How I Gave Up and Started Living

Eight years ago I decided to give up.

Here’s what happened.

Right after my oldest child was born, I missed a meeting I’d scheduled. I’ve long since forgotten what the meeting was, but at the time, the pure fact that I had forgotten it appalled me. Who had I become? How in the world was I going to save the world, be the best, run my own business, become executive director of…something, if I couldn’t remember to keep a meeting?

Then, when my son was about 6 months old, the straw broke the camels back. We were grocery shopping. It took me two hours to do something that I’d always prided myself in completing in less than 30 minutes. Pride? Craziness. As if grocery shopping is a race. And, anyway, I worked at that store for 4 years in college, so completing a 30 minute trip gave me a significant competitive advantage over my…competition?

And then I gave up. Approximately 90 minutes into the trip and after at least 2 diaper changes, one nursing session and (maybe) a few tears (mine and his), I stopped and looked at him there. I was at the culmination of too many years trying to do way too much. And the words came to me out of nowhere: I do not have to be the best. I only have to do my best.

And now it’s my mantra.

I know that every day I do the best I can with the information I have available. I find this view brings me comfort in letting things go that used to drive me crazy. Mistakes used to freak me out. I’d play them over and over again in my head. Now I’ve worked out a process for bidding them goodbye. I’ve always been impatient. I still am, but I do my best to keep impatience as a piece of inspiration and not a set of handcuffs. I surround myself with people and experiences that bring me joy and try to take it easy on the ones that get me down. In the decision to stop striving so hard for the things I wanted, I found the freedom to accept my dreams when they landed at my doorstep. And, sometimes I actually fail. And that’s where giving up is so rewarding. I’m not the best and never will be, but even in failure I’ll know I was (and am) trying my hardest.



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

Taking a Closer Look

I live in one of the most unique places on Earth. Things that exist here in Madagascar sometimes don’t exist anywhere else in the world. In fact, a whopping 75% of plant and animal species in Madagascar live nowhere else on the planet…nowhere!

But this is also a place that can feel quite sad. It is so beautiful, but there is also so much pain. This is a place where political instability constantly seems just around the corner, the roads and the garbage get worse and worse every week and sometimes there are only 10 or so small children begging on the street between my house and the supermarket 2 miles away…but more often than not the number hovers around 20. We constantly live with the profound awareness that our lives are so easy compared to those around us.

So, as you can imagine, despite the beauty and incredible uniqueness, living here can be complicated. It’s easy to feel like there’s no hope. And, as much as I hate to say it, maybe there isn’t. But, then sometimes I see something really nice or beautiful or sweet and I think – “Who am I to say there’s no hope. Truthfully, there’s hope everywhere. We just have to open our eyes to see it.”

The other day I witnessed a man, crippled by polio, slide quickly under a bus to retrieve and return a cell phone dropped by a young woman on a motorcycle. I drove past a 30-something dad tickling squeals and squirms out of his little girl as he took a break from selling a small hill of beans on the side of the road (yes, literally, a hill of beans). I saw a group of barefoot and ragged construction workers set about organizing a pick-up soccer game in a field, laughing and pushing and calling – disguising, or perhaps forgetting, the fact that one small cup of rice had likely been their only meal that day.

As expats, we have this particularly unique advantage – we’re almost always surrounded by stark contrast. Even those of us who live in relatively developed countries are faced with the notion of here vs. there, us vs. them, the-way-we-do-things vs. the-way-it’s-done-there.

Of course, on the one hand all of these contrasting sights and sounds are shocking, but on the other hand, they wake us up. We can try to ignore them, but only so much. At the end of the day – it’s just too much to ignore. So the question becomes – what do we do with this?

For me, this exposure to so many different realities has served as an invitation to wake up. If we choose to allow it to be so – it can be an invitation to experience the full range of emotions that come with seeing things that repeatedly don’t make sense. It can be an opportunity to say, “This really bothers me and this doesn’t. Why is that?” Each one of these experiences, each time we look towards what we’re seeing and not away, bring us closer to better understanding ourselves and that keeps us better engaged in our respective journeys.

It takes effort, but we benefit from looking closer. We might be surprised to find that the answers we’re looking for come in places we’d never expect…or, in the ups, downs, ins and outs of the places we never expected to be.


Goals Vs. Shoulds

I can’t believe I’m about to quote a textbook, but I am. One of my coaching textbooks has a really spot-on presentation of the difference between goals and “shoulds.” Here goes:

A goal is something that you really want. A “should” is a goal that you think you should want, or think you need, in order to reach another goal (a means to an end). An authentic goal allows choice and can be freely set, changed, or abandoned with little resistance or emotional reaction. A should is rife with risk, consequences, and potential condemnation.

This is written so concisely and to the point that it’s probably pretty easy to understand the message. But, the bigger challenge is – How do you truly recognize what things in your life are shoulds and which things are goals? And, how do you weed out the shoulds so that you can get down to the business of goals?

Below are just a couple of questions you might consider asking yourself. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it might provide a good starting point for focusing your energies on what really matters.

1. How do I feel at the thought of completely abandoning this project or task?

Does the idea of giving up on this task bring you some temporary relief from any stress, but make you feel a bit sad or disappointed – like you would be giving up on something you really want? Sounds like you’re working towards a goal. But, does the idea of abandoning the project leave you feeling a profound sense of relief or freedom? That might be a sign that this project is a should. It’s okay to have mixed feelings or to find it difficult to separate your own feelings from the feelings of others. But, it’s important to get up close and personal with what you are feeling. In short, don’t run from what you’re feeling (physically and emotionally), move toward it and really get in there with what’s going on. If you’re finding it hard to know how you feel, try going for a walk, talking it out with someone who will listen (a coach is great for this!), meditating, praying – whatever works for you.

2. What would my family/friends/colleagues say if I gave up on this?

A big indicator of whether what you’re doing is a goal or a should lies in how others respond to the news that you’re considering giving up. If your family responds with concern because they have seen your dedication and passion for the work you’re doing, but reassures you that they support you know matter what, then this is a big sign that you’re working on a goal. If, on the other hand, they respond with contempt, disdain or pressure – maybe it’s time to look at what your “goal” means for them. Maybe this is really a should brought on by what someone else is envisioning for you.

3. When working on this task or project how do I feel in the moment?

This question is really about getting focused on your passions. The saying is really true – “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Do you experience a sense of flow when you’re working towards your goal? If given all day to work on it, would you? Does the goal help you feel more creative, more energetic, more alive or more whole? If not, it’s possible that you’re doing something you feel you should do, not something you really want to. Sometimes we have to choose to face challenging tasks with positive energy (even if we know that we’re feeling uninspired), but what I’m talking about here is different from facing something necessary with a whole heart. Taking on challenging or dreaded tasks with a whole heart can lead to lots and lots of growth. However, forcing yourself to complete tasks that leave you feeling less like yourself is a whole other ball game. Spend time getting to know the difference. The goals you set for yourself should be about moving you towards your very best you.

4. If I were to wake up tomorrow morning and an over-night miracle had given me complete and total clarity regarding this task what would my relationship with this task look like?

The “miracle question” is a great tool often used by therapists and coaches to help people begin to feel unencumbered by all the thoughts and “what-ifs” that can leave us feeling stuck. The great thing about this question is that it not only helps you gain a better understanding of whether you’re spending your energy on goals or shoulds, it can also help you re-examine the things that are truly goals – leaving you free to make changes as you see fit. So, if waking up tomorrow post-miracle, you realize this is something you really don’t want to be doing perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.

So think about it. The next time you find yourself saying, “Ug! I really don’t want to do this,” don’t blow off that feeling. Take time to really look at the tasks in front of you. Who knows, you may unburden yourself from a great big set of shoulds!



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?



Honestly and Gently

I’m reading a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön called Comfortable with Uncertainty. This line really spoke to me: “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Honestly and gently.

Each of us wraps up from time to time in the comforting blanket of “my story.” The things we “know” to be real. The events we’re “certain” have shaped us. And we use that story, for better or worse, to paint the picture of our future. But in the moment when we think we’ve got it all wrapped up, the picture painted, the dots connected, is when we begin to shut ourselves out to seeing things a different way. And that’s when we stop being honest with ourselves…because, hey, it’s pretty comfy to have everything all figured out….or so we tell ourselves.

And so, wherever we’re headed on this journey, we can start by respecting ourselves enough to ask questions – big questions – and then accept, with full honesty, whatever answers we find.

But what if we don’t like what we find?

Well, that’s what it means to be gentle. We get to turn off that tape that tells us we’re stupid for the mistakes we make, weak for the losses we suffer or wrong for the harm we may do and we get to replace it with, “I’m human. It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day.” So, we get to be honest and then we get to be gentle. We’re privileged to see where we’re acting against our own best interest and then, to top it off, we get to change the judgment tape. We get to start over. Honestly and gently.

How awesome is that!? Frankly, I can’t think of a better place to start.



Making the Holidays All Your Own

For those of us that celebrate Christmas, doing so abroad – away from friends and family – can be especially difficult. Christmas is a time where we crave the familiar, we resort to tradition and we strive to make the day as special as possible. We build it up. Often the day is just perfect. But, sometimes it’s not.

As I write this, I realize this is true for any special day – birthdays, anniversaries, and cultural and religious holidays. You don’t have to celebrate Christmas to recognize that any tradition you hold dear can be difficult to manage when you’re outside your home culture. You want, you need, everything to be just so…and yet, you know very well you won’t be able to have each and every last thing fit perfectly into your pre-reasoned plan.

So as an expat, trying to fit a bit of your own tradition into a place that you only temporarily call home, what can you do?

The Internet is full of great ideas. Not to get too sidetracked here, but I think it’s one of the great blessings of the modern age. Wanna’ know how to beat holiday stress? Google it! The answers are endless. In fact, here’s one I posted on the World Tree Coaching Facebook page just yesterday.

But, it’s up to each of us to look at what might work and try things out. We all know it’s a never-ending battle to force a tradition to be “perfect.” Things change and so do we; yet it’s common (and natural) to try to hold on to making these moments really count. So don’t be shy about figuring out new (and healthier) ways to handle the holidays (whichever ones you celebrate). If you’re feeling stuck – here are a couple of my favorite holiday survival techniques. I’m writing from the Christmas perspective below, but seriously – feel free to sub any special day (from Valentine’s Day to wedding anniversaries).

1) Harness the power of definition. You, not your parents, your friends back home (with their cozy knit hats, Starbuck’s, snow flurries and twinkly lights) or the media, can tell you what your holiday should be like. Sit down and decide to redefine your traditions so that they fit your mobile lifestyle. Passionately keep the things that work, but get rid of the things that stress you out, cause you un-needed mental clutter or make you feel guilty.

2) If you don’t have family with you – consider redefining your definition of family. This might seem pretty bold, but as an expat, I bet you do it already. Find the people you most love, the ones you most enjoy and the individuals who share your values. Make them a part of your family away from family. Unburden yourself from the label of mother, daughter, and sister and accept “friend” as being just as wonderful.

3) Give up on gifts for your spouse or partner. Gasp! I know – this sounds crazy, but I swear this is a good one. If you treat everyday as a potential day for a gift – “I saw this and thought of you,” “I knew you’d love this, I couldn’t resist,” “I hope you don’t mind, but I picked this up for you.” – you take off a lot of holiday pressure. You might even find that you enjoy moments with your spouse or partner more when you’re not stressed over finding the perfect thing or anxious over what’s hiding behind box number three. What you will surely realize is that when (or if) you do splurge on something special, it means so much more. Don’t go rogue on this one though – it requires careful planning and consideration with your significant other.

After years of trial and error, these are just a few that have worked for me. I’d love to hear your tricks for making the holidays fit your lifestyle (whether you’re an expat or firmly planted in your hometown). How do you make your special days special without leaving yourself drained, lonely, homesick or worse? Add your thoughts to the comments section – I’d love to build a nice long list!

And, for those of you celebrating – Happy Holidays!

Building Your Foundation

They’re building some new apartments in my neighborhood. Watching these buildings go up freaks me out a bit. For one, most of the workers are barefoot, in shorts and t-shirts and without hardhats…or any protective gear for that matter. Then there’s the fact that the buildings appear to be just cinderblocks stacked, one on top of the other, up and up to what is now a height of about 10 meters.

This type of building process is not new to me. We were living in the Dominican Republic when the Haiti earthquake happened. We felt the tremors and then, as Embassy employees or volunteers, watched as evacuees filed out of chartered planes or buses still shaking from more than the unstable ground. From that moment on, I watched buildings go up around Santo Domingo – tall buildings of 10-20 stories – with only twig-based scaffolding upon which to balance the twig-sized men. Again, cinderblocks one on top of the other…up and up and up.

Buildings like this don’t last. Of course. I mean maybe they stick around a few years…or even a few decades – here in Madagascar we’re earthquake-free…although not flood-free, fire-free or pest-free.

This makes me think a lot about our mobile lifestyle. We collect experiences around us like cinderblocks. One on top of the other. A little deeper here. A little wider here. Just a thin façade at this point. Maybe a door or window here.

It’s easy I think, to imagine all of these experiences just collecting up, one after the other, to make a frame of a house that we call “my expat experience.” It works, right? Lots of people do it. I’ve been there! I’ve seen that!

But, really, that can’t be enough…can it? Like a house without proper foundation, supports, braces, corners and roof, if all we do is collect the experiences – we’re missing out. We benefit when we look at each one of these experiences and then mold it and shape it to make sense in our own reality. We can use reflection to create a solid foundation, stronger than a bunch of random blocks of experience. We can ask: What does it mean that I saw that? How do I feel about it? What was it like to arrive? What will it be like to go?

And when we ask these questions, we don’t just build a precarious, ill-fitting, mish-mash of a house – a life of random, unconnected and loosely interlocking parts, we actually build a home – a place inside ourselves where we say, “Here’s what I’ve learned. This feels right. I think I’d like to stay.”

Negotiating the Yes Game

I used to say yes a lot. Flat-out, no-questions-asked, I-can-do-it, YES! Big surprise, this type of yes often left me resentful and annoyed at feeling compelled to do things I didn’t really enjoy. It also took away all the opportunities I may have had to do the really nice things that I do like to do. And, not just the things that I wanted to do for myself or my immediate family, but the things I wanted to do for other people in my life…even strangers. Saying yes in this way left me in the position of racing from one over-scheduled moment to another so there was no chance I’d stop and notice the things in life that really needed noticing. It also took away the fun of saying yes to the things I really, really wanted to say yes to – like coffee with a friend, a last-minute play-date for the kids or an early bedtime with a good book.

We hear a lot about the importance of learning to say no. Saying no is important, but the other side of saying no for most of us is looking at when, where and how we want to say yes. What I realized about myself is that I’m kind of a yes person…I just needed to get better at my yesses.

During university, I was part of a life-changing theater program. We often warmed-up with a game called “The Yes Game.” The game is about living in the moment. When one of your fellow performers makes a suggestion everyone chimes in “yes!” no matter how silly, exhilarating or strange. In that moment, you give in to fun, to experimentation, to something new. I like that game. It inspired me in my process of figuring out how to better say yes.

For me, the journey from unproductive, unhappy-yes to all-the-right-yesses has not been about flat-out-nos so much as better yesses. I like to get excited about things. I enjoy saying yes to something that inspires me, motivates me or brings me joy. So better understanding my yesses has been about examining my values and making my yesses really count. And, it’s been an experience of trial and error. Today’s energetic yes could become next week’s never-ever-again and, trust me, I’ll let you know. As much as possible, I give in to the outcomes of this trial and error. Sometimes I might feel over-scheduled, but with each yes failure I know a bit more about improving my yesses.

How do you sort your yesses from your nos? How do you know when you’re off track? What helps you get back where you want to be? Which yesses excite you and which ones make you groan?

Perhaps Shel Silverstein said it best:

The Yesees said yes to anything
That anyone suggested.
The Noees said no to everything
Unless it was proven and tested.
So the Yesees all died of much too much
And the Noees all died of fright,
But somehow I think the Thinkforyourselfees
All came out all right.

Learning from the Everyday

This weekend my family and I took a nice trip out of town. It wasn’t anything overly spectacular – just an enjoyable and relaxing time outside the city. There were opportunities for hiking, exploring and seeing local wildlife. We did a bit of that – there’s really no missing the wildlife, as this spot happens to be one of the most popular tourist destinations for getting up close and personal with lemurs. But, most of the time we watched the kids run up and down a hill, throw rocks in a stream and sword fight with sticks of bamboo.

While my husband and I were really interested in taking in some nice long walks, the kids just weren’t enthusiastic about it. What they were enthusiastic about was that hill, those rocks, that stream and the endless possibilities drawn from a stick of bamboo. In the end, it was more enjoyable to sit and watch them explore the world around them on their own terms, than to try to force them into our prepared plan. The value of just being together outweighed the need to do something “special” together. And, anyway, what we did end up doing was absolutely special enough.

We’re not the first or only family to have had a similar experience. That is, after all, what families do all the time – they adjust, they re-evaluate, they listen to each other’s needs and wants, they change and they grow.

What I wonder is, how often do we let these everyday experiences (these moments of potential growth and change) go by without really taking the time to notice them? Do we give them the weight that they deserve? If we took more time to ask ourselves what we learn from a given adventure, would we be poised to learn even more? And I’m not just talking about the big stuff – the times when you think “Whoa! We’ll never do that again!” I’m talking about the small stuff too. The little adjustments, the tiny shifts in plan. If we paid better attention, could we save ourselves from undue hassle, heartache, frustration or anger?

My thought is – probably. It can’t hurt. It’s at least worth a try.

So, next time you find yourself reflecting on a particularly awesome day or an especially crummy one, consider taking time to slow down and be curious about what’s working or not working.  What made this day different from any other? Are any aspects of this day worth repeating? Did your actions or the actions of someone else add joy to the day? Are small adjustments in attitude, outlook, or point-of-view all it takes to make a bad day better? Or, is there something bigger at work? The possible questions are endless. You decide which ones work for you. Whatever you do, give yourself the gift of noticing the everyday. You never know what you’ll find by looking more closely at the things that typically pass you by.