My 40th birthday is coming up and I have no plans. I did have a plan but it fell through. I was really excited about it, too. Back in November, I made a goal: to be stronger, more flexible and have more stamina by my 4oth birthday. I was going to showcase the fruits of my labor by putting together and performing a pole routine. I pretty much put everything else in my life on hold and trained up to two times a day, six days a week. By February, not only was I totally on track to meet my goal, but I also had choreographed and executed two pole routines! (You can see practice video here, this is not my birthday routine, it’s the other one.) I was definitely stronger, more flexible and had more stamina.
By mid-February, I knew I would be ready for my March 18 deadline. Then I got injured. My fault. I got overzealous, overtired and, ultimately, overtrained. I just recently got the ok to start swimming again, but it’s been a month since I’ve been on the pole. It breaks my heart to know I can’t spend my birthday with my beloved chrome stick. No joke, my eyes are welling up right now as I write this. But I’ve had a month to think–some of those thoughts weren’t so friendly, but some were really helpful. My favorite thought is one I borrowed from the late, amazing John Wooden: Don’t let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do. It’s really easy to get hung up on the things I can’t do. I can’t swim, I can’t get on the pole, I can’t practice contortion, I can’t perform my routine on my birthday. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
This is not helpful and, actually, it isn’t even true. Technically, I could do all of those things, but I would risk doing serious damage to my body and putting myself out of commission for a very long time. I chose not to do those things. That was the first thing I had to get right in my head. Then I could focus on what I could do. Let me just say that I tend to be a very dichotomous thinker, an extreme all or nothing kind of person, so this piece does not come naturally to me at all. I really had to work for this one. Fortunately, I started reading a really good book by sport psychologist Terry Orlick called In Pursuit of Excellence even before I got injured and the book is all about focus and mental training. I knew I could practice my routines in my head mentally and visualize cleaning up my tricks and transitions. So I did and continue to do so. This breeds other productive action: I can get quality sleep, I can stay on top of my nutrition, I can get my endorphin fix by laughing with a friend. I can. I can. I can.
I also learned that I can choreograph a whole pole routine without getting physical using paper, music and my imagination. And I did. (If you’re keeping track, that makes 3 routines in all. Not too shabby!). I can also perform my birthday pole routine on a day other than on my actual birthdate. And I will. Maybe the training I really needed was more mental than physical. Maybe, instead of thinking about all the things I haven’t accomplished by the time I reach 40, I can think about all the things I have accomplished so far and focus on setting and achieving new goals that actually have meaning for me now. Maybe instead of making a big deal out of one day, I can make a bigger deal out of a whole decade. I can conquer a lot more in 10 years than I can in one day. I can do it while loving the actual getting it done part like crazy while not desperately clinging to the outcome, too. It turns out that I don’t get permission to do whatever I want just on my birthday, I can choose to do whatever I want on any given day. I can and I will. So can you. Will you?
I started working on my fitness goal for 2011 back in November 2010. Actually, it’s a goal I set for my 40th birthday, which is in March (deadlines are extremely helpful for impulsive and easily distracted people like me!). My goal is this: I want to pull together a pole routine where I’m actually flowing moves together, so it’s actually a pole dance instead of just a bunch of tricks done independently. I also want my current and new moves to have cleaner, prettier lines than they did when I made the video 39 pole tricks for my 39th birthday. In order to achieve this I am working on even more specific goals: improving my flexibility, strength and stamina. Even within those goals there are smaller goals and so on. But no matter what my physical/material goal is, the real reason I want to accomplish my goal is so that I can feel certain feelings. In this case, as I pole dance my way into my 40s, I want to feel accomplished, powerful, capable and confident. It just so happens that I feel those things when I’m pursuing my goal. Notice, I didn’t say I feel those feelings when I have achieved my goal, I feel those feelings while I’m in the process of achieving them. In fact, pursuing my goals has landed me with people and in situations where I get to experience more feelings that I like including happiness, connection and motivation. I am surrounded by athletes and coaches who inspire and support me and I get to work out a lot, training in various sports including swimming, contortion, strength training and, of course, pole. This is my version of nirvana.
Committing myself to a goal that I enjoy pursuing not only gives me the long-term payoff of becoming a better pole athlete, but it also gives me short-term gratification. Just knowing that I put the time and energy into getting what I want makes me feel capable, powerful and accomplished and because I love physical activity so much I feel confident and happy during and after my workouts even though I am still in the process of achieving the end result. This is not to say that I don’t feel challenged or frustrated during my workouts at times, it’s all part of the process I enjoy overall.
If you are having a hard time getting motivated or excited about your goals, it may be that they’re not the right goals for you. Start with the end in mind: how do you want to feel? Take an inventory of all the activities, situations, people and things past and present that make you feel that way. Those are the clues that will inform your true, concrete goals. Your goals should inspire and motivate you, not drain and depress you. The best strategy is to just start doing something NOW that feels good to you –I don’t mean indulging in anxious compulsive or addictive behavior which is escaping, I mean the opposite, doing something you love which is grounding. When you feel good you are motivated and make better decisions about what else will make you feel genuinely good. Don’t worry if what feels good now doesn’t seem logical, it only needs to make sense in your gut. Trust that and the goals you come up with will be the ones you truly wish to pursue with passion, intensity and tenacity. Those are the qualities you will need to achieve your goals and get the feelings you want out of them.
The last two mornings I have woken up at 5:30am to swim outdoors in the cold, wind and rain. I’m not complaining. In fact, I couldn’t be happier. I’m not what you call a morning person, so when I wake up even before my alarm goes off to do something, that’s love.
Physical activity grounds me. I spend lots of time strength training, pole dancing, stretching and doing cardio. These things trigger my happy buttons: I know exactly who I am, what I want and where I’m supposed to be when I’m using my body. Everything makes sense in those moments and that’s important, especially when I can make little or no sense of what’s going on in other parts of my life. Everyone has something that keeps them grounded. My dad, who also likes to wake up AFTER the sun makes its appearance, will get up enthusiastically at 4am (or earlier) to catch a chartered boat to go deep sea fishing, the ocean anchors him. My Ex routinely gets up when it’s still dark to design video games—he is anchored to his creativity. My daughter is compelled to stop and ask if she may pet any dogs she sees out walking with their owners, animals anchor her.
Without an anchor, without something to ground us, we may get by and even thrive when circumstances and people around us are working in our favor. But what happens when those circumstances and people we have come to depend on for our happiness are not working with us anymore or they disappear? Things can feel pretty out of control in those situations and we can feel completely lost. We all face challenges, but even on the toughest days, as long as we stay connected to our anchor, it will pull us out of bed and remind us that there is something on fire within us, something we want to show up for no matter what. In those moments when we feel the most lost, holding fast to our anchor will keep us on our path no matter how slow going and directionless it may feel at times.
What anchors you? If you have lost connection to your anchor, grabbing hold of it again is as simple as asking yourself what activities, places or things make you feel peaceful, powerful and/or capable. When do you feel most in your element? What are you doing? Who are you with? Where do you go? Your anchor is the thing that doesn’t necessarily make any practical sense to anyone else, it may not even make practical sense to you. That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Practicality is not a requirement of an anchoring activity, but the function the anchoring activity serves–to keep you grounded in something solid and real, something that is truly yours–is extremely practical and necessary because it keeps you sane, satisfied and strong.
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. ~Lao Tzu
Last week while I was practicing a really intense stretch to improve my back flexibility, I got a cramp. I quickly backed out of the stretch. My body wasn’t used to working in such extreme ranges of motion and my mind’s tendency is to resist against such new and unusual requests. Whatever the mind thinks, the body takes as direction. Stretching shows me where my current limits are and reaching beyond those limits is always uncomfortable, extremely uncomfortable.
I needed to convince myself that I was okay, that nothing bad was going to happen to me and that my body was safe from harm. I had to earn my own trust, physically as well as mentally. Even though it was totally counter-intuitive, unless I leaned in to the discomfort, relinquished some control and believed that I was doing the absolute 100% correct thing, not only would I miss out on achieving my goal of becoming bendier, but I would also risk injury. With that in mind, I performed the stretch again. Every time I thought the stretch was becoming too intense and I got uncomfortable, I instructed the muscle that was threatening to tighten up to relax and then I waited for it to release the tension. Once that happened, I was able to move deeper into the stretch. By acknowledging the discomfort of the stretch and letting go of the resistance to the discomfort and practicing a great deal of patience, I had earned my body’s trust and cooperation. We were on the same team, working toward the same goal and it felt amazing.
I can apply this lesson to other areas of my life as well and I need to. I sometimes hold on tightly to an outcome and muscle my way through the process, even when it’s clear I’m making things worse and more painful by doing so. I lose my patience when things aren’t happening quickly enough and that delays my progress. I let myself get distracted with minor annoyances and forget to focus on the greater goal. Admittedly, once I step outside of my body and into the real world, the scope of the challenges and skills I wish to master can feel overwhelming at times, but they don’t have to. Instead of backing out of the discomfort I feel when I’m challenged, I can move into it. I can find the one issue or area that is most uncomfortable and sticky and be committed to unsticking it without distracting myself with drama. I can wait for that moment when patience and persistence subdues the resistance and then relax into the solution that has been waiting for me to discover all along.
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. ~Maya Angelou
This weekend I showed my 7 year old daughter, Sara, how to put her hair up into a ponytail. This is a skill I had avoided teaching her because of her extremely low tolerance for making mistakes, her preoccupation over her physical appearance and a low threshold for frustration—favorable conditions to fuel the perfect tantrum. Over the past few weeks, I had become completely fed up with her attitude and drama. Her temper was out of control, she was disrespectful, mean and totally unpleasant to be around. While I was feverishly researching ways to fix my daughter’s behavior, I had flashbacks to several unpleasant exchanges I had with her recently–she wasn’t the only one who was losing it. I was highly reactive to Sara’s volatile emotions and instead of staying calm and neutral, I bought into her emotional experience and spiraled down into an angry and frustrated place with her. Bad choice. I’m sure if asked to assess my behavior, my daughter would probably say that my temper was out of control, that I was disrespectful, mean and totally unpleasant to be around. I knew there was no way I was going to help my daughter manage her emotions if I couldn’t get a grip on mine. So that’s where I started, where it always has to start: with me.
I used all the information I gathered about behavior modification for Sara and applied it to myself. When my daughter argued that she would never learn how to put her hair up properly, that she can’t do anything right, I didn’t take the bait. When my daughter blamed me for everything from the texture of her hair to the ponytail elastic falling out of her hand and onto the floor, I met her anger and frustration with emotional neutrality and patience. Admittedly, it took an enormous amount of focus and commitment to stay calm and neutral, but the results were mind-blowing. After about 20 minutes, with very little drama, my daughter had learned how to put her hair up into a ponytail by herself and she was very pleased about that. More importantly, she learned that her assumptions that she can’t do anything right and that other people are responsible for her successes and failures were completely false. She would have missed out on those lessons if I hadn’t reigned in my own incorrect assumption that my daughter needed to change her ways without me needing to change my own approach and behavior.
This isn’t a happily ever after ending, it’s an ongoing process. It requires conscientious and quality effort. I will still be challenged to keep it together when my daughter loses it, I will screw up again, I’m certain of it, but I’m also okay with that because I know I will learn something valuable that I can use to make the next challenging situation better. I can always choose to change course when the path I’m traveling isn’t taking me where I want to go. It’s hard to teach that concept to others unless I’m practicing it myself.
It’s crazy, but common, to expect other people to change their behavior–something we have little to no control over–to make us happy. The truth is the only behavior we have to change to be happy is our own. Fortunately, it’s also the only behavior we have 100% control over. That doesn’t mean we don’t influence others with our behavior, in fact, when we modify our own behavior for the better, it will often be met with better behavior from others.
How can you tell when you are giving yourself constructive feedback or just maliciously abusing yourself verbally? Easy. Constructive feedback may or may not sting when it is served up, but you do recognize the truth in it and it motivates you to make improvements. Destructive criticism just makes you feel bad and you feel completely uninspired to make any improvements because the comment has no nutritional value—it was made for the sole purpose of making you feel like crap.
Here’s an example that I often come across when working with overweight and out of shape individuals who want to become healthy and fit: they notice that they have excess body fat (fact), they get winded when they climb a flight of stairs (fact), their clothes are too tight (fact). So far just facts, but then they start dishing out comments like I can’t control what or how much I eat (fiction), I’m lazy and disgusting (fiction), food comforts me (fiction), I can’t lose weight (fiction). They are sliding into useless self trash-talk at this point. It doesn’t help them and the verbal abuse is only a habit that they’ve practiced over and over and over again, but the great news is that they can create a new habit at any time. And so can you.
The next time you find that you are berating yourself, back way up to the facts and if they are facts that you would like to change, put your time and energy into finding a solution. You have the power to change anything in your life and the quality of feedback you give yourself is key to making the adjustments needed to get what you want. Remember that the point of constructive feedback is to help you see where you can exploit your potential and make the necessary improvements to help you express it.