A year ago, I knelt in the closet of my elderly mother’s country house going through her things. My partner threw out moth-eaten clothes and I tried to toss some old shoes, but my mother shouted at me to save them. Dirt-stained shoes filled with mouse shit that I, muttering, threw in the keep box way too hard.
Since I’m an only child, my partner and I traveled across the country to help her put her house on the market. My mother could no longer drive there alone and likely would not return once we left. Tensions ran high because she wanted to keep as much as she could and we wanted to get rid of as much as we could so the house would show well.
Fast forward a year and the house still hasn’t sold. So I flew cross-country and went there alone for 36 hours to clear out more stuff. Then I went to NYC for two days to visit my mother.
I’m still an only child. My mother still keeps too much stuff and resists the professional help she needs. But I can help her more out of love than obligation now because I’ve cultivated these ten habits in the past year:
1. Notice what you’re telling yourself about what’s happening.
Last year I felt burdened, obligated, and resentful at being the only child of that stubborn woman. I couldn’t feel how hard it must have been for her to let go of driving, and her house, because all my attention was on how the situation impacted me, which locked me into victim mode.
Before I got on the plane, I decided to handle the house and my mother with flow and joy. I challenged myself to stay focused on how I wanted the house to be and the interactions with my mother to feel.
I hired someone to help me instead of trying to do it all by myself. We had fun while we worked. By the time I held up three half-burned red candles my mother saved years ago to re-use on some future Christmas, I could laugh instead of judge.
What you tell yourself about what’s happening is ALWAYS more powerful than what’s actually happening. You have more choice than you realize. You can use any situation to reveal capacities you didn’t know you had.
**Look at a tough situation. What have you been telling yourself about it and does that serve you? Ask yourself, “How else could I see this?” and/or “How is this inviting me to grow?” and/or “How do I show up differently here than I have before?”
2. Get out of your head.
When I started to spin in my thoughts about my mother, I took physical action to get out of my head. I turned up high-energy music and danced it out until I was sweating and breathing hard. My tension level came down and so did the pace of my thoughts.
When you’re spinning, you could rock it out hard like me, take a walk, do your favorite exercise, take an Epsom salt bath with some lavender oil, do breathing exercises, get a massage, or have sex.
***Different things work for different people, so get to know your physical, mental, and energetic system by trying various ways to re-embody yourself. The most important thing is to put the chew toy of your challenge down. Hide it in a cabinet if you have to. Get your butt outside, on the dance floor (a.k.a. your kitchen), or to the gym, and get your movement on to shift your state.
3. Focus for a while on something else you enjoy.
Especially when I’m over-stressed, I like to let my mind putter. Maybe I walk the dog, watch a show, or veg for a while on Facebook, but the main thing is I turn off the part of my brain that’s trying to fix or catastrophize about the situation, and let a more receptive part of myself emerge.
It’s documented that if you give your conscious mind a break by shifting your focus to something else, a solution to your challenge will often “randomly” pop into your head. When you’re otherwise engaged, your subconscious mind still works on your challenge behind the scenes and will often lob its clear wisdom into your conscious mind once you’ve made room to receive it.
**Like getting into your body in Step 2, different things work for different people here. You could take a shower, get out into nature (off your phone!), take a nap, read a book, watch TV or a movie, or cook a meal. Try different things and discover what works best for you.
4. Pay attention to your dreams.
When I was wrestling with how to handle my mother’s house, I made an intention before I fell asleep each night to remember my dreams in the morning. Sometimes clues would show up in my dreams, subconscious wisdom I wouldn’t otherwise have accessed, and I was able to think of solutions that I hadn’t thought of before.
**Make an intention before you fall asleep to remember your dreams. If your challenge requires some decision-making, ask your dreams to show you the answer. Record yourself remembering the dream on your phone when you’re in that liminal space between dreaming and waking and listen back for clues once you’re awake. Or kick it old school and keep a journal and pen by your bed to jot down what you remember.
5. Build in fun and rest along the way.
I used to grind until I dropped and needed days to recover. I was always afraid I wouldn’t have enough time to finish unless I powered through. Now I build in breaks to recharge. I still get plenty done and enjoy myself more.
For fun, in those 36 hours upstate and two packed days in NYC, I attended a relaxing sound bath, enjoyed a home-cooked dinner with a friend, took a salt bath, wrote for two hours by a window facing trees and land, had dinner with friends at a restaurant I love, and saw a Broadway show with my bestie.
**Especially if you’re too busy, what’s one fun thing you could choose to do this week? Maybe it’s something you already do and want to enjoy more, or maybe there’s something new you could add that would put a skip in your stride through the grind.
6. Beware of mission creep.
I’m on my way to do a task, but as I walk I see three more things that need handling. I used to stop to do them and end up drowning in mission creep and totally stressed about time.
I’ve learned to stick with a plan. I now have a document where I jot down unanticipated things that crop up. I no longer worry about forgetting them if I don’t stop right then.
I planned five tasks at her house: a junk haul, packing for Goodwill, servicing the furnace, giving away a loveseat, and cleaning. As other tasks came up, I put them on a list for next time. I left feeling successful and complete because I stayed on task.
**Do you fall victim to mission creep? Take back your power by creating a list and staying on task.
7. Focus on the ONE next right thing to do.
Related to mission creep, an antidote to overwhelm is to pick ONE next right action to take. You’re overwhelmed because you’re seeing all the things and you’re probably not in your body (time to do Step 2 again).
Maybe your next right step is to eat a snack because your blood sugar is whacked from all that over-thinking that made you forget to eat in the first place.
You don’t have to know how to get from A to Z, Z being the other side of this tough time. But you can see and do step B. And B will lead you to C, and so on.
**Instead of trying to see too far ahead, keep your attention close and do the one next thing that feels right. Add one right thing to the last right thing and—TA DA—you create a path toward where you want to go.
8. Practice gratitude.
No matter how tough the situation, there’s always something to be grateful for. Are you breathing? You could be grateful for that. Are you reading these words? You could be grateful for sight, literacy, and the internet.
When I get stressed and uptight, I pause, take a breath, and think of three things to be grateful for. Sometimes, at first, my mind says, “F*ck gratitude,” but when I choose to find gratitude anyway my stress level improves.
**Start the day by thinking of three things you’re grateful for and end the day with three different things. If it helps, write them down in a gratitude journal. You’re training your mind to notice things to be grateful for as you move through your day, a handy habit when you’re having tough times.
9. Look for magical moments.
Our minds look for what’s wrong more than what’s right, but we can train ourselves to notice the magic of synchronicity. In this way, we fill our minds with the good in our lives, leaving less room for them to harp on what’s hard.
When I was upstate, I worked at a friend’s in the morning before heading to my mother’s where there’s no cell reception or internet. Because I “ran late,” I received two calls about the day’s upcoming visits. If I’d been “on time,” I would have missed those two important calls.
I have an “Evidence Journal” where I record these moments. Since I started keeping it, I handle tough times better because it’s helped me build up trust. Now when life gets hard, I know there’s more going on than I can see.
**Start an Evidence Journal. Throughout the day, keep your eyes peeled for magic and write it down.
10. If all else fails, vent.
Like the pressure valve that keeps a pressure cooker from exploding all over your kitchen, sometimes you’ve just got to vent.
Set a timer for three to five minutes and vent to a friend, in person or on the phone.
THE CRUCIAL PART OF VENTING: Your friend’s role is to listen but not respond to or believe anything you say. At the end, they are to give no response beyond “thank you.” Then you both hang up.
Maybe as you vent you’ll hear yourself say something true that lands in your body. Remember that thing and forget the rest. Venting the pressure cooker without getting caught in analysis or meaning reduces your thoughts’ grip on you. Over time, It becomes easier to notice and shift your self-talk, like we talked about in Step 1.
**Sample instructions to share with your friend: I’m going to set a timer for ____ minutes and spew everything that’s in my head right now. I want you to listen and let it wash over you without tripping on it or taking in what I’m saying at all. I just need to dump these thoughts so I can reduce mental pressure and make room in my head for clarity. When the timer goes off, say “Thank you,” and we’ll both hang up. Deal?
Add one of these habits each week for the next ten weeks. Keep them going over the next year and watch your experience transform for the better.