How to trust yourself when you don’t

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It’s almost a cliché to say, “trust yourself,” when beginning any new endeavor, but I find it’s tricky to pin down in terms of concrete experience. How, exactly, do I trust myself on purpose? What is it I’m trusting, anyway? Changes of any kind, even good ones, can trigger our survival instincts and release various flavors of anxiety and doubt. When we’re feeling any degree of fear, it’s not obvious how to find our way back to ease, confidence, or trust.

On the other hand, it’s really useful if we CAN find our way back, because it’s when we trust ourselves that we are much more likely to make decisions that serve our well-being. We need a map! The question of how to trust on purpose has been present in my mind lately because I’ve made some rather bold professional decisions and pointed my ship in a new direction. Granted, I’ve been working on this transition for several years, but still, there’s mist hovering over the water ahead and I can’t totally see where I’m going.

I think we know trust when we feel it. It’s a safe, centered place, at least for me. When I’m feeling trust, I feel strong, capable of facing the unknown. I find it helpful to identify these feelings, however subjective, because the first step of finding something is knowing what it is you’re looking for in the first place. So here’s my working definition:

Trusting myself is believing that whatever happens, I can handle it.

What follows are a few strategies I’ve been using to cultivate trust, a working map to find trust in myself when it goes into hiding. I share them with here in case you, too, at some point find yourself in unfamiliar waters.

1. Borrow a Memory

In the face of the unknown, it’s easy to forget that we’ve ever done anything new before. But that’s never true, of course, for any of us. At this moment in my life, as I’m letting go of much of my dance-related work and devoting more energy and time to my coaching business, it has helped to remember that over twenty years ago I took a similar leap, the one that catalyzed my dance career in the first place.

I was working full-time as a graphic designer for an internet development company. It was the late 1990s and with the cavalier attitude we only have in our early 20s, I left my job to spend three months in Buenos Aires studying tango. I admit it does sound a bit reckless, as many well-meaning family members expressed to me at the time.

In hindsight, though, I can see that this leap was a necessary turning point in my life, one that set off innumerable other events that helped me develop my own creative potential and, more significantly, enabled me to enrich thousands of other people’s lives through community dance activities. And so today, as I once again change course, it helps to remember that I have done this before.

Your story may be subtler or more dramatic than mine, but I am certain that you have stepped into the unknown at some point in your past. I am certain that you adapted, that you learned and changed as a result, and that in some way it made you the person you are today. If you have done it before, you can do it again.

2. Clarify the Vision

We evolved an imagination for exactly these moments of doubt. When we lack sensory feedback in our environment, when we don’t know what’s coming, we can nevertheless imagine it. Reflexively, we tend to imagine disaster, but this is just our survival instinct hijacking our imagination for its own purposes. We can take back control of our mind and our manifesting power by deliberately writing or drawing a vision of what we want.

One important thing to remember about visioning is that it’s not that important whether you get it exactly right, or whether you’re 100% sure it’s what you want. Our dance with reality is just that, a dance, and as we imagine, things appear, and as things appear, we modify our vision. But if we don’t start imagining in the first place, we’ll never get out of survival mode, so it’s crucial to have a vision, even if it evolves over time.

Because I work at home, I find it easiest to imagine myself writing, painting, and meeting clients in that environment. I do my visioning after morning meditation because the state of calm acceptance I have when I sit is the same one I most want to experience when I’m engaged in my creative or professional work.

You can write or draw your vision at any time, in a journal or on a cocktail napkin. You can also make it a daily or monthly practice. Write both how you’ll be feeling and what will be happening around you when the vision is manifest. Your imagination is more powerful than your fear!

3. Tune in to your body

Much of my own understanding of “intuition” or “inner wisdom” relates to how my body feels. What does my body communicate to me in the form of sensations, breath patterns, emotional states? By tracking these tangible phenomena, I can choose to follow and commit to thoughts that correspond with calmer, more positive feeling states. Conversely, I can choose to take less seriously thoughts that accompany contracted, tense, and negative feeling states.

I know that when I think about my vision, I feel a light-hearted expansion in my chest and an energized sensation on the surface of my body. From this state of being, I make a to do list and steadily check items off. I make progress one day at a time. On the other hand, when I convince myself I’m going to fail, my shoulders fold inward and I slouch. I procrastinate and read articles on the internet. Clearly, those thoughts are not moving me forward.

Body wisdom is what you feel when you say “I have a gut feeling about this,” or “It’s like a weight taken off my shoulders,” or “My heart wasn’t in it.” The body is wise beyond what the intellect can comprehend, and the more we tune into it, the easier it becomes to make decisions that serve our well-being. This is a life-long practice, but in terms of trusting myself, it’s among the most reliable strategies.

If you don’t have a strong connection to your body, start by focusing on the sensation of breathing in your chest or belly. Check in with your breath when you’re feeling calm and when you’re feeling anxious, and notice any differences. You can also tune in to physical sensations when you have small decisions to make, when the stakes are low. Coffee or tea? Happy hour or reading a book at home? As you get used to respecting your physical feedback, you’ll be able to rely on it for bigger decisions too.

How do you define trust, and how do you make the choice to trust in yourself? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

How to Shift from Overwhelm to Engagement

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Overwhelm is a common experience among nearly all of the working people I know. We are all busy, that’s for sure, and the labor system we live in tends to ask for more and more, and then some more. Perhaps that’s just its nature. For me, the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling engaged, as I operate within this system, is usually a question of perspective. That is, how do I internally react to what companies, managers, institutions, governments, or family members are asking of me?

I don't know about you, but when I'm overwhelmed, I generally feel totally out-of-control, as if  there’s way too much for me to do, understand, or otherwise respond to, that I'm drowning in  work and have no hope of finishing. When I'm engaged, though, I feel connected to my own power of choice. I'm working because I want to work, and I'm doing in a way and at a pace that I want to be doing it. It has a feeling of eagerness, or at least of genuine interest and commitment.

If you experience work-related (other any other kind of) overwhelm, this post hopes to assist you in reflecting on your particular situation, and in considering how you might practice shifting from overwhelm toward a state of healthier and more sustainable engagement. NOTE: This topic is, of course, vast, but in hopes of avoiding overwhelm and sticking with engagement, I'm going to keep it brief!

1. Do one small thing for yourself

Self-care isn’t optional, it’s mandatory (like food!), especially if you live in a society like ours that tends toward overwork and isolation. Self-care can be anything (exercise, meditation, chocolate, a bath, a good book, a burger) as long as it is completely unrelated to your work. To reduce overwhelm and move toward engagement, we need to back away slowly, so to speak, remembering that we are humans first, and workers second. We need to feel, in our body, that we are ok, in order to counteract the messages from overwhelm which are telling us that all is not ok. Self-care does this. It provides us with small, essential doses of comfort, relaxation, nourishment, and pleasure. When we give ourselves those things, even for 5 minutes a day, we calm the nervous system and that generally takes the edge off the overwhelm.

The reason these tiny acts of self-care may be hard to implement is that the pattern of overwhelm is probably telling you that you don't have time to finish your work much less eat lunch. How can you possibly meditate for two minutes? There's no time! I know, I've been there, and it seems impossible. But I promise, as soon as you decide you have time, you will have it. Really. Eat lunch. Breath for two minutes. And then go back to work and see how you feel.

2. Get realistic

Are you asking too much of yourself? This is not an idle question. Unrealistic expectations are rampant in American work culture, so much so that they have become normalized. Many of us actually believe we should be able to magically fit in three extra meetings or two extra research reports at the end of the day, or that we should lengthen the work day until midnight or beyond in order to complete the extra tasks because, well, someone asked. And by the way, also fix the loose kitchen tile, do the laundry, and help the kids with their homework.

More is not always better. More is not always possible. More frequently leads to mistakes and getting the flu. If you thrive on 14-hour days, that's great! But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there might also be a very good reason for it. Take an honest look at what you’re expecting yourself to do on a daily basis, and consider whether it’s actually a realistic standard.

3. Take back your power of choice

Our inner state generally mirrors our outer circumstances, and each can influence the other. When you take change of your inner state, even a little bit, you reclaim your power to impact both. Even a statement as silly as, “I choose to feel overwhelmed right now,” can initiate a shift in perspective. Engagement comes from choice, and the act of choosing itself makes it easier to keep on doing it. Try out other points of view that may shift you closer to a state of engagement. No matter how demanding the external circumstances, you can always choose how you see them and feel about them. For example:

"I choose to focus on one thing at a time."
"I choose to feel grateful that I have this job/family/opportunity."
"I’m doing the best I can, and I choose to believe that’s enough."
"Even if everything isn’t done perfectly, I choose to believe it will be ok."

 

How do you understand the experiences of overwhelm vs engagement? How do you navigate between them? Leave your own pro tips in the comments!