H.A.L.T. for Expats

My greatest stressor in the first week in a new country? Hunger. I find the combination of either having no food or having had someone I barely know attempt to stock my pantry to be incredibly overwhelming. And knowing I’ll soon have to walk into a strange supermarket and purchase unfamiliar products with prices that mean nothing in a language I barely speak all while my stomach rumbles is more than enough to bring my stress levels to almost unbearable levels.

And then on top of the hunger is the exhaustion. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more tired than I did the morning we arrived in Paris for a three-day layover, halfway to our new home in Madagascar, with a 2 month old, a 4 year old, a 6 year old and a 100 pound dog (that almost didn’t make the flight). I lived for days in a fog that wavered between dream and nightmare.

Oh, and then there’s the loneliness. I make friends pretty easily and with time have learned to lay my heart on the line…better to be heartbroken when we part than never to have spent those long mornings over coffee getting to know a new friend. But even for an extrovert, there’s the sorting and negotiating of new friendships that takes time. In those first few days or weeks in a new place, my single most persistent thought is, “Why have we done this again?” I don’t think I’m alone.

And after all of the hunger and exhaustion and loneliness, a kind of underlying grumbling can start to bubble to the surface. I don’t anger easily, but that’s a choice. And, it’s a choice laid in the foundation of the pep talks my husband and I do before a major transition. The night before we head out, bags packed, children settling down to sleep, we tell each other, “We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re each doing our best with a very difficult and stressful situation. We will think before we speak. We’ll use nice words.” It works…almost always.

For us expats, these feelings are all just another part of our unique normal. But recently, I came across an acronym that I’d never heard before. It’s called H.A.L.T. and it really, really spoke to me. It’s a reminder for how to keep yourself in check when you’re facing extreme stress.

The gist of it is this – in times of extreme stress ask yourself, “Am I……”

Hungry?

Angry?

Lonely?

Tired?

If the answer to any one of these is yes, take care of that problem first before you act or make any major decisions. Okay, so sometimes it might be easier said than done, but I like it as a bit of a twist on the traditional “count to 10” recommendation. I like it because, in the expat life, it’s so completely and utterly dead-on. We don’t just experience these situations, our lifestyle causes these situations! I like it because I feel it’s the type of thing you can plan for in advance. I like the idea of writing down each condition in bold letters on a piece of paper and brainstorming how I could handle each one. Because, if you know that (1) each of these things is going to happen and (2) you’ve prepared for how to deal with them in advance, you’re much, much more likely to be able to handle all of the stress that comes with moving.

But you know, the thing I love most about looking at the H.A.L.T. model for stress management is that every single person on the planet has been hungry, angry, lonely or tired at some point in his or her life. The great gift at looking at these conditions as stress contributors is that, firstly, we can all relate to these states of being and, secondly, we’re free to personalize our responses to them. There’s a great gift in the fact that they’re both universal and highly adaptable. They represent a freedom to plan for your stressors in a very concrete and predictable way.

So next time you’re experiencing a big transition or find yourself overwhelmed by stress, ask yourself how you’ll halt and then take the next steps towards finding a more positive way to get through. I think you’ll find dealing with being hungry, angry, lonely or tired first, goes a really long way towards sanity.

 

Bring on the Celebration!

This week I accomplished a major goal I had set for myself back in September. I completed the Coach U Core Essentials Coach Training Program and logged the necessary coaching hours to graduate. It felt really good to have set a goal for myself and have completed it – especially given the major life changes my family and I were handling in the middle of it all. I patted myself on the back. I carefully and fully marked through the lines on my agenda that said, “Take final exam” and “submit graduation paperwork.” Then, I got on with the rest of the week.

On Wednesday I met with my mentor. At first I forgot to even mention that I had graduated. When I did finally remember to tell her, she said, “And what did you do to celebrate?” Celebrate? Ummm…well…nothing. And then I got to thinking – I don’t really celebrate much at all. Actually, let’s put it this way – I live more or less in a constant mode of celebration. I do celebrate life and all of its ups and downs every single day. I take time to stop and smell the roses. I spend time doing things I love. I make time for things like pedicures and massages and date nights with my husband.

But, when it comes to celebration for the sake of celebration – I just don’t do it and now I think it’s time I started. It seems to me that celebration is more multifaceted than I first envisioned. I’m a dedicated celebrator of the accomplishments of my kids, my clients, my husband, my friends, my family and life in general. I think what my coach was getting at when she asked me about my celebration habits was more about drawing out an even deeper layer of richness to life and, perhaps even more importantly, making those experiences a part of my everyday mindset. In other words, living life to the fullest is great (and constitutes a form of celebration), but perhaps I’ve neglected to build on that.

My coach’s suggestion was to make a Celebration Menu complete with appetizers (which I think could be small, little celebrations), entrees (heftier, more substantial celebratory activities) and desserts (maybe the most indulgent of celebrations). I love this idea! I love it as way to really stretch my brain to expand the notion of celebration. I like the idea of including things I’ve said for years I want to do and rewarding hard work with pure fun, joy or soulfulness.

So, I’m including my Celebration Menu below. Now, I’m curious – what would yours include?

APPETIZERS

Get a pedicure at a nice spa instead of the place down the road that does a good job, but plays soap operas on the TV and smells like polish remover.

Get an afternoon coffee and sit and read at the coffee shop.

Buy $10 worth of cute office supplies (I’m obsessed with office supplies…and they’re a tax write off)

Take the kids to Dairy Queen to share in the celebration.

ENTREES

Go on a fancy date night – not a typical jeans and t-shirt date night.

Invite a few friends out for drinks and dinner – my treat!

Take a hip-hop dance class.

Go shopping by myself.

Spend an entire day with my husband, walking and talking.

Take all day to do an art or sewing project – uninterrupted by work or children.

DESSERTS

Attend a 2 or 3-day meditation retreat.

Spend $50-$100 on something really special that I would love to have, but would not normally buy.

See a play.

Go to a concert.

Acknowledging the Dynamic You

Lately I’ve had a lot on my plate. We’re packing out from our current posting in Madagascar…only I’m not in Madagascar. For most of us in this lifestyle, the international transition can be a huge source of stress. I can now say for the record, that’s true even if you’re watching the move via Skype and email.

Each morning, while I can’t completely resist the urge to grab my phone and check my email for the latest in my husband’s adventures (especially on the topic of shipping our dog which has always been my territory…my very stressful territory), I am at least trying to do it mindfully. I’m trying to at least first take a deep breath and ask myself, “Do you need to do this now? Can you pack lunches first? Get coffee? Hit the snooze button?” Sometimes…well maybe once…I did wait until I’d at least packed the kids’ lunches.

During these times, in an effort to be more mindful, I allow myself the space to reflect on all the little parts of me that pop-up in times of stress. In my book, The Expat Activity Book, I call these the “mini-professionals.” They’re the parts of me that micromanage my daily ability to be my typically diverse and dynamic self. When we’re moving, The Calculator is mentally negotiating costs and distances and timetables (all the time!). I can also be taken over by The Resolver – this one can be the most difficult because she believes that there is a right answer to every problem (and she tends to write emails that say as much). She can be especially annoying when dealing with airlines and government officials in developing countries.

One of the interesting things I’ve found is that by simply naming and greeting these parts of myself, I open up space for these mini-professionals to be less demanding. It’s a bit like acknowledging the elephant in the room. Once I admit they’re there, then it becomes easier to manage them – giving them space to help in any way they can and to shut up when I need to get something else done.

What about you? Who are your mini-professionals? Are any of them taking over? What are they good for? What strategies do you use to keep them in check? When are they at their worst? Their best?

These can be really helpful questions to ask yourself during transition – or any time. And remember, simply acknowledging is a huge first step to better understanding all of the many, many sides of your dynamic self!

Welcome May!

Ever find yourself really happy to have arrived at a particular time and place. I’m feeling that way about May. With my husband back in Madagascar, my sons running from sporting event to sporting event, my daughter celebrating all of the awesomeness of being two and, well there’s the whole Type I Diabetes learning curve, April’s been a month of craziness…or, if you will, blessings. We are healthy and happy and things continue apace.

But, somehow I really have felt like getting through April was this big giant challenge in front of me. And, while I didn’t want to just be focusing on arriving to May, I knew that May 1st would come and then I would be able to say, “Yay! I made it!”

I try not to do too much of this anticipatory thinking. I get excited about what lies ahead as much as anyone, but, as I was telling my husband the other day, you never know what will happen in May that will have you forever wishing to get back April. I’m knocking on wood here people….feeling a bit jinxing.

Anyway, like everyone I have my moments of pushing through to the next thing, but when I can I try to remember these simple things:

(1) When you find yourself thinking repeatedly about how much better it will be when you get to point A, stop and tell yourself, “I’m thinking a lot about point A. Point A will be awesome, but I’m not there yet.” I find this little acknowledgement is sometimes enough to bring me back to the moment.

(2) It’s also important to make mental lists of the things that are nice about the place in time where you actually are. For me in April this was two things – friends visiting from Madagascar and my kids’ sporting events…Oh, and we’re all safe and healthy.

(3) And, finally, as nice as it is to do things to put yourself back in the moment (because, like it or not, at the end of the day that’s what you have), go ahead and give yourself the time here and there to close your eyes and really envision how truly nice it is going to be to get to the other side. It’s okay to do it a little bit. And when you’re done, open up your eyes, smile and get right back to the work at hand.

So, here’s to May – just as good as, but maybe a bit more awesome than April!

Changing the Way We Change

Still.
Still.

Here’s a place we’ve all been at one time or another – confronting the feeling of, “I can’t do this anymore. Something’s gotta’ give!” Whether it’s too much work, school, parenting, partnering, loving, caring, hating or even having fun – too much (or, frankly, too little) of anything can send us reeling toward change. Reeling, flailing, careening, spinning…kicking and screaming?

I think sometimes we have the common collective knowledge that discomfort brings about change. It’s that whole idea of hitting rock bottom. You have to get to the most miserable place in order to climb your way out and regain your sense of freedom and happiness.

But I’ve been thinking lately about how we sometimes skip a very important place in the middle. When we get to the point where we know we need to make a change, that change is often born out of the spinning of our brains. In a sense, it’s like we’re drowning and looking for anything to hang on to. Maybe this is the answer! Or this! Or, I could do that!

At some point we just end up choosing something. Sometimes it’s the right thing – the world rebalances and we’re on our way. Other times we quickly find ourselves right back where we started – in the whirlpool, grasping for driftwood.

Why? The answer may be different for each of us, but in my own life this has often been that I’ve missed an important step – stillness. When change is upon us we often go into fight or flight mode. We’re in it for survival and, instinctively, that means – RUN! But, often there’s a part of us that just needs to slow down, stop, watch and wait.

When we slow down and listen we can discover that change isn’t something we control, it’s something we go along with for a time so that, upon arrival, we’re more clear-headed and openhearted about which paths most suit us next.

So next time, before flailing (or after just a little bit of it), try being still. You never know – perhaps good things really do come to those who wait.

Until We Meet Again

This week my husband headed back to our home in Madagascar. I guess it’s home. It’s still kind of home. Our stuff is there so it’s not NOT home..and he’s there too…or will be soon. Home. Always so incredibly complicated. Anyway, home’s not what I’m thinking about this week. I’m thinking about goodbyes.

The expat life is such a big long series of hellos and goodbyes. More than any other group of relatively stable people, we welcome in the new and usher out the old with an almost unbelievable frequency. I find that this is one of the things that my non-expat friends and family find the most difficult to understand. And, I get their point of view. I grew up in a small Texas town with the same kids for 18 years. The hellos and goodbyes were almost laughably easy…you’d say goodbye for the day only to see your best friend at the one small super market 10 minutes later. For most of my childhood our phone numbers only had four digits.

My personal opinion is that saying goodbye gets easier. Not because we become immune to the challenges (although I do think it’s fair to say we become more resilient), but because we learn how to do it. If you’re new to this lifestyle and finding the goodbyes to be difficult, I promise it will get better. Not because your heart toughens or because you lose the need for permanence, but because you’re resilient, you’re creative and you’re living out your passions – and those things bring you closer to people that are just like you, people who get it, and the goodbyes become just a more complex way to say, “See you soon.”

Interested in gaining new ideas for weathering the goodbyes? Here are few strategies I’ve used myself and others employed by some of my favorite and most resilient expat heroes.

  • Make actual, literal, set-in-stone, tickets-purchased plans to see each other again. Obviously, this is not possible in all situations, but when it is – go for it! Why? Because then you really are just saying, “See you in a few.”
  • Schedule virtual dates – by phone, by Skype, SMS – whatever. The important thing here is to treat these appointments like real-time, real-world commitments…because, when you’re an expat, they are!
  • Don’t be shy about friending or following someone you like on social media, but never really got to know. These connections can end up being stronger than you thought, even after you’ve left for a new home.
  • Resist the urge to hold back because you know you’ll have to say goodbye. As they say, you only live once! So much can happen in the blink of an eye. I don’t believe it’s humanly possible to regret full-heartedly seeking out the friendship of someone who interests you.
  • Get creative! Think of cool and unique ways to keep this person in your life and remind them you’re thinking of them. Send them little gifts. Write notes on cards and send them at regular intervals. Pass along recipes, book reviews, video clips, favorite songs or other special pieces of info that say, “This made me think of you.”
  • Accept the fact that, despite the initial difficulty of saying goodbye, you might actually grow apart from the person you’re leaving. And then, allow those memories to take up residence in your heart, untainted by the distance that separates you.
  • Decide to believe that your paths will cross again one day. This one’s a choice, but it’s huge and the energy of positive thinking can, at the very least, put a positive twist on separation. Know that whatever brought you together is likely still working somehow in favor of your reunion.

And We’re Still Talking about Being Busy

Lately I’ve been seeing so much in the media on the topic of being busy. Here’s one from the New York Times – I wrote about it here. I posted this one on the World Tree Coaching Facebook page last week. And, I love what this woman has to say about how she’s going to get her life under control (I especially identify with her descriptions of what it feels like physically and emotionally when she’s on the busy wheel). As a culture, we’re driven by this running around, never feeling like it’s enough, wishing you could just take five minutes to ourselves.

Here’s a conversation I had with my mom one day last week at around 10:30AM:

Mom: Ugh! I’m so busy today. I have so much to do.

Me: Really? What’s on your plate?

Mom: Well, I have to go get a haircut, then I need to stop at the store and pick up some things and then I have to bake a pie for Bible study.

Me: Wow. That is a lot. Why don’t you just pick up something for the Bible study? Do you really need to make a whole pie from scratch?

Mom: I’m NOT going to just pick something up.

Me: Why not?

Mom: I just feel like that’s tacky. I should make something.

Me: How is it tacky? You can get really good pies at the bakery or even HEB (our local supermarket).

Mom: I don’t know….

Me: Tell me this – when you get to Bible study is a single one of your friends going to say, “Oh my God! Vickie just brought a store-bought cake. She must be so lazy. I can’t believe that.”

Mom: (laughing) No.

Me: Okay. Go to HEB and pick up a cake…or a pie…or some cookies.

Mom: (laughing still) Okay.

This is what I’m talking about here. Every single one of us knows that we must get off the busy wheel. We don’t like it. It’s not satisfying. If it’s not killing us literally, it is killing our souls. It’s forcing us to continue to live our life in the wrong direction – also known as someone else’s direction.

So remember, it’s never too late to make a change. Ask yourself the big questions – Why am I doing this? What happens when I say no to one more task, assignment or project? If I gave up half of what I’m doing now, how would I feel about what’s left over? Do I love myself enough to just take better care of me?

My guess is you can do this. More living. Less doing. Yes.

It Takes One to Know One

So here’s an interesting quote I was reminded of today: “It takes one to know one.” That old playground taunt we’ve all heard, but in a completely different context. It came up as a topic of discussion in a class I’m taking.

We were talking about how best to deal with “challenging” people in our lives, the people we spend time tolerating, but not truly loving or accepting. I mentioned that, for me, when I find myself irked by someone, one thing I try to do is recognize what fear, worry, anxiety or judgment about my own self might be triggered by seeing a particular trait in someone else. In short, I imagine that on the other side of ego, we have much more in common than I’d care to admit. Sometimes this process is excruciatingly difficult.

And of course sometimes I fail, but I find the practice, even when it’s unsuccessful, to be a wonderful opportunity for growth. In its simplest form it’s a great stress-reducer. But, more often than not it leads to profound levels of insight. At its best, it deepens your emotional and spiritual core.

There are lots of different strategies for taking on this process.

From my perspective, the end goal of this type of work is beginning to recognize that our suffering is ours and ours alone. Sometimes people make poor choices in how they treat us, but our choice lies in how we respond to that treatment, what we choose to believe about the relationship or interaction, what we choose to recognize about the “difficult” person and what level of personal growth we agree to accept in order to be more at peace in our lives. And, it’s important to remember, the behaviors of others are not about us, but our feelings and responses absolutely are. It’s worth it to take yourself out on a limb to get better at dealing with stressful people.

If you’re interested in gaining some clarity around this in your own life, below are some strategies, exercises and reflections that you might find helpful. Go ahead and give one (or all) of them a go! I guarantee you’ll thank yourself for it.

The Mirror of Relationship – from the Chopra Center
Byron Katie’s The Work
Tara Brach’s The RAIN Model

Finding the New You During Transition

My children, I’ve learned, believe I’m the best cook in the world. Of course, I’m not the best cook in the world. But, I do love to cook. I appreciate the methodical process of chopping and slicing and spicing. I wasn’t always good at it, but with time I’ve learned. Now I can invent things. It’s a sign for me that I’ve progressed. I use recipes for inspiration, but rarely in an effort to get something precise. And, I love cooking for others. Dinner parties are one of my greatest joys. And I really, really love food.

Being a good cook is a gift I’ve come to learn to accept. It’s been part of the process of nestling myself down into this type of life. This life of an expat where, since everything constantly changes around you, you have no choice but to sit back sometimes and watch where it takes you. I’ve always liked to cook. I don’t think I ever envisioned, or even desired, to be particularly good at it. It snuck up on me, but I’m sticking with it. I’ve made it a part of myself and that’s actually what I think my children see and why they’ve come to believe I must be the best in the world.

For anyone facing profound change – whether adjusting to a new life in a new home or a new country or simply a new job – there comes a time when we can benefit from spending time mentally and emotionally with the things about ourselves that have snuck up on us. Sometimes so much is changing around us that we overlook all the new traditions, habits or processes we’ve added to our life. Sometimes these new parts of our self are working out well. Other times, not so much.

Learning to accept (or not) those new aspects of our self is a process, one that requires honesty and kindness. Not sure where to begin?

Here are 5 questions to consider asking:

1. What am I doing now that I’ve never really done before?

2. Is this new part of my life something I want to nurture or something I want to let go of?

3. What new experiences await me when/if I embrace this part of me?

4. Am I willing to accept the changes in me that will come from allowing this new part of me to grow or continue to develop?

5. When or if I decide I’ve outgrown, moved on from or lost this part of myself, how will I let it go (or bring it back) in the most gentle and kind way possible?

 

 

Resolve to be Curious

It’s that time again. You know what I’m talking about – New Year’s Resolution season! We’re drawn, quite naturally (and historically, if Wikipedia is to be trusted), to the idea that the New Year is a perfect time to make a change, to shake things up – to be better! I couldn’t agree more.

But, most research reveals that very few people – something around 20% – actually achieve the goals they set at the New Year. There are thousands of articles and blog posts that claim to know why this is. I’m not really going to venture to guess. It seems quite simple to me – what works for one person would drive another individual to give up after Day One. We’re all different and your guess is as good as mine as to why some people find the New Year’s Resolution system to be inspirational and others find it to be a giant, looming, impossible invitation to failure.

I wouldn’t be one to say, “Don’t waste your time.” There’s certainly something to be said for setting goals. And, creating a framework for achieving those goals really works for some, maybe even most, people. If you know it works for you – then go for it.

But, if you’ve tried to set New Year’s Resolutions in the past and failed (repeatedly) – you’re not alone. Maybe it’s time to try something different. Here’s a list of questions that might point you in the right direction. They’re in no particular order and I don’t claim to know what you’ll find on the other side. Nor will I make recommendations for what you do with the answers you find. But what I can say is this – regardless of what you resolve to do – no one fails at reflection, exploration or contemplation. So if you must resolve – maybe just resolve to be…curious.

20 Questions to Ask Yourself in Lieu of New Year’s Resolutions

1. What do I really, really, really, really want?

2. Of all the things I do, what do I enjoy doing most?

3. What am I afraid of?

4. What part of my self am I working hardest to hide from others?

5. What am I both good at and enjoy doing?

6. What am I good at, but don’t enjoy doing?

7. Who are the 5 people in my life that most inspire me? Why?

8. What are 3 times in my life when I was faced with a decision and I made the right choice for me at that time?

9. Who am I judging? What does it say about me that I’m holding that judgment?

10. What aspect of my life gives me the greatest sense of purpose?

11. Who are the people in my life with whom I feel the most me?

12. What are 3 things in my life that I am tolerating?

13. Where do I want to go that I’ve never been before?

14. What do I want to say that I’ve never said?

15. Who in my life loves me most of all?

16. What emotions or feelings freak me out?

17. What would I prefer to do less of?

18. What would I prefer to do more of?

19. When do I feel closest to God? (God, as you define it – whatever draws you closer to your spiritual center)

20. If tomorrow were my last day, what would I let go of?