I am thinking a lot lately about how we end up doing what they do in this world. Now that I am semi-retired and my hours are very flexible, I am meeting many people who are retired. Often they had a number of years in a career that they enjoyed yet they are now discovering issues and activities that they find more meaningful. It is fascinating learning about the variety of things they really care about. For instance, a friend of mine just became deeply immersed in creating beautiful pottery. Another friend recently went to Nairobi on a mission to help undernourished children. And another friend is passionate about teaching others to meditate.
Whether these activities are paid work or volunteer work doesn’t really matter. What matters is that these friends are deeply and personally drawn to these activities. They are more fulfilled because these activities support their personal values and needs. Certainly many of us find great enjoyment and meaning from our main work in the world, but far too many of us don’t while working or ever for that matter.
What do you really care about? Whether you are retired or not, isn’t it worth exploring so that you get greater satisfaction from your days? I find that complacency is such an easy path to take. Motivation is required to push beyond staying still. When you are working to pay the rent, so to speak, that may be a big enough motivation to keep you engaged in the world. You may be inadvertently fulfilling your wants and needs. However, deliberately aligning your daily life with what really matters to you will give you greater fulfillment, whether you are getting paid or not. If you haven’t ever thought about it before, I suggest you think about what are your top 10 values in life. I’m not talking about morals or ethics. By values I mean what is most important to you that will help guide you in your choices so that you get more of what you want from life. Here is a list of some examples:
Personal values are different for everyone. My corporate life fulfilled a number of my values: recognition, helping others, connection, learning and growing. My huge need for connection was filled by having to show up for a job each day that included other wonderful people. Now that I am on my own working at home, it is easy to retract into hermit life. My personal values of connection and recognition and helping others have gotten side-lined. Fortunately finding ways of learning and growing is second nature to me.
Of course there are needs on my personal values list that were never or rarely fulfilled at work: playfulness, romance, independence, nature, nurturing and spirituality. This past decade post-corporate I have been enjoying living those values more fully. For me, life is always about asking questions and exploring (that’s my learning and growing value in action). So lately I am discovering that connection, recognition and helping others wants to be more front and center. That’s the next direction for me. I hope that you discover what you really care about and take some action to get your values and needs met.
There is an urgent bubbling inside that has me fully questioning how I want to live my life right now. I am questioning whether I am living too small of a life and then in turn questioning what is too small? Shouldn’t I be living large, the nasty inner voice nags? Living large in the colloquial sense means taking life with gusto, reaching for all that you want, even if that means you have to go out of your comfort zone. Must I live large to experience life fully? Or should the questions be not about living too small or too large of a life but instead around the richness and complexity of how I choose to live my life? Do I choose actions that make me feel good physically? Do I choose routes that serve my emotional well-being? Do I want to always feel comfortable or do I want to want to push my limits? What are my limits? How does aging impact my experience of life? And then it hits me where it hurts most: how does being a large woman impact my experience of life?
As I explore this I am struck by one really big part of my life that tests all these questions: my ballet class. I started taking ballet class again as an adult this past summer and I haven’t stopped since. Ballet class gives me an opportunity to at once feel wonderful and also push my level of comfort, to feel the highs and lows all at the same time. Tonight is my class so as I anticipate the evening I am welcoming all the mixed emotions that come forth.
From my first class to present, although I look forward to each class, I also get very anxious. There are so many reasons for my anxiety that mostly stem from my internal insecurity and shame around my body. Oh, that ugly socially created and perpetuated problem of body shame. Whatever your size or shape, you most likely have experienced body shame. Will people look at me because I’m large? Do I look graceful—can I ever look graceful at my size? Does the teacher spend more time with me because I’m large. Does the teacher spend less time with me because I’m large? Am I too outspoken to counteract my feelings of insecurity? Am I outspoken because I’m confident? The answer is probably yes to all these things. And thus these conflicting thoughts demonstrate the complexity of living and breathing and thinking in a human body—of any size.
Although I can’t know what everyone else is experiencing, I know from all that I have read and studied and from my clients that most of us have internal dialogues going on inside our heads all day long that impact our experience of life. Meditation and other practices exist to help us suffer less as a result of all this internal talk. Through mindfulness and meditative practices, instead of attempting to remove those inner monologues, we work to be with them and not attach to them as truth. And so with regards to my ballet class, instead of trying to tame the inner voice, I am simply going to witness all that it has to say. I will attempt to be with the thoughts and recognize that they are simply thoughts. What I think is not the truth. What I think other people think is not the truth. They are all simply thought constructs made up in my mind.
The interesting part of this exercise is the realization that although I get anxious because I will be in the class tonight around other people who might judge me and my ballet skills and my body, what others think about me really isn’t the issue. What is real is that I am myself judging myself. I am the one who is creating all this anxiety. I am not blaming myself. Instead I am simply pointing out that without my own acceptance of myself in my beautiful graceful body—that I do recognize here and there—I will continue to suffer and get overly anxious about my ballet class.
The truth is that I love my ballet class. I love moving my body. I love stretching. I love the music. I love the other people in the class. I love the teacher. I love that we are all ages from late 20s to 60s. I love that we all have different bodies. I love that I feel sweaty. I love how my leotard, tights, leg warmers, ballet slippers, wrap sweater and skirt hug my body. I love that I smile throughout most of the class. I love smiling to myself when facing the mirror. I love that I feel strong even when my calves ache. I love that I feel strong even when I am exhausted after the long class. I love that I am ballet dancing. I am choosing to live life gracefully, inclusive of the running thoughts in my head.
Because January 1st was on a Wednesday, last week felt like a continuation of the year-end holidays and not a new start. This week finally feels like it’s a new year. Although you may be eager to push into 2020, I find that something is needed to gain closure for the prior year. I suggest some kind of closure ceremony or ceremonies.
Closure is an interesting topic. When anything is over, be it a relationship, a project, an education, a phase in your life, a season, a year, a decade (depending on how you count decades), it is helpful to process and reflect on that transition. Closure is gaining some insight into the transition so that you have some resolution and acceptance for what took place. It helps you to move forward. It can be particularly helpful if the transition feels painful.
Each year I am partial to starting the closure process for the past year by reviewing the calendar to remind yourself of all that happened during the year. You will probably be surprised by all that you did, people you interacted with, experiences you hadn’t planned for, and things that you had already forgotten about. If you have some notes from earlier in the year that are forward-looking, it is very fascinating to see how what you anticipated matched what actually occurred. No judgment is imperative. Just use the process to see what you learned, what you let go of, what you welcomed, what risks you took, what help you provided, what gifts you gave and received and who you have become. Don’t rush the process. Find some quiet time to review and reflect.
When you are ready, you might create some kind of letting go ceremony. Perhaps you want to light a candle and say so long to the past year. Maybe just writing your thoughts down is ceremony enough. If you paint or draw or take photos perhaps an image will help you to summarize your feelings for the year as you bid adieu. There are no rules. Give yourself an opportunity to fully feel any emotions that arise from this transition. Take as long as you need. Remember that closure is about getting ready for the next phase of your life but that doesn’t mean that you have to forget. Instead honor yourself and what the year meant to you. For each year brings with it new experiences from really awesome to really awful. As we cycle through our lives, the richness of being human is made up of our everyday moments with all the highs and lows and in-betweens. Ceremony is celebration of that complexity. May you find peace with your past.
Lately I have been feeling challenged. I lost more than a month of productivity and energy to a bad sinus infection/head cold. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this period has been how hard I have been on myself emotionally. I am almost completely healed and most of my energy is back but I haven’t felt as motivated to do my work and do my art as I did before the illness. During the worst part of the illness I couldn’t do much other than sleep. Once I was in the getting better phase I often felt that I should push myself harder to get back to work! All of this points to my personal struggle with having to “do” all the time, rather than allowing myself to just “be”. But it also points to how hard I can be on myself. And that is a common problem I see with my clients and most of us.
What does being kind to yourself look like, anyway? Recognizing that there will be ebbs and flows in the body’s capacity is a big one. Sometimes we are ill, sometimes we have sore muscles, sometimes we are physically unable to do certain activities. Giving yourself permission to rest and restore is an important kindness tool for yourself. During my illness I slept in comfy jammies, kept the room temperature warm, snuggled with my kittens and when I had enough strength, unapologetically watched romances on TV.
For some it is very difficult to give oneself much needed TLC (tender loving care) in the form of physical comforts like sleep and hot soup. I find kindness deeds to myself are much easier than being kind to myself in my thoughts and attitudes. Although I was taking care of myself physically, I was beating myself up each day that I wasn’t getting better quick enough and wasn’t finding a way to get things done even if I was sick. I said unkind things to myself like, “You’re not really that sick—snap out of it!” And even worse, “You are being a baby and making excuses because you really don’t want to do your work or your art.”
If someone said those things to me directly I would be appalled at their meanness. But when you say such things to yourself, you rarely recognize how caustic the words are. If you are a perfectionist (or a recovering perfectionist as I like to call myself) it is common to set up huge expectations for yourself. Then if you don’t live up to your high standards, you are unkind and self-critical. Being kind to yourself takes practice but is truly worth it. At some level you might fear that if you are kind to yourself you will become too self-indulgent. So you keep yourself in check by creating high standards to meet. That creates a cycle of anxiety that can be broken. When you are compassionate about your own limitations, be them from being ill or simply the truths about your own capabilities, you will be more at ease. And you deserve compassion and kindness—from yourself and from others. The prescription from this doctor is to practice self-kindness every day.
Change is inevitable. Change is welcome. Change is hard. Change for change sake is pointless. Change is a process not an event. Change is scary. Change is good. Change is ahead. And the phrases go on. Everything indeed is always changing even if we feel like we are in a static place in our life. I am a big fan of taking on change to learn and grow and to create the life you want. Change that you want is hard enough to handle for most people. When change is trust upon you, that is when the going gets tough. You might feel like everything it is falling apart and that you have no control.
All of us have to face an inevitable big change in life that you really cannot control: aging. Many of my friends and clients are deeply challenged with the changes that come with aging. Some of the choices that come with aging are relatively straight forward on the surface. Like should I let my hair go gray? Yet in the work place and society at large, hair color and style are not such simple choices. I am a huge fan of the Crown Act that allows everyone to wear their hair however they want without fear of discrimination. California was the first state to outlaw discrimination based on hairstyle and other states are following. Women of color in particular have had to face great prejudice about their hair and go through time consuming and painful treatments to make their hair conform to white norms. The Crown Act is a seemingly small yet very important step of recognizing the beautiful varieties of physical appearance in the world.
Hair color, just like style, often leads to discrimination. Although coloring hair can be for pure fun and decoration, often covering up gray hair is required to conform to youth standards in the workplace. Fortunately deciding to go gray naturally as you age is having a big gain in popularity among women right now. Some young woman are even dying their hair gray. The shift to embracing gray is a wonderful way of dealing with the natural process of aging. Instead of trying to control, just go with it. Dealing with changes in appearance due to aging, as difficult as it may be for some, is small compared to other realities of aging.
Many changes that arise due to aging are more complex because they don’t only impact you, they also impact friends and family. Living arrangements are one of the biggest and potentially disruptive changes that you will have to deal with as you age. Planning can help to ease the transition but no matter how much you plan, the change will have emotional as well as physical impacts. And looking into the future is a difficult task. Trying to anticipate what you will want and need when you are older isn’t like gazing into a crystal ball. It is more like playing a game of chance. You can’t know what the future will bring but you can consider possible scenarios and make some general plans for those scenarios. It would be lovely if we could all easily and gracefully welcome change. Although that might be hard to imagine, there is a way to soften your experience with change. Acceptance.
Acceptance recognizes that you may not be able to fight all changes. Rather than struggle against the changes, with the practice of noticing the changes as they happen in your life and with the practice of accepting those changes, you will feel more in control. Some of the changes will be emotionally shattering and even still, acceptance can dull the suffering that is accompanying those difficult changes. Acceptance is best practiced all the time with smaller issues to give you practice for the bigger issues. Over time it gets more automatic and easier. Whether you are working toward accepting the wrinkles that emerge on your face and other physical changes of aging or you are working to accept that you can no longer live in your current home, may you find a peaceful resolution and live with ease.