Per aspera ad astra (Through hardships to the stars)

You can’t believe you got a flat tire on the way to your final interview for that killer job you are dying for. You can’t believe your ex just charged something on your joint account without telling you. You can’t believe the contractor just delayed the repairs on your house one more week. Hardships are going to come day in and day out, some worse than others. How you face them is critical to your well-being.

I remember the worst year of my life. I’ve been reflecting on it a lot since my dog and I were displaced by Hurricane Matthew seven months ago. The year was 1997 and I lived in Windsor, California. My son was 18 months old and my daughter was 4. I owned a restaurant that I was changing from a Sizzler franchise to a stand-alone restaurant called Coyote’s. I was attending the University of San Francisco (USF) at night for my Master’s in Human Resource and Organization Development. I owned a 3000-square foot house with an enormous mortgage. I asked my then-husband of thirteen years to help me carry the groceries from the car. He said, “No,” as he lay on the couch. It was there and then I decided I was leaving him. Needless to say, it was a tumultuous year. But I made it through.

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So why reflect on that you ask? Because I was so much better after surviving that year. I found out how strong I was and that I can survive anything. Here are my reflections on how to survive hardships and arrive safely in the stars:

 

  • Support.  Luckily, my parents lived a half block down the street so I had built-in childcare and a lot of financial support as I navigated the divorce. I also had a cohort of students at USF. A cohort is a group of people around the same age with similar interests. Our cohort was comprised of students in the same class for the entire coursework for our Master’s degrees. I can guarantee you, I would have dropped out of school if it wasn’t for that cohort and their support as I separated from my husband. My team at the restaurant were completely supportive as well. When you hit rough patches in your life, find some solid support.

 

  • Exercise.  I belonged to a gym at the time. I didn’t drop my membership, even though it was a financial hardship. I still needed to show up for class and exercise. It cleared my head. It helped me focus on something else besides the overwhelming situation that was my life at the time. Getting back into your body and out of your head is so important. I did not meditate back in 1997, but I do now and anything that gets me into my body and out of my head is so important. Be sure and exercise.

 

  • Faith. Practically everyone around me told me to sell my house. I mean everyone. But deep down inside I knew I could figure out how to hold onto it. I had faith in myself. I knew I was a strong, smart, hardworking woman and I could somehow swing that mortgage and make it through. I ended up renting out rooms in the house to some really great roommates whose rent helped me afford the house. I didn’t end up selling that house for another five years as it remained a constant home for my young children. I even sold it for a profit. Keep the faith. Believe in yourself.

 

  • Feel.  It’s so easy during difficult times to stuff your feelings. It’s easy to drink or medicate to dull the sensations. It’s so important to feel the sensations and feel your feelings. I know I grieved and cried a lot during the separation but I didn’t know to label the feelings. Now I do. So this is what “betrayal” feels like (pain in my stomach and heat on my neck). So this is what “abandonment” feels like (tears streaming down my face and a knot in my shoulders). As the famous unattributed quote says, “Sometimes you have to go through things and not around them.” Feel your way through.

 

  • Forgive.  It turned out that there were many sins my ex had committed that I was not aware of during our marriage. Initially, I was angry and hurt and most of all – resentful. It took me many years to forgive him. It wasn’t easy. But holding onto that resentment was causing me more harm than good. Searching for more ways of how he hurt me was only reopening the wounds and scarring them all over again. Finally forgiving him set me free. We are all trying to do the best we can. So was he. So was I. This is the most difficult part of getting past hardship. Remember to forgive.

 

  • Stand up.  I had many blows during that awful year including back taxes and other financial setbacks. Every time I had a blow, I got back up. I didn’t crawl into bed (or a bottle). I got back up to face the next day. My tenacity for getting back up helped me survive. Knowing that I had two small kids depending on me was a huge motivation as well. They are still my motivation to this day. Stand back up because there is someone out there who needs you.

 

In retrospect, that year taught me a lot about my own resilience and how much I adored and still adore my children. The resultant stars from that hardship are my own self-reliance and two beautiful, hardworking children who love and count on me. It doesn’t get much better than that. What are your stars?

The Danger of Assumptions

You assume that your boss remembers that you will be out of town on Friday. You assume that your partner remembers that you have a late appointment this afternoon. You assume that your co-worker didn’t include you in the invite because your opinion isn’t needed…or wanted. You assume that the CEO knows that you’ve been burning the midnight oil for weeks to get the financials done. You do it. I do it. We all make assumptions. It’s a dangerous path.

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Left unchecked and unexamined, assumptions can destroy relationships, teams and organizations. Your boss is expecting you at the ad hoc meeting she set up on Friday and is disappointed that you didn’t show. Your partner is angry that she left work early to surprise you at home, only to find you missing in action. You resent your CEO for not acknowledging all the extra work you’ve been doing on the financials. Assuming is easy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. Just a jump or two. Tying two dots together that really aren’t related. But looking down the assumption path a little further can reveal resentment, lack of trust and undermine your relationships.

Here is what you can do to fix it:

* Clarify. It seems simple to clarify. Obvious, really. But it takes effort. Your brain is hard wired for negativity. You have survived extinction because of this negativity bias, but there are no more saber-toothed tigers chasing you. It is easy to assume that not having been included in the meeting is an intentional slight rather than an oversight. But if you clarify with the meeting organizer that you would like to attend the meeting, if at all possible; or if you proactively tell your CEO that you’ve been working hard on the financials, you change up your personal dynamic. This is clarification and not boasting.

* Listen. Part of the Assuming Process is not actually listening. We ask a question we assume we know the answer to, and then don’t listen. I am so guilty of this. I think I know the answer and as a “show of concern”, I ask the question but never listen to the response. Just a short cut to save time, but so disrespectful. I get distracted by my grocery list or trying to remember if I need to go to the bank,  and never hear the response. It could be the time of the meeting that you assume is at 10, but has been pushed to 10:30. You are smiling and nodding but never connect to the answer. Listen.

* Be open to conflict. Yeah. I know. Most of us are conflict averse. We’d rather hold onto our assumptions than actually step into a conflict. Keep everything copacetic. Keep everyone happy. Don’t rock the boat. As a consequence, the safety issue is never brought up, or the budget short fall isn’t discussed, or your positive assumption he’s flirting with that woman remains intact. I actually recently assumed my husband was flirting with someone. When we actually stepped into the conflict, it turns out he was opening a new account with the restaurant she worked for. I lost some sleep over that assumption. Unchecked, it could have lead us down a completely different path. Step into conflict–you can resolve it.

* Slow down. Part of what fuels an assumption is taking a short cut. If you slow down the pace, you will stay in your prefrontal cortex, where you do your best thinking. When you are in a reactive mode, you’re in the back of your head, where your flight or fight response is. Where you don’t do your best thinking. This is why it’s called jumping to conclusions. Your anxiety is up, your cortisol is pumping and your body is ready to run from the saber tooth tiger. My coach starts off every session with a breath-in for the count of 6 a total of 3 times. Slow down and breath to quit jumping to conclusions.

* Forgive. This can be for yourself, as well as others. As Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” I’ve grappled with this myself. It’s hard to forgive someone for an assumption you created and may have carried for decades. It can be the frenemy who didn’t invite you to the graduation party back in 1979, or the family member who never thanked you for the gift, or even when you continued to meddle in your child’s life. The resentment is hurting you more than them. Take out a piece of paper or journal, and forgive them one and all–even yourself. Forgive early and often.

* Use technology. When I travel out of town now, I send my husband a meeting request with the airline information. I will frequently forget to tell him that I’m going out of town, and this keeps him proactively informed. Give your assistant access to your calendar. It’s still a good idea to inform people but a sure-fire safe guard is to use your technology to keep them informed.

* Be positive. Envision the upside. I recently saw Rick Hanson and his great Ted Talk on the topic “Hardwiring Happiness. It’s so easy to just decide that we are going to be worry warts for the rest of our lives. The thing is, you can develop a positive brain that lets the worry go. It takes work and practice, but we ALL have the capacity to have more positive reactions. This can help keep harmful assumptions at bay. Build positive pathways in your brain.

This is not accomplished overnight. We are all works in-progress. Even if you just spend 5 minutes a day meditating on what is positive in your life, you can start breaking down the pathways to assumptions. One assumption at a time.

Soothe your Inner Dictator

It’s difficult to control our inner dictator.  Most of us are trying to work on something.  Exercising more, spending less money, eating more fruits and vegetable, stopping procrastination…pick your poison.  The minute we derail, we beat ourselves up.  “Cathy, you lazy wench, why did you sleep in and not go for a run this morning?”, “Why did you go out to dinner when you said you would save money this month?”, “Dummy, you spent 2 hours on Facebook when you could have been doing homework.” “What is wrong with you?” Sound familiar?  Your dictator has taken over.

According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal and her book “The Willpower Instinct,” carrying around this guilt and reprimanding ourselves with this self talk is actually going to encourage more self defeating behaviors.  What?  Is she crazy?  I would be completely out of control if I didn’t reprimand myself.  My dictator is doing a great job of keeping me under wraps.  Really?

One of the studies in the book took place at Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada.  They tracked the procrastination habits of students over the course of the semester.  The ones who were self critical for the way they performed on the first exam were much more likely to make it a habit and procrastinate on subsequent exams.  Those who forgave themselves for procrastinating on the first exam, did far better and  improved their study habits.  Doesn’t it seem so much easier to have some self compassion and to soothe your inner dictator?

Here are some ways to calm your dictator:

1. Forgive.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”  Let go of your grudges towards others.  If you can’t forgive them and their failures, how can you possible forgive yourself.  I was tormented by resentment of an ex for years.  It got me nowhere but more stressed out, paranoid and resentful (as I recounted all his sins against me and mankind).  It wasn’t hurting him, it was hurting me.  Release it and move on.

2. Self Compassion.  Once you have forgiven others, it should be easier to forgive yourself and your failures.  Try to imagine if you would say any of the things that you say to yourself, to a close friend or your child.  Imagine your best friend getting on a scale and you say to them “Hey fatso, that’s what you get for eating all that cake last night.”  Why would you talk to yourself with any less compassion as you would a friend.  Forgive yourself.

3. Escape.  Anticipate the feeling of giving in when you are stressed out and plan your escape.  So if I’m used to grabbing a glass of wine when I get home from a stressed out day at work, have an alternative escape plan.  A healthier option.  A walk, some yoga, praying, crotchet, reading, gardening, P90X.  What ever you enjoy that is counter to your normal unhealthy default escape. This will trip up your inner dictator.

4. Envision.  Envision being successful with a few bumps along the way.  This is what kills most New Year’s resolutions.  You join a gym and say you will go every day and then when the first bump in the road comes along (such as I couldn’t get a babysitter) you abandon the plan.  Resolution over.  Realize you are going to have set backs and keep on keeping on.  In the story of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins.

5. Awareness.  Watch how you talk about yourself to others.  I know several colleagues who constantly put themselves down or are down on life.  “I’m having a bad hair day.” “I’m overloaded.” “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.” First of all, do you want to be around someone who is such a downer?  Second, how can you possible have a good day when you are saying this out loud?  If you are feeling a little tired, say “I’m feeling great.” And add a smile.  It will turn your day around and others will be attracted to your energy.

This is a difficult process and it isn’t easily changed over night.  Your dictator has been in control for a long time so don’t plan a coup d’état.  Slowly but surely pacify your dictator’s power by reflecting on how you are viewing things and what you are letting your dictator control (and say).  Soothe your inner dictator.

What is your dictator saying?