I don’t know about you but all the hype around a new year can make one feel overwhelmed or inadequate at times. This blog is not about how to make this your best year ever. Nor is it about setting new year resolutions that will last. It is about the act of beginning again.
The simple yet extremely difficult task of taking the first step into the unknown. I specifically use the phrase beginning again rather than starting over. In saying you are starting over there is an underlying assumption that what you did previously was incorrect. That you have to wipe the slate clean and start with a blank page. I don’t believe one can really do that. I believe that our past is part of who we are and will always live somewhere in our bodies. Every experience has the potential to enrich us. How we engage with all the different aspects of it (be it success, adventure, abundance, joy or even fear, loss, sadness) will determine how much we grow and learn from it.
Beginning again is about opening your eyes and allowing yourself to see and feel again as if for the first time. To enter your day with an openness that will enable life to touch you. In order to do that one needs to be present to the moment as it is. Not how you wish it to be. Therefore, it is a decision one makes numerous times a day and not only at the beginning of a year.
Beginning again means picking up the pen to write as if for the first time, though you’ve done it a thousand times before. It means putting on your running shoes to practise for the marathon even if your muscles are still tired from the previous run. It is about pursuing a goal while the voice of the inner critic is saying you are not good enough. Beginning again takes courage and requires trust. It is about opening the door, stepping over the threshold and showing up to who you are in this moment. Just this moment, this breath, this conversation nothing more and nothing less.
We all have the capacity to begin again. As Mark Nepo writes “The world begins anew each day. This is the miracle that makes not a sound, but which changes everything, if we can be quiet enough to feel it happen. When we participate in this, we begin anew each day.”
Beginning again is part of the natural unfolding of life. May you have many courageous new beginnings as you step into this year filled with uncertainty.
This time of the year one looks back at the year and reflect on the challenges and lessons learned. At the beginning of 2016 I started my own coaching business. One of the important skills of a coach is to learn to ask good questions. Therefore, I decided to translate some of the main lessons learned this year into coaching questions so that you can discover your own answer.
How committed are you to you and your vision?
Peter Senge writes in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ that a core strategy for any leader is to commit yourself to your own personal mastery and your personal vision. Shared visions for an organisation (what we care about and want to create) arises from personal visions (what motivates me and the future I seek). He writes that ‘ If people don’t have their own vision, all they can do is “sign up” for someone else’s. The result is compliance never commitment’.
But what does commitment really mean? It means that you commit yourself to the process of refining what you truly want. It means that you relentlessly root out the ways you are limiting yourself and continually practise to broaden your awareness. In essence it means that you genuinely care. When you are committed you genuinely care about yourself and what you truly believe you should do. You may think it sounds selfish. It’s not. When I’m genuinely committed to me. I’m also genuinely committed to you. My commitment to my vision is imbedded in my deep desire to serve others. It is not about me. It is about something larger than me but it starts with a genuine commitment to me.
How can you discover your way between the cup and the quart?
The space between the cup and the quart was a metaphor that I kept in mind this year as I held the tension between my current reality and my vision.
In his book ‘The Anatomy of Change’, Richard Strozzi-Heckler provides a wonderful metaphor for the anatomy of change that I want to share with you:
‘Imagine yourself sitting at a table holding a cup. The cup represents the quantity of potential, or energy or responsibility that you are able to integrate into your life at this particular moment. After being with this cup of yourself for some time, you notice that there is a quart container on the table. The quart represents the possibility of even more energy, responsibility, and love. You begin to recognise the quart is within your reach.
Since you have explored the limits of your cup, you feel an urge to move toward the quart. To remain with only the cup of yourself is no longer tolerable. You make the choice to reach across the table and take the “more” of yourself. Realising it is impossible to hold both cup and quart at the same time, you put the cup down and extend toward the quart. Panic!
Part way into your reach, you realise that the comfort and familiarity of the cup are gone, and you haven’t yet touched the quart. There is nothing. There are noboundaries, there is no known sense of identity or self – only emplty space, a strange new land. You are thrust into fear and doubt.
At this point, what usually happens is we quickly retreat to that which is known: the cup. It is safe, familiar, and easily handleable. Or we contract, frozen in our fear of the unknown. Somehow our system of education never teaches us how to navigate these open waters, to trust ourself and our energy in times of change. We need to rediscover the passage between the cup and the quart of ourselves.
The space between the cup and the quart creates emotional tension as well as creative tension. When you use the tension wisely it can be a source of energy. The tension is then exactly what you need to creatively discover your way between the cup and the quart.
How are you tapping into and building your network?
We cannot reach our goals on our own. We need people who care about us and share in our vision. This year I learned the importance of building relationships that nourish you and help to nurture your vision. In her book “Playing Big”, Tara Mohr refers to these type of people as ‘champions’. According to Tara a champion is a person that can see the future that hasn’t arrived yet. They are the people who think that the vision you have is achievable, and even destined. This then helps you to believe it can be done and motivates you to take the next step.
We don’t only need a network of support; we also need a professional network to derive new business from. This is a lesson that I learned the hard way. I realised that these types of networks don’t fall in your lap. You have to be disciplined to build relationships and grow your network in the field you wish to work in. Building that means stepping out of your comfort zone. It also means sharing your vision and making your work visible in a graceful and respectful way.
I trust that the above questions will be as valuable for you to ponder on as it was for me. That it will assist you to bring your unique vision to the world that so desperately needs it.
A few weeks ago I received honest feedback that really touched me deeply. I experienced a bit of a breakdown after that. I realised that the feedback hurts because it was the truth. I did not have everything ‘together’ as I thought. It reminded me of Tara Mohr’s words that ‘criticism that hurts often mirrors a negative belief we hold about ourselves’. She continues and invites one to use the painful experience of receiving that kind of feedback as opportunities to look at and change the beliefs. This made me think of a Kintsugi image I saw.
Kintsugi is the Japanese craft of repairing a beautifully broken porcelain bowl with gold. The mended piece is not the same as it was. It is believed to be more valuable, more beautiful and stronger because it has been transformed through the breaking up and the suffering.
Life is not about holding it altogether in a ‘perfect’ shape. It is not about the recognition you receive. It is not about the ‘when I achieve …I will be valuable or loveable’. Positive feedback is great but it does not validate your existence. The same is true for criticism. The fact that you are born and living in a human body is enough reason to love and be loved.
Reflecting back on my years in High school I see how my identity was shaped by the recognition I received when I achieved great things. It made me feel worthy and loved. The way I reacted to the feedback I received recently made me aware that I still have deep-held beliefs that I want to work through.
Life is about the breaking up and opening up to love. It is about the letting go of the ‘perfection’ and embracing the ‘imperfection’ of being human. It is about seeing that the wrinkles on our face, the scars on our back, the wounds in our heart are the golden seams. It is not about trying to fix things or yourself to the way it was before. It is about inhabiting the brokenness and allowing it to transform you.
Christene Caldwell writes that ‘real feedback allows us to self-regulate…and helps us to expand and bloom’. I want to invite you to take the constructive and relevant feedback and use it to grow. Allow it to serve as golden lacquer to mend you into more of your authentic self.
Learning: Real feedback allows me to break up and open to love and growth.
Healing question: How can I allow real feedback to transform me?
I want to share something close to my heart with you. This past week I was at a professional coaching course. I worked with coaches to develop my new narrative for this year (you can read more about narratives on my previous blog ‘What’s your story’). This poem is my first breath of growing into my new narrative of ‘ being a river of love and language in the world’.
This week I had the honour to do a leadership workshop with the student leadership committee of a female residence at Stellenbosch University. It was an amazing experience. The words ‘grateful’, ‘humbling’ and ‘hopeful’ come to mind.
I feel grateful for:
having the opportunity to work with such a dynamic group of women.
to be in the privileged position to be able to work in the personal and professional growth field
other women all around the world that are playing big and in doing that give me the courage to live my truth. (Tara Mohr is one of these women and I can recommend her book “Playing Big” if you are interested in doing exactly that.)
I am humbled by:
the students’ willingness to do inner work and ask the tough questions.
their courage to be vulnerable in front of the group.
their energy – I mean they went to a pool party after our evening session ended (just after 9pm) and was ‘op dit’ (Afirkaans saying something in line with ‘you are on the ball’) early the next day for our morning session 😉
This gives me hope for the nation because:
the new generation of young leaders are not afraid to choose risk instead of safety or diversity instead of sameness.
they realise that change starts within. Change does not need to become a grave for the old but rather a doorway into a meaningful and bigger life.
during and after the session I had goose bumps all over my body. Over the years I’ve learned that my body doesn’t lie and it usually knows something before my conscious mind does. After all the definition of hope is based on ‘a feeling that events will turn out for the best’.
Nelson Mandela understood this. He said:
‘One thing I learned when I was negotiating was that, until I changed myself I could not change others’.
I clearly remember that the 7th of January 2007 was a bright sunshine morning and I was in hospital due to illness. While I was busy with my spiritual morning read it became clear that I needed to start trusting and listening to my Inner (true) voice. I was unconsciously causing my own suffering by avoiding it.
Exactly 9 years (to the day), after I had made a conscious decision to start following the calling that had been entrusted on me, the website of my own business has been made live! For the first time in my life I can honestly answer the question: If you could do anything in the world what would you do?, with Exactly what I am doing now! Not that I have any certainty about the road ahead. In fact, the road ahead is the most uncertain it has ever been, but I’m curious to see where it takes me.
During the holiday I read the insightful book “Power vs. Force” by David R. Hawkins. Through his studies he developed a ‘Map of consciousness’ that represents the levels at which certain emotions and attitudes calibrate. His research indicates that the level associated with courage and integrity (a calibration of 200) is the critical response point in the scale of consciousness. Any emotions below that make a person go weak and emotions above that level (such as trust, optimism, acceptance, understanding, love, joy, peace and enlightenment) give us strength.
The book reminded me of my nine-year journey. I had to work through emotions of shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, desire, anger and pride to build up the courage to follow my dream. Hawkins defines courage as;
the willingness to try new things and deal with the challenges of life.
Looking at the year there are many challenges that I still have to face. Knowing that overcoming them are all part of my personal growth process gives me the strength to tackle them one at a time. I want to invite you to join me on this journey in 2016.
What are the challenges and emotions that you need to work through to move to the next level this year?
How easy is it for you to let go? To let go of how you think things should work out? How your career should unfold? How you think your family should behave?
This past year I became more aware how difficult it is for others and me to let go of things. We tend to hold on to our plans, ideas, thoughts, and ways. It is usually the holding on that causes us the most suffering and keeps us stuck. A trapeze artist cannot swing from one bar to another without letting go
An important part of preparing for the New Year is to review the past year—to let it go—and to learn from it. In order to embrace the new, we must release the old. When you let go of something it does not mean that you give up. It only means that you are not attached to the outcome.
I want to challenge you to take some time during the holiday season and reflect on the following questions:
What causes me to hold onto things?
What might change if I let go more often?
Decide to let go of one thing that does not serve you any more (e.g. letting you feel joy, ease and true happiness). Do something practical as a symbol of this letting go. You can write it on a stone and throw it into the water or write it on a piece of paper and tear the paper up. After you have done( this exercise open your hand, look at your palm and see that there is nothing, the stone or paper is gone. You let go of something that you can’t control or change.
In the end, only three things matter:
How much you loved,
How gently you lived,
And how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you. (Buddha)
They are the future waiting to be born’ – Rainer Maria Rilke
We all have a story. The stories we tell ourselves are shaped by our history, the struggles we faced, our failures and previous experiences. In their book ‘You are what you say’ Budd and Rothstein indicated that our judgments (such as ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘ I am not loveable’) are a function of our history of living and the standards for satisfaction that we’ve embodied. These judgments form part of our story (narrative) by which we then build our own identities, habits and our relationships with others. Our narrative forms a structure through which we interpret the world.
As protection is the most important function of the brain, we create habits and a spiral of thoughts to protect us. These thoughts often stem from fear of uncertainty or of what other people might be thinking. We work out who we are by the way others react towards us. So when we feel emotionally scared, the brain makes up a story about what is happening and how to stay safe. But sometimes these inner narratives of ‘I’ll never get ahead’ or ‘Life is unfair’ are unhelpful and bog us down.
The good news is that research indicates that we can challenge these stories and even change them. According to narrative therapists you can change the way you see the world by rewriting your story. You are meant to be in control of your story, not the other way around. We are all authors of our own lives. In creating a new story, that is aligned with your values, positive qualities and dreams you aspire to accomplish, you are creating a new reality at the same time.
To begin to foster change you first need to become aware of your current narrative. Pay attention to events that trigger it. Then actively choose to change your thinking when faced with these ‘triggers’. The task is to diminish the negative story and reinforce the positive story. In doing this you are training your brain and laying down new pathways to think and feel. Every choice gives you a chance to integrate the new story (such as ‘I am the hero or heroine of my story’ or ‘ I am an explorer in the adventure of life’) into your life. You can decide if you are going to remain stuck in your old story that is not serving you any more or are you going to create new habits or thoughts that can open up new possibilities.
We are each responsible for our own story. If you are holding anyone else accountable for your story, you are wasting your time. The psychiatrist, Carl Jung, once said, ‘I am not what has happened to me, but what I choose to become.’ What new way of being in the world, new story, can I invite you in?
Let’s face it! Change is difficult. Research shows that the odds are nine to one against you if you want to change old habits. It further indicates that you can never truly terminate an old, bad habit you can only change it.
In his book ‘The power of Habit’ Charles Duhigg explains that habits consist of a three-step loop – the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the feeling or thought that triggers the habitual behaviour. The routine is the response to the feeling and the reward is what you craved for. In order to change a habit the cue and reward must stay the same but you change the routine. For example when you get sad (cue) you crave for comfort (reward). In order to satisfy your craving you eat a chocolate (routine). The reward you are seeking is comfort and not a satisfaction of hunger. So, when you get sad (cue) you can change your routine of eating a chocolate to phoning a friend and also feel comforted (reward) without gaining weight.
It sounds so simple but why is it so hard? Why after actively trying to change routines I stepped back into the old habit and caused suffering to those around me after knowing that it would be the outcome if I stuck to the old habit? After the incident I went to a yoga class, and as I was lying in the half-pigeon pose, the song ‘Chasing Cars of Snow Patrol’ played in the background. The phrase ‘ If I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world…’ resonated with me and I found myself wishing that if I just lay there the pain would go away.
I realised that this type of behaviour is what is preventing us to change. We are all excited to change but after the first failure we feel so sorry for ourselves and return to the old habit, as it is a comfortable place – like a couch that has already taken the shape of our body – you just snugly fit into it. To get up from that couch (or yoga mat) and face change takes effort. I started to wander what would motivate me to get up from the couch and try once again to change the old habit?
After reading about change and habits I found that the following seven essential elements need to be in place in order to change habits:
Awareness is necessary for change. In the book ‘Leadership Embodiment’ by Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford they indicate that you need to recognize your habits and triggers before you can choose to change it.
Strong positive emotions are necessary for change. Positive thoughts alone are not enough. A study done by Dr Edward Miller at Johns Hopkins University found that 90% of people that had undergone bypass heart surgery had not changed their lifestyle two years after the operation. Even though they had been told that life-style changes could decrease pain and having another operation. This shows that knowing that your habit is not serving you in a positive way is not enough to change it. A study done by Dr Dean Ornish from the University of California that did report healthy behavioural change in 77% of their participants indicate that the ‘joy of living’ needs to be stronger than the ‘fear of dying’. Janet Crawford explains that our brain needs emotions to move into action. Taking all this into account it seems as if the reward associated with changing the behaviour needs to be associated with a strong positive feeling and image.
Take mall steps. Andrea Shaw, a Master Coach with 18 years experience in coaching, indicates that small steps lead to big change. Celebrating the small victories can bring a sense of empowerment.
Feelings of discomfort are normal. The brain prefers the known to the unknown. Janet Crawford writes that ‘to change our personality patterns brings into question everything that we know about ourselves and how to function with others.’ It is normal that these types of changes will bring about feelings of frustration and unease. These feelings tend to drive us back to our old habits. The trick is to acknowledge that it is normal to feel this way and to re-engage.
A consistent practice is crucial for change. Research indicates that you need to practice the new routine over and over. There are different statistics on the amount of practice it takes to change. Wendy Palmer indicates in her book that a minimum of 500 practice repetitions is necessary to gain a new skill. In his book ‘The Talent Code’ Daniel Coyle reports that 10 000 hours of deep practice is necessary to obtain world-class skills. The take home message is that in order to shift behaviour it is necessary to practise your response or new routine daily over a period of time.
Be kind to yourself. Now that you know it is normal to backslide, to become irritated in the process and that change takes time it is important to engage with yourself with kindness and compassion. When we become angry with ourselves for failing we engage the threat mechanisms of the brain that hindergrowth. On the journey of changing habits it is important to remain curious, be mindful and take care of our bodies.
Support from community. Charles Duhigg indicates that we need to believe that we can change and that things will get better. A community of support can maintain that belief even if things get really tense and we want to fall back on old habits. It is important to share your vision of changing your habit with people who know you and care about you. So that they can support you when you fall back into the couch and need to get up again.
It’s important to note that these are just my thoughts. Studies indicate that there are not one-size-fits all when it comes to changing habits. What we do know is that a habit can be replaced. Change is difficult but it’s not impossible.