking about an upcoming event or trip.

Some of that is to make the unknown more knowable. To exert some control over a new experience. Some of it is because I love the anticipation. And, I genuinely love learning about something new. But, here's the problem. When I spend all of my time anticipating the future, I lose touch with the present. For many years, this future orientation was a form of escape. I was in a difficult marriage and living vicariously in my own future was a form of escapism. Granted, it was cheaper than retail therapy and safer than drugs or drinking. But, it was still escapism!

I'm in a whole different place in life now and while I still love learning and anticipation, I look at my son growing up so quickly and I don't want to miss the present. I'm not quite sure how he got to be a pre-teen, but I know that I'll blink and he'll be leaving home! I want to enjoy him while he's here. I want to savor these moments. Most of them anyway! If I spent my time thinking about, planning for, and anticipating this trip, I'll miss the last month of school. He usually leaves for 9 weeks in the summer and this trip happens to fall during his last full week of school. I could easily waste my last part of the school year with him thinking about this trip. I don't want that to happen.

A few weeks ago, I ran across an old clip of Will Smith talking to an audience. He was describing the experience of going skydiving for the first time. He agreed to go in the midst of a groupthink excitement at a bar. Probably not the best environment for making life or death decisions, but they made all the arrangements for when and where they were going to meet the following day and he went home to bed. Only, he didn't sleep much. He was a bit freaked out about the idea of jumping out of a plane the next morning. He was awake or tossing and turning most of the night. In the morning, he got up and made his way to the meeting place, went through the motions and jumped...or, was pushed actually. When it immediately became (in his words) bliss. One of the most blissful experiences of his life.

I want you think for a moment though, about his night of anxiety and worry beforehand. Where was he? He was home in bed. Safe. Warm. There was absolutely no danger of falling to his death at that point. When did the actual danger happen? Not until he left the safety of the plane the next morning. And yet, He lost sleep when there was no danger because of worry. I bet you've never done that! I'm sure I've never done that!

Worry is a big deal and humans have been doing it for a long time. Over 400 years ago, French writer Michel de Montaigne said, "My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened." The next information is from a UK based source, but I can't imagine it's that much different on this side of the pond. From a 2015 survey, 86% of adults consider themselves to be a worrier. The average adult surveyed spent one hour and 50 minutes a day worrying. That adds up to almost 13 hours a week – nearly 28 days a year spent worrying. Another statistic I saw said 40% of people worry every day. Now, I didn't vet those statistics by looking up the original study. But, even if they're wrong, even if a portion of those numbers are true, we're spending a huge chunk of our time worrying.

In both of these examples, the future is obliterating the present. If I spend my time planning, anticipating and obsessing over an imagined future, I miss the present. If Will Smith or I spend all my time worrying, stressing and being anxious over an imagined future, I miss the present. An article from the Catholic News Agency puts it this way, "You wonder why you’re constantly restless and why you lack interior peace and joy, but the answer is right before you—literally right before you. It’s called the present moment."

One of the antidotes to losing the present by focusing on the future is a mindfulness practice. I read somewhere recently that mindfulness meditation is like push-ups for your brain. That takes it out of the realm of the strange and weird and reframes it into something we can relate to. I'm finding that to be true. I'm in detail overload this week. I showed up at the gym yesterday morning in flip flops (oops, that workout didn't happen!)! I woke up this morning anxious about getting everything done today. But, I was able to recognize the problem thinking and reorient to what was right in front of me.

In thinking about worry and anxiety this week, I compiled a list of eleven suggestions to stop the unproductive hamster wheel that worry causes. I'll give you ten of them in a super-practical episode next week. But a mindfulness practice is the eleventh. If you've never done it, it's easy. If you don't have time, you can see results in a very short practice in a very short time frame. There's a ton of information out there about mindfulness - both the science of it and the practice of it. I urge you to check it out. And, over the summer, I'll share what I've learned, what I'm doing and maybe put together a 30 day challenge for you to join with me. If you like that idea, be sure to let me know.

Episode Artwork

For the next several weeks I'm going to substitute photos for the episode artwork. It's going to work better for my schedule and you'd like to see a photo or two from Greece wouldn't you? I thought so. This week, though, it's a photo from my yard. Peonies are one of my favorite flowers. Truth be told, I probably have a lot of favorite flowers, but I do love Peonies. This is the first open bloom a week or so ago and all the little light spots in the background are Oenethera or Evening Primrose. The Oenethera is doing pretty well up there on our hill where we have trouble growing anything. It grows wild here in Middle Tennessee in the ditches by the roads and it could absolutely take over some of the other things planted on this hill.

But, why am I talking and worrying about that when this beautiful, vibrant, intricate, amazing Peony is right in front of me? Pay attention to this moment. This one right now, right in front of you. Notice things. Explore what it feels like to be right here, right now.

Episode Downloads:  Want to explore the ideas in this podcast further? Download the Coffee Talk Worksheet or put this week's art on your phone:  Episode 30 Downloads